Monday, November 11, 2013

Horrors: Social Tactics

There's a lot of systems that include rules for social manipulation. Generally these rolls are in place to allow people to play charismatic characters when they, themselves, aren't nearly so charismatic. It can also be used as a bit of a fast forward when a convincing argument might take hours or might simply be rolled when the Storyteller isn't sure whether the argument is convincing enough or not. Sometimes the skills reign paramount and are always rolled, no matter how skillful the words chosen.

This often makes the skills either overshadow the players' choices in terms of words and tactics used or else they make the skills into duds. Naturally each gaming group will have their own dud skills depending on their play styles and the Storyteller's preferences but generally it's easier to find uses for Athletics in a game than Socialize - especially if the Storyteller leans heavily on the roleplay over dice side of the spectrum.

Despite all of these issues, I still wanted a set of social skills. I felt that they could still be useful and after playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution I had a bit of an inkling of how I might make the dice more useful without making them overwhelming.

For those who haven't played the game, in that Deus Ex: Human Revolution game you have to pick a sequence of correct responses to get the results you need. If you've picked the right cyberware, you will get hints in the form of personality summaries and a wavy line that goes down when you pick the wrong response and go up when you pick the right one.

Naturally it'd be a terrible idea in a roleplaying game to provide a few lines of dialogue to the players for any reason, but I thought that the base idea could work.

Enter Social Tactics skills. Social Tactics aren't so much definitions of intention (i.e. Persuasion, Diplomacy) but are instead definitions of tactics used to meet any old intention. A person can cheer up their friend by Goading them against a commmon enemy just as easily as they can Goad an enemy into a fight or Goad a random person in a pub into doing something that sets off a distraction.

They could also use Reassurance for the same purposes, though that would change the situation somewhat. Reassuring a friend is all well and good, but only a certain type of person can be pushed into a fight with reassurance. A certain type of bully needing to be reassured that the person would be an easy victim, perhaps.

In other words, social tactics define how good a character is at using a particular tactic to better manipulate a conversation or convince a person in order to achieve their needs. One person may be brilliant with Goad but terrible with Intimidation, after all.

In my system, while most conversations can (and should) be dealt with using roleplay alone, some are so pivotal and so necessarily rely on the character’s own skills (rather than allowing the player’s talents to dominate) that the Game Warden will require a social tactic skill roll to better determine the outcome.

This doesn’t mean that a successful roll on the Intimidation skill will always get you what you need as, depending upon the situation, the person, and the nature of the threats used, such a tactic might be doomed to failure from the very beginning. But it does mean that at the very least, any poor choices of tactics you make won’t cause as much trouble as they will be mitigated by your protagonist’s skillful handling of the tactic.

Basically, the Game Warden thinks about how difficult this pivotal conversation is likely to be and internally comes up with a number of successful beats which are required. This can be a flexible number in case the player hits it on the head with a perfect roleplay + dice roll combination but generally it's best to keep to it.

The player also starts on a number of beats depending on their history with the target character. It might take five successful beats to borrow a friend's car, but if you're known to be an honest and decent driver and if your friend owes you a favor you might already start on three.

This starting number is important because it gives you a chance to lose beats without losing the conversation.

You lose a beat if you use the wrong social tactic for that character (i.e. trying to intimidate a law-abiding friend into loaning you their car might just cause them to go to the police), though if you're unsuccessful on the die roll your unconvincing strategy backfires doubly and you lose two beats. If you pick the right social tactic for that character then you'll either gain a beat (on a successful die roll) or simply maintain momentum (on an unsuccessful die roll).

This is why setting up the groundwork through reputation and prior history is so important. After all, it's easier to fail to convince a person than to convince someone if you rely only on the tactical conversation itself.

By the way, I am planning to replace the word 'beat' with a different term but I'm not sure what would make a nice replacement.

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