Sometimes a D&D battle is a back and forth of hack and slash, the only interaction between combatants expressed in cold steel. But often DM's can spice up combat by building in chances for social interaction to influence the outcome. It's easiest to do this in urban encounters, like the example I'll describe now. After running a few encounters like this, your PCs might be wishing they hadn't used Charisma as a dump stat!
The encounter takes place at a posh inn. Three of the PCs are hiding in a cart near the stables. The last PC (disguised as a Cultist) is escorting 2 evil Cultists to the cart, where the rest of the group plans to ambush them.
In the diagram below, 3 of the PCs are hiding in the cart. The last PC is leading two Cultists (C) to the back of the cart. The other letters represent townspeople NPCs that might enter the encounter.
I created a simple table to control when and if an NPC joins the encounter. At the start of Round 2 I will roll 1d2 to see which NPC enters. Next round 1d3, followed by 1d4, then 1d6. If I roll the same NPC twice, then no one enters that round.
- Stable Boy 1
- Stable Boy 2 (Commoners, the Stable Boys will run to the inn's main entrance to get help)
- Gnome (Commoner, will keep to the fringes, darting in to steal from anyone who goes down)
- Knight (will attempt to keep order, and will join the fight if hostilities continue)
- Noble (will pompously demand that everyone throw down their arms, and call out the Knight if they don't listen)
- Handyman (Commoner, will run and grapple combatants, trying to restrain them until more help can arrive)
Here's how it played out.
Surprise - Since the PCs were hidden, the 2 Cultists are surprised, losing their actions in the first round.
Monk - Jumps out of the cart and stabs one of the Cultists with his short sword, making a Melee Attack and killing him outright. Now, the Monk tries to make this a non-lethal blow. My house rule for this is that the PC needs to roll a DC 10 INT (Medicine) Check to see if they can make the blow non-lethal (advantage if using bludgeoning weapons). The Monk fails, so the Cultist is slain. The Monk then uses his Flurry of Blows to make 2 Unarmed Strikes against the second Cultist, getting one good strike that takes out half the Cultist's hit points.
Wizard - Points a Sleep spell up in the sky, trying to position it so that he catches the Cultist and not the Monk. I rule that since it's a tricky prospect, he needs to roll a DC 15 WIS (Perception) Check to avoid catching the Monk. He fails, so the second Cultist and the Monk slump down asleep.
Paladin - Starts to tie up the sleeping Cultist with a rope. He asks if he can complete this in one round. I think for a moment, and decide it's a long shot. I create a ruling that will let the Paladin make a DEX Check at DC 20 this round, 15 next round, etc, and complete the job when he succeeds. Lo and behold, the Paladin rolls a 20 so ties up the Cultist lightning fast (everyone cheers)!
At this point the players asked if we can drop out of initiative, thinking the encounter was over, but I keep us in initiative.
One of the Stable Boys walks out of the stables, a look of shock on his face at seeing drawn swords and a bloody body. He calls out for his friend to get out here and see this!
Warlock - Approaches the Stable Boy and successfully casts Charm Person. Tells the Stable Boy to call his friend off, and tell him he was only joking. I roll a CHA (Deception) Check for the Stable Boy, and he succeeds. His friend complains a little, but keeps working in the stables.
I make a roll to determine if a new NPC approaches, but none does this round. But our heroes are getting the idea that they need to control and clean up this situation quickly.
Warlock - Starts escorting the charmed Stable Boy toward the inn's main entrance.
Paladin - Shakes the sleeping Monk awake.
Wizard - Starts to drag the sleeping Cultist into the cart. Wonders if this will wake him up. Good point! I have the Wizard roll a DC 10 DEX (Sleight of Hand) Check. He fails, so the Cultist is roused awake, and promptly screams for help! This brings Stable Boy 2 out to investigate.
My random rolling determines that the Knight enters the encounter. He strolls out of the inn's main entrance, decked out in plate mail, wondering what the screaming and ruckus is all about.
Monk - Walks over to Stable Boy 2 and tries to reason with him, telling him that these are dangerous cultists they're dealing with here that need to be stopped. I have him make a CHA (Persuasion) Check, contested by SB2's Wisdom. The Monk fails, and SB2 goes dashing toward the inn's main entrance to get help, past the Warlock and the Knight. I remind the Monk that he can make an opportunity attack, and he gets the d20 ready. But another player interrupts him, reminding him that killing a poor stable boy might not reflect the Monk's alignment. The Monk considers this, and decides not the take the opportunity attack.
The tied up Cultist tries to stand up. Since he's tied up, I roll a DC10 DEX Check for him, but he fails so he stays put this round, prone.
Warlock - With quick thinking, excitedly tells the Knight to grab that Stable Boy, he just stole something from her! I have the Warlock roll a CHA (Deception) Check, which she passes easily, and the Knight does his chivalrous duty and turns to run after the thief. I award the Warlock a point of Inspiration for this brilliant move.
At this point, the encounter is effectively wrapped up, as I describe the Knight grabbing the poor Stable Boy by the collar inside the inn and slapping him around.
Instead of a boring exchange of attacks, this encounter became its own vibrant story, with an outcome that I could have never predicted. It turns out there were only 3 Attack Rolls made, and 8 Ability Checks.
Consider throwing NPCs like this into your combat encounters, especially in urban settings. It will lead to unpredictable but fun outcomes that can liven up the session dramatically!