Fred Hicks linked off to an article by Stephen called Why the Standard Social Skills?. It’s an excellent post, drawing parallels between several popular systems, and noting some of the oddities for character social skills in RPGs. You should read his post (and the comments), but I’ll emphasize a few points that spoke to me.

  • Somewhere along the line, it became accepted fact that RPGs with social skills break them down in very similar ways: you have a skill to lie, a skill to persuade without lying, a skill to be scary, and a skill to tell when you’re being manipulated. The occasional game mixes it up a little, either by combining a couple of the skills or by adding one or two others for specialized uses (e.g., NWoD’s Socialize for being the life of the party). But, by and large, it’s common to arrange skills in a way that you will use a different dice pool for social encounters depending on whether you’re lying, being honest, or being scary. He gives an example of negotiations, where his Paladin is cruising along as the party speaker and things are going well… then he stretches the truth and it switches over to an entirely different skill. A skill that a different character probably has developed.

    Unlike combat, where having everyone contribute occurs naturally, having several characters each contributing different elements to a conversation usually doesn’t work from a “sounds like a real conversation” point of view. It will often be hard to justify switching from the honest character to a dishonest one as the point character in negotiations… especially if you’re switching from the shiny paladin to the shady rogue. “Suuuure I believe you. Just bring back the guy who is known for truth and forthright dealing and have him say it.”

  • Rob Hodgson points out the following.
    My problem with social skills is that they are, for some reason, generally treated as having a very binary effect on the NPCs. Did you roll well on your bluff check? Then the NPC believes you, even if he has a ton of evidence otherwise! and It’s just not indicative of how actual socializing in real life works, where you aren’t actually ever SURE of anything. I suspect a lot of the issues many folks have with social skills could be alleviated a bit if the player weren’t ever told exactly how well they worked. I don’t think you could hide the system from players forever, unless you’re actually playing calvinball with the rules, but I understand the frustration. Look at the detective shows on TV, where even the most intuitive characters need evidence to spark distrust and closer examination. The Sense Motive skill and Detect Lie spells dramatically change the world–in ways larger than the game system ever considers.
  • Stephen brings up some research: There may be poor liars that are good at persuading people with the truth (though politics makes that dubious), but there are probably not many excellent liars that suddenly become unpersuasive if they’re telling the truth. This strikes at the heart of the problem–that the skill layout mirrors reality so poorly. If you’re persuasive, you’re persuasive. Con men often tell truths so that you to believe the big lie later. Though avoiding diplomancers–people who manipulate with their social skills to effectively mind control the opposition without using spells–certainly encourages not lumping it all into one skill. (Unless the skill is as broad or costly as an attack bonus or other path to total victory as an improvement. For example, Presence attacks in the Hero System.)
  • In comments, Rechan brings up one of my wife’s biggest pet peeves: player skill determining conversational success.
    The problem I have with this is that it pretty much says “If you’re a good talker in RL, then your character is good, and vice versa”. Which is pretty ass backwards in terms of gaming. People who suck in RL at social skills should be able to PLAY a social master. This has long been a topic of debate. In the flow of a game, it can feel clunky to break out mechanics for “a simple conversation”. But we let scrawny kids enjoy hewing down their foes and encourage ordinary people to play super-genius villains. It’s nice to allow even the least suave to play charming rogues.

    Heather Grove has a great post on the subject, called playing beyond ability. It has some suggestions and workarounds to reduce the disconnect between the table and our image of the game world. A similar discussion springs from John Arcadian’s The Player or the Sheet article from earlier this year.

What bugs you about social skills in RPGs? I veer wildly, from wanting any player to be able to take on any character, to a Pendragon’s “there are no social skills or mental stats”. Just how stereotypical the problem is, and how many systems are affected floors me.

In my teens, I ran a near freeform game where each character had one super-skill. It was fun to set up, until one player chose to have his character be supernaturally suave… and kept talking librarians into quickies in the closet. It was particularly difficult because I was so blushing and inexperienced myself…

Which is another of the peeves I’ve got–what makes the GM so good at evaluating the speeches? Particularly in systems without social skills? That you can flatter a GM shouldn’t mean that you impress all of the different people in the gameworld, with their widely varying backgrounds and prejudices.

What problems do you dread when it comes to social skills? What brilliant solutions do you have? Please share them in comments–to save me, if no one else!