D&D 4E Weekly Wrecana - Social Challenges (another 6 part)

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
In Memoriam to Mark Monack (Wrecan)

SOCIAL CHALLENGES 1: THE CHALLENGE
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.


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.
Role-Playing
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.
Roll-Playing
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!
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Social Skills

SOCIAL CHALLENGES 2: SOCIAL SKILLS

This is the second of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.
Note: I have edited this blog based on the comments of aoirorentsu, below. I have also changed the discussion on Duplicity based on other comments. Thanks for the great ideas!

In this second blog, I discuss two design flaws when it comes to the primary Skills that govern social challenges. The first flaw is that Bluff and Diplomacy do not appropriately cover the ways that people persuade one another. The second flaw is that Diplomacy is the only Social Skill that does not afford a benefit outside the Social Challenge.

Flaw One: A Persuasive Argument
As it presently stands, attempts to persuade others through deception use Bluff and attempts to persuade others through honesty use Diplomacy. This means a character can be more persuasive lying than when telling the truth and that doesn’t make much sense. Imagine a scenario in which a warlock trained in Bluff, but not Diplomacy, knows a horde of gnolls is slowly advancing towards a village. The warlock needs to convince a village that they need to start preparing fortifications. Astonishingly, the warlock finds it easier to warn the villagers of a fictional danger to their town than of the actual gnolls. Moreover, the warlock would have an easier time convincing the villagers to build fortifications if there were no gnolls advancing at all. It’s bizarre.

In order to fix this anomaly, I propose two fixes. The first brings Social Skills into alignment with how people actually interact and persuade one another. The second changes how lying and deception mechanically works.
On Rhetoric
Aristotle, in On Rhetoric, identifies three methods by which people convince others: pathos, logos, and ethos. I’ll take each in turn.

Pathos appeals to people’s emotions. Sometimes you appear to their fears ("The Redcoats are coming!"), sometimes you appeal to their anger ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"), and sometimes you appeal to their hopes ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!"). Bluff should govern emotional appeals. (Bluff still retains the ability to lie; however, in Social Challenges, as shall be seen, the benefit of having a personal ability to bluff is somewhat lessened by the fact that your companions who are not so dishonest are likely to expose your lies though involuntary reactions.)

Logos appeals to people’s reason, convincing people to agree with you through intellectual force and a command of facts. Diplomacy should govern logical appeals. The appeal is still based on Charisma, not Intelligence, although having command of the facts (through appropriate knowledge checks) should grant circumstantial bonuses.

Ethos appeals to your own character. If you exude confidence, you are more likely to get people to do what you want. Intimidate actually approximates this ability best. While Intimidate is generally described as a character who instills fear in the Intimidator himself, this could easily be expanded as anybody who exudes the confidence necessary to instill an emotional reaction in the targets. In addition, where characters are familiar to one another, a level of trust is earned which obviates the need to project confidence. This might manifest as a situational bonus, or even obviating the need for a roll at all. ("If Barney says the gnolls are coming, they are coming. Man the barricades!")
On Duplicity
Lying is not a matter of persuasion. That is why it is opposed by Insight (on an individual level) and not Will. A lie allows you to make appeals without being limited by what is actually true, and this is a huge benefit. However, getting caught in a lie undermines your credibility. A successful lie, in other words, aids your appeal to emotion and reason, but at the expense of an appeal to character if caught.

For this reason, a successful lie does not represent a success in a Social Challenge. Rather, a successful lie allows you to make an appeal you could not make if limited to truthful statements. But because an exposed lie risks ruining your credibility, it increases the difficulty of the challenge, for those who are not good liars.

In Social Challenges, which are group endeavors, it is insufficient for the liar to be a good bluffer. The entire party (or at least those members who realize the liar is lying) must participate in the charade. If any party members reveals, through involuntary facial expressions, that there's something amiss, the lie could be exposed. This is represented by a penalty to the roll in a Social Challenge.
[h=1]Flaw Two: A Diplomatic Endeavor[/h]Every social skill is useful outside a social challenge, except one: Diplomacy. Perhaps this is because Diplomacy is so powerful in Social Challenges that it need not have other uses. However, by limiting Diplomacy to rhetorical arguments, and delegating emotional arguments to Bluff, the usefulness of Diplomacy has been reduced. Diplomacy should therefore have a use outside of Social Challenges, just as Bluff and Intimidate do.

Diplomacy should be as useful in combat as the other social skills. Thus, I propose the following house rule: Once an encounter, as a free action, if you are trained in Diplomacy and your action causes an enemy to exit a square adjacent to an ally, roll a Diplomacy check. If the check exceeds an opposing Insight check made by the enemy, your ally may make a basic melee attack targeting that enemy as an immediate interrupt. This applies even though forced movement generally does not provoke opportunity attacks. Essentially, you use your communicative abilities to rapidly inform your ally of an opportunity you are creating, and the Insight check represents he enemy's attempt to protect himself against the opening you are describing to your ally.

With these small changes to Social Skills, we are ready to address designing Social Challenges in my next blog.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
SOCIAL CHALLENGES 3: DESIGN

This is the third of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.I have amended this blog slightly because I have changed my approach to duplicity in Social Challenges based on comments I have received.

In this third blog, I will discuss how to design a Social Challenge. There are two aspects to design: the narrative (i.e., the role-play), and the mechanics (i.e., the dice).

Designing the Narrative
A Social Challenge Is Inclusive.
The DM should ensure that the challenge has something that will engage all the characters. This is usually accomplished by knowing your players and their characters. Do they have interests that can be piqued? Do they have histories that can be explored? Motivations? Goals? Use these and integrate them into the story behind the Challenge. The more your players and their characters are engaged, the more enjoyable the Social Challenge. If the encounter is gong to involve the DM role-playing with only one player, with the rest of the party as audience, do not run the encounter, or do so as a vignette before or after the regular session.

A Social Challenge Is Risky. A Social Interaction is an encounter designed to be surpassed without combat, but which presents no risk of failure to the PCs. If the PCs are merely reporting their latest adventure to their superiors, for instance, there is no need for a challenge. A night out on the town should be role-played without dice. Improvise. The key distinction between Social Challenges and Social Interactions is that Challenges have a predetermined consequence for failure. This consequence should not be death. Deadly encounters should be reserved for combat. However, a failed Social Challenge may result in combat.

A Social Challenge Is Competitive. In a Social Challenge, the PCs should be attempting to overcome the resistance of an NPC or one or more groups of NPCs. Please note that “overcome” does not mean “defeat”. It merely means to change an NPCs outlook to become more consonant with the PCs’ goals, whether through persuasion, blackmail, extortion or simply by wearing them down. In contrast, a Social Puzzle has no NPCs to affect. It is an encounter (or series of encounters) in which players collect information. Crime mysteries often manifest as Social Puzzles, in which the players interview witnesses and suspects, gleaning information and clues until they figure out whodunit. Information gathering sessions, where PCs travel from sage to informant, finding out background information for their next adventure, also follow the Social Puzzle format. Except for the occasional Insight check to pierce a lie, the Social Puzzle’s only risk is that the players will not learn all they should. In a Social Puzzle, NPCs are not persuaded; they are simply questioned, and this should simply be role-played.
[h=1]Designing the Mechanics[/h]Once you have designed the narrative, you are ready to assign some numbers to it. A Social Challenge follows many of the same conventions as a Skill Challenge. But here are some rules of thumb to remember when assigning numbers:

The Social Challenge assumes the social strengths and weaknesses of the characters for whom it is designed. As a DM you should know the mannerisms and strengths of your players and their characters. You also want to create a challenge for them, not for some generic party of adventurers who may be passing through. Thus, when you design an encounter, design it for your PCs and their characters. If the PCs are built for social challenges, increase the DCs. If the PCs are uniformly uncharismatic, lower the DCs. You should also vary the DCs based on whether the NPCs are more or less amenable to certain types of appeals, or based on how gullible or skeptical the NPCs may be.

Circumstantial Bonuses should be applied only if the characters act in unexpected ways. If one of the PCs is always gruff and offensive, the DC should assume the PC will act this way. If the PC manages to keep his offensive attitude in check this encounter, then the party might get a circumstantial bonus. If one of the PC’s is always eloquent, then the DC assumes the PC will be eloquent in the encounter. If for some reason, he decides to be a wallflower, the party might receive a circumstantial penalty. The DCs should also be assumed to account for other situational benefits and drawbacks the PCs may enjoy entering the encounter, such as fame (or infamy), racial prejudices, xenophobia, filial relations, and the like.

The Social Encounter should feel level-appropriate. Epic tier characters should not have to negotiate with the mayor of a podunk town. Or if they do, there should be little chance of failure, just as if this epic party had to break into the mayor’s house. The mayor’s heroic tier lock should be no match for an epic-tier thief, and neither should his wits. Since the encounter is built around the PCs, it should appear challenging to the players, so the DCs you select seem appropriate for the encounter.

Social Encounters assume a subjective universe. The DCs do not represent the chance of a generic team of adventurers persuading the NPCs to accomplish a task – they represent the chance of your PCs affecting these NPCs in this specific place in time. If the PCs encounter the same NPCs later, you might vary the DCs significantly (or you might decide the encounter is not even a Challenge!).
A Final Note on Setting DCs
All DCs should be set at around 15+½ level+1/tier. If the encounter is supposed to be relatively easy, you can reduce the DCs. If the encounter is supposed to be difficult, you can increase it.

There should be at least three DCs. Choose separate DCs for emotional appeals (Bluff), logical appeals (Diplomacy), and ethical appeals (Intimidate). The DCs should each vary from each other to reflect the specific means by which the NPCs are more likely to be persuaded. However, these DCs should generally be varied by no more then -2 to +2.

Now that you can design a Social Challenge, stay tuned for the next blog wherein we discuss the execution of a Social Challenge.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
SOCIAL CHALLENGES 4: EXECUTION
This is the fourth of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.

In this fourth blog, I will describe how to run a Social Encounter that you design.
Role-Playing the Social Challenge[/h]Role-play a social encounter as much as possible. Involve as many PCs as want to join in the discussion. Try not to favor any single player. Encourage all the PCs to speak and act, regardless of their specific social ability (in or out of the game). Here are some role-playing tips for making a Social Challenge a memorable experience:

Give positive feedback. PCs should not feel like every Social Challenge is a slog. If the NPCs seem interested in the PCs, the PCs will be interested in the encounter. If the NPCs act bored or unimpressed with the players, the players will feel belittled and will want to end the encounter as quickly as possible, win or lose. Have NPCs genuinely compliment the characters, even if they don’t agree with the characters’ goals in the specific Challenge at hand. As characters increase in level, have NPCs recognize them, possibly with flattering epithets like “Grognard the Brave” or “Dandle the Quick-Witted”. This helps make the encounter fun for the players, even when their characters fail.
Individuate your NPCs. Come up with a few quirks or personality traits of your NPCs to differentiate them, particularly if a single encounter has multiple NPCs. Jot a few words down next to the NPC to help remind you how to distinguish the characters. For Social Challenges, I will sometimes have just two lines: (i) How does he act?, and (ii) What’s he hiding? If you have minis for the NPCs, put the mini for which you are speaking in front of you while using that NPC’s voice. (You generally don’t need to set up a battle mat during a Social Challenge.)
Mirror the players. A good conversational trick, but one that works especially well in Social Challenges, is to have NPCs repeat the PCs’ arguments in the NPC’s own words. This accomplishes a few things. First, it lets the PCs know the NPC (and DM) is listening, which engages the players. Second, it gives the PCs an insight into the NPC’s own concerns, which leads to more role-play.
Time Management. According to the old saw, a lull in conversations occurs every seven or twenty minutes. Whether true or not, I find ten minutes to be the appropriate approximate amount of conversation that should occur between success rolls in Social Challenges. Any longer and players start to get bored. Any shorter and the challenge feels too dominated by dice. But do not feel shackled to the clock. If people are having fun, let the conversation linger. If the PCs get to the heart of the matter immediately, do not prolong things just for the sake of making it last a specific amount of time. Another good gauge of when to roll for a success is when the PCs have maximized their individual effort modifiers (see below).


Roll-Playing the Social Challenge
Only when it comes time to figure out whether an NPC is persuaded by the PCs should the DM ask for rolls. The Party Skill to be used (Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate) depends on the type of argument the party makes (emotional, logical, or ethical). If a party tries multiple approaches, roll separately for each approach. Each roll may count as a failure, but the party can only get one success.

The roll to determine if the party gains a success in a Social Challenge shall be called a “success roll”. A success roll is, like most other rolls, a d20 + ½ party level that must equal or exceed the applicable DC, modified by the following:

Party Skill Modifier. My lovely and brilliant wife designed this method, which I think resolves many of the mechanical problems of Social Challenges. Take the mean Charisma modifier of each of the characters of the players attending that session. Add a +1 bonus for each party member trained in the skill associated with the argument the party is attempting, up to a maximum bonus of +5. This should result in a Party Bluff, Party Diplomacy, and Party Intimidate modifier.
Individual Effort Modifier Players may apply their own individual efforts to the check. A party member may invoke a non-Charismatic Skill, a power, a Background, or an item that applies a bonus to the Party Skill. If a Skill is used, roll a skill check. If a Power, Background, or item is used, roll a d20 + ½ level + Charisma modifier + 5 (plus any appropriate circumstantial modifiers). A success represents a +1 bonus to the success roll. No party member can contribute more than one secondary bonus per success roll, and the aggregate secondary bonus may not exceed +3. Do not allow an item to be used this way more than once per Social Challenge (even if the item grants a static bonus).
Circumstantial Modifier. A party that performs in unexpected ways, either positively or negatively, should receive a bonus or penalty between -3 to +3. This might represent antisocial characters controlling themselves, or social characters slipping up. (Do not grant the bonus if an antisocial character merely stays out of the way. The bonus must represent a conscious effort of the character to act socially.) It might include parties picking up clues that the DM did not expect them to get, or missing clues the DM did. Also, if a PC is caught in a lie, this can be represented with a negative modifier to the party roll (or, alternately, as an automatic failure, depending in the severity of the lie and the specifics of the scenario).
Duplicity Penalty. If an approach involves duplicity, the entire party must cooperate to conceal the lie. Duplicity imposes a -1 penalty for each PC who is not trained in Bluff and is aware of the lie, up to a maximum penalty of -5. (Keep in mind that the benefit of duplicity is that it allows PCs to make appeals that they could not make if required to be truthful. This narrative benefit can easily outweigh the numerical penalty.) If the party fails a success roll when they used duplicity (even if they did not incur a Duplicity Penalty), the failure could represent the discovery of the lie; though it need not.

This system discourages people from refusing to role-play because their characters lack Charisma because the entire party’s Charisma will apply regardless of any single individual’s modifier. It also encourages multiple PCs to get involved, because their individual secondary skills, powers and backgrounds can add circumstantial bonuses. Ensure the Social Challenge potentially allows half the PCs to participate at each success roll, and be generous in letting PCs improvise.

Stay tuned for my next blog when I give a template for Social Challenges as well as two samples.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
SOCIAL CHALLENGES 5: SAMPLE CHALLENGES
This is the fifth of six blogs I will be presenting on how to design and execute Social Challenges for your party, blending role-play and dice.
In this fifth blog, I will present a few sample Social Challenges. Note that these Social Challenges will be fairly generic. You should tailor your Challenges to the desires and abilities of your party, including benefits tied to your player characters’ back stories and desires. The Social Challenges I include are the four that I included as samples in the first Social Challenges blog
[h=1]Social Challenges Template[/h]Here is a template I use when writing out Social Challenges:
Title: The name of the Social Challenge
Level: The level of the challenge and experience points to be awarded.
Complexity: __ (__ successes before 3 failures)
DC: Bluff (Emotional) – __; Diplomacy (Logical) – __; Intimidate (Ethical) – __
Premise: A brief description of the scenario
Success: A description of what each success represents.
Failure: A description of what each failure represents.
Intimidate: A description of whether and how PCs might Intimidate people in the encounter.
Obstacles: A general description of each of the obstacles to the PCs’ success.



Example 1
Title: The Horde is Coming!
Level: 3 (750 XP)
Complexity: 2 (6 successes before 3 failures)
DC: Bluff (Emotional) – 16; Diplomacy (Logical) – 18; Intimidate (Ethical) – 18
Premise: The party has ridden ahead of a horde of marauding gnolls who are heading directly for a small farming village. The villagers are generally good, but skeptical of outsiders, and only recently were hoodwinked by a band of unscrupulous adventurers who had sold many villagers some fake elixirs that they said would increase the yield of their crops.
Success: Each success represents the heroes overcoming one of several hurdles. (The players need one initial success just to get the townspeople to gather and hear their tale.) A representative village elder should be chosen to represent each of these hurdles. For each success, a hurdle is overcome and some of the villagers will help the PCs. The more hurdles overcome, the easier the ultimate battle against the horde.
Failure: When all hurdles are overcome, or three failures are reached, the party has convinced all the villagers they can and time is running out – the PCs have to begin directing the contruction of defenses.
Intimidate: This can be used to convince one elder to stop voicing an opinion. If the elder is the only one left voicing dissent, this can be counted as a success for that elder. If there are multiple elders still with objections, the PCs gain a failure for each other elder still objecting.
Obstacles:
Gathering: The first success is needed just to get the elders to agree to come out and listen to the PCs. An argument by reputation gets a +2 circumstance bonus for this success only.
Doubt. The villagers think they are incapable of doing anything. The PCs need to explain to the town what defensive strategies they might employ.
Fear. Some may want to send a messenger to the local lord for reinforcements, or to simply delay while they spend more time considering. The party needs to impress upon them that time is of the essence.
Pacifism. The villagers are not warriors; they instinctively look for the best in people and some think they can deal with the gnolls. Explaining the origin of gnolls and showing trophies or scars from prior fights with gnolls can help.
Starvation. The village worries that they will have to abandon the harvest and starve come winter. The PCs can promise to help them get food if they survive.
Trust. The village worries the heroes are trying to trick them. The players can tell stories of their past achievements, or refer to other good people they have served. This Obstacle can only be overcome with an ethical appeal.


[h=1]Example 2[/h]Title: We Never Smuggle Any More
Level: 11 (1,200 XP)
Complexity: 4 (10 successes before 3 failures)
DC: Bluff (Emotional) – 24; Diplomacy (Logical) – 22; Intimidate (Ethical) – 21
Premise: The party has been framed for a crime they did not commit. The only person who can prove their innocence has fled to a town downriver. No reputable riverboat captain will allow them passage. That only leaves the unscrupulous halfling riverboat captain, Snivelas Felltree. They have been unable to sell any of their equipment because reputable dealers will not deal with them and disreputable dealers simply do not have enough cash on hand to make it worth the players’ while. The PCs have 5,000 gp in cash on hand.
Success: The base price for the entire party is 5,000 gp. Each success reduces the price of the journey by 500 gp (so the party might even get the ride for free). Each success represents discovering one of the things that motivates Snivelas as much as or more than money. His officers are on hand to watch and see if any magic is being used to influence him.
Failure: 3 failures means Snivelas will not reduce his price any further. The party has only one hour before he hoists sail, so the encounter can end before the requisite successes or failures are reached.
Intimidate: Intimidate will not work on Snivelas, unless the PC is on the ship. Snivelas may be intimidated into retreating into the bowels of his ship (which should be treated as tunnels dug by Small creatures, for purposes of movement). This will also result in combat on the ship (and the PCs will have to commandeer the riverboat or find a different way to the downriver town).
Obstacles:
Faith. Snivelas is a devout follower of Avandra. A demonstrated knowledge of Avandra worship can soften his stance.
Flattery. Flattery can get you everywhere (but only so far). A comely halfling PC may also flirt with him to reduce the fare a bit.
Food. Snivelas is concerned about the cost of feeding his passengers. If he believes the PCs can provide their own food, it reduces his expenses.
Gaming. Snivelas is a dedicated gambler, and may be intrigued by any offer of a game he has not previously seen.
Greed. If the PCs have connections in cities other than the one they are leaving and the one to which they are traveling, Snivelas may be interested in hearing more.
Light-footed. His ship is built for halflings, and he is concerned these big folk will get in the way, even if they are trained sailors. Acrobatics can help here.
Seamanship. If the PCs convince Snivelas that they know their way around the boat, and won’t be tripping over the ropes and oars, he’d be more comfortable letting them aboard.
Security. Snivelas would be interested in knowing how the PCs found him, and wants to heighten his security measures.
Spite. Snivelas hates the law, and is sometimes willing to take less of a profit if it means humiliating the authorities.
Vanity. The PCs can appeal to Snivelas’ vanity by promising that he’ll be known as a friend of the heroes.
Special: Because Snivelas and his crew are well-versed in deception, the Duplicity Penalty is increased by -1 for each PC who is aware of the duplicity. This additional penalty does not apply to any character who is ignorant of the duplicity, has a Charisma of 18 or greater, or has a bonus to Bluff from a Background, item, or Feat.

Stay tuned for the next blog when I present a few final words of caution and my final two sample Social Challenges!
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
SOCIAL CHALLENGES 6: MORE SAMPLE CHALLENGES
This is the last of six blogs on designing and executing Social Challenges for your party through a blend of role-play and dice.

In this sixth blog, I will present the last two sample Social Challenges from the first blog. But first, a Word of Caution:
A Word of Caution
This system is not for everyone. If you choose to use it, please consider the following:
Number Crunchers and Thespians. Players accustomed to Diplomacy or Bluff checks every time a character speaks and players who enjoy role-playing without any dice may be disconcerted by the (in)frequency of dice rolling. Discuss the system with your players before implementation.
Party Face. A character purposely built to dominate social encounters should be offered an opportunity to re-train. Because this system encourages a team-based approach to role-playing, it is less rewarding to have one character as the party “face”.
Social Mavericks. Players who like to go off on their own may not like this system, which encourages teamwork. Here is one way you can deal with mavericks: Allow a maverick to make an independent appeal. Use the PCs’ Skill Check, but impose a -5 penalty (representing the party’s disagreement). If the maverick uses dishonesty in this independent appeal, and the PC is not trained in Bluff, add an additional +5 to the DC. (If he has a Background, feat or item that can grant a bonus to the skill, allow him to make a Skill check against a DC of 15 + ½ level + 1/tier to gain a +1 bonus to the roll, up to a maximum bonus of +3. Each Background, feat or item can be used only once per encounter, even if it grants a static bonus.) The maverick’s success or failure still applies to the party’s efforts as a whole.
Example 3:
Title: May I Pet Your Catacomb?
Level: 19 (12,000 XP)
Complexity: 1 (4 successes before 3 failures)
DC: Bluff (Emotional) – 31; Diplomacy (Logical) – 29; Intimidate (Ethical) – 27
Premise: A valuable artifact may be hidden within the King’s ancestral catacombs. Nobody can pass through the magical wards without the King’s permission. Although the PCs have great renown, none but those of royal blood have ever been within the tombs. Touching the artifact will release demons that will have to be fought. It is unlikely anybody in the kingdom but the PCs could stand up to the demons.
Success: Each success represents overcoming one of the King’s reservations to the endeavor. Note that the DCs have been inflated. Although few successes are needed, they are harder to manage. Complete success is neither expected nor guaranteed (nor necessary).
Failure: If the PCs manage the challenge with no failures, they are allowed free passage. With one failure, the King demands a service from them in the future. With two failures, the King insists the PCs take his priest along to ensure the catacombs are properly treated. (The priest can contribute somewhat, but will restrict the PCs’ options.) With three failures, the King orders the PCs to take his nephew along. His nephew is a minion who imagines himself an adventurer. The PCs must to keep the nephew alive and allow the nephew to believe he contributed to the venture.
Intimidate: Always fails. The Lord is convinced the PCs will not resort to violence. If they do, and defeat the court, the PCs will forever be branded as outlaws.
Obstacles:
Gods: The gods look unkindly on those who disturb royal tombs. A demonstration of the proper protocols for ensuring that the gods are not angered can allay the king’s fears.
Need: The PCs must convince the King that the PCs’ needs are sufficiently dire to break with centuries of tradition.
Privacy: The King is concerned that the PCs may learn embarrassing facts about his family past. The PCs must demonstrate that they can be discrete.
Vandals: The PCs must ally the King’s concern that the PCs will be disrespectful to the remains of his ancestors, which could anger their spirits.
[h=1]Example 4:[/h]Title: The Riddle of the Sphinx Lady
Level: 27 (55,000 XP)
Complexity: 1 (4 successes before 3 failures)
DC: Bluff (Emotional) – 31; Diplomacy (Logical) – 33; Intimidate (Ethical) – 29
Premise: The PCs must travel to an Astral Domain that has been warped by the alien energies of the Far Realm. Normal rituals of travel will not operate here, but the PCs have found a gate to that Domain guarded by a Sphinx Lady. Sadly, the Sphinx Lady has been corrupted by the maddening forces of the Far Realm. Her riddles are nonsensical, but the PCs detect a glimmer of what was once the sphinx’s sanity. If they can reach that small spark, perhaps they can gain passage without having to fight this beast.
Success: Each success represents a mental defense the sphinx has erected so she won’t recognize what she has become. The PCs must overcome each in turn.
Failure: If the PCs reach three failures before the required number of successes, the sphinx will finally succumb to her madness and attack the PCs.
Intimidate: Intimidate may be attempted once this encounter. If successful, it serves as two successes. If it fails, however, it also serves as two failures.
Obstacles:
Denial: “I am not crazy – now tell me what has three legs in the morning and sings rain”. The PCs must first corner the sphinx into a logical corner, showing him how her words make no sense. Logical appeals gain a +1 circumstantial bonus here.
Anger: “You! You did this to me!” The PCs must protest their innocence, either with heartfelt pleas, or with reason. Ethical appeals gain a +1 circumstantial bonus here.
Bargaining: “Perhaps if I study the gates… I can find a cure.” The PCs know this will only hasten her ultimate fall, perhaps transforming her into an aberration, or unleashing Far Realm horrors upon the World. The players must convince her not to look directly into the gates.
Depression: “I am lost! All is lost!” The sphinx could turn self-destructive, and destroy the gates as a form of suicide, thus unleashing the Far Realms on the world. The PCs must offer her some form of hope. Either they promise to return and treat her madness, or offer her hope that their quest might close the gates and preserve what is left of her sanity. If successful she will accept her fate and let the PCs pass. Emotional appeals gain a +1 bonus here.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this series of blogs. Please let me know if you use this method in your games and any comments or suggestions you have.
 
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darkbard

Hero
Thanks for doing these, Garthanos! Agree or disagree with Wrecan's designs, it's good to have a place to revisit them. Speaking of which, I wonder if it would be useful to contact a moderator to see if we can establish a separate sticky thread here wherein you can add links to each of these separate threads as you add them....
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Thanks for doing these, Garthanos! Agree or disagree with Wrecan's designs, it's good to have a place to revisit them. Speaking of which, I wonder if it would be useful to contact a moderator to see if we can establish a separate sticky thread here wherein you can add links to each of these separate threads as you add them....

That would indeed be cool...
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
To my thinking Wrecan does have a misfire in this.

Pathos, is charisma based, Logos is Intelligence based it is the root word of logic for crying out loud and Ethos is Wisdom based.

That D&D tends to ply influence as only Charisma is mayhaps not entirely appropriate.

Also Propaganda can be incredibly powerful though and deception can convince people when truth they do not want to hear will not.
 

Rolenet

Explorer
I like the take on lying - I never thought about that.
But there's a couple things I don't get:

* Wrecan insists on adapting the challenge to the PC's strengths. That's odd. I know my players wouldn't want to feel like a social challenge is easy/hard because they, as a team, choose to be bad/good at social challenges. If bad, they'll expect to find other ways. If good, they expect to make it easily!

* Lengthy discussions. 10 min per roll seems awfully long with 3-10 success required: that's 30 min to more than 90 min of arguing!

* One roll system. Surprising. The way I do it is ask for a single roll (from the main talker) and Aid rolls from other (being rather accomodating on possible skills). It's always a hard check (very similar to Wrecan's DC: 20+1/2 lvl + 1/tier). Aid other is always moderate (15+1/2 lvl), but a Hard aid check can also yield bonus info.
All in all, it's similar to Wrecan's method, but retains the normal mechanics, whih is the issue with his proposal.
 

To my thinking Wrecan does have a misfire in this.

Pathos, is charisma based, Logos is Intelligence based it is the root word of logic for crying out loud and Ethos is Wisdom based.

That D&D tends to ply influence as only Charisma is mayhaps not entirely appropriate.

Also Propaganda can be incredibly powerful though and deception can convince people when truth they do not want to hear will not.

I think you have to ask "what is Charisma?" It isn't looks, or being able to smooth talk. Its an intellectual sort of ability. It has to do with identifying with others and being able to work with them, or at least get them to do what you want. I think it adequately represents a logical argument, in some degree.

Anyway, I don't really agree with Wrecan's 'problem' here with Diplomacy/Bluff/Intimidate. His example about the gnolls was somewhat contrived, and it disregarded that 4e conflict resolution isn't a matter of a single check using a single skill. Sure, the guy with the high Bluff might be a better liar than diplomat. That doesn't make lying a viable option, and it doesn't mean Bluff SHOULD work in that situation. Nor do all characters need to be equally equipped to handle every skill challenge. Ideally they CAN contribute in some way, but the whole thing about 'Impress the king with my Endurance!' is silly. First of all, maybe that does make sense once in a while. Secondly, nobody has nothing but Endurance to work with, even dumb low WIS fighters have 3 good skills! And what if you really just have very little to contribute today? Its an SC, it will have about 10 die rolls in it. That's like one round of combat. Nobody is drastically shortchanged if they sit out a round of combat, happens all the time.

I think there's some useful advice here. OTOH when I tried to lay out social SCs like this, it failed miserably. For one thing I don't believe in narrowly framing most challenges, I would include a wider scope within the SC, to include planning, etc. within it. That way there's always going to be more of a variety of ways to deal with things.

Take the "Pet My Labyrinth" example of Wrecan's. Surely there's more ways to get into the catacombs than the front door! Surely if there are embarrassing things about the king, there's also more than one way to use that! Here's the real point. When you rigidly structure a challenge like this, with narrowly defined skills and approaches, you just create a mini-railroad. There's BASICALLY one way to do these examples. That means either the DM has to use force to get the party to do them that way, OR he's got to throw out his work when they don't, because no party I know of veteran players is going to do what you expect in this sort of situation. You need to take a much more flexible approach. I think Wrecan would see that too, but when you write about SCs its very easy to get way to academic about it, and write these little dry nugget things that you can't run as written.
 

I like the take on lying - I never thought about that.

This is one of the more interesting parts, yes.

So, in my terms at least, I would say that you could argue for Bluff checks to be more difficult, unless they play to some sort of existing fear or misconception of the target, but he's right, the payoff is you can try a much wider variety of things. So its an interesting point.
 

I like the take on lying - I never thought about that.
But there's a couple things I don't get:

* Wrecan insists on adapting the challenge to the PC's strengths. That's odd. I know my players wouldn't want to feel like a social challenge is easy/hard because they, as a team, choose to be bad/good at social challenges. If bad, they'll expect to find other ways. If good, they expect to make it easily!

* Lengthy discussions. 10 min per roll seems awfully long with 3-10 success required: that's 30 min to more than 90 min of arguing!

* One roll system. Surprising. The way I do it is ask for a single roll (from the main talker) and Aid rolls from other (being rather accomodating on possible skills). It's always a hard check (very similar to Wrecan's DC: 20+1/2 lvl + 1/tier). Aid other is always moderate (15+1/2 lvl), but a Hard aid check can also yield bonus info.
All in all, it's similar to Wrecan's method, but retains the normal mechanics, whih is the issue with his proposal.

I'd never want to besmirch the fine fellow's record/legacy, but I do have similar disagreements here.

I know this is probably crazy (and sounding brutally hypocritical from me), but I think a lot of this is a bit too analytically steeped.

4e's basic principles and general noncombat conflict resolution techniques are sufficient to handle the workload of Social Skill Challenges:

1) Go to the action. In this case that is conflict-charged social disputes with high stakes.

2) Identify any and all potential obstacles to the PCs' goals, introduce them as the fiction and mechanics warrant, and play them to the hilt. Social obstacles aren't just one NPC's obstinance. It can be a myriad of things beyond that (an as-of-yet unidentified need that requires fulfilling, their relationships to people/places/ideology, who/what is ultimately pulling the strings, the situation's temporal or spatial dynamics, the situation's greater context)

3) Change the situation. Success means to introduce a new obstacle but keep the urgency status quo. Failure means to either introduce a new obstacle or significantly escalate the threat/opposition of an existing obstacle, but always up the urgency/desperation.

4) Failure is not an endpoint. Ultimately, if the PCs lose the challenge, interesting stuff needs to happen. The trajectory of play might change, but the action cannot stall (certain options might close, but a new decision-tree emerges).

Personally, I don't think the following is good advice:

a) Tailor the challenge to the group's build dynamics. Now definitely consider the prior fiction and identify the PCs' thematic interests (typically signalled by build), but don't artificially constrain the obstacles you introduce because of group build dynamics. Consider how stale the combat analogue would be (eg never use Obstacle and Y-axis protected Artillery because the group isn't synergized for mobility or ranged attacks).

b) Belaboring the action by excessive dialogue/expository monologue.

c) Constructing a Skill Challenge in advance. I know this is a thing, but I don't feel it is particularly helpful to current or burgeoning GMs. Learn to improvise better. Follow your principles. Practice your craft/techniques. Prep light but more nimbly/functional (perhaps always have a set of flashcards with coherent and broad obstacles for various conflicts - Social (including things like Exorcisms) and all the various Exploration related ones; Chases, Perilous Journeys, Infiltration/Intel Gathering Operations, etc.

More prep is never the better answer because it isn't as functional for actual play; you may never use that material, you'll be more inclined to deploy Force to ensure that material sees play, you're increasing your out-of-game overhead just to play at all, and (as importantly as the rest) you're either atrophying your current ability to be nimble/improvise during play or you aren't growing it.
 

darkbard

Hero
[MENTION=6696971]Manbearcat[/MENTION], yours is an analysis that crystallizes some of my initial reactions against Wrecan's framework: it works against the flexibility of the "modern" skill challenge structure (i.e., post DMG 2, really Rules Compendium version). Thanks for taking the time to give this some deeper thought and articulate it here.

That said, we've exchanged posts in the past weeks about your proposal of practicing skill challenges and similar substystems, by which I assume you mean the DM should spend some time alone, proposing possible scenarios and then working on how the PC group may engage the scenarios prior to gaming sessions with the group. How do you see this differing from the kind of preparation Wrecan proposes above? Is it simply a matter of kind and not of degree, with regard to time invested? That is to say, that the DM should practice a fictional scenario that does not directly relate to her current game scenario? That is, preparation in the abstract? On one level, I like this possibility, for it doesn't handcuff the DM into preconveived outcomes, but I'm not entirely sure how one might go about it!

In any event, just some rambling thoughts spurred by your critique....
 

[MENTION=6696971]Manbearcat[/MENTION], yours is an analysis that crystallizes some of my initial reactions against Wrecan's framework: it works against the flexibility of the "modern" skill challenge structure (i.e., post DMG 2, really Rules Compendium version). Thanks for taking the time to give this some deeper thought and articulate it here.

That said, we've exchanged posts in the past weeks about your proposal of practicing skill challenges and similar substystems, by which I assume you mean the DM should spend some time alone, proposing possible scenarios and then working on how the PC group may engage the scenarios prior to gaming sessions with the group. How do you see this differing from the kind of preparation Wrecan proposes above? Is it simply a matter of kind and not of degree, with regard to time invested? That is to say, that the DM should practice a fictional scenario that does not directly relate to her current game scenario? That is, preparation in the abstract? On one level, I like this possibility, for it doesn't handcuff the DM into preconveived outcomes, but I'm not entirely sure how one might go about it!

In any event, just some rambling thoughts spurred by your critique....

Hey darkbard.

As to the first, thank you :)

As to the second, when I say practice things like noncombat conflict resolution I mean act like its a sport. Sports training is all about (a) technique/fundamentals honing and (b) simulating game situations.

In D&D 4e terms that means simply:

1) Grab some buddies.
2) Have them whip up some simple characters.
3) Come up with some sort of conflict archetype/trope ("Hey, lets do a city rooftop chase because a masked man has just pilfered the intelligence we were about to nab and has climbed out of the window!").
4) GM frames the PCs right into the action, goes over the mechanics (Level x, Complexity 2 Skill Challenge; 6 successes before 3 failures, 2 Secondary Skills, 0 Advantages, 5 medium DCs and 1 hard DC), places appropriates mechanical markers on the table (I would place a D6 on 6 and a d4 on 3 and just have a couple of tokens for SS usage), and puts the heat on one or more players.
5) Action(s) declared and resolved.
6) Change the situation until the scene is won or lost.
7) Describe the (mechanical and fictional) fallout.

Rinse/repeat.

Everyone gets better at their craft by working on their technique/fundamentals and doing it while simulating game situations.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
My takeaway from this, and what I really like, is articulating the obstacles clearly. It's not a coincidence that the # of obstacles presented for each challenge equals the number of successes "required" to complete the challenge successfully. What's great about that is it ties the rolls to the narrative, minimizing a common issue of "narrative dissonance"/"abstraction" that can creep in to skill challenges run by an inexperienced GM (or just a tired/surprised GM).

I wish I had an old file which I lost when my old laptop died. It was my take on a social skill challenge involving negotiating with a corrupt baron in order to get his aid against a group of rebellious fey. A lot more to it, but that's the TL;DR version.

Basically, I designed it like this...

The Baron would pose about 8 questions for the PCs to answer. Depending on how they answer each question, that may count as a success, a failure, or neither. If they have 6 successes by the end of the Baron's questioning, then the Baron agrees to aid them. Each failure means the Baron demands a concession or unfavorable change in terms. If they fail to gain 6 successes, the Baron either turns them away with a humiliating offer to pay them 1 silver piece a day each as mercenaries OR feigns an alliance but really plans to betray them to the rebellious fey to advance his own scheming.

1. Why should I trust you? None of you have sworn fealty to my house. None of your forefathers helped my family when they were in need.
You can score a success on this question of the Baron's by...
  • Making a convincing argument that appeals to the Baron's ambitious nature, having "brought himself up by his bootstraps", and plays up the PCs' past glorious deeds.
  • Making a DC 15 History check to recall information about the Baron's banner that you can use to make an emotional appeal. However, failing this check means yours and the Baron's view of historical events doesn't line up, and you score a failure; move on to the next question.
  • Making a DC 15 Intimidate check implying that if the Baron doesn't enter negotiations with them, they're liable to go to one of his rivals. However, failing this check not only scores a failure but also means the Baron thinks the PCs are just mercenaries trying to browbeat him and decides to teach them a lesson during or immediately after the negotiations. He has an especially vicious cunning streak, so this might be paying them in copper ingots guised by his court illusionist to look like gold, asking for a demonstration of the weakest looking PC's combat ability against his best mercenary Ser Saldigott the Black Knight, etc.
  • If they saved the scout with the peryton heraldry tabard in the woods, they may call him in to report the PCs returning him safely to his unit and speaking on their behalf. The scout happens to be the Baron's nephew! This grants a success, provided the scout was well-treated by the PCs.

And so on for each question.
 

I'd never want to besmirch the fine fellow's record/legacy, but I do have similar disagreements here.

I know this is probably crazy (and sounding brutally hypocritical from me), but I think a lot of this is a bit too analytically steeped.

4e's basic principles and general noncombat conflict resolution techniques are sufficient to handle the workload of Social Skill Challenges:

1) Go to the action. In this case that is conflict-charged social disputes with high stakes.

2) Identify any and all potential obstacles to the PCs' goals, introduce them as the fiction and mechanics warrant, and play them to the hilt. Social obstacles aren't just one NPC's obstinance. It can be a myriad of things beyond that (an as-of-yet unidentified need that requires fulfilling, their relationships to people/places/ideology, who/what is ultimately pulling the strings, the situation's temporal or spatial dynamics, the situation's greater context)

3) Change the situation. Success means to introduce a new obstacle but keep the urgency status quo. Failure means to either introduce a new obstacle or significantly escalate the threat/opposition of an existing obstacle, but always up the urgency/desperation.

4) Failure is not an endpoint. Ultimately, if the PCs lose the challenge, interesting stuff needs to happen. The trajectory of play might change, but the action cannot stall (certain options might close, but a new decision-tree emerges).

Personally, I don't think the following is good advice:

a) Tailor the challenge to the group's build dynamics. Now definitely consider the prior fiction and identify the PCs' thematic interests (typically signalled by build), but don't artificially constrain the obstacles you introduce because of group build dynamics. Consider how stale the combat analogue would be (eg never use Obstacle and Y-axis protected Artillery because the group isn't synergized for mobility or ranged attacks).

b) Belaboring the action by excessive dialogue/expository monologue.

c) Constructing a Skill Challenge in advance. I know this is a thing, but I don't feel it is particularly helpful to current or burgeoning GMs. Learn to improvise better. Follow your principles. Practice your craft/techniques. Prep light but more nimbly/functional (perhaps always have a set of flashcards with coherent and broad obstacles for various conflicts - Social (including things like Exorcisms) and all the various Exploration related ones; Chases, Perilous Journeys, Infiltration/Intel Gathering Operations, etc.

More prep is never the better answer because it isn't as functional for actual play; you may never use that material, you'll be more inclined to deploy Force to ensure that material sees play, you're increasing your out-of-game overhead just to play at all, and (as importantly as the rest) you're either atrophying your current ability to be nimble/improvise during play or you aren't growing it.

Seems like we're in close agreement.

I picked out of this one possible innovation that I'm pretty interested in, so its going into my "ideas and notes" folder. That's making up a 'deck' (could be some charts, though cards seem handy and quick here) of stock factors to add to social challenges. They could take a very general form, so maybe a table something like: (this is just a quick example, not an actual recommedation)

1. Possession - someone or something is possessed. This could be a principle NPC, a relative, an advisor, or even someone in the party!
2. Debt - someone is in debt to someone else. This consideration is factoring into their decision making. It may or may not be obvious or well-known.
3. Spiritual Obligation - someone has an obligation, to perform a ritual, make a sacrifice, refrain from some action, etc which is factoring into their decision making.
4. Ambition - Someone in this situation is dedicated to achieving some difficult goal, such as amassing a fortune, gaining political power, acquiring a new position or office, etc.
5. Prophesy - Some sort of prediction has been made which affects the various participants in the situation and colors their decisions.
6. Enmity - someone hates someone else and this has some effect on the situation.

Now, assuming you had a bit more extensive and perhaps nuanced collection of 'situation cards' like this you could, as the GM, play out a couple of them and quickly generate an interesting scenario around them as needed. You could also do the same thing ahead of time, or at least use the list as a seed for embellishing these scenarios.

A similar technique could work with other sorts of challenge situations. A chase, for example, could easily be quickly embellished with a series of cards that generate obstacles and opportunities. When stated in fairly general terms they should be applicable to most similar situations.

It might be a bit harder to come up with a set for say "general physical challenges" though some thought may still generate a reasonably useful list.

You might also want to provide for a number of variations of each of these for each type of scenario. So there could be curses, prophesies, vendettas, possessions, obligations, etc etc etc drilled down to a couple levels deep. Unusual events could also be factored in, which would be pretty reasonable for a challenge that might span over a period of time (negotiations go on for a week, then there's a peasant uprising and the various parties are suddenly forced to cooperate, which changes the dynamics of the situation and opens up new skills and such).

The primary goal of all of this obviously is to broaden the challenge and give it additional depth so that it is likely to engage more characters and become more dynamic and produce more opportunities for the players to either increase the stakes or cut their losses.
 

darkbard

Hero
The primary goal of all of this obviously is to broaden the challenge and give it additional depth so that it is likely to engage more characters and become more dynamic and produce more opportunities for the players to either increase the stakes or cut their losses.

This seems the key to me to staging good social challenges (or skill challenges, more generally). It's often relatively simple to draw one or two characters into any particular challenge in a way that fosters a clear yet interesting response. Adding the "additional depth," as you term it above that "become more dynamic and produce more opportunities" is what separates a fine gaming episode from a truly exceptional one.
 

This seems the key to me to staging good social challenges (or skill challenges, more generally). It's often relatively simple to draw one or two characters into any particular challenge in a way that fosters a clear yet interesting response. Adding the "additional depth," as you term it above that "become more dynamic and produce more opportunities" is what separates a fine gaming episode from a truly exceptional one.


Right. And sometimes it can be done in a really simple and straightforward manner. I remember an SC where the players had to figure out how to execute a 'ritual'. It was just a series of actions they needed to take in order to accomplish something, but each time they did something, then stuff would happen, and they'd have to use some new skills and logic to deal with the next step. It was great. Seemed a little simple and almost kinda dumb when I set it up, and I felt like I was a little short of good ideas, but the players found that to be a fine setup, every character did stuff, and even when they weren't making a check they were talking about what to do next, asking questions about what happened after their last choice, etc.

Obviously there can be a more intricate plot, particularly in a social challenge, but the same basic kernel of an idea applies, a little miniature 'play' with at least 3 scenes and some internal drama, and you'll have a good SC most of the time.
 

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