The Way You Say The Things You Say

By | March 9, 2013

Hello once again!

This week we post the beta edition of Chapter 4: Personas.  This chapter outlines the role which helps define the way your character interacts with the NPCs around him (and PCs, if an optional rule is invoked. . .more on that in the Social Interaction chapter).  These Personas were a tough call, we went through a lot, and I mean a lot, of design iterations before we arrived at this point.  This week, Ray Watters talks a little bit about that design process:

We knew from the beginning that we wanted talking with NPCs to be just as important as fighting them in the Infinite Earths Roleplaying Game. What we didn’t know was how to turn the unwritten social contract we had worked up over the years into a fully realized numerical system.

So the first question we asked was simple – why change the way things are done? We modified numerous systems over the years to better fit our group. Why not let new Players do the same?

Some groups like to let each Player rely on his own natural skill with words and avoid rolls altogether. Other groups prefer to have the dice decide the outcomes of all conversations. What happens around many gaming tables falls somewhere in-between.

And ultimately, that’s why we decided to develop a new way for social interaction to work in our game.

The rules for combat are spelled out in exacting detail so everyone involved knows where they stand. Characters jockey for position on the battlefield, resources are consumed and the chances of success and failure are weighed. This is a proven way to encourage Players to use tactics and work together in an engaging way.

That’s the kind of Player involvement we want our social rules to promote. In order to make that happen, Players need mechanical depth and options to support that kind of play. They also need to know that Fiat – either by Plot or by the Guide – won’t suddenly make a social goal impossible to achieve.

For example, the Guide deciding that every attempt to defeat Bob the Malign in combat will fail is generally considered poor form. Such declarations tell Players that their actions don’t matter. To our mind, the same holds true for social interactions. A declaration that Duke Malign will not help the Players, no matter what they do, hurts the game just as much.

The next question was what should fill this new, beefed up social role. The answer is in today’s Chapter – Personas.

Just like Fighting Styles and Vocations, Players have a choice of options for how they interact socially with others. We were very conscious of the fact that the Personas needed to represent characters in a way that was simple enough for a Guide to whip up an NPC on the spot but complex enough to be a main focus for interested Players.

Some ideas for those choices were rejected almost as soon as they were said aloud – building the social role on a modified version of a modern personality test or a system of virtues and vices are some rejected examples.

A system where Players picked from a list of opposing character traits (brave or cowardly, shy or effervescent, curious or incurious) didn’t last long either. The idea of a rule that forced players to always have specific reactions to certain situations went directly against our desire to make a system that offered more freedom and agency to Players.

A system of duties, motivations and desires that Players could choose from to help define their goals and general behavior was considered. These could then, in turn, represent social responsibilities (a duty to serve in the army) and weaknesses of character (doing anything for gold). The idea was that Players would gain mechanical benefits when trying to fulfill these duties, motivations and desires.

The idea proved to be both too limiting and too powerful at the same time. A clever Player could come up with ways to frame every action as a way to advance their goals and desires, thus making it difficult to ever fail. The concepts also strayed outside of the social role – if someone with a duty to the army gains benefits when talking about the army, why doesn’t that same person gain benefits when fighting with that same army? Even worse, this punished any Player who deviated from the ideas he had in character creation.

Furthermore, this diluted the idea of Persona: in this iteration, there was only one Persona, with different motivations, duties or desires.  This ran contrary to the design of Fighting Styles and Vocations, which each had different sets of abilities and powers based on their specialized niche.  So it was potentially too powerful and it was bland and didn’t feel “special” enough.

By this point, weeks had passed and we had a large pile of rejected ideas. We also had a list of goals for social interaction rules based on why we discarded those ideas.

Here were the things we wanted the Persona role to have:

  • Exposed mechanics so Players know their chance of success when attempting to do something (much the same way Players know their chance of success in combat and skill use)
  • The ability to potentially influence all NPCs, even the antagonists
  • A simple framework that could be filled in with more detail as desired
  • Options that do not force Players to behave a certain way, but encourage in-character behaviors
  • A way to help tell stories without restricting outcomes

With that list in mind, we took a closer look at some of the earlier ideas we considered. We turned away from attempts to model Player Character behavior and concentrated more on ways to define character interactions.

No one had a desire to punish Players for acting a certain way, but we did want to offer a carrot to Players who used the strengths of their social role during conversations. Our discussions led up to three broad Personas that define how a Character often interacts with others without requiring specific behaviors. The three Personas are:

  • Champions, who put the needs and desires of others first. Their truthful statements are more likely to find acceptance.
  • Scoundrels, who put their own needs and desires above those of others. Their practiced lies are more likely to deceive.
  • Individualists, who decide whose needs and desires should take priority on a case-by-case basis. They can make a limited number of points during conversations that are difficult to ignore.

The Personas are a measure of where a character falls on a scale of selflessness to selfishness, which is an important detail for a Guide trying to determine how an NPC will react to the Players.

That said, neither Players nor characters should blindly put their trust in the Personas when it comes time to pick allies. These Personas are not a retread of Good, Neutral and Evil – they just help define the ways of talking that a Character finds the most success with.

Let’s consider some examples from literature – the characters in Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean was a convict who stole a loaf of bread so his sister’s children would not starve. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but served 19 years because of his escape attempts. No one will have anything to do with him after his release until a bishop convinces him to start his life over.

Jean goes on to open factories, acquire a fortune, gain political power and help the poor, but all of his deeds are only possible because of the numerous lies he tells to continue his new life.

This makes him a Scoundrel in Infinite Earths. That’s not a judgment of his actions, but a description of how he, as a Character, often uses deceit when talking with others.

Javert was a police officer relentless in his pursuit of Valjean. This man of the law turned his back on his own parents to work as a prison guard. Over the years, he sacrificed much in his pursuit of order. When confronted with the notion that what is lawful is not always what is right, Javert took his own life.

That tendency to put his ideals above what was best for him personally makes Javert a Champion. The Champion Persona doesn’t make him a hero – or even a good man. The Persona shows the price his Character was willing to pay to do what he thought was best for the community.

Fantine is an unwed mother abandoned by the father of her child. She leaves her daughter in the care of some innkeepers who abuse her trust and demand more and more money. This young woman sells her hair, her teeth and eventually her body to help provide what she hopes is a better life for her daughter.

There is no burden Fantine would not bear to help her daughter, which makes her a Champion. It does not matter that her sacrifices are only for one person. What does matters is that she is willing to make those sacrifices unconditionally.

Cosette is the daughter of Fantine. Her caretakers abuse her while her mother is gone. She is later ransomed by Jean Valjean and spends time being educated by nuns. She eventually falls in love and marries, finally having the kind of life her mother wanted for her. Cosette never seeks vengeance for what happened to her and her mother.

All of this makes Cosette an Individualist. She simply wants to live her life and decide who deserves her love and attention without letting larger ideals or past problems get in the way.

Those who are familiar with the story know that Javert did not always tell the truth. Jean Valjean did not always lie. In the Infinite Earths ruleset, Personas are meant to reflect the tendencies of Characters and provide a mechanical benefit in social interactions when those tendencies are followed.

Champions are Bolstered (roll two dice and take the highest) when they tell the truth. Scoundrels are Bolstered when they tell a lie. Individualists can choose to Bolster a limited number of statements, but those can be lies, truth or opinion.

The chapter also includes a section called “What is Truth, and What is Lie?” that explains when these Personas are allowed to use their Bolsters, complete with examples. We don’t want arguments over “truthiness” to derail the game.

No matter what, the decision of how to act always remains in the hands of the Players. The Persona merely shapes how dice should be rolled to determine the results of those actions.