Saturday, April 4, 2009

Start of a Design Manifesto for Social Rules

Social mechanics in Role Playing games is a touchy subject. The idea of having a system of numbers and dice to dictate how effectively your character talks while the player himself is in-fact already doing the speaking comes across as arbitrary and in the worst cases could force players to role-play their characters in ways they do not wish to. There is also the instance where the Player might give a very flimsy argument but the dice roll indicates that it was very effective.

Many long-time tabletop role-players believe that social mechanics actually impede roleplay, some even go so far as to rebuke and ridicule those who might believe otherwise. I've been on dozens of blogs where a Dungeons and Dragons advocate has attacked a commenter who laments Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition's lack of definitive social rules as "not a real role-player". I disagree with the sentiment, logic, and lack of respect for a fellow hobbiest that those attacks bear. I've been known to be somewhat inflammatory in my time but I won't attack a peer's personal opinion, though I may attempt to sway it. Nonetheless I do take heed of these role playing purists' arguments when I look at Hardkore's social mechanics and how I want to implement them.

The first thing I started to look at is how do people play out a social interaction and when does the result of that come into contest?

Some games, especially those conducted over a Play By E-Mail or online Chat thrive on long-drawn out conversations and debates where every nuance of the Character's actions are described in graphic detail. Other times the cut-and-thrust of a social debate is bundled into a quick, abstract summary and subsequently resolved by a die roll. Both of these approaches are completely valid and both have their place in all games, and of course there are degrees between the two that exist as well. Ultimately the emphasis of one technique over another depends on the type of game it is. A game of political intrigue would likely contain more of the first technique, while a series of dungeon crawls punctuated by short trips into town to negotiate the sale of the group's spoils would certainly do fine using mostly the second one.

From that logic there comes a design choice; should a designer create two sets of social mechanics to resolve either kind of play or will one encompass them all? I lean to the trend that one mechanic to resolve both techniques is best but that mechanic needs to be of solid fundamentals and versatile.

So we'll start with the fundamentals, and the first question we need to ask ourselves are what are the mechanics going to effect? If they make a character behave a certain way how is this going to be enforced? And lastly what are the mechanics for resisting?

To me the things that social mechanics need to effect are; deception, manipulation of both emotions and rationalizations, leadership and guidance, and ingratiating people to you (or etiquette). Or in simpler terms; lying to them, convincing them to do things or react the way you want, leading, teaching, and making people like you. All of these can be influenced by variables beyond simply describing what a character is doing or conducting a dialog. I can't think of anymore but any suggestions to what I might have missed are welcome.

Next comes enforcement. Enforcement of a deception is easy, you simply tell the player or determine what it is that the NPC believes to be the case. Manipulating people socially is harder, many players don't like the GM telling them how their character thinks so there has to be a way of bypassing social influence at a cost. The cost can be a penalty to dice rolls due to the internal conflict of the character, or a loss of a temporary expendable trait. The question is how severe this penalty is and how long should it last and/or how precious is this expendable trait really and does it have other purposes? If the game incorporates personality mechanics and/or morality mechanics there can be additional modifiers due to those. The penalty idea is one that we'll likely use, though I'm open to ideas for other methods of enforcement if anyone's seen ones they like.

The last is resistance, which is trickier than you would think because it often depends on play-style. Often times it's hard to distinguish who is attacking and who is defending in a debate, which makes it tricky to resolve ties. Social play isn't like combat where the attacks can be the result of the die-roll, instead the die roll has to supplement the role-playing rather than become it. Timing becomes important if you do a "social health level" system such as Exalted's but if enforcement comes from a penalty system then timing doesn't mean as much as simply determining the modifiers that are applied to the role-playing and then seeing if the character's social agenda is carried out successfully or not. To that end I believe the "attacker" is the person rolling to carry out his agenda while the defender is the character rolling (or using static values) to maintain his current social orientation.

This of course needs refining but I think here is the groundwork for a good system to implement for Hardkore, it's going to be more complicated than I originally expected so I'll have to streamline it once I get the basics down.

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