Chamomile introduced some party rules for 5e in Irena’s Guide which I discussed here. They are pretty solid, and I won’t pretend I’m original. I’ve used parties to launch my last two games, but neither were 5e. Instead, I did some quick conversions to 3e, and Star Wars Saga edition, and they have been some of the best campaign starters I’ve ever had. In all seriousness, if you’re playing in a game that I run that isn’t a module, I’ll probably be using some variant of these rules during the first session. That said, Chamomile’s are for 5e, so I put together some system agnostic rules you can use to run them in any game. There are also a lot of tweaks to make it more rules light, and I’ve found they helped the table flow faster. I’ve also included samples from some of the games I’ve run using these rules.
A Party lasts some number of hours. The DM may leave the end time open ended, or fixed. Regardless, in a Party, each round lasts one hour. Player characters move around the event into various Rooms and interact with Guests until the goal is met, failed, or time runs out. As DM, you should allocate enough hours so that the number of players (P) have time to dig to the bottom of whatever mystery is going on. If each Guest has up to 8 facts (F), and there are 12 Guests (G) your formula should look something like this. (F*G)/(P*4) =X Rounds. Assuming 4 players in the scenario above, give 6 rounds for the party. If you’ve got 5 players, you’re looking at 5 rounds, 3 players give 8 rounds. You may want to remove or add guests to govern party length. Roughly, the goal is each person should be able to discover 3 facts total, and waste one turn. When combined across the party, with teamwork and clever play they should be able to say they got the gist of who and what’s going on, but there will still be things they want to know or ask NPCs about later. Those are hooks for future adventures, parties, or scenes.
An adventuring squad attends a party for three primary reasons. First, to have fun. If this is the reason, you probably don’t need a lot of mechanics, just freeform RP something.
- Find Information: If your squad’s goal is to find information, the DM should know what information they need. Sounds silly but let’s spell that out. The DM should also assign which bits of information each Guest has, and what may encourage them to share it. Information could be something like “there is a potential assassin in the room” in which case, the party would need proof, and to then call someone out before the Party time limit is hit, at which point the assassin strikes. Information could also be something like finding out who the real heir to the crown is, in which case, the Party may be open ended, and end when most of the Guests have gone home.
- Gain Prestige: Sometimes the point of a Party is to gain prestige, or cause someone to lose it. This means the squad is there to gain allies, standing, or potentially cause someone else to lose them. There really isn’t much success or failure in this mode, so much as there is degrees of success and failure.
Most Parties have players attempting to do all of the above. They want to embarrass their rivals, get some good gossip, and have some fun. Make sure you include all the elements in your Party, but also make sure you track at least one, so the party has an impact on the game going forward.
Each event should have at least 4 Rooms. A Room doesn’t have to have 4 walls and a roof or anything like that, but rather should be a distinct zone of the party. A fancy party may have a Ballroom, Dining Room, Smoking Room, Garden, and Library, each of which have different events occurring. A casual cookout may just have a Grill, Tables, Fire Pit, and Croquette Pitch. However you line it up, 4 tends to be the minimum required to make it interesting. Each room should have an interesting feature or RP prompt, even if it doesn’t have mechanics. In the 3e party I ran, one of the rooms was a hot spring. The players RPed relaxing, and it gives prompts like “I swim over to so and so” which were really effective. You could also add mechanics, like “Make tool use or athletics check to play croquette well, if you do, you gain a bonus to impress people”.
For example, in my 3e game, I included the following write up for one of my Rooms.
Lagoon: A large beachfront area has been set aside along the lagoon. There are torches near the rest of the party, but the lagoon is for viewing the stars and bioluminescent plankton. Its kept dimply lit on purpose, and most folks are here to appreciate the beauty.
Guests are the notable people “worth talking to” at a party. A bigger event may have tons of staff, or non-descript NPCs present, but a Guest is someone who has tangible mechanical benefit from interaction. This is the clue for your players that these are people to talk to and guide them away from spending time talking to random people you improvised, who won’t help achieve goals. Remember though, one goal is to have fun, and you know what, chatting up the cook might be fun. Go for it, but make sure the players are aware he probably isn’t advancing the “Win meter”. You should target between 3 and 5 guests per room.
The DM should give each Guest a quick stat block in addition to any combat stat block they may have. Each guest should have two notes they can relay to the players, some likes, dislikes, friends and enemies at the party. Each of these items are considered facts.
For example, a princess from my 3e game where the players were trying to find a would-be assassin at a pre-wedding reception.
- Princess Kindra Sigmis – Older Efreeti relative.
- Notes: 1 – Her son would be in line for the throne, if not for the Prince. 2 – Hardline traditionalist, and very opposed to the wedding.
- Like – Tradition, History
- Dislike – Kingdom of Kahaulani,
- Friend – Princess Ashe Cindell
- Enemy – Any Kahaulani (water) clan members (not all water races)
You can see Kindra is a very suspicious Guest for that scenario. Each of the NPCs should have ties to the event being investigated, and while Kindra was suspicious, she wasn’t going to go so far as to assassinate the prince, even if her son would be king in the event it happens. At least not tonight. Were she actually going to assassinate the prince, that would be directly spelled out in her notes, and would be the last one revealed.
Your players are ready to go, and you’ve got interesting rooms and NPCs set up. It’s a game right, not just freeform RP? Give your players this action list for how they spend their turn. Each round is an hour, and their turn should take the majority of that hour. That doesn’t mean it’s a full hour to ask a question, but that there is 10 minutes of small talk before you can bring the conversation naturally to the question at hand. And you can’t just run room to room blurting questions at people, there’s still some time afterwards to wind down the conversation if needed. Using skills or abilities that lean into likes or friends would grant advantage, +5, etc and using dislikes or enemies grants the opposite.
- Use a spell or ability: Characters can use their spells or abilities as normal. This means if they can cast charm person, they should feel free to throw it out. It’s also probably not an action to cast on its own, but also should not be as easy as “I cast dominate person and make them tell me”. Other guests are going to be annoyed by that to say the least. All the proper set up, and isolation of the victim, and whatnot should take an hour or so. On the other hand, casting comprehend languages can just be done. No one cares if you cast that at a party, rich people might even have a guy at the door doing it.
- Change Rooms: This isn’t an action but can only be done at the start of a player’s turn.
- Antagonize: Opposed skill checks, or skill check vs flat DC based on your game. You antagonize someone and they leave the room because you’re a jerk. People generally dislike you, but hey they aren’t here, and you might need that if you want to ask someone else for some gossip about them.
- Dispel Rumor: Squash a rumor. This is a flat DC skill check, and essentially you put a rumor to bed.
- Eavesdrop: chill and listen. Make a stealth skill check vs everyone at the location. For each person you beat, you learn 1 random fact from that person.
- Entertain: Pick someone and increase their fun. Make a social skill check vs a flat value or opposed roll, and if you succeed, they like you. You have advantage, +5, etc to your next action against them and your social standing increases by one degree (multiple uses of this don’t stack).
- Inquire: Ask questions. Social skill check, against one person. Success gives one specific fact of your choice, but failure gives you disadvantage, -5, etc to your next check.
- Spread Rumor: Deception vs everyone present. If you beat everyone, the rumor is believed, and if not, it isn’t. This could damage relationships, or enhance your own, but ultimately it isn’t true.
Putting it together
So, you’ve got 4 cool rooms and 12 fleshed out NPCs. Now what? As a GM, I strongly encourage tokens, and blocking off four distinct areas on the table or VTT. It doesn’t have to look great (but would be sweet if it did) and really helps folks remember where they are. Each turn, you’re essentially shining the spotlight on each of the PCs and giving them a 1–2-minute private RP session. Lean into the characters and run with it.