Introducing “Social Moves for Heroes”

Social Interaction in 5e-

A common critique of D&D is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of mechanics for anything other than combat and exploration. Although the three pillars of D&D are considered combat, exploration, and social interaction, that last one — social interaction — has minimal rules that amount to single skill checks in the face of complex social situations.  

Players can use their social skills (deception, intimidation, and persuasion) to influence a social interaction, and that has its role in the game. For one, it gives charisma-based characters a chance to shine. But when it comes to stories where characters must persuade important people to do things they don’t want to do, a single check — or even a skill challenge — can feel too easy, too minimal for the stakes of the encounter. 

A single charisma roll to persuade the noble to lend you their steed doesn’t feel quite right. There simply isn’t a lot of incentive for a player to role-play the social interaction other than to say, “I try to persuade them,” and then see if they get lucky. A failed roll could derail an entire scene, while a natural 20 could result in a nonsensical choice for an NPC. Why would the guard want to leave their post at this moment? Oh well, the GM thinks, the player beat the DC, so it must be so. 

Single checks like this don’t make a lot of sense for some social interactions. And skill challenges can be time consuming and still don’t add to role-play. They just make the rolls more complicated. The core mechanics simply don’t support the kind of scenes I was wanting to write into my stories. 

Meanwhile, I realized that the premise of the persuasion check was itself ethically problematic. Kazumi Chin asked a question about this on Twitter that got me thinking about it: “what is the line between allowing players to manipulate the fiction and get NPCs to do what they want and allowing players to manipulate the NPCs to do what they want? because the first feels fun and the second feels gross.”

As Kazumi points out, manipulating people is “kinda gross.” I know I hate being manipulated, and I strive not to manipulate others. I’d much rather talk with someone to convince them, or compromise with them. (We can debate about whether or not my midwestern passive aggressiveness is a form of manipulation, but I digress….)

In any case, Kazumi made me realize that characters in D&D manipulate NPCs all the time — and often in ways that don’t reflect well on those PC’s choices. But what if they didn’t have to? What if they could, as Kazumi put it, “manipulate the fiction” instead? 

Looking for an Answer-

As I began work on a social investigation mystery for 5e, I realized this was my chance to try out some rules that could facilitate role-play and allow players to manipulate the fiction instead of the characters. 

To start, I turned to games with strong social rules. Having heard an actual play of Jay Dragon’s Sleepaway on the One Shot Podcast, I knew that character moves like those that Jay includes in that game could be a starting point. 

Sleepaway is a Belonging Outside Belonging game, a game with no dice and no masters. Instead of rolling for success, players in Sleepaway have playbooks with moves built into them. These moves prompt players to role-play and interact with each other. Some moves are “weak” and earn a player tokens which can be spent to make “strong” moves later in the game. Strong moves are more powerful and almost heroic, but still intimate and relevant to the playbook/character archetype. 

Listening to the podcast, I loved the way that players could instantly step into their playbooks and have cues to facilitate their role-play. By making those moves, the players also pushed the story forward. Sleepaway and games like it have social interaction built right into character creation and the game engine. 

And that’s where 5e has a huge gap. 

Players of 5e have two choices when trying to persuade an NPC: 1) Just say they’re making a persuasion check, or 2) improvise the social interaction, and then roll it.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t offer a lot to players who struggle to improvise or who are unsure what their character might do or say in any given situation. The basic rules empower players who have good out-of-game social skills while disincentivizing players who lack social confidence from taking on high profile social roles.

I don’t know about you, but I like my games to encourage players to try new things, to use the escape of gaming to learn new things about their characters and maybe themselves. 

Making Moves-

So taking the idea of “Moves” from BOB games like Sleepaway, I started crafting moves for 5e social encounters. 

I began with a strict interpretation of Jay’s rules, in which characters had weak and strong moves. But I kept running into the problem that weak moves made characters vulnerable and revealed flaws. — That’s great for a game like Sleepaway, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense in a game of high fantasy, or for the more restrictive purpose of persuasion. D&D is a game of heroes, and players want their characters to be heroic

With that in mind, I revised the moves to reflect some of each class’s themes. Rogues can “Impress your audience with a well-timed sleight of hand.” Barbarians can “Get angry about the same thing as the NPC. Let them know you’d help them destroy it if they wanted to.” 

Characters make these social moves within the game only in scenes where they are necessary. Of course, they could be used to inspire role-play any time, but they’re designed to be used in specific scenes as designated by the GM. 

These scenes occur when a character wants to convince an NPC to do something they wouldn’t normally do. In our forthcoming adventure The Sleep of Reason, PCs meet the mayor of a town who doesn’t want to help them. But the PCs have been sent to help. To get the mayor to change their mind, the PCs need to use their social moves. 

Manipulating the Fiction-

After making a social move, then the players can manipulate the fiction. Manipulating the fiction means that instead of getting that NPC to do what you want just because you smile prettily, characters manipulate the story instead. 

Players can manipulate the story to “shape an NPC’s bias,” “learn an NPC’s motive,” or attempt a Persuasion check. 

Shaping bias allows characters to reorient how the NPC feels about the PCs. An NPC with a positive bias is more likely to respond well to a persuasion check, for example. While an NPC who has a negative bias toward the PCs cannot be persuaded at all. Thus, the PCs must make a social move to shape that bias in their favor.

NPC “motives” are realistic reasons a character might do something. These motives can be invented by the GM on the spot, by the table together, or by the GM in advance. The motives exist to help the table make sense of how the NPC’s mind has changed. Why did the noble suddenly decide to lend the PC his horse? 

The group might decide (or the GM may have brainstormed before the session) that the noble needs some good PR, and doing a favor for the PC could reflect well on their reputation in town. Once the PCs know this about the noble, they can try a persuasion check. 

Social Moves for Heroes-

That’s pretty much it. The Google doc linked here is our work in progress for this product. It will be part of our social investigation adventure The Sleep of Reason, which we’ll publish to our patrons next month. You can check it out now, however, and start using it in your adventures.

The doc is open to comment. We’d love to hear from you either on the site, on Reddit, Twitter, or Instagram, or in the document itself. If you have ideas for moves we could add or revise, let us know!