View Full Version : DM / Player Tools Social Encounter Building

08-25-2011, 09:33 AM
In a scene from Robin Hood (with Russel Crowe), the vengeful new king takes, without much cause, the position of sheriff from a character who deserved it to a character who would abuse it. Then the current and former sheriff have an exchange in a hallway, making subtle threats toward each other's lives as they go.

I'd like to build this sort of thing for games, but it's all drama, in which I have no training. Does anyone have a system for creating high-drama exchanges, or do you just let it play out organically?

Shall we build one?

08-25-2011, 06:21 PM
Basically it boils down on how much the PC's can influence events by changing the motivations of the NPC's. If the PC's feel that they can not change things by talking, then they will do so by action/encounter. Once you establish that PC's can influence the game and change NPC reactions, then they will most likely be willing to do so.

The more rounded your NPC's, the better you will be at roleplaying them; but to save time, all you need to know what the NPCs wants. Each NPC will have a certain motivation for doing what they do in order to get what they want. Once that is accomplished, they may move on to another want. For example, an NPC may want power; specifically the position in the government. He negotiates, lies, cheats, steals, extorts, murders, plots etc. to gain that power. Once he achieves that goal, he may now change his motivation; now he wants to keep that power, he wants to increase that power etc. His motivation changes and he finds ways to thwart his opposition or secure his position.

The PC has the ability to change the outcome of these events. They may cause the NPC to focus on the PC's as possible allies or adversaries depending on their interactions. PC's could direct the NPC in another direction, such as focusing on marrying into the ruling family and establishing a legacy, seeking out an ancient artifact, etc.

Drama between PC's follow the same design. As long as you address the PC's motivations (they wrote those 3 page backgrounds for a reason) then they are more likely to pursue those motivations. If you ignore their motivations, most likely they will ignore the NPC's as well. The closer you bring PC's to their motivations/backgrounds to each other, the more drama you will get when their worlds start to collide.

A final crumb of advice I can give is to embrace the sandbox style in these situations. Allow the PC's to generate the opportunity for drama. For example, a PC may want to acquire mining rights in providence (after getting clearing out a forgotten mine). His inquiry into the land is thwarted by a Dwarven Lord who makes claim to the Mine from his ancestors. The two try negotiate but it falls through. Threats between the Dwarven Lord and the PC increase and the Local Duke brings both parties to his estate to discuss the matter. Each makes a dramatic appeal on the rights to the mine and the Duke must choose who to grant the rights. The Duke is inclined to give the rights to the PC because of the help they provided driving off those nasty hobgoblins months ago but sovereign law sides with the Dwarf and his family. He might suggest the PC's look into the heritage of this "Dwarven Lord"....and you got yourself a hook for adventure.

08-26-2011, 07:37 AM
I agree with wizarddog completely, but I urge some caution. Exchanges like the one you detailed in the OP can feel very "personal" to some folks - and when your NPC threatens to eat their liver with a bottle of cheap chianti and som fava beans, SOME may take that as a personal attack from you. It's one thing when the orc king screams, "Kill them, a lot," but another when the seneschal gets quiet and says that you are doomed. I've seen some experienced players take similar situations and think that _I_ was making the threats, and it made them very uncomfortable.

Outside of that, I agree with wiz - sandbox it, but use a template.

1. If nobody screws with it, these things WILL occur.
2. Let the PC's in on some of the plans.
3. If they screw with it, some of those things will NOT occur.

I had a scenario where a wealthy (and powerful) merchant payed to have his own weapon-ladened wagon train waylayed - all to help arm an uprising he was supporting. The players just HAPPENED to be there for the assault on the wagons - then killed the bad guys. Not knowing what to do with 300+ swords and such, they rigged up the wagon train to enable them to take the lot to the nearest town to sell. Merry misadventures ensued when it appeared that THEY had attacked the train - but they got it cleared up - and then were declared heroes for "returning" the wagon train to the "wronged" merchant... totally screwing up his plans. Now the merchant had to find a way to get lots of arms and armor to the rebellion without being found out... and he had to do something about those pesky adventurers.a

This was plot stuff - but it would work the same with interpersonal situations. All I would have had to do was, at the celebratory feast, have the merchant all smiles and waves to the adoring crowd, tell the adventurers that their time on this Earth was limited, and that they needed to get out before they experienced "unpleasantness." Perhaps you've seen a similar scene in a movie... (I plagiarize from every source I can find!!)

08-29-2011, 01:01 PM
I'm with both of you - I love to flesh out my villains, consider side-effects, use backstories, and what might come in handy later, use deception.

But I'm lazy. I want a formula. Like Attack + Modifier - Armor = Results.

After a little tinkering, it seems that a social encounter requires two disagreeing elements:
Social Rules and
Personal Desires.

In Robin Hood, the first Marshal (it turns out) had a personal desire to keep his job, but the social rules said that 1) the king makes the rules and 2) killing (the new Marshal) with no better cause than frustration results in getting hanged. So all Marshal 1 could cut Marshal 2 with was words.

Another important element that turns a combat encounter into a social encounter is impotence. This is when a character either physically can't solve problems by force, or doesn't want to face the consequences (like becoming an enemy of the state), so he chooses nonviolence.

How these parts, and others, fit together is something I've yet to figure out. By the way, another great social encounter in Robin Hood occurs later, when the new king rides straight into his enemy's army, up to the leaders, and dares them to stab him in the chest. Social rules prevent them from doing so.

09-01-2011, 01:37 AM
That formula is the skill check of which the DC determines how effective ones actions and responses will be. The Diplomacy check alone can move a hostile foe into the indifferent category quite easily. The Bluff and intimidate also have results that can the outcome of a situation. Even a sense motive can direct the conversation and the path of conflict.

The skill challenge, while a staple in 4e, was also used in 3.5 (specifically in Star wars Saga) where a series of skill roles could determine the success or failure of a task. The more successes, the better the outcome. The more failures, the more disastrous. That mechanic alone will help you move along the drama and allow for the intensity of conflict.

Of course this is only using one example of one game mechanic. Other mechanics would have a different approach.

09-02-2011, 06:27 PM
Skill check: yes please. Let's reward those characters who take ranks in social skills. Or penalize those who don't. An excellent socializer should still have to roleplay his dwarf's -1 charisma.

But what I've addressed in the original post isn't the whole question, now that I think about it. It's the DM's side of the question. There's still the problem of getting PCs to realize that avoidance of social encounters either dulls the game, or makes them hopeless fugitives. Maybe in the latter case it's just time to find new players...

I guess it's up to the DM to be a subtle voice of reason, especially for those Lawful characters or characters with skill points in Nobility, Etiquette, or Law. These are the characters who should be expected to know what the social rules are, so they can better identify when personal desires are in conflict with them.

09-02-2011, 07:21 PM
OOooohhhh, so THAT'S what you're digging at!

And I feel your pain.

What I've done in the past was to do it ham-fisted-style. Party is in tavern, whooping it up. Thug comes in and starts picking on what looks like a merchant. If party treats merchant poorly (i.e. doesn't help, is rude - or, heavens forbid - HELP the bad guy!), there's no obvious impact... UNTIL they get a haul of gems (or obscure tome, or whatever), and go back to town to sell it/get it identified/appraised, and find out that the poor merchant is EXACTLY the person that is skilled in dealing with their new treasure... and will OBVIOUSLY screw them over out of spite because of their earlier ruditude. (yes, I made up a word!).

I also had a gem merchant that had a magical headband that made his eyes LOOK like he was quite blind (godlike DC to detect/ID it). They have EVERY opportunity to screw him over (this only works with GOOD parties!!) when dealing with him. He'll go so far as to comment that with the new mint on the coins, he can't tell them apart any more - and will hold up a large pouch with WAY too much money to pay them - and it's up to them to either walk off with the pouch or go through it to get the appropriate cash. If they DO - he's a great person that will send them out on many adventures (I need some tourmalines!) and will spread the news of their honor with the other merchants - who will cut them SMALL breaks in prices. If they screw him over, he will tell the whole town, and whenever the party tries to deal with merchants (or even get a room in the inn!), they will hear, "Oh, YOU'RE the group that robbed old-man Bartlett. I got nothin' to sell you (or "I ain't buyin' yer stuff")!!

It's a matter of getting them to see that their actions have impacts in the world.

It will depend on the group. In MY experience, parties that can't see what's wrong with the FIRST level party attacking that gorgon, will also have problems seeing the potential harm in kicking the nun out of the way on the street corner. The parties that CAN see combat problems will usually see the benefit of diplomacizing and schmoozing everyone they can possibly suck up to.

09-02-2011, 08:35 PM
As far as the Players seeing Social encounters as part of the game, then they need to 1) see/understand the transparent mechanics that effect social encounters 2) the skills, feats, powers, spells, etc that can influence those encounters 3) the DM house/internal rules on how they play out and 4) the rewards for such encounters.

Again on systems, the reason I felt 4e was lacking in any role playing capabilities was their was not a lot of powers and feats that really enhanced role playing. Most power and feats enhanced attack and damage rolls with different types of keywords. Spells were dictated to rituals, which are not useful in these situations if it take you 10 minutes to make them work. Some powers only lasted for 1 round per encounter. It wasn't until the skill powers were introduced that you got some useful flexibility in using skills. But even then, these powers and skills are in the assumption you put them into a skill challenge. Not every social encounter should be a skill challenge and not every social encounter needs a die to roll.

When I play 4e (I'm picking on this system because it is so prevalent), I have to gauge the DM on how much influence I can garner with roleplay before I need to roll a die. If I feel that I can't influence anything at all, even with a die roll, then I know where this adventure/game is going and adjust accordingly (usually not playing anymore). On the otherhand, if I find that influencing the game with roleplay is too easy, I might just drop that as well. I want my social encounters to be somewhat challenging--just not impossible or pointless. This applies to the 3e system as well, but in 3e there are more practical tools and mechanics to influence social encounters (Charm person, Suggestion, etc).

09-03-2011, 08:54 PM
Maybe the players aren't aware that you are looking for them to play out social encounters. In our group, we got to a point where one of our party was challenging the local bar regular to a drinking challenge. My character was the second for our challenger. What the other players didn't realize was that the DM was waiting for them to start making side wagers on the challenge. After the scenerio was over, the DM told the other players what they missed out on. It turned out that none of them had ever been in a group that got much more than the bare surface of role playing and were more accustomed to roll playing.

I will admit that this was not while I was the DM, but after my game. Then again, my game was mostly wilderness and didn't have many NPCs to interact with.

09-04-2011, 10:15 AM
(responding to your sig)

Y not?


09-04-2011, 11:49 AM
Looks like lead-by-example is a good way to go, regarding player actions in social encounters. In cplmac's example, the DM could have set an example by having onlookers placing their own bets on the drinking, showing the players that they had the opportunity to do so as well. I'm also thinking that if you have an unruly bunch of PCs, they might need to get a good dose of medieval-style law and order at an early level, just to set the record straight. You know, not the town watch (wimps) but say, imperial soldiers give them a good non-lethal beat down and a day in the stocks for not being properly subservient (social rule).

I'd be better at this if I were up to date on Shakespeare, but it seems like open knowledge of expectations can help dramatize a social encounter too. In the marshals example, the viewer has a feeling that Marshal 1 is a guy who does his job well and deserves it. You expect him to keep doing so, but instead, the king breaks that expectation. Expectations of right-over-wrong, promise keeping, et cetera, should be good pins to set up, and then knock down for drama's sake, no?

PS Wiz: I don't play 4E for those reasons, and others.