Social Mechanics in Table-Top Role-Playing Games

Saturday, 18 September 2021 9-minute read

Wizards of the Coast recently announced the publication of a forthcoming adventure module for Dungeons & Dragons, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, set in the realm of the Faewild. The announcement claims that ‘all encounters in the adventure include a non-combat option, allowing players to think and roleplay their way through the adventure if they wish’. The responses I saw to this ranged between enthusiasm about the potential of these developments as well as scepticism regarding how effective they can be within the core mechanics and gameplay of the system. While discussing what these changes to D&D could mean for the game, I found it useful to reflect on what ‘social mechanics’ mean, and how game systems implement them to different ends.

How D&D Handles Social Encounters

D&D is primarily a tactical combat system whose origins lay in wargaming. Its social mechanics are very limited. The Dungeon Master’s Guide characterises social interactions as a situation where

the adventurers usually have a goal. They want to extract information, secure aid, win someone’s trust, escape punishment, avoid combat, negotiate a treaty, or achieve whatever other objective led to the interaction in the first place. The creatures they interact with also have agendas.
Some DMs prefer to run social itneractions as a free-form roleplaying exercise, where dice rarely come into play. Other DMs prefer to resolve the outcome of the interactions by having characters make Charisma checks. […] most games will fall somewhere in between. (244)

What this boils down to is the players talk in character for a bit, or give a gist of what their characters would say, and then roll a skill check using Persuasion, Deception, or Intimidation depending on their tone or approach. The difficulty of the check as well as the consequences of a success or failure might be modified by other factors, such as the target’s attitude or relationship or their personality and demeanour. DMs might add a layer of Wisdom (Insight) or Wisdom (Perception) checks as additional challenges for player-characters to figure out whether they are being lied to. But otherwise, what ‘social mechanics’ boil down to is a single die roll to see if you get what you want.

Furthermore (unless a DM deliberately runs the game differently) D&D’s dice resolution only ever handles binary outcomes: the non-player character either complies, or you need to try something else. Alternatively, some PCs ay just sidestep these checks entirely by using spells or other character abilities to compel or coerce the NPCs. The social mechanics in this case are fairly rudimentary when compared to other games.

How Other Games Handle Them

In contrast to D&D, some games pay greater attention to the dynamics of interpersonal interactions, the complexities of relationships between characters, and the emotional stakes thereof. My repertoire of games includes a considerable number of Powered by the Apocalypse titles like Brendan Conway’s Masks: a New Generation, Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman’s Urban Shadows, and Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts, and I take these as my points of reference simply because I am more familiar with them.

At a basic level, each of these games place a great emphasis on the social dynamics between characters. They have multiple moves that are explicitly about interacting with other people:

  • Masks, a game about the emotional conflicts of being teenage superheroes, has ‘provoke someone susceptible to your words’ and ‘comfort and support someone’.
  • Monsterhearts, a game about teenage monsters discovering their sexuality, has the moves ‘turn someone on’ and ‘shut someone down’.
  • Urban Shadows has moves to ‘do someone a favour’, ‘cash in a debt’, ‘refuse to honour a debt’, and ‘drop someone’s name’.

Each of these moves reflect the style and tone of social interactions that are central to the genre of the game: loose cannon teenagers will only ever provoke others, but they might offer each other comfort and support through friendshp. Meanwhile, a game about factional intrigue and politics will entail a host of interactions to do with favours and debts.

The moves that comprise the core rules of these games further interact with currencies that are abstractions of different aspects of social interaction.

  • In Masks, characters may trade emotional harm by inflicting certain conditions (‘Afraid’, ‘Angry’, ‘Guilty’, ‘Hopeless’, ‘Insecure’). They may lose or gain ‘Influence’ over each other. And their relationship with each other may affect the bond and cohesion of the superhero team, represented by Team Points.
  • The social interactions in Monsterhearts are defined by the trading of ‘Strings’, which is loosely the influence, pull, bond, or attraction between characters.
  • Urban Shadows meanwhile is all about debts owed between different characters.

What each of these currencies do, then, is make specific and granular aspects of social interactions a core part of how the moves function. How much an NPC likes a PC, or how much pull a PC has with an NPC, is no longer just an arbitrary fact that the DM invokes to modify the difficulty class of a check, but it becomes the very thing that is wagered, spent, or gained through the course of an interaction. Moreover, the resolution mechanics in PbtA games are not binary, often allowing for complex results like partial successes or failures that still propel the plot forward. Thus, compared to D&D, where social mechanics involve a small handful of spells, character features, or rolling Charisma checks, these other games have a number of inter-connected moves and currencies to mechanise the intricacies of interpersonal interactions.

What We Mean by ‘Social Mechanics’

But one thing that is quite clear from the comparison above is that ‘social mechanics’ are never a uniform thing. They broadly refer to a series of different subsystems within rulesets that concern a specific set of gameplay actions involving inter-personal interactions and conversations. When we often discuss social mechanics, there is often a tendency to subsume many different categories of social interactions under this wide umbrella. But each of these subsystems are very specific to the tone or genre of the game itself: Masks has mechanics around teenage bickering; Monsterhearts has messy romantic and sexual relationships between characters; Urban Shadows is all about debts and blackmail. The character of social interactions, and the mechanics to reflect them, are very different in each of these games, and we need to talk about a game’s social mechanics within the specific context of the genre and gameplay. Any comparisons between systems, and judgements regarding which one is better or worse, are meaningless without the additional caveat of what it is we want from such social mechanics in the first place.

The difficulty there is that social interactions are varied and complex, and players often use a much wider variety of strategies than most game systems allow. This is why D&D’s social mechanics are often felt to be lacking: because PCs will try myriad strategies like seduction, bribery, deception, or whatever else, and interactions will vary wildly in their tone or style. We often place expectations on the rudimentary social mechanics of D&D that it is just not equipped to deliver.

Why I am Not Convinced By Witchlight

This then brings us back to a fundamental question about the social mechanics of D&D: throughout this post, I have referred to them as rudimentary. That is because, compared other games I discussed, they lack depth and complexity. This is not to say that D&D’s social mechanics are lacking, but more that the social mechanics are perfectly adequate for a game where you are not really going to have much by way of complex social encounters. This consistent with the wider design principle that the game embodies, with a fairly simple approach to social encounters that would not get in the way of the tactical combat. Really what the game is all about is combat: that is what a vast majority of the rules focus on. Even if you were to avoid using the conventional guides on experience for killing creatures, and award experience for social encounters or level up by plot milestones, the only way your character progresses is by getting better at combat.

This leads to two contradictory options that Witchlight promises. One possibility is that it provides a series of options for characters to use the limited social mechanics to achieve their ends, where instead of fighting an NPC they may persuade the NPC with a social check. This is hardly much of a contribution to the game’s social mechanics. While it does encourage players to explore conversations and interactions in certain ways, it may not actually add much by way of nuance or intricacy to the dynamics of the interactions themselves. It will all still be about a roll to get what you want, without much by way of meaningful stakes outside of combat or hit points. This runs the risk of cheapening social interactions to simple rolls whose conditions and consequences do not really have a meaningful or tangible impact on the character.

Another possibility is that the expansion provides DMs guides on how to graft mechanics onto the game, such as currencies that measure a character’s standing with an NPC or track favours or debts owed, et cetera. The best way to make something real to a character is to have it counted on a character sheet. But this will be a separate subsystem being grafted on top of D&D, and will not be part of the core ruleset. Not least of all, implementing these mechanics would need a further buy in of £45 (on top of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). This is certainly inelegant, and it introduces mechanics that are discordant with the core design of the game. Moreover, there is no telling how good such hypothetical mechanics will be, and whether or not they will be fun to play or interesting to engage with. I am nevertheless sceptical of whether or not WotC would attempt to implement a new subsystem in this way, as there was no word of it in the last few Unearthed Arcana playtest materials, not in the way that previous subsystems like the Companion system or Mass Combat Rules were tried out. I have a lurking suspicion that what we will end up with is a series of roleplay cues for DMs and players to use as the basis of their Charisma rolls, and suggestions for ways to use the rudimentary social mechanics rather than deepening them further.

None of this is to disparage the social mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons. As far as a combat crawl game is concerned, it is perfectly serviceable. Social interactions in the game fundamentally boil down to getting NPCs to do what you want, rather than having more by way of complexity and depth. However, I prefer games that focus on different aspects of social interactions, and thus have more nuanced and focussed social mechanics in comparison. This is why I do not especially like playing D&D for its social dimensions, and much prefer playing it for the combat crawl that a majority of its ruleset is about. But, given the choice, I would play something else instead if I wanted to go down the path of more social interactions, and play something that was specifically adapted to the tone, genre and style of social interaction I want to explore.