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.
Tip #2: Give the Characters Some Competition
Once you’ve determined objectives, it’s time to make this encounter truly social: the obstacles to the player characters’ objectives should be the other NPCs themselves (or other PCs, if you’re playing a cutthroat game). These obstacles can take a couple of forms:
- The NPC wants the opposite of the PCs or another NPC, resulting in a zero-sum game
- The NPC doesn’t want their plans found out, so they lie or avoid talking
- The NPC is unavailable, so the PCs must assemble the information from others
- The PCs don’t yet have the right leverage to win the NPC’s cooperation
Information is currency in the social intrigue encounter, and the fun comes from the PCs trying to charm, deceive, intimidate, or reason that info out of the NPCs.
In addition to the NPCs’ conflicting objectives, be sure to devise a compelling motivation as well as criteria for what would be persuasive to them, be that leverage, a certain method, or the promise of future favors. Those motives and criteria should also prompt you to think about how the NPC got to this point. How might their life experiences have colored their intentions? Even a couple of words jotted down can help you improvise when the PCs inevitably bring up an unexpected topic.
Tip #3: Figure Out Who and What Everyone Knows
Based on their objectives and motives, as well as their relationships to one another, what does everyone know—or think they know? How do they regard the PCs and other NPCs? Providing certain NPCs with incorrect information can really spice up a social encounter. These misconceptions might stem from gossip/misinformation, their degrees of separation, or plain arrogance. If two NPCs have differing accounts or opinions, the players can’t be sure as to who’s telling the truth or what the truth even is. The PCs must then search out third opinions, rely on their skills at seeing through deceptions and cobbling together clues, or get additional leverage to blackmail the NPCs or sway them to their side.
Tip #4: Prepare to Add Some Unexpected Entertainment
Whenever I craft a social encounter, I also draw up a general timeline of events, even if I have to abandon it later. I use the timeline to keep track of the NPCs’ machinations if they’re allowed to go unchecked by the PCs—what increasingly bad things happen? These notes also include time-independent surprises I can introduce at any time to shake up the encounter with new information or a new tone. Such surprises can also keep the session moving if the PCs have missed an important clue and aren’t sure what to do next.
Tip #5: Bring the NPCs to Life
So far, your NPCs are merely words on a page. It’s your job to personalize them and make them feel distinct from one another. Think about each character’s general temperament and their affectation. Physical quirks can also provide clues to the NPCs’ true feelings, or they can provide fodder for the gossipmongers. Also spend time considering the characters’ appearance. If you like to draw, you can sketch out the most important NPCs, or you can search the web for appropriate art to show to your players.
You can further customize your NPCs with different voices. Varying the energy level, pitch, accent, and diction can go a long way toward making each character unique, and it will help your players keep track of whom exactly they’re speaking to when there are a dozen other characters in the room with them.