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31 July 2013 @ 08:25 pm
Dungeons & Design 11: Social Interaction  
I do not accept "just roleplay it out."
The Problem
Pre-D&D 3.x, D&D basically didn't have any social mechanics. There was the reaction roll, but that was primarily for determining how the random monsters you found while scrambling around in holes in the ground reacted to your presence. Would they attack on site? Run away? Bribe you not to kill them? Tell you to go to Room C6, because the kobolds over there have way better treasure and they're dicks anyway? One you determined that, though, everything else was playacting and, to pick an inflammatory term, Magical Tea Party. How convincing your arguments were basically how willing the GM was to be convinced and how much weight they gave to the reaction table's results.

This is worse in the Classic World of Darkness games, which have social mechanics, but only in the most perfunctory sense. They basically boil down to, roll Etiquette or Subterfuge or something, i dunno lol, and then all the mechanical interaction comes from mind control powers. Useless mechanics are worse than nothing at all.[1]

D&D 3.x actually made it worse by having actively terrible social rules, such that it was possible for J Random Diplomancer to stroll into the throne room and stroll out with the crown on his head fifteen minutes later.

That actually brings up one of the main problems with a lot of attempts at social mechanics: they're basically equivalent to mind control. The stakes are usually set as roll or opposed rolls, if you win you convince them, if you lose you don't. One problem here is that inherently means you can't use the same mechanics for PCs, since most players quite reasonably value the personality of their PC extremely highly--in some cases, more highly than their physical integrity--and would react with great hostility to having their mind changed by some random NPC, or even by a highly ranked, important, or silver-tongued NPC.

Another problem is that, frankly, that's just not how persuasion works. In real life, arguing is much less about convincing the other person that your position is objectively true and right, and much more about convincing them that the social cost of continuing to hold their current position is greater than the shame caused by switching to a new position or about convincing the audience that you're right, and that rarely tends to be reflected in the rules, which are much more about interpersonal communication.

A third problem with this D&D in specific, and with a lot of social mechanics in general, is that they tend to come down to a single roll. People have the same problem with this that they do with Save or Die mechanics, for pretty much the same reason.

Burning Wheel avoids this with a scripted Duel of Wits, where there's a graduated level of success and anything less than total victory requires the winning party to make concessions to the losing party. The criticism here is the scripting--it's set up much the same as Burning Wheel's combat system, where you pick three maneuvers, and the opponent picks three maneuvers, and then you reveal them all at the same time and determine the results. It doesn't really model the flow of an actual conversation, which can be a problem for some people.

Speaking of, that's another problem. Unless they're part of the Golden Dawn or Ordo Templi Orientis or something, no one playing RPGs has actually used magic, a few players have fought in actual skirmishes, but everyone has talked to each other. That means it's very, very easy to end up with mechanics that just seem wrong, and probably part of why social activities usually have pretty perfunctory mechanics, because roll some dice and make shit up can fit basically any situation.

So, what to do?

The Solution
Well, actually, the Problems section was just explaining the problems as I see them, because I kind of already have a solution that I've tried in my NEMESIS-powered DELTA GREEN game (pdf warning) and it seems to be working so far.

There's a game called Weapons of the Gods, where you play martial artists wandering ancient !China and getting into fights. And in that game, there's a system called chi imbalance, where you end up with compulsions to perform certain behaviors, or restrictions to avoid certain behaviors. This is used by doctors to cure illnesses, Taoist monks to lay curses or blessings, and courtiers to inflict social penalties or bonuses.

The thing that's so great is that 1) this is all voluntary--it's up to the player to perform the action in order to get the bonus/avoid the penalty, and they don't have to if they don't want to and 2) it has immediate mechanical effect. Because it's about wandering martial artists, all the effects either make it easier or harder to recover chi, and you end up with people who accept having to sleep in a tub of icewater every night to have extra Red Chi, or who attack every Hell Clan member they see to keep their Silver Chi from being impeded.

In DELTA GREEN, I modified the system in two ways. The first is that I linked it into the (modified) Madness system, and the second is that I borrowed the Conditions from the God-Machine Chronicles for NWoD and modified them. So, for example, last session was the end of Darkest Calling from The Stars are Right. One of the characters failed an Unnatural roll and gained enough temporary Unnatural notches to give them a permanent notch. They chose Fugue, and so they just ran away as fast as they could from the hideous abomination and threw themselves on the ground and shivered, and then forgot everything from just before they saw the thing until one of their team members found them[2] about fifteen minutes later. Earlier, another PC succeeded on a Violence roll and gained a permanent Violence notch, and they picked Callous, which gave them a penalty to social rolls until they chose to voluntarily fail a social roll--they picked a Lie roll, which revealed a secret they had been keeping in-game for nearly a year of game time.

I can almost certainly modify the Condition system, and maybe mix it with the reaction roll system. If someone starts out as Hostile to the PCs, then no social roll can give them the, say, Enamored Condition no matter how well the player rolls, barring multiple interactions over time.

Metering Social Interaction
I mentioned permanent and temporary Madness notches above, and if you're familiar with the Unknown Armies/NEMESIS, Madness Meter that was probably confusing, so let me explain. I found that I missed the granularity of Call of Cthulhu's sanity system, since the Madness Meter is a 1-10 scale, so I divided each of those permanent notches into ten temporary notches, and forcing temporary insanity each time a permanent notch is gained.

Hit points are essentially the same mechanic: they provide a wide enough base to allow the PCs time to track how damage is going and figure out when they should run away or how in danger they are, which is why they're by far the most common way of representing injury in games. Similarly, there needs to be a similar mechanic for social interaction, so the participants understand how well they're doing mechanically and know when it's safe to drop the mic and walk offstage or whether they should just shoot the other guy in the face, if they can get away with it.

Runequest has a social system where there's a framework of 100%, and each roll progresses toward the threshold. A Critical gains 50%, a Success gains 25%, a Failure gains nothing, and a Fumble subtracts 25%. Each side gets four rolls, and the highest side wins, with additional bonuses if the winning side is over 100%.[3]

That seems like a good threshold to steal for me, but I don't see any need to stick with a limit of four rolls. Maybe a scale of 2-6, depending on exactly what's going on, and the combat system I came up with provides an easy way to track who's winning. Each roll, subtract the loser's roll from the winner's, keep what's left and add it to that side's total, highest at the end of the social interaction wins and the other side has to take a Condition.

Conditions
Some of the stuff in GMC or that I wrote for DELTA GREEN is obviously unsuitable unless I'm running a Lovecraftian dark fantasy game, and all of it needs re-writing for new mechanics, but the basic concept of several I can keep. For example:
Guilty
You are experiencing deep-seated feelings of guilt and remorse. You suffer a 1d Penalty to all Resist rolls to oppose Insight, Intimidation, or Lie checks.
Triggers: Failed Violence, Failed Self.
Resolution: Do something to absolve yourself of the guilt, such as confession or restitution.
Beat: Resolution

Berserk
Something in your mind snaps and a red haze fills your vision as you launch yourself forward with a scream. You immediately attack the target of this Condition with intent to kill, not stopping unless you are incapacitated, the target is dead, or you are restrained.
Triggers: Failed or Hardened Violence, Failed or Hardened Unnatural,
Resolution: The source of the Condition is gone or a successful Counseling roll with a Difficulty equal to your Hardened Violence/Hardened Unnatural (whichever is higher).
Beat: n/a

The "Beat" mentioned there is part of the GMC, and is basically a new XP system. One of the main ways to get XP is through Conditions, and resolving them grants a Beat, five of which are worth 1 XP[4]. I can do something similar, because I have to provide both the carrot and the stick. The benefit of going along with the various Conditions is extra XP, or Conviction, or something like that. I guess monks could get chi back. :p

So, something like this:
Intimidated
Maybe it's a threatening stare, or an angry word, or just a palpable sense of menace, or maybe it's something supernatural, but you're cowed by someone else. You're likely to do what they want, or at least get out of the way while they act unhindered. You have a -3 Penalty to oppose any action the other party takes against you.
Triggers: Failed an Intimidate contest or Willpower roll
Resolution: Leave the area regardless of the dangers or submit to the other person's whims
XP: Resolution

That might work.

I'd love comments on this if anyone has them. Social mechanics are some of the most divisive aspects of RPGs.

[1]: This is actually one of my problems with a lot of LARPs-as-played: I don't like playing games where the rules just get handwaved. If the game was pitched as a freeform game where the GMs intercede in disputes, that'd be fine, but if there are mechanics I want to interact with them.
[2]: Found them and punched them right in the face for abandoning the team in the hour of need! Then again, desertion in the face of the enemy is serious, and even more serious when the enemy is a hideous monster from beyond the stars.
[3]: I'm not sure why they don't just use 1-4. Probably because everything else is in percentiles.
[4]: They say it's one experience and the plural is experiences, but this is dumb.
 
 
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marianlhmarianlh on August 1st, 2013 06:35 pm (UTC)
I really, really hate "roleplay it out". Last time I was in Greyhawk, I had to convince the queen of Celene that one of her ministers was plotting against her, and the DM based my success *entirely* on my own fumbling attempts to ad-lib an in-character speech.

I didn't do well. =P

So as a rule I like social mechanics. But you have a point about the mind control problem as well. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Weapons of the Gods or God-Machine Chronicles, and I didn't really follow your explanation of what you're doing instead.
dorchadasdorchadas on August 2nd, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's why I don't do it (^_^)

Though I ran into the opposite problem in my DELTA GREEN game. My players are all psychologists-in-training, so they have at least average interpersonal skills. After a successful Opera that still resulted in an unnecessary death, the Cell leader was getting mopey, and another player made a big impassioned speech about sacrifices and not letting failures define you and having to carry on. It was awesome.

Of course, her character has low social attributes and the only social skill she has is Lie, so she botched the following roll to determine the success of her speech which left us in kind of a weird spot. That's the downside of using mechanics. :p

Hmm...let's see if I can explain it better. So, the PC is getting shaken down by a thug, and the thug rolls Intimidate, and beats the PC, so the PC gets the Intimidated Condition.

And...that's all the mechanical effect, and then what happens is up to the PC. They can draw steel, but they have a penalty to attack, so it might not be worth it. And if they slink away with their tail between their legs, they get XP, and XP is nice.

It's basically about setting up circumstances such that going along with the results of the dice is attractive in and of itself, so that the player's behavior matches the results of the dice, but not actually constraining the player's behavior at all.

Does that make more sense?