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Saturday 9 July 2016

Classic Rant: Roleplaying, "Fairness", and Chess

I've heard the advocates of social mechanics in RPG going on about the subject from the perspective of "fairness". It is not "fair", they say, that your character should be able to swing a sword well whether or not his player could but your character can't give a convincing speech if his player suffers from chronic shyness. That's pretty much the argument, right?

There's a serious flaw in this logic, which is that the opponents of social mechanics aren't "unfairly" giving more weight to one thing that a character does than to another, they're just actually expecting an RPG to require that you be capable of doing the one thing an RPG is supposed to be for: Interpreting the character.

No one questions the fact that in chess you can move the knight piece without having to know how to ride a horse; nor do they question that to play chess you need a certain kind of intelligence. Its not "unfair" that people who lack that particular kind of intelligence cannot play well, its just an unfortunate fact. They can't play well. Maybe poker or tiddly-winks is more their style. No one would suggest that we create a complex set of mechanics to simulate the kind of skills that are involved in playing chess well, so that a person with low chess-playing intelligence could have a "fair chance" against a grandmaster, do we?

It would be absurd.

Likewise, in roleplaying games, the whole point is to interpret a character. A prerequisite to roleplaying games is being able to play out a character in social situations. If you can't do that, its not "unfair" that other people can; its just the nature of the game. Too bad for you.

But you know, its not all hopeless. Someone with relatively low chess-intelligence can still learn the game, practice hard, develop certain skills, and eventually compensate for a lack of natural chess talent. They might never become a "grandmaster" but they could, if they wanted it badly enough, end up playing a good game.

Likewise, if someone is a socially inept person, playing RPGs could theoretically allow one to develop skills that will help to compensate for that. If you work hard at it, play a lot of games, and want it badly enough, playing RPGs can help have a transformative effect on you. You might never be a social butterfly, but I've seen several people who went from being either terminally shy or socially-inept bozos for whom serious RPG play helped, in the long term, to turn into much more socially competent people.

Of course, that only happens if you don't substitute the actual roleplaying parts with a bunch of rolls.


(Originally Published August 15, 2011)


  1. Depends on the kind of campaign you're running I would say.
    It would make no sense for, let's say, Amber rpg to have a system allowing you detect lies or to counter the machinations of other players on the roll of a dice.
    On the other hand, in some games it would be a good idea to roll for social interaction. It makes no sense for Urgh the antisocial Barbarian with 4 CHA to be a smooth talker just because his player is.

    1. No, that's still just a matter of roleplaying. If Urgh is Chaotic Neutral, but his player is a good upstanding citizen, the player should still know how to present the character. We don't need to roll to see how "chaotic" the character acts. Likewise, even if the player is a smooth-talker, it's still up to him to roleplay the antisocial character, if that's the character he created.

    2. Well, I kinda agree with you but some players often 'forget' to roleplay their character's weaknesses and, in that case the CHA stat is useful. Nice speech, Urghh, now roll for CHA.

      Now, that's not really the core of the issue because, imo, the supporters of the social combat mechanic often rely on rules mainly to prevent conflict between the players and the DM and among the players. Uncomfortable situations must be avoided at all costs.

    3. And some players "forget" to flank in combat, or prepare the right spell, or say they're searching for traps. Should they roll in those cases also? "Roll for INT to see if you make all the right choices." What's the point of roleplaying at that point? And you don't fix failure to roleplay with a rule mechanic.

    4. Ah but you are talking about tactics and that is a different matter. Rules for social interaction shouldn't protect players from bad decisions (though they might allow them to mitigate their consequences to some extent, same as the combat rules do). It's a game after all...

    5. Did you read my post below? It goes into a little more detail about my point. I'm wondering if we're just stating things differently, rather than an actually being in disagreement.

    6. There isn't an "eloquence" stat. Things like your WIS, INT, and CHA, or your social class or cultural background should all affect HOW you roleplay socially, but should not replace it.

  2. Chess is a poor analogy because in chess one does not assume a role that may have attributes and abilities different from one's own. One plays chess as oneself.

    Thomas's point about the character with a 4 in Charisma should also be addressed.

    Perhaps a set of character stats like those in Boot Hill, where there are none for Intelligence and Charisma, works better, as it then depends wholly on the player's ability and interpretation of his character rather than scores and dice rolls.

  3. Leaning and improving my less than stellar Social Skills is basically why I got into RPG playing, and especially DMing, to work on. I can attest that I'm not the only one.

    The only problem I have with this logic is that, even if the player knows what the character is doing, the player might not have the proper way to portray what his character is doing, and in lieu of possibly being misunderstood or even embarrassed on the table he "Trusts in the Heart of the Dice," so to speak.

    Maybe if the DM would ask for him to be more specific and at the least, lets the player give a ballpark explanation on what is being said in that charismatic speech, maybe the player can better give a better portrayal of the character, which would help if the people sitting in the player doesn't have real-world proficiency in Perform.

  4. I agree that social mechanics are not needed. Two further points, I think, need to be made.

    First, while the player rolls to see if his character hits with a swords, there are still a lot of combat-related skills the player needs that no game mechanics give you. How should I maneuver? Where should I concentrate my attacks? Did I miss a flanking opportunity? What spell should I use now?

    Second, even if you don't have social mechanics in the game, the player still doesn't have to be a smooth-talker to be able to roleplay a smooth-talker. Maybe the player is shy, stumbles over words, laughs nervously, won't make eye-contact, whatever. If he tells the DM that he's trying to be polite, or if he comes up with a convincing lie, then he should have a good chance of success, even if the player can't do a good job of pulling that off in real life. Likewise, no matter how much of a smooth-talker the player is, if he has his character say something rude, or make up an obvious lie, he should have a good chance of failure, no matter how well he may be able to persuade people in real life.

    So, combat and social interaction in a roleplaying game aren't as different as people often make out. Both involve a bit of knowledge/skill, but neither involves much.

  5. This article used the phrase "serious role play" without any obvious sense of irony, therefore I consider it a fail

    1. Pundit takes his gonzo wild west robot dinosaur dungeons VERY SERIOUSLY.

    2. Despite that phrase, he gave an argument, rather than mention something irrelevant to the point. Ahem.

  6. This article used the phrase "serious role play" without any obvious sense of irony, therefore I consider it a fail

  7. "Of course, that only happens if you don't substitute the actual roleplaying parts with a bunch of rolls."

    And, of course, if the DM and players interpret social mechanics as a replacement for roleplaying, then they're fucking idiots.

  8. RPGPundit, this is spot on and 100% correct and all the whiny naysayers will not change that. What you advocate is true Old School Gaming the way good players play OD&D.

    In addition, playing OD&D like you advocate above does go a long way to helping the shy person learn to break free of that paralyzing shell they are in. In fact playing OD&D the real Old School Way helps anyone develop and enhance their ability to interact with the real world outside of games.