Social Encounter System


First Post
Here's a draft for the social encounter system that I've been brainstorming. It's still pretty basic, and there are a lot of specifics that need to be covered, but I thought I'd post the work in progress and see what people think.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

(I haven't posted it up as a .doc, because I haven't figured out how to do so yet...)

Social Encounter System:


This is a simple system for designing and running social interactions, which slots in with the structure of 4e. It takes combat encounter design principals and uses them to allow DM’s to create more interesting and tactical social environments and encounters.

The Purpose of Social Encounters

Throughout the course of their adventuring careers, characters will find themselves in a variety of social situations.

PC’s often enter social situations and encounters with a specific goal (or set of goals) in mind. Their goal may be to find a person, hunt down piece of information, negotiate a treaty, or even just to carouse and search for plot hooks.

The players must interact with other characters in an encounter in order to achieve their goals.

The Sequence

Upon entering a new social situation, each participant rolls initiative.

Social situations are measured in beats, the equivalent of rounds. The duration of a beat is flexible depending on the pace of the situation.

A beat could represent six seconds, ten minuets or, in some cases, an hour or more. This depends on the size, scope and tempo of the situation, as well as the types of actions being performed.

The tempo of an encounter, and thus the duration of the beats may change mid-encounter due to the actions of the PC’s or other events. This represents the tension heightening in a social encounter, and

During a beat, each player has a turn to act.

In each players turn, they describe their actions, generally allowing them to move around the encounter and make a single skill check, or engage in a minor skill challenge.

Using Skills in a Social Situation
The basis of social interaction in D&D boils down to two things: role-playing and skill checks. Skill checks are used to supplement role-playing, but are no substitute for player ingenuity.

Interacting with key figures or groups of people in a social encounter will often initiate a skill check or challenge.

In social encounters, there are three types of skill checks:

Standard skill checks
These are standardized, one-off interactions. A momentary bluff or diplomacy check is an example of this.

Minor Skill Challenges
A minor skill challenge is often performed by a single player, and takes two to three beats to complete.

An example may include winning the trust of a minor noble, befriending a group of drunkards, or convincing a barman not to kick you out.

The results of minor skill challenges can influence the outcomes of major skill challenges, either by opening new options, or counting as one or more successes.

(I am considering allowing players to make two checks for a minor skill challenge in a single round, as long as they do not engage in anything else that round. This includes moving)

Major Skill Challenges

Major skill challenges relate directly to the plot or the goals of the PC’s, and unfold over the course of the social encounter. A major skill challenge need not happen on consecutive beats, and any of the players can contribute towards its success or failure.

Players cannot usually engage in major challenges as soon as an encounter begins, as they will usually have to hunt down the right characters or engineer the right situations through a combination of good role-playing, standard skill checks and minor skill challenges.

NPC Types

There are three categories of NPC’s: General Characters, Minor Characters, and Major Characters.

General Characters:

The most basic level of NPC, general characters make up the majority of the crowd in a social situation. They have the same social statistics as others of their type, and usually act and react as a group. One social situation may occasionally have several different groups of general characters.

General Characters usually have rather simple motivations, and are concerned with the immediate world around them. They are the equivalent of extras in a film, and help to give a setting a sense of depth and volume.

Examples include: Drinkers in a bar, dockworkers, soldiers, aristocrats at a ball, students in a university, tribesmen, or commoners in a market.

Minor Characters

Minor characters are characterful figures that provide texture to a social situation or encounter. Minor characters have likes and dislikes, as well as goals and motivations, although these goals are usually quite general, or don’t relate directly to the PC’s. Minor characters may have information that can point PC’s towards their goals, or they may even provide plot hooks in the future.

Examples include a jovial fat merchant, a surly barman, a classic ‘mysterious ranger’, a foreman at a building site, a vagabond, or a particularly snooty waiter.

Major Characters

Major Characters are important to the plot of the story, and will often be part of the PC’s main objective of the encounter. Some major characters are re-occurring characters that help to provide a sense of long-term continuity to the campaign.

Major characters usually have very specific goals and agendas, and may already know of the PC’s actions and intentions.

Major characters differ from minor characters, not only because they are intrinsic to the story, but also because they have an initiative count, and can actively influence the situation and NPC’s around them with skill checks and their own social wiles.

A major character will not usually take an action in every beat of the encounter. Only roll dice for them when their actions directly influence or are affected by the PC's or other major characters.

Examples include: a Baron, a spy, a woman whose life is in danger, a thief who stole something important, a General, or basically anyone intrinsic to the plotline.

NPC Behaviour

Each NPC has their own agenda and desires, and will react to and interact with the PC’s in specific ways.

This can easily be mapped out in a Social Statistic Block (this statistic block can be used for individuals and groups of people):

Name: (Name of the character/group of characters)

Physical Description: (a brief overview of what the character looks like. Essentially flavour text)

Type: (General, Minor or Major character)

(the character’s initial mood)

Goals: (What the character wishes to achieve)

Likes: (What the character will respond well to)

Dislikes: (what the character will respond badly to)

Relevant Information Known:
(any information useful to the PC’s. This can relate to the campaign or a major skill challenge. Also general fluff information)

Skill DC’s/Challenges:
(details of specific skill checks or challenges related to this NPC.) – when playing the NPC, remember to treat them like an actual character, rather than a series of numbers and DC’s. Allow for innovation and flexibility at the table.

Skill bonuses/passive DCs. Any relevant skills that the NPC may be trained in, as well as their scores for passive perception, etc.

Quirks, Traits and Notable Quotations: (Anything that makes this character or group of characters memorable. Can include phrases, mannerisms, or physical tips on how you wish to play the character.)

Example of Play:

The players arrive at the Baron’s Masquerade Ball, in search of the Baron’s nephew, who they suspect of being involved in a series of murders.

They roll initiative, and proceed to explore the gathering, mingling with the people there and trying to find information of his whereabouts. Two of the PC’s decide to talk to the crowd of assembled nobles, while one eavesdrops on conversations, another slips away from the gathering to scout for a potential escape route, and the fifth mingles by the food tables.

In the first beat, two of the characters make diplomacy checks to mingle with the aristocracy and find out some general information. One makes a listen check to eavesdrop on conversations, and another makes a sneak check to leave without attracting attention.

The final character decides to pretend that he’s drunk and harasses a waiter, initiating a minor skill challenge. In this beat, he makes a bluff check to pretend that he’s drunk, and in the next beat, he makes an intimidate check to bully the waiter…

From here, the situation evolves, and the NPC’s are capable of reacting to the PC’s actions in meaningful ways.

Designing Social Encounters

Social encounters can be very easy to put together, much like a combat encounter. This can be doubly so if you prepare a few stock NPC’s that can be stored in your toolbox and used when needed.

When planning a social encounter, you should start with an outline of your encounter.

This outline should include the location, the purpose of the encounter, the pacing, and any major players or notable features.

It is advisable to draw up a quick mind-map of the encounter. This should include who knows what and who is connected to who, as well as give you the opportunity to figure out the likely flow of events.

It is also important to realise that events will rarely flow according to plan. Keeping this in mind, you should have a few different paths of actions that the PC’s can follow, and also know where the story will go if the PC’s should fail.

In order to give flavour to a social encounter, you should set up minor skill challenges and characterful moments that do not relate directly to the main storyline, but help to flesh out the world.

Evolving NPC’s

Over the course of several encounters or adventures, the whims and desires of a group of NPC’s will evolve. This is especially interesting to implement when their outlooks are changed by the actions (or perceived actions) of the PC’s.

Throughout the course of a session or a campaign, NPC’s may move from one category to another.

Using this technique, you can take a previously minor character (such as a merchant that the players have met a few times), and throw him into the middle of a story.

Also, if the PC’s actions allow a minor or major character to emerge from a group of general characters, let it happen. Occasional occurrences such as this can add a sense of depth to your world.

Social Encounters and Maps

Maps can be useful in social encounters, although they do not have to be to drawn to a grid, as they simply function as a visual aide and as an indicator for what is happening where within the encounter.

Social Encounters and Combat

Sometimes, a social encounter will turn sour. Intense negotiations may lead to drawn swords, or a failed attempt and stealing something may lead to the guards being called.

In some situations, the PC’s may even wish to initiate combat with those around them, either by provoking with words and actions or assaulting them directly.

When a social encounter turns into a combat encounter, the beats turn into rounds, and combat commences as per normal.

The one exception to this is that in the first round of combat, the measurement of time is still a little flexible, and players that are some distance away have the opportunity to get themselves close enough to the combat to participate in it.

Players and major characters keep their initiative score, and all additional combatants roll for initiative.

If the combat is unexpected, each combatant can make an insight check to avoid being surprised by the event.

The combat can only be stopped if all involved come to an agreement to cease the combat. Practically the only way for the PC’s to achieve this is through some clever role-playing, possibly supplemented by a few lucky dice-rolls.

Still to come:

Stock NPC’s, example encounters, and refined details and wording within the main document.

Any feedback is welcome.

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