Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Honey Cakes for Cerberus

Alexis at "Tao of D&D" has started poking at building some social mechanics for D&D. There’s been some questions and a few wrong assumptions about how I generally handle social interactions in my games, so I figured now was a good time to revisit the topic

There are two important issues that need to be understood. The first may be the hardest: social interaction skills are not magic. Sure, there's a place for coercion, browbeating, intimidation, seduction, insinuation, and all that sort of emotionally charged stuff. But honestly, I don't see much of this in my daily life. Most interactions I have, and I see others having, generally boil down to fairly simple exchanges. I'll invoke Heinlein:
Never appeal to a man’s “better-nature.” He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.
Generally, when I want something from someone, and I think they might not be willing to give it to me, I find some way to turn it into a barter. So do most people. Sometimes, this is fairly open-ended and long-term, like helping your friends move on the assumption that they will help you move when the time comes. Sometimes, it can be fairly immediate, like when I helped my neighbor set up a printer in exchange for homemade macaroons. Often, it's flagrantly commercial: I give the guy behind the counter a $10 bill and he gives me a Big Mac, fries, a soda, and change.

When the other person is highly resistant, you up the offer and invoke a stick to juxtapose with your carrot. If you show up for work on time and perform your duties correctly, you’ll get a better performance review, which may lead to a raise. Failure to do these things will absolutely result in getting fired. Sometimes, all you get is stick. “Take down the copyrighted material,” reads the nastygram from the lawyers, “or we’ll see you in court.”

But honestly, most of the more exotic interactions really boil down to the same thing. Intimidation, at its heart, is exchanging something you want for not unleashing a world of hurt on the person you're attempting to intimidate, just as with the cease-and-desist letter. Seduction is the promise of pleasure given in exchange for pleasure received. In either case, your success is going to depend heavily on how well it appears you can follow through on the promises. Issues like reputation, how you look and are dressed, and how you express your desire for the exchange can all have a vital affect. For instance, you'll be a lot more successful at the seduction if you know what sort of pleasures your target wants and hasn't been getting, and your behavior, posture, and outfit hint that you’re just the person to deliver that sort of fun.

And this really is the heart of the matter. It's got nothing to do with coercing the DM or vague threats or knowledge of the rules or reputation outside of the game or anything like that. At my table, it’s never a contest of wills or wits between players and DM. If your character wants to seduce someone, they’d best have a good idea what that person wants in a lover. Otherwise, the chance of success is pretty damn low. This is why this post and the previous one are entitled "Honey Cakes for Cerberus". If you wish to slip past Hades’ three-headed watchdog, you could try a move-silently roll, with the knowledge that you’ll be savaged if you fail. However, you’re much more likely to succeed if you follow the advice of the ancients and slip the pooch a honeycake just as Aeneas did. In exactly the same way, knowing how Lord Rouschford prefers to be touched, and by whom, makes it far more likely that you'll succeed when attempting to seduce him.

Now, as Alexis correctly points out, this can result in a hell of a lot of recordkeeping. For just about every NPC you’ll need to know what they want, what they have, and what they're willing to trade for it. You’ll also need to know who else knows what they want and what they have. Traditionally for me, this has not been terribly difficult. I've always seen this as just part of knowing who people are. But it is a lot easier with some recordkeeping. (Currently, Odyssey and I are experimenting with different ways to make those records easier to use and peruse. This is one of those areas were someone of a more visual mind is helpful, as we want a way to convey a lot of information in a quick, easy package. Who has what, who knows what, who wants what, and how do they all relate to each other. I use tables right now, but it doesn’t make things easy, especially when you’re trying to use someone else’s campaign notes.)

That's really the bulk of it right there. The hard part, honestly, is making sure you have players who enjoy that sort of thing. Alexis’ crew clearly wouldn't. I haven’t played with people like that in quite some time. If there is a theme to this blog, it is this: know what you want and know how to get it. My games abound in background detail, conversation, emotion, and conflict. Once my PCs start talking to somebody, they’re likely to question that person every which way from Wednesday. I imagine Alexis and his crew would see this as a verbal version of pixel-bitching. Minds would wander, eyes would glaze over, and fun would drain out of the room fast. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not what they want, and not what they find fun. This is why I'm not antagonistic in any way at all to his attempt at a more holistic social interaction system. In his game, in-game conversations get in the way of the fun. In my game, in-game conversations are the fun. Different strokes for different folks.

I do, however, dislike the term "social combat" which I've seen tossed around the 'net here and there, mostly as a short-hand for this sort of thing. The idea that social interactions are some sort of winner-takes-all conflict strikes me as utterly ludicrous. Life just doesn't work that way. You've almost always got to give a little to get anything.

However, I'm certain people schooled in the ways of swordsmanship and such may very well feel the same way about D&D’s combat. I'm perfectly fine with the abstractions of hit points and a single to-hit roll covering an entire minute’s worth of combat, because combat isn’t where the fun is in D&D for me. Getting down into the details of footwork, feints, styles of combat, and dirty tricks would force my games to linger on exactly those points where I want things to be quick and simple. Combat just gets in the way of the fun. And I imagine those who use "social combat" systems probably feel the same way about social interaction.


Pontifex said...

I also have a disdain for social "combat" as a model. As far as appealing to their nature, you really should read the conversation mechanic in Synapse, Brian.

JB said...

Wow...regarding the Machiavellian premise...I completely forgot I used to think like that!

I mean, in real life, in real interactions with folks.

But I had a paradigm shift back in 1997 or so (wow...a long time ago now that I think of it) and since then, I've found leverage really is NOT necessary when getting people to go your way.

Since that's been MY personal experience, I can see game mechanics that model something other than leverage (i.e. not needing the extensive record keeping). I mean, you CAN do model social mechanics with leverage (if that's the game world you want to explore)...hell, you can model social mechanics in many ways (in a 300-style warrior culture, one's Strength score could stand for Charisma when interacting with individuals...or perhaps advancing in level would increase one's ability to interact just as it increases one's attack rolls).

Anyway...I think it's cool subject matter from a design perspective.
: )

trollsmyth said...

Greg: Where would I find those? I don't remember seeing anything specifically on that in the last version I looked at.

JB: Ok, so now I'm curious, how do you now get people to go your way?

Roger G-S said...

Funny, this is exactly what I was mulling over today on my daily walk. Having social situations resolved as "lock/key" problems, text adventure style, rather than with a whole mechanic of dice rolling and strategy.

trollsmyth said...

Roger: The really nice thing about this is how scaleable it is. If that's all your players want or can handle, you can leave it at that level. If they want a bit more complexity in the characters and their interactions, it's easy to weave into the situation.

Natalie said...

JB: Machiavellian? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? What Trollsmyth is describing is *capitalism.*

Telecanter said...

I posted an attempt at dealing with this using playing card suits just today.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

So how do you handle the physical appearance of characters in your game? It sounds like it could be important if the party needs to spy on Lord Varilor, and finds out after digging around that he likes dancing girls, but treats them like they're deaf and blind, or at least mute. Naturally if they can get the pretties female character to go along with it this is a great way to spy on him. But how do they tell who's the prettiest female character?

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

*The first time that should, of course, be prettiest female character, not pretties.

trollsmyth said...

C'nor: What does "prettiest" look like? Is her hair blonde or red or raven's black? Is her face oval or heart-shaped? Is her figure curvaceous or slender?

If I was playing a more fairytale sort of game, I suppose we could declare one or the other "the fairest in the land," but this game is a lot more down-to-earth than that. Men tend to have their preferences. They like their women long-legged and lean, or short and hourglass voluptuous.

Again, the trick is to know what the other person wants and to give it to them. Luckily, living in a world where sorcerers can cast polymorph other, they can tailor their bait to his particular inclinations.