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IN THEORY: Approaches to Social Interactions

Social interactions are what separate roleplaying games (rpg’s) from most other types of games. For example, how often do you talk in character in Monopoly or checkers? However, social interactions often have more gray area than other skill tests. For example, it’s easy to determine the results of a CLIMB roll. Either you make it, or you fall and take some damage. But even if you make your CHARISMA roll, that doesn’t mean that a non-player character (NPC) will tell you everything or obey your every command. The gamemaster (GM) has to make some decisions.

In this article, we’ll look at three approaches to resolving social interactions. We’ll look at their advantages and concerns without advocating for any one approach over the others.

In this approach, players may still talk a bit, but dice rolls ultimately determine the final outcome. If you need to know how much to tell players, consider a degree of success or failure chart. This method has several things to recommend it. Not everyone is comfortable with or skilled at roleplaying. This method allows those players to still have a role in negotiations and information gathering. It is also more generally consistent with how combat and physical challenges are resolved. Lastly, it prevents arguments. You either made the roll or you didn’t.

On the down side, this method does not encourage in-character conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you craft a clever story to fool the town guard, or simply say “I talk to him.” Some groups may be fine with that, but others may want more robust social encounters. With this method, there’s no reason to develop your character’s social approaches.

In this approach, the GM will give some mechanical bonus for good roleplaying. For example, she might give a +2 to your CHARISMA roll, or have the NPC give up more information than originally planned. This method encourages roleplaying while still allowing the dice to have some say. It can be a good compromise between DICE ALONE and ALL ROLEPLAYING.

One concern with this approach is that shy players may get sidelined. Also, the task resolution may be inconsistent with combat and other dice rolls. Usually you don’t get a bonus for well-described blows in combat (though nothing says you can’t do that as well). Lastly, there will be some GM fiat involved, as every scene will play out differently.

In this approach, you don’t roll dice at all. If you give the stormtrooper a convincing story, he may let you into the Imperial information vault. Player skill is more important than game mechanics. This method may be most appropriate with friendly NPC’s. Why roll dice when talking to your patron wizard or commanding officer? They plan on helping you anyway. Also, you may not want to roll for every little encounter. The town blacksmith is more concerned with your money than your charisma.

This method doesn’t encourage players to invest in social skill points. Why dump points into NEGOTIATE when the GM won’t call for that roll anyway? As with DICE PLUS BONUS, quiet players may get sidelined. Also, there can be accusations of unfairness. A player may feel that they roleplayed an encounter exceptionally well and weren’t adequately rewarded.

This article couldn’t cover EVERY possible social game mechanic. There are certainly games that have rules for social encounters that eliminate or minimize the need for GM interpretation. In most games, however, there will be some need for GM input in social situations. It’s the part of the hobby that most resembles improvisational acting, and the game is richer for it.

How about you? What approach do you use most often? What ideas did I miss in this article? Let us know below.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "IN THEORY: Approaches to Social Interactions"

#1 Comment By Toldain On July 12, 2017 @ 10:26 am

I think the situation where you are speaking with an ally, someone who is going to help you anyway, might be a good place to steal an idea from FATE Core. Go ahead and roll the dice, and if the outcome is bad, then you “succeed but with complications”. They need another favor from you. Or you have to give them some gold because otherwise the giants will get mad or whatever.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On July 12, 2017 @ 10:36 am

Good idea Toldain. Also, Apocalypse World/Dungeon World has a “Partial Success” level which would work well for this too.

Thanks for reading.

#3 Comment By Vethrun On July 12, 2017 @ 11:36 am

Great idea! I’ve always felt like there are a few more FATE concepts D&D could benefit from. In general I try to keep dice in social interactions at all times, though I always insist that the player also tries to RP through it. For me the dice are there to keep things impartial. However I mod the DC based on the argument/RP the player gives.

Of course I always keep in mind that the actual character may be more or less charismatic than the player. An awesome argument delivered by the player will be blunted while playing a charismatically-challenged dwarven barbarian, while a very plain ask can be powerful when delivered from a 20 Charisma paladin.

#4 Comment By Blackjack On July 12, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

The “All Roleplaying” approach has always struck me as wrong. It puts unfair emphasis on a player’s capabilities rather than the character’s. Players don’t have to demonstrate their own strength to force a door open, their agility to climb a rope, or their skill at sword fighting for their characters to succeed at such endeavors. They roll the dice and apply the mechanics. Why should the outcome of a character negotiating with an adversary forego dice and mechanics and instead rely on how sly and polished the player can be? Very few players -ever- are going to be as capable at such things as a character who’s been developed with them as personal strengths.

The approach I like to take is one I’ll call Direction Plus Dice. “Direction” is the player giving guidance on the direction s/he’d like a roleplaying encounter to go. It’s a combination of playing in character plus a meta-game discussion about approaches and desired outcomes. For example, when a PC wants a high end merchant to reveal who bought a sought-after item recently, the Direction might be, “I’m going to try flattery, I’ll gently explain that this other person is up to no good, and while I’m buying something I need anyway at up to 2,000d I’m willing to tip 100d more for information.”

Dice, then, is about applying the relevant mechanics. The character’s skills, the die roll, and the adversary’s difficulty level determine basic success or failure, modulo perhaps a small modifier if the Direction is particularly good or bad. I then describe the result via Storytelling, shaped by the Direction and the Dice.

“Kalisto and Adria enter the shop. Adria spots the merchant sizing them up. And he seems pleased– your expensive and well maintained gear mark you as discerning clientele with money to spend. Kalisto picks a weapon and talks tech with the shop owner. As the conversation comes around to price, Adria mentions that wasn’t there an even better one for sale around here recently? With money now on the counter– a tad more than the merchant’s asking price– Adria assures him that the other guy is on the outs with the lawful authorities, and certainly she’ll be discreet about where she got the lead to track him down. The merchant hesitates, citing ‘his reputation’, but then agrees.”