Friday, 10 November 2017

"Social Combat" in D&D (B/X vs 3e/5e)

Writing the GM's guide for Into the Unknown has definitely been the biggest challenge of the project, forcing me to examine hard my own assumptions and understanding of what is good game mastering. But at this stage, I think we're close enough that playtest is only a few weeks away. All sections are laid out, page count is finalised - It just needs some text added to a handful of sections.

Blending 5e and B/X has been an excellent study in the differences between the two and trying to understand the implications of some of the changes. Reaction rolls and Morale for example, are among the more beloved parts of B/X that were abandoned in 3e and haven't been seen since. I've spent a fair bit of time examining both sides of the fence and figuring out which way to go.

Here's a sidebar I ended up adding to the section on social interaction that sums up how I feel social interaction should work in D&D:
“Social Combat”
The reaction roll is not a structured system, as combat rules, that should be rigidly interpreted and adhered to. It is meant as a creative inspiration to jolt the GM into thinking differently about encounters than one might habitually do. 
Nor are reactions just a DC for high rolls to beat, but a reflection of the NPC’s agency, that players may attempt to influence but can’t just overcome. 
As such, social ‘rules’ favor the more gradated and advisory reaction table over ability checks. Social interaction is a good time for remembering “When not to roll” and “Ability Scores & Proficiency Areas as Narrative Modifiers” 
When die rolls are made, use them to support the players’ social interaction, not replace it. As always, let the fiction dictate the action.
Unpacking all this, it may help to ask why 3e+ abandoned reaction and morale rolls and never looked back - The best reason I can find for this, is that it was replaced by an entirely different resolution mechanic that was not present in B/X - Skills.

With reaction & morale rolls, outcomes were a function of the NPC's mental attitude and fortitude reacting to its surroundings (of which PCs influencing the NPC was just one factor).

With the universal d20 resolution mechanic introduced in 3e, these were reduced to a target number (DC) - Basically making social mechanics akin to a Social Combat system - Roll high to overcome your opponent's resistance (DC).
Skills such as Intimidate and, most infamously, Diplomacy offer resolution mechanics to replace most of what the reaction and morale rolls handled in the past (one results of that being that fewer encounters ever flee in 3e+, unless prompted by a player "skill attack").
Maybe seeing monsters flee more often in B/X after failing morale rolls inspired old school players to run away more often too.
Nevermind the fact that with enough ranks, a "diplomancer" build in 3e was essentially casting "Dominate Person" at will (out of control numbers for this sort of thing was fixed in 4e/5e) - The issue with making it all a DC vs Player roll is that this isn't how these interactions work. 

A person's mental defences isn't being assaulted by some sort of telepathic attack, the outcome of which will produce a binary result (success/defeat) - He is being influenced, swayed towards a certain direction - And besides this is the fact that there is an unassailable defence any person has, that skill rolls struggle to account for - Deciding for oneself. 

The closest combat analogy for an influence skill roll is a Shove, pushing an opponent five foot in a certain direction. No target number or critical hit will shove a foe more than five 5, much less shove him all the way out of combat reach. And unlike a shove, an NPC can always decide to just ignore the push.

Any roll made should not be to determine whether the character succeeded in converting the other party to the desired position. It should simply be to determine how the other party decides to react on the situation - Modifiers can apply to such a roll of course, but it is a fundamentally different thing the die roll is resolving - The NPC's mindset as opposed to the player's skill.

So for Into the Unknown, I determined fairly quickly that Reactions & Morale rolls needed bringing back - They put the onus of the mechanic back where it belongs - The NPC rather than the one trying to influence the NPC - and make clear that what is being resolved is not "player chance of success vs a target's resistance", but basically just letting the dice decide how the NPC reacts instead of the GM, with ways for factoring in different circumstances (such as a player attempting to influence said reaction).

Since I already dropped skills (as D&D knows them), this was easily done, as no players will be left wondering what to do with his Persuasion and Intimidation skills when there are no ability checks to actually use them with.

Nonetheless, it is as true for Into the Unknown as it is for 5e, that there are social interactions where Charisma and proficiency are factors at work and any reaction and morale system susceptible to such factors needs to be able to account for them.

Without further ado, here is a pdf presenting all the rules for handling reactions and morale in Into the Unknown, which can be easily dropped into any 5e game.

Reactions & Morale for 5e / Into the Unknown [PDF]

Most of it will look extremely familar to B/X players. Explanatory note regarding terms in the sidebar on the last page: Itu replaces skills with "proficiency areas" and the rogue's skill Expertise with ability "Mastery" - They are sufficiently similar that they mean the same in this context.

As a side note, this also gives a nice preview of how the formatting and layout will be for Into the Unknown once it hits print.