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Monday 13 June 2016

Classic Rant: Social Skills as Superpower

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. Its 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 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 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 of firepower 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 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.


(Originally posted March 30, 2011)


  1. Have you seen A Song of Ice and Fire RPG? It has a detailed Intrigue system that uses a similar mechanical approach to combat but goes to great lengths to make clear the scope of the skills, that any one "combat" can only affect 1 attitude, with much higher "defences" and "armour" for changes that put the target at risk. I believe it addresses all your criticisms very effectively.

    Surely this is also a subject to be clarified with players both in "session 0" and when they are deciding actions, in order to manage the "social munchkin" in the same way the "combat munchkin" is managed in a group.

  2. Charisma is there for a reason. Many a player ignore that attribute because they don't know how to role-play with it.

    1. Some folks just lack the social graces to role play it. Social skills are no less difficult than physical ones. You wouldn't expect every paladin to really know how to sword and board or a monk how to do the Dim Mak deal. Many people go into roleplaying because they are lacking in social skills. Right now it's broken. I've been able to make it work years ago with my group because they were roleplayers and would willingly roleplay a bad hand. If they got snookered they'd play it until something in the narrative of the action gave them a chance to shake it off. But you need a special group for that and they have to trust their GM. For most cases you need something more balanced and it will take some more work. I think it's worth looking into.

    2. The CHA bonus + reaction roll table + roleplaying it does a better job than any other social skill system I've ever seen.

    3. "The CHA bonus + reaction roll table + roleplaying it does a better job than any other social skill system I've ever seen."
      This, exactly.
      Or, sometimes, just the opposite: start with roleplaying , and when talking gets things into a situation that could go both ways ("it is a reasonable enough offer, albeit too risky; will the king take it?"), use CHA bonus + reaction roll table.
      After all, CHA and reaction rolls where quite important in OD&D. "Pure" rolling or "pure" talking are far less effective for me; my favorite way of playing lies somewhere in the middle.

    4. That is often how I use the reaction table, actually. I roll on the reaction table AFTER the social roleplaying happens, presenting modifiers to the table based on the reasonability and utility of the argument being made.

  3. I think there's a couple of problems that combine in the social skills superpower phenomenon:

    1. Players want to be able to pull off amazing bluff/con jobs like characters in fiction (or, hell, even some examples in real life).

    2. As you point out, players don't want to be mind-controlled by NPCs with high Bluff skills.

    3. Gamemasters don't like this asymmetry. They want the Evil Seductress to entrap the heroes, just like in fiction.

    I think part of the solution is a better understanding of NPC motives. If you imagine all the enemy soldiers as fanatic loyalists, then Bluff won't affect them. But if you imagine them as mostly time-servers and draftees who want to go home alive, then a hero who waves some documents around and claims to be the Inspector-General might be able to fool them.

    As to seducing the hero, I think the only way is to manage the player's perceptions. Literally: as in, the hero won't get any rolls to notice the goons sneaking up on him while the seductress is sitting in his lap.

    And, yes, there's always a problem of player eloquence vs. character eloquence. I try to abstract it when the player obviously can't handle it; but there have been times when the player is really good at speechifying but the character isn't.

    1. There is an inherent problem in approaching and RPG as a story and a PC as the protagonist therein as it leads players and GMs to expect what would or should happen in a story rather than what is happening in a game, which are two very different things. In a story there is an author who decides what happens whereas in a game it should be the result of the dice and player decisions. In a story Frodo will prevail no matter the odds; in a game Frodo may end up a bloody corpse with a missing finger in the Shire because his player was stupid enough to try to intimidate Nazghul.

  4. I always had the players tell me what their bluff/story was and how they expected to convince the listener. Then I'd figure out a bonus or penalty depending upon that. I don't know where I got that from (probably RuneQuest type games) but it worked smoothly and avoided the super power aspect mentioned.