Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Art of Persuasion

I've written about my approach to social skills and roleplaying, the significance of non-player character attributes, and a new npc attribute - Tractability - I introduced for my Flashing Blades campaign. In my last post, I discussed social skills in Flashing Blades, both how they are presented in the game and how they are used in my campaign. Now I want to turn to when I call for social skill rolls.

Deciding on when a die roll is called for or not is perhaps one of the most important decisions a referee is called upon to make in the course of actual play. Dexterity check to climb a rickety ladder? Endurance check to avoid the grippe after travelling through a cold, wet night? Roll for damage for a coup de grâce ? Many games attempt to answer questions like these through the rules, while others leave them to the discretion of the referee, but in my experience, even games which offer either a plethora of fiddly rules or simple, broad-stroke rules to cover as many circumstances as possible may still require adjudication by a human being in the many and varied circumstances which require their application in actual play. In games where the range of potential actions are as unconfined as human imagination, only human imagination can truly keep up, and in most traditional roleplaying games, it's the referee's role to take the players' input and make sense of it in the context of the game and the game-world.

In my experience, social skills may be particularly tricky in this regard. A player may have no idea how to parry-and-thrust with a rapier or jump from a window onto a horse's saddle, but virtually all of us believe we can put together a reasonable argument or tell a convincing lie, so turning to the dice can, for some gamers, feel very intrusive to what they consider to be 'common sense,' or 'immersion breaking.' I think this is where part of the disconnect with social skills occurs for quite a few gamers, both players and referees.

As referee, then, what I look for is what climbers call 'the crux move,' the most challenging part of the pitch. With respect to social skills, it's looking for the point at which a non-player character is asked to make an out-of-the-ordinary decision. Most roleplaying, including but not limited to in-character dialog, simply requires the referee to stand in the non-player character's shoes, to consider the situation from that character's perspective, perhaps influenced by a reaction roll. In the same way that walking up a flight of stairs doesn't require an Acrobatics check, most social interactions don't require more than a single die roll, for reaction, if any roll at all.

Social skills, then, come into play when a non-player character reaches a critical decision point, a gut check. For me, usually this means the character is asked to put something, personally or professionally, at risk: examples from my current campaign include dissuading a tavern keeper from calling the provost-martial's archers when a friend of the players' character smashed up the bar, learning details of the investigation of an attempted assassination from a prosecutor, or seducing a lady-in-waiting at the duke of Savoy's court. Roleplaying - how a player's character approaches the non-player character and frames the argument - determines which skill(s), if any, may be applied in resolving success or failure.

For the relatively simple examples above, applying the results of a skill check seems unlikely to be immersion-shattering even for gamers who don't care for social skill rolls, but what about more complex social interactions? Should it be possible, say, to convince King Louis XIV not to repeal the Edict of Nantes with a successful Charm check? At what point is too much hanging on a single die roll? Social skills should be robust enough to handle a courtship as well as a seduction, or to laying out a case for innocence versus a plea for mercy.

The "Duel of Wits" from The Burning Wheel is one example of a set of social skills designed to scale with this sort of scope and complexity, but for my Flashing Blades campaign, I drew inspiration from a different source, the rules for seduction in Victory Games' James Bond 007: Roleplaying In Her Majesty's Secret Service.

JB 007 breaks seduction down into a series of five evocatively named skill checks: 1. The Look, 2. Opening Line, 3. Witty Conversation, 4. Beginning Intimacies, 5. When and Where? Each skill check is increasingly difficult at determined by the Ease Factor, which is multiplied by the character's Primary Chance, which is equal to the character's skill plus the relevant attribute score; as a frame of reference, The Look is EF 10 whereas When and Where? is EF 4. What this rule does is divide a social interaction into discrete steps of increasing difficulty.

As a rule for handling one specific form of social interaction, the JB 007's five steps are fine as far as they go, but they don't do much to differentiate between the personality or individual inclinations of different non-player characters, one of the fundamental difficulties of using certain kinds of social skills, as noted previously. Fortunately, for my own campaign, I have a way around that: the Tractability score. Tractability represents how receptive to suggestion a non-player character may be, providing a modifier to social skill checks. It can also be used in more complex social interactions to determine the number of successful checks required to influence a non-player character as well.

Consider an example: a player character is caught issuing a challenge to a duel by the provost-martial and the player character attempts to convince the provost-martial to 'look the other way' over this violation of the royal edicts. Tractability is applied as a negative modifier to the attempt to persuade; if the two have crossed paths before, as referee I may apply a situational modifier as well, favorably or unfavorably, depending on a reaction roll or the outcome of previous attempts at using a social skills. Suppose that, rather than risk discovery by the provost-martial in the act, the player character wants to secure the provost-martial's agreement not to interfere with this 'affair between gentlemen' prior to the duel. If the provost-martial's Tractability is three, then the player character must succeed at three social skill checks; the Tractability modifier is reduced by one-half, rounded up. Should the player character be interrupted in the middle of the duel, blade drawn and bloodied, then the provost-martial's Tractability score may be doubled - it's more difficult to persuade the king's representative in the heat of the moment from discharging his official duties.

So when does a single skill check roll suffice, and when are a number of skill checks called for? My simple rubric is this: if a social skill is used in an attempt to influence a specific behavior immediately, then a single roll is required; if a social skill is used to influence a recurring behavior or to change a non-player character's attitude, then multiple skill checks will generally be required to succeed.

Failure of a single check is fairly straight-forward, of course; the referee need only assess the degree of failure to resolve the outcome. For a series of skill checks associated with a more complex social interaction, a single failure is only a delay, but consecutive failures means the character must start again with zero successes; three consecutive failures means the character has utterly botched the attempt, and in fact the non-player character's Tractability is now doubled with respect to all future attempts at social skill use by that character!

This system can also be used to handle a player character and a non-player character, or two player characters, attempting to influence a third party, frex, two royal ministers attempting to persuade the king to adopt their respective courses of action, or two lawyers arguing a case before a magistrate. Both the player and the non-player character may attempt to score a success in their attempt to persuade, or they can attempt to rebut a point made by their rival, reducing the other's successes by one instead.

In actual play, I've found this approach to be robust and versatile, frex, dealing with the rakish King's Musketeer's serial attempts at seduction and courtship. The Tractability score shapes how social interactions are likely to unfold and makes each non-player character distinctive, at least to a point - for additional nuance, however, I added one more set of stats to non-player characters, which is the subject of the next post in this series.


  1. Using the tractability score to determine the number of steps to reach a sucess is interesting. I want to see where you are going with this.

    This requires even a very adept character who may be likely to succeed at all 5 steps (or however many steps) to still have to take time to go through each step. Thus avoiding the single roll persuade the King to do X problem.

    Also taking time adds the potential for enemies and allies to become aware of what the character is trying to accomplish and to weigh in to foil or aid the attempts at later steps.

    1. Yup - it does a decent job of handling situations like the romantic rival courting the same mistress as well as political maneuvering.

  2. I like this approach better than many games that model that kind of stuff.

  3. The Bond seduction system is hilarious, but someone should do a seduction system based on the old CANOE cologne ads.

    "Come Over"
    "Etcetera, etcetera"

    1. Oh, lawd, I'm old enough to remember those ads!