Social Complexity in RPGs

North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot_11This article is a bit different as it doesn't focus on a single tool or even system but looks at a broader issue in gaming, social interaction. No, I don’t want to do another tired rant about gamers and poor socialization but look at the much more interesting topic of modeling social interactions inside a game. Currently there are a few common ways to model interaction within most RPGs:

[*] No model or GM Fiat
[*] Single Skill Event
[*] Conflict Model
[*] Other

The first method, GM Fiat, was common in old school games where there were no dedicated social skills. The entire social interaction is handled by players talking to the GM and the GM making a ruling.

This has good and bad aspects to it. Everyone knows I'll rip into the bad ones, since this is the first on my list, so I want to highlight the positive part first. When you do this you're actually engaging in social interaction between the player and GM, and you have the full toolkit of thousands of years of human interaction to you to use when persuading your GM. Nothing models interaction as well as real interaction after all.

With the positive feature out of the way let me look to the negative ones. It's subject to a great degree of GM fiat, which some people find distasteful because they want rules, and in other cases is a problem because the GM might not be up to it. Obviouly a good GM will factor in things like character backgrounds, talents, and whatever other bits are in play but perhaps they had a bad day at work or just hate your character. It also means that your skill is not tied to a character but instead to your personal charisma and charm, which for some players causes problems. If you're a shlub with people but want to play a fast talker, this method doesn't work so well. This model isn’t common in most modern RPGs but was common in older RPGs like the original D&D.

The second method is what I'll call single skill event. In this case you have a trait of some sort which you use to make a roll, and the GM gives out a result. Now t
his usually is tied to a scale of success to let the GM rule on your result. This neatly avoids the problem of tying your characters social skill to yours, but sacrifices the rich complexity of interaction for a single skill roll. Frequently this is or is played as a binary effect (total success or failure), which is rare in actual socializing. Think when you have had a long conversation, you may have disagreed with most of it but there are usually individual parts that you reacted to differently. Again, a good GM can simply work around this but the responsibility is still on the GM. This is where most of the mainstream industry is at like D&D, World of Darkness, Shadowrun, and others. You have a social skill, you roll it, and results come out.

This method carries with a second problem which is that is tends to be boring, a fatal flaw in any game. Look at any major RPG on the market and we'll probably see an entire chapter devoted to combat rules. Combat is complex, interactive, and rewards rules mastery. Players who learn the system can do cool things in combat and feel rewarded for their work. It also tends to take up a good deal of time, and so investment in combat skills gives a lot of value because your skill makes you cool for a longer time during the game session. Compare that to your social skill which is a roll and then you get a result. Again I come to the point I keep making which is that a good GM can make this very exciting. They can take that single roll and make it the highlight of a session through their craft, or use it as the basis for a nail bighting debate, but that gets no support from the rules. The GM is surpassing the rules to add more to the game.

As an aside, there are a few games which use a basic roll for nearly any interaction be it combat, socializing, or mastering the foxtrot. They avoid the problem of social skills taking less out of game time than combat since they resolve both the same way. This is seen in indie games like Risus. Assuming you’re a fan of rules light gaming this solves a major problem of the single skill event.

The third option, the Conflict Method, attempts to fix the the holes of the first two by providing a in game trait based method that removes the need for players and GMs to rely on their own skills and then offering a complex set of rules to govern that interaction. Since the most common example of a complex set of rules that is designed to allow characters to interact is combat the Conflict Model tends to be based on combat rules. For example White Wolf’s Exalted is one of the more mainstream games to use this. In this model we've fixed the issue of relying entirely on the GMto mediate things and we've provided a robust and complex framework to play in that allows the player to make choices and hopefully make social interaction mechanically interesting to invest in.

By now surely we have reached the promised land, where roleplay rains from the sky and the grass is made of fun mechanics. Unfortunately dear reader this is far from the case, and it is due to a single easily overlooked flaw. The conflict model is based on combat which makes sense from a design perspective since combat in most RPGs is the highlight of complex rules that allow characters to interact, usually by the universal language of face punching. Unfortunately combat is tied to a adversarial model of interaction, people win or lose and they usually don't like losing. This causes a problem because that doesn't model most social interaction very well, internet flame wars aside. There is give and take in any given social interaction and rewards for ‘losing’ along with the possibility for both sides to ‘win’ the interaction.

I want to step aside for a moment and note that I am not saying that games which use the models mentioned above are bad. They've made choices on how to model things and accepted trade-offs to focus on different things. I do think there are ways to better model social interactions in games however that we can make use of.

I’d like to illustrate what I think is a better model with a game that's done things fairly well. Weapons of the Gods by Eos Press has a fairly unusual social system based on Daoist philosophy. Without getting into a primer in Chinese philosophy, the system basically allows a character to make a roll to detect someone else's social aspects with the difficulty varying based on how reasonable that aspect would be. If you want to find that your sadistic murdering enemy is a sadist , the roll is easy. If you want to reveal he secretly loves kittens the difficulty of the roll is much higher.

Then you can inflict a condition on the character tied to their social aspect. Where the uniqueness comes in is rather than forcing behavior it encourages behavior by means of the carrot and the stick. Players can follow their social condition and get a bonus to their rolls for doing so or take a penalty for not following it. Depending on how serious the player feels the issue is they have the agency to choose what is the right response. This system doesn't force social interaction to be oppositional as you can influence your allies to help them as well as give your enemies as bonus when they ‘give in’ to a dramatic speech. Who doesn't like getting a bonus when working for the cliché old man in a tavern?

The fact that the social interaction doesn’t compel behavior is also key here. Many players have an aversion to things like mind control or social interaction that compels behavior. This might be because this basically steals the character from the player and lets someone else run it. Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies have madness systems that change your behavior, but as a player you still get to run the character and don’t have someone telling you specifically what to do. This may be why systems like that are less hated than spells like Dominate in D&D.

So what does all this mean, should you throw away your games and play only small indie games with unified resolution mechanics for any conflict? You certainly can if you like, but I don’t think you need to go that far. Instead I'd like to show how to take some of the ideas here about social interaction and add tools like social carrots for 'losing' into games you already own. In the next articles I'll use Shadowrun 4th edition and D&D 3.5/Pathfinder as sample systems to integrate a richer social mechanic without requiring a major rewrite of the rules and hours of testing. Hopefully they can serve as both rules to use and examples for doing the same to other systems.

The image is a screenshot from movie “North by northwest” and it is public domain.

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