Monday, June 3, 2013

Social Skills and Roleplaying

Okay, let's get this out of the way right from the giddyup: roleplaying is not 'talking in funny voices.' In-character dialog may be a component of roleplaying, but it is not roleplaying in-and-of-itself.

At its most basic, roleplaying answers the question, 'What will my character do now?' Referring to one's character in the third person all the time is no less roleplaying than speaking only in-character. The is no purity or superiority in the latter approach; I personally enjoy first-person, in-character dialog, both as a player and as a referee, but I don't think less of gamers who prefer the remove of, 'My guy says . . .'

With that in mind, we can dispense with the notion that social skills diminish roleplaying any more than any other skills do. The overwhelming majority of the roleplaying games out there include some sort of rules for social interaction, whether they are as basic as reaction and loyalty rolls in D&D or as involved as Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits. The notion of resolving social interaction through 'pure roleplay,' without some sort of recourse to the rules, is limited to a tiny handful of games, or to gamers who choose to ignore the rules in games which include them; in my experience, the latter are far more common than the former.

So why do some gamers have a nutty over social skills? In my experience, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, some gamers are of the opinion, 'I can't thrust a rapier or swing from a chandelier at the table, so I need rules and rolls for those, but I can just say what my character says, and I don't need rules for that!' That's certainly true: adjudication of non-player character reactions can be handled by the referee without recourse to a die roll or an attribute score, but once again, very few games actually leave social interaction solely to the referee's discretion. The norm is to include rules for resolution, whether those rules are rendered with a broad-brush or crafted in intricate detail.

Second, some games give social skills a bad name, though not always deservedly so. Tales of d20 'diplomancers' optimised to take advantage of the Diplomacy or Bluff or Intimidate skills, breaking entire campaigns by turning a social skill into a form of mind control, can be found in the many different corners where gamers gather, on- and off-line. Despite the fact that at least some of these stories come from misinterpreting the actual rules associated with the skills, they reinforce the predilections of those who prefer to remove or ignore most or all of the rules for social interactions, or more rarely to find those few games with no such rules at all.

Third, as noted right at the beginning, gamers conflating roleplaying with in-character dialog - the 'amateur thespians' - express the opinion that social skills 'inhibit roleplaying!' by 'reducing social interaction to the roll of a die.' I think that's bollocks. Consider the following.
Example 1: "Ahead of you, on a curve in the stream, is a stone bridge. A carriage is overturned at the far end of the bridge, creating a barricade blocking passage to the road beyond. Behind the carriage you see the tips of a dozen pikes above an equal number of gleaming morions. To the right, across the stream, just inside the tree line, is a hastily-built stone revetment, and behind it the light through the trees glints off the barrels of a half-dozen arquebuses. Because of the curve in the stream, the revetment is at right angles to the bridge, giving the arquebusiers a clear field of fire across the open ground approaching the span."

"Uh . . . I roll for Tactics."

Example 2: "The king's minister, Enfou, pulls you aside as dancers swirl to the musicians huddled in one corner of the ballroom. 'The king is desperate,' he says. 'The baron de Bauchery can raise enough mercenaries to defend the frontier, but he refuses to do so unless he the king promises him Princess Pinkflower's hand in marriage. Meanwhile the conte di Grognardo is the best commander we have, but he refuses to serve under de Bauchery, and he wants the princess' hand for his son.'"

"Uh . . . I roll for Diplomacy."
Here's the thing: social skills are used to resolve your attempts to accomplish a task. They don't do your roleplaying for you.

In the first example, you, the player, need to decide how the adventurers are going to get past the soldiers holding the bridge, and in the second you need to figure out how you're going to resolve the conflict between the courtiers in time to get the soldiers to the front. Your character's social skills resolve how well you accomplish what you set out to do.

Moreover, social skills are not charm spells. A non-player character made Helpful through the Diplomacy skill in d20 may be willing to take considerable risks on behalf of your highly persuasive character, but that doesn't make the npc a thrall. The npc will still look after his interests and pursue his agenda while offering assistance to the adventurers.

I've used rolls for social interactions in every game I've ever played, from the aforementioned Charisma-adjusted reaction rolls and loyalty scores for henchmen and hirelings in AD&D to the Contact rules in Top Secret to the social skills of d20 and now Flashing Blades, and in my experience they neither inhibit in-character dialog nor do they result in the players substituting skill rolls for actually having to figure out how to best use those skills to get what they want.

Now, if a game's social skills are being called into play, it follows that the stats of both player and non-player characters come into play. Next up, a quick look at stats for non-player characters.


  1. It may seem that I disagree, particularly with a lot of the things I've been writing, but in fact I don't. I'm very close to "we don't need rules for social interactions," but I do take charisma and such into account during meetings (normally when I am unsure of how an NPC might react).

    That being said, I would never allow a "charm" roll to see if a character can win over someone in the same way that I would never allow a tactics roll to allow a player to come up with a tactical solution to a problem. In both cases, I might allow such a roll to glean some information (eg, he seems angry whenever you mention X), but I am certainly of the philosophy that the less your character decides and/or does due to direct one-to-one player input, the less immediate the game becomes.

    1. That being said, a game with robust social skill system is just begging to have it be used, and I would certainly never throw it away.

    2. I'm going to spend the next couple of posts explaining how persuasion works in my campaign, and just how and when those rolls to "win someone over" get made.

    3. I'm looking forward to it. I realize that I may have misread the post myself, since upon going over Ravencrowking's additional piece I see that he's brought out a lot of the issues that I myself see in the social interaction scene.

      I'm also thinking of writing something on NPC psychology, since I frequently make a short list of different topics that could spoil or "win" an interaction without rolls. A brief example would be a man who's dead son was an adventurer with the warning that bringing him up without tact will most likely send the man into a rage while, say, making an offering at a family shrine might trigger him to open up a little. Of course, 90% of those conversations wind up missing these triggers by huge margins, but they provide a good outline for NPC behavior in other situations as well, allowing me to get a sort of feel for how they react to different stimuli.

    4. " . . . I frequently make a short list of different topics that could spoil or "win" an interaction without rolls."

      I call those Foibles and what they are and how they work are the third post in this series. :^)

  2. How do you handle those moments when the social action is roleplayed very well and/or there is an excellent idea to back it up, but the dice say otherwise (fumble roll, or nearly)? Does that mean they did what they did with food in their beard and the target was put off/distracted the whole time? Or do you adjust the Target Number (or what-have-you) downward for the sake of the fine roleplaying or excellent idea?

    1. For myself, I would be very cautious about using "fine roleplaying" as a rationale for a modifier. It is a matter that has no objective definition, and so would tend to lead to "pixel bitching" or "read the Referee's mind" problems - that is, the players would quickly learn that the route to success in that game is to play the Referee, not the game.

      Excellent ideas, on the other hand, can be justified on a more objective basis, but even so the Referee should be cautious.

    2. At some point the referee has to be trusted to make decisions about NPC motivations and what conversational tacks will an will not work.

    3. There are other methods available, but as I said "excellent ideas" can be fairly objectively assessed. "Fine roleplaying", on the other hand, is practically a null term, or at best is a meta-game consideration when related to difficulty modifiers.

    4. One of the referee's jobs with any skill, including social skills, is knowing when to call for a roll. Most social interactions don't require a roll at all - I typically call for a roll after the arguments are made if reasonable uncertainty remains on the part of the non-player characters.

      Just like I wouldn't call for an Acrobatics check to scale a simple ladder, I wouldn't call for an Oratory check to have a conversation.

    5. "Your character's social skills resolve how well you accomplish what you set out to do."

      This was the line that lead to the this question. Thanks for answering.

      Looking forward to more in this series.

    6. I'd think 'fine roleplaying' could be bringing up, or not bringing up, the King's speech impediment, depending on how doing so is likely to influence the reaction of whom you're talking to, and your ultimate goal for engaging in the interaction.

      Manipulating the information you have to move your character through the world is roleplaying. Being consistent in *how* you manipulate that information for any given character makes for some mighty fine roleplaying.

    7. "Manipulating the information you have to move your character through the world is roleplaying."

      I strongly disagree. One can manipulate information available without playing a role. That is, in fact, the essence of wargaming, or any gaming. Roleplaying is entirely different, and has to do with making decisions as if one were a particular character. Essentially, roleplaying, as I see it, is a process akin to improvisational acting.

      As an aside to this conversation, I'd say that the only real way to determine if a player is doing so well or otherwise is if the player is given a character to play, rather than being allowed to design one and then play it. If a player is roleplaying his own character, then he is roleplaying it well by default, as no one else can gainsay him in the appropriateness of his choices. On the other hand, we again run into the problem of reading the Referee's mind if we decide that "good roleplaying" must be in accord with the Referee's assessment of a particular character. Roleplaying, to my mind, is an end in itself. It cannot be accurately and objectively judged, and should not be. On the other hand, actions can be adjudicated and ideas evaluated within the milieu of the game, and that should be the only focus of the Referee.

    8. Tried to post a reply last night. It was smaller than the limit that pops up, but the warning that is was over the limit still kept popping up and preventing the post... Will try to distill down what I was saying...

    9. [For the sake of completeness, if nothing eles, here's what I wrote the other night.]

      R often plays a character who is rude, crude and lacking in social understanding. I know he's doing it well, when it peaks everyone's interest and/or funny bone (just as I know a good bit of acting when I see it, because I am emotionally moved by it). "Good roleplaying" is not something I am pre-defining, as in "if he does x, that's good, and if he does y, that's bad" -- "good roleplaying" is one of those things you know it when you see it. You are entertained, you are moved, you are surprised, you are amused.

      When R states his character's actions, and those actions are consistent with that character's past actions, that too is part of good roleplaying. It doesn't mean he does the same thing every time -- he's allowed to grow the character if he wants to. But if the character is acting in a new way, it's because something has happened in the narrative of the game, to the character, or near to the character's "heart", that's spurred the change.

      Sure, on Day One that I met him, I had no idea if R was a good roleplayer or not. But I know when he's causing us all to enjoy our time at the table by what his character says and does.

      When he slanders the king to his face to get us thrown into jail, so we can at last speak to another party there to get the information we need from them before they are killed, he's done some good roleplaying, advancing our interests, doing it in character, and surprising and amusing us with his solution. He has also created some new obstacles for us (but what's a game without obstacles?). He's done something much better than "we talk to the king to see if we can speak to prisoner zero". That's functional, but R's solution is solid gold.


    10. [continued]

      Another player could have a character who is Mr. Random, and never does anything consistently from one moment to the next, theoretically. But I've never had to privilege to see such played. Most players establish a general tone and style for their characters, and the further they explore that the better the roleplaying gets.

      Also, please note, I'm not talking about whatever voice R uses to speak in character (if he chooses). I'm not talking about faces he pulls. It's all what his character *does*, as described by him.

      In improvisational acting (so far as I know), the performers build on what has gone before: what's been said, what's been implied, what's been done... taking action on that and building on that takes some processing of that information, to order it, sort it, prioritize it... "Manipulate" it, even.

      If you're not working with the information given to you about your game world, how as a player do you decide what your character does?

      "One can manipulate information available without playing a role." True. But my statement was: "Manipulating the information you have *to move your character through the world*..." I didn't say that I merely buy cake; I eat my cake, too. I was talking about actually roleplaying, which is using the information and processing it in a way that explores character and creates events. That you can also do part of that (sorting info), while also not roleplaying, is not the point.

      Is it the phrasing that's bothersome? Is "You take what you know and decide what to do next" better for anyone? If that process sometimes leads to results that are obviously head and shoulders above the norm, I think that's good roleplaying.

      I think at the core of it, we may be defining roleplaying the same way -- actions and ideas. And I think some of your above uses of 'roleplaying' are maybe more 'characterization' than 'roleplaying', such that maybe your umbrella of 'roleplaying' covers characterization as well, and that is something you do not want to judge. How I speak in character is characterization (which I'd agree is the sort of thing that "cannot be accurately and objectively judged, and should not be"?) What information I release or withhold in character (for one example) is roleplaying, which influences subsequent events.

      Wow. Did I swallow a typewriter at dinner?

    11. You know, I think that I was approaching roleplaying only as "characterization", so your critique of that is well-taken. However, I still don't like (admittedly without much reflection) the idea of subjectively moving the goal posts to gain rewards during the game. I prefer game rewards to be due to predetermined, objective criteria: whether those are recovering treasure and defeating enemies (D&D and variants) or using skills during play (Flashing Blades, RuneQuest, and so on), or whatever other option the game provides.

      My experience of more subjective reward has been that some players inevitably become dissatisfied with their own portion, especially if one of the other players is perceived as getting special treatment - even if that is because the player getting special treatment is clearly "better" by whatever subjective criteria are being used. The alternatives are equally unpalatable: randomly or cyclically apportioning rewards, giving equal rewards to all players regardless of success, and so on. Better to avoid unnecessary subjective judgements if possible.

      Of course, there's always Traveller's solution, which I like. That is, give the rewards to the party as a whole, and let them apportion them as they feel appropriate, and, in later editions, allow players to expend in-character time toward improvement.

  3. Excellent article, my friend!

  4. Sidebar on Tactics Rolls:

    I tend to use a Tactics skill in this way: Player with Tactics comes up with a plan. Assuming plan is basically sound, Tactics Roll influences how long plan holds up, e.g. Good basic idea, 'success' roll, plan holds for a few rounds, then starts to drift apart. If there is info player(s) don't know when making plan, success of plan more likely to go awry sooner.

    If the PCs are holding down a position where they need to do X undisturbed, a tactician could say, "the enemy is more likely to come from the West entrance in half a minute" and make a roll. With success, they are more or less right and have bought (something close to) that time. With failure, the enemy may pour in from the North on the next round. But it's all influenced by what the enemy's actually doing, and of course any info that the players don't know can throw the whole tactic out the window...

    1. That would mean that any combat event was essentially mutable based on the player's rolls. It sounds like foes, then, work more in service of the "story" of the players rather than independently as intelligent agents.

    2. No, I think the roll is then reinforcing the player's good idea. If they haven't done any leg work, they don't know what really to expect, and the Target Number for the roll is going to be really high (perhaps beyond them).

      If they have done some observation/study of some kind so they know what they are dealing with, and then also come up with a good idea, the roll (can) reinforce that all good stuff. If the roll turns out well, then yes, the Tactician *is* actually good at his job, and knows what's what. If the roll is a poor one, the plan might hold for a round or two before things go pear-shaped. In either case, things can spoil the plan, like perhaps the unexpected arrival of some official and his soldiers, which weren't in the original mix.

      In a sense, the Tactics Roll is like an inverse-Tactics-roll for the foes -- how quickly do they see through the player-character's tactics and start to really counter it. A good idea, and a good roll means it takes them longer.

    3. In the situation you just described, the enemies change their own tactics based on what the PCs roll, not what they do—that would indicate that the world itself is being molded in what -C and others have called the "illusionist" model. That is, essentially, that the game is a sort of stage where the props are moved around not based on a naturalistic model (what the foes would actually do) but rather based on meta-considerations that are completely outside the framework of the setting-qua-reality.

    4. Unless I'm misreading you, which maybe I am... but the phrase here "With success, they are more or less right" seems to indicate that a success causes the setting itself to change so that they are correct, whereas if they had not rolled a success that would not have been the case. Correct me if I'm wrong, of course.

    5. The Strategy skill in FB is used primarily on campaign; I imported the surprise and initiative rules from Traveller, so it also adds a bonus for that as well.

      I have not allowed a character to roll against Strategy to 'predict' what a non-player character may do, however.

    6. Okay, I wrote a whole thing trying to make another example (complex enough that I lost track of it, too) -- don't think that was worthwhile.

      As for the roll changing the foes' approach, well, if the PCs go on to do something other than what they described before the tactics roll, the roll was pointless and it's all-bets-are-off.

      Say the foes are known patrol the area of a bridge that the PCs are trying to secure to get some allies across, and the tactician sets up a plan. There's that schrodinger patrol of foes out there making their rounds, and I could roll to randomly determine where they are in their rounds when the PCs spring upon the bridge -- or I could let the tactics roll *be* that roll (or influence that roll). If the tactician's plan is good and the tactics roll is good, then the patrolling baddies are further away, perhaps even moving away as part of their course. If the tactics roll is poor, they may be closer to some degree, even imminently right on top of our PCs.

      e.g., If my thought was arbitrarily that the patrol would catch up with them at the bridge in 1d12 rounds (because that's the length of their patrol circuit), a good bit of tactics might switch that to 1d8+4 rounds. A crazy, gonzo, critical success might be 1d4+8 rounds. A diversion built into the plan might raise the die types further. A hole in the plan, or some fumble in it's execution, or some key element that the PCs know nothing about, might mean the foes show up even sooner than 12 rounds maximum, because of noise or whatever. Many journeys are possible.

      The foes are still as smart as they were (smart or not). But unless I have an operations manual worked out in detail for them, some questions will be resolved with die rolls. Tactics might change what those rolls are. Or I might not even ask for a roll, if the plan described fits into the situation like a key in a lock (just as a keen description of disabling a mechanical trap means that I don't have to ask for a roll - you did it, simple as that).

      Tactics could also give PCs the element of surprise or otherwise give them a temporary edge, if used in a direct assault situation. Bonuses to hit, defense, etc. -- maybe even movement to reflect efficiency.

      I'm not sure I'm good at explaining these things. Sometimes I explain an idea to players, and they look all wonky-faced. Then we play, and there's more ah-ha faces going on...

      Sorry for the subject-jacking, Mr. Vulmea.

    7. No worries - I don't consider it subject-jacking at all.

      When I ran d20 Modern, I used the Tactics skill in pretty much the way you describe it, as a means of gaining intelligence about the characters' situation. As such, it wasn't a substitute for roleplaying - your couldn't roll your way out of an ambush, frex - but it could improve the character's situational awareness.

      I haven't done the same thing with Flashing Blades, largely because the Strategy skill works more as a gatekeeper - and that should probably be the subject of a future post.

  5. Very nicely stated. I'm in total agreement. The act of deciding to engage in a social interaction, where and when and with whom, is the heart of the "role-playing", not the in-character dialog that might result.

    I've never really given much credence to the 'I can just say what my character says, and I don't need rules for that!' line of reasoning because, honestly, you're telling me that, say, in a Pendragon game you can present yourself before the king and his assembled court and speak in a manner becoming a medieval knight...or that I can judge it fairly by the standards the king would apply to the interaction? An Orate roll takes care of that just fine; bygrinstow's comment even highlights an additional benefit of making a roll: variability. The player states his intention to speak and then rolls a fumble and then the GM (or even a player!) comes up with a fun complication. Maybe a dog barks right at the point of the punchline, or maybe the speaker unintetionally slanders someone at court. These are developments that wouldn't necessarily have come out of a simple improvisational dialog.

    Further to bygrinstow's question, though: that's why I generally ask that the dice roll be made first and then any crucial or relevent in-character dialog be spoken after, taking into account the result of the roll. Sometimes a player will enthusiastically describe the manner in which his character is acting prior to the roll, and I'll give a bonus as appropriate, but I don't see that as any different than a player describing some sort of clever maneuver in combat getting a bonus to hit or damage.

  6. I'm mostly in agreement with you. When I last ran (and played) 3.5, the player had to come up with a pretty good song and dance and describe it to even get a diplomacy check, for example.

    So really I've had my cake and eaten it, too, in this regard: the players had to roleplay (either in character or "my dude says..") then we let the dice decide whether it was effective or not.

  7. Zak has a pretty good post about how he uses charisma checks. Quoting:

    If they decide to keep talking, they keep talking, if they decide to make a decision, that's when the dice take over.

    And which one they decide to do at any moment is totally based on how the GM is playing the NPC. Basically, if you keep talking, you delay the roll and give the player an opportunity to modify it, for good or ill, based on what exactly the player says.

    Unless an actual action happens (throwing the bribe to the NPC, attacking, giving up, deciding s/he doesn't want the thing any more) the NPC will not do anything until there's eventually a Charisma roll. The conversation is (underneath) about deciding how to modify that roll. Just making the NPC laugh could modify the roll. Offending the NPC could modify the roll. Anything that happens before the dice hit the table might modify that roll.

    It's not exactly how I do it, but I think it is worth reading as a companion piece to your post.

    In my case, I predominantly use social rolls in two cases. 1) the initial reaction roll that sets NPC disposition (can be modified by creature temperament or PC charisma in some cases) and 2) morale checks where a PC has told a retainer to do something that they might reasonably refuse. Very very rarely do I use a charisma check or another 2d6 roll to make further NPC decisions (though there are probably a few cases).

    1. I think those are the two most bomb-proof social interaction rules in roleplaying games, applicable to pretty much every game-world and genre.

  8. I have used these to get quieter people more out of their shells- it works great!
    Having everything just settled by rolls feels like video games- I like the combination so much better!

    1. I really like in-character palaver as an element of roleplaying - I'm definitely not of the, 'My guys sez . . .' school! - but I also like the game aspect of running the result through the rules as well, so the combination of the two works best for me.


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