Sunday, November 29, 2009

Masques & Machinations: Building a Neo-classical RPG About Social Interactions

On Twitter, Oddysey asks:

D&D is a game about exploration with no mechanics for exploration, just success (XP, treasure) or failure (traps, combat, hireling loyalty).

Taken from that perspective, what mechanics would you want in a game about social interaction?

It's an intriguing question and feeds directly into some of my personal interests. I also don't currently have the time and discipline to compose a Twitter-appropriate answer. So y'all get a blog post.

I'm going to talk about two sorts of mechanics here: randomized and inventory mechanics. D&D uses both, as do most of the games that came after. Randomized mechanics are the ones most folks think of when they discuss mechanics specifically, as opposed to rules. They're good when you want to introduce risk and uncertainty. Success usually yields a small reward (in classic D&D it opens up new areas for exploration and grants a few drips of treasure and EXP), but even success drains resources.

These resources are the basis for inventory mechanics. They basically are anything the party keeps track of that can be spent in the course of engaging in the game's primary activity. In classic D&D, we're talking about things like rations, light sources, rope, spells, and potions. Combined with the threat of combat and other randomized mechanics that threaten uncertain levels of resource drain, they serve as the (usually) soft limits on the amount of exploring the PCs can do. The game largely consists of the players judging the amount of risk vs. reward on further exploration based on the amount of resources they have left.

So, in a game of social interaction, we need rewards for successful interactions, and if we use classic D&D as our model, resources that are spent in social interaction and randomized events which could unexpected cause a greater drain on these resources.

First, let's take a look at the rewards. One of the interesting things about the rewards in classic D&D is that they primarily allow for more exploration. Higher levels, more magic, and large piles of coins give the PCs greater resources, which allow them to dare bigger risks. This creates an interesting feedback loop where the players are not only encouraged by success to do more exploring, but also given the wherewithal to do that exploring.

Taking this to our social interaction RPG, we can easily port over money as a reward for social interaction. It might be hard currency, as in D&D, or goods offered by clients who need our PCs to intercede on their behalf. (And these clients could also spur the game as a potential source of “adventures.”) On the other hand, the “currency” might be something more like credit. The more well-known you become, the more likely people are to loan you things, loan you money, or even give you things or do things for you for free, simply so they can get exposure to a larger pool of potential customers and have their work associated with you.

Experience levels also map over quite well. If the culture of the game includes hierarchical levels (and most do), going up a level might correspond to achieving a level of social fame that allows you to elevate yourself to the next hierarchical category: from commoner to noble, from layperson to clergy, from apprentice to master. Cultures with varied layers of social hierarchy and interaction would lend themselves well to this sort of gaming.

So these are your rewards. But how do you earn them? By engaging in social activities and interactions. Some of these may require very little risk for the PCs, but the greatest rewards should go to those who dare the most or find clever ways to minimize their risks, just as in classic D&D. What sort of activities are we talking about? I imagine they might be things like putting on events and spectacles (parties, circuses, the military defeat of a hated or threatening enemy, the publication of memoirs), attempts to forge personal alliances (marriages, blood-brotherhood, partnerships, friendships, romances, treaties, commerce), and overcoming social rivals or triumphing in social contests (court battles, legislation, duels, arguing policy points before a voting assembly or a monarch).

And these offer other suggestions for more personal, but probably more potent rewards: reputation, trust, and respect. Risking these, along with personal fortune, social standing and perhaps even life and limb (“...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”), the players would engage in acts designed to increase their social standing and collective influence. There may be some risk involved (Are the barbarians crushed before they breach the gates? Is the gala rained out? Does the Duchess attend our party or go to the opera instead?) and dice may be rolled. But all of these only set the stage for what such a game would be about: taking on a persona and interacting with each other and the NPCs. Just as classic D&D was about exploring but had no rules about exploring, so this social game would leave the actual interactions up to the players of the game. How the players approached the NPCs, engaged with them, and created the web of relationships the game is about should be left to them and their GM, not the whim of dice.

This, honestly, is what I think should be at the core of a game based on properties like Babylon 5. As for Oddysey's game, I suspect she wants a bit more swashbuckling and derring-do than I've implied above, and a bit less high society. But this sort of game is a ton of fun to think about.

Art by Raffaele Giannetti, José Benlliure y Gil, and Jean-Léon Gérôme.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> D&D is a game about exploration with no mechanics for exploration

What's the definition of exploration, mechanics, and D&D? Cause I can't see how someone can say/think that?

trollsmyth said...


Ok, exploration is traveling through and learning about the setting. This could be as simple as searching through a dungeon or as complex as learning about a new culture. Primarily, classic D&D is about investigating unknown terrain and searching through it for treasure.

Mechanics are the rules of the game; how to create a character, how to use resources, how to adjudicate uncertainty.

In this particular case, I'm talking "classic" D&D, which covers the original game, Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, BESMI, and AD&D 1e and early 2e. The focus shifts heavily towards combat in 3e and lands firmly their for 4e, which is why some Old Schoolers feel it's a completely different game.

Here's an argument for this interpretation of the classic D&D rules.

trollsmyth said...

Let me also add that I think there are mechanics for exploration in classic D&D, but they tend to be of the inventory sort: how long torches burn, how far a lantern sheds light, encumbrance, that sort of thing. Some folks have a more narrow view of mechanics and use it to refer to the rules about dice-rolling.

Ragnorakk said...

Very interesting post and well thought.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> Let me also add that I think there are mechanics for exploration in classic D&D

Yeah I agree, I think it (it being those rulesets not those games as played) is 1/2 mechanics for exploration and 1/2 about killing stuff and 1/2 other stuff.

Random dungeon generation, random treasure, wandering monsters, how fast movement is, how long it takes to search 10 x 10, opening doors, listen at doors, detecting slopes, instructions on mapping and dungeon stocking, chance of getting lost in wilderness, etc.

But, I can see how some people would consider most of those "rules" and not "mechanics".

I think we're largely in agreement.

>One of the interesting things about the rewards in classic D&D is that they primarily allow for more exploration

Is an interesting observation esp in regards to social interaction or any reward/advancement system really.

I don't think I'd like a social interaction "mechanic" like some dice roll (or a game based on that) but the ideas of risk vs reward, rewards lead to greater challenges are really good ways to think about how to handle these situation.

AndreasDavour said...

I think there are interesting ways to map the exploration mechanics to social interaction.

Let's start with Money. In a social game we could have Glory. You gain more and more Glory, which is the currency you can use in social interaction. When you need to get something done, gamble some of your Glory for deeds of daring. I could see this used as die modifiers or similar bonuses.

Experience maybe can be mapped to Renown? If you are not known for being the best swordsman in the duchy or as a dragonslayer you wont be getting near the king. If you have your eye on the throne I guess someone whom the Gods have heaped Glory upon you must be fit for rulership, right? In a game like Classic D&D where you are supposed to have the end game with a stronghold and followers, I could easy see that tied in to pre-requisites of certain level of Glory.

It sure is easy to let the imagination run wild in these directions. Now I feel like breaking out my BECMI sets and read those Companion rules again!

Natalie said...

Yeah, Twitter-ifying that idea left a lot of nuance out of it, but I think everyone's gotten the idea. You want to roll for the stuff that's not important to the game, so you can spend more time on the stuff that is important.

I'm now really, really tempted to start putting together a system along the lines you've described. (I spent half the day yesterday thinking classes -- Officer, Artist, Merchant, Mage, Priest, Noble, Scoundrel, Exotic Native With Peculiar Powers.) I don't know how great I'd be at running it, but I'd definitely play the heck out of something like that.

trollsmyth said...

Appropriate bribes may induce me to run something like that for a short bit, but I'd much rather see you take a swing at GMing something along these lines.

Chris said...

Sounds kinda like En Garde to me. That had toadying, flattery and social climbing mechanics...

Zac in VA said...

This essay is really well done. Good job! :)
I also really enjoyed using your packet of house rules last night for a level 1 Swords & Wizardry adventure - shields were, indeed, splintered.
Anyway - - Andreas, I like your Glory idea, and I would add that Glory being risked is a lot like money. Day to day stuff plinks away at it, and the rest, the big stuff, is high- and low-risk investment.
Day to day interactions where people see the "real you" would dim your perfect glow, and if you really screw something up, you would dim considerably. Of course, doing well would make you even better well-received.
This would cover pre-modern political/military intrigue really well, or any scenario with lots of Great Men and larger-than-life personalities.
As for OSR games and how they work, I think Trollsmyth's take on it is correct - the mechanics cover stuff that is kind of secondary to the "meat" of play.

I admit, I generally go for the opposite setup, to a point, but it's been really cool to see what all the old school fuss is about (born in '83, so AD&D2 was the earliest version I ever saw).

trollsmyth said...

Zak in VA: Thanks for the kind words. :D

Yeah, I've been running Doom & Tea Parties games for coming up on two years now (Labyrinth Lord with a host of house rules) and other than adding some new races and incorporate some 1e monsters, I've done very little to tweak what I started with, rules-wise. Things seem to be going well.

Feel free to ask if things seem unclear on this OSR stuff. We've been chewing on it for years (decades even!) so we sometimes say things with short-hand we worked out some time ago. ;p

Zac in VA said...

I actually came to OSR by way of the Forge and, and I got to those sites by way of getting fed up with White Wolf games not working the way I wanted them to.
I read the Old School Primer and started getting dungeon ideas right away; at some point, I want to mess around with the whole xp/gp relationship and see how that affects play style.
I love games like Polaris, Fiasco, and Storming the Wizard's Tower - definitely more in the fast-and-loose camp, I think. I cut my teeth on Everway, back in the early 90's, as an aside.

trollsmyth said...

Very cool. Yeah, the folks in the OSR don't like to talk about it much, but there's more than a little inspiration being taken from the Forgeites "take it apart to see how it ticks" sort of analysis.

EXP for gp is pretty central to how the older versions of D&D work. Mess with that, and you're basically doing open-heart surgery on the game, which means you can get a big change in play from very little effort.

But that's assuming your players think much about this sort of stuff. My players are much more interested in personal motivations of their characters ("Grrr! We must avenge ourselves on that witch and her pirate cohorts!") and I sometimes have to goad them into spending coin to keep them advancing. ;p

Zac in VA said...

Ah, no problem there! I mostly play with fellow design enthusiasts. Thanks for the link!