Creating character driven plot elements is always a challenge with any game, but when working with a social skills group, it's both important for building engagement but also encouraging interaction at the table.
Last night marked my last session for my social skills group, and while it was one of the hardest quarters I've ever run, it stabilized and has been great, giving me an opportunity to work on creating specific character arcs that build player enthusiasm, but also give the rest of the table something to latch onto. This quarter, I had three types of these arcs, which I refer to as beacons, as they act as a sort of shining light to focus on a PC.
The first type is the humorous beacon. It's an inside joke about a specific PC that the other characters can latch onto. A great example of this is this plot point that everyone in the arcane world considers divination to be the equivalent of liberal arts, and proceeds to insult it as being a worthless major. One of the kids has a divination wizard, so everyone who meets him rolls their eyes whenever they find out that he's a divination major. This kid loves this sort of sarcastic interaction, and was grinning whenever he would read the thoughts of some arch mage only to hear a tirade of belittling insults about his chosen field. This of course led other players to occasionally bring it up, and finally, he met a divination wizard who wrote a few chapters in the big divination textbook- this meeting was completely initiated by another PC, who asked the mage, "Hey, what do you think about divination wizards? This guy is one!" to which I responded, (and I had not planned this, but improvised), "Oh! He grins and says 'I'm a divination professor!' and begins showing you his books he's written on the subject." Suddenly, the player was vindicated, and the entire table was laughing. Other comedic beacons have included a Kobold NPC, a popular anime that got placed in the world somehow, and other things that have been player directed, which I encourage.
The other is a plot beacon. This is a lot more serious, and takes a bit more finesse to get right, but when done well, it gets the players interacting in a really cool way. The most recent one was having a Warlock's patron interacting with the PC directly, and influencing things around them, while demanding that the player not tell anyone. This could have ended up in a confrontation, save that the patron was fixing their problems, so they respected the Warlock's privacy, while also questioning him about it. This is helpful for kids that prefer more serious play, and can handle a bit of inter-player drama, but you still want to be aware of bleed, as this type of thing can rapidly escalate into a confrontation, which within the context of a social skills group can be a good excercise in perspective taking and role playing, but can also result in hurt feelings and lowered morale.
The last beacon has been the most consistent over the years, and that's an accidental beacon, or an emergent beacon. As the game goes on, players will latch onto the most unexpected points, whether that be a talking skull, a habit of collecting fine hats, or a frequent memory loss problem. These are probably the most rewarding, as these are generally player driven, and are those cool decisions where the DM gets to say 'Yes, but...' which is wonderful for building player agency and engagement. (For those of you who don't know, when a player comes to the DM with a reasonable request for the plot direction, a bad DM says 'No', a decent DM says 'Sure,' and a great DM says 'Yes, but...' placing some type of challenge in front of the player so they have to earn their reward.) We've had a number of those, and they've generally been the most effective in building engagement.
All of these beacon types have their place and purpose, but I've found that while the emergent beacons are the best for engagement, it's the humorous beacons that tend to have the greatest level of success. I think this is largely based in the sort of group and table culture I run, but then again, nearly every D&D group I've run or been part of has celebrated the humorous pieces the most- focusing on those goofy stories of when a PC flubbed an important save, completely derailed a campaign, or got themselves killed. And while using a variety of beacons for social skills development is a serious matter, it's the humor that keeps kids laughing and wanting to return.
I'd love to hear some of your favorite player beacons, feel free to reach out to me at @rollforkindness on twitter!