Dungeons & Dragons

The first game we examine is the fifth edition (5E) of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons (in following: D&D), published by Wizards of the Coast in 2014. While this newest edition is not the earliest release in this survey, the unique historical position of D&D as the first commercially successful pen-and-paper RPG (with its first edition released in 1974) and the world's most popular RPG for most of the time span that it has been in continuous publication (Appelcline), makes it a convenient "baseline" against which to measure subsequent examples.

Free resources: System Reference Document, Quick-Start.

As a conceptual offspring of the 1960s and 1970s wargaming, the two gameplay emphases of D&D have historically been exploration (of dungeons) and combat (against monsters such as dragons). While the common opinion that "D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff" (cf. Brennan) is perhaps unfairly reductionist to most editions (except maybe the fourth), it is undeniable that a lot of role-playing groups enjoy playing D&D in this manner. From a purely systemic point of view, a considerable chunk of the current edition's rules is devoted to magic (with detailed descriptions of various magical effects taking up almost a third of its Player's Handbook's volume) and combat simulation (from character classes as shorthand for combat roles, through detailed combat equipment and enemy stats, to rigid procedures structuring the flow of in-fiction combat).

As Ron Edwards had famously argued in the early 2000s, "system does matter", and if a role-playing game system boasts a sophisticated combat simulation, it will invariably attract players interested in tactical combat action. Conversely, simply by offering players more gameplay options for certain types of in-fiction interactions than for others, a game system incentivizes the use of the latter over the former. This incentive comes both from the players' fear of missing out on numerous (magical and combat) game mechanics, and the GMs' natural tendency to avoid the additional cognitive load of adjudicating complex (social) interactions if the game offers no mechanical support in this area.

With all of this in mind, it may be surprising to find out that D&D 5E actually contains a rather elegant social interaction system hidden under the hood in its Dungeon Master's Guide. While these rules take up a fraction of the space dedicated to simulating physical violence and magical effects in the same book, it is obvious that considerable thought has been put into it by the designers.

Core Mechanic

Like almost all examples in this survey, D&D 5E uses a single core game mechanic (referred as an "ability check" by the rules) to resolve all challenges and conflicts involving (player) characters, including social ones. The simplified core mechanic procedure is as follows:

  1. The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
  2. The GM assesses the "difficulty class" (DC) of the attempted action as a number ranging from 10 to 30.
  3. The GM tells the player which primary (an "attribute", effectively ranging from –2 to +4) and secondary stats of their character (typically a "skill", ranging from 0 to +6) apply to their action.
  4. The player rolls a d20 and adds their character's relevant attribute and skill scores. Some favorable in-fiction conditions, like receiving assistance from an ally, confer an "advantage", meaning the player rolls twice and takes the better result; others, a "disadvantage", where they roll twice and take the worse result.
  5. If the end result is equal or greater than the DC, the character achieves their objective, otherwise, they fail.
  6. The GM and the player collaborate in narrating the outcome of the PC's action in-fiction.

For the purposes of social interaction, a PC can be the agent or the patient in the above procedure, depending on whether they attempt to influence an NPC, or the NPC attempts to influence them. The primary stats (attributes) most relevant to social interactions in D&D are "Charisma" and "Wisdom". According to Player's Handbook (pp. 178-179), Charisma is a measure of a character's capability for effective social interaction, which includes traits like confidence and eloquence, and is most relevant to social agents. Wisdom represents perceptiveness and intuition, and is used by the social patients to detect the agent's unstated ulterior motives. The agent' relevant secondary stats (skills) are "Deception", "Intimidation", and "Persuasion", depending on whether the social interaction involves misinformation, threats, and charm or reasoning, respectively. The main skill a patient uses to detect the agent's ulterior motives is "Insight".

Social Interaction

The extended procedure to resolve social interactions in the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration builds upon the core mechanic and is described in the Dungeon Master's Guide (pp. 244-245):

  1. Objectives. Before the interaction, the player articulates their character's objective, the GM does the same for the NPC patient.
  2. Attitude. The GM assesses the NPC's starting "attitude" towards the PC agent. Attitude can be "hostile", "neutral", and "friendly" (from the least to the most compliant).
  3. Role-play. The player and the GM role-play the conversation between the agent and the patient. Depending on the persuasive qualities of the player's lines, the GM may temporarily improve or worsen the NPC's starting attitude by one step at their discretion.
    1. Reconnoitering. During this dialogue, the player is entitled to a single reconnoitering Wisdom (Insight) ability check, which, if successful, allows them to learn the NPC's current attitude, as well as additional details about them at the GM's discretion.
    2. Assistance. Other PCs may contribute to the conversation, with the quality of their role-play potentially conferring an advantage or a disadvantage to the agent's roll in the next step.
  4. Ability check. When the PC makes an appeal to the NPC (request, demand, suggestion, etc.), their player makes a Charisma ability check, adding the secondary stat value consistent with the contents of the earlier conversation, and tells the GM the end result.
  5. Outcome. The GM adjudicates the outcome of the agent's action. Rather than a binary success/failure of the core mechanic, this procedure introduces a gradient of success, consisting of No-And (the patient refuses to comply and begins actively interfering with the agent's objectives), No (refusal of compliance), Yes-But (the patient complies, but only at no cost or risk to themselves), Yes (compliance at a small cost or risk), and Yes-And (compliance at a great cost or risk). The specific outcome depends on both on the ability check result and on the patient's attitude when it is made:
    Attitude No-And No Yes-But Yes Yes-And
    Hostile DC0 DC 10 DC 20 -
    Neutral - DC0 DC 10 DC 20 -
    Friendly - DC0 DC 10 DC 20

We observe that no specific procedure is offered for adjudicating social interactions in the "NPC agent, PC patient" configuration, meaning that the PC's compliance is entirely at their player's discretion, who is also entitled to a Wisdom (Insight) check to assess the NPC's ulterior motives. Likewise, no procedure is offered for the "PC agent, PC patient" configuration, likewise leaving it up to the individual players to decide whether their characters comply or not, effectively moving the interaction out of the ludic and into the fiction or the social frame (depending on whether the players stay in-character or address each other directly, respectively).