Thursday, February 23, 2012

The question of free will - part two

So, I started off with the situation where a PC want to convince a NPC to to do something. Let's now look at the much thornier issue, influencing a PC.

To begin with, can they do it? It's very easy to say that since that would rob a player of his free will, it can't be done. But, once again we have the question of how to model in a game the situation of a player with very limited social skills playing a character that is a fast talker. How do you do it?

I can see the argument that this is not part of the game. If someone like to play a smooth talker he should talk the talk. If it's not stats, AC or HP it is in the domain of the player. I don't agree. Also, someone might say that skills can do a lot, and it's ok to use Charm as a skill to make a NPC do something, but that it is not applicable to player characters. I don't agree.

The way I see it, if there are skills in the game for social interaction, they are to be used for social interaction! If you start to exclude some characters from effects of the game system, then the next step of course is to exclude the Boss monster or the NPC crucial for the story the GM has planned.

Yeah, I know I couldn't help myself. I slipped that one in. Deal with "story" another time. For now, just accept it exist.

Anyway. I was saying? Yeah, plot immunity. So, I think it makes more sense to have everyone in the game be affected by social interaction skills. Also, remember all those moments when the dice fell like they did and you talked about it for weeks? Now it can happen in more ways than combat! In addition, having your character be affected by an intimidation attempt will probably make that character behave like it really would, not like you would. That is, after all, what roleplaying is about. Regardless if you like to speak in funny voices or use your character like a chess piece, I might add.

So, if anyone can be charmed and intimidated I suggest everyone have skills to counter and handle such issues. Ideally you would have some influence over the way your character behaves, I'm not urging you to abandon that wholly. Instead, if there is a trait to roll for a specific kind of social interaction, that can also be used to defend against it. Needless to say, I think these should be capabilities that all characters should have.

To give you an idea of what this could mean, I present TORG as an example.

In TORG everyone have stats, skills and a set of numbers for Approved Actions. those are Maneuver, Trick, Test, Taunt and Intimidate. Those are all classes of actions that show up on those fancy cards you play to jazz up scenes in the game. Charm, Persuasion and Intimidate have their own chapter in the rules, and all these abilities are resolved on a specific chart, showing the result of the attempt. I think that even if you don't have a game system where there are cards in play, the idea of having these actions be clear and present options in every moment at the table is a great. Everyone has the abilities, everyone can defend against them, and everyone is always reminded that apart from rolling to whack that guy over the head I can also use these abilities. I think it suggests a more interesting and varied play experience.

This is becoming a very long post, I have not yet said anything about how to implement it in a game that is not TORG. Let's see if it can be done.


  1. If you want your character to socially influence another player's character, you have to persuade the player. The same goes for the GM. Forcing a PC to do something that player doesn't want it to do and is unpersuaded that the influencer's found the right argument or approach to convincing the PC is being a dick to that player. There's no possibility I'll value simulation or empowering of people with low social skills over Rule 0: Don't be a dick. I'll let the persuading PC roll, or I'll roll for the NPCs, and I'll tell the player the result of that roll: he seems very sincere/seductive/logical/whatever so that the player can treat that as input, but the final decision is always the player's.

    I've tried it other ways, but even in my very mature group of players where everybody's been friends for years, and who can be trusted not to power-game when they can create literally any character they want with no budget or limits and in games where they have extensive narrative control over the world and NPCs, PvP social abilities leads to resentment by the manipulated player and guilt by the manipulating player.

  2. Great to hear your experience of testing it with your group. I'm just theorizing, so I love to have to real world feedback.

    I think, I could be wrong, that if it's part of the game that you have those skills, it make some kind of weird sense to have everyone be affected by them.

    Also, one way of not being a dick is to have them there on the sheet, just by the stats. Everyone knows that every contest is opposed and so is social interaction.

    I'm not sure it's a game for everyone, but it feels like it could be a way to do it.

    Maybe many potential players, like your group, will just take a look at the game and say it doesn't sound like fun.

    I remember when I was younger, and I played a post-apocalyptic game where there tables for everything. Our GM had us roll everything, except the name. So, I ended up with a 6 foot tall woman with a stutter who was lonely and was adventuring to get friends. No, really. It was a blast to play! Sometimes even taking choice away can be an interesting challenge.

    OTOH, maybe I'm totally wrong how it works in this case, and PC choice should be in the player's hands, and doing it otherwise it just being a dick. It's possible.

  3. I think a lot of the problem is player expectation of control. If you play old school D&D and you refuse to let your character die, you are playing the wrong game. If you play Call of Cthulhu but you get upset when you character goes insane, you are playing the wrong game.

    Some games (like Dying Earth) say up front that PCs are as vulnerable to social persuasion as NPCs are. If you don't like that, don't play that game.

    I do not think that the GM is being a dick if he says up front that PCs can be manipulated with skill use. I don't think a player is being a dick if he says up front that he does not want to play a game where his PC can be manipulated with skill use.

  4. Right. As always it is imperative to put the cards on the table.

    I was actually not aware that there was a good example of a game where the PCs are "vulnerable to social persuasion" (good phrase there!), otherwise I would have brought it up. Maybe I need to take a look at Dying Earth.

    Who knows, I might hate it! :)

  5. The problem (or *a* problem) is that good role-players are likely to have detailed mental models of the thoughts and personality of their characters, which you're trashing based on a die roll that at best represents some kind of crude statistical model of how often a character of persuasiveness rank A succeeds against a character of resistance B in the aggregate. Players who treat their characters as no more than war-game tokens may say, "eh, I should've made the Will stat higher"; players who really think about the inner lives of their characters tend to say "No, my character would never betray her husband to aid the guy who's belittled and undermined her at every turn, no matter what the dice say." You can completely ruin a character for a player like that in a single moment, and for what?

    We actually were using a system which had stats for persuasiveness and resistance to persuasion (a stat+skill FUDGE variant home-brew), and we didn't have anyone who was deliberately trying to be a dick, but hard feeling ensued and we abandoned the PvP social influence as anything more than advisory. It's not like it was hard to persuade the RP-savvy characters to do something objectively foolish if you appealed to their character's actual personality, and particularly to their Flaws, and nobody had to personally be a great actor or manipulator of people...but they did have to make an effort to tell the player they were trying to persuade why they saw it as being in-character for them to go along. This had the added bonus of encouraging them to talk about the characters as people, not collections of stats.

    If I see any value to personality mechanics, it's actually for the people who don't like, don't want to do, role-playing: the kind who tend to decide whether their character would do something by flipping a coin. For them, rolling against a stat would at least lend itself to them appearing to be a more consistent character to the other players.

  6. Good arguments, all.

    In the OSR crowd, if you can judge from a poll on Dragonsfoot from ages back, people seemed to be kind of prone to treat their characters as chess pieces, though.

    Maybe it would work for people with that attitude? But, I wont try to beat a dead horse anymore. It's definitely not an option at all for a great many people.

    I'd suggest anyone interested in the topic, though, to check out the podcast episode linked to in my first post.


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