I meant to make a long rambly post some time ago about "Actual Play" posts and so forth. A clever person once said that all of the "in game action" posts in the world do not interest them, but what gets them going are details about how the game works around the table - what are the players saying or doing, how are they using or abusing the system, and how are they interacting with it, on a metagame scale.
My posts regarding the D&D games that I've running have attempted to kill two birds with one stone, getting both "in game" stuff, and "actual play" stuff, but I have always come down more on "in game" stuff, I think because it sticks in my mind more. I have more difficulty remembering the details of how everyone is interacting with each other and the system, probably because I'm so focused on running the game, and only have so much attention.
Anyway. In response to my last post about our most recent D&D game, Matthew asked "How did the players use the game system outside of combat?"
My first response is an observation, take it how you will: D&D (all of D&D, 4e is no exception) is 80% rules about killing orcs, and 20% other stuff.
Much of the players interaction with the game world outside of combat is not governed by hard and fast rules, the same way that combat is. This may be more specific to my own style of running it, than the way its written, I'm not sure about that. To take a very basic approach in building an answer to Matthew's question, let me outline it like this.
Just as with combat situations, I begin by outlining "what's happening and what's here." I try to aim for somewhere between "So you're at a city, what do you do?" and "The crumbling limestone walls of Wyvernsbrook, loom menacingly over you, the scars of many previous sieges and battles evident on their surface .... [30 minute exposition]". In a combat situation, the rules kick in right away. The players start moving the number of squares that they're allowed to move, and start hitting things, as outlined by the rules. Non combat encounters, whether investigative or dialogue based, I'm happy to free form as long as is possible.
I try really hard not to keep clues and information from the players, but I also make an attempt to have them do just a little work for it, instead of simply handing it all out, totally free. When they arrived in Illyes and began to poke around looking for information on the kidnappers and farm family, I inquired as to how they were going about it - who are they asking, where are they going to find out this information? John and Andrew, being the most vocal at the time about the search, both ended up making dice rolls. John, beat me to the punch, and went ahead and rolled diplomacy as we were discussing his investigation, while I asked Andrew to make a streetwise check. Certainly, I could have not even had them roll the dice, and handed over the information, but as I mentioned, I don't want to simply hand it out, I think that my players expect the kind of play in which they'll need to do a little dice rolling and talk to some people before getting what they're after. What if they got terrible rolls? Well it would influence the information that I gave them. At worst, I'd tell them that they'd come up empty, but that Shadowy Bob might have some information, if they can track him down... To get more game-philosophy-y, I think that's part of why the dice are there, in their randomness, to provide easier or more difficult routes to victory.
When the party made it to Drugen, they were again looking for information, and digging around. In situations like these, I tend to not role play every bar tender and street urchin as they're pumping them for information. I find that it eats up huge amount of time, can create lots of red herrings, but most importantly, I'm just not that strong of a role-player myself, and it seriously taxes my creativity and quick thinking. "Um, yeah, the urchins name is... Galanon...en.. Galanonen. He's short, and about yay high, and looks pretty dirty. He stares at you sullenly." I should also mention that its been pointed out to me by more than one person that my "default NPC personality" is that of "Surly Asshole", who is annoyed at you for wasting his or her time, and not very interested in helping you out. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.
In Drugen they did more investigation, and again, after we'd spend a few minutes discussing what kind of things we were trying to do and how we were trying to do them, I went to dice, letting the dice be a barometer of success/return.
Now - I feel compelled to mention that there are more mechanics for things outside of combat. There are skill challenges, and all manner of diplomacy/bluff/streetwise/etc. But I tend to play fast and loose with the rules, when the game and my players will let me get away with it. Bluff jogs my memory. Both Andrew and John did a little bit of lying to Athurn, John giving him a fake name, ("Did you just tell him that your name is Beverly?"), and Andrew posing as a drunk, trying to get into an advantageous position when he thought that they were about to do bloody combat, and then settling for swiping the guys money pouch when he realized that it was not the time for fighting. And so in both cases there was a dice roll to determine their level of success in their lying.
Some dialogue and encounters I'll actually play through. Two that come to mind are their meeting with Nusak (immediately named "Nut Sack" by the players, thank you, random name generator, and not having enunciated them once first before telling the players the name). He was the guy who was hiding in the barn. It was really more of a monologue, not that I didn't let anyone interrupt me, but he gave his story, they asked a couple of questions, bad guys came up into the trees, Andrew knocked Nut Sack out, presumably to keep him from running away, they fought the bad guys, then sent Nusak on his way to Illyes. I also played their meeting with Roric and Athurn in more detail, playing each one. I guess it comes down to importance, and likelihood of someone "doing something". For folks who are important, or who have something important to say, I try to role play them as best I can. Usually I'll quote their dialogue, but occasionally, especially if we're wandering off topic or if they've already given their Important Information, I'll start third-personing it, "Yeah, he says that he's never seen the guy, and doesn't know why those other guys were there." Also, if I think that the party is likely to spring to the attack or something of that sort, I'll speak the dialogue, it lets us do better for accounting for time, order, and so forth.
So... that's perhaps about 1,500 words more than Matthew was looking for, and I'm not 100% confident that I answered the question fully, but that's my stab at it. Also, I love me some exposition, sometimes.