RPT#207 – Conversations In Roleplaying: Agenda
A Brief Word From Johnn
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New City, New Job
I started my new job as web monkey #4 at BioWare last week! I’ve moved to Edmonton, Alberta and am enjoying the new digs. My next mission is to find a new gaming group.
Last Week’s Plot Hooks Were From GM Mastery
Just a quick note to say that many of the plot hooks from Tip #6 in last week’s issue about Bards were from various contributors from the GMMastery Yahoo! group. My apologies for the omission!
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- What’s Agenda?
An agenda is the topic or subject of a conversation. Although the word agenda is sometimes used to convey negative implications, in this article it simply refers to a conversation topic. While it’s hard to imagine having a parley without an agenda, we’ve all experienced it.
NPC: Hello bold adventurers!
PC: Greetings oh Great Alchemist.
[Dead silence] PC: [whispers to group] Hey, why did we come to see this guy?
Therefore, 99% of PC – NPC conversations should have an agenda because a parley without one would become boring fast. In addition, understanding and using agendas is a great way to guide players, manipulate PCs (i.e. a villain getting his way), and add exciting tension and conflict to roleplaying encounters.
A conversation can have a single agenda or several with each battling for dominance and sway. For example, the characters are dining with a prospective patron. Each PC has questions: the fighter wants to know about acquiring a complementary suit of armour, the mage wants a new wand, the rogue wants to negotiate the monthly stipend (upwards, of course ;), and the priest needs to make sure the relationship will sit well with his faith. The patron has an agenda too: the party’s agreement to take on a new quest.
It’s even possible that each participant could have more than one agenda, thus creating a complex fabric of conversation.
In roleplaying situations, agendas are fascinating because someone must initiate one and the others must understand and follow it. If an agenda isn’t put forth, conversation soon dies. If participants can’t understand the agenda, they can’t contribute, and the parley becomes boring or the topic dies. If multiple agendas compete for discussion and no winner emerges, or if participants can’t follow an agenda’s progress, conversation again soon stops or splinters.
It’s a good technique to approach parleys between NPCs and PCs with agendas in mind. This will not only give you some structure to work with, but will also help you come up with words to fill NPC mouths.
In the real world, people often unconsciously put forth agendas as part of a natural conversation give-take, speak- listen process. In-game, however, there are fewer queues (i.e. facial expressions, body language), topics (i.e. the myriad experiences of everyday life), and areas of common ground (i.e. dungeon delving versus the price of bread), so for RPG conversations to be fun and compelling you should consciously employ agendas.
- Gain specific information
- Make a new friend, ally, or acquaintance
- Garner support, sympathy, or empathy
- Change others’ opinions or beliefs
- Convince the other party to take a specific action
- Active And Passive Agendas
When NPCs enter conversation with one or more characters, they’re usually in one of two situations:
- Passive. The parley is unplanned, the NPC is a minor one, or the timing of a planned agenda isn’t right for some reason.
- Your average innkeeper or bartender parley
- Generic merchant encounters
- The PCs approach a random city or village resident
- The party gains audience with the Mayor/King/Lord/Villain but are not (yet) known to him or have any perceived value to him
In this case, you have no story or encounter relevant agenda and you’re happy to let the PCs “drive” until the conversation ends.
If the PCs have no agenda then you should either quit the parley as soon as possible, or try to figure out why the player characters approached the NPC(s). This is where knowing about agendas comes in handy. The PCs must have started the conversation for some reason, and a correct diagnosis can help you fix a growing problem or guide the game to greater levels of entertainment.
Potential reasons why PCs might initiate conversations without an obvious agenda:
- They’re stuck, hoping to receive a clue, but aren’t sure how to go about it. Wily players know a GM might provide clues via random NPCs if approached out of the value. If this works for you then let the ploy succeed so the game can progress without further delay. If there’s reason why the particular NPC wouldn’t or shouldn’t have a clue, try to have them provide a clue about how to get a clue. Perhaps the NPC reminds the party about who the major NPCs are (“I have no idea what you’re talking about, the sheriff usually deals with anything orc related), or they do something the PCs pick up on and could pursue (“The peasant seems shocked by your question and makes the sign of Pelor before turning to flee into the fields”).
- They’re bored.
- One or more players are tired of dice-rolling, combat, and such and want to roleplay for awhile.
- They’re acting before thinking.
- They’re confused. They might know what they should do to accomplish a goal, but not how or why.
- Active. You have goals, motives, or plans for the NPC; the players have value to the NPC; or you need to “possess” the NPC to move the plot forward or for some other purpose.
In this case, the NPC is an active participant in the conversation and he attempts to initiate and succeed with his agenda(s).
Be aware that the state of an NPC can often change from passive to active or vice versa. For example, in mid- conversation with a bartender you get an idea for a plot hook, so you steer the conversation around so the bartender can let it fly without it seeming forced. Alternately, you’ve started the conversation with the bartender’s plot hook in mind (he wants the back alley cleared of rats) but the players indicate they want to pursue something you think is better for the moment, so you switch the ‘tender to passive mode.
- Passive. The parley is unplanned, the NPC is a minor one, or the timing of a planned agenda isn’t right for some reason.
- Agenda Elements
A compelling agenda should have the following elements:
- Conflict (optional, but recommended)
An agenda is simply a topic and there are many potential topics of conversation, such as the weather, local sports teams, and current events. Some topics are more interesting than others, so ensure your agendas have meaning and relevance, especially to the PCs. Most players will lose interest in agendas that aren’t relevant to their characters.
One or more participants should have an end goal in mind for their agenda. If it’s an NPC agenda, you might get by in the short term without having a purpose, but inquisitive PCs or repeat encounters will soon make the agenda seem flimsy. For example, it’s not enough for your NPC to want to make friends with the PCs. You need to answer the question, why? The sooner the better too, because having a solid purpose helps you roleplay and converse better.
It’s fine if everyone agrees with each other about a conversation topic. After several amicable discussions however, game play can get quite boring. A little conflict always helps to keep conversation lively and fun. Even if the primary NPC(s) and PCs agree, you can always throw in a minor NPC dissenter to stir things up.
In addition, it often helps to talk things through during the game in-character to reveal flaws in plans, analyse potential negative consequences, or realise present but unnoticed clues. When everyone agrees, conversations tend to be shorter, details get glossed over, and drawbacks go unanalysed.
Note that conflict can happen between allies on a short-term, non-permanent basis as well as between rivals and enemies. Allies might disagree over specific tactics, have conflicting end goals but common agendas, or be competitive. So, even conversations between friends can use a little conflict to spice agendas up.
How you roleplay and portray NPCs and their agendas in conversations in important. You’ll be setting an example and encouraging the players to roleplay better, and you’ll be making NPCs, theirs words and their agendas memorable. GMs commonly get frustrated when players forget clues, but conversing with style will help facts lodge in their brains over the long term.
By style, I mean the standard elements of good roleplaying:
- NPC quirks, mannerisms, and distinguishable behaviour
- Hand and facial gestures, body language
- Accents and nature of speaking
- NPC descriptions
- Speaking with feeling, enthusiasm, or emotion
- The cleverness of NPCs to introduce their agendas and get their way
For example, an NPC wants the characters to reveal the location of a hidden cave. Imagine how you’d portray the following NPCs in this situation:
- Agent Smith from The Matrix
- Beavis from Beavis and Butt-Head
What tactics would you use the get the secret information? Would you ask directly, employ a trick, be indirect? What words would you use? How would you speak them? What would your posture be? What would you do with your hands as you roleplayed?
- Initiating The Agenda
How you introduce a topic to a conversation is very important. For sensitive agendas, you want to avoid tipping the PCs off as to what you’re really after. Angering or offending conversation participants might make having your agenda introduced and followed more difficult. Abrupt subject changes might make parleys awkward or unproductive.
Here are some ideas and guidelines for initiating agendas:
- Having a higher social status generally means one can introduce agendas easily. Often, the highest ranking person is expected to start a conversation or be provided an opening early on to direct it. PCs are known to disregard authority however, so this might not always work.
- Contribute to the PCs’ agendas first. This generates trust and temporary conversation alliances and makes it easier for NPCs to introduce their own agendas mid-conversation.
- Have an event or related interruption occur. This is a GM- heavy option but, if executed with grace, is an effective method. For example, you might point out the entrance of a new NPC at the bar, provide a short narrative, and then resume in-character discussion yourself, “That’s the guy I was talking about. You see, I think…”. The interruption will let an NPC change subjects without being too rude and the players will probably be interested enough in the new development to listen.
- Jokes are a good way to change the subject. The pause for laughter can derail an agenda, letting an NPC slip in and introduce their own.
- Wait until the end of the conversation.
PC: “Well, we must be off now…”
NPC: “Oh, wait, there’s one more thing we should discuss…”
- Look for related topics or points to be made and have the NPC jump in with their topic. It’s less of an abrupt subject change and will avoid offending the PCs.
- Disagree with a point and make the NPC’s agenda a counter- point.
“Before we get into all that, let’s first consider…”
“I disagree. What about…”
“Yes, but have you thought of…”
How an NPC introduces his agenda is part of his parley and character style, so consider this carefully. When you plan a roleplaying encounter, give thought to how the NPC(s) involved will either start the conversation out or steer the conversation in the direction they want.
Some points to consider when planning:
- What will the previous encounter most likely have been? What kind of mood or disposition will that have put the PCs in? Will they want action, be frustrated, be stubborn?
- How will the PCs regard the NPC(s)? Friend or foe? Truth- sayer or liar?
- Will the PCs be in the mood to talk?
- What will the PCs want to talk about? Will their agenda conflict or clash with the NPCs’?
- Will the conversation occur at the beginning or end of the session? Player attention is usually poor at the start and sessions should generally end on a compelling note.
- Defending The Agenda
NPC agendas tend to be fragile things for several reasons, and it’s important to be able to successfully defend them when you have the need.
- There’s just one voice and mind (the GM’s) compared to the players’ combined voices and agendas
- The GM must handle other tasks at the same time as roleplaying
- Without the benefit of really being in the scene, players and GMs often miss conversation subtleties
- Many PCs have low charisma or communication skills
- Some players have poor communication skills
Here are a few tips on defending NPC conversation agendas:
- Focus on winning one PC at a time, not the whole group at once
- All the “Initiating The Agenda” tips can be repurposed for defense
- Put yourself in the PCs’ shoes. What do they want and how can the NPC relate his agenda to that?
- Ask leading questions slanted to make the NPC’s agenda worth discussing. “You want to discover the evil force behind the attacks, don’t you?
Agendas are a game within the game and add entertainment value to any parley. Consciously adding them into NPC-PC conversations creates a new dimension, a sense of purpose, and if applicable, a fun challenge for players so inclined. It’s a refinement and complexity worth experimenting with and employing as often as possible.
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- Bard Tips
From: Kaspar Lundsby
I’d just like to state a few general observations about bards in roleplaying settings that I’ve made.
Firstly, a bard doesn’t have to perform only with his/her voice or only through song. The bard could be a musician, a story teller, a dervish, a dancer, or anyone involved with artistic performance. Accepting this should open up to many variations over the plot hooks you are gathering.
Secondly, a bard doesn’t have to be only a performer. Historically, bards have also been carriers of knowledge and rumors. This is why they were often welcomed in the more secluded regions – they gave those areas a chance of keeping up with what was going on elsewhere in the realm, and it was often possible to trade information for a meal and a bed. All this can lead to a couple of plot hooks for the wandering bard.
Thirdly, I find that the trouble with bard characters is that they are very independent characters, so creating plots that focus on them while also including the rest of the group is not that easy. Therefore, I find that bard plots must be quick to solve – otherwise the other players can easily loose interest in the game – or they must require the whole group’s cooperative effort to be solved.
And to sum this up, as requested, a couple of plot hooks or challenging situations for bard characters.
- A bard must make certain that the person who ordered a certain performance (or piece of work) is pleased with the result. This can especially be hard to accomplish when dealing with people from other races and cultures.
- How do you describe a new dance? Music and poetry is easy to write down, but try describing something that has to do with bodily movement or some other thing that has not been formalized.
- How would a “domesticated” bard, i.e. one who knows only how to act in a city and who has only been in the service of an employer, react to becoming unemployed and forced to become a traveling bard?
- Force the bard to use his/her skills as a means of paying (ransom) for something. The classic example is a large monster who will eat (or just kill) the bard unless he/she performs to the monster’s satisfaction. 1001 Nights is a great example of this…
- It’s not nice to be the bearer of ill news, so how will a wandering bard handle such a situation? i.e. the news that the good King has died and his malevolent son has inherited the throne, or the news that the main market for the goods of the region has been destroyed.
- A bard can be asked to negotiate between two factions who cannot seem to reach an agreement on their own. This will challenge the bard’s understanding of the “cultures” of the different factions as well as his/her empathic capabilities.
- More Bard Plot Hooks
From: Blair and SoulLord
Via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group
- The bard arrives in a city where several bards have been murdered in the past few months. He is approached on his first night in town and informed that a new bard’s guild has been set up in the city, and unauthorised performances are not allowed.
- A local priest denounces the bard for his carousing and sinful ways.
- The (male) bard learns that the local lord’s daughter is pregnant, and now she’s claiming that he’s the father.
- The bard is approached by one of the gods of his religion and asked to perform a favour, such as fetching an artifact from an opposing deity (Life vs. Death). The deity asking the favour offers the bard an artifact musical instrument, or scroll.
- The bard is approached by one of the gods of his religion and asked to become a Champion of the Faith, to protect them against a rising enemy religion by spreading tales of their own religion and countering the lies of the prophets of the false religion.
(The two hooks above are drawn from a fantasy trilogy called ‘Tales of the Bard’ by Michael Scott. A must read for anyone seriously contemplating running a bard campaign.)
- The bard’s estranged father (or mother, uncle, grandfather, etc.) dies, and in his will requests that the bard perform the eulogy.
- Two lords have a wager that neither can resolve satisfactorily. A reward is offered to anyone who can provide proof, and it just so happens that the bard knows the answer. But can he prove it…
- A gnomish artificer has developed a machine that can store sounds and he wants to record the bard’s voice to prove it.
- After performing at an inn, the bard wakes in the morning to find that his musical instrument has been stolen.
- Battle of the bards! Winner gets to perform before the King and gets the title of bard of the year.
- An ancient, lost script of a famous bard is said to be among the plunder of a dragon. If you recover it you can claim the work for yourself…or do the right thing.
- Retiring High Level Characters
From: Jot Savage
Johnn, I’ve enjoyed your newsletter since I received the first one. In a recent issue, Spike discussed retiring high level characters. Many players do not enjoy losing their characters after so much investment in time and imagination, so instead, why not use these high level characters in campaign building?
For instance, Tim plays Ironhead Mountainroot, dwarven cleric. Around 9th level, he became involved in building a shrine for St. Murphy at the Keep for the promise of easy experience points. Currently, he is upgrading to a chapel and has a growing staff and congregation to run. This keeps the character more than involved and builds to your campaign world. Once Ironhead was firmly entrenched, it was easy to get him involved in his followers. The halfling temple guard with dreams to be a paladin, the acolyte with the dark past… Some were pre-existing NPC henchmen, the others created by Tim, and now Tim has a chance to play these lower-level characters.
This way, instead of killing off a good character, players are allowed the chance to add to their influence and impact on the campaign world.
- WOD XP System Tweak
From: Brian Escobar
Hi Johnn, I’m running a Vampire:tM game and at least five out of ten of the players are power gamers/war gamers who’ve mainly only played hack-and-slash D&D and wargames before and are having trouble roleplaying. They’d like to be better at it but they seem to think RPing is harder than it really is and that leads them to give up on it.
Up till this point I’ve used the standard WoD XP system: every session players get 1 automatic point (unless they cheat), they get 1 point for RPing well, 1 point if they survive an extremely dangerous encounter, and 1 point for extreme heroism. Up till this point most of them have been only getting the automatic point and occasionally the survival point. Only one player has consistently gotten the roleplaying point (and he happens to be the lead in his high school’s play). The rest have pretty much accepted that they won’t be getting the RPing point.
My solution, in combination with other tips from this site, is to temporarily lower the standards for the roleplaying point. Now a player must only do 1 of the following things during a session to get the point:
- Use a distinctive voice, accent, or manner for your character.
- Roleplay a non-clan weakness that applies to the present situation.
- Describe and roleplay conflicting feelings.
- Describe and roleplay the hunt and Kiss (vampire-speak for seeking of and feeding from prey) in detail.
And the list goes on a bit. But a player cannot get the point for any one of these more than a prescribed number of times. For 1) you only get the pt once, for 2) twice and for 3) thrice. This allows the players to build up a repertoire of roleplaying skills while still feeling rewarded for it. I think if they do this the troupe will also learn the intrinsic rewards of roleplaying. Once this occurs I’ll raise the standards back to the way they were before.
- Quick Start Tip For Online Games
Here is one little thing I do to get everyone ready, or my version of a “Quick Start.”
Presently, I GM a D20 Modern game on Open RPG. Once the players are present, I set the start by sending an “Ending and Beginnings” message. In it, I discuss very briefly how the last session ended and what difficulties or opportunities such an ending placed upon the characters. Usually, because of Open RPG’s limitations and my style, the group’s direction has been set in pre-game forum discussions.
So, I show the conflict or the goal and the beginning of the path chosen to reach it. I tell how it relates to them and why they seem to have chosen this goal. What success may entail and what failure may bring. I’m sure many use this type of “summary” technique to start. I make sure it adds tension and conflict even if they’re not staring down the barrel of a gun by making it poignant and full of purpose rather than just restating facts.
- Making A World Memorable
There have been a great many articles written on how to build a new world for your players to explore and enjoy. One thing that many miss, however, is how to make the world something that your players will remember for years to come. After all, if the world you make is basically just another Europe set in a different land mass, how is it any more exciting then the real world? Hopefully, this paper will give you ideas on how to make your world memorable and able to come alive for your players.
Every world you create should have a few quirks of its own, special and slightly odd things that set it apart from things your players have seen elsewhere but also aren’t so far fetched that your players find it funny. In general, you should have one or two major quirks and perhaps four to eight minor ones. The difference between a major quirk and a minor one is that a major quirk will have far reaching consequences in the campaign world while the minor one mostly adds flavor.
An example of a major: my most recent world has a taint in the land that is slowly spreading. As you get closer to the source of the taint you encounter steadily stranger things. One of the hallmarks of the taint, however, is that it can cause people to get lost by altering the very terrain of the world. As a result, there are very few established roads and the inhabitants have taken to using star charts as well as the position of the sun and moon as a method of navigation rather than using land marks.
Minor quirks take less time to think up and implement than major ones, but they are just as important because they show that your world is different in more then one way and that not all of the ways are earth shaking. Perhaps dinosaurs still exist in the world, but only smaller species and people have taken to keeping them as house pets instead of dogs and cats.
Maybe people believe that seeing a bird after night is a bad omen and that the only way to avoid some sort of bad luck is to run through the streets the next day in a special type of outfit while singing a silly song (and wouldn’t it be amusing if your players found out the hard way that this silly superstition was true). Maybe some animals in your world have even learned to speak and have formed their own little cities in the forests.
- The Tangible
There are a great many roleplayers out there with wonderful imaginations, but I have found that the more you can bring something out of the intangible game world and make it something they can touch, see, feel, and hear the more vividly they can imagine the rest of the scene. I usually have a box that serves a double function for me. One, it lets me roll dice in a hidden fashion without chasing them down. Two, I can keep various props and other ‘tools’ hidden in it.
One of my favorite things to do is create maps that are artificially aged because it is fairly easy to do and gives the players something that could be authentic that lets them see what the world looks like. What’s more, perhaps a war happens and borders change so your players have to buy a new one, reinforcing the idea that things happen in the world outside of what they do. You can add a touch more realism by making the maps not 100% accurate if you are in a low tech world, and maybe have people selling bogus maps!
Sound effects are another way to go. Some people like to have mood music playing quietly in the background, but I personally prefer ‘true’ sound effects. If the party is going up against something with suckers on its body I will keep a suction cup and some water handy so I can make the wet noise that goes along with the visualization. If someone is going to be sneaking up on the party in the forest I keep some dry leaves handy. And if someone hears the guy then I start to slowly crush them in my hand as I describe what the person hears. Once, I hid a heater under the table, and when the building the PCs were in caught on fire I turned it on, causing them to all feel the heat of the flames. There are all sorts of things you can do.
- Famous Guys
Every world has its famous people and heroes. Make your world have a few of them too! Your characters never have to run into them, though if they do they will forever more be able to brag about how they met the hero of the last war against the hated insect men!
Maybe the PCs actually got to see the new King as he was looking out from his carriage for just a moment while passing them by. If you have clever players they might try to exploit any acquaintances they have with the very famous by mentioning that they need to get back to the much loved Duke; though nothing says that NPCs cannot do the same.
When creating famous guys remember that there are several types. The first is the hero. Everyone knows him and loves him because he did something wonderful. Keep in mind a hero does not have to be a war hero, maybe he is the doctor who came up with the cure to some common illness or the Duke who is fighting for the rights of the lowly peon. Long story short, the famous hero is a guy most people know and love.
Next are the famous rulers. Rulers get famous by doing one of two things. They take high profile actions (though these actions don’t have to be good) or they suffer such a rash of scandals that everyone pays rapt attention in the hopes of more entertainment. Support for famous rulers tends to be fairly divided because there is always a group that is unhappy with what he is doing.
Finally, the last major class of famous people is what I like to call ‘Rich Guy.’ Rich guy is famous merely because he has more of something then anyone else, usually money, though the rich guy can also be the most talented mage or something along those lines. Although rich guy can be loved, I like to think that most of them have an image more akin to what Bill Gates has.
Although there are many more ways to make a world unique and memorable, these 3 ideas are a good start. All you have to remember is to make a few quirks in the world, try to bring the world into real life as much as possible, and create some famous people unique to that setting. Hopefully, during the process of pursuing some of these ideas you will be inspired with several more things you could do, and if so, it will not be long before your world is very rich and unique in its own right.