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I'm GMing a D&D 5e campaign, and my party is about to participate in a noble ball. I'll use an analogy to make my question clear: there are nobles and people in this ball with valuable information and things the players want. Think about those as treasures in a dungeon. I'm having a hard time thinking about how to put monsters and traps to make getting to the treasure room a non-trivial task. I could, of course, design the encounter so that if people are nice to the nobles they simply get what they want. But that's dull.

But I want to design an encounter that contains two somewhat conflicting aspects:

  • (i) does not reduce the whole activity to a simple Deception/Intimidation/Persuasion check or something like that. I would like something that rewards good observations and decisions, making the activity fun and engaging for the players.
  • (ii) It must be something that is easier for sociable characters to do. After all, maybe I got terrible social skills, but the bard I'm playing is a different beast entirely. I think a successful check should make the activity easier for the player, but not exhaust the situation.

I was thinking in something in the following lines: a good check in Insight might make me, as a GM, explicitly tell the player that the NPC they are engaging has a specific characteristic, like pride, vanity or shyness. But from there I'm having a hard time to think how to make the encounter interesting.

How can I do this within the existing mechanics of the game?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've fixed a couple minor spelling errors and made the formatting of your question a bit more readable - please correct me if you genuinely meant something different than a "ball" by "bawl"! \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 6 '18 at 15:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take the tour! Unfortunately, the site can't help you design your mechanic. Instead, the site can offer suggestions as to how to employ existing mechanics or the site can critique a mechanic that you've already developed. These forums are more appropriate for gathering new ideas. The site's happy to deal with many other kinds of questions, though! Thank you for participating and have fun! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 6 '18 at 15:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello Hey I Can Chan. Maybe that's just a misunderstanding. I'm not necessarily asking for a entire new mechanic, but just how do use combinations of existing mechanics in a way that fulfills what I wrote . I just mention it as a new mechanic because this kind of situation is not covered in the books with this perspective. \$\endgroup\$ – Guilherme Tomishiyo Sep 6 '18 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's legit, but if that's the case I strongly recommend rephrasing the question so that it eliminates the phrase But I want to design a mechanic because that's going to confuse readers as to your question's true purpose! Really, if you're looking for how to deal with this situation using existing mechanics, rephrase the question to say something like that. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 6 '18 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airk See this FAQ for why your comment was removed. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 6 '18 at 20:20
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Require multiple successes

A combat-decided encounter doesn't rely on a single roll - there are lots of rolls required (attacks, damage, saving throws, etc). Failure on a roll can be recovered from.

For an encounter decided by social activities, the same should apply.

My usual design for conversational encounters is to use the first-to-three design of death saves.

For example, to obtain the password for the treasure room from Grand Vizier Iznogoud the players must pass three ability checks before they fail three. These could be CHA\Intimidation, CHA\Persuasion, or whatever the players want to try. However, the circumstances of the checks must all be different. They can't just try to intimidate him three times.

I make sure the players know that research will aid these rolls. For example, the players can have advantage on a CHA\Persuasion roll if they talk about fishing. How would they know that Iznogoud is fishing mad? By talking to other guests at the ball (perhaps requiring another ability check).

So, the players might obtain the password by:

  1. Sweet-talk the Vizier, using a shared love of fishing as an ice-breaker (CHA\Persuasion? CHA\Deception?).

  2. Convince the Vizier they are people of knowledge and influence, by sharing their knowledge of local politics (INT\History?).

  3. Trick the Vizier into giving up the password (CHA\Deception).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems very similar to a skill challenge from 4e. You may want to include a reference to that as a part of your answer. The mechanic doesn't exist in 5e, so it's not within the asker's scope, but nonetheless the asker might take a shine to it as it is an existing mechanic that is easy to port into 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – Viishnahn Sep 7 '18 at 3:43
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I did something like this as the conclusion to a campaign a few years ago.

There was a Council of Elders who the group had to convince of something. I wrote up descriptions and personalities for twelve Elders; I thought about what each elder wanted and would be impressed by. Then I gave simplified descriptions to the players, and I went around in a circle asking which elder each of them wanted to talk to.

In each conversation, I'd roleplay the elder asking questions: "are you worthy?" "do you support my goals?" "how will helping you get me what I want?" Then I'd ask the player what skill check they were making (or what else they were trying to do).

Examples:

  • One of the elders was a loud-mouthed human noble. The players needed to convince him by appealing to Pride and Honor and similar concepts.
  • One was a human wizard, who wanted to make sure they players actually knew what they were doing and that the plan was a good one.
  • One was a human merchant, who would vote for any deal that led to an increase in his own wealth.
  • One was an elven warrior, who wanted to make sure the plan wouldn't endanger her people.
  • One was an elven druid in the shape of a giant bear; the party needed speak with animals to get her vote.
  • One was an elven sorceress who didn't care about the plan and just wanted to talk magic for a while.
  • One was the orcish warchief, who was basically a figurehead; he offered his vote to anyone who could defeat him in combat
  • One was the orcish matriarch, who wanted the humans and elves dead, but would ally in the presence of a greater threat

I forget who the rest of them were. Most of them were silly in some way; the goal was to have a fun experience, not really to challenge the players with the threat of failure.

My players really enjoyed it.

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Multi-part Caper

Here is presented some examples of challenges that can arise in a social occasion where the party is trying to accomplish some goal such as theft, assassination, or espionage.

  1. Someone has to run interference

    This could involve finding and engaging the host of the party. Keeping their attention despite other activity. It would get progressively more difficult as the host wants to extricate themselves from the conversation.

  2. Someone has to sneak away/bribe staff to look the other way.

    To get to something outside of the main party area, someone needs to sneak by, convince, deceive, bribe, or otherwise bypass the staff keeping the party to the approved areas.

  3. Someone has to cause a distraction at the right time.

    Breaking into the safe, killing the target, smashing the magic mcguffin, or whatever might cause some comotion. A party member might have to cause a well timed distraction. It could be a combat with a particular party goer, but the character has to lose intentionally, keep the combat to a particular duration, and make it convincing.

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