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Sunday 24 September 2017

Classic Rant: A Quick Note on Social Skills Vs. Actual Roleplaying

In any game that has social skills, rather than roleplaying, you can run a game without roleplaying more easily than one that has no social skills, unless you run the latter purely as a miniatures skirmish.

That's because in any situation that demands roleplay, in the game with social skills, you can just say "i try to charm/seduce/enchant/intimidate/impress/honor person x" and then roll a die and the die roll can tell you whether you did it or not.
In a game with no social skills, you actually have to roleplay.

The great rebuttal people try to offer to this point is that if you have explicit social-skill rules in a game, that means that it's somehow encouraging people to do more social scenes, whereas D&D with no social skills is just encouraging combat somehow. This is a bit like saying that giving people a ton of tofu will encourage them to eat more meat, while not having tofu on the table means people will forget all about bacon.

In my experience most of the time "the system encourages it" mentality actually causes LESS reliance on roleplaying (and more reliance on 'story points' or having "five dots in diplomacy" or whatever). That's not the sort of encouragement you need or want. Any "encouragement" that makes how well you roleplay the character irrelevant if you roll the wrong die result is not actually encouragement, it's discouragement. It's telling you "don't worry about trying to portray the character, just put your points in the right skills".


(Originally Posted 21 September, 2015)


  1. I agree, and I think the same is true of skills like "Tactics" and "Investigation". It's kind of like playing Monopoly and making an "Acquire Property Skill" roll to get Boardwalk and Park Place. The process of acquiring property IS the game.

  2. I can see the point, but . . . in my gaming group I've got a couple of players who want to run "silver-tongued" characters but aren't very eloquent themselves. If I judge the success of their diplomacy/seduction/persuasion attempts by how the player sounds, they're always going to fail, and fun will not be had. The game is fiction, and the characters are not the players. Characters can do things players cannot. I don't expect my players to actually work miracles or perform magic at the table, why should I expect them to be eloquent if they aren't?

    Interestingly, I've also seen the complementary problem: a player with extremely good verbal skills winds up being a better diplomat even if his character is supposed to be gruff and laconic.

    For both situations, I preserve player agency by having the player tell me what he wants the character to say, at least in summary. The skill roll then determines how well the character "sells" it. I apply modifiers based on what is being said: so if the player is dealing with a giant and wants to use threats of force, that's a penalty because the giant isn't going to be intimidated. But if he tries to use flattery, that might work.

    1. I totally agree. I was playing a Delta Green game once where my character was an FBI agent trying to get some info at a police station. I'm just no good at roleplaying that kind of interaction (it was a lot easier when I played my bumbling professor character) and it wasn't a lot of fun (and came across as kind of unbelievable that an FBI guy would be that awkward). I agree with Pundit that you don't need social skills in game mechanics - but I think then it makes sense to have 'background as skills' so that if your fighter was in the City Guard, he'll have some idea what to say to those guys even if you as a player haven't a clue...

  3. In my homebrew fantasy heartbreaker I've recast Charisma slightly to make it about clarity of intent across linguistic barriers (technical skills), while leaving the ability to make a persuasive argument in the hands of the players. In doing so, I "split the difference" ... possibly arriving at the worst of both worlds, bit it works for us :)