Parleying with Players

The other day, Wizards of the Coast revealed the upcoming ‘Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything,’ which promises to include rules for, among other things, “parleying with monsters.” It just so happens that the social pillar has been occupying a lot of space in my head recently, so while I’m excited to see what this official product will bring to the table, this seemed like a good opportunity to put together my own thoughts on how to add more social rules to the game.

Illustration of a prince speaking with a pike on the beach, in art nouveau style
Hello monster, would you like to parley?

The Social Pillar

A brief intro, for those who may not be big rules nerds like me: 5th edition D&D outlines three “pillars” of play in the core rulebooks: combat, exploration, and social. All of these pillars combine to make a great gameplay experience, but if you look through the official rulebooks, it’s clear that combat gets the most attention. Not only is the combat chapter in the Player’s Handbook longer than the single chapter for both social and exploration encounters, but every character class and every monster stat block has far more to say about combat than the other pillars. This is not surprising, since D&D was developed from miniature wargames, but I still feel that more attention on these other pillars can only benefit the game.

One more thing before I dive into rules discussion: I’ve seen comments on forums and social media to the effect of, “why do we need rules for this? We already do this in my game.” If you already have games with tons of roleplay, maybe whole sessions without a die roll while the players just talk in character, then that is great! However, in my own experience, the social pillar of the game is usually the hardest part for new players to grasp, and I have also found it hard to encourage it effectively as a DM. My intention in coming up with rules for social engagement is NOT to limit opportunities for imaginative roleplay. If your entire group already gets into roleplay with NPCs and with each other, then additional rules may well slow down your natural flow, and you can safely ignore them. However, if you are struggling to run social encounters as a DM, or if you find that not all players seem comfortable with freeform roleplay, then a rules framework can be something you and your group build on to have inventive social encounters!

The Problem

I work in development and design, so I’d like to take the same approach to D&D as I would on any professional project. Before creating anything new, my first step is to clearly define what problem or problems I am trying to solve for. “There aren’t any social pillar rules” is not in itself a problem: more rules are not necessarily better than less rules! So, what are some problems with the current social pillar rules that we can fix?

1. Social skills are only effective for a few classes / ability scores

Social encounters normally come down to a handful of abilities (Persuasion, Deception, and Intimidation) that are tied to a single ability score, Charisma. This means that only the Charisma based spellcasters (Bards, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and maybe Paladins) will regularly have much to do in a social encounter. In many parties, one of these characters serves as the party “Face” who does all the talking. In my experience, though, if only one player is involved, then only one player is entertained. The rest of the party can listen, at best, but will more often lose interest and start looking at their phone or mess with their character sheet while the Face is in the spotlight.

In some cases, a Wisdom (Insight) skill check may be called for, which gets the party’s Cleric or Druid involved long enough to call a bluff, but that still leaves Fighters, Wizards, and most Rogues with nothing to do at all. Compare this to combat, where every class has a role and every player gets a turn. All players should get to take a turn in a social encounter!

2. Social encounters are usually decided by few die rolls with binary success or failure

OK, so you had a great social encounter where the party plead their case to the Shadow Queen to free their loyal henchman, and now to determine how they did!

Oops, the Bard rolled a 1. Whelp, guess the quest is over unless they decide to fight instead.

Illustration of a queen standing confidently over several dead bodies with stab wounds, a king and soldiers look on in shock, in art nouveau style
Yes, well, we had to resort to diplomacy by other means.

Not only is a social encounter often limited to participation from one character, it is often reduced to a single die roll. Again, the combat mechanics are useful for comparison here: most combats will take place over several rounds, with most characters making one or more rolls each round. In combat, a critical hit can turn the tide and a miss can cause a setback, but if the encounter is properly balanced, then one single good or bad roll will not force the outcome. Unfortunately, this is how social encounters often play out.

The worst part, in my opinion, is that failure in a social encounter often just stops the action. If you failed to persuade the Shadow Queen, asking again and again is not going to be an effective method (or, if players can just reroll until they succeed, then there are no stakes in the encounter and rolling was just a waste of time). In combat, even a victory can come at great cost: characters may need to expend more hit points, spell slots, and consumables than they’d like, so there are degrees of success and failure. Sure, an experienced or well prepared DM can come up with partial victories in social encounters, but I’d like some rules to make it easier to arbitrate partial success on the fly.

The Scope

Now that we’ve identified the problems we want to fix, we can define the scope of what we want our new rules to accomplish:

We want to create rules for resolving social encounters that give all players and all character options a chance to make a meaningful contribution. Players should be able to have degrees of success and failure that do not stop the story outright. We want to make sure that the rules are flexible enough that they do not inhibit imaginative roleplaying, and that they can be applied to encounters on the fly as easily as possible.

The last part about making our rules easy to apply isn’t tied to a specific problem above, but it’s just good design practice. After all, one way to make better social encounters is to plan out a detailed negotiation in your session, but what happens when your players decide that they want to haggle with the Kobold tribe that you just rolled on a random encounter table? Also, by making a widely applicable ruleset, we can use it in all sorts of published modules without extra planning and rewrites on the DM’s part.

In the next post, I’ll look at some ideas to make more robust social encounters by modifying some existing rules and adding new ones. Please SUBSCRIBE to the email list below or follow me on Twitter @TzarFenix

Images by Ivan Bilibin

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