One of my first console games was Chrono Trigger- a fantastic time spanning RPG that relied heavily on plot and style, and would impact my fantasy worlds for years to come. One of the most memorable sequences in it is the trial, where the protagonist is put on trial for kidnapping the princess, and based on his actions in the beginning of the game, will either be declared guilty or innocent.
This sequence stuck with me through the years, as it was such a great break from the combat- in a game where you were a great warrior with amazing swordmanship ability, randomly being put on trial was a strange, but absolutely memorable left turn in the plot.
I've since applied that to my D&D social skills groups significantly. While combat and dungeon delving can be a fantastic tool to develop teamwork (I'm planning on writing a piece on specific combat/dungeon encounters that are particularly good at this), I've found that mixing things up has its benefits as well. These encounters are also great as non-violent alternatives that are still really engaging and fun.
The following are a few encounters my groups have run through across the years that have been particularly useful in developing communication skills, acting, improvisation, teamwork, confidence, and many other skills.
The Dinner Party
I had the kids attend a royal dinner party that lasted FOUR sessions, with every half hour in-session plotted out, with various events happening. Every hour a new batch of NPCs would arrive, and I ended up with a spreadsheet with over 50 NPCs, and what they were doing hour by hour. The goal was to uncover what was going on with the local mob and an assassination threat, but there were a LOT of plot threads. For each half hour, I would go around the table and ask each kid what they were doing, and very often it'd end up in a 5 minute role play encounter, then they'd meet up at the end of every hour and discuss what they'd seen and learned. While this served as a really interesting and dynamic sequence, the sheer paperwork involved was intense, and I don't know if I'd want to do it again, despite how ridiculously fun it was.
I have an NPC named Geiger who accidentally became Rick from Rick and Morty. He's a goofball superpowered wizard with fourth wall breaking knowledge, and likely singularity level technology. As such, he's occasionally thrown the party into a holodeck that is channel surfing, putting them into various roles in TV shows and even video games, ranging from the quiz show, wrestling (which was hilarious), a talk show (the kid hosting was the quiet one, but his dry sense of humor made it gut bustingly funny), and a stereotypical anime high school romance dating sim. This gives the kids to try out a bunch of different roles in a rolling improv session, and is great for more reasons than I can list here.
This is what I've been doing in my social skills group recently- the kids acquired a castle, and now have to maintain it. They spend the day talking with NPCs, working on the castle, or doing special projects, then at night they have to come to a consensus on castle decisions, i/e guard assignments, declaring war with the bandit gang, etc. It's a bit of a shift from the usual process, but the kids really find it to be a great way to explore their characters, interact with each other as PCs, and come to a conclusion.
A few times, the kids have had to hire staff for an airship, castle, etc, and having the kids interview the applicants has become a great practice time for the kids to think critically, discuss things amongst each other, and find their voice. Plus it is a really good way to introduce plot hooks, easily add a plethora of NPCs, and have the kids get into some fun role playing. You can also flip this on its head and have the kids individually be interviewed for whatever reason, which can be a good way for them to help develop their character.
A broken window. Burn marks by the top of the window, but not the bottom. A splash of blue ink, and a torn piece of green silk. The head of the merchant's guild vanished, and the kids are called in to find out where it went. I've found that the kids love this, and it sparks a lot of great discussion between them.
Cavemen and Canyons
This one was one of my favorites- The kids met the head librarian at the guild of druidic bureaucrats, who had discovered the most bureaucratic way to exist- by creating a tabletop game of life. However, to keep it interesting, he set it in caveman times, and called it Cavemen and Canyons. The kids had to, in character, roll up characters for a super minimalist caveman RPG, and play with this bureaucrat. It was gut bustingly funny as the bard asked if he could create his own unique character, a spoon god- which the bureaucrat allowed, and proceeded to crush the entire enemy clan with a rain of giant spoons, something very in-character for how his character would play a game like that.
Every now and then the kids will encounter an area where reality breaks down, and a few times, they've run into parallel versions of themselves. This can be a bit of a challenge for myself, as I have to try to mimic the kids PCs, but it is also a lot of fun for them, and makes them feel particularly appreciated, which is very important to anyone. The big thing is to not do anything insulting, but that's not hard to do- Generally the kids will know the quirks of their PCs, and mimicking the goofy parts is generally a big hit.
There's a lot more I could go over, which I may do in another post, but for now, I hope these help you come up with some cool encounters to throw into your campaign to help keep things fresh and entertaining. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please reach out to me at @rollforkindness on twitter. Thanks for reading!