Friday, December 18, 2009

Player Skill vs. Character Skill and the Case of Social Encounters

All around the rpg blogosphere, I see the debate focusing on player skill vs. character skill. Games focused on player skill are often associated with old school games - players are encouraged to make the decisions that really matter, and what's on the character sheet is de-emphasized (except for traditional mechanics like spells and combat prowess). Games focused on character skill are associated with newer games - players can have their characters do wonky things, and the stats on the characters' sheet may allow for a pretty good chance of success. We've played both kinds of games recently, such as AD&D 1e (arguably player skill focused) and Spirit of the Century (arguably character skill focused). I tend to find games that focus on character skill more fun because they encourage the insanity, and I just love my insanity in rpgs. But I understand the allure of games focused more heavily on player skill as well.

Having just traveled to California for the holidays with the inlaws (in particular a place called Temecula that is in the desert sorta between San Diego and LA, and centered around a gargantuan mall), I've heard a lot of "Yo, dude!" in the past few days. This got me thinking, strangely enough, about the player vs. character skill debate as it specifically applies to social situations in rpgs. Because there are few mechanics for social interaction in old school games, player persuasiveness usually drives what happens in these games (use Charisma, never!). In newer games, there may be a variety of stats that address social situation, and these may carry the day with a couple die rolls.

Given this distinction, it strikes me that social encounters in rpgs exacerbate the problems that I have with games focused on player skill.

If I don't have to be good with a battle axe in real life to be a mega-damage destructo Dwarf fighter, why should I need to have good social skills in order to be a charismatic Paladin who can convert all forms of life and sway them to my cause? Why the asymmetry? Is it because we perceive physical skills to be harder to pick up than verbal ones? Given the population of folks I've gamed with and worked with over my life, I feel confident that this isn't the case. The ones with heavy verbal acuity are often heavily trained and versed in their subject area. And the gaming crowd doesn't have a tendency to be easy on the social ears.

So, is there a solution for this problem? A way to save the player skill focused game during social encounters? Here's my off the cuff solution:

Encourage players to explicitly use tactics in social situations and not just combat situations. There are several rhetorical moves and ways to structure persuasive arguments, and some are more or less effective given the social situation. If the player plays this tactical game well even though the player may stumble and mumble and show lots of butt crack, the GM in the player skill game should be more lenient. Though, we now face the problem of figuring out what strong tactics are and how we could be explicit about them.

Some games, like Burning Wheel (and allegedly A Song of Ice and Fire) address this problem - they list a variety of rhetorical moves, and they have explicit mechanics for social combat that play these tactics against each other. This seems better to may than simply saying, "Yeah, smart guy, whatever you say. Now make a diplomacy check." But as I've found, these mechanics can sometimes be unwieldy. They're almost too clever and involved for their own good.

This all makes me wonder if there's a mechanic out there floating out there in Platonic rpg space that can synthesize the old school and new school approach around the use of social tactics. Any suggestions?


Oddysey said...

What I've been working on for the last few weeks might not be exactly what you have in mind, but I'm trying to build a system that supports social play, revolving around negotiations and parties and such, that attempts to balance the participation of both the social skilled an the unskilled, without turning it into an overtly mechanical social-combat type exchange. The general idea is to build a lot of stuff *around* social encounters that gives people more to do in them, like how Old School D&D gives you spells, equipment, and an XP system that helps and rewards you for exploring, but doesn't do it for you.

Though it probably helps that I'm building it primarily for a text environment. It's much easier for less-than-social-skilled folks like myself to get involved in a game like that with more time to think.

Swordgleam said...

I've never actually seen the player vs character skill debate applied to a topic OTHER than social skills (though I suppose sometimes puzzle-solving prowess comes up).

I think the reason we rely more on player skill for social stuff is because it's seen as "good roleplay" to say whatever the character is saying, rather than just roll for it. Whereas no one but LARPers wants you to swing an axe as part of immersing yourself in your dwarf berserker.

I personally prefer the "bonuses for good roleplay" thing on top of built-in social mechanics. That way, persuasive people get the advantage of that but awkward people can still play "face" characters.

Anonymous said...

There is a game still in playtest out there that in my opinion tackles the problem you talk about in an interesting way, combining both player and character skills during resolution of social encounters. I'm talking about Storming the Wizard's Tower by Vincent Baker.

Conceptually it works this way: when you want to socially manipulate someone (from extracting informations to intimidation) you roll your character's attributes. Each die that succeeds (it's a die pool system) generates a point that the player can spend to manipulate the NPC, and even the PCs to some extent. For example you can use a point to ask the GM a question about the NPC's feelings, to know if he was lying or to force him to help you with a single, discrete task.

This way the system accounts for character skill, because attributes directly impact the amount of resources generated by the roll, while at the same time it preserves the need for the player to make some important choices. Being the resources limited in number, he has to manage them to get the most out of the roll and situation.

I like this system because it's quite elegant and shifts the focus from player's social skills to player's resource management skills.
I don't like old school systems that rely on player's social skills very much because they are potentially subject to social manipulation that go far beyond the scope and the context of the game itself.


Alex Schroeder said...

Diaspora is a FATE based science fiction game with social combat rules that involve drawing a map with "zones" and adding "aspects" to the zones, placing the actors in zones, moving around, etc. You get to apply tactics to social combat.

Zzarchov said...

In my case I decided to make my social conflict mechanics in many ways mirror the physical combat ones, this was for several reasons.

1.) I agree with your char skill assesment, I've been Infantry and im highly trained in being persuasive (one of my post secondaries and my job) and I understand that social interaction is far more than what you say.

2.) I also know that combat is traditionally HEAVILY abstracted, and since that turns out fun, I want to keep the same thing with social conflict.

3.) Play testing has let me know, it works well and its fun

alot more information (including play examples) can be found here

Christian said...

If you're in Temecula, you might take a trip out to one of the nearby wineries. Sadly, many people go to the wineries to get blind drunk, but it can still be a nifty experience. Whatever you do, don't go further east to Hemet. What a godawful craphole.

There used to be a game store near the mall, but I think it went under.

Try to head south an hour and hit the beaches in Carlsbad. 15 south, 78 west, 5 south, exit Carlsbad Village Drive and head straight to the beach. You will la la love it.


Stuart said...

Diaspora's social combat system is here. It is very cool, but I think it is a bit too abstract for most uses.

Ryan said...

I used to be a proponent of "social combat" systems, but I find my tastes have changed.

As for the argument that I shouldn't expect my players to learn how to use a battle axe, well.. that's never held very much water for me. A player's ability to use any sort of weapon or physical skill in real life has no meaningful way to translate to the tabletop experience, whereas a player who with a lot of social clout can apply his skills at the table due to the social aspect of the hobby. I also have come to frown on skill rolls that are made to bypass a more interesting roleplay experience; skills that allow characters to detect lies or instantly intimidate/seduce/persuade without any input on the part of the player takes away from an important element of the game, in my opinion.

I suppose it depends on what aspects of gaming you enjoy. These days, my games are about exploring, problem solving, and interaction with both the NPCs and the setting. We can fully play out the social aspects of the game, but the tabletop precludes us from seeing if Joe could really climb that wall or beat up that ogre, so we use abstract systems to resolve those actions.

I will generally use rules for social interaction in games that already include them (White Wolf comes immediately to mind), but even then I don't let the players off the hook with "I intimidate him." They have to give me at least the gist of what they say or what angle they approach the subterfuge from.

1d30 said...

Old school task resolution can take into account player effort and character quality.

Premise 1: If a task is too difficult, the DM says no. No roll. "You cannot jump to the moon even if you roll a natural 20"

Premise 2: If the task is too easy, the DM says yes. No roll. "You cannot fail to tie your shoelaces even if you roll a 1"

Premise 3: If the task is not a guaranteed success or failure, roll.

Example 1A:
The player says to the DM: "I disarm the trap". DM makes him roll a straight check.

Example 1B: "I pound some wooden stakes into the holes in the wall, step back, and set off the trap with my 10' pole." DM tells him what happens. No roll.

Example 2A: "I convince the guard to let me in" DM makes him roll.

Example 2B: "I disguise myself as a carpenter, explaining to the guard that the master of the house hired me to fix a cabinet" DM gives him a bonus or just says yes.

Supah said...

Thanks for the great comments and sorry it took so long to respond. I've been blissfully disconnected from the internet while skiing in Tahoe. I'll definitely check out Diaspora. It seems like the kind of thing that I would love, but that no one else that I play with would. The Vincent Baker game sounds interesting too. I've read a couple games that he's developed but never played them. Maybe this is th eone...

cr0m said...

Whoa dude! I was with you until you said "use Charisma? never!". I've been running a B/X D&D game for about a year now and Charisma is, in some ways, the most important stat in the game.

B/X D&D has a social interaction mechanic--it's a reaction roll, and you use it *every* time you encounter a bad guy (and a slightly different version when you run into an NPC). Charisma is the stat that affects it, so if you've got a good Faceman, it means you only fight when you want to.

And that is huge! The most successful PC in my game is a Wizard with a 5 Strength and 6 Dex... but he's got a 15 Charisma and tons of starting money.

Wizard has a posse...

PatrickWR said...

@Cr0m: B/X may *have* a Charisma-based mechanic, and it's cool that your group uses it as written. But no group I've ever played in has made us of Charisma as anything beyond a dump stat. I think that was the sentiment Supah was expressing: the fact that, on paper, D&D does have a social mechanic...that no one uses.

Let me tell you about this cool indie game that I heard about, it was published in 1974 and uses a number to reflect how suave you are...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cr0m said...

Heh, is that the same indie game that uses naval ship combat for man-to-man melees? Awesome!