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D&D 5E What is a Social challenge, anyways?

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
A lot of people say they want the game to focus more on Social interaction and roleplaying. Or decries that there aren't Social mechanics. But what would that even look like?

Would we have "Social monsters" with a "Social CR" and care taken to ensure they have level-appropriate Social abilities? Would you earn xp for "defeating" a social encounter? How does one define victory?

The game as it stands now, it mostly comes down to "wily merchant has thing you want but charges too much." "I roll Persuasion, and get a 17." "DM thinks, decides that's a good enough number, merchant drops the price". You can add some nuance by allowing players to make other checks to get information that might give them advantage, but players have lots of tools to give them advantage as needed, or expertise to gain stratospheric check results.

And what's a social ability? What would it look like? Advantage on certain checks? The ability to auto win a social roll? Or in the case of an NPC, impose disadvantage or just ignore the results of a check, like some kind of "Legendary social resistance?".

Is it worth it to have a detailed system where all parties roll Social initiative, both sides have "resolve" (social hit points), and everyone takes turns trying to wear the other party down? Should there be a Social AC or Social saves?

And would it even be worth it, when players can possibly use spells to circumvent the whole system (as they generally do with exploration)?

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That isn't my play experience at all.

PCs often have social interactions with others they find on adventures. Sometimes there is an ability check involved but sometimes not. They're still social interactions.

We don't spend time on merchants and the like unless it is for some special item.

Sometimes social abilities come up during skill challenges. The PCs are faced with some sort of challenge and they all think up ways to approach it. Then sometimes they roll to see if they can make progress.

I like the system as it is. I wouldn't want something more complicated or gamey.


Here's a D&D example. (Though not for 5e D&D.)

On the weekend I ran my first session of 4e that invovled only social interaction. So I thought I'd post about how it went.

The starting point
The PCs are low paragon - a dwarf fighter/warpriest of Moradin, a paladin of the Raven Queen, a wizard/invoker, a drow chaos sorcerer/demonskin adept, and a ranger-cleric of the Raven Queen. The player of the ranger-cleric was absent from the session.

The scenario combines elements of Thunderspire Labyringth (a 4e module), Heathen (from a 2008 online Dragon magazine), Speaker in Dreams (a 3E module from WotC) and Night's Dark Terror (a B/X module from TSR), plus some other elements of my own.

The PCs have recently entered a town which is under increasing pressure from hobgoblin and allied raiders. The town is ruled by a Patriarch of Bahamut and a Baron. The PCs are still getting the lay of the political land.

The PCs entered the town as heroes, having saved an affiliated village from being destroyed by hobgoblins. They were lauded by the Patriarch, and invited to join the Baron for dinner that evening. Later that day they then went on to stop an uprising by Demogorgon/Dagon cultists, and to cleanse the cultists' headquarters. In the headquarters, they rescued a priestess of Ioun who had been chained down next to a gibbering mouther, and had gone insane from the constant gibbering - the wizard cured her insanity using Remove Affliction.

The session begain with the PCs talking to the rescued priestess, and interrogating the one surviving and captured cultist.

Talking to the NPCs
This was almost entirely free roleplaying. The PC paladin had made a successful Intimidate check last session to cow the cultist and stop him running away. He made another check this session to interrogate him - the check was sufficiently high (in the high 20s or low 30s, from memory) that I decided nothing would be held back by the cultist. Some other skill rolls were made (History, Arcana) to see what sense the PCs could make of some of the things that the cultist revealed.

The conversations with the cultist and with the priestess happened side-by-side in play, and mostly side-by-side in the fiction. Three PCs were heavily involved - the paladin interrogating the cultist, the wizard and the sorcerer talking to the priestess. The dwarf was less heavily involved in the conversation, but the player of the dwarf was helping the other players put together and make sense of the information being obtained.

I awarded XP as per the guidelines in DMG2 - one monster's worth for 15 minutes of play.

Two revelations had the biggest immediate impact. One involved the PCs' principal enemy. This is the leader of the hobgoblins, a powerful wizard called Paldemar (but called Golthar in Goblinish). The PCs learned that in the town he is not known to be a villain, but is apparently well-thought of, is an important scholar and astrologer, is an advisor to the Baron, and is engaged to the Baron's niece. The PCs (and the players) became worried that he might be at dinner that evening. This was a worry for two reasons - (i) they didn't really want to fight him, and (ii) they know some secrets about an ancient minotaur kingdom that he does not, but has been trying to discover. One of those secrets involves a magic tapestry that the PCs carry around with them (becaue they don't have anywhere safe to leave it).

The second revelation was that the Baron was prophesied to die that night. The paladin had already sensed a catoblepas in the swamps outside the town, and had sensed it approaching the town earlier that day. The priestess explained that a year ago the Baron had been visited by a catoblepas, as a type of forewarning. And the cultist explained that the uprising had taken place today in anticipation of the Baron's imminent demise.

After learning these things, the PCs cleaned up in the cultists' bathroom and then hurried off to dinner.

The dinner
The PCs arrived late, and were the last ones there. On the high table they could see the Baron, and his sister and brother-in-law, and also Paldemar, their wizard enemy. They left their more gratuitous weapons - a halberd for the dwarf and a longbow for the ranger - with the dwarf's herald - an NPC dwarf minion called Gutboy Barrelhouse - and took their seats at the high table. Gutboy was also carrying the backpack with the tapestry.

The PCs also noticed a series of portraits hanging behind the high table. One had a young woman, who was the spitting image of a wizard's apprentice they had recently freed from a trapping mirror - except that adventure had happened 100 years in the past (under a time displacement ritual), and this painting was clearly newly painted. Another, older, painting was of a couple, a man resembling the Baron, and a woman resmembling the rescued apprentice but at an older age.

About this time the players started talking about the skill checks they wanted to make, and I asked them what they were hoping to achieve. Their main goal was to get through the evening without upsetting the baron, without getting into a fight with Paldemar (which meant, at a minimum, not outing him as the leader of the hobgoblin raiders), and without revealing any secrets to him. In particular, they didn't want him to learn that they had found the tapestry, and that it was in fact 15' away from him in Gutboy's backpack. But it also quickly became clear that they wanted to learn about the people in the portraits, to try and learn what had happened over the past 100 years to the apprentice they freed, and how she related to the Baron's family.

This whole scene was resolved as a complexity 5 skill challenge. It ran for more than an hour, but probably not more than two. The general pattern involved - Paldemar asking the PCs about their exploits; either the paladin or the sorcerer using Bluff to defuse the question and/or evade revealing various secrets they didn't want Paldemar to know; either the paladin or the wizard then using Diplomacy to try to change the topic of conversation to something else - including the Baron's family history; and Paldemar dragging things back onto the PCs exploits and discoveries over the course of their adventures.

Following advice given by LostSoul on these boards back in the early days of 4e, my general approach to running the skill challenge was to keep pouring on the pressure, so as to give the players a reason to have their PCs do things. And one particular point of pressure was the dwarf fighter/cleric - in two senses. In story terms, he was the natural focus of the Baron's attention, because the PCs had been presenting him as their leader upon entering the town, and subsequently. And the Baron was treating him as, in effect, a noble peer, "Lord Derrik of the Dwarfholm to the East". And in mechanical terms, he has no training in social skills and a CHA of 10, so putting the pressure on him forced the players to work out how they would save the situation, and stop the Baron inadvertantly, or Paldemar deliberately, leading Derrik into saying or denying something that would give away secrets. (Up until the climax of the challenge, the only skill check that Derriks' player made in contribution to the challenge was an Athletics check - at one point the Baron described himself as a man of action rather than ideas, and Derrik agreed - I let his player make an Athletics check - a very easy check for him with a +15 bonus - to make the fact of agreement contribute mechanically to the party's success in dealing with the situation.)

Besides the standard skill checks, other strategies were used to defuse the tension at various points. About half way through, the sorcerer - feigning drunkenness with his +20 Bluff bonus - announced "Derrik, it's time to take a piss" - and then led Derrik off to the privy, and then up onto the balcony with the minstrel, so that Paldemar couldn't keep goading and trying to ensnare him. At another point, when the conversation turned to how one might fight a gelatinous cube (Paldemar having explained that he had failed in exploring one particular minotaur ruin because of some cubes, and the PCs not wanting to reveal that they had explored that same ruin after beating the cubes) the sorcerer gave an impromptu demonstration by using Bedevilling Burst to knock over the servants carrying in the jellies for desert. (I as GM had mentioned that desert was being brought in. It was the player who suggested that it should probably include jellies.) That he cast Bedevilling Burst he kept secret (another Bluff check). But he loudly made the point that jellies can be squashed at least as easily as anything else.

While fresh jellies were prepared, Derrik left the table to give a demonstration of how one might fight oozes using a halberd and fancy footwork. But he then had to return to the table for desert.

Around this time, the challenge had evolved to a point where one final roll was needed, and 2 failures had been accrued. Paldemar, once again, was badgering Derrik to try to learn the secrets of the minotaur ruins that he was sure the PCs knew. And the player of Derrik was becoming more and more frustrated with the whole situation, declaring (not speaking in character, but speaking from the perspective of his PC) "I'm sick of putting up with this. I want Paldemar to come clean."

The Baron said to Derrik, "The whole evening, Lord Derrik, it has seemed to me that you are burdened by something. Will you not speak to me?" Derrik got out of his seat and went over to the Baron, knelt beside him, and whispered to him, telling him that out of decorum he would not name anyone, but there was someone close to the Baron who was not what he seemed, and was in fact a villainous leader of the hobgoblin raiders. The Baron asked how he knew this, and Derrik replied that he had seen him flying out of goblin strongholds on his flying carpet. The Baron asked him if he would swear this in Moradin's name. Derrik replied "I swear". At which point the Baron rose from the table and went upstairs to brood on the balcony, near the minstrel.

With one check still needed to resolve the situation, I had Paldemar turn to Derrik once again, saying "You must have said something very serious, to so upset the Baron." Derrik's player was talking to the other players, and trying to decide what to do. He clearly wanted to fight. I asked him whether he really wanted to provoke Paldemar into attacking him. He said that he did. So he had Derrik reply to Paldemar, 'Yes, I did, Golthar". And made an Intimidate check. Which failed by one. So the skill challenge was over, but a failure - I described Paldemar/Golthar standing up, pickup up his staff from where it leaned against the wall behind him, and walking towards the door.

Now we use a houserule (perhaps, in light of DMG2, not so much a houserule as a precisification of a suggestion in that book) that a PC can spend an action point to make a secondary check to give another PC a +2 bonus, or a reroll, to a failed check. The player of the wizard PC spent an action point, and called out "Golthar, have you fixed the tear yet in your robe?" - this was a reference to the fact that the PCs had, on a much earlier occasion, found a bit of the hem of Paldemar's robe that had torn off in the ruins when he had had to flee the gelatinous cubes. I can't remember now whether I asked for an Intimidate check, or decided that this was an automatic +2 bonus for Derrik - but in any event, it turned the failure into a success. We ended the session by noting down everyone's location on the map of the Baron's great hall, and making initiative rolls. Next session will begin with the fight against Paldemar (which may or may not evolve into a fight with a catoblepas also - the players are a bit anxious that it may do so).

This is the most sophisticated skill challenge I've run to date, in terms of the subtlety of the framing, the degree of back and forth (two major PCs with whom the PCs were interacting, with different stakes in the interaction with each of them), my concentration on evolving the scene to reflect the skill checks and the other action while still keeping up the pressure on the players (and on their PCs), and the goals of the players, which started out a little uncertain and somewhat mixed, but ended up being almost the opposite of what they were going into the challenge.


Lowcountry Low Roller
The issue is: what is the dramatic question? For a combat it’s obvious (though sometimes boring). For a social interaction to be a challenge there has to be risk and and a reward. The reward needs to be worth whatever risk there is. And that’s the root of the problem, there’s usually no risk to the PCs. An easy way to add risk is to make the opposing party be willing to fight the PCs if the social interaction goes badly, but then we’re back to combat.

But in general a social challenge would be: “can the PCs persuade this hostile NPC(s) to do what they want?”. The risk being that either a fight breaks out or they poison the relationship in some way that causes bad consequences. The difficulty of persuading can change, perhaps they just need a couple of convincing arguments, or perhaps they need to deal with a lot of misgivings first like the NPC losing face for working with the PCs, who knows? Use some kind of track to measure the PCs progress (or regress) toward the goal (and be prepared for a decent amount of talking).

But that’s the key: an NPC has something the PCs need and is not willing to hand it over (and the PCs can’t just take it by force).

Edit: I’m drinking a cocktail while posting, so caveat lector!


I found the rules in the DMG have been suitable. How the NPC feels about the PCs, make an argument, roll (perhaps with advantage or disadvantage) and try to meet the DCs. Sometimes I don't even worry about that, the NPC merchant might be adamant that their price is the price of the goods, but for deciding if a random goblin patrol will let the PCs pass to take on the giant that is the focus of their quest, the social rules seem adequate.

I wouldn't want social "combat" or anything like that.

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
That isn't my play experience at all.

PCs often have social interactions with others they find on adventures. Sometimes there is an ability check involved but sometimes not. They're still social interactions.

We don't spend time on merchants and the like unless it is for some special item.

Sometimes social abilities come up during skill challenges. The PCs are faced with some sort of challenge and they all think up ways to approach it. Then sometimes they roll to see if they can make progress.

I like the system as it is. I wouldn't want something more complicated or gamey.
Right but, if that's the average social encounter, then when people say "I wish the game focused more on roleplaying" or that characters have more social abilities, what does that even mean?


Honestly? It means adding in a full suite of actions and complexity to gamify a social encounter rather than the ad hoc dms fiat, generally “roll high” binary system that DnD uses.

Which is 100% a non starter for DnD. Social mechanics are in the same category as psionics. And that category is labeled “stuff you will never see in DnD”.

And what's a social ability? What would it look like? Advantage on certain checks? The ability to auto win a social roll? Or in the case of an NPC, impose disadvantage or just ignore the results of a check, like some kind of "Legendary social resistance?".
My own 5e clone game has a handful of narrow, but fairly certain to come up occasionally, "social abilities". For example at level 4 the Sellsword class gets the "Tough Negotiator" ability to add an extra d8 to rolls to negotiate over payment for quests or other services rendered by the group, and can also give this to someone else if they Help them by participating in such a conversation. This can stack with advantage but not with the more common additional die sources like Guidance (or more properly you can roll the Guidance d4 and the Tough Negotiator d6 and take the higher roll of the two, it's a whole mechanic in my game...). Thematically the idea is that having a trained killer for hire in the room should make the other side more compliant, off their game, or confident in your group's abilities.

Basically I think social abilities should a) use extra die, or some other bonus, rather than advantage (because getting advantage on social interactions is usually achievable through roleplaying and/or the Help action, as well as many spells and abilities that charm), b) work under some fairly narrow circumstance, but one that will actually come up multiple times in most campaigns, and c) be used to emphasize something thematic about the character, give non-social-oriented characters occasional moments to shine in the social pillar, or ideally both.

And that's about all I want out of "social abilities", some additional highlight time for someone other than the face character, and incentive for characters to act thematically. I'm basically pretty happy with how 5e handles social interactions.

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