Today’s article is courtesy of Blake, one of the members of my regular Saturday Gaming Group. By far one of our more Mechanically oriented players (to the point that he and I occasionally butt heads on how to handle certain things,) he’s been struck with an idea to discuss a common problem in games: How to adjudicate social situations with respect to both Mechanics and Roleplay
Social Stats: Mechanics vs. Role Play
By Blake Clinton Y. Dy
“Ask for the Moon and Chances are You’ll Get it.” –Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
“Don’t Argue with Me, Firearms is my highest Social Stat.” –Juan Dela Cruz, Hunter: Black Lagoon
Arguably one of the most contentious issues of any Role Playing system would be the concept of Social Mechanics, namely a developer’s attempt to distill the infinite vicissitudes of human social interaction, from simple tone of voice to subtle body language, to a quantifiable and objective numerical value that may be used repetitively as part of formula to adjudicate social contests between in game characters. Of course herein lies the paradox of the entire concept that on one hand, unlike a computer game with its restricted choices and corresponding responses, players may make an infinite array of statements and actions that are, in essence, wholly subjective propositions to be judged and responded to by the Game Master who plays every object of interaction in the game world but on the other hand it is the presence of some form of impartial adjudication that differentiates a Role Playing Game from a mere piece of cooperative fan fiction writing.
Approaches to this topic can generally be seen in the context of the two polar extremes of the Gamist and the Narrativist school of thought advanced by Ron Edwards. The Gamist approach has its roots in D&D’s origins as an expanded tabletop war game whereby the Game Master took the role of, hopefully, an impartial arbiter who placed primacy in the game’s rules rather than the inherent qualities of the player’s actions. This is an approach that rewards clever engineering by allowing players to actualize everything they put on their character sheet while punishing them for what they lack; if the dice say so, it shall be.
In the context of Social Interaction, the pitfalls of this approach are readily apparent and easy to point out in that it allows players to run roughshod over everything with little rhyme or reason given enough dice. Concurrently it also means that a player’s statement, no matter how eloquently spoken and well argued, will never be accepted even with the most sympathetic crowd if he does not have the dice to back it up. A perfect example of this kind of play is White Wolf’s Exalted system where players are easily capable of utterly overhauling a person’s world view, his memories and even his grasp of basic concepts like up, good and right in a matter of minutes given enough dice, the right charms and enough in game time with the target.
In counterpoint to the Gamist approach is the Narrativist approach which is a recent invention when Game Masters took the leap from being rules arbiters to something akin to amateur novelists looking to craft an epic in microcosm. Adherence to rules takes a back seat to considerations as to what would make a good story. Impetus thus shifted from a player’s ability to play system to his ability to please or convince the Game Master to allow a given course of action; if the GM likes it, it shall be.
Thusly when faced with a social interaction the GM looks at the player’s statement through a lens of the present persona he has adopted and responds accordingly. While this common sense over mechanics approach may seem ideal on its face, resulting supposedly in more realistic responses, it has its own share of deficiencies on two levels. From a system point of view it unfairly robs a player of points he had invested in social statistics, which might have been more effectively spent in other less subjective endeavors such as combat survivability, when ultimately his success at achieving a certain thing boils down to his ability to make the GM see it his way. Instead of being able to actualize his escapist goals, which is the salient thrust of any Role Playing Game in the first place, the player is constrained by his own limitations of social adeptness and that of his GM’s sensibilities. In short it ferments a double standard; one where the player has to justify being able to talk well on his character sheet, thus spending points of his character’s potential, and actually being able to talk well to the GM’s standards.
For this example let us now move on to Cthulhutech, to run a barebones combat capable character you’d to need to really only invest in two combat skills; Dodge and one other skill to govern your attacks, maxed out at roughly 7 skill points for a starting character to be combat optimal. In contrast one has to spend in five skills; Intimidate, Savior-Faire, Persuade, Misdirect and Seduction to perform those social actions, costing a player 5 skill points just to be even able to do them without crippling penalties and 17 skill points to be able to do them notably well. Seven points versus fifteen points to excel in combat versus social actions, little wonder then that for some players shoot first shoot some more then see if you can ask question later is a far more desirable approach to a problem, its far cheaper and less fiat dependent. In practice if a GM were to ignore the use of social mechanics in his game he had just effectively sunk a large portion of a starting character’s resources down the toilet since these are stats that he will ultimately never get to use in game.
On the second level this approach hangs this game ultimately on the GM’s opinion which, far from producing a realistic response, strangles the game’s creative freedom by imposing the GM’s ideas of what can and cannot happen in the game world. While most GMs would like to think themselves capable of viewing a character’s statements impartially through the lens of the persona that they’ve assumed the fact is that this is an impossibility; a GM’s own mores will always intrude into his decision making regardless of what persona he assumes, he also has the benefit of omniscience and will unconsciously be applying knowledge gained of the player’s intentions in prior scenes or discussions to the present persona’s decisions and finally of course he has the penultimate right to simply say No to a character without recourse for appeal. The game essentially has replaced all the infinite variables of social interaction, which the dice are designed to simulate for the players, with capricious GM fiat.
By way of historical analogy I’d like to point to the story of Victor Lustig, a Con Artist who sold the Eiffel Tower twice to some of Paris’ most astute businessmen and even managed to con Al Capone out of five thousand dollars and live to tell the tale. With the benefit of hindsight, any rational man, and by extension any GM being confronted with this situation on the gaming table, would call it for BS it was and shoot the idea down but the fact still remains that despite its sheer outrageousness of his schemes Lustig pulled this all off and got away with it several thousand francs richer. In short a GM’s decision making process is hardly infallible as it cannot take into account the multitude of factors that would’ve been acting on or within Lustig’s victims when they were targeted by the smooth talking Con Man. It’s one thing to view a situation from the Mount Olympus of GM Omniscience but wholly different thing entirely when you’re next to the Tree of Wisdom being seduced by the Devil himself to take a bite of that nice invitingly red apple that would make you super smart while God isn’t looking.
Being confronted with the twin bugbears of the Gamist and Narrativist approaches I’d like to proffer a Simulationist middle ground whereby decisions are both adjudicated according to its prima facie plausibility and actual mechanical viability. In this way one both satisfies the creative aspirations of the GM but at the same time tempers his arbitrariness with objective results generation. In this mode one should look at social statistics as the summation of the character’s ability to convince someone to his point of view, his inherent charisma and personal magnetism opposed in turn by his mark’s own quantified ability to see through his statement and refute it. This in turn should be accompanied by varying penalties and bonuses that the GM might impose based on his judgment of the presence of extant circumstances or the player’s statement’s resonance with his target’s mindset, which should be codified on paper for good measure if possible. Never should a GM simply say Yes or No during a pivotal situation for the die roll’s result is not only representative of the character’s capacity for convincing someone else but also all the multitude of random elements attendant social exchange such Freudian slips, misinterpretation and the like as is wont to happen in any real conversation between two people. Above all it is a transparent, accountable, accurate and most importantly objective derivation of a conversation’s result.
Paradoxically Exalted’s social combat system fits neatly in this mold. While it is true that any character with the right set of powers and sufficient dice can simply impose their wills on everyone Exalted takes into account the individual quibbles and eccentricities of each character by introducing the concepts of Intimacy and Motivation. That whenever a person is subjected to a Social Attack one’s defenses are modified for better or worse depending on how well the Attack jives or goes against a person’s closely held beliefs. The game thus rewards players for tailoring their arguments, ergo actually Role Playing, to suit their opposite’s psyche but at the same time keeping GM’s subjectivity at bay by having everything still rest on an impartial die roll, hence rewarding both aspects of thoughtful Role Play and intelligent Character Engineering.
In conclusion I would just like to express the opinion that games should ultimately endeavor to always strike this middle ground between fluff and rules in all its aspects. On one hand a good story and fun for all is the end point of any RPG session but on the other one must not neglect the system for they are the rules that objectively govern the simulated reality of the game world. GM’s and players should remain cognizant of the fact that it is a game, not a novel, not everything is supposed to go everyone’s way which is the essence of why we play in the first place, the presence of unpredictably as injected by the system and the presence of other players. If a player or GM cannot accept that he might as well just stay home and write up his own version of the wonderful adventures of Edward Cullen.
In closing I would just like to say that this piece does not purport to be the definitive text on social mechanics as each gaming group’s dynamics is inherently different by dint of its membership but rather this article is intended to be merely a contribution, a distillation of personal experience passed through a critic’s eye if you will, to the greater body of intellectual discourse on gaming.
While in this article I seem to champion the Simulationist mindset in this article in all actuality I find that I switch hats between all three branches of GNS theory dependent on the context I find myself in. As the owner of this blog will attest, I am a hardcore Gamist on the table, if a system can be abused I will do so without shame to ensure my dominance, but when evaluating an RPG system or its trends in general my leanings are clearly Simulationist as I will bend and twist the said system’s ability to actualize every scenario to its limits yet I am also a Narrativist in practice as I am a heavy participant in systemless Play By Email Games like the Battletech Mercenaries Group, which I would gladly recommend to anyone interested in exercising their writing skills in a Hard Sci-Fi and Mecha setting. Those who wish to contact me may do so via email or Yahoo Messenger, my address/ID is firstname.lastname@example.org.