This is the fourth of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.
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 fourth blog, I will describe how to run a Social Encounter that you design.
Role-play a social encounter as much as possible. Involve as many PCs as want to join in the discussion. Try not to favor any single player. Encourage all the PCs to speak and act, regardless of their specific social ability (in or out of the game). Here are some role-playing tips for making a Social Challenge a memorable experience:
● Give positive feedback. PCs should not feel like every Social Challenge is a slog. If the NPCs seem interested in the PCs, the PCs will be interested in the encounter. If the NPCs act bored or unimpressed with the players, the players will feel belittled and will want to end the encounter as quickly as possible, win or lose. Have NPCs genuinely compliment the characters, even if they don’t agree with the characters’ goals in the specific Challenge at hand. As characters increase in level, have NPCs recognize them, possibly with flattering epithets like “Grognard the Brave” or “Dandle the Quick-Witted”. This helps make the encounter fun for the players, even when their characters fail.
● Individuate your NPCs. Come up with a few quirks or personality traits of your NPCs to differentiate them, particularly if a single encounter has multiple NPCs. Jot a few words down next to the NPC to help remind you how to distinguish the characters. For Social Challenges, I will sometimes have just two lines: (i) How does he act?, and (ii) What’s he hiding? If you have minis for the NPCs, put the mini for which you are speaking in front of you while using that NPC’s voice. (You generally don’t need to set up a battle mat during a Social Challenge.)
● Mirror the players. A good conversational trick, but one that works especially well in Social Challenges, is to have NPCs repeat the PCs’ arguments in the NPC’s own words. This accomplishes a few things. First, it lets the PCs know the NPC (and DM) is listening, which engages the players. Second, it gives the PCs an insight into the NPC’s own concerns, which leads to more role-play.
● Time Management. According to the old saw, a lull in conversations occurs every seven or twenty minutes. Whether true or not, I find ten minutes to be the appropriate approximate amount of conversation that should occur between success rolls in Social Challenges. Any longer and players start to get bored. Any shorter and the challenge feels too dominated by dice. But do not feel shackled to the clock. If people are having fun, let the conversation linger. If the PCs get to the heart of the matter immediately, do not prolong things just for the sake of making it last a specific amount of time. Another good gauge of when to roll for a success is when the PCs have maximized their individual effort modifiers (see below).
Only when it comes time to figure out whether an NPC is persuaded by the PCs should the DM ask for rolls. The Party Skill to be used (Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate) depends on the type of argument the party makes (emotional, logical, or ethical). If a party tries multiple approaches, roll separately for each approach. Each roll may count as a failure, but the party can only get one success.
The roll to determine if the party gains a success in a Social Challenge shall be called a “success roll”. A success roll is, like most other rolls, a d20 + ½ party level that must equal or exceed the applicable DC, modified by the following:
● Party Skill Modifier. My lovely and brilliant wife designed this method, which I think resolves many of the mechanical problems of Social Challenges. Take the mean Charisma modifier of each of the characters of the players attending that session. Add a +1 bonus for each party member trained in the skill associated with the argument the party is attempting, up to a maximum bonus of +5. This should result in a Party Bluff, Party Diplomacy, and Party Intimidate modifier.
● Individual Effort Modifier Players may apply their own individual efforts to the check. A party member may invoke a non-Charismatic Skill, a power, a Background, or an item that applies a bonus to the Party Skill. If a Skill is used, roll a skill check. If a Power, Background, or item is used, roll a d20 + ½ level + Charisma modifier + 5 (plus any appropriate circumstantial modifiers). A success represents a +1 bonus to the success roll. No party member can contribute more than one secondary bonus per success roll, and the aggregate secondary bonus may not exceed +3. Do not allow an item to be used this way more than once per Social Challenge (even if the item grants a static bonus).
● Circumstantial Modifier. A party that performs in unexpected ways, either positively or negatively, should receive a bonus or penalty between -3 to +3. This might represent antisocial characters controlling themselves, or social characters slipping up. (Do not grant the bonus if an antisocial character merely stays out of the way. The bonus must represent a conscious effort of the character to act socially.) It might include parties picking up clues that the DM did not expect them to get, or missing clues the DM did. Also, if a PC is caught in a lie, this can be represented with a negative modifier to the party roll (or, alternately, as an automatic failure, depending in the severity of the lie and the specifics of the scenario).
● Duplicity Penalty. If an approach involves duplicity, the entire party must cooperate to conceal the lie. Duplicity imposes a -1 penalty for each PC who is not trained in Bluff and is aware of the lie, up to a maximum penalty of -5. (Keep in mind that the benefit of duplicity is that it allows PCs to make appeals that they could not make if required to be truthful. This narrative benefit can easily outweigh the numerical penalty.) If the party fails a success roll when they used duplicity (even if they did not incur a Duplicity Penalty), the failure could represent the discovery of the lie; though it need not.
This system discourages people from refusing to role-play because their characters lack Charisma because the entire party’s Charisma will apply regardless of any single individual’s modifier. It also encourages multiple PCs to get involved, because their individual secondary skills, powers and backgrounds can add circumstantial bonuses. Ensure the Social Challenge potentially allows half the PCs to participate at each success roll, and be generous in letting PCs improvise.
Stay tuned for my next blog when I give a template for Social Challenges as well as two samples.