D&D’s Social Pillar Is Driven By Characters, Not Rules

We recently examined D&D’s modus operandi as a high fantasy combat game with medium crunch and rules-lite social mechanics. Now we’re going to talk about why people like the social pillar of D&D. If you’re curious for context, go check out last week’s post, D&D is a Combat Game. I’ll wait here.

A common response to this discussion is that 5e players don’t want more social rules. They enjoy the freedom offered by an unintrusive social system. The rules-lite nature of 5th Edition’s simple social resolution mechanics is appealing precisely because it stays out of the way. This might leave you wondering…

What Makes D&D a Compelling Social Game?

D&D’s strength in the social pillar is not derived from the nuance of social mechanics, but the robustness of its character creation. Beyond the myriad races and (sub)classes available across a variety of books, 5th Edition’s core rules emphasize story in a new way (for D&D).

5th Edition expanded character creation in the core rule books by adding “background” to the traditional choice of race and class. Players can select one of the suggested backgrounds, or craft their own by selecting skills and proficiencies that match the story they want. Some of the canon backgrounds also give additional bonuses, so DMs should work with their players to craft something special that suits their story, beyond the proficiency selections.

Players also choose a personality trait, ideal, bond, and flaw for their character (TIBF). These are roleplaying hooks for the character and the others at the table, including the DM. Unlike proficiency, there isn’t actually any mechanical connection between TIBFs and the system. Though DM should award players staying true to their TIBFs by granting them advantage on actions that align with good roleplaying moments.

Supplementing the Social Pillar

Where the social pillar needs to be supplemented is not with rules, but with tools. Implementation is critical. Rules supplements should provide players with the tools they need to develop a backstory, and DMs with instruction on how to connect it to their game. Published adventures should seed hooks that tie the players to the people or places in the adventure setting, including each other!

How has D&D gone about doing this?

The Xanathar’s Guide to Everything supplement introduced the “This Is Your Life” tables which provide prompts for numerous facets of a character’s background. Like TIBFs, these have no actual mechanical link to the core rules, but they provide a wealth of inspiration for creating your character.

On the adventure side, there should be TIBF tables in each adventure that help players craft characters suited to the setting. Supplementing adventures with a background appendix has been crucial to immersing players in settings like Tomb of Annihilation‘s Chult, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden eponymous Icewind Dale, and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight‘s Feywild. Each of these adventures also did something interesting to help connect the characters with the story:

  • The Tomb of Annihilation adventure sets the players up with a guide who can help introduce the characters to the factions and wilderness.
  • The Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden adventure gave each player a secret. If you forgot your secret, it may have come bursting out of your chest at a dinner party.
  • The Wild Beyond the Witchlight adventure introduces a story tracker to help DMs keep the loose ends tied together.

Players feel connected to D&D as a social game because of the depth of their characters. Ultimately, what makes the social pillar work is ensuring that the characters are connected to the story, so the players feel connected to the game. As D&D focuses more on story, these tools are becoming more robust–a welcome addition for any Dungeon Master.

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One thought on “D&D’s Social Pillar Is Driven By Characters, Not Rules

  1. This exactly lays out my thinking on why I’d want to do social games with 5e. It wasn’t until you’d written it here that I could put my finger on it. D&D character creation is so rich and lore-backed, it’s easy to see why players might want to go for this system over a more suitable one.

    Liked by 1 person

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