Overwhelming the player with flavor dialogue

I’ve got a problem I’ve struggled with ever since Scroll Thief, and now that I’m dabbling in choice-based works, I’m running headlong into it again.

Being able to learn about the world from NPCs is cool. But if a player is presented with a huge dialogue tree of options, they’re likely to feel overwhelmed, or struck with the feeling of “I need to lawnmower all of this”.

How do I work around this? I could restrict dialogue to only the important topics, but a lot of the fun of IF is the non-essential parts outside the “speedrun route”. I just don’t want to make players feel, psychologically, like they need to lawnmower it.

In this particular case, it’s a game about making alliances with NPCs, and I’d like each NPC to have something to say about each of the others. But I also don’t want to make the player feel obligated to read 7×6=42 “here’s how X feels about Y” passages in a row; I’m not a good enough writer to make that not feel like a repetitive slog.


I love Morrowind, and part of it’s dialogue is what constitutes the unwritten lore. What does Caius Cosades think of Vivec himself? I’m not sure, I never asked him. Maybe why I “never asked him” in-game is because, between the lines, I did ask and he didn’t have anything to say.

You can go visit Vivec—a literal god—in the city named for him. How magical, stupdendous, and surely stupefying to the believers, worshippers, of Vivec to be able to face their god and have an audience with him, all while still living; just one or two Cantons away! The Almsivi, the three-god power triangle known throughout Morrowind, may literally stupefy Caius Cosades more than the drugs he smokes. As an Imperial from The Imperial Province, and a Spymaster, he stays in his house all day in Balmora doling out quests to the player character and smoking a stimulant drug from his very not-well-hidden paraphernalia.

Maybe Caius doesn’t think much about it, considering he has never personally met (as far as the player is made to know) his gods that are worshiped in the Imperial Cult, those among the The Nine Divine. Maybe when you did ask what he thought, he was too high to answer; maybe all he said was, “I don’t want to talk about that” with a glaring eyebrow raised at his inquisitor at his home’s door whilst his lips were pursed around a literary and literal crack-pipe.

This response was peppered with some references to the Morrowind pages and lore pages from the UESP, a handy wiki. The peppering is like the dialogue hyperlinks in Morrowind dialogue. The choice leaves some option to skip dialogue. You know the important bits because they’re hyperlinks, but they’re also above and below the important text.

You’d not know that I was talking about perceptions of the Almsivi among outlanders, but you’d know it has something to do with gods and cults and immigration and spycraft. You might miss the point. I’m not sure I have one.

As the kids these days put it, perhaps I meant to say, “Say less?”


Or make the topics very obvious, but not state anything in a list at all. That way the players can miss a few and not care, but will get some, and the important ones are obvious (keep coming up, or stuff). It really works well that way.


Unfortunately, since this is a choice-based piece, there’s no simple way to avoid listing the topics. I think that would be my preference in general: parsers are great for hinting that there’s a lot of “off the beaten path” actions to try without implying you should try them all.

1 Like

Perhaps make it so that an NPC doesn’t know everything about everyone. Just have each know something worthwhile about a few of the available NPCs and only offer those choices.

— OR —

Another way would be to somehow limit how many questions you can ask, like maybe the NPCs are busy and don’t have time to sit and chat with you. You get to ask about any other NPC, but after the third or fourth question, they tell you politely they need to get back to work. Or maybe they get offended by your incessant questioning. Maybe merely asking about another NPC offends them enough to accuse you of trying to piss them off or that you somehow favour that other NPC. I’m sure there are other ways to limit the information you can gather in a plausible way, but essentially I’m suggesting making the act of asking questions have some consequences.

— OR —

You have the player able to ask a character about all other NPCs, but depending on how strongly they feel about certain NPCs, you might ask about one they like or hate and then they give you half answers about other ones and direct the conversation by asking you about that character you previously brought up or compare them to the previously talked about one. It would be a lot more work to branch it out, but essentially I’m talking about conversation branches that cancel out other responses and replaces them with influenced responses depending on which ones you asked about prior.

Like, you could ask about another NPC that they feel indifferent about and you get a typical response. Then ask about one they’re enamored with and they swoon about them, then ask about another character and they may compare that character to the one you just asked about. Ask about a character they despise and then the tone of other answers changes and maybe they even get short with you. It would be a lot of conditional statements, but depending on the weight you’re giving to the dialog about NPC’s opinions of others, it might pay off and feel very real and grounded.

1 Like

Sorting them by category? So they’re not immediately shown…

Or having to go into an object to do ASK ABOUT… that way you’d have to manually go to each object to ask about it, and therefore players try it less.

1 Like

I know I’m a Fallout nerd, I’m okay with it. That said, I think the original Fallout had a brilliant (if sadly underimplemented) approach for this very problem.

So, most discussions were dialogue trees, like these:

hqdefault (3)

Seems pretty standard, right? Now take a closer look:

hqdefault (3)

Every NPC in the game had a “Tell me about” button along with their standard dialogue tree. When you clicked on the button, you would get this:


This basically fuctioned no different than:

> Tell Ogre about Flowers

If what you tried matched up to a hidden word bank, much like a parser, you would get a scripted response.

This is from the wiki that reveals all the hidden dialogue from each NPC:

It wasn’t a widely used feature and ended up being cut, but there were some shortcomings. In the rushed development of the game, this feature was treated as an afterthought and responses found with this method rarely if ever helped advance the plot and seemed primarily for color. Nothing in the game prompts or suggests to the player to use the feature other than the mere existance of the button, so many players played through without ever using it. And that’s part of the point; it was such a separate system that one could do just that. Nothing ever brought up changed a game state or effected the NPC beyond their canned response. Nothing asked about persisted into the dialogue tree, perhaps becoming a new visible option and opening other related options with it. And finally, knowing the system needed more time and love to properly intergrate it into the game, and with an even shorter and more rushed development cycle for the sequel, the choice was made to scrap it rather than underdevelop it again.

The point I’m making is, with integrating the two options together, the dialogue tree and the ask me about, gives the best of both worlds. You have some immediate direction, personality, and leads with just the dialogue tree. But by unlocking new bits of dialogue tree (not just canned) responses, you incentivize players to engage with the NPCs they meet. Also, the word bank could be dynamic as well. You could ask them about, say, the grand ball, and they might have nothing to say to a street urchin, but somehow revealing you are a palace servant on an urgent task may change the response to that. Also, tying dialogue to changing game states is important too.

The original Fallout had the right idea, but was pulled out of the oven a bit early.


You could make some of those topics conditional: you can only ask about them when it makes sense to ask about them. Perhaps the conversation can only be done if the alliance meter is in a certain state (low, medium or high). Perhaps it’s only possible if the player did something else outside the conversation first. Perhaps it only becomes possible a certain way into the game, where the NPC has done something.

It might even be possible to assign each topic a salience score and only show the first X of them.

To avoid lawnmowering, also consider doing something that makes it obvious early on that some topics are there for flavour, or are otherwise not essential.


It helps that it suits the content of my game, but I’ve tried to eliminate lawnmowering from my WIP by not having any topics repeat. Conversations go forward, always, to new options. My rare exception would be with shopkeeper types, where there might be a main loop about what thing you want to buy. Otherwise, I don’t offer a main loop.

This doesn’t mean I can’t work info that was down a branch A somewhere into a branch B or C later. While we may ask someone about aspect N of a situation, we’re still talking about that whole situation, so other aspects of it will get spoken about naturally elsewhere in the conversation. And this can have the side-effect of addressing, or outright answering, earlier questions the player saw presented as options but didn’t ask. So I can track choices and what wasn’t chosen, and leak important info to multiple paths when needed.

Admittedly I’ve found it’s challenging to write and design this way, because you need to make each conversation path flow and be interesting, but also feel like it’s not suddenly imparting info for no reason. And choice moments have to keep coming quickly to avoid textdumps.

I don’t know if it will suit your NPC situation, but I think a more overlapping kind of programming of the variations could get you away from lawnmowering (inevitably, the less each option’s contents are mutually exclusive to all others, the more lawnmowering just can’t exist) and open up the idea of flavour elsewhere. As in, you don’t need to have options that are explicitly for extracting info and others that are explicitly for flavour. If different choices and orders of choices and combinations of choices produce different prose from the NPCs on the way through the conversation, that prose can be the site for flavour stuff as well.



for long dialogue, I found the best solution in the source of Brett’s abandoned work Convolution, that is, the wall of text is divided in “paragraph”, and reading the entire text is optional, and can even be continued later (thanks to TADS3’s eventList; in Inform 7 can be implemented as a lookup table, memorizing the lookup value) and the mechanism can be ported to chatty NPC like this:


(of course, this requre altering the listen action…)

HTH and
Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


Dividing large text sounds great.

I guess we are talking about this:


I like this idea the best. It’s realistic, and it makes the dialogue choices actually matter (instead of incentivizing the player to systematically work through everything).

However, you also should probably write less. Unless the NPC has something really interesting, insightful, or unique to say on a certain subject, don’t include it as an option. Cutting stuff will save you time writing and editing, and it will save your players time before they get to the good stuff in your game.

That’s my two cents!


yea; specifically I refer to the code in v1/books.t

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.