|Kiss the ring, don't diss the King|
An InterACTION! scene happens when three things converge:
- The PCs need to obtain information, assistance, or permission via social interaction with an NPC.
- The NPC that would give them what they want has at least one Objection to helping them.
- There is a discreet means by which the PCs could fail to get what they want.
The first point simply means there is a dramatic question: Will the PCs get what they are after? This is the basis of conflict in the scene. No conflict? No scene.
The second point presents the opposition. If the dramatic question defines the conflict, the Objection provides an obstacle on the path to answering that question.
The third point provides narrative resolution. We already know the success state: the PCs get what they want. In order to create the scene, we need a failure state. This could be anything from the NPC excusing themselves to the PCs getting arrested. If there is no failure state, your players will keep pushing the scene until they get what they want. Figure out when they've lost, and make sure you tell them.
|Incentive: "I like swords"|
- Objections (must have at least 1)
- Why does the NPC want to withhold what the PCs are looking for?
- Why does the NPC want to help the PCs get what they want?
Each Objection and Incentive is assigned a score. Incentives have positive scores and Objections have negative scores. The scores should be between (1) and (5). (1) is a minor preference that the NPC could easily be convinced to change. (5) is a strong personality trait or external pressure that will require a lot of negotiation to overlook.
The total of the Incentive and Objection scores should be a negative number - that is, the Objections should outweigh the Incentives. The encounter is successful when the total is zero, which is achieved by the methods listed in the Player Actions section.
Horace the Palace Guard is under the orders of His Majesty to keep watch at the city gates. He is proud of his work and is always vigilant for those breaking the law, but sees himself beneath the nobility and won't say no to those who are members of the upper crust. The PCs are attempting to enter the city, and it's up to Horace to decide if they are allowed in.
- Incentive: "I won't say no to Lords and Ladies" (1)
- Objection: "I'm under the orders of His Majesty" (-2)
Finally, if a PC brings the NPC information they weren't previously aware of, they might be able to create a new Incentive or Objection. New Incentives always start at (1). New objections can start anywhere between (1) and (5), depending on how badly the NPC takes the news.
A PC tells Horace his home in the nearby village was attacked. Horace gains a new Incentive: "I need to go check on my family!" (1).
The scene is successful when the total Incentive and Objection score equals zero, but you should also define how the PCs could fail the scene. The basic way is if they offend the NPC (see Optional Traits below), which ends the encounter immediately. You can also put a time limit on the encounter - the PCs only have so many arguments to convince the NPC. Finally, you can set a negative limit to the Incentive/Objection score. If the PCs add objections or lower an incentive, they could reach the lower limit and fail.
No matter which way you set, make sure the NPC has some means of denying the PCs what they want. If the PCs can just keep pursuing the conversation, you shouldn't have had a social encounter in the first place.
|Rule # 2 of D&D: make every dragon encounter feel epic|
- Courtesies: If a PC follows a courtesy while making their argument, they can gain advantage on the check.
- Slights: If a PC slights an NPC while making their argument, they suffer disadvantage on the check.
- Insults: If a PC insults an NPC, they suffer disadvantage on all checks until they make a Hard (DC 20) Persuasion check to apologize.
- Offenses: If a PC truly offends an NPC, the total score immediately drops into the failure state.
- Deflections: This is like an Incentive/Objection, but its score can't be changed. It can be used in a timed encounter to make the PCs waste time - just make sure the PCs realize the NPC is using it as an excuse, not a legitimate argument.
Additionally, you can add other NPCs to the encounter. Make sure there's only one main NPC deciding the outcome, but you can add an NPC who opposes the PCs and is trying to convince the main NPC in the other direction. They make arguments the same way the PCs do, though they simply roll to see if they can lower an incentive/objection. You can decide how often they make their argument, though if it's too easy for them to succeed or they get to argue too often, the encounter will be particularly difficult for the PCs.
For a real challenge, give the NPC access to the spells listed below.
|Finally, a mechanical way to resolve when PCs cross from "interrogation" to "torture"|
If the argument is effective (i.e. if the roll is successful), increase the score of the objection or incentive by 1. Objections move closer to 0, Incentives move away from 0. The PC's goal is to make the total score equal 0. If a PC makes an especially powerful argument, you can elect to adjust an Incentive/Objection by more than 1.
If the PCs fail their argument, the NPC should shut down that Incentive/Objection. They take a strong stance, and the PCs must find a new way to convince the NPC. They could reference a deflection, or simply block that line of conversation. Note that this isn't permanent - it just applies to the next argument the PCs make. If the PCs mess up badly enough, they might even lower that Incentive/Objection score.
These rules assume that a single argument takes about 1 minute of in-game time.
In D&D 5th Edition, the player has many skills and spells at their disposal to affect such situations. For each roll, you should set the DC of the check based on the "Typical Difficulty Classes" table (PHB pg. 178). Certain Incentives/Objections might be easier or harder to address for a particular NPC. If you're unsure, use the NPC's passive Insight score (10 + Wisdom modifier + proficiency bonus, if applicable).
Depending on the argument the players make, call for the following check:
- Persuasion (for when the PC is honestly appealing to an Incentive/Objection)
- Deception (for when the PC is lying about an Incentive/Objection)
- Intimidation (for when a PC threatens something related to an Incentive/Objection)
- Performance (rarely used, when an NPC's Incentive Objection can be affected by a performance)
The players can also use the following skills to gain the upper hand in the encounter:
- Insight: A PC can use insight to learn one of the NPC's Incentives/Objections during the encounter
- Insight: If a PC would offend an NPC, you can allow them to roll an insight check to realize what they are about to do and take it back - kind of like a saving throw.
- Investigation: A PC can investigate an NPC to learn one of their Incentives/Objections before the encounter begins.
Finally, one note about a unique set of social encounter: the interrogation. For the most part, you can run it normally, simply with more difficult objections. If the players reach a failure state, simply state that the NPC has shut down. They keep trying as long as they want, but the NPC refuses to budge.
However, we need a different mechanic when the PCs cross the line from interrogation to torture.
If a PC attacks an NPC, the NPC takes critical damage from the attack, and gains the Objection "I won't give in to my enemies" (-X) and the Incentive "I don't want to feel more pain!" (1), where X is the pain tolerance of the NPC on a scale from 1 to 5. Generally, the higher the NPC's HP, the higher their pain tolerance. Every time the NPC is attacked, the Incentive increases by 1. However, they also take critical damage each time, and if they die/become unconcious before their Incentive/Objection score equals 0, that is a failure state for the PCs. The PCs might have to spend more time to let the NPC recover and try again.
Additionally, these spells can provide assistance or dramatic tension in a scene:
- Calm Emotions (2nd level, PHB pg. 221) Can be used to suppress a charming effect. If an NPC has been offended, this spell allows the PCs to make one more argument to the NPC. Unless this argument brings the NPC's total score to 0, the NPC is hostile again when the spell ends.
- Charm Person (1st level, PHB pg. 221) Note the NPC's score when this spell is cast. The PCs have advantage on all Charisma checks they use to make their arguments for the next hour (likely, the rest of the encounter). When the spell ends, the NPC's score reverts to its value before the spell was cast. If the NPC remembers providing assistance against its wishes, it becomes hostile.
- Confusion (4th level, PHB pg. 224) This spell ends the social encounter. The NPC becomes hostile and might be a combat threat if it isn't restrained.
- Detect Thoughts (2nd level, PHB pg. 231) While casting this spell, the PC knows the exact wording of whichever Incentive/Objection they are making their next argument against. If the NPC is forced to make a Wisdom saving throw, they gain the Objection "I don't trust those who would read my mind" (-X), where X is how much they don't want their mind read on a scale from 1 to 5. This could easily end the encounter. However, if they failed the saving throw, the PC gets to know all of the NPC's traits explicitly.
- Dominate Person (5th level, PHB pg. 235) If the NPC fails their saving throw, the encounter ends in success automatically. If the NPC succeeds, they gain the Objection "I don't trust those who would use magic to control me" (-X), where X is how much they oppose being dominated on a scale from 1 to 5.
- Dream (5th level, PHB pg. 236) This allows the PC to make a single argument to the NPC while they sleep, before the social encounter even begins. The check is Persuasion, or Intimidation if the dream is monstrous. If the PC doesn't address an Incentive/Objection in their message, the spell has no effect on the social encounter when it happens. Otherwise, a successful check means that Incentive/Objection is increased by 1 when the social encounter actually happens.
- Fear (3rd level, PHB pg. 239) The PCs have advantage on Intimidation checks against the NPC for their next argument.
- Feeblemind (8th level, PHB pg. 239) This spell ends the social encounter. If the NPC was hostile towards the PCs, it will likely attack them.
- Friends (cantrip, PHB pg. 244) Note the NPC's score when this spell is cast. The PCs have advantage on all Charisma checks they use to make their next argument. When the spell ends, the NPC's score reverts to its value before the spell was cast. If the NPC remembers providing assistance against its wishes, it becomes hostile.
- Geas (5th level, PHB pg. 244) Due to the casting time of this spell, it's unlikely the PCs will be able to use it unless the NPC is restrained. If used, the social encounter ends if the NPC's current HP is less than 50, as the NPC recognizes the spell would likely kill it, and the PCs succeed. If the NPC currently has more than 50 HP, it gains the Incentive "I don't like it when my head hurts" (2).
- Glibness (8th level, PHB pg. 245) If used on an NPC, the DC for persuading them increases by 5 (one difficulty class), and they become immune to Zone of Truth.
- Legend Lore (5th level, PHB pg. 254) If the NPC is very important or legendary, a PC can use this spell to learn all of their Incentives/Objections before the social encounter begins. Note that this doesn't grant them insight into the rest of the NPC's traits.
- Mind Blank (8th level, PHB pg. 259) If used on an NPC, any spells that would charm them or read their thoughts fail.
- Modify Memory (5th level, PHB pg. 261) This spell allows a PC to undo the outcome of the entire social encounter and begin again. Note that if the NPC is not alone, all other NPCs will notice this change and likely inform the NPC of what happened.
- Scrying (5th level, PHB pg. 272) Through careful observation, a PC can learn all of an NPC's Incentives and Objections before the social encounter begins. Note that this doesn't grant them insight into the rest of the NPC's traits.
- Suggestion (2nd level, PHB pg. 279) If worded well, the suggestion can automatically end the social encounter. However, if the NPC passes their saving throw, they become hostile and the social encounter ends. Additionally, if they fail their saving throw and perform the suggestion, they are hostile once the spell ends.
- Synaptic Static (5th level, XGE pg. 167) If the NPC survives the psychic explosion, the next argument made against them has its DC lowered by 5 (one difficulty class) while they recover. Unless this argument brings the NPC's total score to 0, the NPC is hostile afterwards.
- Zone of Truth (2nd level, PHB pg. 289) The NPC gains the Objection "I don't trust those who don't trust me" (-X), where X is how much the NPC objects to truth-enforcing magic on a scale of 1 to 5. For the next 10 arguments, the PCs know when an NPC is using a Deflection instead of a legitimate Incentive/Objection. Also, they know when the NPC is lying.
Well, that's about it. I'm eventually going to run a game that's ALL social encounters, maybe with the possibility of combat encounters on failure. Could make for a very cool political game.
Thanks for reading!