How I planned a social encounter, a combat encounter, and a puzzle encounter from the same set of goals and circumstances.
The 5th Edition DMG insists that the three “pillars of gameplay” are combat, exploration, and roleplay. That always seemed silly to me.
If that’s true, why are all the rules about combat? There are very few rules for exploration at all, and basically none for social encounters. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important parts of the game. It just means that we need to develop our own methods for creating these encounters.
Here’s how I did that a little while ago. In this short post, you’ll see how I examined the goals of the players and the factions, predicted where they would intersect, and developed encounters around those conflicts.
Player & Faction Goals
What my players and factions wanted to do.
My players had just finished a relaxing trip upriver and landed in a small village of river-dwelling elves (the “Cahina”). They were in the area for a few reasons, some more pressing than the others:
- All PCs: relieve the “Curse of Mammon”, a powerful magical effect that a demon had hit them with and was slowly turning their bodies to solid gold.
- Telomarp, son of Telomerp, son of Telomere: Lift the curse that plagued his family’s line and made each successive generation slightly worse than the previous.
- Calico Mulligan: Discover the missing treasure of his legendary father, a renowned pirate (and with it, his own legacy and purpose).
- Tim Timberson: Take revenge on the orcs who murdered his family.
These are their long-term goals. They’d arrived in the Cahina River Valley with a few more specific short-term goals in mind:
- All PCs: Convince the Cahina elder Takiniwe to lift their curse.
- Telomarp: as above, but also his family’s bloodline curse.
- Calico: Gain the favor of Hiwadtha, a Cahina elf who was an old traveling companion of his father.
- Tim: Battle with and interrogate the local orc tribes about a leader he was interested in.
These are all pretty different goals, so I needed a way to link them together and predict what our session would look like. I did that by adapting my faction goals to the circumstances.
There were three main factions active in the Cahina River Valley at this time, but the characters only knew about two of them.
- The Cahina River Valley Elves: ally with the local orcs against an encroaching undead horde in the east.
- The Hiltzgurgh Orcs: Claim the river valley and its profitable river trade route for themselves.
- The Cult of the Devourer (unknown to the players): Take revenge on current Cahina elders for mistreatment in the past.
These are their long-term goals, so they’re pretty vague (faction goals also don’t usually follow the same rules of specificity as player goals). Notice how contradictory they are–these goals are formulated to create conflict and war in the valley, because that’s the type of game my group wanted to play.
But for the purposes of this arc of the campaign, I can choose short-term goals for these factions in response to the player goals. The degree to which these goals overlap with the player goals allows me to control the type of encounter, when it will probably take place, the appropriate rewards, etc.
- Cahina: Purify an ancient monolith that is a shared place of worship for the disparate Cahina tribes (in the hopes that figurative restoration of unity will lead to literal unity).
- Orcs: Raid and take captives from the exact Cahina settlement the players are staying at.
- Cult: Call their underground devourer god to consume the monolith and ruin plans of unity (and gain magical power in the process).
Each of these goals interacts with the player goals in different ways–some very direct and others less so. Here’s the encounters I designed around them.
An orc raiding party encounters the players on the way to the village.
The most obvious conflict I could draw on in this session was Tim’s goal (interrogate orcs) and the orcs’ (raid and capture some elves). I could give Tim the opportunity to interrogate some orcs if he ran into the orcs in the woods, away from prying elf eyes (they’re trying to ally with the orcs, so they don’t want to start a fight).
The players were already traveling through the hills on an errand (more on that below), so I just threw this encounter in–no random roll or anything. The players encountered a scouting party of orcs while they were on their way to prepare the raid and combat immediately started.
This was an easy choice. The orcs were on their way to raid the Cahina river settlement, and they don’t do a lot of swimming. They would be making their way through the woods to the settlement.
The players weren’t following a road–they were just hiking up the hill to their destination. So this encounter took place in the woods in Cahina territory, but none of them were around.
To make the combat area more interesting, I added cover from thick-trunked trees and a dry streambed that could be crossed with a running jump but offered great cover from ranged weapons if you were down in it.
When they ran into each other in the forest, the two groups had two different responses that worked really well in our case:
- The party wanted to capture at least one orc alive, but not let any get away.
- The orcs were a scouting party, not the whole raiding force. That means they wanted to run back to the main party of orcs with what they’d learned.
This meant that our combat wasn’t about reducing hit points (though that was part of it). Instead, it was more about controlling the orcs’ movement and preventing them from getting away…. without killing them.
The rewards for this goal were easy. In addition to the small amount of loot the orcs were carrying, we had two important consequences as story rewards:
- Tim completed his goal and interrogated an orc. He learned the name and location of an orc slave trading market important to his quest. He also (+1 information rule) learned the defenses and schedule of those defenses of the market.
- The orcs didn’t complete their goal of scouting for the raid, so the raiding party didn’t know the party was defending the Cahina, and also didn’t know Hiwadtha was there–they wouldn’t adjust their strategy and the resulting raid later would be easier.
The party negotiates with the village elder on the terms of his aid.
There were a few connected goals that I needed to tie together. The party needed curse-breaking powers for various reasons, and Takiniwe (the Cahina village elder) could provide it. But Takiniwe also needed the local holy site purged of demonic influence, and he was a wise man, not a fighter.
So a standard fantasy side-quest approach worked really well here. If there were only two groups negotiating, it would be cut-and-dry: the party would go slay some demons in exchange for the elder’s help in lifting their curse.
But there was a third faction at play, one the players didn’t know about: the Cult of the Devourer. This demon-worshipping group is the one who corrupted the monolith in the first place, and they were acting against Takiniwe (secretly) in the village.
Takiniwe, Cahina Elder
I knew a bit about Takiniwe since this wasn’t the first session he’d appeared in. But I took the time now to flesh him out and create a “social stat block”: a key set of information about an NPC that I use like a combat stat block when I’m improvising a social encounter.
- Long-Term goal: unite the Cahina with the orc tribes against an outside threat.
- Short-Term goal: Create a common place of worship for all Cahina tribes (and the orcs) at the ancient monolith up on the hill.
- Personality: Old and set in his ways. Wears the crown of his ancestors, which for the Cahina means having access to all his ancestral memories and experiences.
- Preferred Social Skills and Stats: Takiniwe prefers influencing others with rousing speeches and appeals to unity and tradition. He never threatens. He’s very stubborn and resists new ideas (DC 25), but open to appeals to the common good (DC 15).
Note that we’re using 13th Age for this campaign, so Takiniwe doesn’t roll opposed social checks–the players just need to exceed his DCs when I ask them to roll.
The Cult of the Devourer
The cult works in the shadows in this settlement, as there aren’t very many of them who still follow the Great Devourer in the valley. They have a secret shrine down in the crypt, and they’re responsible for defacing the monolith that Takiniwe wants to purify.
But Takiniwe doesn’t know that, and they want to keep it that way. So the Cult’s aim is to stop the party from investigating. They don’t have the combat strength to stop the party from intervening, and they don’t know what the party is capable of.
That puts them in an interesting situation where combat isn’t an option, but influencing the players isn’t really an option either. So the goal I chose for them here was:
- Get Takiniwe to ask for something else from the players in exchange, keeping them away from the monolith.
This is a choice I wasn’t sure about at first, but worked out great. I had people picking fights and causing problems all over the village, and lizardfolk attacks and orc raids–all provoked by the cult from behind the scenes.
Eventually, though, the party heard about the monolith and approached Takiniwe directly with that offer–so the cult’s efforts amounted to nothing. An awesome outcome, and one I didn’t see coming. Well played.
The actual “encounter” part of this setup happened when the players negotiated with Takiniwe about what kind of assistance he would provide them if they helped purify the monolith. It was a mostly role-played conversation, with rolls made if I couldn’t decide if their words would persuade Takiniwe or not.
That’s the great thing about knowing the goals up front–there’s no guesswork about how social encounters should go. I knew what Takiniwe wanted and how bad he wanted it, so I could make intelligent choices on his behalf without anyone rolling.
In the end, they both got what they wanted: a purified monolith for Takiniwe and curse-lifting services for the party.
The party solve a riddle to purify the monolith.
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