D&D General Roleplaying Powerful Beings versus Smart-Aleck PCs

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
The PCs have come into the presence of some being of great power--good, evil, or neutral, anything from a local noble to an actual deity. It's a serious situation where, realistically, there would be severe consequences for inappropriate behavior. But players are players, and they're going to have their characters mouth off to this powerful being.

I figure this must be something a lot of DMs deal with. How do you handle these situations? How do you keep the whole thing fun for all concerned without sacrificing the impressiveness of this important NPC? Is that even possible?

Note: I'm more interested roleplay solutions than mechanical ones. Obviously, as the DM, I could easily say "The guards haul you off and execute you on the spot for rudeness to the emperor," but I don't think that would be fun for anyone.

I've tried a few solutions with varying levels of success:

  • Jeny Greeneeth in Ravenloft may have been the most successful. She'd just smile sweetly and say, "Don't be impolite, dear. I'd hate to have to rip your guts out unnecessarily." But that may only have worked because the PCs needed her help.
  • Later in the same campaign, Rahadin wouldn't let the PCs into Castle Ravenloft unless they surrendered their weapons and swore an oath to behave peacefully. The players assumed they could talk their way around this, but Rahadin told them they could either agree to the terms or leave. So they went along with it, but I think the players were unhappy at feeling forced into a corner.

In the next session, they're due to meet an archfey whom I want to come across as powerful and mysterious. I fully expect the players to be snarky to her, so I want to be prepared for that. Any suggestions on how to deal with this situation?

(ETA: Since some have asked for more details on the archfey: the PCs are searching for the source of magic that's infusing the local countryside. They're going to find out that it's due to this archfey's lair being adjacent to an underground river. They're not expecting to meet her and aren't seeking anything from her. If things go well, she might have a quest for them and/or offer them the opportunity to make a pact with her, i.e. take a level of fey pact warlock.)
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I guess I'd start with why the PCs are encountering this archfey. If they want something, of course the archfey knows it--and will make it clear they know, and then make it clear that (further) rudeness will result in the archfey making it more difficult for the PCs to get what they want.

Then, of course, if the PCs continue mouthing off, the archfey makes it harder for the PCs to get what they want. And--probably--goes away. Or maybe stands there laughing invulnerably.
 

Being able to talk back to authority figures is one of the most basic forms of escapist fantasy around. Who hasn't dreamed of doing it? To a certain extent, it's healthy to live out that fantasy in a safe place like an RPG. So I try to be reasonably patient with players who do it; for small to medium stuff, I just ignore it completely or give snarky responses back (NPC dependent).

For your archfey I would like to ask a clarifying question first. What are they the Archfey of?
 

Oofta

Legend
Another way to approach this is to simply have a conversation off line. Ask the players to tone it down a bit. Perhaps warn them that if they don't then things will go badly for them.

On a related note for leaving weapons behind. I always have a bit of an issue with that if it's a group that has PCs that don't rely on weapons. It always feels like a penalty that only applies to some characters and not others. Just food for thought.
 

I kind of hate to bring it up, but this reminds me of the whole debate about NPC's "using intimidation" on PCs. You don't need to roll dice when you get to decide what the NPCs actually do!

  • Jeny Greeneeth in Ravenloft may have been the most successful. She'd just smile sweetly and say, "Don't be impolite, dear. I'd hate to have to rip your guts out unnecessarily." But that may only have worked because the PCs needed her help.

In example A, I think you nailed it: they needed her help. If you don't want the players to be smart-alecky, then an appropriate response here would have been for the NPC to absolutely refuse to give them help because of their rudeness.

Then, after sufficient groveling and begging, she tells them they can redeem themselves by doing her a little favor. And then send them on an absolutely horrid sidequest.

I'm betting that the next time this situation arises they will be more respectful.

  • Later in the same campaign, Rahadin wouldn't let the PCs into Castle Ravenloft unless they surrendered their weapons and swore an oath to behave peacefully. The players assumed they could talk their way around this, but Rahadin told them they could either agree to the terms or leave. So they went along with it, but I think the players were unhappy at feeling forced into a corner.

I don't see the problem here. The players were not even remotely forced into a corner. They have three perfectly good choices:

1) Surrender their weapons
2) Fight their way through
3) Leave

Now, the problem may be that the players have learned ("been trained") to believe they can always just bluff their way through situations like this and get exactly what they want. If so I'd say the problem is purely with player expectations.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
Generally my powerful NPCs will ignore or laugh off minor insults.

For more serious insults, there will be repercussions, but likely not such that they'll be killed. For example, let's say they were meeting with the emperor, who wants them to do a job for him, but they are very rude to him. He might decide that they can do the job for half of what he originally offered, or be exiled from the Empire. Of course, this could result in the campaign becoming about overthrowing the "tyrant", but there's nothing wrong with that IMO.
 

Stalker0

Legend
You deal with it like you deal with teenagers.... with embarrassment.

PC mouths off to a noble. Noble motions to a guard. The PCs tense, waiting for the guard to attack. But no, the guard pulls a bottle of champagne, shacks it off, and sprays the PC with it.

The Noble laughs jovially. "Oh ha ha, you amuse me little one....like a puppy. Would you bark some more for me little puppy?" the court then erupts in laughter, pointing at the soaking wet PC. From then on, the entire court addresses the PC as "little puppy".

PCs are used to violence, but when the noble goes for the ego....its a whole new ballgame.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Being able to talk back to authority figures is one of the most basic forms of escapist fantasy around. Who hasn't dreamed of doing it?
Sure, I get that, which is why I'm not asking for ways of preventing it entirely. It's just that it tends to end up making the authority figure in question look considerably less impressive, and sometimes losing that is bad for the story. If you have suggestions on how to make the story work even when that happens, I'm all ears.

For your archfey I would like to ask a clarifying question first. What are they the Archfey of?
She's known as the Queen of the Dark River. Lives alongside an underground river, attended by freshwater Kuo-Toa who venerate her as quasi-divine.

On a related note for leaving weapons behind. I always have a bit of an issue with that if it's a group that has PCs that don't rely on weapons. It always feels like a penalty that only applies to some characters and not others. Just food for thought.
In this particular case, they only had to surrender the weapons to get through the door. The first thing they could do (and in fact, the first thing they did do) was find and retrieve them once inside.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
I have the NPC smartalleck right back at them then give a display of power showing they're above getting their back up about such puny mortals.
 


If you have suggestions on how to make the story work even when that happens, I'm all ears.

She's known as the Queen of the Dark River. Lives alongside an underground river, attended by freshwater Kuo-Toa who venerate her as quasi-divine.
Very cool! Perhaps when they grow too disrespectful she gives a gentle wave of her hand, and they cough up water bubbles instead. The water bubbles lazily float around the room, and can be popped to form the words (possibly out of order until they get the hang of it). If the party continues to be rambunctious, the air grows strangely thicker like it's turning into water. The group start having a hard time breathing (but still can) and their words are coming out somewhat distorted. She flickers around the room with growing agitation, clearly moving faster through the air-water than just air. If it turns into a full fight, the air simply turns completely into water and the battle has a time/exertion limit (if she even sticks around to fight).

But the basic water-bubble-when-you-talk trick is very thematic. Maybe she can even change it up, making it clear she dislikes some of the things the PC is saying and gives a small twist of her wrist to make the words different. "You're saying the words. You can feel your throat making them. But the slightest quiver in the wet air / water bubble makes a different sound. You hear your own voice saying 'Please grand and glorious Queen of the Dark River, hear my respectful prayer!'"

Perhaps she even uses the same trick on her own Kuo-Toa to make them sound more interesting and sophisticated than they truly are. That's heading a little into dark comedy, but it would be fascinating to see a Kuo-Toa with pious zeal burning in its bulbuous eyes, frantically bellowing words of praise to its goddess, but what comes out doesn't match the movement of its lips. Instead it's a respectful butler voice or something else the Queen finds interesting. Also slightly plays up the "You are just puppets to me" angle.

Just brainstorming.
 
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"Are you a God?"

"Uh...no."

"THEN DIE!"

1640890626372.png
 
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Oofta

Legend
I've been that mouthy PC. The DM and I chatted, they explained it was annoying and not fun for them and I toned it down.

As far as how I would handle it other than having a chat with the PC if it got to the point of being annoying? If a PC in my campaign was a smart aleck to an archfey, they'd be immediately turned into a bunny rabbit (or for your specific scenario a frog). If I'm feeling gracious maybe a DC 20 something wisdom save at disadvantage. Repeat until they fail. Nobody messes with the Sidhe in my campaign. :)
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I kind of hate to bring it up, but this reminds me of the whole debate about NPC's "using intimidation" on PCs. You don't need to roll dice when you get to decide what the NPCs actually do!
Well yeah, but the flip side of that is that the NPCs can only do things that I think of. And maybe I'm just not good at keeping dignity/authority when met with smart-alecky-ness IRL?

I don't see the problem here. The players were not even remotely forced into a corner. They have three perfectly good choices:

1) Surrender their weapons
2) Fight their way through
3) Leave
I'd add (4) sneak into the castle another way. I didn't think I was unduly limiting them either, but the players seemed to feel that I was blocking them.

It reminded me of another situation that I had back in one of the very first games I ever ran, for a completely different group of players. In that case, they were trying to get across a bridge connecting two countries that were at war. I decided that there was no way the border guard was going to allow anyone into the country from the place they were coming from. They would have to either fight their way through or find another way across the river. But the players were fixated on a way to persuade that guard to let them through and they spent a considerable amount of time trying multiple solutions aimed at that one option, even having the party paladin do an awesome display of holy radiance to prove their good intentions. Every time something didn't work, they just got more and more frustrated, and looking back on it, I think I should just have relented and let it work. Fortunately, the Rahadin situation didn't seem to cause an equal amount of frustration, but still, I wonder if I made the right call.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The PCs have come into the presence of some being of great power--good, evil, or neutral, anything from a local noble to an actual deity. It's a serious situation where, realistically, there would be severe consequences for inappropriate behavior. But players are players, and they're going to have their characters mouth off to this powerful being.
Most players seem to want D&D to be nothing more than consequence-free power fantasy. Check in with them to see if they actually want you to run the world as if it were a real place and the NPC as real people in that world. If so, pile on the consequences. If not, the PCs are the main characters in an unfolding tale of just how awesome they are. If your view and the players' view are not aligned, no one will have fun.
I figure this must be something a lot of DMs deal with. How do you handle these situations?
I run the world as if it's a real place and the NPCs as if they were real people living in that world. So if the PCs mouth off to a king, they're locked up until they apologize or are executed for further mouthing off.
How do you keep the whole thing fun for all concerned without sacrificing the impressiveness of this important NPC? Is that even possible?
For me the fun is in the verisimilitude, the faux realism of the fantasy world. If there's a choice between maintaining that and the players' fun, the verisimilitude wins every single time. If the players don't have fun facing the consequences of their action, then they either stop doing stupid stuff or they find another table. I've been doing this nearly 40 years and I've yet to see any way to have the PCs just be mouthy and face zero consequences without immediately devolving into comedy and farce. If the powerful NPCs have no teeth they're no longer impressive.
Note: I'm more interested roleplay solutions than mechanical ones. Obviously, as the DM, I could easily say "The guards haul you off and execute you on the spot for rudeness to the emperor," but I don't think that would be fun for anyone.
You have to pick one: consequence-free “fun” or verisimilitude. You can't have both. Either the players get to do whatever they want without consequences and the verisimilitude dies or the players get to face the consequences of their action and you find a way to make that fun. I went for the latter.
I've tried a few solutions with varying levels of success:

  • Jeny Greeneeth in Ravenloft may have been the most successful. She'd just smile sweetly and say, "Don't be impolite, dear. I'd hate to have to rip your guts out unnecessarily." But that may only have worked because the PCs needed her help.
  • Later in the same campaign, Rahadin wouldn't let the PCs into Castle Ravenloft unless they surrendered their weapons and swore an oath to behave peacefully. The players assumed they could talk their way around this, but Rahadin told them they could either agree to the terms or leave. So they went along with it, but I think the players were unhappy at feeling forced into a corner.
Removing player agency is a tough one. Most players would rather have their characters die and stop playing the game that have no agency. In most readings of what RPGs actually are, player agency is kinda the point of it all. But, if you want to maintain some semblance of faux-realism in your fantasy world, you will find places where the characters and players don't really have any agency to speak of. Too much and it's a railroad, not enough and again the world loses what little faux-realism it has.
In the next session, they're due to meet an archfey whom I want to come across as powerful and mysterious. I fully expect the players to be snarky to her, so I want to be prepared for that. Any suggestions on how to deal with this situation?
Telegraph the archfey's response by having them witness what the archfey will do when people get snarky. Have a line of other people waiting to talk to the same NPC and the person immediately in front of them in line mouths off in some minor way and the archfey has them executed on the spot. Have some other, related NPC warn the characters not to be rude and tell them what happens to those who insult the archfey. Chances are even if you use both the players will decide they're special enough to get away with being snarky.
(ETA: Since some have asked for more details on the archfey: the PCs are searching for the source of magic that's infusing the local countryside. They're going to find out that it's due to this archfey's lair being adjacent to an underground river. They're not expecting to meet her and aren't seeking anything from her. If things go well, she might have a quest for them and/or offer them the opportunity to make a pact with her, i.e. take a level of fey pact warlock.)
I'm dealing with an eerily similar circumstance. I run West Marches games and have a general "the world exists independent of the PCs" rule in place that the players are aware of. So they're free to go and do whatever they want, but the world is not level-appropriate. They can wander into an ancient dragon's lair at 1st level if that's their choice. I sign post and drop hints and clues to make sure the players know this is a nasty situation. It's only fair. One group has run into a problem. A creature they know is vastly more powerful than they are. What they don't know is the creature is a demi-god on the verge of becoming a literal god. Before the encounter I wrote up that the creature wants power, mostly in the form of worshipers and sacrifices. The only way to immediately anger this creature is to threaten it, its worshipers, or to attack it. The PCs are all 1st level...so of course they have decided that their best course of action is to threaten it, threaten its worshipers, and attack it.
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
I think this is a really interesting problem, and definitely something I've seen come up in my own games. I see three main issues involved:

1) The characters are powerful, too.

One issue is that gameplay is based around the characters being powerful, and gaining more powers. Most problems can be solved by the characters using those powers, rather than holding back. So in these scenarios, the players are being asked to go against how they normally play. This can create a sense of dissonance and resistance in the players, which then translates to the characters.

Possible Solutions: Make the NPC even more powerful. Is it more intimidating to have Rahadin take the characters' weapons, or to have Rahadin say something like, "Normally I ask visitors to give up their weapons, but I'd hardly call those piddly things weapons..."

There's a scene in the book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in which Morgan Le Fay just casually kills a servant during a conversation with the main character. The point is clear: this is a woman who is powerful and doesn't value the lives of others. A powerful villain could do the same; every time the characters act like jerks, they just casually kill a servant or a little puppy or something.

Also, ignoring bad behavior sends a clear message. When an powerful Archfey literally doesn't seem to hear a smart-aleck character, and doesn't respond at all to their threats (even when they roll really high on their intimidation check), it shows that this NPC is powerful enough to ignore threats or disrespect from the characters.

2) It's not very fun to roleplay subservience.

One issue is that it's a lot of fun to stand up to authority in an environment where there is no consequence to your actual person. I don't mean consequences for the characters, I mean the players. It's not as fun to roleplay genuflection to powerful villains and NPCs.

Possible Solutions: Skipping past scenes of subservience might help. For example, rather than roleplaying Rahadin at the door, you could just say something like, "When you enter Castle Ravenloft, you are forced to give up your weapons at the door. Does anyone refuse? If so, you can try to conceal your weapons, or wait outside." If players try to roleplay their way out, you could do a quick roll ("Give me a persuasion check for that.") or just handwave it: "Rahadin doesn't seem interested in negotiations."

I know you don't want mechanical solutions, but that might actually be viable here. You could warn the players that not following the rules of the social situation results in Disadvantage on Social Skills... but following those rules can grant Advantage!

You could even make the NPC's attitude more transparent... if the actions of the characters make the NPC hostile, you could warn them that it will result in social skills being rolled at Disadvantage, or certain rewards not being available. On the other hand, if they can manage to make the NPC friendly, it will unlock more rewards! You could even give clues in the scene. "You get the sense that the Archfey was about to tell you about the treasure you seek, but held back after your remark. Perhaps if you played to their vanity, they would reconsider."

3) The players don't live in the campaign world.

In the real world, we know the consequences of mouthing off to a police officer, or our boss, or a world leader. We also know how to speak respectfully to an elder or an important member of the community. But if I were dropped into a D&D campaign world, I wouldn't really know the proper etiquette of talking to a king or a High Druid or an Archfey. So when I'm playing in a D&D game, I might default to resistance or rebelliousness when facing authority figures without the knowledge of how I'm supposed to treat them.

Possible Solutions: One idea is to be really transparent with the social codes in social encounters. For example, when the characters are presented to the King of the Realms, you can step aside and say, "Before we begin, I want to outline some of the social expectations in the King's Court. If your characters follow these expectations, you might be rewarded with treasures or social titles. If your characters don't follow the expectations, you'll lose favor with the king, though you might catch the attention of his rivals."

You can even involve the players in coming up with social etiquette. "You're about to speak with the High Druid of the Circle of the Moon. What do you think are some of the social expectations when speaking with the High Druid?" The players might come up with some really fun ideas, and feel more inspired to follow them.

Finally, you can prompt the players to follow social codes by giving them ideas on how to achieve their goals. If they say something really rude to the king, you might say something like, "In the King's Court, intimidation usually comes through references to the cowardice of nobility compared to brave adventurers. Sometimes this is done through a story or boast, or a display of martial might." Then the characters can still be their cool, powerful, rebellious selves, while still following the social codes of the court.


Anyways, those are just some ideas!
 

Stormonu

Legend
"I hope you enjoy those goat ears, so you can listen to yourself talk"

"It's hard to insult someone - when you don't have a mouth, isn't it?"

TBH, I don't generally fool around when a PC starts acting like a jerk to a powerful entity. Sometimes, the lesson is mild or the PC may get a one-time pass with a warning from the entity not to do it again. Subsequent flippance is dealt with according to the being's abilities and personality.

But I will try to get the point across - those in power are not to be trifled with, unless you can back up your mouth.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
2) It's not very fun to roleplay subservience.

One issue is that it's a lot of fun to stand up to authority in an environment where there is no consequence to your actual person. I don't mean consequences for the characters, I mean the players. It's not as fun to roleplay genuflection to powerful villains and NPCs.
To be clear, I'm not asking for active "genuflection." I just want to know how to keep my NPCs from being destroyed. Is that so unreasonable? (Sorry if I sound frustrated, but I kind of am.)
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I know you're not looking for mechanics here, but the social interaction rules in the DMG are a good guide for structuring this social interaction challenge in a way that can make it easier for you to improvise responses.

The NPC would have an ideal, bond, flaw, agenda, and starting attitude. As long as the PCs have something that they want from this NPC, then that's the ask that occurs after the PCs have had an opportunity to change her starting attitude to something more favorable. If her flaw is something like, "I never suffer fools who do not recognize my power" then this is something the PCs can discover by sussing out her personal characteristics (perhaps after a successful Wisdom (Insight) check) and using that to their advantage when dealing with her.

Their goal is to improve her attitude so that the ask is easier at the end of the challenge. If she starts as indifferent and goes to hostile because the PCs do not show the proper respect, then she's simply not willing to do as much as she would if she remained indifferent or was moved to be friendly. Plus the DCs when making the ask are much higher (if the ask is even something she's willing to entertain).

Finally, offering experience points for overcoming social interaction challenges can further make it so players take them more seriously in my experience. Success not only gets the NPC to do what they want, but also helps them level up their characters. That's a powerful incentive.
 

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