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How Do You Run Social Encounters?

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Hi all

For me, social encounters are the hardest part of running a game.  I tend to have at least one every session, and I always struggle to get them working properly.  I've had a think about it, and I reckon there are three key issues I come up against.

  1. For some reason, when my players do/say something unexpected in a social situation, I have a much harder time improvising an answer than when they do a similar thing in a combat situation.
  2. Many social encounters seem to end up coming down to a single dice roll.  This isn't necessarily a problem, except that the party's Face has started to observe that he has four social skills he's pouring XP into that they don't seem to get used enough, while the combat characters generally have 1-2 combat skills that they can roll half a dozen times in any given encounter.
  3. I've noticed a considerable reluctance on my part to let my players fail at social encounters (where I would be happy to have them fail at the equivalent combat, chase or mechanical encounter, for example).  That's probably the easiest one for me to fix.

I've been reading online to try and come up with ways to make my social encounters better, I'd love to know how people here tend to play them out.  GMs: how much prep work do you do?  How do you react to completely unplanned social encounters?  What does each check actually represent?  How do the encounters tend to play out?  I would also love to hear from any players who play social PCs - what are you guys looking to gain from a social encounter?  What was the best social encounter you were involved in, and why did you enjoy it so much?

Thanks in advance.

NB: As a side-note, I really struggle with the "social combat" rules suggested in...er...whichever book they were suggested in.  Partly because it makes no sense to me that losing strain as a result of an argument would somehow leave a character low on strain for a subsequent combat encounter, and partly because it just seems like rolling dice to lower hitpoints without really understanding what each check represents.

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You can run encounters like a hand to hand combat. Social strain, attacks, parries buig revelations as boosts.... 

Shouldn't be that difficult. 

I try to center the behavious of the NPC with 3 questions

1. What does he has to offer?

2. What does he want for collaborating with you?

3. What does set him at odds?

In general, behaviour patterns are enough for this. Example: information on stormtrooper movements. Get his family to safety. Exposure. 

That works for any RPG, really. 

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Hello- I am finding that my group (8 players strong) generally wants social almost as much as combat. To them, those types of encounters really make SW come alive. I do social really really well. Here are some answers I have for your questions:

1- take a moment to pause and think about how you would react to this type of encounter in real life. RPGs throw a quirk in there given that different races might react a lot differently than you and I would.

2- in connection with my answer to number 1 above, try and develop (or think of) some instances where his lesser used social skills can actually be put to use.

3- Well, I would advise you to not be- after all, failing at social encounters can generally lead to making the players actually think rather than just rolling dice. They have to formulate a plan and come up with a solution as players rather than just letting the dice do the work for them. Are you sure you aren't allowing them to fail because you prefer not to deal with social encounters and would rather just let them succeed so you can move on to the next combat? Be honest withyourself- if the answer is yes, you may be cheating them out of some memorable fun.

I do little prep work as a GM simply because I have learned how to do really good social encounters (I have been a DM/GM for 35 years now  so time has helped! :)) I have found that you don't need to hurry up and give immediate answers, if they surprise you, take your time and be imaginative and reasonable. If you act reasonably, your players will accept your decision and go with it.

Memorable social encounters- oh my have we ever!!! My best friend and his wife were playing a Gand merc and a Bothan Dancer. They joined our group 2-3 sessions in and during the player introductions I told the main group "You see a shapely Bothan and runtish Gand over near a small access door." Ok we casually stroll over to see what's up. As the party approached, the Bothan started doing some semi-provocative dancing and the Gand "Throws his hat down"- it was hilarious and everyone laughed.

The other memorable moment came when one girl in our group (Age 21, somewhat shy) who plays the face (go figure lol) for the party was watching a fight with a male NPC contact. She knew he was being dumped by his girlfriend and was trying to console him. The poor girls goes "I put my hand on his knee and start stroking...." as soon as she said that, the 4 guys (ages 21-26) start ripping up with laughter and she got incredibly red faced. It was easily the best moment of our gaming year.

Good luck! :)

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I am not an expert either but here is what I try to do.

1. Know before hand what the NPC does and does not know. Focus less on what questions the PC may ask on more just on what the NPC knows.

2. Let them fail. If it's crucial info have an alternative way for them to find it.

  • Example: Dead NPC's data pad in his pocket.  Shady infochant willing to straight up sell the info. Sneak into NPCs quarters and find info on their holo terminal, Or if all else fails just have their NPC quest giver just contact them with "new information",  etc.

 

3. To avoid 1 check pass/fail, you can stretch out the checks into a series (I think it might also be called a skill challenge). Think of it like combat rounds, each round there is a roll and one check then affects the next with upgrades, boosts, and setbacks, etc.  I find this really helps to break the stale roll only 1 social skill, and instead it turns it into a little conversation scene. And you don't even need each roll to be the "social skills". It also allows non-social skilled charcater to potentially contribute.

  • Example: You know the NPC is interested in Droids, Roll Mechanics to chat about droids to "butter him up" use advantages to give boosts to your next roll when you use charm. Success could lower difficulty of next roll, triumph could upgrade, etc.

There are two ways to do #3 depending on how complex you want the scene to play out.

  • A. Set a threshold of needed number of cumulative successes for success and determine how many rounds  the encounter will be (or some cut off).
    • Example: In order to successfully charm this NPC they need 4 net successes. If they cant do it 4 rounds they fail, If they get too many threat they fail, if they get a despair the NPC is offended and now it takes 5 successes.
  • B. Quicker 1-2 check. One check Simpy determines then next. 
    • Example: You want to charm that NPC mechanic. Roll mechanics, success lowers the difficulty of the next charm check. (advantage/threat and triumph can still affect the next roll)

 

 In general don't use #3 for every minor conversation, but it definitely ends up feeling like a "social encounter" scene if you have a couple rolls building up to the outcome.

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Great advice above, the main thing being knowing what the NPC wants.  There is also some good advice in both Far Horizons and Desperate Allies on how to use social skill checks.  I also found this article useful:

http://theangrygm.com/systematic-interaction/

The meat of it, if you're not a fan of his schtick, starts at the subtitle "Keeping Social Score".  It's a way of scoring a social encounter to see whether the an NPC can be swayed.

Adapting the above to this system, one thing I will do is defer a roll until after the PCs and NPCs have engaged in a bit of dialogue.  The PCs might say certain things (offering anything from facts to lies to flirtation) or try certain mechanical tactics (e.g. Coercion vs Charm).  I usually have an empty bowl in front of me (open to the table), and as the conversation proceeds I add boost or setbacks (or sometimes, in extreme cases, upgrades either way) to the bowl.  Once it's time to roll, these additions are incorporated into the final pool.  I find a single roll is usually good enough for a single subject matter (and there could be multiple subject matters under discussion), but there's no reason you can't have multiple rolls if a subject is complex or the stakes are high.

The emphasis is on the dialogue, the bowl helps ramp up the tension, and the dice roll resolves the matter.

 

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2 hours ago, whafrog said:

 I usually have an empty bowl in front of me (open to the table), and as the conversation proceeds I add boost or setbacks (or sometimes, in extreme cases, upgrades either way) to the bowl.  Once it's time to roll, these additions are incorporated into the final pool.  I find a single roll is usually good enough for a single subject matter (and there could be multiple subject matters under discussion), but there's no reason you can't have multiple rolls if a subject is complex or the stakes are high.

The emphasis is on the dialogue, the bowl helps ramp up the tension, and the dice roll resolves the matter.

 

I really like that- that sounds fun! I agree with the posts subsequent to mine as well- know the NPC motivations- perhaps he wants credits, a drink, a job or friendship, perhaps he's really a bounty hunter in disguise who is talking up the party as a distraction.

I do the same thing with social encounters- let the players talk and describe their actions- after all, this is supposed to be a "narrative" driven game and I do not believe it should be up to the GM to describe what the pcs are saying or doing.

On the flip side, I have been involved with ungodly tedious social roleplaying as recently as last months August Pathfinder session. We always start playing at 4, we didn't start swinging swords till close to 9pm. My son (age 21) actually role played going to a town and getting a 3 day job to dig a ditch for 3 copper pieces a day. That was INSANELY boring!!! Surprisingly the DM, he is a couple years older than me and I thought he would have more DMing experience but apparently I was wrong.

Social Encounters are, in my opinion, the art or lifeblood of any RPG. The technical side is knowing the rules. The "Art" and what separates the good from the great GM's are social encounters. Social encounters grow the gaming experience and add a completely new level of immersion to the game. If you compare it to real life, thing about your job or classes or whatever. Do the interesting challenges you face or really memorable moments come from crunching numbers or entering data or writing a paper or do they come from interaction with other people- good or bad.   

Edited by Currahee Chris

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I play a Bothan Politico in my game and am the Face of my group. 

Nothing gets me more excited than when my GM has thought through a characters motive and past so much so that the characters reaction to my PC’s question and statements seem realistic and consistent. 

Also, the best social encounters I have, always come from situations where I feel there is many different approaches to it (this however falls back on me to think up interesting approaches as well). The GM gives me clues (not answers) to generate my ideas. 

Finally, the reason why I love social encounters so much is that my GM has created a culture where he rewards and celebrates ‘our of the box’ ideas.  None of my ideas a shot down but we work through it and roll dice accordingly to see if ot becomes reality.

So my recommendations, from PC to GM, is prepare prepare prepare (sorry, no easy solution). Put yourself in your created characters shoes, understand their background and what makes them tick. This can be done on the fly but is much better when pre thought about. This will make social interactions immersive. Give them real responses, they mention something touchy with the person, make them react in a truthful way. 

Secondly, create a culture!! Never shoot down ideas, make sure you make it known that the more interesting the idea, the bigger the *roleplaying* rewards will be (as in, if they put in the time to think up something interesting, make sure you spend just as much describing it in epic detail). 

Finally, and this will depend who you are playing with but, DO VOICES and SOUND EFFECTS. This is how you make it known to your PC’s you have done the work on this character, and will make it 100 times more immersive. The best social interactions always have voices.

Hope this helps. Keep up the hard work of a GM :) Us PC’s love it 

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Coming from a heavy narrative game such as Pendragon, the social interactions are almost a breeze as that system was designed around the primary act of courtly interaction and leveraging your clout.

For this system, there are a few ways to make the rolls more frequent and more meaningful. Usually the PCs should come armed for the engagement with propositions or collateral to get started. Encourage them not to dump their loads (of info) onto someone immediately, because they have given up all leverage. Maybe you have the face make a check to see if he is even interesting enough for the person to interact with if it is a large ball or something. Everyone is angling for something at one of those events, so maybe your PC face knows that interacting with so-and-so might get the attention of the real target, because the real target will think you can get them an audience or something. You can also make the amount of info you give out increasingly more difficult to get. After all, they aren't giving up the goat either. Maybe you talk to the gentleman pointing and laughing at the target to get dirt on him for leverage.

There are lots of roll potentials, and making it a full (and fulfilling) encounter can be easy. I think folks have provided so very useful templates above for improvisation. Just keep in mind what they want, what you are willing to give, and what you are going to take in return. After that, it's all about respecting the rolls and enjoying the moment.

Parting advice: if improvising is hard, utilize strong arm tactics in your speech to give yourself so breathing room and control the flow of the engagement; too many times will soft GMs let strong personalities walk all over them, despite the powerful NPC they are working with.

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This is all very wonderful advice, many 'likes'. (I do wish people wouldn't use Desslok and whafrog's avatars though, it's confusing!)

We have two Diplomats, so we have used the 'Desperate Allies' social combat on occasion, so they can tag-team and leave their foes sobbing, face-down in a punch bowl due to strain damage.

Also, Scathing Rhetoric turns any old fight into a Social Combat! Because there's nothing cooler than watching a protocol droid killing stormtroopers by shouting at them:  

Katie:  Attention, stormtroopers.  I am reliably informed that you are inadequate for your designated purpose and should shut down in shame.

Stormtroopers:   Sir, it said –

Stormtrooper Commander:  I heard what it said, trooper. Keep firing!

Katie:  Attention, stormtroopers.  Having studied combat data involving the Empire’s supposedly ‘elite’ clone troops, I have come to the conclusion your aiming skills are severely sub-par to what might be realistically expected.  In colloquial terms, you <ahem> ‘could not a hit a Bantha’s behind at five paces’.

Stormtroopers:  Sir, it’s openly mocking us now!  

Stormtrooper Commander: Just! Keep! Shooting!

Katie: <cough> HEY STORMTROOPERS!  YOU SUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stormtroopers: [heads violently explode] 

Edited by Maelora

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This is a tip I ported over from D&D. Whenever the session's activities were slated to include things other than monster-slaying, I'd have a few NPC personalities ready to go in my notes. Game stats, to be sure, but also a few notes about appearance, accent or vocal inflections, motivations, and one or two things that make them "different."

This system is fantastic at allowing/promoting re-skinning, so a generic NPC shopkeeper could serve as any number of races and trades. Your party may not remember a generic Duros barkeep, but the exceptionally tall Rodian mechanic with the rusty complexion will stick with them for a while.

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OK, related question: where/when do you roll the dice during a social check?  Or, to put it another, how do you position your fortune on social checks?

Whafrog's method, described above, seems to suggest a "Fortune at the End" methodology - the players roleplay out the scene, which adds boost and setback dice to the pool that is eventually rolled at the end, providing a conclusion.  The potential downside to this, as far as I can see, is that it limits the potential for Threat, Advantage, Triumph and Despair.  If the entire scene has already been played out, how can the PCs let some information slip, or make an accidental faux pas?

The article cited above suggests that having "Fortune at the Beginning" might be good for social encounters, allowing "the mechanics to provide you with an improv seed that you can then flesh out accordingly".  I must admit, I've not tried this yet, but I can see both the advantages and a couple of pitfalls: namely, that my players are perhaps going to be a little unhappy to play out a check that they've already failed.  It also doesn't give much opportunity to reward good roleplaying with boost dice etc.

Any thoughts?

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Great article, thanks for linking it, there's lots of food for thought.

Just to clarify a couple things:

First, though what I described above appears to be "Fortune at the End", that was just for brevity.  In practice it's almost always either a "Fortune in the Middle" situation or a "Multi-stage Resolution"...which are both effectively a series of Fortune at the End events.  If you go back to the "Keeping Social Score" link, if there are multiple Objections and Incentives to be resolved you may not want to make the entire encounter hinge on a single roll.  The narrative dice can reveal/conceal NPC Objections/Incentives that can play into any future social or even non-social rolls.

So this:

3 hours ago, edwardavern said:

The potential downside to this, as far as I can see, is that it limits the potential for Threat, Advantage, Triumph and Despair.  If the entire scene has already been played out, how can the PCs let some information slip, or make an accidental faux pas?

Isn't really a problem.  In practice it works fine because it's not one roll for the "entire scene".  Also in practice, I try not to have scenes dominated by one PC, as the players will instinctively put their best Face forward.  So I try hard to have social events interwoven with other PCs taking their own actions.  So let's say the PCs want to rob a noble.  One might be schmoozing the local noble at a fancy dinner party, while another is hanging from a wire above the safe, etc.  So a PC might get a Despair on a social roll, and I might say "She gives you a knowing look:  she's on to you."  And the player won't know whether it's a Despair because the noble really does know there's an attempted robbery and is about to catch everyone in the act; or whether it's a Despair because his PC is misreading the situation.  Those are fun times... :ph34r:

Likewise, positive narrative results might reveal things about the NPC, e.g.:  "She tells you how her son died, and spells out the date like it's branded into her heart."  The social PC, like the mercenary he is, tells the guy hanging from the wire "try these numbers on the safe"...  This way, the narrative axes can come into play in any number of ways, not all of which have to be directly related to the social roll at hand.

Last bit:  one thing I don't like about the article on Fortune placement is the tendency towards a rigid taxonomy.  Actual games are much more fluid, and sometimes practically the whole session could be called a "Multi-stage Resolution".

On the flip side, sometimes charming a guard is really just that simple.  Nobody wants to spend time on it, so I definitely veer towards Fortune at the Beginning.  However, so often the players want a chance to "get that boost die", so I clear the bowl and let them make things worse or better depending on what they say, and then it becomes Fortune in the Middle.

 

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