A new RPG system

Fixing Social Mechanics and the Player Information Gap



I need to talk about two seemingly different problems that are actually closely related.  The first is the disparity between what the player knows and what the players character knows.  The second is the general problem of social mechanics.  These problems have generally plagued games, and game systems have repeatedly tried to address them with a bunch of different mechanics, none of which seem to get it quite right.

I once played a game where my character was an “infiltration expert”.  Fortunately the party was confronted with the challenge of infiltrating something.  Unfortunately I am not an infiltration expert, so I proceeded in the worst way possible.  My actions as a player were out of step with what had been established at the table, and it disrupted every part of play.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t think to ask questions, part of the problem was that the social contract at the table didn’t establish how to ask questions; a big part of the problem is that the mechanics of the game had essentially zero rules about player character information.

This character was also had high social skills.  As a player I often want to maximize my Charisma, but often find the results at the table disappointing.  I’ve played a lot of different systems that have tried to address this problem specifically.  I even made a system with social mechanics (with metaphor to combat).  As far as my play experience goes, there has never existed a game with good mechanics for social intrigue.

Recently I had an epiphany.  Social mechanics, Player Character information, and Roll to Fail mechanics are all related.  Once I realized that, I knew that fact could be leveraged for rules that fix all three.

The Problem of Player Character Information

Quick, what is the best sorting algorithm?  If you’re a computer programmer you probably know the answer, and you probably know it’s not as simple as there being a ‘best’.  If you aren’t a computer programmer, you probably are having trouble understanding the question.

You are in a dungeon.  The Game Master puts you in the following situation:

There are 10 wands sticking out of 10 holes, and each want has a number on it labeled 1, 5, 21, 7, 16, 99, 57, 5, 14, 21.  The room is slowly filling with water.  Taking a want out makes it fill a little faster, when you take 2 out it the room starts to fill with water faster.  Taking three out makes it fill with water even faster.

This is a puzzle trap.  The door opens when you get all the wands labeled in order.  There are a lot of different ways to solve this puzzle, but it’s a puzzle that a computer programmer could answer like this.

I grab the wand with the smallest number greater than the one all the way to the left, and swap it with that one.  If there is no want with a lower number I move on to the next one.

That is an algorithmic approach to the problem.  Non-programming players would probably instead do something like:

Um, I grab the 7 and trade it with 21.  Now I grab the 5 and trade it with the 7.  I then trade the 21 with the 7…

They’d be less efficient, and would have to talk through each step.  Okay, so here’s the problem.  What happens if your character is a computer programmer, but the player is not?  One way of handling this is by making the whole puzzle a test.  “Okay, roll your programming skill.  21? Okay you solve the puzzle”.  While that ‘works’ and is ‘realistic’ it’s also really boring.  What is the point of having a puzzle if the player just rolls and everyone moves on?  The other way this is often handled is “No, you have to figure it out.  I don’t care how smart your character is”.  This leaves the fun of solving the puzzle, but puts a bad taste in the players mouth and often has Grognar the Barbarian solving puzzles that the computer programmer rightly should be solving.

The Problem with Social Challenges

Social play is typically even worse than the issue of Player Character information.  Let’s face it, there are not a ton of people sitting around your typical RPG table that are naturally charming, and even fewer game designers that we’d characterize as charismatic.  So, what ends up happening in RPG’s when social situations are involved?  You end up with the same sort of situation as the puzzle challenge described in the previous section.  The player fumbles through it unconvincingly, or the GM asks for a Roll to Fail and glosses over the narrative.  Neither of these are particularly satisfying.

You can see already how it is related to the problem of Player Character Information.  It’s even worse though, because there’s a knowledge deficit at both ends of the table.  Often the entire thing is a non-starter.  The player says “I try to convince the guards to let me through the gate”, and the GM says “Okay, what do you say?”.  Well, now we’re already likely to be going nowhere.  What on earth would a person say to do this?  The honest answer is that there is nothing to say given what the player described.  The player described a desired outcome and not an action!  (If you’re playing Fate this sort of description might work, but certainly not in GURPS or D&D)

To understand why you can’t “convince the guards”, you have to think about how this would actually play out in a movie.  Go consider the audience and what things they would see on-screen that would make getting past the guards believable.  When you imagine that you might think: The hero could bribe the guards, create a distraction and sneak past them, seduce the guard and ask them to dinner and be helped through the next day.  You might think of other things, but none of these are “Hey buddy, why don’t you let me through because I’m awesome!”  (well, maybe that at a very high difficulty level)

The Solutions

The solution to all of this hinges on giving Players the tools they need to succeed and stay in character.  This means giving them abilities we’re not used to handing out in a game but should.  When Steve Jackson put in the Common Sense advantage into GURPS, it was brilliant, but it missed the fact that common sense is already built into all the skill the player already possesses.  Here I’ll present mechanics for handling the problem of PC information for GURPS, Fate, and D&D 5e.

Advisory Checks

The advisory check is asking the GM, (and possibly the other players depending on the dynamics at your table) for a brainstorm.  Remember the Player is just some guy, the person they are playing is an expert at something.  So, the player says “What are some of the ways I can break into this mansion?”.  A roll is made, and based on that roll the GM lays down things that the Player should probably consider.  So the GM might say “The front door is probably guarded.  There are windows, but since a Mage lives here there’s the possibility of ensorcellment that would alert someone.  There is a cellar entrance, but that will mean more distance to cover.  Servants come in and out every morning and evening.  Finally, you know this person socializes a lot, so there’s a good chance they are throwing a party soon.”

Notice, the GM didn’t give the player straight advice or tell the player what to do, the GM just stated facts that a thief would probably consider (and that the GM has probably already considered) in terms of breaking into a house.  The advisory check is not a way to Deus Ex Machina a solution, it is to provide the player with the sort of strategic advice she needs to make good decisions.

This check should also be reflexive.  It’s a ‘common sense’ check for domain specific things.  The thief says “I try to climb through the window” and the GM knows that’s an immersion breaking and unrealistic choice for this PC.  He has the character make a check and says “Okay, but you’re pretty sure those will have alarm spells cast on them” if the roll succeeds.

Of note, the Advisory check to a certain extent is a resolution to the issue of “Challenge” vs “Action” resolution that you read about in RPG theory.  It is a mechanism by which a player can anchor a “Challenge” (what they want to accomplish) in a set of “Actions” (things that they can actually do).

Interrogatory Checks

The second kind of Player information is about getting specific, or tactical facts, instead of getting strategic information.  Here the player says “Is the glass cutter I have likely to cut through this glass?”, or “Are the servants loyal enough that they’ll be resistant to bribes”.  Also, “how hard is it likely to be to pick the lock on the cellar”.  These are specific questions about the state of the world that the Player Character would likely have access to, but the Player doesn’t.  A thief knows the tools of the trade, a wizard knows what sorts of spells are going around, and a fighter understands the effects of terrain and weather on a combat situation.

Players should be encouraged to ask specific meaningful questions about in-game facts that would be relevant.  How hard is this check?  It depends on how esoteric the question is.  A fighter asking “Who’s the best blacksmith in town” should be pretty damn easy, the Mage asking “What library has information of the Elder God Xool” is much more difficult.  What social class is this person could be trivial or very hard depending on how much that person is trying to hide their social class.

Soft Failures with Information

The third way of giving Players information is to heavily lean on Fail with Information using the Soft Failure rules.  In the real world people are connected to other people, and know lots of tiny little facts.  So, consider this “You try to slip the guard a couple silver and he gives you a look like you just insulted him.  However you recognize the other guard from a tavern you used to frequent, if he still keeps the same schedule he’s likely to be there tonight”.

The heavy use of Fail with Information is a great way to anchor the character in the actual game world in a really meaningful way.  It gives the players a sense that they are actually a part of this world and not just interlopers.  As a GM I’d ask on any failure “is there information to be gleaned from this failure” and if there is, jump on that as an opportunity to gain more immersion for everyone at the table.

Application to D&D 5e

To get this working in 5e, I’d give everyone a free “advisory” and “interrogatory” skill.  Advisory skills are Wisdom based, and always have the proficiency bonus.  However it is directly tied to the PC’s class.  So a level 1 Rogue/Thief with an average Wisdom has Advice(Rogue/Thief) at 2.  This lets the PC make Advisory checks related to their class.  Similarly everyone has an Information skill at Intelligence plus their proficiency bonus.  The 1st level thief with an 8 Intelligence has an Information(Rogue/Thief) at 1.

It’s important that these are tethered to the class.  The thief is good at knowing how to thief, not so good at coming up with the best way to ambush someone.  The Fighter on the other hand implicitly has an understanding of tactics and strategy, so the Fighter can get advice about that.  Finally the Cleric who has an 18 Wisdom can get advice about anything (because their Advice(Rogue/Thief) is going to be 4), but they’re particularly wise when it comes to religious matters.  Similarly Wizards, with their high Intelligence, are going to seem worldly as they can get interrogatories with a pretty good bonus from the start, but again they’ll be particularly knowledgeable about magic.

People that play spellcasters might object here, in that it overlaps somewhat with spells like ‘augury’.  I think it actually right sized the spells, it makes the spells ‘universalized’ and to a certain extent the mechanics of the spell are more specific and compliment well these checks.

Application to GURPS

The application to GURPS is going to be quite different.  For GURPS you’ll want every skill to have the ability to be used in an Advisory or Interrogatory way.  The character with a high Judo skill can ask interrogatories like “Who is the world champion Judo master right now”, or advisories like “How do I throw this person off this cliff?”.  The skills in GURPS are narrowly focused, but they all implicitly come with a set of knowledge and deep understanding.  While is may seem odd to have a DX skill used for these sorts of checks, it fits fine within GURPS framework, but I would suggest that the GM have a default -2 for non IQ based Interrogatories and Advisories.

(I’m open to alternative suggestions here, if you think of something better for GURPS, please leave it in the comments)

Application to Fate

Fate is intended to play a little differently than the above two.  So I suggest the following mechanics:

  • Simple questions that have a related aspect are given for free to players.
  • Any skill can be used for an Advisory or Interrogatory
  • Applicable Aspects can be applied to these
  • A Fate point can be used to “Just know” something related to an aspect.

With Fate you really only want to roll when the advisory or interrogatory has a pretty heavy bearing on the situation.  A character who has the “Thief in the night” aspect is already assumed to know everything there is to know about being a “Thief in the night”.  So here, just answer the Players questions unless it feels like this is going to alter the course of play significantly – in that case roll a skill, or ask for a Fate point to get the details.

Rolls are more for out of aspect issues.  The “thief in the night” may have a question related to guns, like “What’s kinds of guns do the Molag Tong use?”.  In this case a “Guns” check is made, with shifts of success providing more or less detail – or an advisory question related to guns might be “What’s the best way to snipe this person?”, in which case the GM would lay out the various considerations.

Social Mechanics and Information

A clever reader might have already begun to see how this applies to social mechanics.  If we go back to our scenario above then we know the issue isn’t “”I try to convince the guards to let me through the gate”, the issue is “How do I convince the guards to let me through the gate”.  Here the GM can say “Well, it might be possible to create a distraction.  You could ask one out for a date.  You could try to bribe one” – all of which are reasonable.

There’s something else here though.  People are motivated by things, and the only way to convince someone of something is to motivate them to do something.  Let’s assume that th player decides to ask the guard out for a dinner date – okay, how do we get from going to get from on a date to letting the guard in?  Well, if the two become fast friends, then the guard might be motivated by helping a friend out, or the guard might be enticed by the promise of sex, or the guard might need money.  Here interrogatories become useful, because the player can start asking the Game Master questions like “What motivates this person? What habits does this person have?  What does this person think of me?  What does this person think of th king?”; more importantly the player can start asking interrogatories of the other person “I want to figure out what this person thinks of the king.  I say ‘So, how do you feel about the war'”.

Soft Failures are particularly useful here.  The player says “Hey buddy, why don’t you let me through because I’m awesome!”, the Game Master has the player make a very difficult check, then says “He seems unimpressed.  You suspect that he’s going to need more motivation than just your smile”.  If you’ve been paying attention here, you can see that we are working from transferring Player Character information to Player information as a mechanism to create believable scenarios for social scenes.  The game going from “I roll diplomacy and now he’s my friend”, or worse making the social interaction into an abstract conflict that is hard to anchor in narration, into direct narrations of the things that reflect real world social encounters; it anchors the social interactions into things that are believable for the audience.  With the transfer of Character information to Player information we are ready to design robust and compelling social mechanics.

Simple Working Social Mechanics

I’m doing research (reading certain novels) to get a set of really well crafted Social Mechanics for Living Myth.  However, for most games what we’ve already covered gives us what we need to create workable social mechanic for our games.  When the player is given the tools to gain the information she needs she is equipped to create compelling stories.  It just comes down to the basic things that social interactions do and how they lead to a goal.  So, here are the basic things you can do: Tell a lie, change an emotion, establish trust, trick a person into saying something, offer a trade.  That should cover 90% of everything one does in a social encounter.

So, when we are talking about socializing within the context of a game, we are usually trying to convince them to do something.  We want them to tell a secret, give us special privileges, or back a measure in the senate.  The GM now needs to think about what the person that is being convinced wants, and how much they trust the player to give it to them.  The process then is navigating the waters between the person being a stranger and the person believing they will get something by helping the player character.

So the player will want to establish trust and make promises in exchange for what they are after.  It’s possible that this is as simple as putting a sack of coins in the targets hand – but there is no guarantee that the NPC is motivated by money.  Maybe the NPC is motivated by their dying child, by sex, by political influence.  The character wants to learn what that thing is, then wants to establish trust, then wants to offer a trade.  That is the process for engaging in social intrigue.  That is the mini-game.  If you play Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, then this is what you should change the Diplomacy rules to – and you should make opposed diplomacy checks to establish trust, to learn about the character, and finally to make the offer.  Establishing trust should significantly reduce the DC for the offer, and learning about the character should let the player know what kind of offer to make.  If the player character fails a check to establish trust, leave a hint about what rubbed the NPC the wrong way.  If the player character failed to learn something, then give wrong information that can go hilariously wrong.  If the player character fails the offer, make a counter offer or give the player some other way to proceed.  Finally, if the offer is a lie, then use that bluff skill.

That’s it, that is what a social mechanic should look like.  It’s simple, it’s not too complex for a hack and slash game, and it works.

Next Steps

Fixing the problem of Player information resolves a tremendous amount of the frustration in RPGs.  Previous attempts to make social rules work have been hampered by the fact that they are fundamentally unworkable without first fixing the problem of the Player information gap; bridging that gap alone makes social drama immediately more workable.

Right now I want to devise more intricate rules, ones you’d expect for a game of political intrigue. The basic outline is already workable though.  You could add this general framework to any game your currently playing, but it requires that you first fill the Player information gap.

If you have any thoughts on interesting social drama from media, I’d love to hear about it and brainstorm how that maps into play.


One response

  1. Sounds good, although I wonder about the practicality of frequent Advisory and Interrogatory checks – in the games I run, I’m usually happy to just give players information that their characters ought to know without requiring a roll, although I might call for one if the information is particularly obscure or difficult to obtain. I generally find it’s better to give the players too much information than too little.

    On the social mechanics, I would usually ask “How do you do that?” rather than the overly-specific “What do you say?” Also, have you seen Apocalypse World’s approach to social conflict? There’s a lot built into a really small rules-space about manipulation to achieve a goal, needing leverage, and also giving incentives for player vs player rolls (XP reward if you do it, and/or penalty to your rolls if you refuse). It seems to check a lot of your boxes.

    February 1, 2016 at 9:30 am

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