GMprov – Spontaneous Dialogue – Part 1: Eavesdropping
I only have a few years experience with GMing, so there’s little I can offer in that field that others haven’t said before. However, I do have experience as an Improvisational Performer, and I’ve found the two have a lot of overlap.
Today, I’m going to focus on dialogue, specifically on the noble art of eavesdropping.
GETTING A CLUE
Inevitably, in any given adventure, the players will need to find out information. They might get this from a written clue, or from going Jack-Bauer on some captive, but sometimes they’ll just eavesdrop on a conversation already in progress. The first thing you need to figure out is:
What information needs to come across?
If these are allusions to a major villain that won’t show up for 5-6 adventures, be as vague as you want. However, if the essential information is simply “Players need to get a key or they’re stuck here,” subtlety can result in PCs sitting around in a cell until they’re rescued by divine intervention or they starve.
Recent Example: In the adventure I mentioned last week, a group of Ghost Pirates raided the city for gold, jewels, and anything else shiny (including hubcaps). Our heroes successfully discovered the evil Captain Blackstache’s weakness. Now, the goal was to steer them back to his ship for an epic showdown. To guide the way, I had a spectral rowboat float over their heads. *I* knew it was heading back to the ship (so all they’d have to do is follow it,) but the vampire of the group volunteered to scurry to the bottom of the boat and listen on what they’re talking about.
In this case, the essential information I had to convey was “We’re going back to the ship, where Blackstache is waiting!” Now, I could just have a character say, “Hurry up, back to the ship, where Blackstache is waiting,” but that wouldn’t have been any fun, especially for a zany series like Skeleton Crew. What other ways are there?
- Slip of the Tongue – Rather than stating the info it outright, slip it into a longer sentence or a paragraph. If it’s a minor part of a natural sounding dialogue, it will seem less forced.
So what should you talk about? Ask a man to give a minute-long speech, he’ll likely fail. Ask him to share what irks him, he’ll go on for ten minutes. Which leads us to…
- Rant and Rave – People love to complain. If you want to get a character talking, give him something to complain out.
To continue with the Ghostly Rowboat, I wanted to convey the essential “back to the ship,” but I wanted to slip it into a rant. So, to make the rant realistic, I grabbed a random piratey name, Anais (I recommend stashing a few names before any adventure. Personally, I love the Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook). Thus, the ranting went a little like this:
“Man, that Anais thinks he’s such hot stuff. I saw that shiny set of spoons first, and he ripped it right out of my hands. You saw it, didn’t you? I bet you, by the time we get back to the ship, he’s already there, waiving them spoons under Blackstache’s nose. ‘Ooooooh, look at me, I’m such a good pirate.’. And he’s going to get first dibs on the loot, and he’s going to have that smug expression on his boney little face the whole time. What a jerk.”
This feels REAL because the character’s goal is not to relay information—however, he gives the same useful information across, as well as a whole bunch of useless stuff. Also, with an angry rant like the above, I could carry on until Wizards puts out D&D 6th Edition.
(As an added bonus, it sets up a great minor character for the pirate character. In the same adventure, Blackstache barked an order to the nearest NPC, which I declared was Anais. When a PC sent him flying off the ship into the water, a nearby pirate muttered, “Y’know, I never liked that guy. What a jerk…”)
Don’t be afraid to use your own real pet peeves as inspiration. Sure, it might be hard to work your pro/anti “Phantom Menace” rant into a medieval fantasy world, but most problems are timeless: coworkers, relationships, traffic, bad food / service. Given a reshaping, you can even make technological rants work for any age.
Grok: And then Warlord call for Grok.. only Warlord call Grok’ IT Guy,’ ‘cuz Warlord no know Grok’s name. Grok is “It Guy” cuz Grok fix the Its. Warlord say, ‘Catapult no work. Kicked it with boot, still no work.’ Grok say, ‘Haz Warlord kicked catapault again? Re-boot?’ And Grok re-boot catapult, and it work. And does Warlord thank Grok? No! Warlord glare at Grok, like it Grok’s fault it no work in first place. Grok no built stupid catapault, Grok only fix stupid catapult. Grok say long time go to Warlord, ‘Warlord need buy new catapults.’ Did Warlord listen to Grok? No! No one listen to Grok.
- Teaching Moment – The rant is great when you have only a small bit of information, but what if you got a lot to explain? Answer: Nature abhors a vacuum. Or, in other words, knowledge must gracefully goes from those who know to those who don’t know. If both people know the info, why would they spend valuable time speaking it aloud?
Note: Author Dan Brown is notorious for breaking this rule. He’ll have Prof Langdon racing against the clock, running for his life- only to spend 20 pages explaining something to an expert who’s ALSO AN EXPERT IN THE SAME SUBJECT.
However, if a PC eavesdrops on one NPC who knows and one who doesn’t know, they might be lucky enough to overhear an info dump. Here’s a sample that only slightly steals from a certain Monty Python movie (Bad Yorkshire / Cockney accents optional).
Mean voice: Okay, you stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave.
Gruff voice: Right. Will do. Um…
Gruff: Who is “he”?
Mean: Him. In there. The prince. The one locked up.
Gruff: Oh right. Yes of course. Ummm…. Which prince?
Mean: Of Freedonia. The one the emperor kidnapped. To hold as hostage, so the Freedonian Queen will agree to the trade agreement. Is anyone of this getting through to you?
Gruff: Oh, yes sir, of course sir. Only… um, could you repeat that again sir?
Mean: Starting with what?
Gruff: Just everything after the uh… time you opened your mouth…
Gruff: [Exasperated Cry!]
- Magic Lampshade – If you don’t have the time or the confidence, simply break one of the golden rules above, and have another NPC call yourself out it.
Pirate Bosun: Row harder! We got to get back to the ship!
Lackey: What are you telling me for?! I know that already!
Pirate: Quite yer yapping!
Pirate Bosun: We’ve got the prize!
Lackey: Quiet you idiot! If you keep yelling it out like that, someone most overhear and find out that we got the prize.
Pirate: Oh, right.
Here are a few other tips to make your overheard conversations pop:
- Stuck in the Middle – It’s rare that an eavesdropper hears the beginning of a conversation. One of my favorite lines from the Simpsons is Bart saying, as someone else rushes through, “So I says to Mabels, I says ‘Mabels…’” I don’t know WHY it cracks me up, but between the New Yorker improper grammar and the idea that Bart knows someone named “Mabel,” but it’s a wonderful non-sequitor that feels real. If I have the forethought, it’s sometimes fun to start with the punchline of a joke, hinting at a strange story. Here’s a fun one:
“And then I said, ‘but Madame, that’s NOT my broadsword!’ Get it? Get it??”
- Asymmetric Games – All conversations need two or more people. However, trying to play two different characters at the same time can be tricky, especially if you love silly voices. However, it doesn’t have to be an EQUAL conversation. One can do all of the explaining and ranting, and the other person can just answer in “y-ups,” grunts, Hodors, or, depending on the species, “gronks.” One of my favorite episodes of the anime Cowboy Bebop is Episode #2, Stray Dog Strut. It involves a pair of minor scientists, one of which is lamenting who deep in trouble they are (with a heaping side dish of exposition.) His lackey, for 90% of the episode, only responds with a nasal “Seems that way.” It’s the perfect example of how a non-committal sycophant can turn an everyday expression into a catchphrase.
- The Purloined Letter – If you’re weaving a mystery, you will have to drop some hints along the way. One of the best ways to hide the info is in plain sight, i.e., in the middle of a wide info dump. For example, if the PCs overheard a butler saying,
Jeeves: Make sure you near the back door around 7 to answer it, the shop man is coming by with a delivery, and make sure he has every item: 4 jars of varnish, 2 cans of lye, 1 roll of butcher’s paper. And make sure you count this time before you sign!”
Roger: Do I have to wait down there? I here funny noises sometimes, when it gets dark.
Jeeves: That’s just the boiler room. Now move it!
When the players hear it, the first thing they might notice is poor Roger’s complaint about the noises. However, it’s only later that they realize the true info hidden— when they learn that lye was the poison used to kill Great Aunt Tabitha. Did Roger miscount, or did someone sneak off with a jar of lye when Roger was distracted?
NEXT WEEK: Intentions and Bargaining!