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D&D 5E Adding Narrative Mechanics to D&D 5e (Without Too Much Crunch)

There's been a bit of discussion about incorporating roleplaying mechanics and "talky" encounters as of late, so I want to lay out some preliminary mechanics I'm contemplating for my next game. It's like Fate, but lighter and less codified (that's deliberate - Fate is a bit too codified for my tastes).

BIFTs and Characters, a Primer

Bonds, Ideals, Traits, and Flaws all play a part fleshing out a character in D&D 5e, but they aren’t the focus of the character. Instead, the majority of the game is designed around combat abilities. The design of this subsystem seeks to make Bonds, Ideals, Traits, and Flaws (hereafter abbreviated as BIFTs) more important to gameplay.

Just an FYI: it's great to expand BIFTs beyond what 5e offers. I tend to use Traits more broadly, for example, not just as personality traits, but also descriptive traits. Beliefs and instincts are great to add in these categories, and you can even direct the genre/tone of the game by making custom BIFTs. A gothic horror game might have Trauma and Fear added, whereas an epic fantasy game might add in Destiny or Glory.

Both PCs and NPCs alike should be created with BIFTs in mind! They’re an important part of characterization.

Two reminders:
  1. BIFTs change based on circumstance. A dying man may have the Trait “sickly demeanor and leprous flesh” and the Flaw “I will devote myself to whatever power cures me of this ailment.” As soon as he’s cured, he might lose that Trait and gain “healthy, but weakened by sickness” and his Bond could change to “I am bound to serve the cult of the reptile god for healing me.”
  1. BIFTs do not need to be strictly codified. Given how malleable they are based on circumstance, it’s not necessary to write them all out. In the moment, BIFTs can be discussed and given, rescinded, or changed—especially for NPCs. It’s a lot of legwork to write out a list of BIFTs for NPCs, so GMs should feel to improvise in the moment.

Known BIFTs

In many cases, BIFTs are obvious to everyone, and this goes for PCs and NPCs alike. It is sensible for someone to see a gallant paladin and discern from his mannerisms that one of his traits is something like “I am honorable to a fault.” Likewise, it is reasonable to see a malnourished urchin clothed in rags and know that he is desperate for a meal (one of his Traits might be: “I’ll do anything for a hot meal and a warm bed.”)

Unknown BIFTs

In the case that the BIFT is not readily apparent, BIFTs can be revealed or discovered through interaction: examining a character’s private or business correspondence, rifling through personal effects, spending time in deep conversation, listening to rumors about town, and so on. That will offer some clue.

Examples:
  • Eavesdropping on a conversation between the mayor and his aide to discover the mayor has the following Flaw: "I'll shift blame to others to appease my constituents."
  • Intercepting a letter from the bandit leader to his underlings to learn that the leader has the Ideal: "Improve the lives of the poor by stealing from the wealthy and corrupt."
  • Carefully observing the shopkeep to learn he has the Trait: "My left eye twitches when I'm gouging a customer."
  • Chatting with a disheveled looking man to learn he has the Bond: "My wife and children are my life, even though I have ruined us." (It might also reveal the Trait: "Reeks of booze and filth.")
Inquiring minds undertaking actions should ask questions relating to the BIFTs they wish to learn about:

• What does this character believe strongly?​
• What does this character hold dear?​
• Whom does this character serve?​
• What weaknesses or vices is this character known for?​

Known or Unknown?

Be mindful that some BIFTs might be known to some characters and unknown to others. Your friends and family have BIFTs that are known to you but unknown to strangers!

Influencing Characters by Flagging BIFTs

Players--that is, the people around the table controlling the PCs and NPCs (characters)--may influence characters--the fictions controlled by the players--by "flagging” the characters' BIFTs during play. By doing so, they sway the character into behaving a certain way.

Influencing and flagging are technical terms for a very simple process: offering the character an Inspiration and explaining why he should act according to one of his BIFTs. To flag a BIFT, the player in question must have an Inspiration. GMs have an infinite supply of Inspiration, so they should use them liberally, offering them to various characters to replenish their stocks.

When a Player Influences a PC:

The player offers the character an Inspiration and flags the PC's BIFT. If the character accepts, he gains the Inspiration.

When a Player Influences an NPC:

The player offers the GM an Inspiration and flags the NPC's BIFT. If the NPC accepts, the GM takes the Inspiration, and it goes into the ether (NPCs don't use Inspiration).

When an NPC/GM Influences a PC:​

The GM offers the character an Inspiration and flags the PC's BIFT. If the PC accepts, he gains Inspiration. The GM and his NPCs have infinite Inspiration, so there’s gain or loss on their behalf.

Examples in Play​

The nefarious scoundrel Rob has the Flaw: "I'm a born gambler who can't resist taking a risk for a potential payoff." Another player says, "We all know you're a gambler, Rob. If you want a real game of high stakes, you'll help Selene take down the local crime boss." The player holds out his Inspiration and Rob accepts, gaining Inspiration and joining Selene on her mission.

The fighter Susan has the Ideal: "Community. We have to take care of each other, because no one else is going to do it." The GM says, "Susan, the village elder implores you to take his side in this debate, even though you disagree with him. But you know he's a good man, and the other people are strangers to you." The GM offers Susan an Inspiration, but she rejects it saying, "Susan holds the village elder dear in her heart, but she's too devoted to justice to agree with him. She stands firm in supporting the outsiders."

When the PCs encounter the noble wizard Zen, he refuses to see them, claiming he's too busy to spend time chatting with them. Zen has the Trait: "Despite my birth, I do not place myself above other folk. We all have the same blood." One of the PCs says, "Zen, your high place in society places an obligation on you to help us. You have the resources and knowledge to help the nobility and peasantry alike." The PC offers the GM an Inspiration, and he accepts, so Zen will (somewhat grudgingly) help the PCs.

Haggling Over the Terms of Influencing

It’s perfectly acceptable for characters to discuss compromises or concessions when their BIFTs are flagged. One character might say, “You’re in love with the Lady Marbane, so you’re easily seduced by her, and thus you don’t show for the tournament,” and another might say, “But my reputation hinges upon this tournament, so rather than missing it entirely, I think it’s more reasonable that I arrive at the last minute, to much disfavor from the crowd.” If the two agree on these terms, the flag is accepted, otherwise it is refused.

Impression Checks

When encountering an NPC, or when wishing to modify the circumstances under which you are interacting with the NPC, PCs can make Impression checks. This is typically done as part of first introduction to a character, though it may be done at subsequent meetings in an attempt to gain the upper hand in social encounters.

The Impression check sets the disposition or mood of a social encounter. This is described as an Impression (Deception), Impression (Intimidation), or Impression (Persuasion) check. In rare circumstances, other skills may be used as part of the Impression check, but these are the standard.

Impression DCs

The simplest method of handling Impression check DCs is to handle them as a contest with opposed skill rolls: Deception vs. Investigate, Intimidation vs. Intimidation, and Persuasion vs. Insight. The GM should also modify the rolls based on the relationships between characters. If, for instance, the PCs have played some tomfoolery on an NPC prior, granting the NPC advantage on his Investigate check against Deception (or imposing disadvantage on the PCs’ roll for Deception against Investigation) is perfectly reasonable. Social standing, appearance, and a myriad of other factors alter this—a noble is unlikely to be swayed by a grubby peasant, depending on how he views the lower classes. GMs should apply their best discretion and modify the rolls appropriately.

Success and Failure

Broadly speaking, the check should have minor mechanical weight, typically granting advantage on subsequent rolls (with a success) or disadvantage on subsequent rolls (with a failure).

The Impression Check Itself

It’s not enough for a character to state he’s making an Influence check, he has to justify the Influence check with his actions.

Deception

Requirements: A disguise, a clever ruse, a cover story, etc.
Opposing Skill: Investigate.

An Impression (Deception) check allows the PCs to befuddle the NPC, catching him off-guard or at an inopportune time. A successful skill check allows the PCs to leave him agitated, harried, addled, or distracted on a successful skill a check. A failed skill check, on the other hand, indicates the NPC is focused, suspicious, or otherwise unlikely to be fooled by shenanigans.

Intimidation

Requirements: Naked violence, a threat with some evidence to back it up, a show of might, etc.
Opposing Skill: Intimidation.

An Impression (Intimidation) check allows the PCs to frighten or cow an NPC. A successful skill check allows the PCs to leave him nervous, skittish, or reluctant to deny them their wishes. A failed skill check indicates the NPC is emboldened, angry, or totally placid.

Persuasion

Requirements: A gift, a legitimate display of humility, a favor, etc.
Opposing Skill: Insight.

An Impression (Persuasion) check allows the PCs to ingratiate themselves with an NPC, setting him at ease, lowering his guard, or otherwise putting him in a relatively pleasant mood. A failed skill check indicates the opposite: that he’s guarded, in a foul mood, or resistant to the PCs’ requests.

Negotiations Commence

Once the initial Impression checks are out of the way, it is time for the PCs and the NPCs to negotiate. There is something that both parties want out of the social encounter, whether that’s material gain, information, respect, power, support, or something else. In negotiating, the parties may be able to come to an amenable agreement with or without a skill check involved. In fact, this should be the case in most circumstances! Bartering for a good compromise should be the focus of the negotiation. Unfortunately, in some cases, an agreeable deal cannot be reached normally.

Diplomatic Impasses

If neither party is amenable to the wishes of the other, the final option on the table is a compel. This is a more potent form of influencing a character (described above). As part of compelling, one player flags a character's BIFT to force him to act in a specified manner. Players can compel NPCs; they cannot compel other PCs.

As part of compelling an NPC, a player does the following:
  1. He flags a BIFT.
  2. He offers the NPC a concession or compromise.
  3. He spends his Inspiration.
  4. He makes an appropriate skill check to force the NPC do his bidding. (He does not gain advantage for spending the Inspiration.)
The skill check involved is determined by the style of diplomacy in play and the exact DC varies depending on the reasonableness or outlandishness of the request and how heavily they chafe against the NPC’s BIFTs. The simplest method of handling this is using the aforementioned opposed roll and applying advantage or disadvantage as necessary.

On a successful skill check, the NPC does what the PC desires.

On a failed skill check, the NPC refuses, and the situation escalates in some way. There is no turning back at this point.

GM’s Caveat Regarding Compels

In some cases, it is totally unreasonable to expect an NPC to be compelled, and the GM should make this clear to the players. Some BIFTs are so deeply held that they will never change or be influenced. To grasp at some low-hanging fruit from pop culture:
  • Sauron will never, ever agree to give up the One Ring, and neither will Gollum. Gollum might be compelled to guide the Fellowship to Mount Doom by swearing upon the Ring (it is, after all, his Precious).
  • Darth Vader will never return to the Light Side at the behest of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he might be compelled to defend his son from Emperor Palpatine’s cruel ministrations.
  • Superman will never betray Ma and Pa Kent, but he could be compelled to leave the farm undefended (for a time) to protect Lois Lane.
 

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I love a lot of this, but hate the use of Inspiration as a meta-currency. I just think you could probably streamline a lot of this by taking out inspiration, or by readjusting its role to be minor.
 

I love a lot of this, but hate the use of Inspiration as a meta-currency. I just think you could probably streamline a lot of this by taking out inspiration, or by readjusting its role to be minor.
What would you recommend as an alternative? The goal was to provide a limitation to the mechanic while allowing players more opportunities to garner Inspiration outside of strict GM fiat.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sorry, but this is less codified that FATE? Seems to have way more moving parts and fiddly bits.

To me, the real issue here is that Inspiration is a weak mechanic, offering a weak reward, so as a motivating bit, it's very easy to ignore. You've upped that by making it the currency to compel NPCs, which is interesting, but then immediately discard this use by placing this use as requiring GM approval. If the GM is using this system, and presenting it as player facing, then leaving the results up to the GM both for taking the NPC compel and also how the compel works out is defanging anything useful you've done. Rather, this whole thing reads as a complicated way to ask the GM what the GM wants to do anyway. Narrative games work because they put teeth in the mechanics -- they can't just be ignored, they must be honored. This takes the usual "the GM says what happens" and dresses it up in some complicated costume, but doesn't change anything about how the system works.

Note, I'm using compel in the FATE sense of forcing a change in behavior, not in the distinction you've used above, which I don't really understand. The way I see getting to your use is that the player has already offered Inspiration and flagged a BIFT, but the GM has refused it, so the player tries really hard, offers it again, gives something up, and has to make a skill check (mediated by the GM), and the GM can still just refuse it. No teeth.
 

slobster

Hero
I actually did this once, in one of my games. I basically just used the FATE rules wholesale, jiggered onto 5E using bonds, ideals et. in place of aspects. I was primarily using it to spice up skill-based encounters (especially social ones), and I let players use Inspiration to reroll a check, give advantage on a check, automatically succeed (essentially a compel) if they could explain how their action was taking advantage of a known aspect of their opposition, or to add in some detail of a scene according to their own whim like declaring that a sewer grate in a dungeon is rusted out and able to be kicked down, or inventing a helpful relative. Skill checks could be made to reveal opponent's aspects, and to defend against an opponent discovering your own.

Honestly while I love FATE to death and feel its absence every time I play a more combat-focused system like D&D, my players barely ever used it. I thought it was cool and interesting and offered more strategy and complexity for my skill-based characters' players to shine. My players just wanted to roll intimidate to get the coliseum guard to show them where they keep the keys, and move on.

The system had much more success on the GM compelling side; they were happy to receive compels to act in ways that match their character's flaws and so on, and they got the hang of using Inspiration to add details to scenes and encounters. But they almost exclusively used those declarations in combat or in exploration, they just never cared much about the social encounter side of things.

In the end I chalked it up to a bit of a failed experiment. It might work better for other folks, but that was my experience.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I actually did this once, in one of my games. I basically just used the FATE rules wholesale, jiggered onto 5E using bonds, ideals et. in place of aspects. I was primarily using it to spice up skill-based encounters (especially social ones), and I let players use Inspiration to reroll a check, give advantage on a check, automatically succeed (essentially a compel) if they could explain how their action was taking advantage of a known aspect of their opposition, or to add in some detail of a scene according to their own whim like declaring that a sewer grate in a dungeon is rusted out and able to be kicked down, or inventing a helpful relative. Skill checks could be made to reveal opponent's aspects, and to defend against an opponent discovering your own.

Honestly while I love FATE to death and feel its absence every time I play a more combat-focused system like D&D, my players barely ever used it. I thought it was cool and interesting and offered more strategy and complexity for my skill-based characters' players to shine. My players just wanted to roll intimidate to get the coliseum guard to show them where they keep the keys, and move on.

The system had much more success on the GM compelling side; they were happy to receive compels to act in ways that match their character's flaws and so on, and they got the hang of using Inspiration to add details to scenes and encounters. But they almost exclusively used those declarations in combat or in exploration, they just never cared much about the social encounter side of things.

In the end I chalked it up to a bit of a failed experiment. It might work better for other folks, but that was my experience.
This is actually kinda close to how the DMG says to use BIFTs in social encounters, but with a bit more oomph. It also reminds me of how I tried similar things in my D&D games, and they also fell flat. What's interesting is that I've run Blades in the Dark with the same group and they dove in headfirst and really pushed on things. But, in D&D, it was back to the old standbys and not using any newly introduced mechanics.

After thinking on it awhile, I've come to the conclusion that trying to introduce actual narrativist mechanics into 5e is trying to mix oil and water. 5e is so non-narrativist it's painful, with the core mechanic of "the GM decides." This means any use of a narrativist mechanic feels, at best, out of place and can never really have any teeth the way they do in other games. I don't think it's worth the effort, and I haven't really heard of a good example of it working -- most attempts are really just a bit more improv at the table with the GM still in the drivers seat confused for narrativist gameplay. Instead, I'm now focused more on leaning into 5e and getting the most from the system as it's built rather than trying to drift it in directions it actively fights against.
 

cmad1977

Hero
I allow, once per session/per bift, the players to connect an action to one of their Bifts in return for advantage on a roll.
 

slobster

Hero
This is actually kinda close to how the DMG says to use BIFTs in social encounters, but with a bit more oomph. It also reminds me of how I tried similar things in my D&D games, and they also fell flat. What's interesting is that I've run Blades in the Dark with the same group and they dove in headfirst and really pushed on things. But, in D&D, it was back to the old standbys and not using any newly introduced mechanics.

After thinking on it awhile, I've come to the conclusion that trying to introduce actual narrativist mechanics into 5e is trying to mix oil and water. 5e is so non-narrativist it's painful, with the core mechanic of "the GM decides." This means any use of a narrativist mechanic feels, at best, out of place and can never really have any teeth the way they do in other games. I don't think it's worth the effort, and I haven't really heard of a good example of it working -- most attempts are really just a bit more improv at the table with the GM still in the drivers seat confused for narrativist gameplay. Instead, I'm now focused more on leaning into 5e and getting the most from the system as it's built rather than trying to drift it in directions it actively fights against.
This more or less matches my experience, and also my conclusions. I've found that sprinkling in narrativist mechanics can work, especially when they synergize with what the players already expect to be and enjoy doing. But they crash and burn when I'm trying to throw a spotlight onto a place where my players already have in their heads that D&D isn't focused on. So I've abandoned the idea of "fixing" anything I don't like about 5E with these types of add-ons. Instead, I use them to give my players a little more power and authority in the areas of the game they already enjoy, i.e. for my crew combat, exploration, and fortress building/management.

And yeah, several of my players happily trade compels back and forth with the GM when we are playing FATE, to the point where an entire session's worth of FP will be blown on a social scene with only reputation or RP goals on the line. But put that into our D&D session, and they just aren't interested!
 



cmad1977

Hero
How does this work for you? Because I was thinking of implementing exactly this.

So… the players really like it. I kind of stole the idea from “Forbidden Lands”. I like it because it seems to encourage the player to try things that might be difficult but in the PCs “character wheelhouse” if that makes sense.
 

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