Playtest Postmortem #2: Social Combat

By | September 1, 2012

This has been a challenging week for us here at Room 209 Gaming.

Two weeks into playtesting, we have encountered the first and, hopefully, the last challenge to our Playtester Agreement.  While this challenge has been weathered, it has cost us much time, energy and money that were frankly better spent elsewhere.  Additionally, as a result of this challenge, we have to announce some changes to our playtesting schedule.
The first change is that we are no longer holding playtests at our Friendly Local Gaming Stores, Game Theory and The Gamer’s Armory.  Both of these venues have been fantastic locations and have worked with us to provide us premium gaming space for our playtests.  We would like to publically thank Abe Wesley of Game Theory and Crystal and Scott Blanton of Gamer’s Armory for their support of our endeavor.  We hope to return once Infinite Earths has reached a more complete stage.  For now, please know that we love you 🙂

The playtesting sessions that were scheduled for those two locations will now instead be held at Room 209 Gaming.  Because we don’t have quite as much space, we’re having to reduce the maximum number of playtesters at any given session from 6 to 4 but, silver linings, we are hopeful that this will improve the playtesting experience.

Secondly, and this is a more positive change all-around, we have added the Upcoming Playtests page to this website, which you can see linked to the right.  This page will act as your “one-stop shopping” guide to our playtests for the upcoming two months.  We’ll be working to keep this information up-to-date.

And now, with all of that out of the way, let’s get to the Social Combat postmortem after the break:

One of the approaches we wanted to try with developing a more robust social system is by making it more like OGL combat.  Since the rest of the system is OGL-based, we thought this technique might help slide social roleplay away from “one-roll-and-done” into a more thoughtful, potentially tactical and thereby more engaging experience.  Each side of a discussion would declare a goal, they would make Speech rolls vs. each other’s Wills (a mechanic derived from the mood of an NPC and the NPC’s social status), they would do Persuasion damage (die size determined by mood), and whoever ended with the most Resolve (social hit points) would win the negotiation/debate.

When we playtested it internally, we knew what we were trying to do–and it worked very smoothly.  Once we put this mechanic in the hands of playtesters, though, it turned out to be pretty rough, and largely contrary to our goals.

The most effective thing we’ve found about playtesting is that we can see firsthand the psychological effects of the rules and rules presentation.  And in this situation we were able to learn we went too far–because it was so much like combat, it was easy to take “a conversation with a fat man” and turn it into “beat the fat man up with words instead of weapons in order to make him give us what we want.”  Let me be clear:  this is in no way, shape or form a character fault of the players involved.  The players were using the system correctly, as designed.  Witnessing the result demonstrated the flaws of the system.  The psychological effect of turning conversations into combat outweighed the ease-of-use of the mechanics.  However, we did get many positive comments that a more robust social system would lead to more robust social interaction with NPCs, and made the conversation that was had much more interesting.

So, soldiering on, we developed a new technique based largely on building relationships with NPCs.  This worked well, but again we swung too wide of the ideal mark–the system put more burden on the GM, and practically none on the players.  The result was one in which NPC interaction felt much more natural, but because so much of the mechanic was in the hands of the GM, the players didn’t have a feeling of control in the situation.  Essentially, without having a clear mechanic in front of them that they could invoke, players still felt the social interaction system was out of their hands.

Regardless of whether there is a mechanic involved or not, if the players can’t see it in action then they won’t feel like it’s present.  These are great insights and we are thankful to our playtesters–listed on our Playtester Appreciation page, to the right–for helping us realize them.

So we’re still working on our social interaction system.  We know that “Social Combat” is dead; that only works “if you play it the way we intended,” instead of the rules themselves reinforcing the style of play meant to be invoked.  We wish we were further along but, as it turns out, developing a conversation and relationship-building system based on human behavior is rather complex, who’da thunk?

In other Playtest news, we’ve scrapped our original magic system as well.  It turns out there was an alternative magic system developed by Paizo for the Pathfinder game that we were unaware of, that was substantially similar to what we came up with.  This turns out to be a good thing, though, because it’s allowed us to simplify our spellcasting mechanics.

We’ve also added a much-needed Laborer vocation to represent the various “heavy lifters” that keep an economy going, and shored up a bunch of little rules here and there (often to make Brawn a desireable attribute once again).

We hope you all have a great Labor Day weekend, see you next time!