When you’re putting together an adventure or detailing your next session, do you prep specific NPC dialogue?
Personally, I never have. I prefer to adlib NPC dialogue, which (like all adlibbing) produces a mix of gems, good lines, forgettable lines and, unfortunately, crap. Keeping track of prepped lines would be tough, and I think I’d be likely to flub them or fumble for them during play.
One of my group’s current GMs preps NPC dialogue for specific situations and encounters (notably, in our Stargate game’s recent — and excellent — time-loop adventure), and this approach seems to work very well for him. As a player in his game, it certainly turns out well on my side of the screen.
As someone who doesn’t do this, I’m curious to hear from GMs who do prep dialogue. How do you make prepped lines work in play? How do you spot situations where having lines ready in advance will be useful?
And if you don’t prep NPC dialogue, why not? Do you have the same concerns as I do, or is there a different aspect of your GMing style that comes into play?
Prep dialogue in the sense of “boxed text” or whole monologues, so to speak? No.
If I have good reason to suspect that a conversation is going to come up, I do make sure I have the NPCs agenda and motivations and such clear so I have a general idea of what sort of points he’s going to bring up.
On the other hand, if and when I happen to, during my random musings, come up with some particularly effecting phrasing in the sense of a sentence / short quote, I note that down so I can slip it in if it comes up. Eg, a particular quote that really effectively demonstrates the NPCs attitude.
I probably won’t actually refer to the note, since once I’ve actually bothered to write something down, that means I’ve paid enough attention to it that I usually remember it anyway (within reasonable limits)… 🙂
Monologues are pre-written, although I make an active effort to keep them at a reasonable length. I usually stray from the script a bit, as well. I find I can hide subtle clues as I write and re-write things, and I can make a more efficient monologue by editing it down. Thinking back, almost all my monologues serve as transitions or “mission briefing/debriefing” scenes.
Dialogue is almost always extemporaneous. I usually have a few bullet points I want to make if a scene is expected.
Ditto what Telas said about bullet points. I have to have a few of those, or I forget important things.
Yep, I do the bullet points thing too — pretty much as described by thark and Telas.
If I know there’s a dialogue scene coming up, I’ll write down what the NPC needs to convey, just in very general terms. Sometimes I’ll jot down a note or two about how they’ll interact with the PCs — “He’s pissed about this,” that sort of thing.
I don’t prep my NPC dialog word for word, but I do work out their motivations and purpose, and then I write down any key lines that I need to make sure they say.
I have found that when I am ad-libbing my NPC dialog, that sometimes I get so into talking that I forget that I need to convey key pieces of information to the PC’s to advance the storyline forward. And there is nothing I hate more than 10 minutes after the heroes have had their conversation, to have to ret-con the encounter and tell them, “Oh yea, and the Prince also said…”.
Because of that, any important lines for my NPC’s get written out into my notes, that way I see them the whole time the scene is going on.
I definitely prep dialogue for NPCs. Most often it’s as DNAphil mentioned above — I write down important lines that I need to have NPCs say in order to convey important plot-forwarding information to the players. It’s basically just a mnemonic device to help me remember in the midst of the game, as more often than not I won’t even look at my notes when playing an NPC.
In more unusual situations I will plan out rough dialogue trees or something similar. For example, if the PCs are ambushed and confront a major NPC about it I will plan out a response for the basic possible approaches the PCs could use. It’s not all that often that I would do this, but when the players have their impressions formed of the NPCs character a bumbled line of dialogue might lead them astray by thinking he’s lying… or make his hidden plot obvious without wanting to.
I also consider planning ahead just plain better for characterization purposes, since planning ahead allows me to break out of my typical speech and word patterns. This is, of course, possible to handle without writing anything down, but writing it down helps me remember on the spot. Dialogue between NPCs or monologues will be pretty much entirely planned in advance just because they offer unusually good opportunities for characterization.
This is one of those contentious issues.
Writing down NPC dialogue can lead to ‘reading out’ making the NPC flat and dull, a bit of a tool in both senses of the word. They can come across as a part of the adventure plan rather than a character.
On the other hand, if you improv there is the risk that they are easily mocked, stereotyped or as mentioned, you get carried away in character conversation and forget salient points.
BUT! I think I have a solution. It comes from the frustrated thespian in me…
I don’t see why the PCs should have all the fun of character concept, creation, action and experience. As a GM I can populate my world/ adventure with as many of my NPCs as possible treating them as my characters rather than ‘NPCs’.
I give them a personality, depending on the complexity of the character I use between 3-5 seperate adjectives to describe them, maybe a catchphrase or two ( a personal fave for bosses is ‘IMPUDENT mortal/ fool/ hero/ etc delivered in a deep resonant voice – knowing how cheeky PCs are this gets used ALOT). This allows for consistent improvisation and usually a memorable character, difficult to mock ‘out of game’ as I’ve already thought about how the NPC will come across.
I do a similar kind of thing in terms of adventure/ setting 3-5 details of where they stand politically in relation to the world and the characters as well as what they know. This provides me with a checklist similar to the bullet points but allows me to riff around them rather than tick them off. As a GM I can be a bit of a bar steward as I regard it necessary for the PCs to ask the right questions if they want a piece of information.
If they start twittering about the weather, the NPC will react to that and not the adventure. Similarly if the PCs ask extremely pertinent/ perceptive questions they get a great deal more useful information – sometimes stuff that could be deemed ‘story spoilers’ but I have yet had a PC who hasn’t used the info to take the adventure on a unique tangent that I could never have thought of if I’d of bullet pointed.
In terms of disposable NPCs (guards, minor bad guys, people to beat up & kill) / in game generated one shot NPC characters I use the location the PCs are in for a base point for a characteristic. In a ghetto, tired; in a rich estate, snob and then think diametrically, ‘what is the opposite?’ to provide another characterisation that gives me a 3D, slightly stereotyped NPC who can interact with the party. Sometimes they have legs and develop into more fleshed out NPCs that recur which in my opinion is kinda cool, as the PCs have had a part to play in the character generation. My settings usually have a ‘cast list’ which I update as the game progresses to ensure that this happens as much as possible…
My PCs have complained that sometimes they can’t distinguish between the important NPCs and the spontaneous NPCs. I take this as a compliment rather than a problem, but I do ensure that if there is a vital piece of information EVERY NPC can at the very least point them in the right direction or get them thinking on the right lines.
I never use monologues but occasionally an improv’d bit of speech does go on a bit… kinda like my comments.
“I’d like to thank the Academy and all the little people for this award”
Hope this helps, I find that if it doesn’t produce more fully realised NPC behaviour at the very least it does promote PC interaction with the game world as they try and keep up with the Jones’ LOL.
Added note: If, during a dialogue, I branch off or have an idea (or steal one from the players’ chatter), I try my damnedest to take notes on it.
Our sessions are two weeks apart, so I occasionally forget things. Forgetting what happened in a dialogue is far worse than forgetting your updated plan, because the players see the mistake. Ugh.
I go the “method actor” route.
If I understand the NPC well enough, the dialogue isn’t hard to ad-lib.
Incidentally, this seems to suggest I should pre-fab the one-off NPCs more often than the recurring characters. It’s just not worth getting in-character to deliver an “I know nothing!” line.
And oh man there’s going to be a lot of those, my players just decided this should be a heavily urban campaign…
I have the same problem as Phil, occationally forgetting things when speaking for the NPC.
For the less important NPCs I don’t do anything, I know their motivations and background and can make up their lines. For more important conversations I usually prepare a list of what needs saying so I can make sure I work everything in.
I prep dialogue … I rehearse dialogue … I perform dialogue …
I’ve found that the portrayal of a memorable NPC is just as key as a description of the character.
It’s not voices and such, so much as a manner of speaking with a distinctive vocabulary, rhythm and volume. Is the speaker urgent, or laid back? Big words or little ones?
Three well written paragraphs of dialogue have served me exceptionally well in conveying what an NPC is all about.
I halfway prep NPC dialogue, but I tend to run a very flowing and instantly changing game where the players actions can completely change what happens next. In my last game one of the players bypassed the second level of the dungeon completely because he decided to try talking to the two goblins who were trailing their party, instead of attacking. Massive bribes of trail food, and a meeting with the king later, they got an escort down past the Goblin kingdom. Since my players tend to so eloquently throw monkey wrenches into my plans, I ad-lib the actual dialogue as it comes. I do however make bullet lists for what I want the NPCs to say, or act like.
I set every NPC up in a table in my adventure outline, or on an index card, and I write down a.) memorable physical feature, b.)description of their voice, and c.) their basic personality. After that I make a bulleted list of their importance to the story, how the players “should” meet them, and what they would speak to the player about. Once they actually encounter that person, I grab the card or scan down my document, and mold myself to the NPC I built.
I typically only think/interalize dialog from NPCs when writing the adventure and running it in my head. The aforementioned Stargate episode was a bit different in that it required me to prep dialog beforehand. The entire concept of the loop works better when NPCs use the same dialog, word-for-word, I felt. Hence my noting many of the interactions. I do not use the “old school” NPC text boxes.
Plus, if I slipped on a word or two my group would notice and probably read too much into it as a clue. 😉
(Abulia) Plus, if I slipped on a word or two my group would notice and probably read too much into it as a clue.
Yeah, we’re funny like that… 😉
I’m in the group that preps motivations and character background, but the proponents of bullet points for “information to convey” were persuasive. I’ll have to work that into my prep next time.
I’m with most above. I’ll jot down a few relevant notes–usually character motivation and goals. I rarely refer to these in game, as I usually run games with recurring NPCs, and can carry that stuff around in my head for months. (It’s not uncommon for me to determining what a PC will do in certain situations, while commuting, two weeks before the game actually occurs, not use it that session when the PCs go their own ways, and still remember to use it 6 months later.) If the NPC has personality quirks that I really want to emphasize, I’ll have a few notes on that when getting used to the NPC, but those are soon internalized as well.
Not that I’m any great shakes at it, but rough and ready “method acting” is my choice. I don’t slip very deep into the character, but I do slip into it.
Besides, the place where I need all that prep time is notes on locations and what makes them interesting. It takes me a lot longer to internalize a place than a character, and I’m far more likely to forget something important during play.
On those rare occasions where I’ve run prepped dialogue (from a bought adventure), my players laughed at me. Heck, I laughed at me. I don’t do those things anymore. 🙂