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July 29, 2016

Social Scene Improvisation Framework

I like to run investigative RPGs, and one thing that happens a lot is that the players go talk to an NPC about secrets that they know, or get an unfriendly or hesitant NPC to help them.

How do I make those encounters interesting, rather than boring infodumps or procedural rubber stamps?  I could just call for a die roll.  But like you, I much prefer to role play over skill checks.  I still call for skill checks, but I think the role play shouldn't be skipped over.

So how do I make a social scene more fun?  Let's review the fun formula:

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

There needs to be a problem that creates tension in the scene.  So I need the NPC to resist the PCs, but I don't want to waste time being a stubborn mule just for the heck of it.  There has to be some lever the PCs can discover that will move the NPC.  That creates a small story (the protagonists figured out what makes the NPC tick) and a small game (solve the puzzle of what makes the NPC tick).  It's also emulates fiction well.  Authors and directors skip scenes with secondary characters who are boring and stubborn, but focus on scenes with secondary characters with flaws that the protagonists can use to push, trick, or persuade them.


I've been using a table I made for myself to identify levers NPCs might have.  It's loosely based on the "deadly sins" - everyone has a flaw, and that flaw can be used against them.  When I create a random NPC, I randomly decide what will make them fold.  Then I try to telegraph that as I roleplay the NPC.  If the players don't catch on, there are usually skills (Empathy, Insight, etc.) they can roll to learn what the NPC's lever is.

I've used it to some great effect.  It really helps me structure an unplanned NPC interaction.  It's a great improvisational tool.  And the players quickly realize that they can look for ways to manipulate NPCs, instead of pleading their case and throwing a Persuasion check every time.

Then the PCs have to apply the lever.  A careless person could be persuaded to help by threatening to make their life harder, or by just waiting for them to let sensitive information slip.  An envious person can be persuaded to help by implying it will help keep them ahead of their rival.

If the PCs push on the NPC's lever, you should roleplay the NPC caving to their request without resorting to dice.

Sometimes the PCs can't figure out how to use the lever, or they do a poor job of it, or they skip the roleplay and just resort to dice, or they don't want to use the lever and want to try some other means of persuasion.  That's when you call for a die roll.

You can base the die roll difficulty on the relationship between the PCs' approach and the NPC's lever.  It might be DC 10 to Intimidate a Cowardly person (or just automatic success); DC 20 to Intimidate a Greedy person; and maybe DC 20 with Disadvantage to Intimidate a Wrathful person.  On the other hand, using Intimidate to goad a Wrathful person should be easy (DC 10 or automatic), but goading a Slothful or Cowardly person should be hard (DC 20 at least!).

Lever Table

Careless people are likely to leave clues lying around or give up information accidentally.  They also tend to choose the path of least resistance, considering only the short term consequences of doing so.
They want something badly enough to betray their organization – money usually, but sometimes power or luxury
They’re a sucker for a pretty face, an exciting experience is likely to impress them, and luxuries and indulgences clearly appeal to them
Angry people are the easiest to manipulate – just get them to be angry on your behalf, or goad them into opposing their own self-interest in ways you want them to.
Internal strife is really convenient.  This person has a rival you can play them off of.
Apply some pressure in the right place, and they’ll fold.  There’s usually something that really triggers their fear (loved ones, physical pain, humiliation, etc.)
Overindulgent, surely this person has a dark secret and can be blackmailed.  Gluttons have usually gone too far in the past, or can be lured into doing it again.
This person is a sucker for flattery.  You can build yourself up as a [false] friend and sycophant to get access and favors

CC0 Public Domain image from


If you want your NPC to be a sympathetic character with virtues instead of vices, I made an alternate table for you.  Instead of telling you how to make the NPC cave, this table tells you why the NPC is being resistant.  I just made this one up, so I'm not sure if it works as well as the lever table, above.

Unlike levers, virtues require the PCs to change their plans somewhat before the NPC will help them.  The PCs want something, but the NPC believes it would be wrong to help the PCs.  The PCs have to convince the NPC that their request is virtuous within the NPC's ethical framework.  Convincing a diligent person that they should help you means making them believe you've considered all the consequences and made sure there won't be any collateral damage.  Convincing an honest person to help you means giving up on the element of surprise and making sure they're not doing anything behind anyone's back.

It's probably better to use Levers for hostile NPCs and throw-away encounters.  Use Virtues for the PCs' allies.  I've written an article on making friendly NPCs into story challenges before.  This gives you a quick and dirty "lazy GM" way to do it.

Honest people wouldn’t go behind someone’s back, reveal someone’s secret, or act as someone else’s cutout.  They’ll betray them to their face, but not in secret.
Fair people see the PCs as cheating.  If they want to know, they have to put in the work to learn it themselves.  If they want something done, they should do it themselves.
Self-sacrificing people believe in the greater good, and believe that revealing the secret or serving the PCs would do more harm than good.  Maybe they don’t trust the PCs to be willing or able to do what needs to be done.
Diligent people have all the details taken care of.  They won’t let a secret slip or go circumvent the way things ought to be done because that would be sloppy, and they won’t just do anything without knowing all the details.
Patient people do not react to threats or hostility, and they forgive even their superiors’ worst mistakes.  They won’t jump to do things for others without some reason for urgency.  They have faith it’s not as bad as it seems.
Loyal people care about someone who would be hurt if the secret was shared or if they took the action the PCs want.  They value their loyalty for its own sake.
Brave people value their own stubborn resistance to the investigators and manipulators.  They resist for the sake of resistance, they don’t care if you’re disappointed, and they don’t need you to like them.
Honorable people value their own integrity.  They won’t betray a trust or act as a cutout because it would damage their self-image as a trustworthy person.  They have to be seen as doing the honorable thing.

Virtues require more work from the PCs -- instead of just persuading the NPC, they actually have to make a concession to the NPC if they want the NPC's help.  The players will certainly have to talk among themselves about it, or at least hem and haw a bit more.  So using virtues instead of levers might take up more table time.  Keep that in mind.

They can always trick the NPC into thinking they've made a concession, then go behind the NPC's back and do it their way anyway.  That sort of sneaky behavior should have consequences for their relationship with the NPC and the NPC's friends.

Tip for LARP GMs  

When you assign players to cast NPCs for you (you are doing this, right?) you can use Levers and Virtues in your cast sheet for the NPCs (you are giving your cast players good instructions, right?).  This gives the cast player some ideas of how to make their NPC interesting to the PCs, how to make their NPC a challenge and a story moment, instead of just a boring information dump.

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