Master Plan - January 2006
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Codifying Advanced Social Interaction (Part 1)

An idea has been on my mind for some time now: finding a way to give social interaction in my games more "flavor" than usual, to give the depth of action and number of options for smooth-talking, suave characters that hardcore fighter types get with combat.

I didn't get far into the thought process before I realized exactly how involved this project is. That shouldn't be surprising, given how old this debate is and how many people continue to re-visit it trying new ideas -- both add-on rules and complete new systems -- with varying degrees of success and failure. This is such a large concept that I'll be starting my column off with a multi-part series -- something I initially sought to avoid -- but I want to build off of what I discuss here in the future, and I like the idea of starting this column off with such an involved topic.

In tackling something so old and so often debated, we start with analysis. There are plenty of existing games, concepts, and habits out there to look at as we ask the question: "What is social interaction in a role-playing game?" The coming months will involve designing rules for a given system, based on our analysis and understanding of goals, and playtesting those rules, using feedback to evaluate them and understand how they succeed and fail.

Project Title: Codifying Advanced Social Interaction (RPG)
Part: One -- Analysis of Social Interaction and Conflict in existing RPGs.
System we're going to pick on: GURPS Fourth Edition. (I promise to pick on other games in the future, but GURPS is near and dear to my heart, as those who have followed my fan work with GURPS Character Builder know.)
Question: "What is social interaction in a role-playing game?"
Hypothesis: Role-playing games have evolved to a point where we can not only play Cowboys & Indians without arguing about whether we've been shot, but we even know how much we've been damaged and the physical consequences involved. However, we're still using primitive rules for figuring out if the Cowboys have successfully conned the Indians out of their land.

To figure out how true this is, and to collect usable data for later, I've divided up the subject into three categories, representing the main approaches to the topic:

  • Using only simple die rolling (or other quick random outcome generator) to evaluate success.
  • Using only social interaction of the players and GM, in the roles of the characters involved, to evaluate success.
  • Using games that provide innovative solutions and mechanics to evaluate success.

By comparing and contrasting these methods, and discovering ways to codify their differences, we can better understand what we're trying to accomplish and find ways of stating that as a design goal.

Simple rolling plays on character statistics, but at the potential expense of interest and entertainment for the players. Often an NPC is either helpful or not, based on the result of a single die roll. Consider this example:

GM: There's a guard sitting by the entrance.

Player: I walk up and try to fast-talk him into letting me through.

GM: Roll Fast-Talk

Player: (Rolls) 8. Made by 3.

GM: Okay. He lets you through.

This method is pretty easy on GMs and players who don't enjoy those elements. There's nothing wrong with that; people seek different things in their gaming experiences, such as combat or mystery & puzzle solving, and some find that the social aspects of an adventure detract from their enjoyment. This is particularly true for those whose wit is more analytical than social.

On the other side hand, others resolve such things purely through direct interaction between the player and GM. Let's look at the same example situation as before, but purely with social interaction:

GM: There's a guard sitting by the entrance.

Player: I walk up to him. "Hey, man." I try to walk past, like I belong there.

GM: He stops you. "I.D.?"

Player: "Of course." I act annoying, and fumble around like I'm looking for it. "Damnit. I left it on my desk."

GM: He looks impatiently at you. "You need I.D. to enter."

Player: I sigh. "I know. I just stepped out for the some air." It's about noon in game time, right?

GM: The clock on the wall reads 12:15.

Player: I get out the fake I.D. I had made. "Can you call Barb in I.T. and ask her to vouch for me? Hopefully she's not at lunch yet."

GM: He takes a quick glance at the card, and looks up something on the computer. Then he dials a number, and after a few rings, hangs up. "No answer. Sorry."

Player: I start to look like I'm coming apart. "Listen..." I look at this name tag.

GM: Roger.

Player: "...Roger, I know you're just doing your job. But I have a report due for a 1:30 meeting. My job is on the line here."

GM: He makes a gesture that there's not much he can do, but you sense some sympathy.

Player: Excellent. "Maybe you could come up with me? I mean, it's just on my desk."

GM: "I can't leave my post."

Player: I stand around, frantic, like I'm having a breakdown. I let the silence build.

GM: "Alright. But remember it next time." He buzzes you in.

This is much more involved than the previous one. Three important things to note about this method, though:

  • This much involvement is an indicator that the players and GM want this sort of style. If this wasn't the case, usually either the GM would ask for a roll or the player would offer to roll -- what I call "the lowest common denominator of gaming," and will talk more about in future columns.
  • This requires social wit -- the sort that's used to talk out of getting speeding tickets or bar fights, haggle for better deals with merchants, etc. It may prove frustrating for those who lack those skills or don't enjoy using them.
  • This style rewards player competence, while potentially ignoring or overshadowing character competence. Again, I only say "potentially" here -- it's not easy to gauge a character's true social competence like you can their ability to hit a target at the firing range or how much they can bench press. You can apply numbers to physical feats, making them easy to codify; you can't codify social skills like that.

Both of these are extremes, but they illustrate a point: when it comes to elements we use in gaming, be they combat, social, investigative, etc., there are two things to take into account: involvement and focus.

Involvement refers to the time and energy spent by the players and GM on a particular activity. In the first example, the involvement is low -- the GM quickly mentions an element, the player rolls, and they move on. The second example has a much higher involvement; the player and GM are both doing considerable work on this element of the game, even if it's purely off-the-cuff.

Focus has to do with the actions and concepts that drive that particular activity. In the first one, the focus is on die rolling and character statistics, with only the bare minimum on interaction. In the second the focus is at the opposite end of the spectrum, on player-GM interaction and competence, not on statistics or dice. In both cases you could argue for and against the player being "in character" -- without more details, we don't know what sort of character was being played.

To look at them, side-by-side, we get:

  Simple Rolling Pure Interaction
Involvement: Low High
Focus: Die rolling & character statistics Player-GM interaction and competence

But, as useful as these examples are, they're also extremes. Some people take an approach that combines them. Here's our example again:

GM: There's a guard sitting by the entrance.

Player: I walk up, try to fast-talk him into letting me through.

GM: You trying anything in particular?

Player: I give him a sob story about how I left my I.D. at my desk and have a report due in about an hour. I lay it on thick.

GM: Roll Fast-Talk.

Player: (Rolls) 8. Made by 3.

GM: He sympathizes, lets you off with a warning, and buzzes you in.

If you're from the "simple roll" camp, such things can help spice up game play, and some GMs award bonuses to the roll for especially flavorful descriptions. For those in the "pure social interaction" camp, this allows for dealing with minor encounters more quickly -- much like the "you don't have to roll for everything" principle, you don't need to detail every interaction. In involvement/focus terms, you end up with:

Involvement: medium-low to medium
Focus: descriptive die rolling & character statistics

Most of you already know this; it falls into what I call "RPG sense." RPG sense refers to ideas that we, as players of role-playing games, believe to be normal; a "common sense of gaming." We believe, for example, that we don't need to make a roll every time we open a car door. If we did those sorts of things, games would be humorous and then descend into a boring exercise in futility.

It's my guess that the average group does all three of these, depending on the situation, when they aren't playing a game that provides some other solution or mechanic. Before we talk about those games, though, let's look at the part of an RPG we give most of our word count to: combat.

Taking GURPS Fourth Edition again, when you add together basic attributes, combat-related advantages, disadvantages, skills, magic, equipment, task resolution and combat rules -- everything that has to deal with hurting, incapacitating, or killing someone, you get a sizeable amount of text. Compare that with the amount of text dedicated towards social interaction -- some of the basic attributes, social-oriented advantages, disadvantages, skills, task-resolution, and perhaps minor asides here and there in other chapters -- and there's a vast difference to be noted.

This difference makes "RPG sense", though. There are many things about combat that can be quantified, such as the amount one can bench press or one's running speed. Those combat statistics that aren't easily quantifiable, such as how much damage is done by an average stab in the gut, we accept as abstracted because of RPGs roots in wargaming.

Now, social interaction isn't quantifiable like that -- I can't tell you how many cons-per-hour I can do or test my intimidation quotient. While that's similar to the difficulty of quantifying damage, there aren't the roots in wargaming for social interaction. A lot of people would reject the idea of adding combat-like abstractions to social interaction, when the games they enjoy use similarly abstracted combat elements, like "hit points."

I might be in the minority by thinking that this is a potential deficiency. Upon reading the hypothesis above, one person responded that there's science to back up our understanding of things like the damage done by a knife or gunshot, and used that to justify combat abstraction. That's true, but there's also plenty of psychological science to back up our understanding of how the mind reacts to various social stimuli. Regardless, science has yet to prove to me that Ihave "hit points."

Imagine, for a moment, if we treated combat like we do social interaction. Using the simple roll method:

GM: The Black Knight stops you from crossing the bridge.

Player: I attack him.

GM: Roll Broadsword.

Player: (Rolls) 8. Made by 3.

GM: You defeat him!

Of course, some games actually make it this simple, at least on occasion. Feng Shui's mook rules are one example. On the other hand, using pure interaction, combat might go like this:

GM: [Putting out his outstretched hand] The Black Knight stops you from crossing the bridge.

Player: [Taking his fake sword in hand, he swings it at the GM, who is prepared for this.] "Have at you, fiend!"

The GM & Player fight for a few moments, before a clear blow is landed on the GM, ending the combat with the player's victory.

While these two approaches to combat work, they aren't the norm; if they were, RPG books would be written with very different assumptions, and our "RPG sense" would be different as well.

When it comes to the third category of social interaction in gaming, three games come to my mind: Spycraft 2.0, 7th Sea, and Truth & Justice. All three illustrate new ideas and challenge "RPG sense" in their own ways, while still holding (more or less) to a traditional RPG format.

Spycraft 2.0 -- Dramatic Conflict system

The first one that came to my mind is Spycraft 2.0, and its very flexible and interesting Dramatic Conflict system, used to resolve things like brainwashing, interrogation, and seduction (as well as some non-social topics, like car chases and computer hacking).

With its d20 ancestry, Spycraft 2.0 is very much a traditional-style RPG. The Dramatic Conflict system is purely an add-on to the d20 ruleset. With some effort, it could be transplanted to another game (d20 or otherwise); in fact, like most of Spycraft 2.0, it's designated as Open Gaming Content until the Open Gaming License, and written with that flexibility in mind.

The play feels like a serious of scenes between two parties -- not unlike a montage -- where over a number of round, the opponents play off one another, looking to gain enough of an advantage to be victorious. Originally designed as a system for handling chases, it has evolved and expanded to cover a much wider range of spy activity.

The involvement level is on the higher end, making it suited for more plot-relevant elements, but with the focus on character statistic and tactical choices (which makes it close to how we do combat, but without as much bookkeeping). It's a great mechanic -- I even have other uses for it in mind, but like everything else, it's not for everyone or every situation.

Involvement: High
Focus: Character statistics and tactical decisions

7th Sea -- Repartee system

7th Sea is a system and setting loaded with swashbuckling style. This traditional-style RPG's biggest innovation is in combat. Nonetheless, swashbucklers are ever-charming and witty, and the system gives some thought to that: a two-page section called "The Repartee System."

There's not much here -- a bit of text on how to charm, intimidate, and taunt using mechanics. The interesting part is that the latter two also have effects in combat and other die rolling situations, which is what the genre demands. The most important part is that, in spite of what little we're given, it's the right fit for the game -- all the rules are on two facing pages, so there's no flipping around, and it's quick and easy, which the genre demands of its action.

For those wondering why I would include this small set in a list of "innovative solutions & mechanics," 7th Sea is a good example of those games that do try to include some social bridging in their systems. Other systems do similar things, like Overawe in Deadlands, and even GURPS has some social skill applications that have combat effects. Such games generally expect gamers to handle such situations the way they normally do, but include a small amount to offer aid to those looking to use all the elements of the given genre.

Involvement: Low
Focus: Character statistics and die rolling

Truth & Justice (PDQ) -- The fundamentals of the game

Here's a game I cannot say enough good things about. (Seriously, I had to edit this down quite a bit.) I've written up a review of it on my LiveJournal, which I'll link to at the end. If you are interested in checking out one of the best superhero games out there, I encourage you to check it out. There's a preview on the website, as well as a free supplement, Dial S for Superhumans (which includes some of my own handiwork).

If Spycraft 2.0 is the traditional RPG with some meaty rules on the side, Truth & Justice is on the other end of the spectrum -- a system built from the ground-up to work with this idea. There are no hit points here; the only character stats you have are your Qualities (this skills, social contacts, wealth, luck, etc.) and super-powers, measures in Ranks from Poor to Master.

The basic mechanics are simple: contested rolls, adding the ranks of qualities and super-powers to the total, with the higher roll victorious and the different in the rolls taken as damage (with some other elements that encourage dramatic, comic-book style role-playing in the form of a bonus). As you take damage, you reduce some of those qualities or super-powers, which works will with a comic book mentality. The trick here is that the exact same ruleset applies to physical combat and all other conflicts -- like gambling, taunting a super villain, or dealing with the IRS. If you know how to fight in this game, you know how to con a guard into letting you pass. The only different lies in the "damage." Physical damage is translated into "damage ranks," and all others are "failure ranks." Different super-powers and Hero Point actions affect the two types of negative ranks differently, and they recover at different rates; other than that, they're the exact same thing.

Involvement: Low base, but easily scales higher.
Focus: Character statistics and (especially with the "Being a Badass" rule) in-character engagement.

Each of these games has one element that ties them together: they are all rooted in one genre or another. Our example, with the guard behind a desk, would fit differently in each of these games:

  • In Spycraft 2.0, the situation is a bit small-scale for Dramatic Conflict. If doesn't fit into Brainwashing, Interrogation, or Seduction (nor does it with the non-social ones, though the entire event as a while might work with Infiltration). We could probably make a Fast-Talk set, but then we'd have to ask ourselves: would the effort in writing up and play-testing a new set be worthwhile?
  • In 7th Sea, the situation wouldn't be much different -- replace "Fast-Talk" with "Charm," and there you go. But 7th Sea genre influence is style of substance. It's not the method that you use, but the style you use it with that's important. Do you play 7th Sea so you can play talking guards into letting you through with a fake I.D. and a sob story?
  • Truth & Justice handles this the best of the three. The biggest task involves statting up the NPC so he has Qualities to roll against and have reduced (which is as simple as having some stock NPCs on hand, or taking 30 seconds to make a mook-level one). Unfortunately, this ends up working at the expense of "RPG sense," as many gamers are hesitant to try a game that works counter to their understandings and expectations.

At this point, we've gathered a lot of information we can use to set up design criteria for a new set of rules, which we'll tackle next month.

Next month: Social Interaction and Conflict: The Ruleset, and what put this idea into my mind in the first place.

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