Changing Your Game with Social Interactions in Dungeons & Dragons

Todd Kenreck: Social interactions can be the most important part of any D&D experience, not only with the players around the table, but within the campaign and the game itself. Just one social interaction can change the campaign, alter the course of the adventure for all of the players. So I talked to Jeremy Crawford about why social interactions are so important to the D&D experience.

Jeremy Crawford: So in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, when we approached the design back in the D&D next play test, we always thought of the game as having what we called three great pillars, that D&D campaign would be composed largely of combat, exploration of the world where the campaign takes place, and social interaction. Exploration often plays out as you're checking out basically the details of the area, whether it's a dungeon, a vast forest, the mountains, a city, and then of course combat happens quite a bit. But social interaction I often think of as sort of the softest of the three pillars. What I mean by that is it has the fewest crunchy rules associated with it. Yet it is almost always present. In a typical D&D campaign, that pillar is going on usually during the other two pillars. Because if you think about it, not only is there social interaction in a typical D&D campaign between the player characters and non-player characters, but there's also social interaction between the player characters. Banter, deciding what the next plan is, there's actually a lot of in-world conversation that occurs between player characters. And then when a fight breaks out, often villains are monologuing, people are yelling things at each other, whether it's talking trash or revealing secrets or shouting warnings. The social element is everywhere in D&D. It's ubiquitous, yet again has probably fewer rules for it than almost anything else in the game.

Social interaction is the pillar of the game that has really the fewest rules for it, and that is by design, because we want there to be a maximum amount of flexibility here in the game. So often what a character says is not determined by any die roll. It's determined by simply what that character's player says. It, in many ways, is one of the most straightforward, if not the most straightforward, part of any D&D game. My wizard, Cornelius, says, "Fly you fools!" I didn't have to roll any die for that. He just said it. And often my intonation will affect how the DM interprets that exclamation, how other players have their characters interpret what Cornelius said, whether it was that "Fly you fools," or it was "High time I had a cup of tea," or something far more important than either of those two things. Just talking. It's the bread and butter of D&D.

Yet die rolls can come into place. There are three skills in the game that pertain to social interaction, especially when you're dealing with non-player characters. There's the persuasion skill, the deception skill, and the intimidation skill. I often get asked, are these skills meant to be used against player characters? And honestly they're not, because so much of how a player character talks and feels is really just up to the player's decision. We don't want dice to override the characterization that a player is bringing to their character. So these skills are mostly intended to be used on non-player characters, whether by player characters or by other NPCs, because sometimes a monster NCP might try to intimidate, persuade, or deceive another monster or NPC. And the names describe what they're for. You use persuasion to persuade somebody, deception to fool them or do a bluff, to lie, and intimidation to really kind of, in the worst case, bully somebody into doing something or to believe something. These three do not encompass everything you can do socially in the game. Of course, you could also use the performance skill to represent telling jokes, telling a story, anything like that that might also influence how other people respond to your character.

Often what will happen in a D&D game, even though those skills exist, a person will simply describe what they say or do and the DM will describe how NPCs and monsters respond and away we go, and that's perfectly fine. The main reason why those skills exist is because we do know that you will at times reach a point where your character's capabilities or lack of capability are really out of alignment with yours as a player. Here's some examples.

You might be playing a bard who is fabulously beguiling, who just always knows exactly what to say to make a person feel at ease, knows how to make people laugh, knows how to seduce someone when the time is right, you get the idea. The player, though, might not be that person. The player might not be as silver-tongued as that character. And so sometimes the player is able to do a pretty good job, unless of course the player is an actor, like in some of our D&D screens you have people who are voice actors or whatnot who can actually act to the level that their characters can. But at many tables there are players who are not capable of that kind of improvisational acting, and that's perfectly fine, because we can always lean back when we want to on skills like persuasion, performance, intimidation, deception, when we feel like my character is way better at this than I am, this bit of social interaction. Hey DM, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna describe what my character's saying. I may even attempt to say it, but I think I would like to make a persuasion roll here. And almost always the DM is gonna say, "Yes, go ahead and give me that persuasion roll." We'll come up with the DC that the roll needs to hit for the NPC to be persuaded, and as usual, if they're a success, the persuasion happens.

The Dungeon Master's Guide does include some rules for social interaction, really as an option that you can use to see how influential you are on NPCs. One of its starting points is first figuring out, is the person you're trying to interact with hostile toward you, friendly toward you, neutral toward you? And their mental state or emotional state about you will influence how easy it is to influence them. Honestly, most groups don't use these rules because most groups don't use any rules at all for social interaction, but when they do, again, it's often great just to rely on a simple skill role, have the DM set a DC, and move right along.

Now there's another case where you might use it. I've already given the example of your character is better at this than you are. You may also have a character who's way worse at it than you are. You might be playing a character with an eight charisma who could not charm a doorknob, whereas you might be well spoken, delightful, and you might decide, and the DM as well, okay. You, player, are doing a fantastic job of describing this and you're being really funny and persuasive in the process, but your character is a dolt and we need to represent that with a roll, and that's when also a roll might come into play to show, again, your character is not quite up to snuff in the way that you are. And so then these rolls can help influence the direction of a particular social interaction, whether it is to do some kind of delightful persuasion or scare somebody into doing something or to tell a joke, because again, this can take many, many forms.

I have seen sometimes these checks be used to shape whole scenes and to stop fights and to start fights, just as I've seen social interaction start whole conflicts or end whole conflicts without the need for any die rolls at all. So if I leave you with anything, to me, what's important is either approach is fine. It's perfectly acceptable if, in your group, no dice are ever rolled in social interaction. It's all purely how you role play your character. Other times you might wanna rely entirely on dice or die rolls, or you can have a hybrid approach. In my own game, we use a hybrid approach. I mean, I have some amazing role players at my table. One of my players is Chris Perkins, for instance. James Wyatt, one of the writers of the Player's Handbook, and others, who they know how to nail their character. They know how to ... with me, we've a scene that requires no die rolls at all, but I will occasionally still require a die roll, especially if they're attempting a pivotal moment of influence, whether again it's positively or negatively, just to see, all right, you just gave me a great performance, player, but do the numbers on your character sheet back that performance up?

Almost always if they have done a fantastic job of role playing their character, I will give them advantage on that check, because the last thing I want is for them to have just done some amazing performance as a player and then they just have no hope at all because of a bad die roll. Now, of course, even with advantages, there's a chance they'll fail, but advantages is always a great way to at least show as a DM, you're acknowledging, in this case as in any other, that there should be a little benefit, a little bonus in the mix because of the cleverness of a player or, in this case, the performance of the player.

I also wanna say that it's great when groups are sensitive to the fact that some players really aren't comfortable being improvisational actors, and so I think it's good for groups in that situation to encourage players like that to rely on skill rolls and not feel the pressure to be an actor when that's not their kind of happy place. That's not really why they're at the table. They're really enjoying, I'm sure, the social connections with the other players, but they would feel much more comfortable to use those die rolls to determine how effectively their character is interacting with non-player characters and monsters. Because, as I've said, either approach is good. We've designed the game to be home to both approaches. You've got social interaction with dice and social interaction without dice.

One of the fun wrinkles in social interaction in D&D is trying to draw that line sometimes between what you know and what your character knows. This doesn't just affect social interaction; it can also affect the decisions you make in exploration and the decisions you make in combat. But we're focusing now on social interaction. Sometimes your character will not know things that you know as a player and vice versa. Sometimes characters at the table will lie to each other and the players in the DM will know it's a lie, but a part of kind of the social contract of D&D is playing along with that ruse, and so to me that's also a fun part of the collective storytelling of D&D, is everyone kind of suspending their disbelief about what is known and what is unknown and also sometimes coming up with creative ways to incorporate meta-game knowledge in a way that feels authentic in-world.

Often meta-game knowledge gets demonized, and I really think often in a D&D game, there's no problem with meta-game knowledge as long as it's incorporated into a social scene or another type of scene in a way that feels authentic. I often get a lot of amusement out of seeing players coming up with creative ways for how it is their player somehow knows ... their character knows this information that is like, really? How did they know this? But if a player comes up with a creative enough reason for how they know this thing that they can now use ... a bit of information they can now use in a social interaction scene, I'm almost never gonna say, "No no no, you can't do that. Your character wouldn't know that." For me it's so often about the tale we're weaving together, and a way we can amuse each other sometimes with absurdities, because if we pause, if we're sort of a fly on the wall of our own D&D games, we would realize how many absurdities there really are sometimes that come up in a D&D game, and that's a part of the fun. And then taking those weird bits and weaving them together into a satisfying story.




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