Social Conflict in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder

IndescisionImage courtesy of Randall Munroe of, CC BY-NC.
One of the most common game systems out there, D&D is a prime example of the single roll model of social interaction. Along with my compatriot 700 Manifestations we're going to try to make D&D 3.5 a game with a more robust and interesting social mechanic. D&D 3.5 is being used rather than D&D 4e because we know D&D 3.5/Pathfinder's mechanics much better than 4e. During this little design I'll include some of our notes to showcase the thought process behind this so you can see the debate behind some of these choices. Hopefully this will also help to showcase some of the pitfalls and tricks to adding more robust social rules in your own preferred RPG.

Here ist the author´s article about Social Complexity in RPGs.

Part one of our initial decision was how to implement what we've termed the carrot and stick philosophy, rewarding people who follow a social rule and penalizing acting against it but not forcing behavior. Forcing players to act thanks to social rolls tends to be seen by players as violating their character in many cases, which is a topic worth its own article at some other time.

Back to the issue at hand, our first decision was to figure out how a social interaction should resolve out mechanically. We didn't want to get bogged down in rolls needed but look for the intended the effect. In our case it felt easier to work back out of the intended result and then check the rolls. Here's what our conversation looked like.

Prime: The easiest would be a moral bonus tied to the interaction, or a moral penalty.
700 Manifestations: Yeah but it should be noticeable. Like if someone would have taken you from hostile to friendly there should be some serious consequences to ignoring it
Prime: Maybe a +1/-1 penalty per shift? That's a -4 penalty maximum, enough to have some effect but not crippling.
700 Manifestations: Still easily overcome with a low level spell
Prime: That is true
700 Manifestations: Also if we turn that into a bonus it means that people will argue for a course of action in every instance so their teammates get bonus for going along with it
Prime: Good point! But, rallying your allies with social skills shouldn't be a bad thing
700 Manifestations: Every time anyone wants to do anything?
Prime: There's a fine line between rally allies and being a total tool who cheers people when they try to bluff the Ogre [See: Order of the Stick # 4]
Prime: Here's the issue, the carrot/stick mainly needs to be balanced for PCs. The GM can always decide on the NPCs using reason a bit, but the balance for PCs needs support them making interesting choices.
700 Manifestations: how about instead of a flat bonus it gives them an action point to use towards the endeavor
700 Manifestations: That way they aren't getting +4 to everything they do. But its still useful to do. Maybe an action point for every shift they agree to
Prime: Using the Eberron action point rules?
700 Manifestations: Yeah

I started by proposing something that seemed to already exist in the system, using Moral bonuses. D&D's bonus system supports a range of 'sorts' of bonus and Moral bonuses tended to come from things like Bardic songs, blessings, and other 'social' sorts of causes. Using that would slot pretty easily into the system. 700 Manifestations noted that the proposed level of shift (+/-4) is pretty easy to minimize with a spell or two. It also leads to players constantly giving each other arguments or rallying speeches to improve their rolls. 700 Manifestations then brought up the idea of using Action Points (from Eberron). They're a pool of points you can affect that could work very well since players can gain and lose them. Due to the terms of the OGL we can't include the full nature of these points, but a brief description would be that they can be spent to provide a d6 bonus to rolls, and are only gained at each new level, so we realized this was a place where social skills could be a key player without tampering with other parts of the system too badly. That part is key since it is easy for unintended consequences to lead to results you did not intend, which is a frequent issue with adding new material. Let's look at how we decided to implement and balance this.

700 Manifestations: The thing is, you must make the change of view permanent until something acts against it. Such as new evidence is provided or someone makes a direct argument against it which beats your social So no accepting the view long enough to gain the AP then using it up and switching back
[700 Manifestations is good at thinking like a rules-lawyering twink because he is one. –Prime]
Prime: Idea, make it based on actions tied to the idea So it only adds/drains APs when you actually act with it, and the amount is smaller But it can last if you keep following it
700 Manifestations: What do you mean?
700 Manifestations: Say like someone convinces you to sneak into the lords castle to steal some weapons to hock
[A key part in building any houserule is asking how it would work in the case of a play example. 700 Manifestations uses a classic D&D example of stealing things for money, which we'll both admit rarely requires much mechanical encouragement since players are all kleptomaniac murder-hobo hoarders.]
Prime: I was thinking you'd have to abstract that out to something like "The Lord is a wicked dude who it's ok to mess with." Stealing weapons is a specific implementation, which gets you an AP
700 Manifestations: So you get an AP to use on messing with the Duke?
Prime: Yes
Prime: And you continue to get them as long as you mess with the Duke If you decide not to you lose Aps until you remove the Condition. Maybe allow for a skill roll to shrug off social-ness once applied
[Here we see one of my sins, just making up terms as I go. In this case a social roll that affects you is being called a Condition. Later we'll see this is a dumb term. –Prime]
700 Manifestations: How often would you get APs then while you are fucking with the duke?
Prime: Normally they refresh on a level basis. So not too often. Sadly, I can't think of a way to deal with that outside of using some meta-game concept like per session or something that doesn't fit in the normal D&D scheme
Prime: Maybe you can't get more than your level in APs back from social fu? So you're capped in some way?
700 Manifestations: That's still 20 at level 20 and that's a ton
Prime: You can lose them via social-ness. Which should limit the total a bit unless you're a total pushover
700 Manifestations: Unless you are a total flake and do whatever anyone tells you, which kinda just became awesome
Prime: You're a bad-ass as long as nobody asks you politely to stop. Which is an issue though
700 Manifestations: That's the awesomest issue
700 Manifestations: Also Conditions needs a new name. I think Conditions already applies as a catch all for debuffs, I think.
Prime: A new name is cool, maybe influence? Brain-licking?
700 Manifestations: I like influence.

So we've decided that using Action Points is a viable option, and a social influence (having someone successfully use a social skill on you) imposes a general belief on you. The bonus or penalty to your action points is based on how you actually act on that belief. This means you have to do something to get the bonus, and it also allows different characters to respond to the same thing differently. Our worry now becomes that someone could go around following their beliefs and rack up an absurd number of points, but the social system is a hit self-regulating as to do this they need to not go against any Conditions imposed on them. A villain who politely asks not to be killed, admittedly a rather humorous example, would potentially cause a loss of points. And so was born RANTHUR THE ACCOMDINATING, a barbarian of unmatched murderous skill and personality that desires to please. In order to keep this limit though, we decided that the adding no more than your level back in Action Points was a reasonable start. That imposes a hard cap at each level of the amount of bonus you can gain from action points.

This is all well and good, but now we need to decide how these social effects are actually done. What do the various skills do and how do they do it? In traditional D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder we have the following social type skills:

  • Bluff
  • Diplomacy
  • Intimidate
  • Performance
  • Sense Motive

Personally I'm of the mind that the above list could be trimmed down considerably, but in the interests of making things more broadly applicable we'll use the 5 skills.

We started with the most cooperative of the skills, Diplomacy. A short bit of talking made it clear that this would be the default skill to impose a condition. You talk and convince someone of something. Performance, after a spirited debate, can apply influences like Diplomacy but they are shorter lived normally. We decided to do something different with Bluff, rather than create a Influence, Bluff would allow you to temporarily tweak one, changing how it affects you. Sense Motive can be used to find out what Influences are on a person to better socially act with them, or oppose Bluff checks. Intimidate would be used as a solely stick method, fast but limited, it can impose conditions but only offer penalties for not following. The intent is to make social interaction work differently if you use different skills, so that two different PCs can both contribute in different ways, but broad enough that with 2-3 social skills a PC can fill all the major social roles if need be.

In execution, someone with Diplomacy or Performance can build up the sort of Influences they want and have them stay with you, persuading people. PCs with Bluff can't give new conditions but instead tweak what you already have/think until you agree with them, taking advantage of your existing opinions. Intimidate is the quick and dirty tool best used in combat or when time is of the essence.

Now this brings up some awkward issues, which is what prevents people from gaming the system and proper execution. We have the effects of our socializing, and we've gotten a rough idea of how the skills apply, but we want to make sure that we try to limit how people can game the system.

700 Manifestations: I think I'm gonna run with this idea. 😀 If you run out of AP though what happens? Are you suddenly a free man? hahaha
Prime: That is a good question
700 Manifestations: Maybe, you have a heavy morale penalty so that AP act as social hp
Prime: That would make sense
Prime: The speed of decay, given you have a max HP with recovery, should be reasonable, as should shaking off influences
[Prime: Maybe allow Diplomacy to also "heal" existing stuff
700 Manifestations: Indeed.
Prime: Deception could be used to temporarily bypass it witb "doublethink" or tricking people
Prime: Every character has at least 1 thing that motivates them
700 Manifestations: 1 thing?
Prime: Yes
700 Manifestations: So when in the pursuit of money for Araan
700 Manifestations: He would get APs
Prime: Right “Become the wealthiest man alive" or some such
Prime: It gives social skills even at level 1 something to play with
700 Manifestations: Indeed. I like it.
Prime: Maybe cap the total number of influences applied at once by level like APs to avid too much confusion?
Prime: 1+(1/2) level, rounded up, not counting your “innate” one?
700 Manifestations: And if you run out of action points you get -level penalty to anything you do until you gain one back.
Prime: I like that, maybe the penalty applies when you need to spend a AP for vioalting, but can't?
Prime: So a -Level penalty gets applied during any encounter when you'd have to spend an AP to violate a influence but can't?
700 Manifestations: Indeed
Prime: Scales reasonably
700 Manifestations: Demoralized just got so much worse
Prime: Yes it did
700 Manifestations: OH MAN, That makes demoralizing a useful combat tactic
Prime: Social stuff should be useful. I like it.

So as you can see we decided to cap the total action points you can get as well as the number of conditions that can apply. Your conditions are limited 1+1/2 level, while you action points start at 5+1/2 level, and your max is 2x your base AP (which is 10+level). This gives people a nice “range” between full and empty to work on losing or gaining their Action Points through interaction. This prevents someone from hoarding up action points.

So to give the quick rules summary at the end in a easy to add and use format:
Social Skills in D&D
Requires: Eberron Action Points (see Eberron book)

This system allows social actions to have mechanical effects in the game. Players may use any of the 'social' skills, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Bluff, Performance, or Sense Motive to work with someone.

Social skills all work on Influences, which are short descriptive phrases that compel behavior. Influences can be things like: The ruler of the town is evil, violence is the only solution to our taxes, or similar 1 sentence descriptions. They cannot describe specific actions, but they will encourage people to do things. Every character starts with 1 “free” condition that describes their motivating goals. This may change over time through events in the campaign affecting the character and remains a permanent part of them. It is called a Motivation.

[Shamelessly stolen from Exalted. –Prime]

Besides this free Influence, a character may have up to an additional 1+1/2 level influences applying to them at one time. If they are full, a successful new influence removes the weakest condition on the character. The weakest condition is determined by it's status on the diplomacy table (Indifferent, friendly, helpful). The level of the roll does not affect the bonuses gained or lost by an influence, it only shows how hard it is to remove. This is to prevent the current issue where a properly 'maxed out' diplomacy skill character (called a Diplomancer online), can talk anyone into doing anything. Now even the best diplomacy roll is limited to producing a influence which can give/take action points per encounter.

When a character follows a condition on them, they gain 1 action point. Choosing to go against a condition costs them an action point which they must spend. This cannot take them below 0 or above their level cap of (10+level). Action points are gained or lost per encounter when they are followed. Encounters can cover a combat or longer scale non-combat encounter equally.

If a player needs to spend an action point but cannot, they take a penalty equal to their level for the entire encounter to all rolls.

Influence Details
Influences are the cornerstone of social action in this system. Every influence must describe a basic belief and general action. Examples would be
Lord Lordypants is evil and should be opposed.
RANTHUR THE ACCOMDINATING is terrifying and we should avoid his anger.

You get a a general belief (in bold) followed by the action (in italics). Note that the action is generic, allowing players and NPCs the ability to choose how to follow that in their own way. Perhaps Lord Lordypants will have his treasury stolen by a thief, while the Paladin may challenge him to single combat or attempt to guide him to correction action, while a peasent might instead just help some rebels hide in their basement rather than fight.

Every influence has a strength, which determines how hard it is to remove. The influence strength is tracked by using the NPC attitude scale in the main book. Failed rolls that move a target away from you (rolling a -2 and making someone unfriendly instead of indifferent) leads to a influence against your intent being imposed. Not this is not always a direct reversal, it could also jut be that they dislike you even if your idea is sound. You can't serve as a strawman and intentionally roll poorly on an influence roll to love to king to make people hate him. Tricks like that fall under bluff.

The Attitude Scale
Traditionally in 3.5 we have the following scale
Hostile Unfriendly Indifferent Friendly Helpful Fanatic

In the new system:
Indifferent is the default position, successful influences are scaled away from that center. There is no difference between Unfriendly and Friendly except insofar as the influence benefits or disadvantages the PCs. Unfriendly and Hostile are merely there to allow for PCs to fail their rolls. Otherwise rate all influences as having a value between 1-3, (friendly to fanatic) showcasing how “stable” the influence is. To remove it it must be pushed back down to indifferent. It has no effect on the effect of the influence, as it will still only give 1 AP per encounter. It merely makes it harder to remove the influence.

Creating and Opposing Influences
To influence a target, make a skill roll opposed by a target's similar skill (to clarify they roll the same skill you do) or will save. A shortcut for dealing with NPCs is to give them a 'default value' of 15+Will Save for minor NPCs. Note that the DM may give a +/- 10 Circumstance modifier based on how well the influence fits evidence. Trying to convince someone Asmodeus is really a good guy requires some planning and work to 'prep' a target.

If successful, you may impose a Influence. The skills that can impose an influence are Diplomacy, Performance, and Intimidate. See each skill for the variations they impose on this.
If you beat their roll by more than 10, the influence is helpful (value of 2)
If you beat the roll by 20, the influence is fanatic (has a value of 3)
If you fail by 5 or more, the target gains a influence opposed to your attempt in some way. Perhaps they agree with your ideas but just think you're annoying, or perhaps after listening to you they'd rather have the undead devour the living so you shut the hell up.

Opposing Influences
If you want to remove an influence, you have a few options. Whenever evidence opposing an Influence comes into play, you may make a Will roll and if you beat a DC you can step the influence down 1 level until it is removed.
Influence 1: DC 20
Influence 2: DC 24
Influence 3: DC 28

Sufficiently strong evidence can give the roll a +1-+5 bonus based on the strength of the evidence. Allowing evidence to build up before rolling is a way to increase the bonus, as are examples like seeing the “good king” stab a child.
If you wish to remove a Influence with you skills, Performance or Diplomacy are used. Intimidate can only remove Intimidate based influences, as you're simply making the target more afraid of you.

Normally this is handled by a opposed roll like generating an influence. The target must make a skill or 1d20+Will check. Success steps the influence down 1 degree no matter how much you beat them by. This is the safe and slow method. By adding +10 to the difficulty, you may drop an influence 2 degrees at once, adding +20 lets you drop it by 3. A skilled enough individual can remove very deep influences quickly, but failure becomes more likely.

Diplomacy: Diplomacy can create Influences with time, usually at least 10 minutes of talking although this can take longer. Influences made with Diplomacy do not fade away unless opposed (see Opposing Influences). Diplomacy can also be used to remove existing influences. If someone uses Diplomacy on you, you may roll Diplomacy rather than Will to oppose them.

Performance: Performance can also create influences, but unlike Diplomacy this can be done quickly. Performance based influences can be created with a successful Performance action, the exact time varying based on the art form used. Performance influences however do not have a sustained duration. They move down the Strength scale one step a day until they fade. If someone uses Performance on you, you may use Performance instead of will to oppose them. Getting a result 20 above a level (1, 2, or 3) lets you solidify a influence as permanent. So a successful check that establishes a Influence (level 3) can instead make a level 1 influence. A result of 40 above a target's roll could establish a permanent level 3 influence. Another way is that getting 3 successful performance checks on the same influence in different encounters can set a influence as normal level 1 influence

Bluff: Bluff does not create Influences, instead it allows you to temporarily modify them. Bluffs can change either the belief and action or just the action for an encounter. Changing the belief and action imposes a +10 difficulty on the roll, changing the action imposes no penalty. It is easier to keep the belief and just change how they react to it. Making an action which runs contrary to the belief also imposes a +5-+15 difficulty increase depending how contrary the action is.

Sense Motive: Sense Motive has two features. It can be rolled in opposition to bluff to counter it, or can be used on a target to discern their Influences. Sensing a influence is a DC 15 check for Motivations, and 20 for other influences. This may be opposed by a Bluff check which if successful gives a fake influence instead of the real one, or no result as bluffer prefers.

Intimidate: Intimidate is used to offer quick and brutal influence on a target. Intimidate uses an opposed roll as show in the 3.5 rules, or it can be opposed with Intimidate or a Will save whichever is higher. Outside combat this can be used to impose conditions, but they only offer a punishment for ignoring them, no bonus for following them. Intimidate fades like performance, and can be reenforced like it as well. Intimidate can be used in combat to Demoralize, which works as follows. In addition to the usual resistance roll, you may counter an intimidate check with your own intimidate check as a save.

Demoralized: An influence where you are terrified of the intimidater, and will not fight them. Opposing this costs 1 AP for Wis Mod rounds (minimum 1), and this condition expires at the end of combat. Someone can Intimidate or Perform a moral boost to overcome this condition following Oppose Influence rules. Difficulty to remove multiple 'levels' of influence are halved (+5 or +10) however.

Finally we'd like to give credit to what helped inspire some of these ideas. White Wolf's Exalted, Eos Press's Weapons of the Gods, the FATE engine (thanks to Shadom), and discussions with many friends. If you notice any mechanical issues feel free to tell us in the comments so we can address them.

D&D and Eberron are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, Pathfinder is a trademark of Paizo Publishing. Systems are used under the Open Gaming License. Action Points are not under the OGL.