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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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.
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