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Wednesday 2 April 2014

Social Skills and Superpower: Turning Them On Their Head

The traditional conception of social skills in RPGs tends to be that the guy with very high social skills, +20 or whatever, can use his skills to manipulate and sway both masses and individuals like he was a Svengali.  This has, in my opinion, been encouraged by those Swine that would like to see “social combat” be as important or effective as physical combat.

But this has always run into a certain roadblock: Player Characters.  Players are perfectly fine with the idea that if they should make a “diplomacy” check, they could convince the guard to let them into his secret hideout, but they tend to go apeshit at the idea that if the GM makes a “diplomacy” check, the guard would convince the Player Characters to let him and his buddies into their secret hideout.  It's a case of what’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander: players are clearly quite pleased with the idea of diplomacy acting as mind control, or bluff as a ticket to ride.  I’ve had players who have tried to use Intimidation against Gods; and I know for a fact that those exact same players, if I had a God use intimidation against them, would feel deeply resentful and protest if I told them the intimidation check meant their character would surrender. And they would be apoplectic if it was another mere mortal, possibly someone significantly inferior to them, who made the check and forced them to be afraid. 

And indeed, why would a mid-level player character of some renown be afraid of a 98-lb. weakling or a schoolgirl?! There’s no good reason. It shouldn’t matter if the weakling has +20 diplomacy or +30 intimidate, there’s no way on god’s green earth that the PC should be forced to act against his own interests.

And likewise, there’s no way on god’s green earth that a God should be forced to act against his own interests by a mid-level player character, even if he has +25 diplomacy or +35 intimidate.  It wouldn’t matter.  And not just because he’s a god.

The general answer the Swine give to this dilemma is always to try to say “well, you know, the rules have to apply to all equally… so, Social Combat! Alienation from your character! Ruining Immersion for all!”

That’s the real agenda here.  IF you can create a situation where its normal and expected that you will often have zero control over not only what your character does, but how he thinks and acts, you’ll care less about your character. You’ll stop immersing. You’ll focus more on the story than the character or the setting. That’s the agenda.

But really, this is stupid. If you’re a regular roleplayer, the first key to good roleplaying is Emulation.  And the way social skills are handled in many games and by most gaming groups doesn’t pass the stink test.  The Swine want to answer that by evening out the bad emulation to all sides, including the PCs.  But the better answer would be to say “social skills don’t work as they stand”; they require a radical overhaul, and THEN an even application.

The overhaul should be this: in real life, it doesn’t matter how good your bluff is, you are never going to get someone to knowingly act against their own interest.  It doesn’t matter how good your diplomacy is, you are never going to convince them of something they aren’t already at least slightly disposed to be convinced of.  It doesn’t matter how great your intimidation is, it isn’t going to matter if you don’t have the appearance or threat of menace to back it up.

So none of these social skills should act as “superpowers”, the way they currently do; where the character who is under their effect is basically mind-controlled. Neither PC nor NPC alike should be forced to be taken in by that. 

Instead, bluff is mainly something that would have to exist to smooth over diplomacy; diplomacy would be something that exists to win over the neutral crowd more than someone you’re opposed to (or alternately, to negotiate a compromise, rather than convince someone else to give you everything you want), and intimidate (if not backed by some kind of solid danger) should work at best to make someone nervous. In each of the three cases, as much as it hurts the anti-emulation crowd, none of these can make any sense this way without lots and lots of contextual roleplaying.  The bluff roll could only mean anything in the context of the lies you are telling, the diplomacy check could only mean anything in the context of what you are offering, and the intimidation check could only mean anything in the context of how scary you would already be to the other side.

Make social skills reasonable, which is to say, generally far LESS effective (but sometimes more desirable) than just sticking a knife in someone’s throat, and then yes, make them apply to everyone evenly.  Once you stop making them into Swine-fantasy superpowers, you can sort things out rather easily.


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(originally posted February 20, 2013; on the old blog)

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