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Social and Intellectua Challenges in Old School RPGs

Artwork by Rafael Balbi
I was asked by a friend of mine to include a little more guidance on how to run Social Encounters in my games, since they advocate for not rolling dice in these situations. I already have written something in SB&CS but I decided to try to improve that text a little bit to make things a little clearer. Let's see if it works. Let me know what you all thing!

Social and Intellectual Challenges

There are rules governing many aspects of the game, but for some of them, we left blanks (such is the way of Old School gaming). You roll dice to see if you hit your enemy with your sword, if you managed to dodge the scythe trap, or to see if you find the right scrolls on the Overlord’s library, but  we suggest you don’t roll dice for every challenge, especially social and intellectual ones.

When the player characters decide to interact with someone, the Referee asks them what they are saying.

  • What are they hoping to get out this interaction? 
  • How are they trying to accomplish this? 
  • If they are making a proposition, what is it and why do they think the other party will agree to it? 
  • If they are threatening someone, what is the threat? 
  • What is their leverage if they have one?
  • What are they willing to offer to the other party?

Players don’t need to make theatrical performances (although speaking in character and  gesturing like they would can be a lot of fun for everyone at the table). Using creativity and ingenuity to solve social challenges instead of just rolling dice can be one of the best parts of a game session.

The Referee will take that information and will make a judgment call based on the NPC’s motivation, personality and overall disposition. They should, however, keep in mind that in an Old School game, we are hoping to encourage player’s creativity and problem solving, so if they see the players making an effort to come up with a solution, they should give it a chance to work.

Similarly, an intellectual challenge, like a puzzle, a riddle or even a maze can be presented during the game for the players to solve, instead of their characters. It’s part of the Old School style to challenge the players instead of their characters. The Intellect Attribute in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells represents the knowledge and perception of the character, but not their reasoning and ingenuity. That’s where the player comes in. It’s part of the fun of the game to solve this situation with other resources instead of simply die rolling. Figure out the puzzle, think about what the riddle means, trace a path to escape the maze. Obviously, the Referee should choose challenges that aren’t too hard, or use them in non-essential parts of the adventure. They don’t need to solve the puzzle to defeat the Undead King, but if they do they will earn something that will make their task easier.

In the end, however, this is up to the Referee and the group of players. How do they want to tackle these situations? If they prefer to resolve everything with a die roll, it’s their game now. But I strongly suggest giving the method described above a try. Different challenges can have different ways to resolve them. As they say: “Variety is the spice of life” (and, why not, games).

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