There's been a lot of ink spilled about social encounters in RPGs. This is not a big theory post. This is not a "This is how I run it at my table and it works" post (I already did that). This is just an idea. Maybe you will like it.
Hey, remember the game Oblivion? It had a minigame where you had different options on how to respond to an NPC. The NPC either liked that option or hated it. You could tell by their very-articulate, hyper-realistic expressions which they liked best.
Errant is one of my fave games. One of the things I like about it is that it has a hundred mini-games, procedures, and cool ideas tucked into it that you can use, ignore, or adapt for your purposes.
For example, it's lockpicking procedure has the would-be thief choose between the actions of twist, tap, or turn to guess the combination to pick a particular lock.
On the Non-player Character
In Courtney Campbell's On the Non-Player Character, NPCs are described as having locks (things they hate) and keys (things they like). Use a key to persuade an NPC to do something for you, but if you choose one of their locks, they'll seize up.
...Can you guess where I'm going with this yet?
Picking the Social Lock
When a player first meets an NPC, they have three starting attitudes.
Friendly NPCs will generally act in good faith and try to help the PCs. They will perform minor favors for them willingly. Performing larger favors - funding expeditions, marriage contracts, or voting in their favor in front of the senate - will require some gift or favor in return on the PCs' part.
If an NPC's attitude is uncertain, you can use this procedure to befriend them.
The conversation actions are:
Admire - Flatter or praise the NPC. Say something you like about them.
Joke - Tell a joke or otherwise introduce a bit of levity. If the GM actually laughs, this counts as two successes.
Mock - Say something mean spirited about the situation at hand or another NPC.
Share - Say something about yourself. Tell the NPC a rumor or a story.
Sympathize - Say something that empathizes with the NPC or the situation at hand. Be specific.
Every NPC requires 3 checks to befriend them.
- Using a conversation action usually gives 1 check.
- Each NPC has a key: an action they very much like. Choosing this action provides 2 checks.
- Each NPC has two locks: actions they do not care for.
- Upon selecting a locked action, the NPC will be offended. Once the NPC is offended, they remain so until they are befriended.
- If another locked action is chosen while the NPC is offended, they become unfriendly, and refuse to entertain this or future requests (unless the PCs take a future action that would change this status).
Expert (thespian) rules
The player roleplays exactly what they say, and the GM determines what conversation action is actually used.
"Say, sorry you're having pirate trouble recently. You know what a pirate's favorite letter is, don't you know? It's Sea! Like C. Get it?"
"OK, that sounds like a joke to me. Captain Jake doesn't seem to like that you're making light of the severity of the pirate threat, and says: 'Ye shannae be laughing when Onion Jack boards your boat.'"
Personality: Keys and Locks
NPCs have likes and dislikes, wants and needs: their personality.
An NPC has some action they like: their key. An NPC also has two dislikes: their locks.
These are jotted down by the GM when they write the NPC. They can also use one of the stock persons included in this blog post for expediency.
Roleplaying the NPC's personality convincingly is one of the GM's jobs. It should be relatively apparent after an in-character conversation with the NPC what certain facets of their personality are: whether they are fair minded, religious, mean spirited, judgmental, or otherwise.
You don't have to speak in a silly voice to do this. You can state plainly what you believe to be the NPC's primary personality traits.
The current situation of the NPC or the relative position between the PC and the NPC is called a disposition. A disposition introduces a twist into the process of befriending an NPC. For example:
Drunk - For the first action, any action taken will be correct.
Grateful - If the PCs have recently done the NPC a good turn, they will be grateful. They only need two checks to turn friendly.
Suspicious - If the NPC has a reason to be wary of a PC or their motives--especially if they look like an unwashed, smelly adventurer in a civilized setting--they are suspicious. The first locked action causes them to turn unfriendly.
Bribable - A wrong action can be ignored if 2d20 gold are immediately spent on the NPC.
To generate an NPC personality, roll d8.
- Analyst: Rational, traditional, and outwardly focused.
Locks: Admire, Joke
- Craftsman: Hard-working and down-to-earth.
Locks: Joke, Mock
- Anchor: Loyal, task-focused, and overworked.
Locks: Joke, Share
- Mentor: Supportive, approachable, and fair.
Locks: Mock, Admire
- Pioneer: Visionary, bold, and idea-oriented.
Locks: Admire, Joke
- Broker: Extraverted, reputation-oriented, and persuasive.
Locks: Admire, Sympathize
- Achiever: High-performing, stressed out, and motivated.
Locks: Share, Mock
- Director: Competitive, imperious, and goal-oriented.
Locks: Sympathize, Share