How To Create Roleplay Encounters
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1139
I received this great request from RPT GM Carter:
I have a problem I’m trying to solve: my players tell me they’re more interested in roleplaying than combat, but I’m most comfortable with making interesting combat encounters than interesting roleplaying encounters.
With combat I create interesting terrain, interesting enemy mechanics, cool boss fights, etc.
But I’m unsure of what different things to be considering for creating “roleplay encounters.”
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally created a “roleplay encounter” before, just roleplayed whenever I needed to when the players would talk to an NPC or anything and usually come up with things on the fly.
Great question, Carter. Thank you.
Let’s put RP encounters into two buckets.
First bucket is one you mentioned. Incidental interactions. The players step up and chat with an NPC.
Second bucket, the focus of today’s tips, is filled with encounters important to your adventure. You want some great gameplay in these encounters like you get from your interesting combats.
To do this, let’s use a 3-step framework:
What do the player characters want from the NPC?
You could also ask, what does the non-player character want from the PC?
Create an objective for your NPC roleplay encounter.
Common objectives include:
- Items or goods
- Contacts or relationships
In truth, a great roleplay encounter has each side wanting something from the other.
For example, the party is looking for clues about where to find a mafia hangout.
They ask around and you spin up a roleplay encounter with a barkeep who knows the location.
What is the party’s goal?
Find a secret location.
What is the NPC’s goal?
Make money and keep their head on their shoulders.
Great. We’ve now got the encounter goal sorted. We know what both parties want.
Strong encounters need challenge.
Challenge means there must be chance and cost of failure.
If success is guaranteed, there’s no tension or drama. There’s no game. And things get boring fast.
Where does conflict and challenge come from in roleplay encounters?
It comes from the NPC giving characters what they want for a price.
Another approach: the NPC resists giving the party goal achievement because the cost to them is high.
Cost of failure in combat is easy to assess. There’s flight, death, and destruction of valuable items.
We must apply the same type of thinking in roleplay encounters.
Stakes answer two questions:
What is the cost of success?
What is the cost of failure?
Start by asking why the NPC will demand a price or resist.
And then figure out what that price is or how much resistance the NPC will put up.
In our example, the bartender could suffer punishment if the mafia finds out he gave up their clubhouse.
So the bartender must make a calculation. How much money is worth the risk? Can he explain himself to the mob if revealed and live?
Let’s say our bartender will share the information if the PCs pay them $1,000 and can convince the street smart NPC they can keep a secret.
Putting It All Together
The cool thing thing is we can use the same combat design skills to create interesting roleplay encounters.
We can build cool locations that offer spectacle, extra challenge, or interesting choices.
Great roleplay locations can involve:
- Rivals or enemies who could complicate things
- Witnesses or places for spying
- Challenges or dangers that require actions from other PCs
- NPCs who help increase the Cost or Stakes such as NPC friends who counsel them
- Additional activities such as shopping, gambling, and performances.
For example, the bartender won’t want to talk in front of customers.
So they arrange an out-of-hours place and time.
You could make this location the stands at an arena match, in a dark alley in a dangerous part of town, in a sauna, the forest during a hunting trip.
Physical aspects do not matter as much as in combat encounters. But design with Cost and Stakes in such a way that you make the encounter harder or easier.
For example, how could we make getting information from the bartender a bit harder?
How about the bartender brings along their trusted best friend as bodyguard to meet in an abandoned building on the poor side of town at 4 a.m.
The bodyguard gives the bartender extra confidence and good advice, making certain roleplay approaches more difficult, such as bullying.
As negotiations begin, characters might spot a spy hiding on the roof or in a dark corner.
We can also add twists.
Perhaps the best friend is a mafia informant.
The idea is to play off the Goal and increase Cost and Stakes with our encounter building.
Once you have this three-step framework built out, let the players add complexity.
They will often ask questions and take actions that help you improv a fantastic roleplay encounter.
For example, failed skill checks let you complicate matters.
Most game systems struggle with GMing social conflicts.
D&D 5E in particular makes this type of thing an edge case. There are certain ability checks you can make. Roll against a difficulty score to win or fail.
What I like to do if a game system does not support roleplay mechanics well is to make a game of modifiers and intensify Costs and Stakes as a result of partial successes and failures.
Let players know the difficulty of their rolls changes based on their approach or actions.
- Aggression/Coercion => +4 to roll
- Bribes => +2 to roll
- Leverage => automatic success or +X to roll
- Trick => automatic success if trick roll works or +X to roleplay roll
Let’s say our characters have something else the bartender really wants.
Maybe the party can use its connections to get the bartender’s son into the town’s exclusive college.
You could turn that into a roll bonus or an automatic success.
Another thing I do is track NPC attitude.
I have four states:
- Ally => +4 to rolls or automatic success
- Friend => +2
- Neutral => No modifier
- Hostile => -2
- Enemy => -4
Adjust all these modifiers to the scale of your game system.
When you inform players you’re tracking this, they now understand new Stakes are in play.
Mistreat an NPC and next time the Cost increases. A nice game within the game.
This also speaks to consequences of approach.
For example, in the ruined building the party tries to coerce the bartender because they do not have $1,000.
They say they’ll tell the mafia the bartender sold them out even though the bartender hasn’t.
The bartender could check if they are bluffing and make a skill check of their own.
Or they could flip right away.
Regardless, they shift one position worse in their attitude in future interactions with the player characters, going from Neutral to Hostile, incurring a penalty on future rolls.
The best approach is to increase Cost and Stakes via storytelling.
For example, after the characters coerce the mafia clubhouse location out of the bartender, the NPC immediately goes to the mob boss and explains.
The bartender says the party put a sword to their throat, threatened their son, and even promised to prevent the son from ever getting into college.
The boss punishes the bartender by removing a finger but lets them live as thanks.
And now it’s the mafia’s move….
Three Steps To Building Roleplay Encounters
Start off by figuring out Goals.
What does each side want?
Then sort out the Conflict.
Why doesn’t the NPC just give the characters what they want? Why are you playing out this encounter and not hand waving it?
Conflict often stems from Costs. Getting what they want will cost the player characters something they don’t want to easily give up.
Last, we add Stakes.
What is the cost of success?
What is the cost of failure?
These answers can take the form of mechanics and story consequences.
I hope this helps, Carter!
Thanks again for the question.
RPT GM KC shared they’re having difficulties with running snappy dungeons:
I’m currently running a sandbox campaign with no real overarching direction set in the Explorer’s Guide to the Wildemount.
I’m new to all this, and despite my players overwhelmingly positive feedback, I often feel like I’m not doing them justice with the adventures I create for them.
For example, I create a dungeon that I estimate will take two sessions to clear while trying to weave in a bit of lore and character backstory and the dungeon blows out to five sessions.
It feels to me like the campaign is dragging and has no motivation even though the individual characters have been given drive that is core to their backstory or playstyle during the quest set up.
I had heard of 5 room dungeon design somewhere, probably reddit or youtube, and I am hoping it will help me make snappier dungeons that will help the characters be more immersed in the setting and want to explore it further.
Thanks for creating this guide. It is content like this that really truely help me get on my feet and feel more confident that im doing the right thing as a DM.
Comments from Johnn:
If the players are having fun, I wouldn’t worry about it.
If you aren’t having fun, then it’s time to intervene for sure. But it sounds like you are.
That said, one fantastic way to add brevity to dungeons is Missions:
5 Room Dungeons can help with Missions, too.
A second awesome tool in our toolbox is the villain. I recommend thinking about creating a diabolical villain for your campaign.
Such an NPC can be an active agent in your game (unlike dungeons that just sit there) and provide the connective tissue you’re looking for to make the story more meaningful.
For example, have the villain (try to) rob the PCs on their way back to town. Or have the villain send agents into the dungeon after the PCs. Cheers.