Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Troubles in the Social Dungeon

We've had some players who have trouble interacting with NPCs in the past. This can be a major hinderance to a parties' forward development—social interaction, like it or not, is a major part of playing D&D. Talking to NPCs may in fact be more important to the survival of the party than simply have good battle plans. While you may be able to swing a battle with dice, the way we play it there are simply no dice available to help you when talking to an NPC; you get your initial reaction check (and often not even that, if I am certain of the way the NPC may react to you) and then you must "win" the conversation based solely on your own merits.

While most non-confrontational conversations usually (and here I must be clear and say usually) do not degenerate into unplayable "loss" situations, it is the conversations that have more on the line of which I now speak. These are people who are potentially hostile or already inclined to mistrust the player. I'm not sure how many of these types of folks people come in contact with in every day life, but I feel it must be at least a few. Winning them over is almost never a matter of simply acting politely, particularly in a world where they might kill you just because they don't like your face.

I will use an example that I encountered last night in a game session, which will require a little bit of 10th Age background to understand. There was a hermit living out in the wild places of Haldera, beyond the normal boundaries of a town and in the deep hills, hardscrabble land that it is very difficult to travel (he has inspired the hermit list I hope to post later in the week). He dwells in an old wyrmish ruin, inhabiting the broken obsidian buildings and muttering to himself. A madman in town thought he was a necromancer, but in fact he is one of Rhamna's priesthood—a minor goddess devoted to revenge. These men are known as Debtors, and they dwell beyond the bounds of traditional society and wait for people who want revenge to come out to them and pray for it. At that time, they generally go around and help enact whatever vengeance it is.

The company (the Eager Blades, who had been the Crabs but decided they needed a new name) approached the ruins at dusk and saw the glow of a fire. Fearing a necromancer, hobgoblins, or some other nameless terror, they sent their thief to sneak up on the source of the light and determine what it was. You know, classic Tolkien thief-work. Unlike Bilbo, he smeared his face with charcoal and got to it. Like Bilbo, however, he lingered overlong and then went and peeked his face right into the doorway where the light was coming from. The Debtor, Ralgath, saw him and snuck out behind.

With an angry and clearly unbalanced tone he asked what the thief thought he was doing. "Oh, I'm just a traveler out for a breath of air." This was mistake number one: an obvious lie, since they were far from any settlements. Fearing that the intruder had come to kill him, this prompted Ralgath to attack. Vihnac, the thief, drew his sword to defend himself, which Ralgath instantly cast Heat Metal on. He demanded that the intruder drop his sword. Vihnac sheathed it.

Ralgath began to laugh, telling him that that would probably be his last mistake, even as the sheath began to heat up and the leather smoke and curl. Vihnac didn't know what to do, so he announced that he was only defending himself as he was a "traveling poet." Ralgath was irritated to be obviously lied to again, so struck him in the chest with his cudgel. In response, the thief unbuckled his belt even as it became white-hot and seared his side.

Ralgath said, "Now FLEE or perish, liar!" and Vihnac responded "Your graciousness becomes you." Ralgath took that amiss and clubbed Vihnac in the skull.

While the thief, miraculously, did not perish he was down and out. Even in postgame he had a hard time seeing what he did wrong—if by wrong you mean, provoking an evil hermit. Of course, had he simply been content to admit that the hermit had bested him, there would be no post about this today, but he insisted that he had acted in such a way that the NPC should in no way have behaved how he did.

Here, I think, are several breaking points where we can examine his behavior and glean a better understanding of how dangerous social interactions can work:

1) The First Lie

"I am a traveler,  I wished only to pass through without harm."
"I meant to you no disrespect or ill will."

These two phrases were said back to back. Now, it is probably true that the thief meant this particular Debtor no disrespect OR ill will. However, it was also clear (since he was sneaking around and armed) that he meant someone some disrespect or ill will. So this did not play well.

However, social situations will rarely go bad all at once, but rather steadily fall apart. The Debtor, angry now and fearful that he needs to defend himself, swung at Vihnac but missed:

You instinctively duck and feel a foot-thick knotty club go whizzing above your head. "Sneaking in, eh? Thought you could get the better of me, did you?"

2) I have no beef
Vihnac valiantly tries to defuse the situation, but draws his sword in defense. He bravely speaks one of the most hilarious lines in D&D history: "I have no beef with you, man-son. I merely wish to pass peacefully."

The Debtor decides to test him for his worth: if the thief really has no problem with him, he shouldn't be afraid to be unarmed in front of him, right? This is insane hermit logic, of course, but he's an insane hermit.

He points a long-nailed finger at your sword and speaks some strange words of power. Then, he barks, "Drop your blade or live to regret it, fool!"

The man laughs maniacally. "You did not seek to find me, but here you came! And now, like a thief, you come to slay me in the dark. Well, you will find your tools of slaying are not your own!"

This is when Heat Metal is cast.

3) I sheathe my sword
Which elicits this response:

You sheathe your blade and he hisses, "That will not save you. You did not do as I commanded, and now you will be in great pains to."

4) I am merely a traveling poet
Trying to dig himself out of trouble, Vihnac insists that he didn't draw his sword to hurt the man but rather to defend himself. After all, he's "merely a traveling poet." This obvious and somewhat bizarre falsehood prompts Ralgath to attack him again—at least claim to. Vihnac however, struggles and gets his belt off. Ralgath is instantly less worried and tells him to get the hell out.

5) Flee or perish, liar!
You get it off before it does any further damage, but it is now a brilliant blazing outline of a sword. The man laughs and says, "Now FLEE or perish, liar!"

Vihnac's final response:

"Your graciousness becomes you."

The Rundown
So, we have witnessed the slow deterioration of a situation which, to admit, was not great to begin with. At stage #1, Vihnac presented an already wary foe with an obvious lie. Seeing through it was no big deal for him, it required no rolls or even second-thinking on my part. If someone was peeking into your house with coalblack smeared all over him, would you think he was "just passing through"? No, probably not.

So, at breaking point one Vihnac could have tried to explain himself (rather than pretend it was no big deal, since it clearly was to this man).

At stage #2 he did well to try to defend himself, since the guy was unpredictable. Who knows if he could be talked down? However, he still didn't articulate WHY he was peering into Ralgath's house, which is what concerned the Debtor.

At stage #3 things had already broken down. Vihnac's player was desperate, and not reading very well I think. This, unfortunately, happens sometimes in IRC D&D and failure to read the posts carefully can result in some anguish.

At stage #4, things are past saving. Again, without explaining his presence, his looks, or his weapon, Vihnac tells another obvious lie.

By #5, you would be well-advised simply to flee. Ralgath, and most angry/crazy/evil NPCs was not inclined to take anything well by this point because he had a firm opinion of the PC (thief, murderer, liar). By the time an NPC really despises you, I don't think there's very much you can do in the way of de-escalation besides listening to them.

So goes another day in the Social Dungeon, where escalatio and chest puffing are the norm. Here, though, even though Vihnac tried not to puff himself up but rather make the situation less dangerous, it is apparent that some finesse is required. Disengagement, as in combat, is always preferable to escalation.

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