King Arthur Pendragon

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Randomness of NPC Reactions

This was a point of contention last night as we played our 4th session of our Greyhawk campaign. Eventually, I'll write a more detailed post about it, but the specific situation was as follows: the group stumbled upon a group of lizard-like humanoid creatures living in a swamp. Their first reaction was to parlay, having won the initiative. The ranger was the only one who could speak fluently their language. I decided that he was translating what the lizard folk were saying, so everyone could speak normally instead of having the player unnecessarily repeat the other said. It was just a minor fudge in order the keep things flowing. What initially appeared as a peaceful encounter turned into a vicious confrontation when the creatures attacked.

One of the players didn't take this too well. In his opinion, a "roleplaying encounter" should be fully verbal, with the players speaking in character, and never let random dice rolls dictate the outcome. He wasn't very happy when the creatures attacked out of the blue after a few trinket exchanges. He also died during the encounter so I believe his opinion was more of a knee-jerk reaction to a very sudden and unexpected death than a rational one.

This notion encounters with other creatures should be fully "roleplayed" and never dictacted by dice rolls is totally alien to me. It presupposes three factors that are flawed to begin with:

First, it implies that roleplaying and dice rolling are somewhat mutually exclusive. Either you are roleplaying or you are dice rolling. This could be not be farther from the truth. You can roleplay and still decide things with dice rolls. In fact, roleplaying provides a clear rational why the dice are being rolled and why the random results are what they are. They justify, in our minds, the randomness of the game. In this case, the creatures attacked because they were offended when one of the characters refused to reliquish a sword the creatures wanted.

Second, this notion assumes that when one initiates an encounter by roleplaying, this aspect alone is sufficient to propel things. In my opinion, this disregards one important factor: Charisma. The truth is that, with very rare exceptions, the character's Charisma IS NOT the player's Charisma. The player can be highly conversant and rich in vocabulary, and have an appealing personality, but the character can be a rude lout who grunts and snarls his way around, or vice-versa. The roleplaying must be filtered through the Charisma attribute much like one's combat ability in real life isn't a direct equivalent of a character's combat ability. And how else to decide if a player with a low real life Charisma but has a good game Charisma impresses the NPCs? Using reaction rolls, of course.

Third, this notion assumes that most of the races understand each other and can reach a mutually agreeable compromise. The truth is, most the creatures' norms of behavior and conduct are partially, if no completely, different from humans' and demi-humans' norms. Even if we can trace similarities between orc and kobold societies with human ones, it is much more difficult to roleplay a lizard man or gelatinous cube. Of course, it's easier to parlay with lizard men than with a gelatinous cube, which is a completely impossible proposition, but even lizard men are far too removed from the human society standards to let things be decided by roleplaying alone. And once we enter the "GM fiat" territory, it can be a slipery slope if not handled correctly.

I could play the "DM is the final authority" but I feel the need to explain such things so as to make the player understand my play style. Dice are not the be all and end all of roleplaying games but neither is roleplay. Both are different faces of the same coin and both much be balanced to create a reasonable doubt in each situation. A small degree of randomness not only keeps the players guessing and situations tense but it also guarantees a certain degree of impartiality, much like a failed attack roll in AD&D can spell the difference between life and death.
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