If you’re like most game masters, you probably got your start running dungeon crawls. But after a dozen or so sessions, when the player characters are ready to emerge from the darkness and step into the limelight of society, the skills you’ve used to run dungeons don’t quite translate to social encounters. Crafting a compelling social encounter is a different challenge, but with a little bit of practice and preparation, you can add compelling intrigues to your tabletop RPG sessions.
Tip #1: Determine Who, What, and Why
Like all RPG encounters, it’s important to define the player characters’ (PC) objectives early on. Before diving into play, ensure the PCs understand whom they need to talk to and why. If the PCs don’t know, have an NPC make their goal clear. Don’t be afraid to swoop in and talk directly to the players as GM, recapping what they already know and what they still need to find out.
Most social encounters, boiled down to their most basic level, have one of two objectives:
- The PCs must figure out what an NPC wants, knows, or is doing
- The PCs must change an NPC’s allegiance, beliefs, or course of action
Both of these situations can be flipped so that the NPCs are in the active role, but you should ensure the PCs have some goal they’re actively working toward, otherwise they might feel powerless or even bored.
During prep, starting with the objectives allows you to assemble a cast list that hits all the plot beats you need. Once you have the essentials covered, then you can sprinkle in characters to serve as set dressing and red herrings. Begin with the end in mind to avoid ending up with too many extraneous NPCs, dangling plot threads, or conversations that lead nowhere.
Great social encounters also include new, secondary objectives that the PCs can discover through play. Besides the immediate excitement of a new quest or mystery, these subplots can add dimensionality to the main objectives (e.g., you didn’t change so-and-so’s mind, but you did gain another unexpected ally!). The rewards for accomplishing these secondary objectives might be the leverage needed for the main objective, something that relates to a PC’s backstory, or items and information that will help the PCs in later encounters.