Let’s talk about talking

Wed, 03/31/2021 - 12:13
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Talking

Playing D&D can generally be split into two parts: combat aka the fun part, and everything else.

While this is clearly a bit of a joke, it is no secret that combat rules in D&D are much more elaborate than the other aspects of the game. Some even go so far to claim that D&D is not even a roleplaying game because of this. That we need hard and fast rules for the talking parts. As elaborate as fighting. Otherwise D&D is just a board game. Or *shudders* an MMO.

While I find these arguments severely flawed and misaligned with my own perception of the RP part of our RPGs, I do believe there is something fundamentally wrong with how the talky talky bits of D&D work. How they are out of line with the rest of the game.

Index

Introduction

WotC designers frequently claim that D&D is founded on 3 basic pillars: combat encounters, exploration encounters and social encounters. Spoiler alert, one of these is not like the others.

A key element of both combat and exploration encounters is that no matter how you make your character, they will be equipped with the basic tools allowing them to meaningfully participate in those encounters. Every character has a way of dealing reasonably similar damage. Inflict status effects. Make relevant skill checks. 

When initiative is rolled, or when we're doing some exploration, each character can make himself relevant either uniformly and consistently, or occasionally and exceptionally. Everyone does not contribute in the same way, but everyone is able to contribute meaningfully at least occasionally. All good.

And then we get to social encounters… Unlike combat and exploration, here we dominantly engage with only one ability - Charisma, and its three related skills: Deception, Intimidation and Persuasion. We should probably mention Insight (Wisdom) as well, but it is really a “defensive” skill. One that we employ not to act upon something or someone, but to prevent someone from acting upon us. 

Charisma being important in social encounters is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that it's the ONLY relevant ability 99 % of the time. And social encounters are supposed to be one third of the game, thus alienating a high number of player characters by default.

Let's see if we can change this, if possible without making life too complicated for ourselves.

The setup

Within the analysis presented in this article, I want to achieve the following:

  • Provide the ability for most characters to be relevant in social encounters 
  • Retain Charisma as a relevant factor in social skills, but reduce its overall weight
  • Retain the straightforward nature of vanilla 5E

To kick things off and to take away from the usual gloom and doom, here comes a sentence that serves as this article’s starting point and its shining bright light of optimism.

It could be worse, 5E could be Pathfinder or 3.5. 

Not a controversial statement at all, but put your pitchforks down and let me explain. What I mean is that, unlike PF and 3.5, 5E has the bounded accuracy design approach which prevents any individual character from becoming so significantly more powerful in a certain aspect (or skill) that he effectively dwarfs all other non-specialized characters.

In Pathfinder, the divide between the skill proficiencies of two characters of the same level may easily amount to 20, or even more at higher levels. This means that something that is nearly (or even utterly) impossible for one character is an automatic success for another.

Put yourself in the shoes of a GM designing a social encounter for a mid-to-high level Pathfinder group. In your party, you have one character with +20 Diplomacy, and one with +0. Let’s say that you want the encounter to be mechanically relevant. How do you determine the DC?

For a very simple example, if you put the DC at 21, one character has a 100 % chance of success, whereas the other one has a 0 % chance.

Basically, you are not designing an encounter for the group, you are most likely designing the encounter for the one member of the group who has the highest social skill modifier. And for the love of God, please don’t make the “If they roleplay well, I give them a bonus” argument. At best, it’s a bandaid solution to a broken system.

5E is a bit better in this regard due to bounded accuracy. Even at level 20, a character can only go so far as +11 with proficiency, or +17 with expertise. At mid-to-high levels, you are looking at a maximum difference of roughly +9/+10. With this approach, even a character specialized in talky-talky has a chance of failing that DC 15 Persuasion check, and even the tactless barbarian with +0 has an ok chance at making the check. What this also results in is having all characters be able to affect the game during the social encounters. Which is good. We want players to take an active part in the game, right? We don’t want our barbarians and fighters falling asleep during the talky-talky bits, and our bards tuning out during fights, right?

And just to make things a bit more confusing, Pathfinder is actually better than 5E in one way here.

Specifically, whereas 5E forces you to make the only relevant decision of assigning ability scores and proficiency modifiers when you first create your character, Pathfinder lets you make these small incremental changes whenever you level up by assigning skill points. This way, your character is not only much more unique, but it also in theory allows you to make a diplomatic barbarian better than in 5E.

So, neither 5E nor Pathfinder are ideal. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Since this is primarily an article on 5E, let's see how we can fix its issues.

And to do this, we first need to talk about Fallout.

Talking in Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas is a glorious RPG, and the talky-talky bits are a simple yet excellent departure from the standard RPG approach to the issue described above. Let’s explain.

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FNV
Simple, yet effective.

In FNV, your character has a list of skills, quite similar to D&D. Whenever you level up, you take a few points of the skill/s of your choice, thus improving your character’s chances of success in that skill. This approach pertains to everything from lockpicking, smashing someone’s head in with a hammer, surviving in the wilderness etc.

Note also that FNV has a Speech skill.

Doesn’t look very revolutionary so far, huh? Looks like your standard RPG stuff.

Not quite so, my quick-to-jump-to-conclusions friend.

See, the kicker is that in a conversation, your character does not simply default to Speech as the only go-to skill. Instead, the game refers to the other skills as frequently as possible, using them as your general knowledge of a topic, whereas Speech is used only when none of the other skills may be logically applied. Let’s take a look at some examples to clarify this point.

You are trying to persuade the town mayor to give you some healing items before you head into the wilderness to do a quest for the town. You would make a Survival check to convince him that the wilderness truly is dangerous in these parts and that you will need those healing items if you are to come back alive.

You are trying to persuade a war veteran to give you some dynamite to chase off some bandits. You would make an Explosives check to convince him that you know how to handle the dynamite.

You are trying to persuade the town guard that they need to strengthen their patrols. You would make a Sneak check, explaining to them how easy it is for a criminal to hide away if things stay as they are. 

This approach is silently brilliant in that it ensures that a wide variety of mechanically different characters are able to meaningfully participate in a social encounter. Plus, the player understands and interacts with the motivations, fears and other character traits of the NPCs that he is dealing with, as well as the general situation in the game world. We will use this design as the basis for the solution presented below.

Enough talking

Ok, so how would I ‘fix’ social encounters in D&D 5E?

Just to reiterate, our design goals are:

  • Provide the ability for most characters to be relevant in social encounters 
  • Retain Charisma as a relevant factor in social skills, but reduce its overall weight
  • Retain the straightforward nature of vanilla 5E

With our goals laid out, and FNV serving as an inspiration, the only real mechanical change that we will make will be adding the following rule:

When you attempt to influence or affect others through words or presence, make a Charisma skill check. If your approach aligns with a social skill (Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion) that you are proficient in, you may add your proficiency modifier to your skill check. Furthermore, if your approach leans on knowledge or a skill that you are specialized in (represented by proficiency), you may add that skill's relevant ability modifier to your social skill check (min. 1).

These three sentences are the entirety of the changes proposed within this article, and if you look more closely, it’s just the last sentence that introduces something new. So basically, this entire change boils down to a single sentence. 

If your approach in a social encounters leans on knowledge or a skill that you are specialized in (represented by proficiency), you may add that skill's relevant ability modifier to your social skill check (min. 1).

Looks simple enough. Let’s take a look at a few examples to get a feeling for this approach.

Example 1. It is night, and the party has arrived at the gates of a small town after a few days travelling through the forest, now safely behind them. The town guard is hesitant to let the characters enter the town, for fear that feral wolves will charge in from the forest. The druid thinks for a while and tells the guards that wolves as predators are attracted to noise, and that even this very conversation is likely to attract them, so the guards should just go ahead and open the gates in silence.

The player offers to make a Charisma (Intimidation) check, which the GM accepts. The player additionally offers that he has proficiency in the Intelligence (Nature) check, which he feels is relevant in this situation. The GM accepts and the player rolls a d20, adding his Charisma (Persuasion) modifier plus his Intelligence modifier.

The player rolls high, and the guards open the gate.

Example 2. The party is at a ball, looking to steal a valuable ring from a noble. However, the noble is somewhat paranoid, and he has surrounded himself with a few loyal guards who won’t leave his side, making the act of stealing the ring near impossible. The party rogue, masquerading as a high-ranking town guard, approaches the noble and says that the patrols outside are so rare and few that anyone could easily sneak into the manor and steal the noble's valuables.

The player offers to make a Charisma (Deception) check, which the GM accepts. The player additionally offers that he has proficiency in the Dexterity (Stealth) check, which he feels is relevant in this situation. The GM accepts and the player rolls a d20, adding his Charisma (Deception) modifier plus his Dexterity modifier.

He rolls poorly, and so the guards don’t leave the noble’s side. However, they will be keeping a close eye on the rogue due to his strange behaviour.

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tavern
They went that-a-way!

Example 3. The party have stolen the noble’s ring and are having well-deserved drinks in the tavern, when a group of armed guards burst inside and start questioning the patrons. One of the guards approaches the table and asks the player characters if they know anything about the missing ring. The party think for a moment, but can’t find a way to use any of their skill proficiencies at this moment in time. The party bard pipes up and utters a simple “No, sir.”

The bard’s player makes a pure Deception check, rolls high and the guard continues on his way.

Let’s check this rule against the design goals established above.

  1. Provide the ability for most characters to be relevant in social encounters 

I believe this one has been accomplished. We will provide the players with the option to add two of their ability modifiers (Charisma + any other ability) to a skill check, provided they have the appropriate skill proficiencies. Since every character is bound to have at least a few applicable skill proficiencies, we have widened the range of characters that can meaningfully participate in a social encounter on a mechanical level.

  1. Retain Charisma as a relevant factor in social skills, but reduce its overall weight

We are at its core still making a Charisma ability check, so we are good here, too. Charisma has not become any less powerful with this approach, we have simply allowed it to be enhanced by the appropriate character knowledge and skills. Additionally, we have kept the option of using a pure Charisma (+ social skill) check should the player desire to do so. In a way, this mimics the pure Speech skill from FNV.

  1. Retain the straightforward nature of vanilla 5E

Arguably the goal least accomplished. We have introduced some degree of floating elements to our social skill checks by rolling a d20 and then adding two separate numbers - our Charisma (skill) modifier plus a secondary ability modifier. I have also toyed around with a system that would simply give you advantage on the check, but I don’t feel that it is the right option. I would prefer the system not taking up the advantage bonus “slot”, instead relinquishing the decision on awarding advantage on a per-situation basis. However, I feel that the benefits gained from this approach outshine this added complexity and slight departure from the bounded accuracy design philosophy of 5E.

The benefits

I see three core benefits to this approach.

Number one, as we already discussed, this approach allows a wide variety of characters to participate meaningfully in a social encounter. Instead of gating social encounters behind a single ability (Charisma) and a few dedicated skills, we are instead using the ability and skill checks present and applicable throughout the system. 

Number two, I feel that moving away from a simple Persuasion/Deception//Intimidation matrix pushes the players to more creatively engage with the skills at their disposal. Instead of just letting the party face come up with something random, the players are mechanically motivated to think within the fictional situation and find avenues that their characters might exploit with their individual areas of expertise.

Number three, with the players opting for a specific approach to a problem, it makes it easier for the GM to inflict more creative consequences for the characters’ actions. In our example with the rogue and the noble above, the noble will likely become very suspicious of this character who seems to know a lot about sneaking. He may send a guard or two to follow the rogue. The rogue may then lead them into the loving raging arms of his barbarian friend, thus eliminating one obstacle in the party’s way. I believe this element makes the GM’s job easier in creating complications for the players, much more than blatant lies and general persuasion attempts made by the players (and their characters).

Another potential benefit, and your mileage may vary with this one based on the type of game you like to run/play, it may help with the worldbuilding. Take a look at our first example with the wolves above. Maybe nobody at the table knows enough about wolves to know if they really hunt based on noise, but we agree that the wolves in this fictional world function that way from now on. Since we established that this is the truth, we may bring it up in the future. The GM may create an elaborate gauntlet through a frozen valley that the party must traverse silently for fear of attracting the unwanted attention of a nearby pack of wolves. It’s just minor things like these that may help you inject a bit more life into the world, without having to do extensive solo worldbuilding.

Also note that, since we are adding both the core skill and the additional Charisma modifier, we are actually using the mechanics to incentivize the players’ engagement with the game world. Your players will be motivated to get both of these bonuses and maximize their chances of success, instead of just defaulting to a pure Persuasion check, and they will do so by thinking about the fictional world their characters are a part of.

A downside

With all of that said, there is one downside that I can see with using this system, and that is credulity, or lack of verisimilitude. Certain abilities and skills just may not be realistically applicable in a conversation. A good example of this is Stealth (Dexterity). Is it realistic for our dexterous character to be able to use his Dexterity to gain the upper hand in a conversation? Probably not, to be honest. It requires some suspension of disbelief, and the ability to mentally translate his Stealth proficiency as not only being able to move his body in a certain way, but also the general mental knowledge of how to avoid being spotted, how blindspots work, how to utilize darkness etc. 

To sum up, if you find it difficult to frame skill proficiencies as knowledge and experience instead of just pure motor skills, this approach is definitely not for you as it will clash with your perception of skill proficiencies, and that’s fine. However, if you can perceive skills as knowledge and experience, you should probably give the proposed system a go.

A simpler alternative

With the above proposal out of the way, there is a much simpler alternative that provides roughly the same benefits. Instead of requiring a Charisma check, a GM may request any other ability/skill check pertinent to the situation.

Have the player make a pure Intelligence (Nature) check to persuade the guards that wolves are coming.

Have the player make a pure Dexterity (Stealth) check to deceive the noble that the patrols are thin.

While this approach is much simpler to execute, and much more in line with 5E’s design philosophy, it is also bound to severely step on the toes of your charismatic characters and they may legitimately feel hard done by such a homerule. After all, their social skill proficiencies are usable only and exclusively in social encounters, whereas all of the other skills are usable in exploration encounters as well. Furthermore, your players may feel disincentivized to take up social skill proficiencies, which may not be the effect we were looking for.

Unfortunately, neither of these approaches has been playtested as of yet, unfortunately, so they remain a purely theoretical piece for now.

Conclusion

Social encounters are one of the three pillars of D&D, but they are underrepresented mechanically and cater to specialized characters. This issue is significantly less severe in 5E than it was in previous editions of the game, but it is still present.

My suggestion to combat this issue is to allow characters to consistently use their social skills and abilities as usual, and then enhance those abilities with their non-social skills as appropriate. This, I feel, would lead to social encounters that validate a much broader array of characters and help engage the players with the fictional world. While this approach has certain downsides in terms of slightly added complexity and stretching verisimilitude, I believe the issues it eliminates may be worth the tradeoff. 

 

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