Social Interaction in 5E D&D is All About Attitude
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted interact socially for a discussion on fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adversaries whose weapons lean more towards a sharp tongue than a sharp sword. You might be surprised to learn there’s a section in the 5E D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide covering social interaction both narratively and mechanically. So let’s get into it.
Social interaction in 5E D&D
“Exploring dungeons, overcoming obstacles, and slaying monsters are key parts of D&D adventures. No less important, though, are the social interactions that adventurers have with other inhabitants of the world.”
The Basic Rules illustrates quite succinctly where 5E D&D’s focus lies, reinforcing the Three Pillars of Adventure model outlined in the Introduction (the same as you’ll find in the Player’s Handbook). It’s not an uncommon refrain to hear D&D is a combat game with supporting perspectives pointing to the all the rules covering combat. But if you ask me these folks’ points fall flat in light of material found throughout the core rulebooks. In fact the Introduction to the game itself includes a signpost indicating where and what to look at for guidance. Even further many if not all official published adventures and supplements incorporate social interactions and exploration guidelines for the creatures, places and objects adventurers encounter.
Tools of the trade for players
I’ll use the same example to illustrate how social interaction is as much a part of 5E D&D as combat in the same manner as I do whenever I point out how exploration is as much or more a part of everyone’s games as the other two pillars of adventure. If you’re not fighting and you’re not engaging with the environment or setting you’re (more than likely) interacting socially. The Introduction to the game even tells you the parts of the game important for this procedure.
Ability scores, personality traits and class features come into play during social interaction. A party of adventurers seeks to achieve a goal and approaches tackling it through social interaction with other creatures with their own goals and agendas. This does not sound much different than combat to me except the goals stretch beyond the next 30 seconds or so with two opposing sides seeking to reduce their adversaries hit points to zero.
The wrinkle in these scenarios arises from what I believe is simple oversight from everyone involved — what are the parameters for success?
In combat it’s easy enough to gauge where both sides stand. Sheer numbers of combatants change as defeated participants increase, hit points indicate progress and everyone involved relies on codified mechanics. Players can cite concrete game components they manipulate and exploit to ensure higher probabilities for success of their actions in combat. Social interaction seems more murky and indefinable especially considering NPC and creature attitudes and agendas aren’t represented mechanically and largely depend on a Dungeon Master’s whims.
During social interaction the best thing to do is begin with well defined character and party goals. The PHB gives some examples like convincing an unscrupulous thief to confess or flattering a dragon so it spares your life. Characters in 5E D&D possess access to as many resources for achieving these goals as they do for reducing enemy hit points to zero — ability scores, proficiencies, spells and other class features — and it’s their collective and individual personality traits guiding their use. So use them!
Tools of the trade for Dungeon Masters
I’ll come right out and say the No. 1 thing leading 5E D&D players and commentators to maintain the game is a combat focused endeavor is initiative. Unlike exploration and social interaction there’s an event indicating to everyone the scenario moves into a distinct phase. Timing and turn order suddenly come into sharp focus and tension ratchets up. Lives are on the line and every second counts!
The DMG addresses these circumstances before providing guidelines for managing a social interaction mechanically. In the same way players advocate (rightfully so!) how roleplaying continues during mechanically important combat situations, social interaction blends game mechanics with roleplaying too.
“Some DMs prefer to run a social interaction as a free-form roleplaying exercise, where dice rarely come into play. Other DMs prefer to resolve the outcome of an interaction by having characters make Charisma checks. Either approach works, and most games fall somewhere in between, balancing player skill (roleplaying and persuading) with character skill (reflected by ability checks).”
Creating a social interaction encounter calls on DMs to put as much thought into the dynamics of what’s going on as a climactic set piece battle. There’s creatures involved, with their own ability scores, traits and features they’ll bring to bear. And like player characters these creatures have personalities too. Creature stat blocks in the Monster Manual and other sources include resources for managing these qualities. All that flavor text and lore isn’t for nothing! And just like a DM can modify stats they can tweak creature motivations and personalities to create dramatic situations for adventurers to overcome.
Following the basic pattern of play makes it much easier to implement the mechanical side of social interaction described in the DMG. In this section the important thing for DMs to keep in mind is the creatures’ attitudes. It’s all about attitude, whether the creatures are friendly, indifferent or hostile. Friendly creatures want to help or wish for adventurers’ success, indifferent creatures might help or hinder depending on what they see as most beneficial and hostile creatures oppose adventurers and their goals but don’t necessarily attack on sight.
- 1. The DM describes the environment.
- 2. The players describe what they want to do.
- 3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.
Playing this out during a game means it’s incumbent on a DM in Step 1 to convey the creatures’ attitude. This can be as overt as simply stating creatures’ attitude or subtly through roleplaying and description. It’s entirely up to a DM and the style they and the group prefer. Personally I struggle the most with social interaction as a DM and I’m most likely to straight up tell players this information plainly.
Step 2 leaves progress in the players’ hands. Typically this moves forward as a conversation. (If players describe attacking the creature or engaging with the surroundings then your social interaction encounter turns into combat or exploration.) Ever wonder where class features like a Battle Master fighters’ Know Your Enemy or a Mastermind rogue’s Insightful Manipulator come into play? Here you go.
Perhaps players’ use of their ability scores, class features and personality traits result in an attitude shift without the need for any dice rolls or checks. That’s the nature of 5E D&D. In some cases the DM decides what happens as a result of Step 2 and the outcome is wholly narrative. Other times a DM calls for a roll of the dice based on players’ descriptions of their characters’ words and deeds.
“When the adventurers get to the point of their request, demand, or suggestion — or if you decide the conversation has run its course — call for a Charisma check. Any character who has actively participated in the conversation can make the check. Depending on how the adventurers handled the conversation, the Persuasion, Deception, or Intimidation skill might apply to the check. The creature’s current attitude determines the DC required to achieve a specific reaction, as shown in the Conversation Reaction table.”
Yes, there’s a table for this. Conversation Reactions include a list of DCs for these Charisma checks along with the creatures’ reactions depending whether they’re friendly, indifferent or hostile. So for all you players out there thinking your bard’s outrageously high Persuasion check ought to translate into a ruler’s abdication of power to you think again. Presumably this hypothetical ruler is hostile to the character’s agenda so even a check in excess of 20 doesn’t win you the throne since “the creature does as asked as long as no risks or sacrifices are involved.”
I hope this closer look at social interaction in 5E D&D gives you some fresh ideas for your own games. As the hobby continues to grow, expand and evolve we get exposed to wonderful new perspectives and approaches to playing this game we love but I’m always amazed how much wisdom and guidance comes right from the basic rules and core books. This was a particularly useful dive for me since as I mentioned social interaction isn’t my strong suit as a DM. I appreciate how the rules encompass and support so many different styles and offer resources to help strengthen areas where players and DMs might not feel as confident. In fact after refreshing myself on social interaction going forward my prep for games will include noting the attitudes of creatures and NPCs. At the very least this reminds me it’s okay to dial down the in character roleplaying and plainly explain to players the temperature in the room when they engage in social interaction.