Conversation, Not Mind Control

By | January 12, 2013


This week, as I write, I’ve got “Big Empty” from the Stone Temple Pilots running through my head.  Particularly, the refrain “Conversations kill!”  How appropriate, because today we pull the curtain back on the Social Interaction system we’ve been developing for the best part of the past year to reveal the basics of how it works and how it enhances story.

In one of our Alpha Playtest sessions, an NPC provided some information to the PCs about the murder of one PC’s father.  He claimed he didn’t have all the details (he did), but he claimed someone else–the PC’s friend–did (he didn’t).  There was a Ritualist and an Enchanter (both Vocations) in the party, and both of them jumped to the same thought.  They began examining their character sheets and, after not seeing what they wanted, asked these questions:  “Can I perform a ritual to make him tell us what he knows?”  and “Can I make a magic item that glows when the murderer of PC’s father is nearby?”

Both of these are perfectly logical questions to ask in a magical fantasy world.  Unfortunately, both of them highlight that in a lot of traditional roleplaying, the object is “get to the fight, then get the loot afterward” instead of “investigative work and figuring stuff out for ourselves.”  The questions highlighted that we could use more robust systems for those Vocations (so they can quickly do cool stuff in a similar vein), but also how markedly different the precepts behind Infinite Earths are.

In the case above, “figuring out who knew what, and who was responsible for what at what time” was the driving plotline.  It was a talkie, not a fightie.  And having magic that just lets characters bypass that, magic that’s traditionally available in the form of Charm or Detect Thoughts, literally cuts out entire swaths of potential storytelling techniques.  It’s hard to have a murder-mystery, after all, when you can just Speak with Dead or Resurrect the guy who died.

Now, the traditional solution is very direct: it attacks the magics that make such things possible, making them very expensive or difficult to perform, discouraging PCs/NPCs from wandering around willy-nilly and solving their problems with that magic.  Alternately, you could take the metaphysical route and say that the boundary between life and death is the River Lethe, making conversations with dead people meaningless because they remember squat.

I’ll skip the discussion of what we did to magic to solve it (today is social system!), and say that allowing the PCs to have to figure things out by talking to people was foremost on our design.  Another of our design principles, though, was that the conversation mechanic could not be mind control.  You could not be able to force NPCs to do what you wanted simply by talking to them.

The first iteration we playtested, in late August, was terrible.  In essence:  everybody had “social hit points” that identified their will to not do what you wanted.  You had a “social attack score” that you rolled to determine if you were able to deal damage, and the power of the points your character made was represented by different “social damage dice” ranging from d4 to d12.  If you’re thinking “Well golly that looks exactly like physical combat,” that would be because it was exactly like physical combat.  We thought it would help ease players into the idea of social interaction, by providing a system similar to one they already knew.  Instead, it made NPCs into word piñatas, with players making some argument, any argument, to wear the NPCs down until they gave in to player demands.

So we went back to the drawing board–it didn’t take long, we’d built by that point something like a dozen different social interaction systems with various levels of similarity to the concept.  We were not willing to abandon the concept for “GM Fiat;” we did then and still believe that leaving the success or failure of social engagements to how well the Player speaks and how much the Guide is impressed is a step too far removed from the normal mechanics of the game.

So the current iteration of the Social Engagement system works (in short) like this:  PCs say what they have to say to NPCs.  A Speech roll is made.  If it meets or exceeds the NPC’s Will (a score derived from their social status, mood, relationship level with the speaker and other factors), the PC gains a point of Rapport with the NPC.  Rapport can be exchanged or “spent” to have the NPC be willing to perform some action for the PC.  The Rapport cost goes up depending on the nature of the action.  Additionally, Rapport can be spent to increase the level of Relationship the PC has with the NPC, making some actions automatic (“Friends just treat each other this way”) and making the NPC easier to talk to.

Furthermore, the Relationships PCs develop with NPCs are persistent, and require some degree of maintenance.  For instance, if you make a friend in Town X, then never speak to that person again or return to Town X, that friendship will slowly decay until you are no longer friends.  Your former friend will assume you just used him for convenience, but built no emotional connection and didn’t really care about him for him, but instead cared about him for what he could do for you.

This, in turn, leads to Fame and Renown.  The actions your character performs throughout his adventuring career give him Fame.  Fame is the measure of how likely people are to have heard of you.  When you encounter new NPCs, the Guide will roll a Fame check to see if the NPC has heard of you.  If not, no big deal  But if he has, what has he heard about you?

He’s heard about your Renowns.  So, if you’re a Veteran of the Battle of Yao-Guai Pass, he heard you were there.  If you’re a murderer on the run from the law in the next town over, and you’re famous enough–looks like it’s time to get a posse together.  And if you’re the kind of person who makes friends in every town, just long enough to get what you want out of them, then leave them with nary a look back–well, he’s heard of that, too, if you’ve done it enough.  Each Renown has its own in-game effects: some of them are convenient, and some of them are not very convenient at all.

Each PC has a Renown-tracking sheet, maintained by the Guide, where Renown-worthy behaviors are tracked.  Once a PC has done enough to earn a Renown, the Guide informs the Player, who writes it on his own character sheet so he can keep track of it.  The consequences of PC actions follow them, and influence the way others in the world interact with them.  This is handled at the individual NPC level and at the Organization level (so, for instance, if you want to get in good with the Justice League of South Dragonshire, you’d better damned well be known for doing good deeds–those guys are a tough crowd).

Now, one thing you may notice is that I’ve been framing this in terms of PC-to-NPC, and not NPC-to-NPC or NPC-to-PC or PC-to-PC.  That’s because currently this is a mechanic that only applies to PC-to-NPC interaction.  Players can figure things out for themselves between themselves; we have no interest in transforming Infinite Earths into a PvP game, so PC-to-PC conversations are not modeled in it.  Likewise, NPC-to-PC interactions are not modeled, because currently we want the Players to be able to make up their own minds instead of being forced to believe certain things because of dice rolls.

That said, there’s been a lot of debate and discussion over that last point internally, with a lot of good points on either side.  We’ll be honest in saying, we’re just not sure if that’s a good design or not.  We’ll have to see how well it plays out in the Beta, and make adjustments from there.

By building the social interaction system this way, we’re trying to change the nature of the game.  We’re trying to say, “social interaction is about building, it’s about constructing good relationships.”  This also makes it mechanical, so Players can understand whether they’re making progress in a social encounter, without letting the mechanics define and restrict the interaction (as was the case when it was too mechanical).

We hope it works.  We’ll see!