Combat Parley: It's All in the Delivery
Posted by: Jendor -- July 17, 2015


Deliver rich encounter-start narratives that encourage alternatives to combat

Tony Medeiros,

Do you struggle to make it clear the party doesn't have to fight to win? As GM, it's all in your delivery. The right words said the right way get your party thinking about their non-combat options rather than just mindlessly rolling initiative every time the bad guys show up.

So how do you narrate the party's options with clarity and drama? How do you delight players with meaningful choices in the tension-filled earliest moments of conflict? You're about to learn how with today's tips.

Step 1: Identify NPC Motivations

Start with identifying and understanding who the NPCs in each combat are. Similar to Combat Profiling as taught in Faster Combat, answer these two questions about the NPCs in every encounter:

  • Motivation: What one thing do the NPCs want most?
  • Weakness: What one thing do the NPCs want least? A weakness, fear, or something that can be used as leverage.

As great GMs, we work hard to understand PC motivations. Give the same effort for your NPCs. Your villains and monsters must feel more alive, and must value things other than beating the tar out of your party. Make your NPC stories as real as PC stories.

Identify your NPCs' most burning desire and most crushing weakness. Keep the motivation and weakness short, specific, and immediate. Use one or two sentences maximum. This helps you focus on and keep consistency NPC behavior and decision-making in the encounter.

For example, the party encounters bandits a few miles south of town. Are they just random, throwaway NPCs? No, because you've already answered the two questions above:

  • Motivation. The bandits are starving and weak, and look it. They want food more than anything else.
  • Weakness. The bandits don't want to die, especially in battle. They not only lack the strength to fight well, but are unskilled fighters whose most advanced combat technique is a quick, sloppy mugging.

Step 2: Identify Non-Combat Solutions

Now take a moment to identify all the different ways an encounter might unfold. Think beyond the default assumption of combat. Base non-combat solutions on NPC motivations and weaknesses. Similar to directors who include alternate movie endings, you identify alternate encounter resolutions.

Building off last month's article in RPT#657: How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters, choose one or two non-combat encounter resolutions from the list below.

The top two options are discussed in detail throughout last month's article. Use these as your go-to non-combat solutions if you're struggling to fit in any of the other options for a given encounter.

Top Non-Combat Encounter Solutions

  • Exploration => Search for Information => Find Clues or Evidence
  • Interaction => Influence NPCs => Interrogate, Negotiate, or Threaten

Other Non-Combat Solutions

  • Acquire
  • Break or Destroy Item
  • Commandeer a Vehicle
  • Deliver
  • Distract
  • Escape Destruction
  • Establish Truce
  • Force Surrender
  • Infiltrate
  • Reach Before Enemy
  • Seal Away
  • Seal Off
  • Steal
  • Stop an Event
  • Survive
  • Trap
  • Trick

Your goal in this step is to practice seeing beyond combat as the only solution to conflict. Integrate this thought process with NPC motivations and weaknesses as discussed in the first step. With practice, you begin to see all sorts of options and story paths open up.

For example, if what the bandits want most is food and not to fight (because they're terrible in combat), the "Force Surrender" non-combat option is a good encounter solution for the PCs.

But what if the party doesn't think of or realize this? How do they know it's a good choice?

They know because of the NPC motivation and weakness clues you provide the party.

Which brings us right to the final step.

Step 3: Nail Your Delivery!

Now you're ready to give your NPCs a voice while delivering clear options instead of combat. You need to deliver clues to non-combat encounter solutions through a combination of language and body language. Your words, voice pitch and pace, and body language must convey the emotions of and communicate the clues to a specific non-combat resolution. This is how you achieve the best delivery possible.

Use Strong Word Choice

Ever get frustrated with your group because they don't notice "subtle" clues? Players aren't mind readers, so when in doubt, be clear. Also use more emotional, descriptive, or extreme versions of words in your delivery. While I'm not a huge adverb fan, they do have a place in the context of tabletop RPGs and GM narration.

For example, some players won't respond to "They look hungry," but will respond to "They look like they're absolutely starving."

Vary Voice Pitch & Pace

Vary your sound as GM when voicing NPCs. As we've learned, they all want and fear different things. Make sure those emotions come through when connecting non-combat solutions to encounters.

For example, a frightened group of bandits might all stutter when they tell the PCs to turn over their valuables. Make sure you adjust your voice pitch and stutter when you talk as the bandits. Or a villain the party has finally caught up to is confident the party can't hurt him. Translate this into arrogance through your voice by speaking louder and slower – all while sitting back with a wicked grin.

Which brings us to....

Use Facial Expressions & Body Language

Showing emotion through body language and facial expressions is a universal form of communication – and a powerful GM tool when communicating NPC attitudes and potential non-combat options. Six of the most common emotions we portray every day are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

Practice the facial expressions and body language that accompany these six universal emotions and start adding others you expect to use often for NPCs in your games (confidence, arrogance, etc.) to your repertoire.

For example, practice narrowing your eyes, waving your arms or shaking your head emphatically for angry NPCs. Get wide-eyed, glance around, and fidget for fearful NPCs. Remember, these are important clues in your delivery as to what the NPCs want or don't want. They suggest different ways to deal with the situation besides a fight.

Prepare the Narrative Delivery

One way to build toward the best encounter-start delivery is to examine and connect an NPC's one motivation, one weakness, and the one or two non-combat solutions you've identified. Take those and imagine how a TV or movie narrator might set the stage at the start of the encounter, freezing the action as the scene starts.

Depending on the particular NPC or solution, you might deliver a roaring, angry threat, or a stuttering and feeble plea. You might put your hands on your hips as a challenge, or hold or wave your arms in agreement or surrender. You might bulge out your eyes in shock or disgust.

In the case of your tabletop RPG, you narrate this way, except you provide an active audience with a greater context (clues) surrounding the scene. That active audience is your PC party, and now they're armed with more creative solutions to the immediate conflict based on your clues.

To prepare for the best encounter-start delivery you can give as GM, write out, jot down a few highlights, or practice your narrative deliveries before each encounter or session. Bake in strong word choice, voice inflections, body language, and facial expressions.

For example, jot down cues for you do make some sort of gesture. Summarize or use quotations ("lines" like an actor would say or narrator would read). Focus the details of your delivery on what the NPCs want and fear, relevant emotions, and clues to a non-combat resolution.

The Solution to Banditry

Bringing everything we've learned together, let's finish setting up the encounter of our favorite starving bandits. Take special note of the "Narrative Delivery" section:

  • Motivation. The bandits are starving and weak – and look it. They want food more than anything else.
  • Weakness. The bandits don't want to die, especially in battle. They not only lack the strength to fight well, but are unskilled fighters whose most advanced combat technique is a quick, sloppy mugging.
  • Non-combat Solution. Force Surrender. The bandits are easily intimidated given their extreme hunger and poor fighting ability.
  • Narrative Delivery. The bandits' sword arms are shaking badly. [GM: Hold out my arm and shake it nervously; even grab it once to steady it.] All of them are boney and pale, looking like they haven't eaten in days. Do some of their eyes betray more than hunger? Are they afraid to fight, even as the bandits attempt to waylay you? Their apparent leader with a gray leather eye patch shouts, "We just want your food! Ahhh, and your money! But first your food! No trouble, nofighting!" The old man looks all around with his bulging eyes and takes a big, long gulp. [GM: Open my eyes wide, look all around the room, gulp.]

Activity: More Banditry!

Take the Solution to Banditry and rewrite at least two of the four elements (motivation, weakness, non-combat solution and narrative delivery). Refer to the various steps of this lesson as you go.

When you're finished, take a moment to reflect on a) what you liked about the changes you made, and b) any challenges you faced with your changes.

Want to share your banditry activities with us? Go ahead and hit reply.

Special Delivery

You're now ready to narrate and deliver option-rich encounter narratives! You've learned how to identify key NPC traits and non-combat solutions. And you've learned and how to vividly deliver this information at the start of your encounters.

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