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?