Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rolling Dice and Social Encounters

One of the most common arguments to be had in the roleplaying community is whether or not one should make skill checks for social encounters. This can range from interrogating a subject to the simple collection of information. Recently I've developed a new opinion on this subject--I used to be firmly in the camp of "just roleplay it out"--and it's one I'd like to share. I believe, in the interest of fairness, all encounters in a roleplaying game should be resolved in a similar way. This belief is based on two principles. The first is fairness. The second is anything important to a campaign can be a complex action.

Fairness is something often overlooked by roleplaying groups. It should be covered in a group's social contract (a subject for another time--for now, let Google be your guide), but most groups don't have them, at least not knowingly. In such circumstances, the rules of the group are usually governed by whomever is the Alpha--the leader. For instance, I've always argued in favor of "just roleplay it out." And do you know why? I'm good at it. I've been told I could sell Bill Gates an iMac. Is that really fair? Should I have an advantage over the other players because I'm good at social conflict in real life? I think not. Let's apply a pro "roleplay it out" stance to combat.

Let me introduce my friend Bill. Bill is skilled in at least four martial arts by my count. He's a hiker and a climber. Bill's in pretty good shape. And if you're reading this, it's more likely than not that Bill can kick your ass. So let's say you take "roleplay it out" as your method of resolving combat. Most people doing that at a table with Bill at it would be insane--suicidal or at least masochistic. Roleplaying games already know this, though. So it's not an issue. But is combat really more pivotal than social encounters? It depends of course.

The real question to be asked in a game is, "how pivotal is the action a character is taking?" The only honest answer is, "it depends." But when social encounters are supposed to be important, most game systems fall short. Some games have attacked the problem by having generic conflict mechanics, which can be applied to anything. Some game systems have full-on combat systems and give lip service to other complex actions by having a generic mechanic. One game system I have to applaud for their social-to-combat ratio is the one behind Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. The combat chapter is longer than the social conflict chapter, but the social conflict mechanics are every bit as deep and basically use the same system.

I believe comfort level is the real issue behind this. Most gamers are media consumers. In media it's easy to learn how to describe a fight. But couldn't the same be applied to the social? Not always, and with good reason. When you describe combat, you're using a tool other than your hands and feet to do it. When you describe a social conflict, that's not the case. The very mouth you use to communicate is the one the experts use when they're arguing. But honestly, some people aren't good at describing a good ass-kicking either. They get to roll the dice. Why shouldn't those taking social actions?

I think the answer is most gaming groups do it backwards. We say what our character will do, then we roll the dice. This is overlooked in combat. We're just used to describing a combat action and having it not pan out because of dice--it's the norm. (I think this is why diceless systems came into being.) But when we give impassioned speeches or make excellent arguments and roll a failure, it just feels wrong. Part of the reasoning is conditioning--for the first several years of roleplaying's existence, combat was king. So many groups have either dispensed with rolling for social actions completely or they roll and don't let the talented people (like myself) take the stage.

I think with a simple twist it's easy to start repairing this damage (as perceived by me) without abandoning our favorite, non-social game engines. Roll then describe. Need to persuade somebody? Make your rolls then act it out. The roll tells you how you need to do. Those who aren't comfortable with acting out social can skip all the details. Those who are comfy with it can go for it. There is a problem with this method. Getting people to act on failure can be tough. At least in combat, the overall outcome is uncertain. Would most gaming groups act out a combat scene knowing they couldn't win? I don't think so. It's still unfair to ask it of players in social situations, but I think its better than the alternative. Another option would be to derive mechanics from combat and apply them to other encounters yourself.