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Liches and Witches

The Russkies are back in Stranger Things 4! In other times, I might have talked about the typecasting of Russians as villainous in American media, but given that Russia continues to commit atrocities in its imperialist war against Ukraine, I don’t really feel like that right now. So let’s talk about Vecna!

Yes, if you hadn’t heard, the main villain in the new season is Vecna! Not the actual Vecna from D&D, of course, but just like the “demogorgon” and “mind flayer” in seasons 1 and 2, the big bad from another dimension gets a catchy moniker from the kids based on a fantasy monster in order to make sense of these alien antagonists.

Wizards of the Coast released a “Vecna Dossier” on D&D Beyond to cover the (slightly retconned) in-game history of the villain, but I wanted to take a look at the publishing history of Vecna himself and his creature type, the lich, including some (probably!) Slavic folklore influence on the monster.

History

The lich came first in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to the original D&D rules. Here, the lich was just an undead spellcaster without a lot of the flavor that has since been associated with them. The actual word, “lich,” is an archaic English word for a corpse, still seen in terms like “lichgate,” the covered entrance to a churchyard where a body was kept before burial. While there were many undead sorcerers in the pulp fantasy works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and others who influenced D&D, Gygax himself stated that the direct inspiration for this monster came from Gardner Fox, who debuted the creature in his 1969 short story “The Sword of the Sorcerer.”

A skeletal figure wearing robes and a crown
The Lich from the 1977 Monster Manual

The name Vecna would pop up a year after the Lich in the 1976 Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Vecna, however, was only mentioned in the backstory in the two artifacts that bear his name: the hand and eye. These were written not by Gygax, but by Brian Blume, one of the controlling partners of TSR, the company Gygax had founded to print the D&D game. The name came about as an anagram of Jack Vance, another writer favored by Blume and Gygax and whose Dying Earth stories inspired D&D’s system of memorizing spells. Vecna was, according to the flavor text here, long dead, and we would not get much more information about him until his return in the 1990 adventure module “Vecna Lives!” (exclamation point included).

Meanwhile, the lich was developing more of its lore, including the “soul hidey place” more often known as a phylactery, though how it got this detail is a bit convoluted. The term is first mentioned in 1977’s AD&D Monster Manual: “The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, nonliving existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery.” What is a phylactery? Well, the manual never tells us, but the greek term means a “protectant,” and was usually used for tefillin, small leather boxes used in Judaism. They contained verses from the Torah and could be strapped to the body, often on the arm or head, during prayer. How such an item would relate to lichdom is not explained, but it should be noted that 1979’s Dungeon Master’s Guide included three phylacteries as magic items. These were usable only by clerics, and were the Phylactery of Faithfulness, which helped a cleric retain their alignment; the cursed Phylactery of Monstrous Attention, which lured enemy monsters or even deities to attack; and the life prolonging Phylactery of Long Years. Even though it was published later, it seems probable that some notes on this sort of item existed and might have been the intention of the item mentioned in the lich’s write-up.

The idea that a lich’s soul resided outside its body was not put forward until a 1979 article in Dragon Magazine by another veteran game designer Len Lakofka, the original player of the character Leomund and his famous Tiny Hut. The article, “Blueprint for a Lich,” never mentions the term phylactery, but details how the lich uses an item enchanted with the Magic Jar spell to contain its soul and allow an escape should its body be destroyed. Eventually, the phylactery and the soul jar would become conflated, leading to the lich lore we know today.

Folklore

The story of a creature that keeps its soul, life, or heart outside of its body is an old one. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) index, it is type 302. It is an incredibly old tale, told all over the world; in fact, network analysis of the ATU story types found that this one is among the top 10 most central stories.1 Julien D’Huy, “Folk-Tale Networks: A Statistical Approach to Combinations of Tale Types,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2019), https://www.folklore.ee/era/pub/files/jef-2019-0003.pdf In these tales, some villain (often an ogre) keeps its life force outside its body, and the hero must go on a quest to find and destroy it in order to defeat the monster. Possibly the most famous version of this tale is the Slavic version, in which the antagonist, Koschei the Deathless, has hidden his soul in a needle in an egg in a duck in a rabbit in a chest buried beneath a tree on the mythical island of Buyan. Koschei is a sort of ogre, but his name probably derives from the proto-slavic word *kȍstь for bone, and in fact the villain is sometimes called “Old Boney” in English versions. Though not exactly undead, this skeletal figure of immortality seems a likely candidate for part of the origin of the lich, despite his lack of spellcasting.

A sickly, skinny old man with a long beard wielding a scimitar and riding a horse
Koschei the Deathless, by Ivan Bilibin

In the latest take on Vecna, the Vecna Dossier, the source of Vecna’s power is obscured as a mysterious voice that whispered to him. In older versions, this source was called the Serpent, though still shrouded in mystery. In my own personal head cannon, this can be none other than Baba Yaga; one possible etymology for “Yaga” is from the word for serpent, and it seems only fitting for me that the mother of all witches would have a hand in the creation of the first lich!

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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 artofmtg.com, 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 artofmtg.com, 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 

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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.

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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

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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

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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