The Social Skill Challenge
The social pillar of role-playing is arguably the most important aspect of role-playing games. It drives the story and creates the most memorable experiences. If done correctly, it can tee the future combats making the climax of the story even more sweet (or bitter) than it was already designed to be.
Part of the problem with social skill challenges is that there isn’t a good set of guidelines to use to organize it. In a lot of scenarios, that’s completely okay. All you need is one persuasion test against another and information is won, but that certainly doesn’t work well creating tension when there is a lot at stake. Let’s make the social encounter into a skill check which creates higher stakes, allows your players to RP, and creates a sense of drama that is determined more by information discovery rather than just the luck of a single die roll.
To start, this skill test is designed to take an NPC who is against an idea and persuade them to change their mind in some way. The point of this is not to be able to convince a cult leader or lich that you should walk on by without a battle. It is a social discussion where the players are attempting to get an NPC to help, act, or change their mind on a particular subject when they normally would resist such an action.
The Social Skill Challenge
Skills affect how the NPC will perceive an argument or situation based on Openness vs. (Dis)agreeableness traits (these are actual traits psychologists use!). The players need 3 successes before 3 failures*. It can be made more difficult as needed by the DM. Let the players know that you are keeping a tally of the score, however, there is no initiative and you can easily just ask for rolls during the course of the discussion for a seamless integration.
*There are other variations of skill checks which use health. Typically I've found health can be bulky as opposed to using a simple success vs. failure method while trying to juggle 30 things as a DM. It also reduces a players urge to argue the effectiveness of a particular action over another.
The Skill, In Skill Challenge
Generally speaking, all NPCs will always be ready to use Deception, Intimidation, and especially Persuasion. Other skills can be used depending on the type of NPC (such as a knight, royal, or templar) and which skills the PCs want to deploy. Set a standard Persuasion DC of 13-15 for the challenge. Increase or decrease the DC based on the PCs reaction to the type of skill.
Skills Vs. DC/Opposing Skill
Deception- Insight opposition
Intimidation- DC 17 (the NPC is willing to fight for his beliefs and quick to anger)
Persuasion- Standard DC of 13-15
History- DC 12, the NPC remembers the last time something similar happened
Religion- DC 10, the NPC is superstitious of angering the gods
New Information Has Come To Light, Man
Please forgive my Big Lebowski reference. It’s just perfectly relevant. Players must use RP arguments against the NPC to affect/change the NPCs current position on a subject. Players are free to use background information, details that they’ve discussed during the conversation, or points they’ve become aware of prior to the discussion. This keeps the art of fact-finding as a primary goal. To support this idea, perhaps the PCs gain advantage on their roll because they brought extremely relevant information to the discussion. Or perhaps the PC is of noble background and they want to instill the law against the commoner who fears authority. Or maybe the NPC was hurt or diseased and the players expend a resource to cure them. Players need to be rewarded for clever ideas and expending relevant resources that benefit the situation.
Questions About The NPC
In order to figure out how the NPC will respond to certain arguments, the DM has to be aware of what motivates the NPC in both a positive and negative manner. Persuasion check DCs may be reduced if the NPC is motivated by money, however, it may be increased if they fear magic. You might have a list of bullets like the one below. The NPC is motivated by:
- They fear monsters, increase the DC
- They have a secret that makes them more closed minded, Increase the DC
- They are highly superstitious of religion, decrease the DC
Social scenarios are an important part of role-playing. Players want and should be able to show off their skills, but it is not just for the face of the party to do alone. You also want to foster an environment where decisions matter to the players and inspiring them to find ways to manipulate the scenario to their benefits creates amazing RP elements to draw from.
Cheating With Charm
One of your spellcasters will likely consider charming the NPC. This is completely fine and then the entire skill challenge is now void. As part of the outcome, what happens when the NPC realizes they’ve been duped into doing something they really did not want to do through the process of changing their mind to renavigate themselves? I suspect they would later tell some member of authority or otherwise let someone know which would confront the PCs making their next social encounter more difficult.
Dinner Party Variant(s)
The example laid out above is only concerned with a single NPC. You can easily make this skill challenge as part of an entire evening of events. Imagine that the players are working a room full of important nobles at a dinner party or ball. Each person they visit is either on board to support your vision to persuade the King’s decision. Or maybe this takes place over the course of an entire day to garner information from people in a village to gain the courage to stand up against a local cult or group of thugs by supporting the PCs in some way. Feel free to manipulate the scenario to work with your adventure.
There are generally two outcomes. You either convince the NPC to change or you do not. Of course, there are certainly other outcomes that could fall somewhere in between success and failure. Perhaps the NPC will not help the PCs do the exact thing that they want them to do, however, they will give them a quick tip or important piece of information that will help them. Work in some wiggle-room to allow partial successes. Like in real life, unless there is only a single winner, there are usually at least tiny bits of information that can be gleaned even in failure.
The final note I will point out is that when you are dealing with highly intelligent NPCs, such as dragons, hags, or some other otherworldly creature, this encounter could quickly change. An intelligent creature might not be opposed to helping the PCs. In fact, they would LOVE to help them, as long as the players make it in their interest. In that case, success might be slightly altered based on the intelligence and hubris of the NPC involved in the encounter.
This post was inspired by a Reddit post and modified to fit into my own playstyle. Enjoy!