Social Systems

So it's social month, and I've gotten out the mandatory talk about basic roleplaying principles, now let's talk crunch. Yeah, that sweet sweet salty roleplaying crunch. The archetypical smooth talking rogue has been around since the early days of tabletop rpg's, and just as long as we've been killing monsters we've been finding enemies we'd rather not kill. Maybe they're too strong, too weak, maybe we agree with them or we have a code, but for whatever reason some problems get solved by talking. Since the moment that this first came up there have been two prettybasic schools of thought. One being "We need rules for this" and the other being "We don't need rules for this".

There are some games in which there are no rules at all for roleplaying, and there are some games where there is almost no roleplaying needed in the rules for social interaction, but over time game systems tend to hover somewhere around a middle spot where there are rules, but more often than not they're intentionally left vague. The other school of thought is "Social combat".

Social combat is a pretty simple idea. If we can take the delicate interplay of deadly swords, kung fu, backstabs and assault weapons and resolve it through combat, why not do the same for social interaction? I've seen my share of social combat, and the premise has always interested me. The idea of being able to apply a set of rules and actions and track progress towards social success has a lot of allure. The notion of how something is worded, what approach is taken having mechanical benefit, feels rewarding. Being able to clearly see social options laid out like attacks gives the player an easy way to categorize and consider their approach. Some of the most attractive advantages to social combat are: Being able to see something like how much of a bribe will improve your odds by what amount, knowing which skill to use when, being able to eyeball how hard someone is to persuade, and of course being able to excel as a social character even if you yourself aren't a smooth talker. Every time I play in a game with a social system I see players taking new approaches they wouldn't have used or thought of without being able to see the mechanical impact.

With all of that being said, I don't like social combat. That must seem odd because I just spent a whole paragraph praising it, but the flaws with a social combat system are, in my opinion, simply too big. First of all, most roleplaying games are designed so that everyone has something to contribute to combat, even if someone is less accurate they can offer better positioning, they can flank or add bonuses to their allies, or at least offer the appearance of outnumbering a foe. That's great in combat because it gets the party involved and of course you're going to gang up on the bad guy most of the time. But imagine you're at a party talking to someone. Things are going fine, they mention they need a ride home and then BAM three of their friends come over and everyone starts talking to you at once about why you should drive them all home. You'd be notably disconcerted. Social combat is either going to be a solo affair or quickly turn into a 5 on one conversation. There are some situations where a good GM can get around that, but in general those are the most common options. Now of course it's fine to have some 1 on 1 scenes, it happens a lot and it's not a bad thing. But think how many 1 on 1 combat encounters you run while all the other players do nothing. Hopefully it's not a lot. if you replace a lot of solo conversations with full length encounters it can get messy and drag on. Which leads to my next point. Time.

Table time is valuable time. I've never met a group who felt like they'd be better off if things progressed slower in social situations. Social combat creates this by necessity, it will never be faster to roll dice and check values between each new idea, statement, or sentence. There is just no way a social combat won't stretch things out longer. On top of this, while I think nearly anyone should be allowed and able to play a social character I don't believe a bonus should be a substitute for thought. A character built for social combat poses the risk of a player throwing the dreaded "I intimidate" or "Social roll to make them love me" without giving the GM anything to work with to carry on the narrative.  And lastly while it empowers good "tactical" social thinking to offer different benefits and advantages, it also creates other cases where a social approach becomes less optimal, it causes you to be more likely to succeed with specificapproaches, based on die pool, difficulty, and the like, but this is not guaranteed to be the approach that makes the most sense in that situation.

Pointing out a problem without offering something better is just rude however, so I'll show you what my favourite method for integrating social attributes in a game. I think absolutely there should be a social stat, or several social stats, to give those "Face" characters something to put their points into. But my general approach is. "Tell me what you say. Roll the stat, and here's a bonus for your roleplaying."  They make the roll, I eyeball it compared to the relative difficulty they'd go up against in the default for that system, and then have the npc re-act accordingly. This lets me balance their approach with their stats.  But it also doesn't let them off the hook for explaining what their character says. There have been times where a player will fail a social roll even if their bonus would have been enough, just because what they say is so, utterly absurdly bad that no amount of charisma can fix it. I do make some exceptions. For some players, usually ones with social disorders I'll allow them to be more vague on their exact wording, but they still have to give me an idea of how they're making their case and then give them a little more leniency. I haven't found a system that this doesn't work for and it strikes a balance between keeping the stats important, and focusing on the details of the interaction.

 I know firsthand how hard a lot of game developers work on their rules, social rules included, but for me, I use this quick easy adjustment for just about every RPG I play. But as always, the most important rule at your table is to make sure everyone is having fun. If you like social combat then go for it! And if you think social interaction shouldn't have rules at all then you go for that too. The most important thing is to find the balance that fits your game.