Monday, August 31, 2020

OSR "Social Combat" System

"Dramatist" by Open-Clipart-Vectors
 from Pixabay

My games often include a lot of courtly intrigue and non-combat situations where words, manner, and standing matter deeply. I have developed a tool based on a mix of OSR NPC Reactions and ICRPG Core 2e mechanics to create a method for resolving complex and nuanced social interactions that I thought it useful to share.

Why Even Have Them?

I'm actually quite leery of social mechanics in role-playing games. I prefer games that are light on rules and where the GM adjudicates based on the described actions and acting of the players. This rule set is designed to favour in character acting, rather then to encourage players to ask if they can "roll diplomacy" to solve their problems.

So why not just throw them out entirely? Two reasons:

Facilitating Emergent Experience

In a good role playing game, the dungeon master is a surprised by what unfolds as the player characters. The DM should get to have an adventure, too. This is why many editions of Dungeons and Dragons have random weather tables, random encounter tables, random adventure generators, Etc. It allows a dungeon master who is willing to think on their feet to be as surprised as the players by the game that is unfolding.

Moves like this for social mechanics already existed in osr games. Morale, loyalty, and NPC reactions all were mechanics to allow the Dungeon Master to randomly determine how creatures were going to act, rather than have to adjudicate it. It can be quite a surprise and challenge to find that the orcs in room 23 of the dungeon are friendly.

Simulating Social Nuance

Appearance, cleanliness, body language, fashion, eye contact, vocal tonality, and timing are all things that cannot be stimulated play-acting at a table or on a webcam. Yes, all of these things have a huge influence on the outcome of a social interaction. Especially with people that a PC has not had a great deal of contact with before.

Having some kind of resolution system for handling whether or not a character is persuasive, such as whether a lie is detected, or whether their impassioned speech is truly moving may not be easy to estimate without some kind of mechanic to help.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Why Not Use Simple Persuasion Rolls?

After the introduction of bards in AD&D2E, there has been a progressive moved towards replacing described character action with single roll mechanics. This serves the function of handing power over to the engine, and reducing the amount of DM Fiat in the game.

I prefer game that relies heavily on rulings, and not rules, because it allows a faster playing game with a higher amount of trust and creativity brought the table. Hanging a player's roll on a single Diplomacy or Charisma (Persuasion) doesn't reward nor encourage immersion, in-character play-acting or make lengthy "social scenes" very rewarding.

This system turns Social Interaction into a mirror of OSR Combat. And, like good OSR combat is designed to reward player creativity.

Step 1.: Determine NPC Reaction

I use the BECMI variant of NPC and monster reaction rolls. I reproduce a streamlined version of them in several of my modules. Here is the version Face of the Temptress:

NPC Reactions

This subsystem is inspired by tools from OD&D and BECMI D&D. When you are uncertain as to how an NPC or group of NPCs will respond to PCs on first impression. This can rapidly change based on the PCs actions.

  • Roll 2d6 for the NPCs reaction.

  • Modify that roll by the Charisma modifier for either the first PC to interact with them -or- the PC who intentionally declares that they are representing themselves as the leader.

  • If the PCs have a bad reputation in the area modify the roll by -1 or -2.

  • If the PCs have a good reputation in the area modify the roll by +1 or +2

NPC Reaction Table


NPC Reaction 


Hostile: The NPC(s) will actively look for a chance to mislead, rob, trick, or embarass the PCs. If the odds are apparently  in their favour make a morale check. On a successful morale check the NPC will attack the PCsas soon as they can find an advantage. 


Unfriendly: The NPC(s) will refuse to help the PCs in any way without significant bribes. They will not volunteer information and may mislead PCs. Business transactions will likely involve price gouging.


Indifferent: The NPC(s) just doesn't really care one way or the other. Business will be done with relative honesty.  The NPC might help the PC if there is an obvious reward.


Friendly: The NPC(S) are happy to chat, and may share useful information.  They will be open to haggling in business transactions. They are not likely to lie or mislead the PCs unless they must. They will help PCs in distress if there is no danger to themselves. 


Helpful: The NPC(s) will volunteer information, and will help the PCs even if there is moderate risk to themselves. They will try to cut the PCs a good deal if they are doing business.


Bonus to NPC Reactions

















At the DM's sole discretion additional modifiers might be added for being of the same or oppositional  alignments or faiths,  the same religion, or background, or due to historical emnity.

This is a roll that should be frequently replaced with logical, consistent application of DM Fiat. If it is interesting and could somehow make sense to be surprised by the Orcs in Room 23 to be friendly, a die roll is in order. If the players kick in the door coated in the blood of their allies and wearing a string of Orc ears, on the other hand, it is probably best to make them Hostile and be done with it.

In AD&D2e a great deal of the Social Mechanics that came with the Bard Class were about shifting the Reaction up levels, So Indifferent would become Friendly and Friendly could become hostile. The same mechanical idea was imitated in D&D3e with more complexity.  A grid of ever-increasing DCs were required to make a Diplomacy skill check based on the starting reaction.

This method of setting a reaction level and then having a player characters adjust that level through diplomacy or bardic class features does not encourage players to role-play in any nuanced away. Instead, it encourages players to replace some forms of role play with a quick die to skip social interaction.

And, that is fine for a beer and pretzels game; you don't need any more than this. Nor do you need it for a grimdark combat-heavy game. But if your table wants to enjoy the odd royal ball or political imbroglio, a different, more nuanced approach may serve you better.

Step 2.: Determine the Goal of the Encounter

All good encounters ought to have a victory condition in mind. Largely these fall into four categories: Connection, Persuasion, Intimidation, or Humiliation.

Connection this is an encounter where a PC try to make friends with an NPC and make a good impression. It usually involves a mix of compliments, curious inquiry, looking for common ground, sharing secrets, asking for advice, and asking polite personal questions.

Persuasion is where a PC tries to convince an NPC to give them something or do something for them willingly. This can be an item, information, a favour, etc. Yes, this would include seduction. This will be the most common form of social encounter. It usually involves sussing out the other person's needs, candour about one's goals, proposing win-win situations, and haggling.

Intimidation is an encounter where PCs try to frighten an NPC into doing what they are told. It often leaves the NPC as an enemy in the future. It involves shows of status, aggressive body language, belittling remarks, exposing knowledge, word traps, rhetorical questions, and threats.

Humiliation is an encounter where the PCs attempt to undermine another person's credibility and social status.  In the short term it removes that NPC from the Social encounter. In the long term it might hurt their reputation and status. Humiliation involves insults, insinuations, gossip, bon mots, rhetorical questions, word traps, and subtle body language snubs.

Step 3.: Set the Social Clock

Rather than simply try to adjust a reaction level, set a hit point total for the goal of the encounter. The character's words and actions will do "damage" until the encounter ends in failure, or the PCs reduce the counter to 0hp, and attain their goal.

Measure these goals in HEARTS (❤) for ease of calculation. Each heart is worth 10hp.

The base HEARTS is based on the Goal and the target NPCs initial Reaction.


Each Goal also has possible modifiers based on the situation.

PCs have a good reputation-❤PCs have a good reputation-❤
PCs recently did something heroic in the region-❤❤Pcs are already Friends or allies with the NPC-❤❤
PCs have a bad reputation+❤PCs have a bad reputation+❤
PCs are wanted criminals+❤❤PCs are wanted criminals+❤❤
PCs have higher social status.-❤PCs have higher social status.-❤
PCs are part of the same faction as the NPC-❤PCs are offering 10-50gp in treasure more than the request is worth-❤
The PCs are clearly wealthy or influential-❤PCs are offering 51-200gp in treasure more than the request is worth-❤❤
PCs have a common religion with NPC-❤PCs are offering 201+gp more in ttreasure than the request is worth-❤❤❤
PCs have shared military, caste, or ship crew background to NPC-❤❤The request could have negative consequences for the NPC+❤ to

PCs are armed for battle-❤PCs have a good reputation-❤
PCs have harmed or killed another in front of the NPC.-❤There is an audience of 10 or more people.-❤
PCs have a bad reputation-❤The audience includes a liege, mentor, superior officer, NPCs religious leader, or a major influencer.-❤
PCs are wanted criminals-❤The Audience includes a lot of the NPCs loved ones.+❤
PCs are likely to get away with crimes committed against the NPC.-❤The PCs have been the centre of attention because of humour or good graces.-❤
Pcs will be severely punished for crimes committed against the NPC +❤The PCs have been the centre of attention for foolish, rude or boorish behaviour+❤
The NPC recently failed a morale check.-❤The NPC was the centre of attention just before the humiliation began.-❤❤
The PCs are desperate or trying to be stealthy.+❤❤The NPC is popular, influential or has a good reputation.+❤
PCs have already hurt the NPC -❤❤The NPCs is of higher status.+❤

Once you have the HEARTS for a social encounter, multiply it by 10 to get the hit points of the encounter. If you have 0 or less HEARTS, the encounter can be solved with a single successful roll.

Step 4. Set the Timer

Social encounters can go on a long time if not bounded by a timer. Having some kind of limit that the PCs have to work within is critical to making good social encounters work.

Instead of strict time measurements like rounds, social encounters work on a looser (but structurally simila) time frame called an EXCHANGE which is broken down into BEATS. Each BEAT happens  when a PC makes a good point, solid argument, or clever social manoeuvre that warrants a progress roll (see below). Usually these end with a place where the conversation can pause and someone else can respond. 

Once one PC or NPC makes a BEAT, the DM goes around he encounter, checking to see what other characters are doing or saying to see if they can add a BEAT. Once the DM has checked to see if there are any BEATS to add for all characters, the EXCHANGE ends and a new one begins.

Limiting the number of EXCHANGES allowed before the encounter ends in failure prevents the Social. Some examples of ways to limit time include:

  • Another NPC butts in with important matters.
  • A speech or important part of the event starts,
  • The Pcs must evade the guards.
  • The allotted time in the court has expired.
  • A distraction, like a fight or something breaking occurs.
  • An impatient audience demands that things move on.
  • The NPC passes out of earshot. 

Generally 1d3, 1d4, 2d3, or 2d4 EXCHANGES is ideal for creating a tense and constrained social encounter.

Step 5.: Determine Initiative 

It helps to have an order of initiative for social encounters. Determine initiative as you you usually do, but use CHARISMA as a modifier in place of DEXTERITY (If you use it for Initiative). For group initiative, the characters with the highest CHARISMA go first.

Both PCs and NPCs may choose to skip ahead of their initiative pass and try to butt in on another character's turn. The target must Save vs. Paralysis or be too stunned to finish their BEAT. The interruptor may try to get a BEAT instead, but if they must roll to resolve that BEAT, they do so with a -4 penalty (or Disadvantage, if you are using it.)

Interjecting and Boosting
A character can help another by corroborating details, providing more information, reminding the speaker of facts, adding  emphasis, or taking on affirmative body language. They forego their chance to add a BEAT to the EXCHANGE. Instead they add +4 (or advantage) to any rolls to confirm the BEAT and +1d4 to the Bear's damage. The extra d4s, but not the bonus, is cumulative for up to 3 helpers.

Step 6.: Adjudicating BEATS

The key to identifying a BEAT is to look for natural pauses in dialogue such as questions or the end of statements ("I am begging you, m'lord, send help before it is too late!") or discrete actions ("I will tell him about the altar we saw in the goblin cave," "I will hide behind him and lampoons his actions."). The key to determining if it is a BEAT is to ask if it makes headway to one (or more) GOALS in the conversation.

Keeping to initiative order to at least ask "What is your character doing right now?" allows every player to feel included and gives the players the best chance of achieving goals in tight time-frames. Use the Interrupting and Interjecting and Boosting rules to account for banter and byplay.

If a character's BEAT is appropriate to the GOAL of the conversation, it is persuasive, and it matches the internal logic of the character* that they would listen, then the character deals "damage" towards the GOAL.

If the NPC target is resistant, the PCs are rude (or just ignorant of etiquette) or telling the character things that they don't want to hear, or embarassing them, roll a CHARISMA check to see if you successfully get your message across and do "damage."

*Keep in mind human beings are not always rational actors. Some will blind themselves to evidence and ideas that challenge their convictions. Some are hostile to anyone who makes them uncomfortable.  Some are status-obsessed and only listen to people like themselves.  The "Internal Logic" of the character has to be consistent, not always reasonable.

For particularly harsh confrontations, the CHARISMA check should be done with a penalty or at disadvantage. And the DM may rule that some interactions, especially Connection and Persuasion interactions are doomed to failure due to the zealous convictions of the target.

If a BEAT does damage, roll 1d4 + Reaction CHARISMA bonus + one third of the character's level, rounded up. 

Step 7.: Determine Results

If the PCs reduce the GOAL to 0 hp they have achieved their objective. The result of the encounter varies by its GOAL.

Connection: The NPC becomes well-disposed to the PC and regard them as a friend.  raise their reaction to HELPFUL for 6D6 weeks, after which it returns to FRIENDLY. if the character was already HELPFUL, this roll adds another 1d100 to the number of days before before every to FRIENDLY.

Persuasion: The NPC gives the PCs what they are asking for within reason. Re-roll the NPC reaction with a +2 bonus the next day.

Intimidation: The NPC is afraid of the PCs and will submit to most demands that care not totally destructive until the NPC is free to part ways with them. The NPC will become HOSTILE, and likely will remain so permanently. 

Humiliation: The NPC loses credibility and face with the audience. Other NPCs will no longer listen to the target. They can no longer participate in the social encounter in a meaningful way. They lose their ability to influence or sway mebers of the audience for 2d3 days. That NPC becomes UNFRIENDLY indefinitely. 

Failing to Connect or Persuade a HELPFUL  NPC reduces them to FRIENDLY. Failing to Connect or Persuade A FRIENDLY NPC makes them INDIFFERENT. A failed PERSUASION encounter also means that the NPC will not help the PCs get what they want.

Failure to INTIMIDATE or HUMILIATE an NPC immediately makes the target UNFRIENDLY or HOSTILEas appropriate. A failed Intimidation attempt will give the NPC +2 Morale for dealing with the PCs, and they ill automatically deal 3d6 + HD damage towards Humiliating the PCs (see Opposition.)

Advanced Social Combat

The rules above are what I use to swiftly adjudicate social interactions. If the interaction is absolutely critical, I use the following rules to make things more interesting.

Using Morale

When it comes to unpleasant interactions, there is a chance that the NPC will back out altogether. Whenever PCs try to PERSUADE an NPC to do something dangerous, illegal, or immoral, roll morale to see if an NPC backs out. If the NPC is a friend, add the PCs Loyalty rating. If they fail their Morale check, they will back out of the conversation and be home UNFRIENDLY if they are not permitted to leave.

During an INTIMIDATION attempt, roll Morale for the NPC on the first threat, if the PCs draw a weapon, or use magic, and when the Goal reaches less than half hit points. If the Morale check fails, the Goal instantly loses another 3d6 up.

During an interaction involving HUMILIATION, an NPC should roll Morale if the PCs HUMILIATE another target or the Goal of HUMILIATING them reaches less than half hit points. If they fail the Morale check, they will excuse themselves from the conversation while their dignity is still intact.


Generally, the rules for Social Interaction presented here are player-facing; Players get to choose how their characters process and respond to data. They get to choose whether they are persuaded, intimidated, or befriended. However, HUMILIATION is about affecting other's perception of the PCs and so they can be attacked socially by opponents through that means. Likewise, NPCs can provide reasoned arguments that slow progress when PCs attempt PERSUASION.

Adding NPC opponents who try to undermine the PCs can make for a more dynamic social encounter. For each opponent create a secondary GOAL to HUMILIATE them (roll their initial NPC Reaction at -6, if you do not assign one.) For each PC set a number of Hit Points as if the NPC had a GOAL to HUMILIATE the PCs.

Whenever a character gets a BEAT decide of it is geared towards achieving the primary Goal or towards HUMILIATING the opponent and apply the damage to that goal. If they successfully HUMILIATE their opponent, that opponent loses credibility and cannot continue to oppose the party.

If the opponent has no CHARISMA Score, either assign one that makes sense (the D&D3e SRD is a great resource), or use their INTELLIGENCE as a substitute.  Their damage equals 1d4 + their CHARISMA BONUS from the NPC Reaction table above + 1/3 Their HD, round down.  NPCs must always make a CHARISMA check at the end of their BEAT.

The NPC may INTERRUPT and/or attempt to HUMILIATE a PC each round. They may instead try to boost other NPCs. If they successfully HUMILIATE a PC, that PC is now discredited and cannot accomplish anything for the rest of the encounter.

Alternatively, an NPC can REASON against a PCs arguments. If they succeed a CHARISMA check they can restore an amount equal to their damage to the GOAL in hit pointd.


Magic spells that influence and impress can radically change the way a Social encounter turns out. It would demand a while sourcebook to cover this. (Let me know if that is something worth considering.) Here are some generalities of thumb.

Illusions that are used to impress or punctuate a PCs communication allow the Caster to make an INTELLIGENCE check. If successful they deal 1d6 / spell level damage to the GOAL of their choice.

The Friends spell allows the Caster to roll an extra 2d4 damage on each BEAT relayed to the target.

Charm Person immediately deals 3d6 damage tonal GOALS and allows the Caster to do an additional 3d4 damage on each BEAT related to the target.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. By Brian C. Rideout

This rule set is done under version 1.0 of the Open Gaming License, and the System Reference Document by permission from Wizards of the Coast, Inc. The contents of this document are designated Open Game Content and, if so used, should bear the COPYRIGHT NOTICE OSR "Social Combat" System, copyright © 2020 Brian C. Rideout, some rights reserved, CC-BY-4.0.

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  1. Welp, this certainly blows my system out of the water:

    Everyone is wary of strangers, why would they like you? Players say why. Okay, roll 2D6, succeed on a 7+. If you are good at chatting, roll w/advantage. If you suck or don't speak their language or can't think of a reason for them to like you, roll disadvantage. If they say, "I roll diplomacy check" it's going to be disadvantage every freakin' time. Because this is an RPG dang it!

    Note I'm running a homebrew without stats, the characters have a list of things they are good at, and things they suck at. Those are reflected in rolls with advantage/disadvantage, etc...

    1. As you can imagine, I play it pretty fast & loose over what gets rolls and assigning hp. I like giving socialm syatems some good crunch, though. Occupational hazard of a guy who teaches people how to make friends in one job, and lies convincingly in another.

      I like how elegant your system is, though. Simple is good! It takes more imagination to create, and especially run a, lightweight system that feels fair.

      And yeah... I don't expect my players to act, but I at least expect a "Gorthag will try to impress the barmaid with his big muscles." "I will roll diplomacy" won't cut it at my table.