No-Prep Social Encounters
Running a satisfying social encounter can be a stressful prospect. You want your NPCs to feel like people rather than props, and to do that they need to have their own perspectives and goals. They can’t go along with everything the party wants, but neither can they be so intractable that the party learns it’s easier to solve their problems with combat. It can feel like you need to know a lot about a character before it’s possible to portray them faithfully in your game, but you don’t. In fact you already know everything you need to run a satisfying social encounter with any NPC. Even the rando you created 4 seconds ago. If what I’m about to say sounds incredibly basic, that’s because social encounters are incredibly basic. These are the touchstones I use to remind myself of how basic they are.
What general group does the NPC belong to, and what is that group’s attitude towards people like the player characters?
Let’s say the NPCs in question are a group of orcs. How do orcs feel about humans? Odds are you can answer this without needing time to consider. You wouldn’t have included orcs in your game if you didn’t have some sense for what role they’d play. That’s the NPC’s basic outlook established already. Anything the players say can be measured against how an orc would feel about it.
This works better the more specific we can be about what relative groups the characters belong to. “How do humans feel about other humans” gives us some kind of answer. “How do town guards feel about heavily armed outsiders” gives us a much more helpful answer.
If you’re on the ball, the first player to speak should make a reaction roll. (2d6, modified by Charisma). If they roll a 7 (give or take), the NPC’s attitude is right in line with the norm for their group. Higher or lower indicates that the NPC’s attitude deviates to a greater or lesser degree. Rolls greater than ~7 indicate a deviation favorable to the PCs, rolls less than ~7 indicate the opposite. Ask yourself: why might this NPC deviate in the way they do? Don’t question your first instinct. Build on it.
Obviously this is reductive. Each person contains universes of individuality, but at the moment we’re just getting an NPC started. Individuality can come later.
If there’s more than one NPC, what differences of opinion might show themselves?
Some groups won’t show any, even if they do exist. A group of city guards will let the senior officer do the talking while the rest keep quiet and follow orders. Group dynamics still play a part (senior officers don’t like to be embarrassed in front of their men), but the referee only really needs to consider a single NPC’s perspective for this encounter.
Even in less regimented groups, the spectrum of opinions will fall within a limited range. Nobody in an angry mob is happy about the current state of affairs. They’re all angry, but some folks might be satisfied with a redress of grievances while others want to start building a guillotine.
A city council would have an even wider range of opinions, but still limited. Anarchists don’t get on city councils.* You’ve already got a sense of what sort of opinions people on a city council might express. They’ll disagree with everything the party has to say, then disagree with one another about why they disagree. It’s not important for the referee to know what motivates the individual NPC’s views at this point. It’s enough that they have a firm position, and the referee can figure out why they might have taken that position later. Maybe they’re corrupt, or they want to look good for the voters, or they’re acting out a role in some kinda conspiracy. Since it’s a fantasy game, you might even include someone with a social conscience.
Taken together it sounds like a lot of work, but it’s manageable if you introduce each perspective one at a time. What’s the last thing that was said? What sort of person might be inspired to respond to it? Don’t try to keep everyone straight in your head. Jot down one or two descriptive words for each participant who enters the conversation. Simple stuff like “Angry guy,” or “Moral Panicker.
All this is to say we can get a sense of who an NPC is by examining our basic assumptions about them. This makes them as easy to understand as any other part of the game environment. Something we can manage by referring to the core mechanic of the game:
- Describe the environment.
- Ask the players to describe how they interact with the environment.
- Describe how the environment changes.
Like most of what players say in the game, their interactions with a social encounter can usually be rephrased as “Can I…?” questions. When they say “My blood tastes terrible, you don’t want it,” what they mean is “Can I convince the vampire they don’t like my blood?” Such questions can be answered with either Yes, No, or Maybe.
Is what the players want trivial, or in keeping with the wants of the NPC? Say Yes. (“Can I have a cup of water?”)
Is what they want outrageous or completely opposed to what the NPC wants? Say no. (“Can I have the deed to your home?”)
Does it fall somewhere between those two extremes? Have the player roll 2d6. (“Can I stay in your home tonight?”) The reaction roll is the attack roll of a social encounter. It gets rolled a lot.
Like in combat, players should be encouraged to think of creative solutions. Did they make a particularly convincing argument? Did they play to the NPC’s perspective? Did they show how their ideas would benefit the NPC? That’s like attacking when you’ve got the high ground. Give them a bonus to their roll.
Generally speaking, 9 is a good target for success. It’s just above average, so players will need to think on their feet to ensure they’re getting the bonuses they need for consistent success. I wrote a formalized system for handling this called “Simple Socializing,” but these days I tend to just pick target numbers that feel right using 9 as a baseline.
Once the encounter is going, and the players are speechifying, you’ve got room to think about what might make this NPC more interesting. Give them a quirk, or a skewed motivation. Look for wrinkles in the PC’s arguments that can serve as sticking points for the NPC. These are the twists that prevent everything from going according to plan, and result in a meatier, more interesting encounter.
If you need a name, pick an object in your environment and fuck with the pronunciation a bit. One or two syllables is best. A glass of water becomes a fella named “Ater,” table becomes “Tipple,” shelf becomes “Shuul.” It keeps things simple, pronounceable, memorable, and nobody actually cares what the NPC’s name is anyway.
I hope this makes sense, and has been helpful to somebody. The other day when someone asked me what my process for running social encounters was, it seemed like such an easy thing to write down, but I’ve reached that stage where I’ve been staring at this forever and I have no idea if it even makes sense anymore. x’D
*An anarchist on the city council sounds like a fun evening of D&D tho.