Running Social Encounters Without Railroading

Work travel may mean a chunk of time without blog posts but it doesn’t mean no gaming! I ended up having a night at the hotel with a group of coworkers and nothing to do, so naturally we pulled out the dice for a game of D&D. I had just 4 players for this one so I dusted off an old module I wrote almost 10 years ago called To The Rescue! (based loosely on the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible) as I recalled it had more opportunities for social encounters. Later during travel I listened to the Fear of a Black Dragon review of B6: The Veiled Society, which seemed to playing in to a similar theme.

The 5th edition Player’s Handbook classifies three pillars of D&D adventures: Exploration, Combat, and Social Interaction. I think this is actually a pretty good break down of the core elements of D&D. 10 years ago when I wrote To The Rescue! I probably would have thought spending 33% of a game on combat was too much. At that time I was railing against what I saw as the “board-game-ification” of D&D in 3rd and 4th edition. I had seen my share of multi-hour sessions devoted entirely to combat, at which point it doesn’t really feel like you’re playing a roleplaying game at all.

These days I think spending one third of your game time on combat is probably just about right, assuming it’s sprinkled throughout the session and not one solid block. I think of combat as the punctuation in the game now. I like it quick and snappy so it can happen more often without dominating the game. Two hours into a game with no combat and it feels a bit like a run on sentence, while any combat that’s more than 15 minutes feels like a slog.

Exploration I believe is the bread and butter of old school D&D. Whether you’re exploring the twisted halls of an underground dungeon or the wide open expanses of a wilderness adventure, the thrust of the game is really about discovering what’s out there and finding a way to use it to advance your own goals. While spending 33% of your time on exploration in old school D&D sounds right to me, I also think of the three pillars it’s kind of the most important.

So that leaves us with social interaction, which I also think is really important. In our recent Live Play game I was really glad that the party chose to negotiate with the Rat Prince so we had some social interaction in that game. It’s very easy for a mega-dungeon to skip this part, and while I think you can have a perfectly enjoyable game without it, I do miss it when its not there. To some degree the players always get a little bit of it by simply having to deal with each other, but as DM the only time I get to partake is when the party actively chooses an approach other than “get em”.

As the Fear of a Black Dragon guys discovered, city adventures seem to naturally want to focus on social interaction. It’s a bit hard to do exploration in city adventures for some reason. That said, if you set out to create an adventure that focuses on social interaction there is an unfortunate tendency for the design to become somewhat railroady. The FoBD guys saw this in B6, and I’m sure I’ve seen it in a lot of other adventures as well. It’s hard to list examples as once I realize that’s happening I usually put the adventure down and move on. On the other hand, an example of an adventure that I think avoids it reasonably well is the WFRPG classic Shadows Over Bogenhafen. I don’t think I necessarily had this in mind when writing To The Rescue, but in retrospect I think I did try to use similar tactics in its design.

In my view, the best way to avoid railroad design in a social adventure is to simply leave out anything that requires specific player action. That sounds pretty obvious stated that way, but then what do we include? I’d start with an outline of the major NPCs the players are likely to interact with. Give them strong, specific personalities and list their goals and motivations. Arm the DM with as much background as possible to enable improvisation at the table. A timeline is fine to include, but do it from the perspective of what the NPCs would do if the players don’t interfere in any way. Including events or branches that depend on a specific player action will lead to that railroad feel. Avoid including an obvious big climax scene — old school games should be all beginning and middle, no end.

I think Shadows Over Bogenhafen gets very close to the line in describing the final ritual and including a map of the location where the ritual occurs. That said, we’re talking about 1 page of text and a 1 page map in a 128 page book. If something happens during play to prevent the ritual from going down, I don’t think anyone is going to be upset that there was missed material.

In fact, I’d say be prepared to include more material than the players will ever interact with. In the text of To The Rescue, I include one page of background and NPC descriptions, and then three pages of locations — the witch’s hut, the prison the necromancer escaped from, and the necromancer’s new hideout. The fact is that I don’t really expect the players to hit all these locations. In practice I’ve only seen one group actually visit the prison. The witch’s hut is sometimes a place that gets explored, and sometimes simply the backdrop for a social interaction with the witch herself.

In fact, I worry a little that some of the NPC motivation is hidden in the text of the locations. If I were to edit this again, I’d probably include a second page with more in-depth character and motivation descriptions of the major NPCs (the king, the princess, the knight, the witch, and the necromancer). I’d like to make it more clear to readers that each of the locations are completely optional, and that the real fun to be had here is in interacting with the NPCs.

It’s definitely a difficult format to design and write for. I think it’s against most author’s instincts to leave so much up in the air, but I think that’s exactly what you must do. And of course, I think lots of play-testing is key. Find out what players dig into, what extra bits you keep adding on the fly to make it work, and then work that back into the text. Just avoid dictating a specific path — give options, not directions!

17 thoughts on “Running Social Encounters Without Railroading

  1. I think that the best way to work in some social interaction in a megadungeon is by working up some factions down there, a thing I’ve seen used to great effect in a variety of games. (Not least of which is the Rat Prince/Lizard King beef in your livestream game of Dyson’s Delve.)

    I know it’s not a big revelation, but I also don’t think the idea is as widely talked about as it could be. Factional dungeons of any size instantly multiply the potential interactions over “kick down doors, fight, and plunder”.

    That monster tribe might hate all surface dwellers, but you got a nice in to parlay if they HATE those bastards down on level 4 even worse. 🙂

    1. Yeah, the faction analysis I did on Dyson’s Delve was really enlightening. I think any time you have an adventure with multiple groups of enemies with no indication of how they relate, it’s worth spending a little mental prep time imaging how they might react to each other.

      Another thing I heard recently that I’m really excited to try is a combat encounter with multiple groups of opponents. A battle with 3 or even 4 groups of combatants (where one group is the PCs) and every group wants the others all dead sounds really interesting.

      1. I’ve flirted with multi-faction situations but have never gotten to try it in play. I wrote something like that into the Cave of Wonders section of TYSG1, which was a rejiggering of the original version I ran for you guys waay back in Helgacon V.

        But since I put the two factions in the room with the singing jewel that put them all to sleep, you guys managed to play it clever and swipe the jewel then set them against each other while you scampered away, so the three way battle never materialized.

        Which is why I moved the two groups *out* of the jewel chamber in the published version.

        I wonder if there’s a mechanic, like a reaction check-ish thing or something, that would help a DM work out the actions of multiple factions under their control. Something to remind them to harm and impede each other rather than just ganging up on the PC’s. Might be as simple as a coinflip/dice roll that determines who each faction (or faction member) is gonna concentrate their attacks on for that round.

        1. In another coincidence, I’ve also been thinking about this lately — because I decided to keep rolling my on-the-clock random encounters even while the PCs are in a fight, which opens up the possibility of multi-party combat encounters. If the alliance situation isn’t obvious (say, PCs vs. lizard men and more lizard men show up), then my instinct is that I’ll be rolling a reaction check to see which side they pitch into. But I might go devious and just have them lay on in favor of the weaker side.

          1. Seems like a mage with a Charm Person or Charm Monster spell racked would come in *really* handy in that situation.

            I did have a situation in the Creepy Crawl campaign where the party bought off a troll that was already being paid to help out a tribe of troglodytes to sit out a fight while it was in progress by sussing out the situation and making a generous offer just as it was lumbering up. I remember being startled that that would work but rolling with it ‘cos yeah, why not?

            I think it comes down to not being so dead set on “monsters will always automatically attack” when you’re encountering them. Leave some room for parlay. It’s a LOT more interesting.

  2. A bit of a tangent, but I would love some follow-up discussion on the “can’t do exploration in a city” thing. I think there may be room for this (why else include a random urban encounter table in the DMG? love those “wandering harlots!”). Some ideas to consider:

    – The old Electronic Arts crpg “The Bard’s Tale” and the exploration of the town of Skara Brae.

    – The Empire of the Petal Throne (D&D-based game setting) with its default assumption that characters are (literally) fresh off the boat and only learn about the town as they earn levels, even restricting access to some parts of the city based on advancement. This is somewhat echoed in B2: The Keep on the Borderlands divide between the “Outer Bailey” and “Inner Bailey.”

    – Cities in fantasy literature sometimes translated to product/setting material; here I’m thinking specifically of Leiber’s Lahnkmer, and Asprin’s Sanctuary (from the “Thieves World” anthologies).

    – Certain OSR-produced supplements featuring cities for exploration. I haven’t read Vornheim, but Kabuki Kaiser’s “Ruins of Undercity” is a fascinating peace of work, not least because it is designed for both group and solo play.

    Anyway…sorry to derail. Maybe something for a future Wandering DMs live cast.
    ; )

    1. A bit of a tangent, but certainly an interesting one. I do think city exploration is in fiction – Lankhmar is a personal favorite. But I have yet to see it expressed in a satisfying way in any roleplaying module. Unlike graph-paper square dungeon maps or hex-gridded wilderness maps, I have no idea how to express the complex interconnections of city locations for open-ended exploration.

      The best I could come up with would be to do it as a point-crawl. Shadows of Bogenhafen is a bit like that. But then the module I think becomes a bit more plot based, or at least character and event based, and loses that exploration quality that I feel like we get from dungeon or hex crawls.

      Can you think of any good modules that express exploration of a city well?

    2. Someone just put up a review/recollection of TSR’s Lankhmar product here, mostly focused on its city mechanics: https://9and30kingdoms.blogspot.com/2019/08/thoughts-on-lankhmar-city-of-adventure.html

      I think the amount of ink spent on the search for satisfying city exploration rules is quite vast. Someone (A.F.?) last year sent me a link to a blog with an 8-article series exploring ideas around that.

      For me, I’m pretty happy to have it mostly be a meta-gamed “safe space”. I think the problem with cities is that (a) they’re way to big to handle, and (b) in the most part they _should_ be too safe and mundane to be interesting. Currently I just slap down an overview map of a city when my PCs enter and assume some walking/questioning gets them the broad picture, and they can tell me what district they want to use next. I can imagine some fill-in spaces where you’re exploring a seedy block in the bad part of town, however. (Apparently the TSR Lankhmar has blank spaces where you put down geomorphs to customize it. Also Gygax had an earlier city geomorphs product in the same vein, apparently motivate as a way to represent Greyhawk.)

    3. I’ve done a little bit of city exploration in my games. I try doing a couple of things to keep some sense of exploration without turning it into a ridiculously dangerous megadungeon where normal people wouldn’t live:

      1. Map it on a neighborhood level, more similar to a hexcrawl than a dungeon. Know the major locations in each neighborhood (e.g. the noble district has the town hall and supreme magistrate; the docks have the fish market, shack avenue, and little Valhalla; etc.), and know both the sorts of people who tend to be there and who else might show up (random encounter tables per neighborhood are how I like to handle this), but leave specific details to be improvised.

      2. Make a clear distinction between when the neighborhood is safe (which should be most of the time, unless it’s an area that’d be hostile to the PCs, e.g. general disparate hobo PCs sneaking into a gated rich/elite neighborhood) and when it’s dangerous. Traveling, getting directions, etc. should be easy in the first case, while the latter is when you start to break down movement per turn, asking for details on how they’re navigating, etc. I haven’t read Vornheim either, but I’ve heard Zak separates those two states in it as “urban movement” and “urban crawling”, or something along those lines.

      General statements of unhelpful vagueness, I know, but like I said at the state, it’s something that I’ve only done a little bit 🙂

      1. So, what resource if any do the players have or create when exploring a city prepared like this? Are they given or do they create an abstract neighborhood map? Or a more detailed street map? Or do they just try to remember it all?

        How do you rule travel time between neighborhoods? Do some take longer to pass through due to density of buildings, confusing street layouts, or other hinderances?

        Are the players able to create accomplishable exploration goals (eg. we have to find the hidden speak-easy)?

        1. I’d give the players a rough map with the major neighborhoods blocked out and a high-level primer on what’s actually in each of the neighborhoods (a 1-2 sentence description of what defines that neighborhood and 2-3 important people/services/etc. in it). Beyond that, it’s left to them to keep further details.

          Detailed street maps would be a hard pass in general. If a case comes up where it actually matters (say, the PCs got caught tailing a couple and now want to try herding them together while they’re trying to split up), that’s a case for some quick procedural generation. Generic pre-drawn streets, geomorphs, zoom in on a random city in google maps, drop a handful of dice to block out where the buildings are…whatever floats your boat. Save whatever maps you do come up with to spin/splice and reuse in the future.

          Neighborhoods get travel time to cross them similar to how hexes would in a hexcrawl, except it’s by any number of reasonable factors (like what you came up with) instead of terrain type. I think it’s generally fine to have a single time to cross each neighborhood, but you could give them different travel times for different connections (e.g. maybe going from the noble quarter to the industrial district takes longer than normal because normal traffic goes through a security checkpoint), if you want that level of detail.

          Yes, player-driven exploration within a neighborhood is absolutely doable and highly encouraged. Coming up with a definitive key of everything that’s in a city of any substantial size by yourself prior to play isn’t really a reasonable way to go about things, in my opinion; better to just be ready to improvise it based on what the players try to do and let the city’s details develop organically from there. If the players want to find a certain hidden speak-easy, for instance, they could start out by checking with their underworld contacts to get some leads about its general location (which would work much like trying to find rumors for a special place in a wilderness sandbox), then go and canvas the relevant area(s) to search for it (which I’d handle like doing a random encounter check, except with increased chances depending on how reliable their leads were, if they learned the passcode to get by the bouncer, etc.). Or they could find someone they think goes to the speak-easy and try to follow them. Or they could try using divination magics like locate object (if they know something that’s in it and can get into range) or contact other plane (if it’s a REALLY important speak-easy!). Or whatever else. Whatever they find gets added to my master key of what’s in that neighborhood, like with adding monster lairs to hexes as a result of random encounters.

          1. I rather like the idea of running it like a hex-crawl. The neighborhoods idea reminds me a lot of the old Bogenhafen map from the adventure Ill Met in Bogenhafen in the back of Sigmar’s Heirs:

            https://whfb.lexicanum.com/mediawiki/images/a/a1/B%C3%B6genhafen_Map_001.jpg

            The dashed lines and letters do in fact break the town up into neighborhoods, but then as you can see there are specifically placed and numbered locations sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods kind of carelessly. In fact, trying to run down the list of POIs and find them on the map can be a little infuriating.

            A reorganization where the POIs are simply listed under a neighborhood without explicit placement on the map, plus solid rules on which neighborhoods border each other and how much time it takes to travel through one would I think make for some very compelling content. Especially if the players were only handed the rough neighborhood layout and had to discover the POIs through play.

            Lots of good stuff to chew on here. Thanks Ash!

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