I saw a video that triggered an idea. In order to make social/exploration encounters matter as much as combat encounters, we need to give them as much mechanical weight as the combat encounters. Essentially, we should treat them as though they matter. They used the concept of “the DM plants a flag and says pay attention by saying Roll Initiative.” I was thinking of how doing similar would be required if you wanted social/exploration encounters to matter as much. The inspiring video was not about social systems, but rather one of the someone explaining that combat was the only thing that mattered in 5e (and that’s a good thing). I’d link it, but it wasn’t really great, and just spurred the thought.
RPGs normally treat social skills one of two ways from a rules perspective. First, by entirely hand-waving them. They have the players roleplay and just take the outcome for what naturally occurs. This works fantastic if your group has a lot of improv experience and are pretty socially adept. If that is the case for your group go ahead and stop reading now.
That hasn’t been my experience for the stereotypical RPG nerd (myself very much included), which leads me to the second common method. A single die roll, maybe with some “you roleplayed well have a small bonus” added in. In my experience this isn’t super satisfying. You end up with that same group, who isn’t comfortable crafting witty turns of phrase, rolling a die and moving on. It tends to diminish the importance of a great speech, or tense negotiation to something as simple as “I roll intimidation” or “I intimidate him, maybe threaten with my sword” and move on. Mechanically, this dis-incentivizes roleplaying and learning the improv skills to carry the encounter. Your unskilled player is told they can resolve it with a single roll, and its not important. Your skilled player is told their skill doesn’t matter, and its a matter of the dice. Sometimes you have groups who use rules, except for the good actors, who get to hand wave it, but that’s probably worse. You end up with some people having to pay a resource tax to be good at a thing, but not all.
This system tries to put more mechanical emphasis on the social encounter, while simultaneously, encouraging more roleplaying from your players. Lofty goals, I know. In general, this assumes a d20+mods based game. I’m not super satisfied with the end result, but have been delaying this blog post since before there was a blog. So I’m hoping for some feedback or ideas to really push it to completion, or convince me to scrap it.
Every NPC has an influence score (IS). This measures how much influence the party has over them. Their IS is a value set by the DM based on the plot structure so far, ranging from -100 (hated enemy) to +100 (beloved ally). It should generally be known to the players (or in the case of a secret enemy, a false value revealed) and players should generally know when it changes. I wouldn’t stress about +/- 1, its out of a 200 point scale after all, but big changes. A tracker can be handy, but I’d recommend one that can withstand lots of erasing.
Just like other attributes, a character’s IS has a modifier. To calculate a creature’s IS Mod, divide their IS score by 10, and drop (don’t round) any decimals. So a character with an IS of 83/10 is 8.3, giving us an IS Mod of 8. For an enemy with an IS of -47. Our equation is -47/10 = -4.7. Rounded to an IS of -4.
Player Characters can make requests to NPCs to get them to do stuff. To make requests, the DM will announce a DC based off the examples below. The player will roll a social skill of their choice, with a modifier applied by the IS Mod of the NPC.
Note about social skills. The DCs listed assume a persuasion skill is used. If intimidation is used, the NPC takes -10 to their IS score once they have completed the request. If deception is used, the NPC suffers a -20 to IS score if discovered. Intimidation and Deception have DCs that are 5 lower than the listed values. These rules assume a Fantasy Roleplaying system similar to the big one. D20 based, big 6 stats, social skills are skills. Since I can’t call it done, you can massage the numbers as needed to fit your edition.
Broad Example Requests
- Give me something that has minimal cost to yourself (under 1% of total wealth on hand). DC 10
- Give me something that has a high cost to yourself. DC 20.
- Do me a favor that doesn’t take much time (under 1 minute). DC 10.
- Do me a favor that takes more time (up to 1 hour). DC 15. Add 2 DC per hour.
- Risk your life for me. DC 25.
Characters have actions they can take. Just like spells, or attacks, or powers, they also have Social Actions. These can be done once per Social Encounter, and are used to modify a target’s IS score.
During character generation, players should pick a number of social actions equal to their charisma modifier, with a minimum of one. If an action modifies a target’s IS score, it is a permanent modifier.
Influence wanes without interaction. For each month since last interaction, an NPC’s IS moves a point towards zero. Practically, the DM should track this at the end of a session, and announce adjustments at the beginning of a session. If your games take place on a faster timescale, the DM may want to increase this to weekly. I can’t imagine a game where slowing it to yearly makes sense.
The powers listed are vague enough that the player should be able to use them without a direct tie to the ongoing narrative, but specific enough to get the gist across if no one has anything witty to say. When used, a player who is not sure what to say should solicit advice from the rest of the group.
- Divine Fervor: You launch into a passionate appeal to religion. Your allies are inspired and enemies cowed. Allies gain advantage on charisma checks made until their next social action. Enemies suffer disadvantage.
- Religious Allegory: Everyone feels comforted, and a little bit better about the situation. The target’s IS score increases by your wisdom modifier. The target optionally makes a wisdom saving throw with a DC equal to 8+prof+your Wis to prevent this.
- Stoic Wisdom: With but an utterance, you can share your worldly wisdom. The target’s IS score increases by your wisdom modifier.
- Folksy Anecdote: You can relate almost anything to your youth growing up back in the country. Allied listeners gain a bonus to their IS score equal to half your wisdom modifier.
- Cut Off: You can immediately negate someone’s Social Action prior to its effects. You Take Control, and are able to use one of your own if you’d like. The person you cut off has their IS dropped by 5-your cha mod.
- Interesting Anecdote: Allied listeners have their IS increased by half your intelligence bonus.
- You Have Got To Meet: You can introduce people to one another. If this is the first time you have the target, you can usually find a common friend, relation, associate, or neighbor. Characters always start with an IS 20 points higher than normal with you for your first introduction.
- Encourage: You have a knack for remembering your friends stories, even the quiet ones. You can step in and let someone with less charisma Take Control.
- Sly Joke: You tell a joke that takes a minute for people to get. The target’s IS score increases by your charisma modifier, if they can pass a sense motive check with a DC equal to your charisma modifier.
- Mean Joke: You tell a joke at someone’s expense. The targets IS score drops by half your charisma modifier. Others present have their IS go up or down that same amount, whichever way takes them closer to zero.
- Witty Retort: After someone drops their IS, you can immediately restore half of it.
- Overt Insult: The targets IS score drops by your charisma modifier.
- Fun Story: Everyone present has their IS score increased by 1/2 your charisma modifier.
- Foreign Anecdote: You relate the situation to your home country. Provided your target has a positive IS score in relation to you, it increases by 2X your charisma modifier.
- Insightful Observation: You can prevent a targets IS score from being modified after a social action is used.
- Intimidating Threat: You make an over threat and the target is terrified. Their IS score drops by your strength modifier.
- Suave Move: When a target’s IS score would be lowered, you can instead raise it by that much instead. If it would be raised, you can instead lower it by that much.
Given the rules above, it is very tempting to have all the players surround an NPC and shout command word trigger effects on them until the NPC loves or fears them. Just like we don’t do that in a fight, a social encounter is governed. If multiple parties, including the NPC, want to use social actions, the DM should pick someone to Take Control. That person should be the one who initiated the social encounter, or started the monologue. They are allowed to roleplay their scene, and use their power, until someone else would like to Take Control. That person can then jump in, and use their power. This continues until all parties are satisfied and the group chooses to end the encounter, all characters have expended their powers, or a characters IS score is modified by 50 or more (representing a major change in attitude). A character can never Take Control from themselves, and thus cannot use two powers in a row. If no one wishes to follow, the encounter ends there. If multiple parties would like to Take Control, the winner of an opposed charisma check takes control. If there are multiple “sides” to a debate, no single side should maintain control for more than 5 rounds before the other side can speak (with exception being made for formal debates with structured formats). A given character can only use each of their Social Actions once per Social Encounter.
DM - Ok. John, 'Take Control'. John - takes control, and uses his 'bardic charm' to tell a Fun Story (5 min turn, and john spends a minute quickly giving the high level of his story). XXX happens. DM - Does anyone want to jump in? Bill and Ted both? Well Bill has more Influence, and hasn't acted yet, so he gets to go. Bill - I use my Monk's 'stoic wisdom' power, to relate the bards story to the situation at hand (5 min turn, and I don't really know what to do, so I'll tell some weird parable about a bird that people are impressed with). DM - Who wants to take control? Ted? So does an NPC, and he also has more wins a charisma check. You really shouldn't have dumped that stat, Ted. You try to speak up, but NPC jumps in and uses an 'Overt Insult' power. (5 min turn and the DM will narrate exactly what is said) Ted - Cool, my turn. That changes what I'll do. Instead I'll use my "Witty Retort" power to go right back at him with a "your mom's a ___" joke. etc
Overall, I think there still some work to be done, but I hope something like this could give the shy players enough of a prompt to jump in, without feeling like they don’t know what to say, and are just getting in the way.