Designing Social Encounters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 11, 2011

Creating combat encounters is a lot easier than creating social encounters in D&D. When it comes to combat most DMs have a really clear idea of what they need to do to prepare. Social encounters by their very nature tend to be less predictable, catching many DMs woefully unprepared for the decisions and actions the party chooses. Although there are guidelines on how to set up and run skill challenges, more complex social encounters that rely on role-playing and interaction with NPCs can become more complicated than fighting Orcus himself.

Most social encounters are played out as skill challenges, if the DM even feels that there is a significant challenge involved. If the goal is merely to meet an important NPC or find out a particular piece of information while hanging out at a bar, than a little bit of role-playing may be all that’s required. However, if the goal is more complex and if there are consequences for failing, then a skill challenges is likely the best way to adjudicate the encounter.

The amount of work required by the DM to create these encounters is really dependent upon the group’s play style. If they’d rather just bash monsters with their weapons and spells, then social encounters will be looked upon as the filler between fights. But for groups that enjoy the role-playing side of things, a social encounter presents an opportunity for them to really develop their PC and use skills more heavily then they usually do during combat. Once you know which type of group you’re designing the encounter for then you can decide if you want to do it the fast way or take the detailed approach.

Social Encounters – The Fast Way

For groups that don’t want to spend a lot of time with the talking part of D&D then there are a few fast and dirty ways for DMs to create and run social encounters. When I find myself DMing for groups like this I only worry about providing each NPC with a name, and determining their sex and race. Anything more is usually just a wasted effort.

For social encounters that are going to be quick there’s no need to go into much more detail. After all, as soon as the PCs have whatever it is that they’re looking for they’ll move on. Now if the conclusion of the social encounter is going to be a combat than that’s a different situation all together. In that case I have the NPC combatants stated out and can use those details to help the social encounter. But since this isn’t usually the case (for me anyway) I find that I don’t need any additional details.

Encounters created the fast way are usually short skill challenges and only require a few successes anyway (challenge level 1 or 2, so 4 or 6 successes respectively). Since it doesn’t take most parties very long to accumulate the required successes these encounters don’t need the same level of detail as more complex social interactions.

For example, if the PCs are in a crowded bar trying to ferret out information, the DM doesn’t have to know the name of every patron and employee. In order to get 4 or 6 successes the PCs will probably need to engage a maximum of about 10 NPCs before they learn whatever it is they need to know. As the DM I’d make notes on anyone that stands out, like the bartender, head waitress, and local barfly, plus about 6-10 other NPCs.

For groups that like to get in, ask questions, and then get out, the fast way is the way to go when designing social encounters.

Social Encounters – The Detailed Approach

The game I’m currently running for my group has the PCs infiltrating a posh party in order to learn the whereabouts of a missing magical item. My intent as the DM is to have them spend more than one session mingling with party guests, chatting up the host and possibly even searching the house for clues. Because there will likely be multiple mini skill challenges, I realized that the setup for this kind of adventure couldn’t be handled the fast way.

I knew that some party guests had information that the PCs needed. I’d created these NPCs with a fair amount of detail and was ready for their interaction with the heroes. However, I also needed to spend some time detailing the rest of the party guests too, otherwise the PCs would know if the NPC they were talking to was important or not just by how I described them. Suddenly I needed to come up with way more information than I was expecting.

In order to paint all NPCs with the “equally important” brush (from the point of view of the PCs) I needed to come up with a baseline. I needed more detail than just their name, sex and race. The secondary details I needed included each NPC’s appearance, including clothing and weapons, and a high level overview of their personality.

Some DMs might feel the need to go overboard by stating out each NPC. This is absolutely not necessary. Beyond the details mentioned above I merely noted which skills these NPCs are good at either because they’re trained or because they hada high score in the relevant ability. In most cases I didn’t even write down a number. As the PCs interacted with the filler NPCs, I use my best judgment based to determine the appropriate DC based on the role-playing and the situation at hand.

For the more important NPCs, namely the ones that had more significant interactions with the PCs, I did stat out some details. If I believed that the NPC might be engaged in a combat situation then I determined their hit points, defenses and basic attacks. But since the PCs weren’t likely to engage too many of the guests in fisticuffs, I didn’t waste time giving any of the NPCs a laundry list of powers.

In order to keep the NPCs straight I created cheat sheets. The first power card for every PC created in character builder provides their basic information. I created a similar template for my NPCs. Now I had a “deck” of NPC stat cards (much like baseball cards) which let me keep them organized more easily. As the PCs interacted with each one, I pulled out the relevant card. On each card I noted the things this NPC would talk about and more importantly what juicy tidbits they might reveal. Although I started by listing all of the details I needed the PCs to learn by the end of the adventure, I also threw in a lot of red herrings.

When DMs are creating social encounters I encourage you to draw on your own real-life experience. After all, this is one of the few areas of D&D where you can actually apply things from your life to the situation that he PCs will be facing.

The key to any successful encounter is preparation. If the DM is prepared then the encounter runs smoothly and everyone has a good time. For combat encounter you need a map and some monster for the PCs to kill. When it comes to social encounters, the prep can be a lot more open-ended and therefore more difficult. By using the tips I’ve described above DMs can feel confident the next time they find themselves setting up an important social encounter skill challenge for their players.

How often do you use social encounters in your game? Do you find that you use them less than you’d like because they’re often labourious to prepare? What additional advice would you give to other DMs when preparing social encounters?

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1 j0nny_5 April 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm

My favorite social encounter I ran was a cut scene of two arguing NPC’s. You can check out the NPC’S here.

The two were arguing over what direction their caravan should take. Each had an opening line and a closing line for players to read, as well as four points they needed to argue. These four points were left vague, so the players had to role play. They rolled a diplomacy before they argued each point, so they could role play their success or failure accordingly. The fifth and final check was a bluff, forcing the player to make up a convincing point to argue.

Whether each player got three successes or failures determined which closing line they read. Then the actual players had to step in and decide which direction the caravan would travel, based on the argument they just “overheard”.

2 Kilsek April 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Social encounters are unique in that you can make them as immersive or as gamey as you like, especially the latter in 4e.

Personally, I enjoy the pure storytelling and RP end of the spectrum more, with maybe a single skill check (Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff typically), to help decide the exact type and total numer of ramifications. Good “supporting cast” roleplay contributions to the conversation might mean a few more checks in the Aid Another sort of approach, giving a +2 circumstance bonus to the “leader’s” check – that sort of thing.

It’s just I’ve run enough 4e skill challenges where they often feel forced, especially in social encounters, and that’s not much fun. You break immersion and you corner some PCs sometimes.

That is, you might find yourself getting in a particularly quiet PC’s face regularly because a) it’s a skill challenge which needs X number of successes, and b) you want everyone to participate, even though there’s a likely at least one character who stinks at all the social skills in your playgroup.

3 Alton April 14, 2011 at 9:28 am

I think skill challenges can be quite exciting. The one problem I have with them is the way they are introduced in modules.

For those groups who are combat centered, skill challenges are boring, no matter which way you slice the pie.

For those who roleplay heavily, a good introduction to the skill challenge is better than just stating: ‘you are now starting a skill challenge’.

In the above example, the players have a goal to mingle in the party and learn some stuff. This is the goal and in this social scene, which has probably been played up before even entering the party itself. The sky is the limit for checks and such.

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