Master Plan - March 2006
Show/hide display options

Codifying Advanced Social Interaction (Part 2)

Before I get into this issue, I have a note: I'd like to thank everyone who gave me feedback and passed the last issue around to friends. I also apologize for missing last month, and thank everyone who was patient enough to wait around for this second part.

Much of the feedback I received said that I should have mentioned Dogs in the Vineyard in an analysis of social interaction in RPGs. I've been a fan of Dogs for a few months now -- the instant I got my hands on the book, I couldn't put it down. After seeing so many tell me I should have mentioned it, I felt moronic for cutting out the bit I had about Dogs. The draft was really long, so it was between that and Truth & Justice to get my 'unorthodox method' idea across.

While this issue will focus on creating a ruleset, I urge readers who aren't familiar with Dogs in the Vineyard to check out reviews. It is one of the finest RPG books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

I've also added an RSS feed for this column. See the main page for more information.

Now that I'm done groveling and back-peddling, on with the experiment.

Project Title: Codify Advanced Social Interaction (RPG)
Part: Two - Creating a ruleset for an existing RPG that handles Social Interaction and Conflict.
System we're going to pick on: GURPS Fourth Edition.

To recap from our analysis last month, there are three parameters we can look at to understand how we treat social interaction:

Involvement refers to the time and energy spent by the players and GM on doing some particular activity. Quickly rolling against a skill to resolve a situation is low involvement, while in-depth role-playing is high involvement.

Focus has to do with the actions and concepts that drive that particular activity. The focus can be on anything involved with play. Some examples: rolling dice, character statistics, player & GM interaction, and tactical decisions. The focus is typically narrow and relates to the involvement. Situations where players just roll to get back a scene shift the focus to dice rolling (obviously) and character statistics (used to evaluate the roll), whereas the in-depth role-playing focuses on player-GM interaction.

Much like Involvement can be treated as a sliding scale between "low" and "high", focus can be seen as one between "character competence" and "player competence" -- the former involving character stats, dice (or other random elements), and the like, and the latter involving how skilled a player (and GM -- don't forget that the GM needs to be similarly skilled here) is at wit and social games.

Finally, RPG sense refers to ideas that we, as players of role-playing games, believe to be default and true; a "common sense of gaming." We don't roll dice every time we pick up our keys, nor do we act out every little detail during the course of a session. RPG sense hails from our collective ideas of how RPGs work -- attributes, hit points, turns, initiative, etc. Many games, especially the great indie games that have been coming out in the last few years, are throwing caution to the wind and willfully violating these ideas. I personally am embracing these, which is why I love games like Truth & Justice (and Dogs in the Vineyard -- see, I can mention Dogs in an issue). I have found, though, that because they violate RPG sense, some people have a harder time getting into the games, or decline them altogether -- the price for being avant-garde.

Now that we've recapped last month's concepts (albeit with a bit of new material), we move on. There is a concept within the world of Software Engineering where everything a client wants out of a particular piece of software to be developed is written in a document. That document is used to generate other, more focused documents describing how to build what the client wants and how to test the end result to make sure it's right -- all before a single line of code is written. Not that the small IT shops I've worked for did anything that detailed -- that sort of time gets expensive -- nor does the idea of writing hundreds of pages of dry, lifeless project documentation fill me with excitement, but the idea is great. And great ideas are meant to be stolen.

Using this idea, we can clearly state what we want to create in the first place, treating ourselves and our players as clients. We can use the parameters from last month to define what we want to achieve with our rules.

Here is the "Ruleset Requirement Document" of the ruleset I created, which we can use to measure impact and success:

Goal: A fast-paced mechanic that will support tense, dramatic action, a la James Bond and other cinematic spy media.
Focus: The focus will be primarily on tactical action, closer to the "character competence" scale.
Involvement: Involvement will be medium, akin to a quick (not drawn out) combat scene.
RPG sense: This is the one parameter I'm flexible on -- I don't want to toss the idea out completely, but I also don't want ideas like "social interaction shouldn't have hit points" limit my creativity. In the end, I want my players to feel like this isn't taxing their suspension of disbelief during the game.

There's a fourth category I call "system deviation," which applies when you're creating a ruleset for an existing game system. One thing you have to consider is how much you're willing to change or add, or how close you want to stick to the original system. Take d20 as an example -- there are a lot of rule add-ons, from countless modules, supplements, magazine articles, and websites. Many of these include new feats or prestige classes, which are on the low-end of "system divergence" -- they don't change the mechanics or expectations of the system; in fact, such additions are expected in the d20 mindset. The sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu d20 (later reprinted and covered under OGL in Unearthed Arcana) or the Dramatic Conflict system from Spycraft 2.0 are the high-end of divergence with d20 core, because they add drastic changes to how it works. You could go higher still, by altering the basics of d20, such as removing attributes or make the random element based on drawing poker cards instead of rolling dice.

System deviation: Adding even more things to buy in GURPS is just a path to messy unpleasantness. We'll use existing advantages, disadvantages, and skills, though we'll allow for new techniques (since they're fun to play with, and meant to fill the "I want to add something" desire). GURPS also has some quick-working social elements, namely Reaction rolls and Influence rolls, and I see little reason to re-invent the wheel in a system that has already given me one. We'll also likely create combat analogs, in order to increase familiarity, but not overdo it for the sake of RPG sense.

Now that I've defined my goals, the half of you who have been waiting for rules have something you can chew on now. You can stop saying "Get to the freakin' rules already!" I should warn those who are just here for the rules, though: my Master Plan isn't just about giving people rules, though. I created this column as a way to talk to people about coming up with ideas -- more about the thought process surrounding "idea-craft" rather than just rules from on high. Writing rules for all to see are a means to what I want to achieve, not an end.

Without any further adieu...

Ryan Macklin's ruleset for Social Interaction in GURPS Fourth Edition

(All page numbers refer to GURPS Fourth Edition Basic Set: Campaigns.)

In a social conflict, you have two sides: the predator and prey (to use Spycraft terminology). The rules build off of the Influence Rolls rules (p. 359) and Reaction Rolls (p. 494).

Phase 1: Initiating a Social Conflict

At the start of the conflict, the predator determines the stakes of the social conflict, from the point of view of the prey. In the example from last issue, where the PC was trying to get the guard to let him in, the stakes would be: "Does the guard let me in without a badge?" (I phrase my stakes as questions, thanks to the influence of Dogs in the Vineyard, but you could also phrase it as a statement.)

Second, determine the prey's Reaction to the predator. If the reaction is enough convince the prey to do what the predator wants, there is no Conflict. For each category below what the predator needs, he has a -1 penalty to all social attack rolls. If the prey's Reaction changes in the middle of the Conflict, adjust the penalty.

Both participants have a number of Resolve Points equal to their Will. Resolve Points are much like Hit Points for social situations - they are removed or regained during a social conflict similar to how HP can fluctuate in a physical combat.

Finally, set up the scene and initial situation. Essentially, the GM describes the scene and participants right up to the moment one of the characters starts to talk or do something, just like in any other role-playing driven scene.

This should only be done if a real back-and-forth is likely to happen. If you're attempting to seduce someone, setting up a conflict will be equally pointless if they're a eunuch or if they're lecherous and without a reason to resist. Similarly, if the scene is meant to be glossed over, a simple Influence Roll (or, better yet -- at least in my opinion -- the GM just saying 'yes') is enough to continue. However, if the person you're trying to seduce has been ordered to protect the missile silo, but wants to take you up on your offer, then there's a conflict!

Phase 2: Conflict!

A Social Conflict is handled by a number of attacks against the prey's better judgment or reason to deny the predator. If time matters (such as a race against the clock or while combat is occurring elsewhere), each attack takes a number of rounds, based on the skill used.

There are several Influence skills that can be used against someone during a Social Conflict attack: Diplomacy, Fast-Talk, Intimidation, Savoir-Faire, Sex Appeal, or Streetwise. In certain situations, the GM may allow other skills to work as Influence skills, as per Influence Rolls on p.359. Normally, the predator will be using this, but there are occasions when the prey is able to aggressively fight back, in which case the roles reverse, at least temporarily.

The prey makes a roll against half his Will (dropping all fractions) + 3. If the prey has the same skill the predator is using, he can substitute it for Will (e.g. half of Sex Appeal + 3). Finally, if the prey has a relevant disadvantage with a self-control number, his defense cannot be higher than. For example, someone with Lecherousness (12) cannot have a defense higher than 12 against someone using Sex Appeal.

Depending on the situation, the predator and prey may try to use Psychology (subject to GM discretion) to boost their roll. Roll against Psychology before the attack or defense roll. If it succeeds, you get +2 to your roll; otherwise, you get -2.

The predator and prey treat the contest as a Quick Contest Resistance Roll (p. 348). If a participant is using Diplomacy, they may roll twice and use the best roll, reflecting the relative safety of Diplomacy. This only applies to the Diplomacy roll or Diplomacy-based defense, not the optional Psychology roll.

If the predator succeeds, he rolls and applies Impact - the Social Conflict equivalent of damage. Subtract Impact from the prey's Resolve Points. If he critically succeeds or the prey critically fails, double the Impact. On the other hand, if the prey critically succeeds or the predator critically fails, the prey rolls Impact and recovers that amount. Any recovery beyond his maximum Resolve Points (equal to Will) applies the remainder as Impact against the attacker.

Skill Impact* Time (in rounds)*
Diplomacy 1d-2 2d
Fast-Talk 1d-2 1d-2
Intimidation 1d 1d
Savoir-Faire 1d 1d**
Sex Appeal 1d+2 1d
Streetwise 1d 1d
*Minimum 1
**May be higher, depending on the specialization

Particularly clever ideas from the players may give a +1 bonus to Impact, or +2 for particularly entertaining or provoking ideas. (Yes, this is a blatant attempt to encourage and reward role-playing.)

Phase 3: Concluding Conflict

Prey reaches 0 Resolve Points: If the prey reaches 0 Resolve or less, his Reaction to the predator increases by one category (i.e. neutral to good). The predator may "push his luck" and continue, causing an additional Reaction increase for each full increment of the prey's Will his Resolve is reduced to (i.e. at -Will, -2xWill, etc.) However, should the prey recover enough Resolve to undo a Reaction increase, his reaction will decrease by two levels rather than just one, and may cause the conflict to stop altogether.

Predator reaches 0 Resolve Points: The Social Conflict is over should the predator reach 0 Resolve or less. Depending on the situation, the prey may keep his current Reaction or revert to his previous Reaction or worse.

Distraction: Should an event break the mood by causing the prey to react to something external to the conflict (such as an alarm or a gun fight), the Social Conflict may be over. Depending on the situation, the prey may keep his current Reaction or revert to his previous Reaction or worse. The predator may attempt a Fast-Talk roll to keep the prey from turning his attention elsewhere, using the difference in Reaction penalty and any other penalty for the situation, as the GM sees fit.

Any time: At any time, the predator can stop the Social Conflict, leaving the prey with the new Reaction temporarily. If this is enough to achieve what's at stake, the predator succeeds. In any case, the new Reaction (positive or negative) is temporary - though it may become permanent if the prey is inclined and is not given a reason to change his new opinion.

(You can download these rules by themselves. See "More Information," below.)

(You can download these rules by themselves from the website.)

I feel like I've hit close to the mark here. Focus isn't quite as tactical as I wanted it to be, but I could add another layer of combat-like activity by providing a laundry list of maneuvers and techniques to make it feel more granular and tactical (such as bribery or uncomfortable silence). The option isn't explicitly written out or make unworkable by the rules as they stand. Involvement is about as spot-on as I was looking for.

I used a lot more of the system than I was initially expecting, making system deviation much less of an issue. I'm not sure if I used too much of the existing system; on the other hand, the less I have to make up from scratch, the less likely I am to create something that breaks the mood or base concepts of the original game. RPG sense was the one attribute I cared least about, but I think I did a decent job of holding onto it, mainly though the use of terminology and slight alterations that make it seem less unnatural.

But that's my opinion on it. I'd like to hear what you think: about how close to the mark you think I was, your own ideas on "Ruleset Requirement Documents", your rules for social interaction, etc. You can email me at At some point, I'll have forums for collaborative posting -- a couple of you have asked me to have some. I wanted to get the RSS feed up first, and now that I have, more improvements will come down the line.

Again, thanks to those who have given me feedback and who have stuck around this far. Catch you next month. No, really.

More Information