This is the third of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.
I have amended this blog slightly because I have changed my approach to duplicity in Social Challenges based on comments I have received.
Social Challenges 1: The Challenge
Social Challenges 2: Social Skills
Social Challenges 3: Design
Social Challenges 4: Execution
Social Challenges 5: Sample Challenges
Social Challenges 6: More Sample Challenges
In this third blog, I will discuss how to design a Social Challenge. There are two aspects to design: the narrative (i.e., the role-play), and the mechanics (i.e., the dice).
A Social Challenge Is Inclusive. The DM should ensure that the challenge has something that will engage all the characters. This is usually accomplished by knowing your players and their characters. Do they have interests that can be piqued? Do they have histories that can be explored? Motivations? Goals? Use these and integrate them into the story behind the Challenge. The more your players and their characters are engaged, the more enjoyable the Social Challenge. If the encounter is gong to involve the DM role-playing with only one player, with the rest of the party as audience, do not run the encounter, or do so as a vignette before or after the regular session.
A Social Challenge Is Risky. A Social Interaction is an encounter designed to be surpassed without combat, but which presents no risk of failure to the PCs. If the PCs are merely reporting their latest adventure to their superiors, for instance, there is no need for a challenge. A night out on the town should be role-played without dice. Improvise. The key distinction between Social Challenges and Social Interactions is that Challenges have a predetermined consequence for failure. This consequence should not be death. Deadly encounters should be reserved for combat. However, a failed Social Challenge may result in combat.
A Social Challenge Is Competitive. In a Social Challenge, the PCs should be attempting to overcome the resistance of an NPC or one or more groups of NPCs. Please note that “overcome” does not mean “defeat”. It merely means to change an NPCs outlook to become more consonant with the PCs’ goals, whether through persuasion, blackmail, extortion or simply by wearing them down. In contrast, a Social Puzzle has no NPCs to affect. It is an encounter (or series of encounters) in which players collect information. Crime mysteries often manifest as Social Puzzles, in which the players interview witnesses and suspects, gleaning information and clues until they figure out whodunit. Information gathering sessions, where PCs travel from sage to informant, finding out background information for their next adventure, also follow the Social Puzzle format. Except for the occasional Insight check to pierce a lie, the Social Puzzle’s only risk is that the players will not learn all they should. In a Social Puzzle, NPCs are not persuaded; they are simply questioned, and this should simply be role-played.
Once you have designed the narrative, you are ready to assign some numbers to it. A Social Challenge follows many of the same conventions as a Skill Challenge. But here are some rules of thumb to remember when assigning numbers:
The Social Challenge assumes the social strengths and weaknesses of the characters for whom it is designed. As a DM you should know the mannerisms and strengths of your players and their characters. You also want to create a challenge for them, not for some generic party of adventurers who may be passing through. Thus, when you design an encounter, design it for your PCs and their characters. If the PCs are built for social challenges, increase the DCs. If the PCs are uniformly uncharismatic, lower the DCs. You should also vary the DCs based on whether the NPCs are more or less amenable to certain types of appeals, or based on how gullible or skeptical the NPCs may be.
Circumstantial Bonuses should be applied only if the characters act in unexpected ways. If one of the PCs is always gruff and offensive, the DC should assume the PC will act this way. If the PC manages to keep his offensive attitude in check this encounter, then the party might get a circumstantial bonus. If one of the PC’s is always eloquent, then the DC assumes the PC will be eloquent in the encounter. If for some reason, he decides to be a wallflower, the party might receive a circumstantial penalty. The DCs should also be assumed to account for other situational benefits and drawbacks the PCs may enjoy entering the encounter, such as fame (or infamy), racial prejudices, xenophobia, filial relations, and the like.
The Social Encounter should feel level-appropriate. Epic tier characters should not have to negotiate with the mayor of a podunk town. Or if they do, there should be little chance of failure, just as if this epic party had to break into the mayor’s house. The mayor’s heroic tier lock should be no match for an epic-tier thief, and neither should his wits. Since the encounter is built around the PCs, it should appear challenging to the players, so the DCs you select seem appropriate for the encounter.
Social Encounters assume a subjective universe. The DCs do not represent the chance of a generic team of adventurers persuading the NPCs to accomplish a task – they represent the chance of your PCs affecting these NPCs in this specific place in time. If the PCs encounter the same NPCs later, you might vary the DCs significantly (or you might decide the encounter is not even a Challenge!).
A Final Note on Setting DCs
All DCs should be set at around 15+½ level+1/tier. If the encounter is supposed to be relatively easy, you can reduce the DCs. If the encounter is supposed to be difficult, you can increase it.
There should be at least three DCs. Choose separate DCs for emotional appeals (Bluff), logical appeals (Diplomacy), and ethical appeals (Intimidate). The DCs should each vary from each other to reflect the specific means by which the NPCs are more likely to be persuaded. However, these DCs should generally be varied by no more then -2 to +2.
Now that you can design a Social Challenge, stay tuned for the next blog wherein we discuss the execution of a Social Challenge!