Friday, July 12, 2013

The Conversation Matrix

This is not a post about Keanu Reeves. This is a post about those times when your party has slogged through the Stinking Swamp for days, searching for information. They have battled snakes, spiders and some half-submerged, icky tentacle thing, not to mention the bugs... oh goodness, the bugs! They are wet and tired, but finally, they have reached their goal. There, in a small hut, on what looks to be the only patch of dry ground for two miles, is the witch. She has the answers they seek. Only she has the power that can stem the tide of darkness that is swallowing the nearby lands. Only she can point them to... The Ring!

And so, our heroes anxiously approach the hut, knock on the door and greet the withered crone. She is a little cryptic, dancing around the topics, but it is obvious she knows something, so they talk. And there is more talking. And more talking... but something's not right.

The conversation isn't going the direction you thought it would. It started well enough, "I don't have the Ring," you said. "I have not had it for a very long time." But now, the talk has turned to the Ring's history. You know the Ring's history, but does SHE know the Ring's history? Would she tell them about her brief time as their beloved King's advisor? What if they bring up those rumors that she is cavorting with the demonic hordes? Why are they asking about the traitorous duke!?

You feel the conversation slipping, and your NPC's answers become more vague and cryptic. The PCs get frustrated as they come to the (incorrect) conclusion that this witch knows much less than they were led to believe. They leave frustrated that their investigation has reached this dead end.

I see this a lot and I used to fall prey to it quite a bit as well. Vague NPC Syndrome is a leading cause of death for PC investigations and plot lines. There are a few reasons this happens. You might be trying to make the NPC sound clever, or mystical, like in the movies. You might find yourself uncertain as to what exactly the NPC knows about a set of topics, or what she is willing to divulge. The NPC ends up sounding vague and the players get lost in the conversation and ultimately, leave feeling like they have learned nothing.

A little preparation goes a long way to avoid vague NPCs and I borrowed a concept from computer rpgs to help me. For every important NPC encounter where I feel the players need to get information I create a conversation matrix. Topics the PCs might mention during the discussion are in the left column, and the canned NPC response is in the right. The very first entry is the "greeting", which acts partly as the NPC's greeting and partly as a way to introduce one or two of the rest of the topics in the matrix to get things going.

As I am writing the responses, I underline important nouns and phrases and use those to create new topics. I also try to see what topics already exist, and mention as many of those as possible, creating a little web of conversation topics and responses. I also annotate the responses. I note where the NPC is lying (in case someone can detect that). I put in any non-verbal cues, or characterizations the NPC might exhibit. I note where skill checks might be used to get more, or different information.

In play, PCs chat with the NPC, when a topic on the left comes up, you give the response listed, which should lead the players to new topics, and so on, until all of the useful information has been learned.

Here is a quick example of a conversation matrix. It's crude and the story is cheesy because I literally made it up just now. However, I think it gets the point across and shows how one of these things looks.

(frowns) Ahh yes, I knew the day would come when someone would hound me about that accursed Ring. Come in, come in and sit. If you are going to kill me over this trinket, at least you can be civilized about it, eh? (walks back in and stirs her cauldron)
(scowls) Gah, that thing is a curse upon these lands, and yet it is tied to them. In many ways, the Ring’s history is the history of this kingdom.
Kill you? (question)
(chuckles to herself) No, I suppose today is not the day. I would know.

But that’s what you are here for, isn’t it? You have read or been told that I was given a powerful magic ring by the demon Tomax and you are here to retrieve it. Tell me, do you wish to tame its power for yourselves, or do you seek it for another?
Kill You! (threat)
(eyes glow red and she moves to a defensive position) Threats is it? Well, you are welcome to try, but know this. I will not bow to threats. You see, I know the day of my death and it is not today.

[Persuade, Bribery DL 12 to talk her down and resume the conversation]
Its Power
The Ring extends its wearer’s life to that of the elder races, and to protect him from all manner of poison and disease, but its true power is to summon the Unfalling Legions from Tomax’s Demon Realm. And then, there is the curse.
Another, King Relias
(looks wistfully away) [Converse vs. DL 12 to continue]

Ahh you see, I didn’t always look like this. This wrinkled face and stooped body are the products of many years of delving into magics into which no mortal should delve. Once, I was the advisor to the great King Relias, and his mistress as well.

(looks very alarmed, reaches out to the PCs) You must go back to Relias and tell him. Tell him not to use the ring. Tell him not to even touch the vile thing. He may think to tame its power, but regardless of the gains, its curse is too costly.
The Demon Prince of Mages, Tomax, crafted the ring many generations ago as a gift to his supreme sorcerer, Damian. Damian used the ring’s power to bring all of the lords under his power, as well as the Church. In this way, he ruled the land for decades.

At first, no one could understand the sorcerer’s military success -- how he could raise such armies and how they could fight with such ferocity and steadfast courage, but soon they learned. It was his Ring that summoned the soldiers from the deepest reaches of the Demon Realm and these soldiers formed Damian’s feared Unfalling Legions.

Soon every scholar and mage, nobleman and burglar in the land was researching Damian’s Ring and trying to come up with some way to steal the thing from his very finger. But their every attempt was thwarted, because Damian had created a spell that could locate the ring without error if it were taken from him.

Damian fell years later when he fell in love with one of his serving girls, who was actually a spy planted there by one of his many rivals. This woman persuaded Damian to show her the ring, and then to actually remove it so that she could hold it in her hand. Damian was normally more careful than this, but he was blinded with love and by the certainty that came from knowing he would not die that day.

Damian’s lover poisoned him, but not with a toxin that would kill him, but one that paralyzed him, slowed his heart and made his skin cold. While the spy fled with the ring, Damian’s servants thought him dead and they buried him in his ancestral tomb.
Spell (of Location)
No one has seen this spell since Damian died, but it was common practice for sorcerers to be buried with their spell books and tomes. It is likely that the spell is still buried with its master.
The ring’s curse is knowing the exact day and manner of your death.

I need to cut that short, but you get the idea...

The matrix does several things for me.

  • While writing it, I am thinking about this NPC's particular perspective on the situation. I may have written a history for this item and these characters, but the matrix helps me focus on what THIS character knows and will tell the PCs. 
  • By allowing each response to segue into other topics, I am anticipating the questions of the players and filling in blanks in the history that I might have glossed over before. Fleshing out these details means less improvising during play and a more coherent story and game world.
  • It gives me an idea of where I want the conversation to go, and how I might get there. If I ultimately want the PCs to learn that the Spell of Location is in Damian's Tomb, I know what lines of discussion will lead there.
  • It allows me to understand where various skills could be used. I only threw a couple in this example, but I could easily pepper more social skill rolls and knowledge skill rolls in there.
  • I can use the matrix to record what items of information my players have heard, and what they haven't heard. Topics they have not heard, but are necessary to move forward, can be given to other NPCs later in the session.
This might seem mechanical and "gamey" to some folks, but in practice it is pretty smooth and you find yourself reading from the page less and less each time. The primary benefit is getting you to think about the details of your scenario, and how your NPCs will present those details to the players.