As I’m approaching DMing Episode 2 of Horde of the Dragon Queen I thought it might be helpful to make what seems like a primarily roleplaying episode a little less abstract in my mind. In the past, I have found that making roleplaying a little more “concrete” can be helpful. Many players and DMs struggle with the roleplaying aspect of their games, and it can be a challenge to find ways to make it more effective. My personal method is to make the improvisational aspect of things a little more structured. Here are some things I’ve done in the past that have worked for me.
In the mod, for all NPC characters, I write down specific information for characterization during roleplaying interactions. I use a loose scaffolding of characteristics to help me remember what each NPC might be like beyond the information presented in the mod. I write these down in the margins of the mod by each NPC’s information, or on index cards for quick reference, just to help me remember when I’m actually roleplaying.
1) I write down a physical, vocal, and emotional characteristic for flavor.
2) I highlight important information each NPC has in a specific “roleplaying color” distinct from other highlighters I might choose to use so I can remember to share it in my interactions.
3) I write down tactics they might use to try to get what they want in the moment, or a tactic they might use to prevent the PCs from getting what they want.
4) I write down possible effective triggers that the PCs might use to glean the information from the PCs.
5) For 5th Edition, I’m going to write down potential Skill Check DCs for Performance, Intimidation, and Persuasion effectiveness if they aren’t already provided in the mod and prepare to modify them in the moment. This may only be necessary if there is specific information the Players are supposed to glean from the NPCs that they aren’t willing to overtly give up.
This seems like a lot of prep work for roleplaying interactions. But for some, it can be as important as knowing a monster’s stat block. Even contemplating a portion of these ideas may go a long way to enhancing an element of the game that can be marginalized in favor of more concrete and fleshed out combat rule mechanisms.
Know your NPC’s objectives for the interaction with the Characters
What are they doing in the moment your PCs are interacting with them? Waiting tables? Recovering their senses after a battle? Keeping shop?
What do they actually want in that moment? How important is that to them?
This is probably evident in the mod.
Know your PC’s objectives for the interaction with the NPCs
What are the PC’s trying to glean from the interaction? This should be evident in the mod.
Create obstacles that stand in the way of both the NPCs and PCs objectives
Do the NPCs actually want to share information? What might prevent them from doing so? Will they easily share it? What might be a trigger for an NPC to share information or do what the PCs want them to do?
Does that trigger require a Performance, Intimidation, or Persuasion check?
Prepare different tactics for your NPC to achieve their objectives in the interaction. They may not achieve them, however.
What are NPCs willing to do to achieve their objectives?
Good Tactics are action verbs: To intimate, to plead, to insult, to beg, to hide, to get away
Bad Tactics are emotional states: to be happy, to be sad
When one tactic is not working, consider adding another tactic or changing it. Using the same over and over again is fruitless—you may get into a deadlock with the PC and the scene becomes boring and frustrating.
Some tactics may already be provided in the mod itself.
Players, on the other hand, will use all kinds of tactics to get what their characters want, and won’t even realize it: buying a drink, helping a bartender cleanup, burning a health kit charge, bribing, threatening, cajoling, expressing kindness, etc. Multiple tactics might possibly enhance the more obvious basic Skill Checks. For example, a character that heals an enemy might get advantage on a Persuasion check. A character that plays their lute soothingly might be considered helping the interaction of another PC in a persuasion check in the right context. A character that holds their knife under a Kobold’s throat as another character interrogates them might be considered to be helping the PC in their intimidation check, and providing advantage. Consider how or if a DC may change if one PC fails and another makes an attempt on the same NPC with a different tactic.
Flavorful roleplaying is what makes things fun. There are a lot of things you can do to make your characters seem more “alive” without being a good actor. Relying upon some simple tricks can go a long way to making the table’s game experience much more enjoyable. They may seem trite or amateur, but they can prompt effective characterization that makes each NPC unique.
Prepare personality characteristics for each NPC: A physical, vocal, and emotional
Twitch? Too broad a smile? Scowl? Hunched shoulders? Wringing hands? A cold? Continually coughing? Looks down their nose? How do racial characteristics impact these choices?
High or low pitched voice? Accent? Slurred words? Hoarse? Slow or fast? How do racial characteristics impact these choices?
Prideful? Angry? Impatient? Distracted? Fearful? Stuck up? Condescending? Distraught? Haughty? Shy?
Consider whether there is a famous character or personality that the NPC might emulate that you can imitate? It doesn’t matter how “good” you are—you aren’t playing that character. Gandalf? Batman? Black Widow? Gimli? Capt. Mal Reynolds? Keep it in the back of your mind.
The key to good roleplaying (in my opinion) is remembering what the goals for each interaction might be, then enjoying fleshing out how those goals are achieved (or not). With the objectives in mind, it is easier to determine success or failure and guide the direction of the interaction. Sometimes, the interaction is a mod requirement for an NPC delivering necessary information, other times it is about a PC trying to accomplish something.
This information may or may not be useful to you. It may be burdensome for some, in which case you might want to come up with your own system. It’s all good. Just pondering these ideas can be helpful in some ways. I hope that you consider what is useful to you for your style of DMing.