D&D 5e: Dialogue Procedure & NPC Traits
So. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition has a really intuitive procedure for handling character dialogues. Like, never mind that it's not really supported by most adventure design (to my knowledge), and that it's written in that same overly verbose style as the rest of Fifth Edition. I like it. I might even like it more than most reaction procedures in TSR/OSR rulebooks, which are typically (though not originally) a 2d6 roll that determines the NPC's initial demeanor and... that's it. But it's also not at all overly complex, formal, or procedural, in the sense that some other rulesets proceed automatically through formal rules without pausing for input or breath. I like it being basically informal.
I'm going to go over how character dialogue is supposed to play out, and then I'll transcribe random tables of NPC traits meant to plug into this subsystem. Finding both of these things surprised me, so I hope you'll find them interesting.
Open your Dungeon Master's Guide to pages 244-5. Actually, don't. Read the below instead.
Step 1: Decide the creature's initial demeanor. They might be initially friendly, indifferent, or hostile depending on how they relate to or oppose the party's aims.
Step 2A: You can temporarily adjust the NPC's demeanor by 1 step for 1 subsequent exchange. Specifically, touch on the NPC's ideal, bond, or flaw in order to appeal to or offend their sensibilities.
Step 2B: Make a Wisdom (Insight) check to discover one of the NPC's characteristics. This is an alternative to doing either guesswork or naturally learning about the NPC in conversation, during which the referee might drop hints about what they want or believe. These characteristics seem to be personal, varying between NPCs and requiring you to learn about them as individuals.
Repeat steps 2A/B until you have reached the conversation's climax, when you finally make a request of the NPC.
Step 3: Make a Charisma check to see if the NPC agrees to the party's request. The acting character could employ the Deception, Intimidation, or Persuasion skill depending on the nature of their request or question. The DC of the check is based on the NPC's current demeanor and what is being asked of them.
Making multiple or repeat requests may annoy, irritate, or frustrate the NPC. Thus, generally speaking, the Charisma check is the point at which the conversation closes.
I like that there really only has to be one die roll, which is at the end when the speaking character takes the leap and makes a request of the NPC. Rolling Wisdom (Insight) is not preferable to discovering the NPC's characteristics by reading into their dialogue or learning about them elsewhere, but it's also a standard way that Fifth Edition handles knowledge anyway (i.e. it's a "systemic" issue that can be resolved by handling investigation differently in general). Likewise, the ultimate Charisma check may need not be handled via dice at all, but I think at least that is a case where uncertainty is interesting and engaging.
At first I thought that NPCs didn't typically have bonds, flaws, or ideals listed—but go figure! Pages 89 offers almost a d66 table of alignments and ideals. I don't endorse the alignment system or how alignments are characterized below, but at least they're giving us something to chew on (and with which characters can interact via role-play and conversation). Something you might consider is rolling for two bonds in case they result in interesting synergy or conflict. My friend Nova of Playful Void has talked about internal conflicts for player-characters, and I think a similar principle would be fruitful here for NPCs.
1. Good Alignment
- Greater good.
2. Evil Alignment
3. Lawful Alignment
4. Chaotic Alignment
- No limits.
5. Neutral Alignment
- Live and let live.
- Nation (?!).
Page 90 has a d10 list of bonds:
- Dedicated to fulfilling a personal life goal.
- Protective of close family members.
- Protective of colleagues or compatriots.
- Loyal to a benefactor, patron, or employer.
- Captivated by a romantic interest.
- Drawn to a special place.
- Protective of a sentimental keepsake.
- Protective of a valuable possession.
- Out for revenge.
- Roll twice, ignoring rolls of 10.
And also a d12 list of flaws or secrets (!):
- Forbidden love or susceptibility to romance.
- Enjoys decadent pleasures.
- Envies another creature's possessions or station.
- Overpowering greed.
- Prone to rage.
- Has a powerful enemy.
- Specific phobia.
- Shameful or scandalous history.
- Secret crime or misdeed.
- Possession of forbidden lore (?).
- Foolhardy bravery.
It's really not bad! Yet most generators I see don't even include these things. I'll work on one at some point for fun, since it might be handy in general.
This is a fairly robust subsystem that would complement well at least two use cases of Fifth Edition (i.e. old-school and neo-trad players), but is basically hidden in the DMG and does not plug into the system as a whole. It's kind of a shame, but we're basically vultures. Why not take what we can get?