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February 19, 2015

The Social Block

A few weeks ago, a discussion online got me thinking about the value of social system.  

I have a love-hate relationship with social system.  On one hand, I would rather just handle social scenes with roleplay.  On the other hand, social system has some advantages for just about every play style.  For the gamist in me, it creates structures of risk and challenge.  For the narrativist in me, it helps me (as a GM) have my NPCs react differently than I would personally, and sometimes takes the story in unexpected directions that I would not have considered.  For the simulationist in me, it allows my players to portray characters more (or less) socially savvy than their players.

So let’s talk about social system in Pathfinder.

Pathfinder’s social system is a legacy from 3rd edition, which was the first D&D edition to try using skills.  3rd edition tried to adapt a newfangled skill system to the old D&D reaction mechanic.  It’s very conscious of the editions that went before, and was a little timid about breaking from them.  If you played previous editions of D&D consider the 3rd edition social skills:  Bluff was basically an opposed Charisma vs Wisdom check.  Diplomacy was basically a port of old school reaction checks.  And Intimidate was basically a forced morale check (“modified level check”) with a watered down result.  Pathfinder may have cleaned them up a little from 3rd edition, but they’re still a bit disjointed. Luckily, the game balance works out just fine. Each system works well enough on its own.  

But you came here for tips to help you Run a Game, right?

Below is a tutorial on writing social encounters for Pathfinder using “rules as written” or RAW.  This is important if you’re writing a module for strangers, such as if you’re selling it online or running it at a con.  Or if your table just prefers using the rules as much as possible.  Note that even though I’m walking you through “RAW,” I like

There is a short section on “winging it” at the end, to generate quick social DCs on the fly.  Even if you prefer the simplicity of winging it, you should still read the rest of this post, because there’s a lot more to a social encounter than die rolls.

Writing Social Encounters

A social encounter is any encounter that has a social interaction component.  

I find that with a little prep to untangle the clunky system, social encounters can run smoothly.  When I say “a little prep,” I mean something you can take a 2 minute break to do during your session, right there at the table, if you have to.  It’s mostly stuff you need to do anyway if you’re going to break out Pathfinder’s social system - and I think this is the smoothest way to do it using the core Pathfinder rules.

All you have to do is add a new section to the stat block for the NPC in your encounter called the social block.  (See, it’s like “stat block” but for the social system and relevant notes.)  This section is more narrative, and might deserve its own page, to help you eliminate the distraction of spell lists and CMB and such.

Nature of the Conflict

First, write down what the conflict in this scene is.  What is it that makes the PCs’ agenda and the NPC’s motivations clash?  How passionate is the NPC about their agenda?

Consider last week’s post, “With Friends Like These.”  If you’re improvising a social encounter on the fly, there’s even a set of random tables in that post to determine what the NPC’s motives are.  

Naturally for there to be a conflict, you will be tempted to make some assumptions about what the players will want to achieve.  That’s unavoidable, but try not to think in those terms.  Instead, focus only on what the NPC is willing to fight for.  If the NPC cares strongly about something, either it’s going to be a problem for the PCs, or it’s going to be useful to the PCs.  But which of those it winds up being isn’t really up to you.

You can even use the random tables on With Friends Like These to help. The examples below use the attitudes and conflicts from that article.

A tense negotiation with Barbary slavers

At the end of the Conflict write-up, bullet-point two to four things the NPC cares strongly about.  Again, if they don’t care strongly about it, it doesn't need to be mentioned.  They won’t fight over it.  The reason you want more than one bullet point is that people are complicated and have often conflicting motives.  

Note:  If the NPC is curmudgeonly and would fight over anything, then what he really cares about -- what you write down -- is “Always has to feel like he’s getting his way.”  And that’s probably very useful to the PCs.  Those sorts of people are easy to manipulate.

Sense Motive has a counter-intuitive system.  The DC to discern an NPC’s plain motives is higher than to catch most NPCs in a lie (except for NPCs highly skilled in Bluff).  I don’t know why this is, but I prefer to balance it out by making the benefits of a Hunch check far outweigh the benefits of a Catch a Lie check.

Plain motives are DC 20 (per the Hunch option under the Sense Motive rules).  The NPC doesn’t necessarily shout their plain motives from the rooftops, but PCs can attempt to discern plain motives from just a few minutes’ conversation.  Success on this check should reveal all of the NPC’s plain motives.  

Hidden motives should be listed either as the character’s Bluff skill (if you like opposed checks - I don’t) or 10 + Bluff (I would rather leave all the rolling up to the players, but that’s a personal preference).  PCs cannot attempt to discern hidden motives until they force the NPC to talk about the subject.  Then they make a Sense Motive check against the NPC’s Bluff.  Success only indicates that the NPC is lying here and has a hidden agenda.

Game design philosophy note:  Most players have the social intelligence to discern plain NPC motivations on their own; and most GMs have the basic acting skills needed to telegraph NPC motivations without much trouble.  But not all!  Between younger players, self-conscious GMs, bad actors, folks with lower social IQ, and socially skilled adults after a long day of work or a few beers, the Sense Motive skill comes in handy.  Let your players decide when to use it, though.  They might enjoy teasing out NPC motivations without resorting to the dice.

The NPC’s Diplomacy DC is based on their initial attitude toward the PCs, which itself comes from their past relationship, the current situation, and the NPC’s agenda.   Write down their reaction level and the associated DC.  

Bluff DC:

The NPC’s Bluff DC is technically an opposed roll using Sense Motive.  If you’re using the "RAW," just record their Sense Motive modifier.  I like to let the players have all the fun, so I give NPCs a Bluff DC equal to 10 + Sense Motive, as if they could “take ten” on Sense Motive.  

Also, write down how the NPC will react if they catch the PCs in a lie.  A scheming Baron might give them a knowing smile and lower his attitude toward them by one step.  A Trumpet Archon might judge them lacking and vanish into the astral plane.  A werewolf might become Hostile and attack.   A town sheriff might detain them as suspicious characters.

The NPC’s Intimidate DC is 10 + HIt Dice + Wisdom Modifier.  I like to make a note if the NPC is immune or resistant to Fear effects, because it changes how I portray them when role playing an intimidation attempt.  You can still threaten someone who doesn’t feel fear.  It just has to be a realistic threat.

Remember, forcing a character to do what you want with Intimidate only lasts 1d6x10 minutes, so write down what that character is likely to do after that time is up, and they come to their senses.

NPCs who have Intimidate themselves may try to use it back at the PCs.  (“Let us in or we’ll ruin your day!”  “Yeah, cleaning your blood offa this floor would be a pain in my ass.”)  The Pathfinder rules don’t cover this situation, sadly.  As a house rule, I would suggest you roll opposed Intimidate checks instead of a straight check against the listed DC.  The higher check result wins.  If the NPC wins, the PCs can’t attempt to intimidate them again for at least an hour.  Ties go to the PCs.  If the PCs win, the NPC won’t attempt to intimidate the PCs anymore, and the PCs get the benefits of Influence Opponent's Attitude.

Knowledge Benefits:

Knowledge can come in handy.  If there’s a particularly useful fact that a Knowledge skill might reveal, list the skill, fact, and a mechanical perk that comes with using it (see the first example).  

Alternately, use Knowledge checks to clue PCs in on the NPC’s possible hidden motives -- see the second example.

(You might be wondering "what about Disguise?" Well in Pathfinder, Disguise only applies to putting on a costume; not playing a part, so it's really not a social skill. I think it's still a useful skill, but it isn't of much use here.)

Two Sample Encounters

The Tomb Guardian  
CR 3 encounter designed for a level 2 party.

Near the town of Muddy Fork, at the top of a steep hill, is a small shrine guarding the seal to the wizard king’s tomb.  The seal is a magical seal that looks like a stone disc in the ground, and the heroes know that they can open it by casting the Bleed spell while touching it.  An aasimar and two tamed wolves guards the seal, however.  Mitzi is a young woman from Muddy Fork.  Every generation the blood of celestials breeds true in one child, and Mitzi was that child.  Traditionally, like the celestials that came before them, these heirs live on the hilltop and keep meddling adventurers and evil necromancers from opening the tomb’s seal.  The aasimar will resist any attempts to open the seal, but she knows she can’t fight off most threats.  Luckily for her, since the people of Muddy Fork use her as their town healer, Mitzi knows she can call for the town militia and they will come running.  The PCs need to get into the tomb, for it contains magical weapons they need to defeat a rising evil.  It would be nice if a friendly healer was waiting outside, but they have to convince Mitzi to let them pass.

Mitzi uses the stats of an Aasimar Cleric.

Mitzi has two tame wolves (because what else are you gonna do up on a hill all day?) that she uses to protect herself, in case combat breaks out. She will use Bless to buff them, and then flee if things look bad. Valor is important to Iomede, but failing to get away to summon the town militia if she has a chance is beyond foolish.

Social Block
Nature of the Conflict:  Cross-Purposes.  Mitzi and generations of aasimar before her have guarded the tomb of the wizard king.  Her task: To warn away any adventurers who want to mess with the seal on the tomb.  If push comes to shove, Mitzi will fetch the nearby town’s militia to help.  They love her, because she and her family before her have served as healers for the village for centuries.  Mitzi is cautious.  She is pragmatic and listens to reason, but as a result she looks down on rash and reckless courses of action, such as opening the tomb.
Sense Motive:  All motives are plain (DC 20)
  • Keep meddlers out of the tomb
  • Keep the people of Muddy Fork safe
  • Serve the will of the gods of good
Diplomacy DC:  22 (Unfriendly); PCs can get a bonus (see below)
Bluff DC 11:  If she catches a liar, her attitude toward them deteriorates by one step.
Intimidate DC 12:  She won’t intimidate back.  If chased off, she will go fetch the town militia.  Use twelve Foot Soldiers (
Knowledge (religion) DC 10:  Mitzi wears the sword-and-sun holy symbol of Iomede.  
Knowledge (religion) DC 15 (free for clerics and paladins of Iomede): Iomede is the goddess of righteous valor, justice, and honor.  Behaving dishonorably toward a cleric of Iomede will have worse results than usual.  Despite her caution, appealing to righteous valor (courage) over fear and doubt might be more beneficial here than pure reason (+5 to Diplomacy checks).

The Hobgoblin Spy
CR 1 encounter for a level 1 party

The PCs have just got their first quest, to find the Life Stone in a half-sunken temple East of town, and are leaving the tavern when they spot a Hobgoblin that was literally eavesdropping on them:  Hanging from the eaves to listen in on the conversation.  After capturing the Hobgoblin, they learn his name is Krug, it’s up to them to interrogate him and find out why he’s spying on them.  Krug doesn’t want to reveal who he’s working for, because he’s sure that if he talks, the best he can hope for is not getting paid.  Also, Krug doesn’t want to reveal that his brother, Rud, was with him and got away.

Krug (and Rud) are just normal Hobgoblins.

The combat portion of the encounter is simple:  When the PCs emerge from the tavern, they see a Hobgoblin hanging from the eaves.  Roll initiative (whether the PCs wish to start combat or not).  On his round, he drops from the eaves and tries to run away with a panicked “Yikes!”  

If the PCs look for other threats on their turn, let them roll Perception, DC 30.  Success means the PCs hear another creature sneaking away, 50’ away, around a corner.  This DC is high because of the intervening wall and distance, but also for dramatic purposes, to add stakes to the following social scene.

Social Block
Nature of the Conflict:  Frenemy:  Krug is the PCs’ enemy, but he values his life more than the wanted outlaw necromancer Razak who hired him in the ruined tower ten miles North of town, so they can get him to cooperate with a little pressure.  Krug is Passionate about trying to get paid by the necromancer and trying to keep his brother, Rud, from being captured.  Rud is, right now, running away from town, toward the necromancer’s tower.  The PCs can catch him if they give chase within the hour.
Sense Motive:  DC 9 to reveal the presence of hidden agendas if characters get Krug talking about related subjects. In this case, Krug’s plain motive is obvious (no check) since the PCs put him in this tight spot in the first place.
  • Hidden:  To keep his brother, Rud, who was also spying on the adventurers, from getting caught
  • Hidden:  Not to reveal the identity of the necromancer Razak or that Razak is laying low in the tower ten miles North of town.
  • Plain (obvious):  To survive and get away unhurt.  If the PCs genuinely promise to let Krug go, they can claim a +5 bonus to Diplomacy checks with him.  Same if they successfully Bluff that they will.
Diplomacy DC 24: (Hostile); the PCs will have to capture Krug to get him to talk, and that will make Krug pretty hostile toward them.  
Bluff DC 11:.  Krug expects the PCs to treat him poorly, so catching them in a lie has no effect on his attitude.
Intimidate DC 12:  Though he’s not very good at it, Krug will try to intimidate the PCs right back (-1 check modifier) with vague threats of other hobgoblins rescuing him or taking vengeance.  If the PCs fail to intimidate Krug, he becomes convinced of his own bluster.
Knowledge (local) DC 15:  There’s an outlaw necromancer in these parts that might be interested in something like the life stone and anyone who might be able to find it.  But nobody knows where to find him.
Knowledge (local) DC 5:  Hobgoblins are much more loyal to their clanmates than regular goblins, and they rarely act alone.

What About Winging It?

The alternative to using the social “RAW” is to set arbitrary skill DCs.  This isn’t terrible.  

  • “Easy” DCs are 5+CR/2;
  • “Moderate” DCs are 10+CR; and
  • “Hard” DCs are 20+CR.
When interacting with high CR NPCs or creatures, use the party’s level instead of the CR.  For instance, a level 4 party interacting with an indifferent Solar doesn’t need to check against DC 22 (Indiffeent DC 15, plus Cha +7) from the basic system or DC 33 (Moderate, DC 10+CR 23) from the “wing it” guideline!  Just use the party level to get DC 14 (Moderate, DC 10, + Level 4).

This “wing it” system can work for just about any skill check in Pathfinder.

Using that real simple guideline for the Hobgoblin encounter would result in Diplomacy DC 21 (hard), Bluff DC 11 (Moderate) and Intimidate DC 5 (Easy), which work pretty well, especially given that the Hobgoblin attempts to Intimidate back with a -1 instead of the PCs using the straight check difficulty.  

Using the simple “wing it” guideline for the Aasimar encounter would result in all the social DCs of 13 (all moderate).  And that also tracks reasonably well with what the RAW system generates, though it makes Diplomacy significantly easier.  

But don’t be too lazy!

Even if you’re winging it, you should still write out (or at least think through) the details of the potential conflict, bullet point the NPC’s motives, think of how they will react to catching the PCs in a lie, and determine what they will do if they are bullied.  

Other Resources

This is a very specific topic: A rules briefing and tips for using Pathfinder's social system. For broad, general advice on running a social scene, see The Angry DM's "Help! My Players are Talking to Things!" Here's a great quote about when to get system involved. The article is full of great stuff like this:

You, the DM, enter the role of the NPC and you and the players hit the ball back and forth until the players finally put themselves in a position to score. You need to constantly watch for an attempt to score and that is when you halt the scene to resolve the InterACTION!

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