Thanks to CristobelPonticello who came up with this week’s prompt: How do you handle players looking for merchandise and merchant visits and such? …I often see people quite unprepared when a player asks if they can buy some specific good…
Well, Cristobel, I cheat. Massively. I make things up!
However, I make things up according to what I think is appropriate for the area. Usually, if I don’t have a clue about something, my go-to is to ask them to roll dice. The result will give me something to start thinking about, while the dice roll itself gives me time to boot up the brain. Let’s look at this as it falls out at my table.
|PC asks an unexpected question
|GM’s brain briefly blue-screens
|PC eagerly awaits an answer
|GM’s mouth replies on auto-pilot, “What an interesting question.”
|While GM’s mouth is making these strange sounds…
|GM works out about how likely that thing is.
|“I don’t think that’s applicable/available here.”
|I have no idea…
|“Roll a POW x 3 and let’s see.”
|Pretty likely, as far as I understand my own game world
|“Roll a POW x 5,” or “Roll <applicable skill>” as GM prefers. Usually I can think of which skill in time.
|PC succeeds at a roll
|“Yeah, OK, so this is what you find…”
I do sometimes have to decide whether a thing is likely or not, and I have to work out the applicable skills, but that’s about how my brain works.
However, there’s another question there as well – Cristobel’s interested in when I might RP this. His specific question is about buying, but his general question is about when you should expand an encounter and when you should gloss over it.
I’m suddenly flashing back to an AD&D book. Page 94, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd ed Dungeon Master’s Guide. There’s a question there: What is an Encounter?
It’s a definition that I stuck to too closely when I first started DMing, and of course their examples are a little D&Dish… but it’s got a lot of power. As well as involving DM props such as objects, events, or NPCs, ‘an encounter must present the possibility of a meaningful change in a player character’s abilities, possessions, or knowledge, depending on the player’s decisions‘.
I think the meaning is wider than the D&D definition, which leans heavily on mechanics and rewards. An encounter can also add depth to the world, and that’s important too. So expanding on what is RP-worthy, it should be anything that presents a meaningful change, including in the out of character understanding of the game. It can be that the GM isn’t the one doing it – sometimes it’s my job to butt out.
So, there’s a general question here; when should we RP vs not?
In general, if two or more PCs are having an in-character discussion or argument and the others are interested in it, I’ll let them go on. Otherwise, I’ll give them a minute or two, and then tell them to take it to a text channel, and get on with the main plot. The same sort of calculation applies to whether I’ll RP a purchase, or the application of a skill. Is it important enough?
If you’re dropping 500gp… sorry, let me just close that book. If you’re dropping 500 L on a purchase that you’ve had to spend a day or two making, it is probably important enough to RP. If you’re spending a couple of clacks on getting someone to spend time in your fields scaring away birds, that’s potentially just as important. What I judge it on isn’t about how much you’re spending, but about whether it’s significant to you as a character. A big spend might be, in which case I’ll expand into how you find the thing you’re after buying, and what happens when you get there. A tiny amount of money might also be significant, if you care about the person you’re giving money to, although it’s likely to be just a quick bit of explanation of how the local economy works.
The real question here, I think, is what is important to your characters, and your world? If they think a 500 L purchase is an easy thing to do, and you don’t, then RP is one of the tools available to help you get that across. “This is a difficult thing to find, of course, but you track down the name of a seller in the market after about two hours of asking, and the promise of a small consideration to the woman who helps you. There’s a sailor by the name of Dormast who’s got an idol like you’re after, and is in need of cash, and his cousin’s a merchant. You’re going to be negotiating with the merchant, of course. She invites you into her shop and offers you food…”
Or whatever floats your boat.
Really, this is a long-winded way of saying that as GM, you can use RP to highlight that things are important, and to teach your players about your world. Save it for the times and locations where they either have a genuine interest already, or should have an interest and don’t know it yet. Be careful with that, because unless you deliver, you’re locking them into the conversation for little gain.
For the rest, say yes or no, or roll dice if you’re unsure, and use those dice and the results to look wise and make stuff up frantically behind the scenes while pretending you know what you’re talking about. That includes some skills, so if someone asks if they can track a person through town, let them roll track but also let them describe the things they are doing – they’re going to be spotted and questions might be asked.
Usually, you can tell from the PCs whether something is important to them. Go with that, and add the things that are important to you as well.