Tabletop RPGs use conversation as a building block of the game. Much of how a game proceeds is based on conversations between the participants, with mechanics and procedures punctuating that when deemed necessary by the ruleset.
Conversation is rarely an artifact of play. Maybe a few quips here and there, or buts of conversation, but rarely is there a truly great exchange of dialogue that is truly memorable and great. Narrative and action are way more likely to emerge as interesting content because most systems build with them explicitly in mind, and most GMs develop procedures and techniques to draw these things forth. But conversations, not so much.
Part of me wants to find why that is, but the sensible and sanity-saving part of me doesn’t really care. I just want to poke around and see how I can stimulate in my games great conversations. Can I encourage great dialogues to emerge without tight scripting or pre-planning? What does that look like? I’m thinking about this, so I’m sharing my thoughts with you.
First, problems as I see them. Conversations in RPGs usually go nowhere. I want something, you don’t want to give it to me, we bicker back and forth until you wind around to something or I wind around to something. Pacing is usually stagnant because there is no sense of turn or escalation; conversation is merely a proxy for the thing you really want and not a thing in and of itself. Conversations are understood on the surface as a bit of small talk layer over the exposition bits. How do I traverse from point A to B, swinging on vines of language?
I actually think these problem are most of the time not problems. Our games are often about things other than dialogue and witty conversations. This only becomes a “problem” when I want the conversation to matter, and to take center stage.
What I’m looking for are informal rules and techniques that can help me stimulate an engaging improvised conversation between two or more participants. I want a system that I can use as a scene transition, or to expand on an important subject or just to learn about some characters in my game.
I’m going to take a stab at something. It’s an experiment and untested, but the best way for me to sort these things out is to make something, get feedback, test it out. Here we go:
Values and Proxies
The key point this technique is that we are talking about one thing through the metaphor or lense of another. What we are really talking about are our values, but we have a proxy to get there. I might be interested in discussing the nature of truth, but maybe we are talking about truth as it applies to Transformers and Gobots. Our conversation is about these two toylines but they are just proxies for truth and falsehood.
A good value is really an expression of opposition; True vs False, Good vs Evil, Crowded vs Spacious. Your proxies are similarly divided, but the person who starts the conversations starts with where he thinks the proxies are. In my Transformers/Gobots example, I might start by asserting that Optimus Prime of the Transformers line was the realest robot that ever roboted. Leader-1 by my reckoning is the perpetrator of a mass fraud.
In order for us to start, you have to some point of contention. There are a few different ways to enter this, but for now, let’s say you’ve got to disagree with my valuation of proxies.
You can disagree in on of three ways:
Discuss Values. Go right to the underlying value. You can assert what your value is and why it invalidates in your opinion the statement about the proxies. “You’re wrong because both Transformers and Gobots are both frauds! Truth lies on a body of falsehoods.”
Attack Proxy. Go after a proxy. Invalidate its appropriateness, or ridicule it. “Optimus Prime is the corniest robot ever. At least Leader-1 had some dignity.”
Escalate. Raise the stakes. In trivial conversations, we are now moving it towards something non-trivial. “I’m glad you said that, because it will make me feel less sad when I blow up your Gobots collection.”
You can use any of these techniques to disagree, but never the same one twice in a row. It’s crucial that conversations turn and grow. Also, you have to tune your responses to what was just said. You can’t disagree with something ten exchanges ago, though you certainly can use that detail in your argument.
The conversation end when one side gives in, or both sides agree to disagree. You can interrupt the conversation with action, or you can let it escalate into something pretty real.
This is just the start of a system. Note that this is informal andnot a set of “hard” mechanics. You can use them with any game you run and see how they flow; I’ll probably be using this at a game of mine in the near future, and I’ll also use run a test on G+.
In the mean time, uhm…talk to me about talking?