Small Talk – NPCs and The Art of Conversation in Solo D&D
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In Dungeons & Dragons, roleplaying and interaction is essential (which is why it’s called a ‘roleplaying game’ 😉 ).
From the smallest things such as bartering with a shopkeeper, to major interactions such as speaking to various witnesses in an attempt to uncover the identity of a murderer, sooner or later, you’re going to have to put away your sword and engage in a bit of verbal sparring.
This is usually not a problem in most D&D campaigns, since the dungeon master is normally the one in charge of the NPCs, designing their personalities, quirks and traits, and assuming the role of each NPC so that the players have someone to talk to.
The trick is being able to pull this off in a solo game without a DM.
Most minor conversations aren’t a problem in solo D&D and there is nothing a good Charisma check couldn’t solve.
In many cases, there is also very little need to develop the personalities of the NPCs if you’re unlikely to form meaningful relationships with them (or if you simply want to cave their skulls in).
However, when it comes to important NPCs that you will likely interact with many times throughout the course of the adventure, you need to somehow turn the NPC into a unique creature of independent thought that is able to come up with interesting conversation topics on its own.
The trouble is, where do you start?
Introducing The Universal NPC Emulator
If you’ve read my review of the Mythic Game Master Emulator, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of the system.
With the right combination of yes and no questions and random events, it is possible to create a few basic NPCs, determine his or her attitude towards you, and generate a (minor) conversation that can be resolved with a simple yes / no.
But as much as I am a fan of Mythic, I don’t feel it’s the complete solution, at least when it comes to giving the characters some real depth.
By contrast, there is one solution that appears to work very well with fewer dice rolls: the Universal NPC Emulator (Affiliate Link).
And best of all?
It’s free (unless you decide otherwise).
The Universal NPC Emulator is suitable for Game Masters and solo D&D players alike, though the approach to using it would be different for a solo player compared to a dungeon master.
A DM might roll all NPC elements at once, but a solo player should generate only those elements his character has the right to know.
For instance, the NPC’s appearance should be obvious at first sight, as should the conversation that follows – assuming he is willing to speak at all.
His tone when dealing with you should also be quite apparent, with some NPCs being cautious and others being happy to talk your ear off.
The NPC’s motivations, on the other hand, might require a little more digging over time, as would his true feelings about you (unless he’s made this clear from the start).
The level of competence he possesses in his profession may also not be apparent at first.
On top of this, the NPC’s attitude towards you will naturally change from one conversation to the next: a usually welcoming NPC that you’ve known for a while may suddenly become withdrawn and tries to avoid speaking to you as much as possible (a potential story hook if ever I saw one).
The NPCs that result are unique, independent ‘living’ creatures, imbued with a sense of purpose, that can play a major or minor part of your campaign as friend or foe.
You generate most of the NPC’s character elements by rolling a two word phrase to determine the traits of the NPC.
Anyone who has used Mythic will see similarities between this and the random event tables in Mythic, which will probably not appeal to players who found nothing to like in Mythic.
However, the good news is that it is a little easier to come up with something meaningful, since there is a little more information to work with from the start and the system is geared specifically towards NPC creation, as opposed to something like Mythic which is a little more generic.
As with Mythic, context is important when interpreting the phrases you come up with.
For example, when you want to determine the general description of the NPC, you might get the phrase ‘Kind Rogue’.
The meaning of the phrase on its own is quite obvious here and, for the sake of simplicity, ‘Kind Rogue’ is simply a chaotic good rogue.
You could flesh him out further by determining his general purpose in the story and reveal more specifically about what he does that puts him in the wrong side of the law – assuming the rogue is willing to talk about it.
If he is, then rolling motivations such as “Understand Secret Societies”, “Overthrow New Religion” and “Assist Freedom” can all be put together to mean that this rogue has discovered that a new religious movement that has gained a significant following is actually nothing more than an evil cult backed by the ruling class to keep the population docile (and perhaps to perform more vile deeds as well).
His goal is to undermine this cult and free as many people from its grasp as possible, but this has gained the attention of the tyrants who don’t like his meddling and has therefore outlawed him.
In this context, he might simply be a ‘rogue’ only because he is wanted by the authorities and the term has nothing to do with his profession.
The phrases can also be applied loosely: “New Religion” can instead refer to a charismatic figure that is blindly revered by a population unaware of his secret agenda.
If the rogue is not yet ready to reveal more about himself, the initial conversation you have with him would be a great place to begin developing this character.
“The Scheming rogue speaks of a bargain regarding the PC’s friends” could mean that this NPC has taken the PC’s friends hostage and is demanding a ransom.
In this context, “Kind Rogue” could mean something completely different rather than a relatively good-natured rogue.
Perhaps he is ruthless and does not normally release his hostages, but is willing to make an exception… for a price.
A lot depends on context as well, so you might find the above phrase could mean something different if, for example, your friend is suffering from an illness and requires a cure.
The rogue is unfortunately the only person around who knows of this cure and finding other sources of this information might consume more time than you can afford, therefore he might use this as an opportunity to further his agenda by promising to share this information in return for a service from you.
As you can see, there are so many possibilities you can get with a mere handful of dice rolls, but the best approach would be to pick the first thing that comes to mind in order to keep things moving along.
I found it can be tempting to sift through all the possibilities and pick something that is ‘perfect’ within the context, theme and setting of my campaign – which is not necessarily the ‘wrong approach’, but is something that can cause your game to grind to a complete halt.
Unless you are going to publish your campaign in the form of a novel, there is usually no need to spend more time than necessary creating your NPCs.
Just pick something that works and move on.
How to Use the NPC Emulator in a Solo Campaign
The NPC generator is created for game masters who need to come up with something interesting on the fly, but for a solo game, it would defeat the point of generating an NPC that you would be eager to learn more about if everything about the NPC is laid bare before you all at once.
For this reason, there are only a handful of things that need to be known at this point.
The basic step-by-step process can be broken down as follows and this is applicable to most NPC encounters:
- Find out what the NPC looks like.
- Determine the conversation mood – aka how willing the NPC is to speak to you.
- Determine the topic of the conversation.
Note that this might not be applicable to all NPC encounters, but more on that in a bit.
First of all, think about what happens when you meet someone for the first time, what do you expect to see or hear?
Unless you’re blind (or the NPC is invisible), the description of your NPC would immediately be obvious, so generate a description for the character using the ‘NPC Creator’ tables (Pages 6-7, Tables 1&2).
To really go to town on this, you can use Donjon to pin down specific physical traits that the character possesses.
Next, you should be able to get a sense of whether or not the NPC wants to speak to you or avoid you, so determine the ‘Conversation Mood’ (Page 11, Table 6).
It’s difficult to know what the long term relationship the NPC will have with your character, so for now, simply set the ‘NPC Relationship’ to ‘Neutral’.
Once you’ve determined the conversation mood and introductions are made (learn the NPC’s name using this handy Fantasy Name Generator), you can then generate the ‘NPC Bearing’ and the ‘NPC Focus’ (Page 12, Tables 7 & 8), both elements forming the core of the conversation.
And that’s pretty much all you need to get started in most cases.
As the story progresses, you might learn more about the goals of the NPC and his level of hostility or friendliness towards you, possibly through interaction (with other NPCs) accompanied by the relevant checks – or even through something like a journal. For this, Mythic (if you have it) can be used alongside the NPC Emulator.
If you ever have to fight the NPC, the ‘NPC Power Level’ should become readily apparent (Page 7, Table 3) and this can be useful for determining the challenge rating of the NPC: a ‘Much Weaker NPC’ indicates an Easy encounter, ‘Slightly Weaker’ or ‘Comparable’ NPCs are Medium encounters, ‘Slightly Stronger’ NPCs are Hard encounters, and so forth.
In other cases, you may need to generate other elements in addition to (or instead of) the description, conversation mood and the conversation itself.
Knowing which elements to generate on a must-know basis simply requires common sense.
What you discover about the NPC in your first conversation with him may depend on his mood: If he keeps his cards close to his chest, then discovering his motivations will require a lot of roleplaying over a span of days, weeks or months.
If he is more than a little forthcoming, then he might simply blurt everything out, saving you the hassle of an extended exchange.
On other occasions, you might meet an NPC at the end of a sword’s blade, in which case, you may conclude that the NPC description, hostility level (will he kill or take you hostage?) and power level are needed to start with.
If you kill this NPC, you will probably never know what drives him, unless he has left a journal or you ask someone else.
Other times, you might be introduced to a character via her journal itself, in which case her appearance or friendliness / hostility to you might not be so apparent.
However, in this case, she might have all her motivations down on paper, which allows you to learn quite a bit about her from the get go.
Intermediaries may also be sent to pass along a message for the NPC – or you find a letter or note meant for your character – and probably the only thing at this point would be to generate a conversation which represents the main point of the message.
All other elements can probably be skipped until you meet the NPC.
What about rumours and word of mouth regarding an NPC?
You can start pretty much anywhere, but keep things vague and generate only one element for the time being.
You can then find out more by continuing to ask around – or find the guy himself.
Use your best judgement when determining what should be known when an NPC is first introduced to you.
Please Talk to Me – Or Else… Just Kidding!
As a side note, if the NPC you first meet is completely withdrawn and refuses to speak to your character, then you can attempt to get him to talk by trying Charisma (Persuasion / Intimidation / Deception) checks (accompanied by good roleplaying).
If you have Mythic, you could then ask whether or not your Charisma checks work using a yes /no question, but if you don’t have that book, here is a simple system I like to use (If you don’t like using percentage die, simply use a d10):
- If your check is less than 5, then the check has 10% chance of success (or on a roll 10 on 1d10).
- If your check result is 5-9, it has a 25% chance of success (or a roll of 8-10 on 1d10).
- If your check result is 10-14, then you have a 50% chance of success (or on a roll 6-10 on 1d10).
- If your check result is 15-19, then you have a 75% chance of success (or on a roll 3-10 on 1d10).
- If it is 20 or over, you have a 90% chance of success (or on a roll of 2-10 on 1d10).
Exceptional rolls such as checks of 25 or higher could be deemed automatically successful, as would natural 20s.
Conversely, rolling a natural 1 might indicate an automatic failure.
Since you can try the Universal NPC Emulator before you buy it, I did not feel the need to review the product in detail, beyond saying that this system has allowed me to take my NPC interactions to the next level.
If I had to give it a rating, it would probably be four stars.
The only drawback is I feel that generating a conversation that ties intricately into the plot can take some effort, but then I’m quite OCD about things like this, plus I am running a campaign that is more roleplaying-centric and investigative than is usual for me.
Players with a little more sanity will hopefully be able to move their stories along much quicker.
I have yet to conclude any NPC related arcs using this system, but once I do, I might include one or two extended examples to show you how the emulator can be used effectively.
For now, this appears to be the ideal solution for players who want NPCs that are a little less one dimensional and want to make their solo D&D interactions seem less like ‘speaking to oneself’.
Give this a go and see what you think of this.
Missed anything out?
Let me know in the comments below!