Ukraine: Folklore, History, and Language

As readers of this blog should be aware by now, talking about Eastern Europe is kinda my thing. I have always tried to focus on Eastern Europe beyond Russia (my avenue for this was mainly through Polish history), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made me think more critically about Russian cultural imperialism and its role in the perception of this region. So, I thought I’d revisit some of the ground I covered in my post on Slavs & Soviets and discuss how I’ve been thinking about Eastern Europe via three lenses.


Russia ostensibly began this war to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, although Russian speakers have been the majority who have suffered the atrocities in the country’s east; Putin and his proxies have also used language in some of their arguments denying Ukraine’s legitimacy. This is nothing new; Tsarist Russian officials claimed Ukrainian was simply the Russian language “corrupted” by Polish.

I’ve started studying Ukrainian informally on Duolingo. Having studied Polish both in a classroom and on the app, I was surprised just how many cognates there are between the two languages, but by measurements such as “lexical distance,” Ukrainian is actually closer to Polish than it is to Russian (though it is closest to Belarusian). This is not to say that Polish and Ukrainian are the same language any more than Ukrainian and Russian are… to use an example that may be more familiar, it’s similar to Romance languages, where Spanish and Portuguese are very similar languages, and both are also similar to Italian, but not as close as they are to each other.

I was previously unaware, but some scholars have dropped the division between East and West Slavic languages altogether and speak of a single North Slavic group encompassing Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, and others. There is a cultural division between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, and it is reflected in the use of different alphabets: Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes it visually very different from Polish or Czech, but if you focus on the sounds instead, comprehension is fairly easy, at least based on my knowledge of Polish. The South Slavic language have the same cultural split, but maybe they haven’t been similarly divided because a single language, known as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, is regularly used in both alphabets: Latin for Croatian and most uses of Bosnian, Cyrillic for Serbian. All the Slavic languages are on a sort of continuum, with varying levels of mutual intelligibility between them, again reminiscent of the Romance languages or the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. The influence of the Russian language specifically owes primarily to Russian imperialism in its many forms.

Fairy tale illustration of a man reading from a book pointing at a many headed creature in a cave.
“Zmey Gorynych? I don’t think so. It’s pronounced Zmey Horynych in Ukrainian!” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’


Russia is an imperialist power. It doesn’t seem like this should need to be spelled out, but there’s been denial of it on both sides of the political spectrum, so here we are. Russia was an imperial power under the Tsars, and it was also an imperialist power under the Soviets. There is a lot of complexity involved in the Soviet case, and I’ll dive into that, but we need to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was an imperial power in its near abroad, in Eastern Europe, and even within its own borders.

Marxism, of course, argues against imperialism. And the Soviet Union supported decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This has meant some lasting goodwill for Russia in those regions long after the Soviet Union’s fall. There were even some attempts to rectify Russian imperialism early in Soviet history: Lenin warned against “Great Russian chauvinism” and did set up semi-autonomous “republics” for some of the empire’s subject peoples like the Ukrainians and Belarusians. These moves might have been made in good faith, or they might have been cynical moves to try to keep the territory of the former empire under Soviet control. They might have been a bit of both. However, there was no tolerance for true self governance for non-Russians, even by other socialist movements.

The relative liberalism under Lenin would also not outlast him: Stalin used even bloodier repression to enforce compliance in the Soviet Union, and promoted a Great Russian identity despite the fact that he was an ethnic Georgian. Stalin was an admirer of Ivan the Terrible, and prided himself for expanding the Soviet empire farther than the Tsars ever had through satellite countries all the way to, and including, East Germany. Though Soviet leaders after Stalin never went to the same lengths of repression, neither did they reverse his measures of Russification.

Soviet culture is an interesting phenomenon, because it did, at times, promote a new kind of patriotism that was Soviet rather than Russian. This is most evident in the 1920s and their fascination with futurism. However, in the quest to prove the superiority of the Soviet system, there were state policies to dominate the world stage in traditional aspects of Russian culture like winter sports, ballet, and chess. Russian language, Russian culture, everything Russian would remain premier in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Fairy tale illustration of a couple fleeing a dragon on a horse.
“I feel like this is a metaphor for Russian imperialism…” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’


This brings me to my main area of interest on this blog, the folklore of Eastern Europe. We saw with language, that there are strong links between the various Slavic languages (and this applies to a lesser degree to non-Slavic languages in Eastern Europe like Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Romani; maybe a subject for another time). We also saw that Russian culture has historically been promoted above all others in the historic areas of Russian and Soviet domination. Although I was aware of these both, I still fell into the trap of uncritically dealing with Russian folktales as obviously exemplary of Slavic and Eastern European tales more broadly.

I’ve read Wratislaw’s collection of folktales from various Slavonic sources1Wratislaw, A.H. Sixty folk-tales from exclusively Slavonic sources. (London, 1889)., but most of the tales I’ve read have been from Afanasyev’s Russian collections. In an attempt to begin rectifying my own ignorance, I started with ‘Cossack Fairy Tales’ collected by R. Nisbet Bain2Bain, R. Nisbet and Noel L. Nisbet. Cossack fairy tales and folk tales. (London, 1916) So, what can we learn by looking at Ukrainian fairy tales specifically?

First, we should note that there are many similarities between Ukrainian and Russian tales. There are, of course, the similarities that can be found between tales of all cultures. Furthermore, there are trappings similar in both kinds of tales: scheming witches (somewhat less common than in Russian tales), tyrannical many headed dragons (perhaps a bit more common that in the Russian), boyars, tsars, saints, and vampires. There are even some of the same specific phrases, like the narrator’s “the mead dripped down my beard, but it never touched my lips.” There is an occasional use of the “thrice nine kingdoms” to describe a great distance, but even more common is one uniquely Ukrainian, that of the “endless steppe.” One of my particular favorites from the collection, ‘The Vampire and St. Michael,’ uses the ATU type 307 ‘Princess in the Coffin’ plot not unlike an episode in the novel ‘Viy’ by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol or in the Witcher story of the strzyga in ‘The Last Wish’ and in the S1E3 episode “Betrayer Moon.”

What stood out most to me in these tales was the role of the trickster. Now, tricksters are a common feature in many folktales, and they feature in Russian tales as well. When comparing folktales, there are not usually hard and fast rules where something appears in one groups’ tales but not another. Rather, it is usually a matter of emphasis. For instance, in ‘The Golden Slipper’, a Cinderella type tale (ATU 510A), there is the usual plot of a poor girl who gets a magic dress and catches the eye of a prince. In this one, though, is a minor character I hadn’t seen in this tale before, the prince’s court fool, who devises the method for finding the girl by making her slipper stick to the floor. In the familiar western version, the shoe is lost accidentally, and then serendipitously used to find the girl. Here, someone has to come up with a plot to achieve the same result.

Compare this to Russian tales, where an aura of fatalism often pervades. Again, yes, there is a certain amount of this in every region’s fairy tales, folk are given strange commands and prohibitions which they follow blindly (or forget at their peril). When a son is betrothed by accident to the Frog Tsarevna, he is of course distressed that his wife may not be able to bake bread and sew clothes, but he and his family still don’t really question that the scenario needs to play out like this. And to each lament of the son to the impossible tasks set before his wife, the frog just says, “the morning is wiser than the evening,” a wonderfully poetic version of “all will work out.” In her stories, when Baba Yaga asks if you came of your own free will or were compelled, the correct answer is always a bit of both, ie no choices are completely free. This dichotomy, active trickster vs fatalism, remind me a bit of the difference between French and German tales identified by Robert Darnton: “although each story adheres to the same structure, the versions in the different traditions produce entirely different effects… horrific in the German, dramatic in the French…”3Darnton also identifies the effect as “comic in the Italian versions” and “droll in the English,” but he mostly focuses on the French and German corpus. Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. (Basic Books: New York, 1984). p. 46

It’s hard not to read into this difference some argument about “national character,” it wouldn’t be wrong to note that Russia has a long history of autocracy while Ukraine has a long history of defiance to the tsars and other would-be rulers. The tales we tell ourselves can be important! But they are not destiny.

As a parting note, I want to share one more tale from the collection, this one a unique story of a trickster who prospers: ‘The Ungrateful Children and the Old Father Who Went to School Again.’ If you enjoy it, you can find the other stories from the collection on the same site or available in other formats from Project Gutenburg. Have a favorite tale? Please share in the comments!


Social Sciences at Strixhaven

This is expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote a while back. See the original (link)

Even though I don’t play much Magic: the Gathering, I was excited by the release of their Strixhaven setting and its a D&D crossover book. Between graduate school and my work in instructional design, I’ve never strayed far from academics in my life. Even my favorite TV show was set in a community college! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie So, an official educational setting for my ttrpg hobby was a natural fit. I immediately knew I would set my next big project there.

Wizard students amid a pile of books, from the cover of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos
Time to get academic in this roleplaying game. ‘Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos’

The idea for a pub crawl came up early in my brainstorming. Once I’d settled on that, it was obvious I would need at least five pubs to correspond to the five Strixhaven colleges, which are tied to the subjects of classes you’d take in the real world. Between working in education, being a parent, and playing a lot of ttrpgs, I spend a lot of time thinking about the educational value of roleplaying games. Somewhere along the line I thought, why not look at how rpgs interact with each subject area, and use that as the basis for the pubs and their puzzles?

RPGs’ relation to some subjects is fairly obvious: for instance, handling all of the stat bonuses, adding dice rolls, and judging probability on the fly is good practice for math skills. RPGs also seem to be beneficial for developing language skills based on the number of nerds who got their first introduction to words like alacrity, expeditious, and simulacrum, Baudrillard notwithstanding.

History and the social sciences are a bit less straightforward, but this is the area closest to my heart, since I majored in history. D&D developed from historical wargames, and it’s true that there is a learning there, like the difference between a glaive and a halberd. The quasi-medieval flavor of the game can definitely foster an interest in the past, but a lot of the facts you could pick up from the game are superficial at best and inaccurate at worst (look up banded mail for a benign example). To better understand how RPGs might relate to social science education, I want to discuss the question: what *is* the purpose of studying history and the social sciences? This has no easy answer, and there is no single consensus by scholars, but I’ve developed my own ideas that I think are often reflected by a good number of them.

A wizard historian surrounded by floating books with an unhinged look on his face.
Please, sit back while I expound my many theories! ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ art by Svetlin Velinov via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

The adage that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” implies that history is useful for its predictive power, but I know of few historians who would actually make this argument. Knowledge of the past certainly gives us insight into why things are happening today, and it can give us good ideas on some possible futures, but it is a fallacy to think that a historian is therefore better equipped to predict the future than anyone else. We can’t be like Maxwell’s demon, able to tell the state of future objects because we know their trajectories in the past. Too much of history is contingent on factors beyond what we could model. The most compelling argument we can make about the analytical value of history is that it can help foster critical thinking, a valuable tool for navigating the present, but still limited in knowing the future.

At its best, I think that history, and the social sciences writ large, give us an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. Just, seeing that people think differently in different times, different places, and different contexts, and that’s okay! This can help us learn how to interact with people who are not like us; incredibly important in an ever more global society. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Robert Darnton, that “nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today – allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” 

I think there is a benefit to studying the past for its own sake, just because it is interesting, but if I were to justify the place of history and social sciences as a curriculum requirement, I would defer to the appreciation of otherness. In an RPG, we can go further than observing or even immersing in otherness, we can embody it! Now, there is a danger here in thinking that because we read about otherness we understand what it is like to be other, but keeping this in mind I believe the benefits to empathy outweigh the risks.

Lorehold campus, an ancient ruin emerging from a desert canyon.
History is worth studying for its own sake, if only for all the cool ancient ruins. ‘Lorehold Campus’ by Titus Lunter, via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

As I mentioned on Twitter, the ultimate design accommodates both the wargaming-style traditional military history as well as a more empathic approach based on cultural understanding. I hope it is a good summation of ways we can approach history and social studies through the lens of roleplaying. In future posts, I’ll visit the other subject areas of Strixhaven and how they fit into the design: mathematics, language, science, and art.

Did RPGs spur interest in any particular region or time period for you? If you’re a social studies educator, how would you use (or how have you used) roleplay in the curriculum? Leave a comment below and please subscribe for more updates on Revue 


Slavs & Soviets

When writing about folklore and mythology, I’ll sometimes switch between talking about Eastern European, Slavic, and Russian tales. These are related, but not synonymous. I’d already been thinking about writing a post to clarify these terms; then, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin gave a ranting speech in which he justified his invasion of Ukraine with ahistorical claims about the history of Ukrainian nation and people, so I think the topic is more timely than ever. Please bear in mind that the following is a vast simplification of a millennium of history, but feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

Where is Eastern Europe?

Eastern Europe as a category is a surprisingly modern phenomenon. It is usually used to describe the countries that had communist governments (either home grown or installed by the Soviet Union) after World War II. So, although they are in the east of Europe, Greece and Finland are usually not considered part of Eastern Europe because they were allied with the US (for Greece) or neutral (for Finland). Some areas of Eastern Europe, like modern Poland and Hungary, would have previously been lumped together with Germany and Austria as Central Europe. This term is gaining more popularity since the fall of the Soviet Union as a way for them to assert their historic connections to Western Europe.

Who are the Slavs?

The Slavs are an ethnic and linguistic group. All of the Slavic countries are in Eastern Europe, but not all countries in Eastern Europe are Slavic: Romania speaks a Romance language (ie, grouped with French and Spanish), Hungarian and Estonian are closer to Finnish, and Albanian is in its own language family. The Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian) are somewhat closer to the Slavic languages but in their own category.

Map of Europe. East and West Slavic countries are shaded blue, South Slavic countries are shaded brown.
The majority Slavic countries in Europe

The Slavic languages are further subdivided into Western, Eastern, and Southern. So while there are many similarities between Polish (a West Slavic language) and Russian (an East Slavic language), there are even more similarities between Russian and Ukrainian (both East Slavic languages). Just like Danish and Norwegian, two Germanic languages, are much closer to each other than they are to German or English, also Germanic languages.

Unlike the Greeks or Norse, the Slavs did not write down their language before they were converted to Christianity, so much of what we know about their pagan beliefs is based on second hand information and guess work. Of what we know, there were similarities among all the Slavic groups, like the thunder god Perun. Their folk tales, too, are often very similar, with shared characters like Baba Yaga, Leshy, and Domovoi. There are also crossovers with non-Slavic groups: for instance, the vampire myth can be found in the Romanian strigoi, the Polish strzyga, the Albanian dhampir, and the East Slavic upyr, to name a few.

The Kievan Rus

So, we can find the history of many groups speaking Slavic languages in the eastern part of Europe as far back as the early Middle Ages, but for much of the history since, they were not organized into separate countries. One of the major exceptions was the Kievan Rus. With its capital in Kyiv (the capital of modern Ukraine), this country ruled an area spanning modern Ukraine, Belarus, and the west of modern Russia. It was founded by Vikings, but the majority of the people were Eastern Slavs. It traded with the Byzantine Empire and converted to the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantines.

The reconstructed Golden Gate in Kyiv.

The Kievan Rus splintered and was conquered by the Mongols around 1240. Some 240 years later, when Mongol power was waning, the ruler of Moscow, Ivan the Great, was able to declare his independence from the Golden Horde. His grandson, Ivan the Terrible, would eventually declare himself Tsar of Russia. Thus, the Russian state tied itself to the historic Orthodox kingdom of the Kievan Rus.

Meanwhile, Kyiv came under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish was the language of the nobility, but the Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians maintained their unique identities. As the Russian Empire grew in power, conquering Siberia and reaching the Pacific, the Polish state entered a period of decline. In the 1700s, it was partitioned by its stronger neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation

In 1917, the Russian Tsar was overthrown, and most of what had been the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union. However, along the empire’s western border, non-Russian ethnic groups asserted their independence: Finland, the Baltics, Byelosussia, and Ukraine. In the wars that followed, Byelorussia and Ukraine were reabsorbed by the Soviet Union and a resurgent independent Poland, but Finland and the Baltics kept their independence. The Baltics were conquered again by the Soviets during World War II, along with the rest of modern Belarus and Ukraine.

As an empire that spanned across Eurasia, Russia had never been ethnically homogenous. The Soviets reorganized the old empire into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or SSRs. The SSRs were somewhat independent (the Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs had their own seats at the United Nations), but still subject to the central government in Moscow. The largest constituent republic was the Russian one, but even it contained multiple Autonomous SSRs for ethnic groups like Tatars, Chechens, Mordvins, and Udmurts. Still, Russians were the largest ethnic group, both in the RSFSR and the USSR as a whole. So, “Russian” and “Soviet” were considered synonymous in the West during the Cold War, but this disguises the fact that there were always non-Russians in both the old empire and the USSR. With the dissolution of the USSR, the SSRs became independent countries. The ASSRs remained within Russia, though Chechnya fought a bloody war trying to gain independence.

I hope this puts some of the current events in context. For my part, I love to study the culture and folklore of this region, and I desperately hope the people of Ukraine can soon live peacefully despite the whims of an autocrat.

Edit: earlier version of this post used “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine.” Sometimes I get caught in historicisms but I want to be more accurate to the moment. I’m still using “Byelorussia” to refer to the historic country and region, but “Belarusian” to refer to the ethnic group.


Russian Doppelgangers

It’s Tuesday, 2/22/2022. Happy Twosday! For the occasion, I’d like to write about a doppelganger, of a sort…

Having been born in the waning days of the Cold War, I’ve been primed to always see Russia as a strange doppelganger to the USA. There were of course the lofty conflicts like east vs west, capitalism vs communism, and authoritarian vs democracy. But it was also at the level of pop culture, with everything from “backwards” letters like Я and И to the Russian reversal joke construction, “In the Soviet Union, TV watches you!” Marvel comics even had the Winter Guard, a team of bizzaro Avengers aligned with the Soviet bloc.

I have a similar experience reading Russian folktales. These stories follow familiar plots and feature similar motifs as the Western tales popularized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney. They are so close, in fact, that when there are disparate elements, they stick out all the more. If the same ideas appear in folklore from across the world, then Russian tales are in a sort of uncanny valley relative to Western Europe.

Marya Morevna standing before her armed host.
Marya Morevna as a commanding figure of authority.

Take, for instance, the tale of Marya Morevna. Near the beginning, in a scene reminiscent of the story “Bluebeard”, Marya warns her new husband, Prince Ivan, not to look in a certain closet while she is away. In Bluebeard, it is the wife who looks into a room or closet against her husband’s warning to discover the titular Bluebeard’s macabre habit of murdering all of his previous wives; the rest of the tale involves the wife outsmarting and escaping her deadly paramore. In Marya Morevna, Ivan finds a man chained in the closet, but it turns out that this man is actually an immortal villain Koschey the Deathless. Ivan’s kindness allows the now freed bony man to kidnap Marya, and the rest of the tale is about Ivan’s rescue of her.

Another famous Russian tale is that of the Frog Tsarevna (or frog princess). Frog princesses do appear in Western tales, even in a Disney movie, but the more well known version involves a frog prince. In these stories, the frog is betrothed to a girl and only gets transformed back to its princely form through a conveyance such as a kiss, being invited into the girl’s bed, or, my personal favorite, being thrown against a wall. The frog tsarevna needs to work quite a bit harder for her transformation, proving her ability to sew, cook, and perform other traditional domestic duties better than her sisters-in-law. In some versions, her husband discovers and tries to hide her frog skin, which only causes further problems and the need for a rescue from, who else, Baba Yaga (link).

Prince Ivan presents a cake to his aged father.
No one bakes better cakes than the frog tsarevna.

Finally, we could look at the Tale of Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf. Wolves almost always take the role of villains in Western tales. The most famous examples would be the ‘big bad wolf’ from Little Red Ridinghood and the Three Little Pigs, but they also to turn up in about every other Disney movie from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. The grey wolf of the Russian tale, on the other hand, is a supernatural helper; he helps Ivan to rescue a princess, to capture the firebird, and he even, at one point, brings Ivan back to life. This is another tale that has lesser known Western analogues, though in these the helper is almost always a cunning fox, a creature that has enjoyed a more positive (though not unambiguous) depiction.

Illustration of a wolf's silhouette

I love how Russian tales offer an opportunity to view these familiar folktales in a new light. Given the recent wave of popularity of Eastern European motifs in shows like the Witcher and Shadow & Bone, I like picking apart what contributes to this setting. I’ve chosen these tales for comparison because they’re among the most popular in Russia and the West, respectively. But we can dig even deeper to find comparable tales.

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index (or ATU) is an exhaustive list of folktale plots from around the world. Each plot type is numbered: so, for instance, the main plot of Marya Morevna is categorized as type 302, “Ogre’s Heart in the Egg.” Any tale from around the world in which a villain hides their heart or soul outside of their body (and there are many!) would receive the same classification. So what would we learn if we compared tales with the same classification? For instance, Cinderella vs Russia’s Vasilisa the Beautiful, both ATU 530? Sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but this is something I’d like to develop in future posts. Please subscribe below to stay tuned!


Baba Yaga

In its second season, Netflix’s The Witcher has a new villain, the mysterious Voleth Meir. Unlike the creatures and characters in season one, and throughout the rest of this season, Voleth Meir was not featured in the original Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, nor did she appear in any of the Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red. However, the ‘Deathless Mother’ does have an origin in Slavic folklore: Baba Yaga, the mother of witches.

Art Nouveau illustration of a witch flying in a forest.
Baba Yaga riding in a mortar and pestle, how she does. Illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

The following contains minor spoilers for season 2 of the Witcher.

If the Netflix show is your first introduction to the Witcher franchise, you may not be aware of the story’s Polish pedigree. When you get past the elves, dwarves, and dragons, which have been standard fantasy fare since Tolkein, nearly all of the monsters that Geralt hunts have their origins in the myths and legends of eastern Europe. Some of these, like the striga, are not far from their folklore equivalents: the striga is a type of vampire, closer to what we might call a ghoul, but its bestial nature is more faithful to the actual legends than the suave image of vampires from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and beyond. Others, like the kikimora, are a bit further from the source: a multi-legged monstrosity in the show and games, this creature is generally a birdlike humanoid in the old stories. Even the term ‘Witcher’ is based on a type of folkloric spellcaster called a ‘vedmak’ in Russian or ‘wiedźmak’ in Polish.

Baba Yaga is primarily associated with Russian folktales, but she does sometimes appear in Polish folktales, including under the monikers Jezibaba or Baba Jęzda. Baba Yaga’s most famous attribute is her house, a hut that stands on chicken legs, which makes a prominent appearance in the Netflix show. In a more subtle allusion to traditional tales, the visions that Francesca, Yennefer, and Fringilla have of figures cloaked in white, red, and black are much like the three riders who serve Baba Yaga and who themselves represent morning, day, and night. Even the way Voleth Meir, despite her obvious villainy, offers aid to these three women owes something to folklore.

Baba Yaga in Folklore

Baba Yaga appears in many fairy tales, but the most famous is probably that of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa, sort of a Russian Cinderella, is sent by her stepmother into the woods to perish, but she instead finds the hut of Baba Yaga. Guided by a doll from her dead mother, Vasilisa is able to complete several impossible tasks for the crone, and thus avoid getting eaten. Rather, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a skull with burning eyes to light the girl’s way home, where she finds that no fire will light in the house. She offers the fire from the skull, but this consumes the wicked stepmother and her stepsisters, and Vasilisa quickly leaves the scene and eventually ends up marrying a prince.

Art nouveau illustration of a peasant girl holding a skull on a stick. The skull's eyes are glowing and in the background is a hut on chicken legs.
Vasilisa on her way home, with Baba Yaga’s hut in the background.

This is typical of Baba Yaga, she is both the monstrous, devouring ogre and the helpful donor. In some tales she is more one than the other, but in sum this is her character. There’s no character quite like her in other European folk tales, and she has a real staying power in Russian culture. Perhaps her uniqueness is also responsible for her appearances in Western media.

Baba Yaga in RPGs

Baba Yaga has a long history in roleplaying games, dating back to one of the earliest D&D supplements, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. Well, only her hut would appear in that book as an artifact, but it then became the location for an adventure in Dragon Magazine, then a standalone AD&D module, in which the mother of witches herself would appear. Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut was reworked in Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition, and was also the centerpiece of Pathfinder’s ‘Reign of Winter’ adventure path. Baba Yaga is a major player in Kobold Press’ Midgard campaign setting, and even an elder vampire in Whitewolf’s ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ In the D&D adventures, Baba Yaga had an adopted daughter, Natasha, who was eventually identified as the same Tasha who created the Hideous Laughter spell and eventually a Cauldron of Everything in 5th edition.

Image of adventurers in front of a dancing hut, a leering witch in the background. Title reads 'The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga'
The AD&D adventure, my first actual encounter with Baba Yaga.

Though not explicitly so, my latest 5e adventure, The Pub that Crawls, is an obvious homage to Baba Yaga’s hut, so I tried to lean into its associations throughout D&D’s history. In its various incarnations, the dancing hut was a place of weird whimsy, including a room with a decommissioned Soviet tank and one with a giant lizard monster in alternate reality Tokyo, to name a couple of the most memorable. It was a place where the sprawling multiverse of the D&D settings coalesced and branched out, and the Pub that Crawls does a bit of the same thing.

What’s next for Baba Yaga? Will she ever get an official stat block in 5th edition? Will she, er, will Voleth Meir come back for another season? Whatever happens, expect to see echoes of this character in the future, and watch out for huts on chicken legs.


Of Origami and Kings

This isn’t a review, exactly, so much as a story about my experience with the game. Though not my first Mario RPG, The Origami King was my first foray into the Paper Mario series. I received it as a gift, and while I was excited to play it, I had no real expectations for what it would be. I had no idea that its poignant story would become a bonding experience, but it did: it’s the first game I finished with one of my sons.

We’d played video games together before, including Mario Kart 8 and Animal Crossing, but none of them hooked him like this one. My oldest is 4, my younger son was born just a few months ago. I’d usually be the one up with my oldest when he woke up, and very often we’d end up playing Paper Mario after breakfast. We’d take turns with the controls, he’d do much of the exploring while I’d do most of the battles, whose puzzle mechanics are still a bit much for him. He still enjoyed choosing which power to use and, since it’s a Mario RPG, doing some of the button pushes to make Mario’s attacks hit harder.

If it were just a matter of mechanics, I think it would have eventually lost his interest like those other games, but the Origami King really has a wonderful story. On the one hand, it is a very simple story, easy for a young kid to grasp: there is a clear villain, the titular king, and it’s not too scary since the characters are made of paper and are just getting folded up. On the other hand, the story is deeply resonant one of friendship and loss. I want to talk about it in three moments, spoilers ahead:

The first comes midway through the game, when one of Mario’s companion characters, a Bob-Omb nicknamed “Bobby,” sacrifices himself (the way Bob-Ombs do) to save another character, Olivia. The game actually slows down here for a beat as Olivia grieves the loss of Bobby in game. She leaves the party and refuses to go forward. It takes some encouragement from Mario (potentially guided by Bobby’s lingering spirit) before she can pull herself together to continue her quest with Mario as Bobby had wanted. I’m not sure my son entirely understood what happened, and I tried to spare him some of the detail, but he went through a similar process as Olivia: first he expressed sadness that Bobby could not travel with us anymore, but then found comfort knowing that no matter what, Bobby was still our friend.

The second moment was at the end of the game, where Olivia, the origami fairy princess, in order to restore the Mushroom Kingdom, uses a wish to undo all of the origami, which includes herself. While Bobby’s sacrifice was sort of telegraphed (I mean, he was a Bob-Omb…), this last one caught me off guard, and my son too. He actually sniffled some tears as Olivia floated away. Seeing that made tears well up in me too. I tried to comfort him by making sure he knew that we could always to go back and play the game with Olivia at our side, but I also let him know that it was okay to be sad.

The last moment occurs after replaying parts of the game. Revisiting the levels where Bobby had adventured with us, there were several points at the rest locations where Olivia would reminisce about the time we’d spent with Bobby. Unfortunately, this happened when I played by myself, doing some of the backtracking to go for a 100% ending that I loved and my son found tedious, meaning he missed these dialogues by Olivia. But as we’ve continued to run around the open world following our whims, he did eventually want to go back to some of these spots, and he brought up to me his own reminiscences of our friend Bobby.

I’m sharing this story for two reasons. First, as a game designer, it reminded me how powerful the medium can be. I’ve had similar reactions from other media, but most of all from games. Games are both a larger time commitment than most other media and require more active engagement. It takes time and effort to reach the end of a game, and that alone makes the experience more emotional and bittersweet. Even though you’ve won, you’re saying goodbye to this world that you have given so much of your time to. Some other media have long time commitments, for instance long running television shows, but games’ immersive quality also adds something to the equation. Olivia and Bobby weren’t just Mario’s friends, they were our friends. And their sacrifices really punctuate the fact that, just as their time with Mario has come to an end in game, their time with us has come to an end just because the game is done. We can go back and replay levels with them, but it is still an emotional moment to reach the end our journey.

Second, as a father, it made me think about games as a bonding experience. Ever since I had kids, I’ve looked forward to trying new types of games with them as they grow simply to share my love of gaming with them. But they do more than that, because it’s not just letting them try something I like, it’s a shared experience for us. It’s a chance for me to watch how they are developing their skills, their emotions, their whole personalities, really. And it’s a chance for us to feel the same joy, the same excitement, even the same sadness in a safe environment.

I love how games can facilitate the connections between people, and I’d like to make this more intentional in my design, as well. I’ve usually thought more about what sort of story I want to tell, but it is also useful to think, what kind of stories do I want to empower the players to tell? Players will tell their own stories regardless, but I think making this a part of the design process can make the resulting game richer.

I really enjoyed the journey of playing this game with my son, of having this shared experience. That bittersweet feeling of ending the game encapsulates a lot of parenthood, of the joy of watching your children develop alongside the sadness that they are growing more and more independent of you, a theme that has been heavy on my mind as he gets ready to start preschool. Thanks to the lovingly crafted story, which hit all the right notes of humor, tension, and sadness, this is a game that is going to stick with me for a long time.

One final note: maybe because I don’t want to let go of this experience yet, I found patterns to fold some of the characters in the game (pictured in the preview). Along with a flat printed paper Mario, it means we can still tell stories about these characters together: And though I’m usually not so driven for 109% completion of a game, I did it this time just so my older son could see a final extra cutscene in the ending: a little origami Olivia, and a reformed King Olly, happily sitting on their paper thrones.


RPGs with Kids: The Knight Story

As a dad who enjoys playing ttrpgs, I’ve always hoped to one day play rpg games with my kids, but never quite knew where to start, especially since many published games have suggested ages of 4 or 5. However, I thought there could be ways to start to introduce the concepts before sitting down to a formal game.

So, a couple of months before my older son’s 4th birthday, I started telling him a story. And I started asking him what the characters should do, and what comes next. After a few minutes of the story, when I’d normally end the story as it was time for bed, I instead told him that we’d have to find out what happened the next time. After a few nights of this, my son wasn’t just asking for a story at bedtime, he started asking, “Could we tell part of the knight story?”

Eventually, I also had the idea to draw pictures of some of the characters. I folded up a piece of paper into eight rectangles, and I started drawing. First of course was brave Sir Knight, aka “Sir Knight was on his Pite,” the hero of our story. Then I drew more characters, including some characters we hadn’t met yet. I didn’t fill up all of the rectangles at first, but drew more over the next day or two as I thought of more to add, and my son added a character we hadn’t met yet as well, and elephant named Blowey. The unmet characters added some extra excitement, especially as we got closer to meeting the whole roster.

Crayon drawings of fantasy characters
Clockwise from top left: Sir Knight (was on his Pite), the Wizard of Odd (and his cat), Blowey the Elephant, Zeti the goblin, Ladders the dragon, Princess Elma, Mr. Nettlebottom, Sir Bams-a-lot

The “Knight Story” eventually reached a satisfactory conclusion as Sir Knight completed his quest, though of course left open for Sir Knight and his friends to have more adventures. And indeed, after a few “one shot” stories, Mr. Nettlebottom started his own adventure, and my son eagerly asks to continue the “Knight Story, I mean, Elf Story.”

Since I began the “Knight Story,” I’ve discovered the StoryGuider ttrpg, which takes some of the stuff I’d been doing and adds some more structure. Before our next story (my son has requested Princess Elma get her own story next) I want to try to ask some of these questions ahead of time. I love how we’ve been telling the story so far, but I want to make sure I remember to give my son plenty of inflection points to make decisions so I don’t end up hogging the story telling! You can find some StoryGuider products here:

I wanted to chronicle the rough course of the Knight Story, mainly so I can remember some of the finer points, because my son has a much better memory for it than me. As an example, I once mentioned that Mr. Nettlebottom was good with animals, and days later my son suggested that he solve a task by working with animals, because he’s good with them, just like I said! So, without further ado…

The Knight Story

The quest started when Sir Knight met a wizard who wore grey robes with a gold sun on them, and she told him where he could find a treasure. He took the treasure back to his castle but went to look for the wizard again, and she was gone. He wanted the wise wizard to tell him where he could find some friends. He did meet an elf named Mr. Nettlebottom, who thought that the best place to look for a wizard would be the nearby mountain.

At the base of the mountain, they saw a red dragon flying around the summit. They climbed up the mountain to look for the wizard, even though they were scared of the dragon. There was no wizard, but the dragon was friendly,her name was Ladders, because she always carried two ladders. Mr. Nettlebottom thought to try the swamp next, and Ladders flew them there.

In the swamp, the met Zeti, the goblin with the triangle face, who brought them to his hovel and made a meal with something for everyone to eat: sandwiches (I think?) for Sir Night and Mr. Nettlebottom, swamp grass for Ladders, and an old boot for Zeti. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom briefly became lost in the swamp, but found their way back to the hovel, and found a talking frog, who was actually Princess Elma. A kiss turned her back. She had been transformed by the Wizard of Odd (not the wizard with the grey robe), but the Wizard of Odd was sorry, it had only been an accident.

They found a mine, and en elephant named Blowey who was able to climb walls. She helped them down by climbing straight along the mine shaft. In an ornately decorated room, they met Sir Bams-a-lot. He’d seen the wizard go through a door, but couldn’t find the door again because it blended in with the walls.However, they found a doorknob with a triangle-shaped lock on it. They fought a series of dragons in the mines, recovering keys of varied shapes, but finally discovered that the triangle key was held by the biggest, meanest, orange dragon who had triangle claws and triangle teeth and triangle horns. The dragon loved triangle things, so he grabbed Zeti (who had a triangle face) and flew off.

They followed the orange dragon to his lair in the desert but were stopped by a gate they couldn’t get past. They went back to the Wizard of Odd’s house, and Mr. Nettlebottom found Odd’s cat in the basement under an invisible couch. They returned, and the cat was able to slip under the gate to pull a lever, opening the way. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom padded Sir Knight’s armor so they could enter the dragon’s lair stealthily, then the two snuck up on the dragon and tickled him while the other companions grabbed Zeti and the triengle key.

They returned to the mine, unlocked the door, and after going through a long tunnel, they found themselves in a valley open to the sun. There they found the wizard in the grey robe, whose name was Magic. Sir Knight asked where he could find some friends, and she pointed out that he’d just made seven of them! (yes, yes, the real treasure was the friends he made along the way… fyi, the quest to find friends was my son’s idea) She cast a spell to return them all to Sir Knight’s castle, where his new friends were able to hang out in all the extra rooms whenever they wanted. Magic the wizard walked off, but she told Sir Knight she would see him again some day.


Parleying with Players, Part III

As a recap, in part one, I identified two big problems I have with social encounters in D&D 5e, and set the scope for what I wanted to accomplish. In part two, I outlined new skill uses and social archetypes to address my first problem, that not all characters can be equally effective in social encounters. In this part, I’d like to outline how social encounters could be played out in a way that avoids my other problem: having binary success or failure that rides on a single die roll. So how do we do that?

2. Formalize social encounter actions

This one is tricky, because while I want to gamify social encounters similar to combat, I don’t want those encounters to become just a series of actions like “I attack!” So, I actually thought to take a page from Dungeon World, which encourages players to describe in detail what their characters are doing, and the DM can judge what action is being taken. My hope is that a social encounter could then be played out as pure role play, with the DM just asking for rolls as needed. To determine what should count as an action that needs a skill check, I went back to the DMG’s brief social section as well as my archetypes from last time:

Explore character. Make a Wisdom (Insight) or Intelligence (Investigation) check to uncover one of a creature’s personality characteristics. 

Roleplay examples: 

  • “Why are you here? What do you want?” (Ideal)
  • “Why’d they put you in charge?” (Trait)
  • [OOC] Can I tell from X what faction/tribe/group they are from? (Bond)
  • [OOC] Do they seem nervous/confident/curious/etc.? (Flaw)

The DMG does not give guidelines for setting DCs for this, but to create a rule of thumb to make every DM’s life easier, I’m thinking of a sliding scale based on a creature’s attitude. Uncovering a trait, ideal, or bond should have a DC 10 for friendly creatures (easy), DC 15 for indifferent creatures (moderate), and DC 20 for hostile creatures (hard). My reasoning is that friendly creatures will usually be glad to tell you about what drives them, while hostile creatures will generally be reticent about sharing their motives. For the same reason, I’m thinking that uncovering a flaw should have a DC 20 regardless of attitude, because most creatures, even friendly creatures, will often try to keep their flaws hidden

The DMG does give a benefit for revealing a creature’s characteristics: “they can make a hostile creature temporarily indifferent, or make an indifferent creature temporarily friendly”. Based on the DMG’s own reaction tables, though, that’s the equivalent to a +10 bonus. That seems extreme, so for my purposes, I think increasing the creature’s attitude a half step, or +5, would be more in line.  

Make an argument. Make a Charisma or Intelligence (Persuasion), Charisma or Intelligence (Deception), or Charisma or Strength (Intimidation) to convince a creature to perform an action or somehow assist in achieving a goal of the party.

Roleplay examples:

  • “You should let us cross the bridge because…”
  • “If you tell us where to find the macguffin, we will do X for you.”
  • “Get out of our way, or else…” 

These are the checks that are actually needed to achieve the party’s goals in a social encounter. I’m going to stick with the DMG’s DC values on these checks, but I’d reduce any DC by 5 if the party can offer some reward or incentive. So, getting an indifferent creature to risk something to help you is difficult (DC 20), but giving them some reward to counterbalance the risk makes it only a moderate challenge (DC 15). Any reward offered needs to be significant to the creature to be worth their while, but a reward doesn’t completely offset the risk: people are generally more afraid to lose something they have than they are excited to gain something they don’t have. Also, if a check is failed by 5 or less, you might have the creature make a counter offer where the PCs add an incentive (even if none was offered initially) or increase the incentive offered, say doubling a bribe price. The PCs can accept the offer to make the check successful or accept failure.

(Re)Establish Credibility. Make a Wisdom (Insight), Charisma or Intelligence (Persuasion), Charisma or Intelligence (Deception), or Charisma or Strength (Intimidation) check. On success, you negate the negative effects of a failed check to make an argument, and allow the character who failed the check to try again, rerolling one die.

Roleplay examples:

  •  “Don’t worry about that contingency, our party can handle it.” 
  • “We’re not here to hurt you! We’re really all on the same side.”
  • [OOC] I stare them down until they lower their weapons.
“How about we forget everything I just said and start from the top?”

This has some precedence in the DMG on the ability to repeat checks. Rather than an afterthought, though, making this a standard part of social encounters gets more people involved. Note also: the character who failed the check can’t be the one who (re)establishes credibility, so this also ensures that different characters have to get involved. When the character who failed rerolls, they can’t just repeat the same argument again exactly as before, they need to make some sort of variation on their argument.

Strengthen bond. Based on Wisdom (Insight) or Charisma (Persuasion)… I haven’t thought through the mechanics of this, but going back to my archetypes, this is what the Relater specializes in. It may not come up in interactions with one-shot NPCs, but these are the skill sets that characters might use to permanently shift a creature’s attitude.

Support argument. Any second character who makes substantive comments to support an action in a social encounter allows the character making the check to do so with advantage.

This is already in the DMG, but I want to make sure this applies to exploring character and (re)establishing credibility as well. Anything that gets more players involved is good in my book! As with the help action, this should not require a separate check from the supporting character.

Again, my goal with these actions is not to make social encounters into combat, where players shout “I attempt to reestablish credibility!” Rather, the DM should judge, if characters are pursuing a promising line of questioning, let them make a check to Explore character. That being said, make sure players know that they can work to figure out the best ways to influence creatures, and they can work to repair damage from unsuccessful arguments.

3. Negotiation challenges

In addition to adding more actions that can be used to boost a Persuasion check or recover from a failed check, we can also just add more checks! I have to give credit for this to Vivian Vanderkolk, who outlines running negotiation challenges in the adventure ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls.’ (which you can find on DM’s Guild, here). To summarize, once a DC is set, the party collectively has to reach a specific number of successful checks (generally 2-4), but failed checks count against them, and too many failures can lower the NPC’s attitude or end the negotiation outright. This allows for individual failures without letting any single failure completely end the social encounter.

Whether you’re planning a social encounter ahead of time or making it up on the fly, there are some easy ways to add a few of these checkpoints for Persuasion or other checks. Though it’s a bit cliche, the easiest is probably just to pull a “give me three good reasons” from an NPC. Each argument is judged by the NPC on its own merit, but if the party keeps making poor arguments (failing checks), the NPC will eventually feel like the party is just wasting their time.

Alternatively, a negotiation may have several discrete goals that the party is trying to accomplish, with each goal requiring a separate check. If you’re coming up with something on the fly, this could be something as simple as 1) don’t kill us outright, 2) let us pass, and 3) don’t go and alert the boss monster immediately. This also gives you an easy way to determine partial success: some kobolds might let the party through without a fight, but as soon as the characters are gone they alert the white dragon they’re working for to be ready.

4. Allow player invention when it comes to NPCs (even monsters!)

Of the ideas I’ve presented so far, my favorite is to make more use of 5e’s existing system of Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. However, this can present a problem if you’re trying to run social encounters on the fly: what if the NPC (either one of your own invention or one from a published adventure) doesn’t have these determined ahead of time? There are random tables for generic NPCs in the DMG and for specific types of monsters in Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but if your players like to talk to everyone (and hopefully they do!), you might start to run out of unique traits.

So, I’m toying with this: what if you let the players decide what personality characteristics they encover? This idea comes from games like Dungeon World and 13th Age that give players a larger role in creating the world alongside the DM. Say the players encounter a group of street thugs guarding their next objective. The player with the criminal background for their character might suggest they recognize one of the thugs from past dealings, and the thug might owe them a small favor. Or, dealing with a goblin raiding party, one player might get the idea that the chief raider has a grudge against the goblin chief so might look the other way if the player characters found the chief’s location.

The DM can veto things as needed, of course, but it’s much more powerful instead of “no” to say “yes and…”  The thug owes you a small favor, but now you’re going to owe the thug an even BIGGER favor. The goblin looks the other way, but they’re busy consolidating power and might spearhead a new threat against the town in a later session. This gives the players more agency in telling their story, and consequently gives you new and exciting ways to give their characters further degrees of partial failure and success in social encounters. This is also a great spot to tie in the player characters’ own personality traits: maybe a recurring antagonist learns the PCs’ flaws to use against them! It might make a social encounter more difficult, but might also give the players more opportunities to grow their characters and really get into roleplaying!

I think I’ve gone on long enough here, but I just want to end by reiterating my original goal of making social encounters easier for both new players and DMs to get into. Hopefully, by having some specific options laid out before them, new players will have a launching point to really get into their characters’ personalities, and avoid the uncertainty that often comes when trying to figure out how to roleplay.

Image of Troy from Community, caption reads "Shouldn't there be a board or some pieces, or something to Jenga?"

I’m also really excited to hear if folks have success with these ideas, or if you’ve come up with your own rules to make social encounters more effective for everyone involved. Please add comments below and SUBSCRIBE to the email list below or follow me on Twitter @TzarFenix


Parleying with Players, Part II

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).

Illustration of a woman holding two beer steins
She maxed out Constitution just for this moment

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:

The Influencer

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.

The Relater

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.

The Strategist

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.

The Doer

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.

Still of Gimli from the Two Towers
“Give me your name, horse-master, and I shall give you mine.”

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


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