On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
No weapons drawn, no minis on a grid, but the tension is palpable at the D&D table. “By lifting this blade, I wish eternal life unto the sinner,” say the runes on the square-tipped greatsword slung across the Judicator’s back. He turns around and says, “so you’re the ones who took it upon yourselves to do my job, eh?” then makes his way to the party’s table. Silence descends upon the inn.
A social encounter is a scene during the game when Player Characters (PCs) engage Nonplayer Characters (NPCs) in conversations that pose a challenge to be dealt with by wit and word, advance the plot, or impact their personal journeys. Roleplay—descriptive, active, or in-between—plays a big part.
Calling these “encounters” can give the impression that there necessarily are Ability checks to make—possibly due to the word’s association with combat scenarios—but this doesn’t need to be the case. Before having someone make a Persuasion (Charisma) check, consider if the argument would land regardless of the delivery.
Roleplay and rollplay don’t exist as entirely separate things.
If all of this sounds complicated, worry not: I’m here to help. In this guide, I’ll cover:
- Getting your players interested in social resolutions
- How social checks work
- How to make and run interesting social encounters
- The art of NPC-craft
Let’s dive in!
Talking to People: A Pillar of The D&D Experience
The 5th edition designers had three pillars in mind for the game’s experience: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Of the three, the latter has the least specific rules, and this is by design: making it highly formulaic and stiff breaks the immersion.
Nonetheless, the most straightforward way to get experience points (XP) and level up is defeating enemies. This reward system can be a problem when trying to run great social encounters; the players have to want to engage with the game’s social component.
Unless you play with a particularly theatrical bunch, you have to reward players for social interaction as much, if not more, as you do for kicking ass.
If you use XP, examples of when to award XP:
- Successfully Fooling someone
- Successful Persuading
- Successful Intimidation
- De-escalating confrontations
- Making friends (in high places)
- Whipping up a crowd (to rebel against a tyrant/saint)
Using milestone leveling can curb the tendency to go murder hobo, but, still, make sure level-ups are not just “the thing that happens after a boss-fight.” Alternative milestones can be enlisting an ally, sweet-talking one’s way out of what would have been a big fight, acquiring a powerful Artifact, and so on.
In other words: Non-combat experiences, like how normal people learn and grow.
Rewarding social gameplay not only empowers nonviolent playstyles but also prevents players from turning peaceful situations into unintentional fights. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Player shyness or overall level of comfort with roleplay is relevant, too.
Preferably during a session 0, it’s a good call to make roleplay expectations clear so that no one feels pressured to speak in character, for instance. Roleplay can be descriptive instead of direct. Nobody has to be an actor to be the party face.
Finally, when engaging in social situations, it’s good practice to invite shy players into the action directly. Simple things like turning to them and asking if they want to add anything can go a long way.
With all this established, how do you craft interesting situations for roleplay and social skills to shine? The answer is twofold: interesting NPCs and good encounter setups.
How do social checks work?
According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG, pg 244), every NPC has a starting attitude toward the PCs. The range of possible attitudes is:
- Helpful: they want the PCs to succeed and will help them in tasks that present no personal risk. A successful Charisma check is required to get them to help if there is risk involved. Most regular people are presumed to be helpful.
- Indifferent: they donʼt really care about the PCs, and may help, hinder or ignore them depending on whatʼs most convenient. A successful Charisma check is required to get them to help if there is no risk, and at a higher DC than if they were friendly when there is. Being indifferent doesnʼt mean the character is aloof and disinterested.
- Hostile: they oppose the PCs and/or their goal. This doesnʼt necessarily mean they want the PCs dead. Jailed or just unsuccessful will do, depending on their personality or the source of their hostility.
Using Charisma skill checks and specific actions, you can shift an NPC’s attitude toward you one step up or down the scale.
For instance, failing a Charisma (Deception) check against an indifferent NPC may make them hostile. Persuading a hostile one that your goal doesn’t harm their interests may turn them neutral and open to helping you for a price.
In the DMG (pg 245), there is a table of NPC reactions to social skill checks based on their current attitude in relation to the PCs and how well the PCs do at the check.
Hostile | Indifferent | Friendly
|Opposes the adventurers’ actions and might take risks to do so.||0||n/a||n/a|
|Offers no help but does no harm.||10||0||n/a|
|Does as asked, so long as no risks or sacrifices are involved.||20||10||0|
|Accepts a minor risk or sacrifice to do as asked.||n/a||20||10|
|Accepts a significant risk or sacrifice to do as asked.||n/a||n/a||20|
For the above, whenever it lists 0, remember that it is possible to achieve 0 or less through negative ability modifiers. If you try to get a Hostile person to help you, but your Charisma is low and you roll badly? Yeah, you’re going to fumble your words and piss them off.
There are some interesting homebrews for social encounters out there. I recommend checking out Shawn Ellsworth’s Social Combat Rules for situations in which playing to an audience in one’s verbal back and forth with an NPC is key. Consider courtly disputes, criminal trials, or savaging someone’s pride at a gala.
Looking to challange your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
Roleplay Affecting Rollplay
When you’re in the DM seat, you’re roleplaying all the NPCs. In the same way that you can’t simply say, “I rolled kickass Persuasion for Sir Gilbert, so you will betray your core values to help him” to a player, they can’t do the same to you.
Rolling well in social skill checks does not override the reality around them. If something goes against an NPC’s belief system, they may not be available for persuasion. Speech is not reality-warping magic.
In the same vein, consider allowing players who make especially clever points or somehow appeal to the NPC’s sensibilities—bonds, flaws, ideals, more on this later—to roll with advantage when using social skills in interactions with them. This adds a lot of oomph to the Insight Skill, as getting a good read on someone’s reactions to what is said can empower you to fine-tune your approach.
To quote from Rowan Rook & Decard’s Spire, an RPG built with a prominent social element in mind:
“Everyone has a weakness; everyone wants something other than their primary goal; no-one acts perfectly logically all the time, and the players can take advantage of that” (Spire core rulebook, pg. 179)
If a player finds a way to exploit an NPC’s confirmation bias—say the NPC is prone to believing in anything that casts them in a good light (or bad, if they’re depressed)— to get their way, this means they were genuinely paying attention. Reward it.
Conversely, if a PC is trying to ingratiate themselves with a powerful figure and accidentally insults them, make them roll with disadvantage on whatever they were attempting. This extends to other delicate social interactions. Be creative and consider how real people react.
Another possibility to let roleplay affect skill check difficulty is using…
Alternative Ability Checks for Social Skills
Sometimes it makes sense to untether the social skills from Charisma depending on how the act is roleplayed.
This approach to social skills is a contextual way to let other party members be the face from time to time. It’s also a subtle way to reward players for roleplaying!
The PHB itself allows you to make an Intimidation check using Strength instead of Charisma when threatening someone with physical violence. I’d even allow using Dexterity for this if the player described to me how they do some sort of dangerous, complicated flourish with their weapon of choice.
Another alternative that comes to mind is allowing scholarly types to make Persuasion checks using Intelligence if they build solid arguments about their field of study. Doing it this way lets their knowledge impact how convincing they are but doesn’t completely erase the importance of good delivery (which is where the Persuasion skill proficiency comes in).
This use of Intelligence for what is normally a Charisma-based skill check can even extend to Deception, as an expert is better equipped than most when exploiting technical language.
There are likely similar ways to use Wisdom waiting to be uncovered, such as noticing the person’s emotional state or psychological profile in amping up the effectiveness of one’s messaging.
How to Set Up a Social Encounter
What makes an encounter fun and memorable? Take away lightning bolts and bonking goblins on the head; what you’re left with is something like this:
- A goal: maybe the goal is to not get on the wrong side of the broad-shouldered, half-orc Inquisitor’s greatsword. Perhaps the goal is just making friends with an NPC you think is charming and would like to see more of. Regardless, if it’s a scene in your session, you want something to come from it.
- The outcome will affect the story going forward: talking can have consequences as momentous as fighting. The friendships and alliances you make can be counted on in times of need, and so can a grudge. Instead of killing, talking your way out of a potentially lethal situation will likely affect your reputation. The list goes on.
- Success is uncertain: even if an NPC is an ally, they might not want to get involved with the party’s nonsense if there’s risk in it; persuasion or proof of existential danger may be required. The adorkable goliath wizard Gentleman Scholar Tokki may not want to be your friend if you say the wrong things.
- The exception to this point are encounters whose purpose is to present an emotional beat without posing a challenge. For instance, a sibling who was presumed dead comes to you in secret and tells you why they remained hidden, revealing a danger and possible quest to pursue.
When a player announces their intention to try to get something from someone by talking to them, make sure you tailor the encounter to their goal. Conversely, when adding a social encounter to a session, make the objective clear to the players.
Players should have at least some notions of possible outcomes from this encounter and how this will impact them. They should also be aware that unintended, unforeseen, and far-reaching consequences are possible.
A Brilliant Example
If you are up to date with Critical Role, don’t watch it at all, or have no problem with spoilers, this situation is a master class in social encounter building—and how clever players can make them the stuff of legends.
In the linked video, Matt Mercer (The DM) did a couple of things that take a social encounter to the next level—and you can do them, too. They are:
- Tie the encounter to a character’s backstory (actually two in this example!).
- Convey a big drawback to turning this interaction into a fight, and which could be detrimental to the party’s goal.
- Present an opportunity to deal with a monster nonviolently. Hags, in particular, have this sort of thing built-in, but you can do it in other cases.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE, pg 148) has a section dedicated to parleying with monsters. It contains several tables with possible offerings that could please different creature types enough to make them amenable to talking.
Play as Rocky Balboa
Take hits on the chin and uses the pain to fuel stronger attacks. Soak up damage and keep on swinging. Spend Moxie for special abilities and regain moxie through the fray.
Subclasses allow you to play as a wrestler, a street-hardened Detective, an underground boxer, a luchador, or even have a dog companion!
How to Make Memorable NPCs: The Art of NPC-craft
An NPC is only as interesting as interacting with them is. Their backstory is only relevant insofar as it shapes who they are when the PCs get to them.
It’s important to know who these people are when stepping in their shoes. In D&D, the most common ways of thinking about this are bonds, ideals, and flaws (or secrets).
According to the DMG (pgs 90-91):
- A bond is something or someone that is important to them (their family, a friend, a location, a mission).
- An ideal is a belief they live by (serving their community, bringing down the wicked, spreading beauty and joy).
- A flaw (or secret) is something they try to hide (an illicit affair, an addiction, a humiliating event in their past).
You can use these as touchstones to come up with their wants, needs, and fears. Things everyone has and that play key roles in how we interact with the world.
The two previous paragraphs alone have enough to make an NPC feel real. They are the main aspects you must consider when deciding what they do and how they react to the PCs’ actions and utterances.
Slap a name, a mannerism, and a couple of adjectives concerning their appearance on them, and that will be enough for an NPC that’s not intended as a fixture of the campaign.
You can and should go deeper when it comes to NPCs of great import: main antagonists and allies, political movers and shakers, loved ones of the PCs, and so on. The DMG contains a whole section chock full of tables to create and detail NPCs (pgs 89-97), from appearance down to combat mechanics.
An RPG system that excels at this aspect is Spire. The Spire core book has a great list of questions for fleshing out villains (pg. 179) that I have slightly adapted for use in other games and for other types of NPCs:
- What do they want?
- How do they think they’re going to get it?
- What have they done in pursuit of it?
- What happens when they get it?
- Who do they control?
- How do they hold whatever power they have?
- What do they look like?
- What do they want to look like?
- What does everyone say about them?
- What’s their biggest secret?
- Who do they love, and why?
- Who do they answer to?
- What are they scared of?
I highly recommend using this list for every major NPC, especially in intrigue-heavy campaigns.
How to Improvise Complex NPCs on The Spot
Sometimes the players will spring a social encounter on you. They might decide to enlist someone off the streets for some harebrained scheme. Maybe the bard wants to chat up some good-looking hunk at the tavern, or the rogue wants to contact the local Thieves’ Guild, which you didn’t prepare (been there, done that).
What do you do? A time-honored DM trick is having a list of names at the ready so that half your world doesn’t end up being called Gary. It’s helpful to factor in ancestries and locations when doing so. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE, pgs 175-192) provides copious lists of names for all tastes.
But a name doesn’t make a character. You then have to give players some idea of what they look like and a glimpse of personality. The DMG (pgs 89-91) has some helpful tables.
You can also craft your own NPC improv aids tailored to your campaign. In my 5th-level, single-player one-shot, The Yeast Heist Fiasco Getaway, I provided a list of bullet points you can use as a template:
- Breowburhʼs population proportions: 56% halflings, 20% humans, 11% gnomes, 7% dwarves, and 6% others.
- Common male names: Eirik, Olof, Rurik, Ragne, Leofric, Oleg, Eino, Brun, Dunstan, Jakob, Ulf.
- Common female names: Astrid, Una, Silke, Karin, Anneke, Fenn, Yekaterina, Gytha, Yarina, Iskra.
- Common gender-neutral names: Dian, Trin, Kai, Brogan.
- Quirks: Excessively polite, speaks with a lisp, anxious hand wringer, fast talker, eyes dart everywhere, swears a lot, incompetently flirty, hard time paying attention, low and slow speaker, suspicious squint, uncomfortable eye contact, pompous user of needlessly long words, hardly talks about anything but themselves, constantly stroking beard or twirling mustache/strand of hair, the hot one.
- Objects: glasses or monocle, shiny new boots, beat-up armor, big floppy hat, wheelchair or cane, fancy smoking pipe, pretty bow, many rings, musical instrument, book.
- Social interaction is one of the three pillars of D&D, along with combat and exploration.
- If you want players to engage with the social component of D&D more, reward it as you would reward combat.
- According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG, pg 244), every NPC has a starting attitude toward the PCs: helpful, neutral, hostile. These affect the range of possible outcomes from engaging them in social interactions.
- Social encounters are at their best when roleplay modifies the mechanics of social skill checks. Let players roll with advantage for Persuasion checks if they make clever points, and so on.
- When setting up social encounters, make the goal clear and consider the effects of possible outcomes. Share enough so your players can make informed decisions, but not enough to make it feel too safe.
- Watch this Critical Role clip (Critical Role spoilers) for an example of a brilliant social encounter, from both DM and player sides.
- When crafting NPCs, focus on their bonds, ideals, and flaws, then their wants, needs, and fears. You can go deeper by perusing the NPC creation section of the DMG and borrowing from how it’s done in Spire.
- Have NPC improvisation aids handy for when players do something unexpected.
There you have it! My take on what makes a great social encounter and how you can reliably craft your own. With a little prep and thinking about the right questions, you can keep your players hanging onto your every word.