Thursday, March 18, 2010

When Failure Isn't Failure

The Problem with Social Skills in RPGs

For a while now, I've been working with a method of handling social skills and social rolls in roleplaying games. In the past, I really didn't know what I was doing. It was all sort of unconscious. However, after listening to a Fear the Boot podcast, I made me think about how I was specifically handing these things.

The dilemma is this - you have a character who is about to make a social roll. It might be Charm, or Command, or Diplomacy, or what have you. The player role-plays every well, making a good argument or impassioned speech. However, they blow the roll. Now what? Does the gamemaster go by what the dice say? Or does he let the roleplaying decide what happens?

This little quandary is two-fold. If the gamemaster decides to let the dice decide, then isn't he kind of being a buzz-kill? I mean, the player might have delivered a bang-up job at role-playing. Or, the player might have presented some killer points in his argument.

However, if role-playing rule the day, then is he being fair to the players at the table who aren't so good at schmoozing the GM? I really saw this point at a Gen Con I attended, where I ran a table for a guy who had enough self-awareness to realize that he wasn't a very charismatic individual, but made the point that he had the right to play a character who was. After all, he pointed out, you can play a character who is really good at swinging a sword, even if you can't.

The reason that this problem arises so often is because often the GM doesn't know what kind of rolls need to be made until the he and the player role-play the situation out. The GM might say, "Okay, the way you phrased this, that's a Diplomacy check." Or the GM might say, "Actually, you're trying to push your way through - that's an Intimidate check." The GM rarely has the opportunity to have the PC make a skill check first and then roleplay the result. Almost always, there is a role-playing scene followed by a skill check.

My Solution

What I've done to solve this little problem is to have it both ways. Here's what I do: A player's role-playing and description determines what is at stake. A character's skill test determines how much of the stake is gained.

So, for example, a PC might walk up to a guard and attempt to convince him to be let in through a gate. If the player does a good job at role-playing, I'll go ahead and say that the guard is convinced. However, I have the player roll a skill test anyway, to see if he or she gets anything extra. For example, the PC might have already convinced the guard to let him by, but a successful skill test means that the guard also gives the PC a piece of information. Or even becomes a contact for the PC. Also, the better the result of the PCs skill roll, the more I'll give to them. Perhaps the guard provides valuable information and becomes a contact besides.

Now let's say that Mr. Non-Charismatic Player comes up and just wants to attempt to skill-check his way past the gate. I'll try to pull some role-playing out of the player, but once I see that the player has reached his or her comfort limit, I stop. Then, I let the dice let me what happened. This happens even if I think that the person has done a fairly poor job of role-playing. If the player in question has really screwed the pooch, I might even say, "Actually, you succeeded on your skill check, so I can tell you that what you're saying will probably piss the NPC off. You sure you want to keep telling him that?"

As you can see, this method still gives an advantage to the guy who can role-play really well. If I'm a charismatic player and have a character with high social stats, I'll still be better than the guy who is not as charismatic and has a character with high social stats. So, to counter-balance this, I will let players I'll at least tell me generally what they want to say. They can outline their points to me. Thereafter, I'll come in and sort of cinematically describe what they do and how impressive they are socially, not unlike what I might do in a combat scene. This keeps the games narrative flowing and avoids the trap of, "I make a Diplomacy check. I passed."

But the main point is - if you're not so charismatic at the table, that's okay. You are not screwed. In fact, if your social skill is high enough to succeed most of the time, you will succeed and I will let you succeed.

Applications to Other Skills

So far, this technique has worked fairly well for me. Furthermore, as I'm refining this idea, I'm expanding it into other skill checks as well. This is particularly important in Rogue Trader. In our recent second session, I deemed that the Rogue Trader had successfully negotiated some equipment for their dynasty.

However, I still had them make an Acquisition Test to see if they could buy the equipment. I told the group up front that, because of good role-playing, they would get the equipment irregardless. However, I deemed that if they failed the Acquisition Test, they wouldn't be able to buy more new equipment for a long while.

That's one more thing that's worked for me with this stake-setting technique - after role-play, I try to state what is at stake upfront. By outlining the stakes upfront, I maintain my impartiality when it comes to the actual roll and it heightens tension a bit, because the players know exactly what they are rolling off for.


  1. I rather enjoy having the role-playing high on the totem. A good skill roll is always important, but I've never understood how your character pulled it off if you haven't gone into any further detail than "intimidate, pass, now what?"
    I'm biased though since I'm a pretty role-play heavy player, as anyone who's ever played with me knows, and this system benefits my style. But, I think that this nudges the more introverted characters to explore different paths and maybe use thought process they are not familiar with.

    It's always good to stretch the noodle from time to time.

  2. Yeah, I understand quandaries like this. Like so many things in rpg's, there's probably not one "right" way to do it - do whatever gives the feel you want.

    For my 2.5c:

    I too tend to be big on the roleplaying bit - or at least on critical thinking. Also, in my book, roleplaying and storytelling ALWAYS trump rules. If you can give me a great bit of logic and roleplaying explaining why the guard would definitely let you pass, it's probably going to happen no matter what you roll...

    I tend to assume what you *say* is your arguement and what you *roll* is how well you deliver it. In my opinion there are very, very few situations where a character should be able to make a social roll without *any* explanation whatsoever.
    Mechanically, my general approach has been give bonuses to the check. Basically, if you can tell me how you're interacting with the person and why that person should give you want you want in the context of the setting and/or the story, you'll get a bonus to the roll - sometimes high enough to make even a very bad roll a success (if not a particularly spectacular one - perhaps you're rude, but the other party does grudgingly admit you have a point). And, like you said, if you succeed amazingly, there's generally a 'bonus' in it for you. If you can't or don't want to come up with much that makes sense in the story, you're basically leaving it up to your character's raw talent and the fates - i.e., a straight die roll.
    I don't really see the advantage given to the aforementioned efforts as 'schmoozing the gm', it's more about being in your character's shoes and interacting with the world - which is meant to be the whole point anyway.

    I should probably point out that context and the npcs' perspectives are also highly important - it is completely possible for a highly charismatic player to come up with a great line of logic or roleplay shmoozing very, very well but to actually end up with *penalty* on the roll instead of a bonus due to some unknown fact (e.g., the guard you're trying to chat up by proving your loyalty to the crown is actually a double-agent and so actively resists you). So awesome roleplaying or great ideas aren't automatically going to work for you - storytelling cuts both ways.

    In the end though, your solution seems to play out in a similar way (enough that I wouldn't have known how much thought you put into it since it felt pretty natural to me) - just perhaps from a somewhat different perspective.


  3. I guess the reason that I'm sympathetic to the non-charismatic player at the table is that I've seen players with characters who have no social skills whatsoever run the table, while a less charismatic player with a character who has lots of points in social skills not be able to accomplish much when it comes time for him to talk.

    I think I really saw a problem with this dilemma one time about 10 years ago when I was about to run a campaign and a player told me that he was deliberately not putting any points into Charisma or any social skills because they were, "worthless". After all, he claimed, as long as he could roleplay really well, he'd be able to talk he way into what he wanted. And this wasn't just one guy that I knew, who was doing this - rather he was the one person who crystalized the social skill dilemma for me. The secondary issue that this caused was a real min/max effect because there were a lot of people I knew who were tremendous roleplayers, but would put all of their points into combat-type abilities or skills and leave the social ones entirely.

    Once this problem crystalized for me, I started changing how I ran games and made the dice and the actual skills more important.

    In terms of just making a social roll without any explanation, what I typically do, if someone is simply not good with a) roleplaying charismatically, or b) coming up with logical points, is have the player make a roll and then lay out his or her options. Something like this: "Hey! You make a great roll, so you know that the guard is probably not going to respond to someone who's nice. Bluster and arrogance, will probably work on him. So, given that you know that...what do you do and what do you say?" In this way, the PC's good roll provides a springboard for possible roleplay, perhaps even helping someone come out of their shell a bit.

    I suppose the big thing that I keep in mind is that people shouldn't be penalized if the person in question just isn't the best roleplayer. Not everyone is.

  4. I can see both sides of this argument. Normally I would come down on the side of emphasizing role-playing over "roll playing", but it defeats the purpose and somehow sucks out all the fun of the experience for someone to "game" the rules to their best advantage. Sometimes, the low stats can help define your character. Which is why I tend to favor story over the rules. If someone has a high stat but repeatedly gets bad rolls (particularly if it starts to interfere with the story or everyone's enjoyment), as GMs we generally overule the dice, don't we? But if someone said they didn't put any points into something because it was "useless" this would annoy me and I would probably end up penalizing the character in other ways by making people's normal reactions just that bit more negative, and more generally positive to the players who treated the rules fairly...

  5. I just stumbled upon this blog half an hour ago, looking for Rogue Trader campaign inspiration, and this particular post touches on something I made a note for just the other day, that I want to do in my upcoming campaign.

    These are some classical problems that seem to find different solutions with different people. Why can I roleplay myself to a social bonus if I can't roleplay higher weapon skill? - Actually you can in some systems. Exalted awards stunt dice for using the environment to set up a cinematic fight.

    If a player dislikes riddles should he just roll for his character's extremely high intelligence and circumvent the GM's carefully crafted handout?

    And so on.

    What I think is often missing in these discussions is the playing downwards. Because we don't want to leave our least smart or least socially capable friend out of the fun we make rules that give him a sense of fairness in the play without the more adept player of the group feeling somehow cheated of his innate advantage.
    But what about playing dumber than you are?
    Personally I tend to be among those that can come up with intricate plans or methods of manipulating our group's ways to get what we want from a given situation. For this reason I can find it extremely rewarding to play a character that could never do that. It is challenging to bite your tongue or suggest something half-way smart when you have a wicked idea right in your head, ready for use. But you know, there are ways to get there if you want to. Heck, you can tell another player and his character can get the idea, it's not too important. Be creative!

    For social situations you can be really undiplomatic - or even more of a challenge, be a _mediocre_ diplomat. If the socially strong player builds a character with mediocre diplomatic skills, urge him to play them out. The results might just be a lot more exciting for everyone!

    Anyway, this was a digression from what I was really reaching for. :-)

    My next strategy for social rolls will be that the player describes loosely what the character is trying to gain from the situation and how he plans to go about it.
    Then comes the roll, and based on that roll the player gets his result immediately. I will tell him how it goes and more or less what he gets from it (you will get through the gate, or you will get your goods but there will be a hitch, etc)
    And THEN we roleplay or storytell it.

    I have not tried this yet but my experience from countless other situations is that if everyone knows where we're going in a scene that's fairly locked anyway, then it gives them a liberty to relax and improvise and create an interesting dialogue. Even better, a player who knows he is about to fuck something up is more likely - again from experience - to set himself up for an entertaining or dire fall.

    By knowing beforehand what the outcome is you also open for a dialogue between GM and player (and rest of the group if they want to chip in) about how this would play out, in the interest of a stronger story.

    Someone mentioned that this particular guard/merchant/etc might be a double agent or hate the king. Excellent point! This kind of info would be something you could either give out to the player after the roll is made so he can use it to do better or worse as dictated by the roll, or you could even keep it as a secret joker that would turn the roll around for the player if he happens to play in a direction that touches it.

  6. The reason I haven't done it that way in the past is because, for me, often it's hard to know what is at stake or what the PC is trying to do until the scene is already deep into roleplay.

    Look at the 'talk past the guard' example. A PC might intend to Bluff their way past the guard but after 5 minutes of roleplaying with him, decide that it would be better to use plain old Diplomacy to get by. The PC may even decide that it would be a bad idea entirely to try to use Bluff.

    That said, I've had a lot of luck with broad narration so far. I think that rolling first and roleplaying the result could work if it's done like a skill challenge. That is - a lot of rolls up front and then a lot of cooperative narration at the back end.

  7. Good points, thanks. I will keep that in mind and see where it goes for me.