Combat Parley — RPT#662 - Roleplaying Tips

Combat Parley — RPT#662

Combat Parley: It’s All in the Delivery

Deliver rich encounter-start narratives that encourage alternatives to combat

From: Tony Medeiros

Do you struggle to make it clear the party doesn’t have to fight to win? As GM, it’s all in your delivery. The right words said the right way get your party thinking about their non-combat options rather than just mindlessly rolling initiative every time the bad guys show up.

So how do you narrate the party’s options with clarity and drama? How do you delight players with meaningful choices in the tension-filled earliest moments of conflict? You’re about to learn how with today’s tips.

Step 1: Identify NPC Motivations

Start with identifying and understanding who the NPCs in each combat are. Similar to Combat Profiling as taught in Faster Combat, answer these two questions about the NPCs in every encounter:

  • Motivation: What one thing do the NPCs want most?
  • Weakness: What one thing do the NPCs want least? A weakness, fear, or something that can be used as leverage.

As great GMs, we work hard to understand PC motivations. Give the same effort for your NPCs. Your villains and monsters must feel more alive, and must value things other than beating the tar out of your party. Make your NPC stories as real as PC stories.

Identify your NPCs’ most burning desire and most crushing weakness. Keep the motivation and weakness short, specific, and immediate. Use one or two sentences maximum. This helps you focus on and keep consistency NPC behavior and decision-making in the encounter.

For example, the party encounters bandits a few miles south of town. Are they just random, throwaway NPCs? No, because you’ve already answered the two questions above:

  • Motivation. The bandits are starving and weak, and look it. They want food more than anything else.
  • Weakness. The bandits don’t want to die, especially in battle. They not only lack the strength to fight well, but are unskilled fighters whose most advanced combat technique is a quick, sloppy mugging.

Step 2: Identify Non-Combat Solutions

Now take a moment to identify all the different ways an encounter might unfold. Think beyond the default assumption of combat. Base non-combat solutions on NPC motivations and weaknesses. Similar to directors who include alternate movie endings, you identify alternate encounter resolutions.

Building off last month’s article in RPT#657: How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters, choose one or two non-combat encounter resolutions from the list below.

The top two options are discussed in detail throughout last month’s article. Use these as your go-to non-combat solutions if you’re struggling to fit in any of the other options for a given encounter.

Top Non-Combat Encounter Solutions

  • Exploration => Search for Information => Find Clues or Evidence
  • Interaction => Influence NPCs => Interrogate, Negotiate, or Threaten

Other Non-Combat Solutions

  • Acquire
  • Break or Destroy Item
  • Commandeer a Vehicle
  • Deliver
  • Distract
  • Escape Destruction
  • Establish Truce
  • Force Surrender
  • Infiltrate
  • Reach Before Enemy
  • Seal Away
  • Seal Off
  • Steal
  • Stop an Event
  • Survive
  • Trap
  • Trick

Your goal in this step is to practice seeing beyond combat as the only solution to conflict. Integrate this thought process with NPC motivations and weaknesses as discussed in the first step. With practice, you begin to see all sorts of options and story paths open up.

For example, if what the bandits want most is food and not to fight (because they’re terrible in combat), the “Force Surrender” non-combat option is a good encounter solution for the PCs.

But what if the party doesn’t think of or realize this? How do they know it’s a good choice?

They know because of the NPC motivation and weakness clues you provide the party.

Which brings us right to the final step.

Step 3: Nail Your Delivery!

Now you’re ready to give your NPCs a voice while delivering clear options instead of combat. You need to deliver clues to non-combat encounter solutions through a combination of language and body language. Your words, voice pitch and pace, and body language must convey the emotions of and communicate the clues to a specific non-combat resolution. This is how you achieve the best delivery possible.

Use Strong Word Choice

Ever get frustrated with your group because they don’t notice “subtle” clues? Players aren’t mind readers, so when in doubt, be clear. Also use more emotional, descriptive, or extreme versions of words in your delivery. While I’m not a huge adverb fan, they do have a place in the context of tabletop RPGs and GM narration.

For example, some players won’t respond to “They look hungry,” but will respond to “They look like they’re absolutely starving.”

Vary Voice Pitch & Pace

Vary your sound as GM when voicing NPCs. As we’ve learned, they all want and fear different things. Make sure those emotions come through when connecting non-combat solutions to encounters.

For example, a frightened group of bandits might all stutter when they tell the PCs to turn over their valuables. Make sure you adjust your voice pitch and stutter when you talk as the bandits. Or a villain the party has finally caught up to is confident the party can’t hurt him. Translate this into arrogance through your voice by speaking louder and slower – all while sitting back with a wicked grin.

Which brings us to….

Use Facial Expressions & Body Language

Showing emotion through body language and facial expressions is a universal form of communication – and a powerful GM tool when communicating NPC attitudes and potential non-combat options. Six of the most common emotions we portray every day are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

Practice the facial expressions and body language that accompany these six universal emotions and start adding others you expect to use often for NPCs in your games (confidence, arrogance, etc.) to your repertoire.

For example, practice narrowing your eyes, waving your arms or shaking your head emphatically for angry NPCs. Get wide-eyed, glance around, and fidget for fearful NPCs. Remember, these are important clues in your delivery as to what the NPCs want or don’t want. They suggest different ways to deal with the situation besides a fight.

Prepare the Narrative Delivery

One way to build toward the best encounter-start delivery is to examine and connect an NPC’s one motivation, one weakness, and the one or two non-combat solutions you’ve identified. Take those and imagine how a TV or movie narrator might set the stage at the start of the encounter, freezing the action as the scene starts.

Depending on the particular NPC or solution, you might deliver a roaring, angry threat, or a stuttering and feeble plea. You might put your hands on your hips as a challenge, or hold or wave your arms in agreement or surrender. You might bulge out your eyes in shock or disgust.

In the case of your tabletop RPG, you narrate this way, except you provide an active audience with a greater context (clues) surrounding the scene. That active audience is your PC party, and now they’re armed with more creative solutions to the immediate conflict based on your clues.

To prepare for the best encounter-start delivery you can give as GM, write out, jot down a few highlights, or practice your narrative deliveries before each encounter or session. Bake in strong word choice, voice inflections, body language, and facial expressions.

For example, jot down cues for you do make some sort of gesture. Summarize or use quotations (“lines” like an actor would say or narrator would read). Focus the details of your delivery on what the NPCs want and fear, relevant emotions, and clues to a non-combat resolution.

The Solution to Banditry

Bringing everything we’ve learned together, let’s finish setting up the encounter of our favorite starving bandits. Take special note of the “Narrative Delivery” section:

  • Motivation. The bandits are starving and weak – and look it. They want food more than anything else.
  • Weakness. The bandits don’t want to die, especially in battle. They not only lack the strength to fight well, but are unskilled fighters whose most advanced combat technique is a quick, sloppy mugging.
  • Non-combat Solution. Force Surrender. The bandits are easily intimidated given their extreme hunger and poor fighting ability.
  • Narrative Delivery. The bandits’ sword arms are shaking badly. [GM: Hold out my arm and shake it nervously; even grab it once to steady it.] All of them are boney and pale, looking like they haven’t eaten in days. Do some of their eyes betray more than hunger? Are they afraid to fight, even as the bandits attempt to waylay you? Their apparent leader with a gray leather eye patch shouts, “We just want your food! Ahhh, and your money! But first your food! No trouble, no fighting!” The old man looks all around with his bulging eyes and takes a big, long gulp. [GM: Open my eyes wide, look all around the room, gulp.]

Activity: More Banditry!

Take the Solution to Banditry and rewrite at least two of the four elements (motivation, weakness, non-combat solution and narrative delivery). Refer to the various steps of this lesson as you go.

When you’re finished, take a moment to reflect on a) what you liked about the changes you made, and b) any challenges you faced with your changes.

Want to share your banditry activities with us? Go ahead and hit reply.

Special Delivery

You’re now ready to narrate and deliver option-rich encounter narratives! You’ve learned how to identify key NPC traits and non-combat solutions. And you’ve learned and how to vividly deliver this information at the start of your encounters.

Want more ideas like these? You might also like my Leonine Roar articles: Attack With Your Social Skills and Fight or Flight? Run Away! And for a more detailed look at body language, you might also like RPT#513: How to Use Body Language For Better Storytelling.

Your Tips

What tips do you have on how to narrate and deliver option-rich encounter narratives in your games? What do you do to draw your party in and get them thinking about multiple ways to “win” each encounter?

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Brief Word From Johnn

Adventure Designer Interviews

Workshop cover image

Did you know the Adventure Building Workshop includes exclusive interviews with top industry designers? I’ll be interrogating them to learn their adventure building secrets.

Last week I interviewed Monte Cook of D&D, Numenera, and Cypher System fame. He talked for almost an hour on adventure design, and that interview is recorded and ready for workshop members right now in the private forum.

Tonight I interview Wolfgang Baur. He’s a level 20 industry veteran currently writing adventures for D&D 5E and his company, Kobold Press.

Tuesday I put Dan Hass to the question. He’s published over a dozen 5E adventures and is still going strong.

And next week I interview Greg Vaughan. He wrote the massive Slumbering Tsar adventure path, and does work for Paizo and Frog God Games.

Plus, I have a few more interviews up my sleeve for the workshop this summer.

The Adventure Building Workshop kicks off soon. And the special 50% launch price goes away Friday, unfortunately.

For half the price of a healing potion, you get the entire workshop, plus a copy of the adventure I’m building, plus all the designer interviews with industry pros to help you create awesome adventures for your group.

Click now for more details »

Part-Time Gods of Fate Kickstarter

RPT columnist Christopher Sniezak is part of a Kickstarter for the FATE RPG that wraps up soon.

In Part-Time Gods, you play new gods in the modern world. The Source, theorized to be the creator of all things in the universe, now struggles in its cage and tries to free itself. This has leaked energy into our world, spawning hundreds of new gods and even more monsters (called Outsiders) who are out for god blood. All of this, while you also attempt to maintain your normal life. Dealing too deep into your godhood forces you to cut ties with your human side, but clinging too closely limits your growth. It is a hard choice, but one every god must make.

Part-Time Gods of FATE from Third Eye Games

Aderoth the Warlock Kicks Ass and Takes Numbers

I played session one of the new Colliding Worlds campaign a player has kicked up for us over the summer while I’m taking a break.

My PC is a 9th level warlock (D&D 5E). His world was beset by demons, and Aderoth joined the resistance movement to push the demons back to their plane.

However, a catastrophe transported him, an entire castle and nearby lands, and many of his people to a strange place where beings from other planes suffered the same fate.

With the rebel leader slain in battle, Aderoth is now leader of his trapped kinsmen. So he and his trusted XO travelled to the other factions to meet with their leaders to join forces and figure out how to get everyone home again.

The other leaders would be the other PCs. We met and formed a group. One player made a PC who didn’t want to join and was anti-social. I’ve never understood why you’d create a character like that. It cost us extra time and energy as we went out of our way to bring the PC into the party so the adventure could continue.

Other than that hiccup, the session was great fun.

It turns out Aderoth can speak with dead at will. I emailed Mike the GM after the game and asked him how this warlock ability worked. After some discussions, we nailed down the parameters and some outlier cases.

The upshot is Aderoth now has the skull of his evil mentor chained to his belt. Aderoth can speak with the skull anytime using his ability. Should be some good roleplaying a-head! (Groan.)

Have a great, game-full week!

 

Cheers,

Johnn

roleplayingtips.com

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Fifty Social Botches

From: John Lewis

[Comment from Johnn: What happens when a PC fails a roll in a social situation? Here are 50 ideas for you. I spotted this article online and loved it. So I asked John and Sam at RPG Alchemy if I could republish it in Roleplaying Tips for your campaign use, and they kindly agreed. John has a couple more such articles on the site, and you can catch them here, here, and here.]

Interaction with Nobility

  1. You are fined a steep fee for your breach of etiquette.
  2. Your words are taken as a flirtatious advance toward an unintended person.
  3. You are seen as little more than an uncouth lout.
  4. An infuriated noble hires an assassin to kill the person that insulted him in public.
  5. You are required to kneel and keep your head bowed to speak.
  6. You make a complete fool of yourself and word spreads like wildfire.
  7. Making a beloved noble look bad results in the common folk making your life difficult (inflated prices, information not available, etc.).
  8. Not only do you fail to gain the boon you requested, the noble will begin actively moving against your interests.
  9. A massive amount of bureaucratic red tape delays you and interferes with your progress.
  10. The noble’s bodyguards attempt to beat you for your insolence. Fighting them might make things worse….

Interaction with Criminals

  1. As you speak a stealthy assassin moves into place.
  2. A pickpocket with fast hands deftly steals some valuables while you’re distracted.
  3. Those you are speaking with tell you what you want to hear but have already sold you out.
  4. You are given false information, dangerously false information.
  5. After you leave a hit is placed on you by the organization.
  6. They will only continue to talk to you if you survive The Trial…
  7. A criminal observing your interaction gains insight you’d rather they not have.
  8. You are maneuvered into a position to do the criminal’s dirty work and take the fall for it.
  9. Your drink is laced with a drug preventing you from lying.
  10. It’s a trap! The “criminal” is actually the law in disguise.

Interaction with The Law

  1. Nothing you’ve said is considered remotely believable.
  2. You’re recognized as having a high bounty on your head.
  3. You’re mistaken for someone with a high bounty.
  4. Questioning by the guards severely delays you.
  5. You are subjected to an invasive, unclothed search.
  6. You accidentally implicate yourself in a high-profile crime.
  7. During a quick search of your person or gear a guard disastrously activates an item.
  8. To proceed you need to pay out a hefty bribe.
  9. You are barred access to a specific location (could be a building or even an entire city).
  10. They know you’re a troublemaker and the law goes out of its way to harass you.

Interaction with Clergy

  1. Your presence is an affront to the divine. They want to sacrifice you to their deity.
  2. The clergy believes you to be an agent of a rival deity.
  3. You will only be listened to if you assume a position of supplication.
  4. You are forced into a position where you must agree to assist the organization with a dangerous task.
  5. Your offenses result in the faith declaring you an apostate and enemy of the faith.
  6. Some observing your interaction believe you to be the prophesied “chosen one” of the faith.
  7. To prove your sincerity you are asked to partake in a ceremony that will allow high-ranking clergy to detect your whereabouts.
  8. Followers of the faith are ordered by church edict to have no interactions with you.
  9. A huge charitable donation is expected in order to proceed.
  10. Something about you (tattoo, piece of jewelry, a scar) marks you as an agent of evil and enemy of their god.

Interaction with a Group

  1. The crowd begins a death-chant focused on you and drawing unwanted attention.
  2. Several members of the group become infatuated fans making life complicated as they try to gain your affections.
  3. Your words incite a full-on riot that breaks out in the streets.
  4. The crowd surges forward, overwhelming you, knocking you prone, and trampling you.
  5. The crowd engulfs you and moves on. You’re uninjured but missing important items.
  6. You over-motivate the group and they won’t leave you alone, following you around and singing your praises.
  7. Your words motivate the group into action. Unfortunately, their actions are the opposite of your intentions.
  8. You insult and outrage the group, turning them into a mob looking for your head.
  9. The group wants nothing to do with you and begins telling others to avoid you as well.
  10. The group becomes united in purpose, but not the purpose you wanted.