3 Ways to Handle NPC Conversation Without Breaking the Flow of Your RPG
Salutations, nerds! Every once in a while the NPCs in a tabletop roleplaying game talk to each other and this has a tendency to become super awkward for a Game Master. Few GMs enjoy the feeling of narrating back and forth with themselves while a group of players wait on hold. Today I’m going to be sharing three ways to handle this circumstance during an RPG session.
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Methods for managing NPC conversation in an RPG
Sometimes what players and their characters find out is more important than the exact specific words NPCs say to convey the message. In this case a GM can feel free to summarize whatever is overheard during a conversation. A GM might even make the players’ plan to eavesdrop on an NPC conversation an extended set of skill checks. Remaining undetected calls for Stealth and picking up on hidden double speak in the conversation can fall under Insight for example.
This is often the best way to go about a conversation between NPCs if characters decide to listen in on something you weren’t prepared for or if the people they’re listening in on are not established NPCs. “This is what Guard 1 and Guard 2 say to each other,” or, “This is what you find out listening in on the goblins in this mineshaft.”
The strengths of this method are it’s quick and clean and doesn’t break the flow of the game too much. The weaknesses are missed opportunities to really flesh out some of the NPCs.
Use a handout
If a GM has time to prepare for a potential cut scene featuring an NPC then writing it separately is a big help! I played a game with my home group where there were a lot of NPCs who hung out at the hub location. I worked a lot of worldbuilding and character hooks into them sharing conversation. We had precious little actual at table time though so instead of making players sit through it I wrote out the NPC conversation separately and posted it to our group Discord for them to read at their leisure.
Write scenes. Writing out cut scenes as cutaways provides an opportunity for player agency. “If you want your PC to have been present for this conversation feel free to have them know about it.”
The strengths of this method are more control over what an NPC says and it’s a wonderful opportunity to flesh out who they are and certain details about the world. The weaknesses are lessening players’ opportunities to interrupt and there’s no guarantee they’ll actually read a prewritten cut scene dialogue. (Sad trumpet noises.)
Have a player represent one of the NPCs
I had a GM once use this to devastating effect in a Curse of Strahd campaign. If players know the NPCs in a game well a GM can always have one of them take the role of the NPC in question and roleplay the scene with them instead of managing a conversation between NPCs themselves. It ought to be a trusted player and letting this player know what the NPC they’re playing wants is very important. If the stars align this can be an excellent way to handle the cut scene problem.
There are some players who just aren’t interested in playing a character they didn’t build even for a second but there are definitely some who would chomp at the bit to break the mold and be a hobgoblin for 10 minutes. A GM can ask for volunteers if they know the group is good for the experience. Spreading the love means making sure everyone gets at least the chance to participate this way.
The strengths of this method are it does not break the flow of a game at all! There’s still roleplaying going on and players are still involved. They can break in and interrupt at any time because it’s all happening live in front of them. The weaknesses are losing some of the control over where the scene goes but depending on the GM style this might not be a weakness at all. In some cases it also involves giving players spoilers, something to take care about.
How do you handle those awkward moments where the NPCs have to talk to each other? How do you feel about when a GM incorporates NPC conversation and you’re sitting and listening to it happen? Please hit me up about it in the comments below and of course, stay nerdy!