Save My Game 07/22/2005

Party Composition and Social Skills

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

A Bit of This and a Bit of That

In this installment of Save My Game, we shift gears from the usual format to provide some quick answers to quick questions from the D&D message boards on the Wizards of the Coast website. These questions involve how to shift the composition of a PC party, and how to manage the use of the co-called social skills within the game. What's a DM to do?

Problem: The Same Old Mix

I'd like some advice on how to get my players to try out some different kinds of characters. All the new PCs they create always turn out to be the same old races and classes they always run. -- Adapted from a post made by Drdec on the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website

A lot of DMs would prefer a different character mix, if only for a bit of variety. But that decision isn't yours to make when you're running the game. Whether the DM should even have a say in this aspect of the game is highly debatable, but let's look at some ways to address the issue.

Solution 1: Learn to Live with It

Your players come to play, and they have a right to choose their own characters. Sure, you can help those who are undecided, but as DM, you're in no position to dictate their choices. The players are not your puppets, and their characters are not prewritten heroes in your story. The whole essence of the D&D game is cooperative storytelling, and everybody should have input in creating the tale. Thus, if one of your players likes to play greataxe-wielding half-orc barbarians, you may just have to deal with it.

If you do want to offer a few suggestions to your players, keep their best interests at heart. Look at the rules before you press too hard for an unusual class/race combo, such as a halfling barbarian, an elf cleric, or a half-orc sorcerer. Maybe such characters sound interesting to you, but think about why you don't see them too often. It's not because they're not interesting; it's because they're not as good as other character types from a rules standpoint. Players usually repeat the obvious combinations because they are demonstrably better than the alternatives. Are standard characters more fun? More interesting? The answers depend entirely on the player. You can always suggest combos that might be fun to try or characters whose abilities would fill gaps in the party, but trying to compel a player to run a suboptimal combination is asking him to play with one hand tied behind his back.

Solution 2: Party Composition Rules

Even though you can't -- and shouldn't -- dictate character choices, instituting a few restrictions on the composition of the party is fair, as long as you talk to your players about it first. For example, you could rule that a replacement character can't have the same race and primary class -- or even the same alignment -- as the original. You might also limit the availability of unusual races or prestige classes. If the party is not in the part of the campaign world where such characters originate, they are unavailable unless the player can provide a very compelling reason otherwise.

Solution 3: Adjust Desirability

If you would really like to see certain races or classes represented in the party, try asking the players why no one has chosen them. If the reasons have to do with game mechanics, consider instituting some house rules to make them more appealing. You could also add some extra racial feats, weapons, equipment, or prestige class options -- either of your own design or from published supplements -- that make unusual combinations more interesting in some way. Sure half-orc sorcerers have poor Charisma scores, but in your campaign, perhaps they radiate an aura of fear and gain bonuses when casting conjuration spells. You can use your own creativity to generate such perks, or talk with your players about ideas they might have to make the characters in question more appealing.

Problem: Dealing with High Social Skill Modifiers

How about saving my game by telling me how to deal with high Bluff/Intimidate/Diplomacy modifiers? -- Adapted from a post made by Tolby on the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website

Is it a problem for a PC to be really good at some particular function? If a player wants to dump lots of skill points, statistics modifiers, skill-boosting magic, or feat slots into bumping up a skill, by all means let him do it. He's paying the price for specializing, so let his character be a specialist -- and don't try to render that specialization useless. Come on, you wouldn't penalize a fighter for having a high Strength score, or a rogue for having exceptional Hide and Move Silently modifiers, would you? Then why pick on the Charisma skills? Many people still consider Charisma the "weakest" ability score, but at least D&D v.3.5 offers some real game mechanics benefits for having a good Charisma score and specializing in the attendant skills.

Still, such skills can be misused, so let's look at some solutions to that problem.

Solution 1: Enforce the Limits

The game places limits on the Charisma-based skills, so be sure you're enforcing them. Most of these skills are language-dependent, so creatures with low Intelligence scores basically ignore characters' attempts to use them -- except Handle Animal. Charisma-based skills also require time to use -- enough time to hold a conversation or engage in some kind of meaningful interaction. A receptive attitude (that is, at least some willingness to listen) and relative freedom from distractions are also required.

The circumstances in which a PC tries to use Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate can also modify the check, taking into account race, alignment, obvious wealth, strength of numbers, the location where the encounter takes place, knowledge of local customs and forms of address, and so forth. As DM, you can also apply circumstance modifiers based on how much effort the player puts forth. The player doesn't have to be as dashing and impressive as his high-Charisma PC, but he should at least make an attempt to roleplay the negotiations.

That last point is the crux of the situation. D&D is a roleplaying game, and in a role-playing situation, characters need to use words and force of personality to resolve disputes rather than strong sword arms. As DM, you shouldn't be trying to undermine the opportunities and incentives for players to use those methods. If anything, you should encourage roleplaying and make a point of creating situations in which PCs can use their social skills. And make it a point to reward them with XP for overcoming encounters via wits and negotiation, just as you would if they had fought their way through the opposition.

Solution 2: Prepare

If it's clear that at least some of your players want to use their social skills whenever possible, prepare for it in advance. Look at your planned encounters and try to decide which ones can be resolved through talking, then set the DCs for the various possible results using Charisma-based skills. Don't just use the defaults in the Player's Handbook -- really examine each situation. How tough is it to bluff these fire giant guards? What specific information is needed to get past them? What issues are non-negotiable for these NPCs? Are they under orders to bar passage unless visitors give the correct password or show the special token, no matter what their story? How big a bonus will you give for bribery, and does it matter what kind of bribe is offered? Should the adjustment be +1 for money, +2 for wine, and -5 for wenching because the guards have taken a vow of celibacy?

Think about how difficult you want the task to be and set the DC accordingly. You can take the PCs' bonuses into account to some degree, but it's not fair to keep ramping up the DCs as the characters' bonuses improve -- they deserve some benefit for getting better. On the other hand, you don't need to make the monster a pushover or an auto-success for them, either.


A lot of players choose to play the same old PC types over and over again. But party composition is one aspect of the game that is -- and should remain -- fully in the hands of the players. They, after all, are the ones who must nurse and develop these characters over the course of the campaign, and they have the right to play what they like. As DM, you can rule that a replacement character can't be the same race and class as the original, or that certain unusual character types aren't available in a given location. If players don't like certain combinations because they're clearly suboptimal, try tweaking them to provide extra incentive. And you can always suggest character options to cover certain gaps in party resources. Ultimately, however, you must live with whatever choices your players make.

When characters in your party want to use their high social skill modifiers to talk their way out of situations, don't despair. A player who wants to put lots of resources into building up her character's social skills is free to do so and should not be penalized for making that choice. Offer plenty of opportunities for resolving encounters through talking rather than fighting. However, you can (and should) still make such situations challenging. So enforce all the rules that apply, including time, NPC attitude, circumstances, and language-dependence. Also, prepare for such situations in advance by using careful consideration when you set the DCs for checks with the social skills.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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