This is the first in our Pillars of Play series primarily targeting DMs and highlighting the three pillars of play as outlined in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook. The three pillars of play that Dungeons and Dragons outline as being critical for a good game are social interactions, exciting combat, and exploration.
So, how do you build in good social interaction in Dungeons and Dragons?
Here are 6 DM tips for good social interaction in DnD.
Planning is Good…
Before each session, I try to build in time during prep to “check in on” the various NPCs that my player might interact with in the next game. Try to put yourself in the headspace of the NPC. How’s their life?
Especially considering the recent actions of your players and the events transpiring around them, ask theses questions of the characters living in your head: How am I feeling right now? Are my goals being furthered, or set back? What do I think about the player characters? What can I do to improve my status or station?
As the DM, pay special attention to when the answers to the questions are in alignment with (or opposed to) the goals that you know your party is moving towards. As I plan a session, I will jot down a short note to myself to jog my memory about these thought interviews.
Additionally, in the prep stage, if there is important lore or quest related information that I need the party to pickup, I will note as much. This way I don’t forget to relay info that is critical to the party’s next steps while they are in that conversation.
Even if it is only taking a few minutes and reviewing or thinking about my NPCs and the world they are living in, doing so improves my ability to confidently play out social interactions.
But it isn’t everything.
When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, my only roleplay experience was in video games. I love Fallout and Elder Scrolls and I designed social interactions much the way those are plotted. I literally wrote out branching options for anticipated reactions and questions.
Experienced DMs know that no plan survives contact with the players. Planning out branching conversations turned out to be a laughable chore. Without a crystal ball and a few levels in Divination wizard the DM cannot totally anticipate where that interaction is going. And that’s alright! Part of the great joy of roleplaying is that it is not a scripted event.
We aren’t doing dramatic theatre, we’re doing improv! And the great thing about improv is that it thrives in a give and take, back and forth exchange. It’s one of the great things that makes the game special. Improv lends a kind of verisimilitude to the social interaction that is simply magic.
It takes time, but lean into improvising. Allow your player to influence and shape the interaction. If the DM always has all the answers, then the players are deprived of the fun of the co-creative process.
Throw your voice
In my opinion, it is worth developing a few different go-to voices. Even if you have three that you are comfortable with, then you are set! Small changes and modulation to your stable of voices can make your characters feel more distinct from one another while also accomplishing the work of delivering a lot of personality and character.
You might consider how you could subvert or disrupt expectations with voice on occasion. For instance, maybe your villain is super big and buff, but soft spoken? Or the tiny fairy has a guttural Bronx delivery?
In my experience, most people go straight for accent or pitch when changing up their voices. While it does produce some immediate and dramatic effects, there’s a lot that can be done with speed of delivery and tenor as well. The same pitch of voice slowed down creates a whole new character quality.
Something I aspire to, but haven’t managed at the table, is to jot down a code or reminder for myself about which of my voices I’m doing next to the NPC. That way you can be consistent in how you are portraying a given character.
Let’s get physical
Similarly to changing up your voice, it is also helpful when roleplaying a character for that character to have a particular physical quirk or habit. This will cue both you and the player that that character is talking and can also add to characterization work. Try playing that mannerism or aspect out.
If your quest-doling wizard NPC is bookish, perhaps he is also near-sighted and has to adjust his spectacles constantly or squint closely at the party. Maybe the Druid NPC has a pet fox that they can often be found stroking luxuriously? Maybe the halfling pit-fighter is always cracking his knuckles. Your party will love these little details, and it does wonders for the consistency in mannerism and voice of your NPCs.
Find ways for each social interaction that you play through to fit into the narrative by pushing it forward or revealing something about the characters. In this way, even the most trivial of social interactions serves a purpose.
Obviously, a lore-rich quest-giver is going to easily have social interactions that serve the narrative by driving it forward. But, if a character is talking to an NPC that doesn’t have, doesn’t know, or can’t reveal any important information to them, then you still have some options!
Consider what the interaction might reveal about your player’s characters. Give your players a variety of NPCs and situations to play against. Give them opportunities to be kind or hurtful or calloused. Try not to pingeonhole them by giving them only one kind of interaction to have. It limits how your player might choose to develop their character.
Also, just like combat, make sure to think about the kinds of stakes that are involved in social interactions. Think about how you can highlight the stakes involved. How can you ratchet up tension? How can you use what you already know about personalities (and personality conflicts) to bake in more excitement?
For instance, early in our duet game, Beth’s nature-loving PC met a logging foreman. He was a burly, surly half-orc in charge of the men who were cutting down the forest. She thought he was a brute reveling in destruction. She went in predisposed to dislike him, made some erroneous assumptions about his motivations, and ultimately left without getting what she wanted… but not before being disabused of those assumptions. Turns out, he was concerned about the aggressive logging too, but had to look out for his men. That interaction encouraged some character reflection and growth and when they met again she was able to take a different tack and get the information and help she really needed.
I love playing a character and then finding out more about them the more I use them. I had no idea when we started playing, for instance, just how much a goofball that my rogue DMPC is. I had planned to have him be very intellectual and high-minded, but he is the perpetrator of some of our silliest D&D moments. Similarly, the longer that I played him, I also discovered that he is very sensitive and supportive of our main character in his own way.
Don’t back down from poking around and prodding your characters. Much like real people, the best an most memorable of your characters should be complex and multifaceted. Sometimes these can be planned out, but I have found that more often hey develop naturally when you are the same characters for a prolonged time.
Hopefully these ideas for improving social interaction in your one-on-one D&D games have given you some food for thought. Next time we will be talking about the second pillar of play, combat!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan