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I am a new DM with one session under my belt and am planning to run the campaign as a "West Marches" D&D 5e campaign. One of my players requested I have some social encounters next time and I am wondering how to have these in a WM game, especially as it progresses and players spend more time away from the main town.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you narrow this down a bit? "how to have social encounters" is a really broad question. What kind of things are you worried about? Why are you afraid it'll get worse as people spend more time away from the main town? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Sep 16 at 14:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I get the feeling that you’re thinking “social encounters can only happen when they’re in Town”, and you’re wondering how to do this when the party will be outside Town more often than not. Is that an accurate understanding of the question? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 16 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Pretty much yeah. Because if the wilderness is mostly untamed, who will the players interact with? \$\endgroup\$ – AuWiMo Sep 16 at 16:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, everyone! The original post warned against intelligent creatures, but as long as they are not savages it should be fine and add some nonviolent interaction. \$\endgroup\$ – AuWiMo Sep 16 at 16:19
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Every encounter with an intelligent creature can be a social encounter

In some cases, it is really smart for your PCs to first parley before deciding to get violent. You need to discuss with your players what their operating mind set is: when they meet a bunch of humans or humanoids (you don't need to say "you see seven bandits") what is their first reaction?
Fight, flight, or parley?
Let their choices and actions determine whether the encounter is social or not, at the beginning. An encounter can change in character as a consequence of the PC's actions and decisions.

Social encounters can happen anywhere

In a sandbox campaign, in which category West Marches generally fits, the players are not guaranteed that their encounters are level appropriate. It is in their best interests to do some intelligence gathering on what/who they encounter before resorting to violence.

  • For example, a party of four second level characters may run into an Ogre Mage / Oni (CR 7). If they try to take it on they are likely to either experience a TPK, or perhaps they all get captured and taken to that Oni's lair as prisoners or as food.

Originally, most encounters with humanoids began with parley

When I first began playing OD&D (1975) and as I've found in some campaigns in 5e, and in the editions in between, encountering an unknown party of humanoids (or other intelligent creatures) is more often than not best begun with a parley. We have bargained with orcs and ogres, dervishes and brigands, dwarves and cut purses, and evil high priests. In dungeon crawls we made deals as often as we fought the encountered monsters/NPCs back when we first started.

  • Our D&D 5e group tends to still do that unless we have a reason to jump right into combat with a given group - we don't normally default to combat (an exception being the wizard in my brother's campaign, who I now call Quickdraw). Black puddings? Not a lot of room for parley with them. Hungry owl bears rarely go in for small talk. :)

  • Caveat: If a party encounters someone we've met before who are our enemies, trying to surprise / ambush them is usually a better choice, or evading them if they are far too powerful or too numerous.

The creatures / NPCs that your PCs meet may have clues and information; they may be potential allies; they may become foes if the social encounter does not go well. As a DM, it's good to introduce unknown friendly, neutral, and even hostile NPCs into encounters as sources of information for where a ruined old tower or lost temple is, where a dangerous swamp is, where a legend says a magic mace is housed in an Ogre's lair, etcetera. That way the world feeds the PCs information - not the DM.

DM Tip: Use the NPC reaction tables in the DMG to help you assess an initial attitude toward the PC's by the NPC's/monsters if the encounter begins as a social reaction - unless you have a good feel for how that creature already feels. My rule of thumb is "don't roll the dice unless you are at a loss for ideas" for the DM side of social encounters. OD&D had a 2d6 roll modified by Charisma that I still use1, but the 5e DMG's NPC reaction section fits into the d20 system a little better. (DMG, p. 245, "Conversation Reaction" table, part of the Social Interaction section; p. 244-246).

Experience from a sand-boxy published adventure:Tomb of Annihilation

Our party of four 3rd level PCs ran into a party with a dozen soldiers, and a couple of Zhentarim (which we later found out was an Assassin NPC accompanied by a Knight NPC). Not realizing that if we had initiated combat we'd have been destroyed, we parleyed with them anyway and we all went our separate ways. My PC "in world" reason was numbers: there were too many of them for us to take and we had another mission / quest that we were on. Not worth starting a fight in the first place.

Later, when we got to 4th level, we ran into three frost giants who were escorted by pet winter wolves. (If you check the book that's way beyond a deadly encounter for four 4th level characters). We had a social encounter: as it worked out the parley helped further the mission we had been assigned by a merchant prince from Port Nyanzaru. We earned XP for getting that mission accomplished.

How do I award XP for that?

I'd suggest reviewing the Dungeon Masters Guide (pages 260-261, and Chapter 3) for the options there. The XP award / level is up to you based on the risk / reward of the encounter, and how it moves the narrative forward.

Some encounters can't be social encounters

When we ran into a T Rex in the jungle there was no parley. His alignment was hungry.
When we ran into a ghast leading a pack of ghouls, there was no parley. It was fight or flight.


1 The OD&D system is fast and easy to use (Men and Magic, p. 12, 1974, TSR, Gygax & Arneson)

The monster will react, with appropriate plusses or minuses, according to the offer, the referee rolling two six-sided dice and adjusting for Charisma:

\begin{array}{r|lll} \text{Dice Score} & \text{Reaction} \\ \hline 2 & \text{Attempts to attack} \\ 3-5 & \text{Hostile reaction} \\ 6-8 & \text{Uncertain} \\ 9-11 & \text{Accepts offer} \\ 12 & \text{Enthusiast, Loyalty} +3 \end{array}

An "Uncertain" reaction leaves the door open to additional reward offers, but scores under 6 do not.

While that table was based on hiring NPC's or convincing them to do something for the PC, using a 2d6 roll to gage the reaction of an NPC with a + or a - based on the charisma of the PCs works well enough - but it isn't strictly a d20 based outcome as the DMG's NPC reaction section is.

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Based on my experience running a sandbox game in OSR, Pathfinder and D&D 5:

Intelligent monsters

You place some intelligent, and not uncompromisingly bloodthirsty, creatures in your marches. Most intelligent creatures care for their life and are unlikely to attack on sight without provocation. Therefore, they can be talked to, in principle.

Then it is up to your players to approach these creatures in a social manner, or not, as they see fit. If the players decide to attack everything they meet, then there will not be many social encounters. If they choose to talk with everything they meet, there will be many more social encounters.

Note that "talking" does not have to use words. Gestures, warning shots, displays of power, etc., go a long way to saying that you do not wish others to enter your territory, while offering food and treasure acts as a sign of goodwill even without language.

Consider reaction rolls

In old editions of D&D and most retroclones there is a rule called reaction rolls. These are not the reactions as defined in D&D 5. Rather, when a group of monsters meet the player characters and there is no particular reason for them to be friendly or hostile (they are not brain-eating zombies and do not have an established relationship with the player characters due to previous encounters, for example), the game master rolls to see if they are friendly, careful, hostile, or even outright attack (rare). The roll might be modified by charisma of some player character, or maybe not.

The idea here is that this makes encounters more interesting, as negotiating with monsters is fun, and reminds the game master that not everyone is always hostile, or friendly for that matter.

Effects

In my experience, once the players know that you are not pulling punches or making things "balanced", they are more than happy to have their characters talk. Though sometimes they also decide that some creatures are to be murdered, even if they are trying to negotiate.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used these approaches? How have they gone? How did they interact with the WM world/theme? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 16 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thanuir could you please link me to what you mean by reaction rolls or elaborate? Googling only turns up 5e reactions, even with other version keywords. \$\endgroup\$ – AuWiMo Sep 16 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AuWiMo This blog post contains a clone of an early D&D Reaction Table that should work well for a West Marches game. (That table is from BFRPG, which matches the table from the old Basic/Expert D&D set.) It has a bit more explanatory text to help apply each result than the original. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 17 at 6:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AuWiMo My answer has the original reaction table for the original D&D game. Many of the OSR/retroclone games us that or a similar table. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 8 at 22:08
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A Small Guide to Socializing and Domestic Encounters


It is common for D&D 5e to lead us down a path that everything in the Monster Manual is innately a Monster. The lore behind each monster entry is pared down from previous editions and the stats emphasized. But it is not the DM's job to make a bunch of combat encounters - it's the DM's job to make a narrative. Few narratives are a series of fight scenes connected by safe zone social encounters. With that in mind, let's look at some ways you can improve your narrative by having Domestic Encounters in a harsh wild land.

Intelligence and Emotion

There's been some good advice already on Intelligent Monsters and Parleying. But just because something has or doesn't have intelligence doesn't detract from its emotions. Take this encounter for example:

Turning the corner you spot a giant bear, a grizzly, thrashing around. A simple glance tells you that it has been the target of a large trap. Despite its size and strength it can't seem to get free.

Having a Druid in your party or a Ranger (or anyone with Speak with Animals) can easily turn this into a Social encounter where you try to calm the beast so that you can free it. Of course, players can turn this into a combat encounter, but it creates a more interesting narrative as a social encounter. Set DCs for how persuasive you can be, let players be free to use skills like Nature or Medicine with Charisma (remember ability checks first then tag a skill to use). This creates a sense that your characters have a little bit of leeway in their decisions and creates good character moments.

In my personal experience, a good encounter that set up both Intelligent Monsters and Emotional Monsters was an encounter I did surrounding a Half-Ogre and his Hogs. In the scenario, the Half-Ogre was trying to calm his Dire Boar and removing an arrow from their haunch. Again, this could easily turn into a Combat Encounter but the players took that moment to look beyond the maddened boar and his Monster buddy. I'll admit, implementation wasn't the smoothest, but it presented an opportunity for the party to socialize with an unexpected source.

The Town Folk Tale

Every Folk Tale about the woods begins with someone Jack/Jill going somewhere they don't belong. Bring the town folk out from the town and into the wilderness. That Tanner who made the studded leather armor needed materials from somewhere. And that Tanner almost certainly can't afford an Adventurer's salary. Or maybe you get two young bucks who are trying to strike it rich out in the wilderness from one good score. Take this encounter for example:

you hear a high scream from nearby. A little way through the woods you discover 2 humans, maybe 18 winters old. One of them is on the ground writhing in pain and the other is standing atop a rock. You discover the one in pain was stung by a vicious nettle that is strewn across the area here.

The easiest path here is to wander away. But the more interesting narrative is what you get for helping the NPCs. Did they acquire(steal) a map to hidden treasure? Did they hear about a rare resource nearby? The world's your oyster as to what they may know. The main point is that they were willing to go outside of town (like many of the townsfolk might).

In my experience, this is an easier buy into. Players will be more willing to accept talking with the common races than engage in a Parley with Monsters. And it's a good encounter to set up because players are notoriously loose tongued. Have them be followed by an Urchin or a couple of Noble kids. Personally, I went with the kid route because it's also an easy buy in for most 20-somethings to interact with their dumb kid selves. The purpose for doing this was to drive the adventure forward. It set up a trap in the form of stinging nettles, foreshadowing about something moving in the water (a water weird that I planned to jump a player with), and atmosphere.

Adventurers in their Natural Habitat

Ever think it's funny that you only ever see your adventurers and no others. Sure you find corpses and skeletons in tombs and ruins. But it is a distinct rarity to find another group of adventuring sellswords or the like.

Much like intelligent monsters, the back of the Monster Manual gives you a lot of stats on civilized(used loosely) humanoid Monsters but literally nothing else. In Tomb of Annihilation, you can pretty easily run across some Flaming Fist Mercs among others. They have no reason to be hostile to you. So why would they just jump to guns or even require a lengthy Parley? Of course, some of the entries are innately more hostile than others (tribal warriors, scouts) but they don't just start as combat encounters.
However.
These encounters need a point. Socializing is nice but if it doesn't progress an adventure it can feel trite and contrived. Don't make a random encounter table and just use it without thinking about it. Take from DM Matt Mercer, who when asked about a scene he said "I rolled up a natural scene as a random encounter and thought about what would be best for the scene." (This is in reference to the Jellyfish Bloom during Season 2 Episode 36.)


In Conclusion

You ask a broad question (without ever actually asking a question). It is a tenet of DMing that you need to separate the mechanical play of dice rolling with narrative elements. It can be hard to put in narrative elements deep in the woods. But as long as you put time and thought into your DM Planning you can make little story elements that help/challenge your players.

Intelligent Monsters are great but don't forget Emotions they feel. Yes a T-Rex can be hungry and a Bear can be in pain, but a Goblin tribe can be in mourning of their lost leader. Townsfolk can flock to areas in between settlements or on the outskirts of society for a variety of reasons like fortune finding or resource gathering. And your players can even stumble upon other adventurers or other civilized yet armed groups.

Just remember, make it fun and make it fit the adventure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you utilized these ideas? Can you discuss your experience? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 16 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't know whether to discuss my experience as that can be deemed not answer material. But I'll edit it to reflect past experience with these methods. \$\endgroup\$ – GuidingOlive Sep 16 at 20:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean by domestic encounters? Can you please explain what that means? (+1 on this answer, by the way). Also, the Flaming Fist patrol has/had a reason to be hostile/rude to a party that did not, or may not, have the right 'adventurer's charter' in ToA. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 16 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ In West marches, the game master's job is not to make a narrative, but rather to offer a wilderness sandbox for the players to explore. \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Sep 17 at 5:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Domestic encounters fall under the "Town Folk Tale" section mostly. Bringing home out into harms way. Just because in my case it wasn't a character Contact in harms way doesn't mean you couldn't set that up. More narrowly, Domestic Encounters was the term I picked for Social Encounters involving the home base of the characters even when they were out in the wild. I also totally forgot that the Flaming Fist had a reason to be hostile (because I'm lawful good and made sure our party had their permits). And them being rude, eh, doesn't mean you have a lengthy parley if you have all your stuff. \$\endgroup\$ – GuidingOlive Sep 17 at 15:35
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A great way to introduce social encounters, is

Make a Random Encounters Table

The DMG (Dungeon Masters Guide) is a great resource for those. To add more, you can take monsters and make them more intelligent. It is a fantasy rpg, so if you wanted to, you could always add

  • Talking animals
  • Cannibalistic tribe
  • Hermits (people who live in isolation)

to name a few.

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