Roleplaying Social Encounters: The Swamp


Howdy all,

I’ve been going through all of my materials to read up social encounters, and I one of my stops was rewatching Hank’s video Social Encounters: Decoded. Once I finished it, I realized I’d finally joined the forums instead of just lurking in my shadowy internet goblin hole, and wanted to pick your brains. (It’s up to you if you want me picking through the nose or the ears).

Broadly, I guess I’m just wondering how you handle social encounters at your table. More specifically, I’m interested in what mechanics or techniques you build into your social encounters, and what purpose they serve. I feel like I’m being vague here, and if I am its unintentional. Feel free to ask questions if its not clear what I’m asking.


Dice Goblin

Edit: In response to a question regarding how I do it at the table. It has a tendency to depend on what I’m running at the table, but in general:

My NPCs always have a goal/value/purpose (randomly rolled if I’m stumped) to give me an idea of what they want, kind of like a default response mode. Social interactions at my table tend to also have an upper cap on what can be accomplished, except in truly exceptional circumstances. My players like to explore the world as they go in a more sandbox style, so I often have to come up with an upper limit on the fly, based on what they want to do. I try to keep social encounters moving in turns, keep the turns quick, and let a combination of dice and good roleplaying drive the encounter. I don’t use timers necessarily, but many of my NPCs are not shy about ending social encounters that drag. Finally I try to have any goals they accomplish in social interactions impact the adventure in some mechanical way.

So for example, a merchant’s goal might be to make money, and so his default response to anything that’s going to unreasonably limit his profits is going to be no (like players trying to convince him they deserve a 50% discount). So if the players want to convince him to do something that goes against this, they fail. They can’t just walk into the shop, roll well with really high charisma or give an eloquently roleplayed soliloquy, and persuade or haggle a poor merchant into bankruptcy. This default response mode can be gotten around in various ways by unscrupulous characters of course (deception, threatening life and property, charm, etc.).

Around this framework, other interactions are more flexible with him. If they want to be his friend, get information from him, or flirt with him, these actions do not trigger his default response mode. Say they take an interest in befriending him, I might decide an upper limit on a single interaction is getting up to the point of being friendly, but just shy of becoming his friend (maybe he’s not the sort of fellow to become fast friends with someone he’s only met once). So no matter how well their dice or their roleplaying goes (with rare exceptions), if they decide to roleplay out befriending him there will be a limit on how much they can accomplish in one sitting.

So, say they get him to ‘friendly, but not your friend’. Now I’ve got to come up with a treat for them on the fly. Maybe at the end of the interaction, since he likes them and they mentioned they are in town hunting for clues about the Emerald Star conspiracy, he offers to introduce them to a friend of his who might be able to help the party on their adventure. He knows a sage down on Bloom Street who studies the cultural impact of secret societies, and if anyone knows where to start it will be the sage.

If they thought it was important enough to turn befriending this merchant into a social encounter, then they deserve to get a treat if they succeed. Now they get another NPC to roleplay with, and they get the satisfaction of having earned their first clue. Maybe when I prepped for the session I thought they were going to find that clue somewhere else, but then, they’ll never know that.


Before I answer, may I know how you handle them?
I’m just curious.

Another good resource for social encounters might be the AngryGM, by the way! :smiley:


Hank’s video helped me level up, and get away from having one specific “thing” the party needed to say / ask / imply. I immediately switched to more flexibility with respect to what the party needed to say / ask / do, and to not be as prescriptive.

I also don’t mind breaking character and narrating things in third person for these situations. The characters are not their players, so expecting a social situation with a high INT or high CHA character to be role played by a normal human being isn’t fair. Describe, generally, what you’re trying to do, and we’ll fill in the scene together to make it match your character.


I prepare some or all of these things when I run a social encounter. These are a distillation of advice taken from many games, videos, and blogs.

  1. A mental or physical note of an NPC’s motives for and against the player’s interests.
  2. An index card reminding me of an NPC’s name, in-setting purpose, in-game purpose, and a personality trait, weakness, virtue or other human quality.
  3. A visible or invisible timer for how long until an NPC escalates or ends an encounter themself.


I second the Angry GM



Since other people might have the same question, I’ll add my answer to this as an edit to the original question.

Thanks for asking,

Dice Goblin


This! Flexibility with breaking character has helped me engage with players who told me they dreaded social encounters, and their enjoyment increased immensely with the opportunity to speak in third person.

I also got a lot out of Hank’s video. Didn’t realize how much it influenced me until I rewatched it.

I’m a big fan of tracking motives and goals, and with my memory I can’t survive if I don’t keep notes on NPCs. Good stuff here. I tend not to use timers, but I don’t know why that is. It doesn’t seem like a conscious choice. I’ll try them out and see how it feels.


I watched Hank’s video and I remember nothing from it. :eyes:

Anyway, here’s how I do things:

  1. I always do what @Ash is doing. NPCs have their own motivations, be it for or against the players. Usually they go their own way and they have their own goals (unless their goals somewhat align with the villain or are in service of him, either directly or indirectly).
  2. I don’t bother with inconsequential things, so haggling with a random merchant doesn’t require any setup before and doesn’t require anything special during the game from me. Either I say yes/no or I let players roll normal attempts or I require a contested CHA roll (where I roll for the merchant and a player makes his/her roll). Higher roll wins; the difference between results can determine the discount amount for example.
    I usually come up with these mechanics at the spot. If I’m lazy, I just make a player roll and that’s it.
  3. Important social encounters need to be planned beforehand just like any other kind of encounter, including combat. I use a variety of different mechanics which are explained below.

Mechanics for really, truly important and memorable social encounters

Gonna start with the most involved approach because this is the most important one. This kind of setup I use rarely but is awesome when I use it.

This is the most hardcore approach I use. I make everything like combat. Participants in the encounter have hearts (as individuals or groups), their (sometimes special) social attacks and their efforts, just like combat.

Let’s use an example to make everything as clear as possible. Imagine the usual “party is asking for something from the king” setup. In the encounter, there are HEROES, the king, the vizier, some advisors to the king and the princess. I determine everyone’s motivation and goals beforehand (and nothing else, that is I don’t plan how each NPC is going to say or do beforehand).

The princess, for example, is having an affair with one of the HEROES but won’t go against his father unless there is a good reason, but she hates the vizier. The vizier doesn’t like the HEROES, period. Some advisors like them, some don’t. Advisor A tries to gain the kings favor, advisor B tries to make the vizier look foolish etc etc.

Just like combat, everyone has their own (social) hearts and their own special actions. Let’s say the king has three hearts, everyone else has one. Players “attack” the king and the vizier and advisors try to “heal” him. Got it?

There is a time limit of, let’s say 8 ROUNDS. If at any time, the king drops 0 HP, he agrees to do whatever the HEROES want him to do and the encounter is over. If at any point the king reaches 4 or 5 hearts, HEROES are kicked out from the court and the encounter is over with failure. If neither of these things happen, the encounter ends when the time runs out.

HP of the king at the end of 8 rounds determines the outcome of the encounter. If it is slightly less than three hearts, the king may ask that the HEROES have to prove themselves first. If he has somewhere between 1-2 hearts, he agrees to help but not exactly in the way the HEROES wanted. If he has less than 1 heart, he totally agrees.

Like you may have guessed, if the king ends the encounter with more than three hearts of HP, bad things happen for the HEROES.

Let’s see how the encounter might play out.

A HERO starts by making their case and rolls a persuasion attempt against the TARGET. If successful, the king takes damage (usually basic effort, unless the HERO has a bonus from a piece of loot, a milestone, a feat or whatever). This attempt roll may be EASY or HARD depending on the approach and/or the arguments the HERO makes. Since HEROES don’t precisely know what arguments will or won’t work, they will have to use trial and error (and their brains, if they have some). This is very exciting.

While the encounter progresses, players might choose to determine the motives of the actors that are in the encounter. They might figure out that advisor B wants to undermine the vizier and might try to align him to their own cause by attacking him first, instead of the king. This way, advisor B starts to attack the king as well. See how this works?

According to how things progress, I might increase certain HEROES’ BASIC EFFORTS to 1D6 (because they are performing exceptionally). This is because HEROES aren’t usually geared for social encounters.

Here’s the other fun part: Players soon find out that the vizier is an expert manipulator and his “attacks” against the king is always easy and he does double effort. At the same time, his “attacks” against the princess is always HARD.

In such a setup, players have multiple options. They might want to eliminate the vizier (drop him to 0 HP and the king says “shut up”) first so he can’t heal the king. They might try to all out attack the king, or they might try to ally the princess and/or one of the advisors to their cause. In addition to these options, if players do some very smart or stupid things, they are rewarded or punished accordingly by “healing” the king instead of “attacking” him.

Like I said, I play these encounters just like combat where even a HERO can get knocked out and another HERO has to “heal” him by saying some nice words or whatever to bring him back to the encounter.

I reserve this method for pivotal social ecounters because too much of this becomes too repetitive, just like combat. I also like to vary mechanics each time so things don’t get stale and predictive.

A simpler version of this is where each side has its own pool. Heroes have a single pool of hearts and the court has one. This doesn’t allow for eliminating any participant but players can still turn people to their cause and make them attack the court’s HP pool.

Other methods for less important social encounters (but they are still important)

I almost always put a time limit.
In a certain amount of time, HEROES have to:
Bring an HP pool down to 0 with attempts and efforts (the usual and the long winded way of doing things),
Bring an HP pool down to 0 with only rolling effort (no attempt is rolled),
Roll a total of x number of successful attempts (no effort is rolled),
Roll a total of x number of successful attempts (no effort is rolled) but each failure increases the target or reduces the timer by one.

There you go.

Social Interaction Like Journeys

This is really cool. I really want to run a heavy social encounter in my next session with my players to mix things up. Does this take away from the RP and become too mechanical? Please elaborate, thank you!


hey @Jenetiks

I personally like to assign my NPCs one of the colors from the link above to get in the mindset of that NPC

then figure out what that npc wants

A merchant wants money, A guard wants to keep order, a beggar wants food, an investigator wants answers, refugees want safety, a bard wants a story to sing about, etc etc.

Then ask yourself “what is the action happening right now? How does the action effect my NPC?”

examples of Actions in a town
A festival / wedding
Raiders are attacking merchants on the road making resources scarce
Invaders are attacking the town gates
There has been a murder of a noble, and an investigation is happening right now
Taxes have tripled to help fund the war effort
a sickness has spread
A new religion is being preached in the town square
An army drafter has come to town, taking every able bodied man/woman
A traveling merchant has come to town and everyone is talking about it
The inquisition is searching all the houses for a certain kind of book and having it burned

Since you never know what your players are going to do I like to make a list of 10 NPCs, give each a color, and a first and last name, give one high stat, and one low stat (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHR), and NOT give them a job/want yet

when your characters want to talk to an npc, go to your list, and go to the first name and on the fly assign them a job.


The action in town is a wedding

party wants to go talk to the toy maker (random right?)

you go to your list

Mary Smith, green, high INT, low CHR

Toy Maker…so she wants to make art and probably cash

Being green she respects the traditional way of making toys and believes she was born to be a toy maker. Being traditional she believes in the town’s customs no matter how crazy they may be. Being Green also means she will stereotype the players when talking with them.

Since the action in town is a wedding, she has made dolls of the bride and groom and is very proud of the craftsmanship. She will be very knowledgable about the wedding and added very fine details to her dolls that may give more backstory to the bride and groom. Like maybe the bride doll is pregnant and a smaller baby doll comes out of her tummy and she can talk about how its a shot gun wedding. This is when she pulls out a 3rd doll of a crying man, Count Jimithy, who was supposed to marry the bride as it was an arranged marriage but due to the pregnancy it got called off (hints of count Jimithy maybe plotting to ruin the wedding, or maybe have the groom assassinated)

What if instead they went to talk to a town guard

instead of toys, Mary Smith wants to keep order and make sure everything is safe for the wedding

Mary will explain to the party that she expects everyone to be on their best behavior as she glares at all the weapons the party has on them and ask if they have seen Count Jimithy. The town guard are worried the count will ruin the wedding because he was supposed to mary the bride to be and nobody has seen him since the wedding was announced. Why would he ruin the wedding the party asks? explains how he was supposed to be the groom Since the guard is on high alert and the party is the most dangerous looking thing that has walked into town, the guard has 3 guards follow the party incase they are working for Count Jimithy.

What if the party instead visits the crime boss of the slums?

Mary Smith now wants to make money, illegally

She is now planning to rob the bank with her thugs and make it look like it was Count Jimithy’s attempt to ruin the wedding. Maybe a fun spin could be Count Jimithy actually is trying to rob the bank and bumps heads with Mary Smith during the wedding.

Ok I’m rambling now,

the main thing is to try and put yourself in the NPC’s shoes and react to whatever the ACTION is in town so you can RP with the players.

keep things simple, like 4 bullet points per npc

you’ll see its not that scary after you do it once or twice


Thank you so much! I see it now. I have never thought of having frameworks and personality colors to determine the general direction of the NPCs. Thank you!


I do something very similar to what @James_Horn does. The details are slightly different, but the general idea is the same.

Using such a method makes you “prepared” for whatever silly thing your players may want to do because wherever they go and whoever they talk to, the story can progress in a meaningful way.

The only thing to keep in mind is that you have to bind these actions & npcs to the overall story. Going with James’ example, Mary Smith has to be somewhat relevant to the story irrespective of whether she is a toy maker, a town guard or a crime boss.

The same goes for the main or side actions in the story. Whether it is a wedding, raiders attacking, or it is a sickness, this has to be incorporated into the story.

Having laid out the basics, there is something very important here.

Do not try to bind actions and npcs to the story immediately when they are introduced!

Don’t decide how Mary Smith is tied to the story, if at all, the moment players interact with her. Let your players do their thing, and depending how it goes, you can then decide, before the next or a subsequent session, whether Mary will be a (meaningful) part of the overall story.

This will allow you two things:

  1. If players don’t like Mary, you can just ignore her and you have lost no time developing her.
  2. If they like her, she can be an ally, or a hidden henchmen of the main villain, or whatever the story demands. You will have ample time and opportunities over many sessions to decide and develop this character further.

When you do this, the story will grow organically depending on the choices and interactions of your players, without burdening you more than absolute minimum.

In a sense, the players and their characters are in control of the development of the story. This is called agency and it is what we want to have in our games, where choices really matter.

Does combat take away from the RP and become too mechanical?

The answer can be yes, if players stop playing their characters and start to play a board game instead. The same goes for these kinds of social encounters, because mechanically they are equivalent to combat, just dressed differently.

Therefore, the trick to prevent this is the same as combat: players and npcs roleplay first and choose their actions according to who they are and what they want, and only then they roll the dice to determine the outcome mechanically whether it is hitting a goblin with a mace, or persuading a king with eloquence.


That’s really cool. I like this new idea of having frameworks for NPCs for social encounters. Like you said it’ll help keep the GM flexible with regards to how important an NPC can be.

I saw a few videos where many people use this sort of meter to determine the attitude the NPCs have towards the PCs. This helps governs the NPCs without being too influenced by die rolls or my own biases. This is similar to what was discussed in this post and I would love to learn more about this AI sort of method for my NPCs.

Thanks for the response.