In the last post, I laid out some of the existing problems with D&D’s rules for social encounters. Now, I want to propose some solutions. As a design philosophy, I’d like to keep a light touch, which means reusing and revamping existing rules as much as possible.
1. Add more skills / abilities to social encounters
It seems silly that one of the three pillars of the game is tied to a single ability score, Charisma. Once upon a time (in AD&D), Charisma was only for social encounters, but in 5e, it’s a useful combat stat for Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks, so I see no reason to keep it as the only social state. Besides, one of the easiest ways to make all characters relevant in social encounters is to make sure we use as many of the six ability scores as we can.
First off, using the rules that already exist, Wisdom is already tied to the Insight skill, which the DMG says can be used to perceive NPC’s traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. So, Wisdom is easy enough, as long as we make sure that these traits can always play a role in social encounters. (more on that later). Instead of being just a passive skill opposed to another character’s Charisma checks, you could justify an Insight check while making an appeal to someone’s emotions.
Intelligence seems like another ability that could be useful in a social encounter. If Insight can be used to observe an NPCs demeanor and verbal tics in order to guess at their traits, couldn’t Investigation, an Intelligence-based skill, do the same based on physical evidence? I’m imagining a Sherlock Holmes style reading of an NPC, where the detective can tell by the mud on someone’s shoes what their profession is or where they’ve just come from. A character could notice styles of clothes, dialects or jargons, all sorts of things that could let them perceive an NPC’s traits similar to a Wisdom (Insight) roll. An Intelligence (Persuasion) roll also seems relevant for crafting a logical argument (though purely rational arguments tend to be less persuasive than emotional appeals). This gives Wizards, Artificers, and most Rogues more actions in a social encounter.
The physical abilities are going to be a bit harder to work into social encounters. We have one precedent in the Player’s Handbook, an optional rule to use Strength rather than Charisma for Intimidation rolls. The problem with Intimidation, as opposed to Persuasion or Deception, is that Intimidation is going to necessarily cause long term problems when used in social encounters. There are some NPCs you don’t want to intimidate! To solve this, I’m thinking of actually reimagining the Intimidation skill a bit. A Strength (Intimidation) roll is all about looking tough in order to scare someone, right? What if we expanded Intimidation to include aweing an NPC without actually threatening them? Imagine, for instance, a nervous mayor who wants to evacuate the town, and the party fighter puts a firm hand on their shoulder and says, “don’t worry, we’ve got this.” In this case, the character is relying not on their words or delivery but the fact that they themselves are imposing. To keep this clear, I’m going to call the skill Intimidate/Awe in this post. It may be a stretch, but it gives Fighters, Barbarians, and Paladins who decided not to invest in Charisma something to do.
If a strong character can inspire confidence with their physique, couldn’t a nimble character do the same with their skill? Imagine the scene in a movie where the archer plants a perfect bullseye, or a knife thrower gets a blade right next to someone’s head. That being said, these types of uses are a bit harder to justify on a regular basis: a strong character can be intimidating or awe inspiring just by being a hulk, a Dextrous character would actually have to display their skill, and how many times can you shoot an arrow in half? Most Dextrous characters, like Rogues, Monks, and Rangers, should have at least one mental stat they can lean on, but I’d keep Dexterity (Intimidate) as a backup option.
Finally, Constitution. Well, Constitution is one of those abilities that everyone wants to avoid dumping, but no class uses it as their primary ability, so I think it’s safe to leave Constitution out of most social encounters. (The obvious exception being drinking contests).
1a. Give characters social archetypes
Though not strictly necessary for rules crunch, I think it is useful from a design perspective to think about how a party of characters can fit into different archetypes that use the abilities and skills we established above. For this, I’ve drawn on a mix 4th edition D&D’s roles, Richard Bartle’s player types in MUDs, and even Gallup’s StrengthsFinder domains for corporate teambuilding:
This is the traditional party face, who uses Charisma based skills Persuasion, Deception, and sometimes Intimidation to get NPCs to do what they want. They are sort of the Striker or DPS of social encounters, since they generally roll the Charisma checks that seal the deal in negotiations. The other archetypes mostly work to support the Influencer.
This archetype can also use Charisma (Persuasion), but they are better at building rapport with NPCs than directly influencing them. They also rely heavily on Wisdom (Insight) to understand how to best relate to others.
This archetype may not be as charming as the Influencer or Relater: they often view social encounters more like a puzzle to be solved. They may be quiet types who use Intelligence (Investigation) to figure out what will most influence an NPC, or they might use Intelligence (Persuasion) or Intelligence (Deception) to craft a logical argument.
These characters believe that actions speak louder than words. They might use Charisma or Intelligence (Persuasion), but they’re more likely to use a Strength (Intimidation) check to instill fear or awe of their power. They’re the tank of the social encounter, because while they may not be able to push negotiations forward, they can stop them from deteriorating entirely: whether it’s telling the mayor, “no, we can really handle this,” or giving the kobold chief a stern glance that says “do you think you can beat us in a fight?”, the Doer keeps things from going off track. I also kind of think of them as the “Gimli” of social encounters.
Though I’ve tried to connect the roles to the existing character classes based on attributes, one idea I’m also toying with is to completely divorce them and let players pick a social archetype that they’re most comfortable playing. For instance, in one game I had a player choose a Paladin, which would align most with the Influencer or Doer, maybe the Relater in a pinch. But the player’s personality (and the way they tended to roleplay) was much more in line with the Strategist, not talking much but picking out important clues that could influence the NPCs. Maybe each social archetype would automatically give a skill proficiency, similar to a background. What do you think? Please add your thoughts in the comments!
I have more in my list of rules proposals, but this post is already getting long, so I’m going to save the rest for Part III. Please SUBSCRIBE to the email list below or follow me on Twitter @TzarFenix