My issue with social conflicts in 5e D&D

Posted on June 3, 2021 by

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I was musing on twitter about social conflicts in 5e, and how I think there’s a big disconnect with how they intersect with NPCs and Monsters, and thought I’d bring it to the blog to expand on it. I love twitter, but it’s not great for lengthy musins like this one…

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In 5e, social encounters between PCs and NPCs are presented as an opportunity for PCs to use their three main socials skills (Intimidation, Persuasion, and Deception), along with their Charisma attribute. They use their skills against a system that presents NPCs as having three attitude levels toward the PCs: Friendly, Indifferent, and Hostile, and leaves it up to the DM to decide the starting attitude of the NPC or Monster.

It then tells DMs to ask for a CHA check (with an appropriate skill if it applies) against a DC on a table reflecting the NPCs starting attitude. The result of the check determines the NPCs reaction to the conversation or PCs attempt at social interaction with the NPCs.

That’s fine. NPC is Hostile, you roll your CHA check, here’s what happens…

But wait.

Monsters and NPCs have CHA scores of their own. Some even have proficiencies in Intimidation, Persuasion, and Deception skills of their own.

A Bone Devil has a +7 Deception!

A Gladiator NPC has a +5 Intimidation!

Mind Flayer has a +6 Persuasion!

Are you telling me that during a social encounter against these creatures, their stats and skills never come into play if you follow the rules as written? No, they don’t.

In fact, nowhere in 5e does it say how to use these NPC/Monster skills. The rules do not touch them at all when interacting with PCs. I guess you could run a social encounter between two different sets of NPCs, and the players can watch you talk to yourself, but as far as PC vs. NPCs, they never come up.

NPCs are PASSIVE PARTICIPANTS in the Social Interaction rules. The DCs the players roll against are purely subjective and not tied to their CHA or Skill scores or bonuses at all. When I realized this it sort of blew my mind. Why? Because it begs a few questions:

Why include these skills in a stat block at all? D&D Designer Dan Dillon had a good answer on twitter:

And that’s fine. But where is the guidance on that in the DMG? Or in the MM? It doesn’t really exist. I’d argue that any skill presented as a “+6” or whatever is begging to be rolled on. Why? Because the rules say as much. Especially if you are a new DM opening the books for the first time. Players expect to roll the dice in the game, and to use the available parts of a monster stat block.

Why not have these numbers be a mechanical part of the social conflict rules? Surely the DC the players roll against can be impacted by these Skill bonuses, can’t they? They don’t!

As experienced DMs, it’s easy to come up with ways to account for and use the NPC/Monster skills in our games. They can serve as guides for dictating the Starting Attitude. They can be used in Contests vs. the PCs, they can be used in all sorts of ways–but those ways are basically trying to patch the hole that the social mechanics have built into them, which is that as written, monster skills and stats don’t matter in social interactions as presented to DMs in the DMG.

As an aside… the “Contests” section of the PHB has two examples of possible PC vs. NPC contests, but interestingly, they are both physical in nature, not social:

Sometimes one character’s or monster’s efforts are directly opposed to another’s. This can occur when both of them are trying to do the same thing and only one can succeed, such as attempting to snatch up a magic ring that has fallen to the floor. This situation also applies when one of them is trying to prevent the other one from accomplishing a goal—for example, when a monster tries to force open a door that an adventurer is holding closed. In situations like these, the outcome is determined by a special form of ability check, called a contest.

So if you are a new player and see this example, combined with the DMG’s social conflict rules, you might be right in wondering why certain monsters and NPCs have CHA skills at all–when they never come into play!

I feel there are design spaces here waiting to be explored for social interactions. I need to give it more thought, more to come on this!


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