Devising mechanics for running social challenges has always been . . . well . . . challenging. There are many reasons for this, and they are all very good reasons. I will be posting a series of six blogs about Social Challenges.
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 the first blog, I will identify the dilemmas traditionally presented when designing and running Social Challenges.
Social Challenge Defined
A Social Challenge is an encounter that is designed to be surpassed without combat (though combat might erupt through roleplay) and through social interaction. Generally, a Social Challenge is one in which a party must convince an NPC, or a group of NPCs, either to take an act, to reveal information, or to allow the PCs to engage in an act. Some sample social challenges might be:
● Convince a village that they need to fortify against an imminent gnoll invasion
● Impress a halfling riverboat smuggler to give them passge to another town.
● Gain permission from the local lord to search his ancestral catacombs for a missing artifact.
● Talk your way past the insane sphinx guardian to the Gate of Ulban.
Having defined the Social Challenge, I will now discuss the problems with designing and running social challenges in D&D.
We want to encourage people to actually role-play, by speaking as their character would speak, using the character’s back story to inform the character’s actions and acting generally as the character’s personality indicates the character should act. The problem with using role-playing exclusively is two-fold.
First, the game has mechanics available that should impact the effect that a character’s personality has on NPCs. The Charisma Ability, and the Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight, and Intimidate Skills (as well as some Utility and Skill Powers) all should rightly have an impact on social encounters. This is particularly true with Diplomacy, which, unlike Bluff, Insight, and Intimidate, has no apparent use outside of social encounters. (Bluff allows one to feint, Insight to pierce illusions, and Intimidate to cause enemy combatants to surrender, cower, or flee.)
Second, DMs are human and humans are persuadable. And the more you know somebody, the more you learn how best to persuade them. While every DM I’ve met says they try to minimize the ability of their friends to manipulate them (intentionally or naturally), every DM who is honest with himself acknowledges that it is impossible to minimize these effects. That’s one very good reason to inject some dice into social challenges.
Many eschew “roll-playing” as antithetical to pure role-playing. However, part of the joy of role-playing is being able to be something you’re not. A person who is naturally effusive gets to play a reclusive wallflower, and someone who stammers might want to play the silver-tongued sweet-talker. The so-called “Charisma Gap” exists when a player’s personal abilities differ from the Charisma and Charismatic Skills of the character that player plays. Dice are intended to fill this gap, and I don’t think it fair to impugn roll-playing when it occurs in conjunction with traditional role-playing. But dice in a social challenge has its own issues.
First is the problem of the party “Face”. The Face is generally the person with the highest Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate scores. Since all three of those Skills work off of Charisma, the party Face is usually one person – the one with the highest Charisma score. The problem with the Face is that D&D is supposed to be a team affair. Players may feel disinclined to participate in social challenges because either they or their characters are, well, socially challenged. The players’ minds might wander, or they might even leave the table, letting the DM and the Face act out the scene. This is unfortunate and needs to be addressed.
Second, is the problem that even without a single party face, it is difficult to include everybody in the social challenge. Skill Challenges recommend that a Challenge involve all the players and require a variety of skills so that everyone can participate. But this is difficult to accomplish in Skill Challenges, where Strength, Dexterity and Constitution (and their associated Skills) would be rarely invoked. And those attempts to include Athletics or Endurance in a Social Challenge always feel contrived. (The King is impressed by feat of Strength! Lets see how long you can hold a note!)
Now turn to my next blog, in which I discuss the theory and use behind the Charisma-based Skills in the context of a Social Challenge!