Agency and the Infinite Earths Social System

By | September 7, 2013

Hello again!

Today I’m going to talk about our Social subsystem again.  It’s changed quite a bit since the last time we talked about it.  Previously, we’d worked out a system of Rapport generation that would allow characters to build up Rapport with other characters.  This amount of Rapport would dictate what a character could expect out of another, and the Rapport could be spent in order to ask more out of another character.

Ultimately, through playtesting, we found that this was making social interactions more cumbersome than we desired, because players had a tendency of wanting to build up as much Rapport as they could as soon as they could.  Conversations would drag on until somebody just got bored and killed the poor bastard so nobody could talk to him any more.

We’ve gone through several iterations, always keeping that core mechanic – the player can know what they can get out of an NPC – in mind.  Currently, we’ve simplified it quite a bit, and here it is in a nutshell:

Every character, PC or NPC, has a Will score, which indicates how willing the character is to be Influenced by other characters (PCs or NPCs).  The Will score is modified by the Mood of the character toward the character trying to Influence him.  This Will Score is the difficulty of the Speech roll the influencing character must make.

Characters must make a Speech roll in order to influence an NPC.  Each successful Speech roll generates points of Influence with the NPC.  The type of action you ask an NPC to perform determines the amount of Influence you need to force the issue.

These actions are divided into three tiers:  Effort, Risk and Sacrifice.

Asking an NPC to help you in some way that requires no effort or risk requires no Influence and therefore no Speech rolls.  “What time is it?”  “Which way to the Inn?”

Asking an NPC to help you in some way that requires effort but no risk requires a little Influence.  “Can you take me to the Inn?”

Asking an NPC to help you in some way that carries some risk requires rather a bit more Influence.  “Can you let me into the building you’re guarding?”

Asking an NPC to make sacrifices for you requires a lot of Influence.  “Can you fight off that monster while I steal its treasure?  Thanks!”

Personas interact with this system by allowing characters to generate more than a single point of Influence with each Speech roll by behaving in a way that somewhat defines them.  For instance, the Trickster generates extra Influence by lying, while the Carouser generates extra influence when at a social event and the Bully generates extra Influence by intimidating people.

Additionally, Speech rolls are only allowed when characters attempt to make influential points.  One of the problems with the old system was that we were modeling the things you do in real life to build up Rapport: asking about somebody’s kids, talking about sports, etc.  But in a game, that’s boring as hell.  So now, there has to be some point a character makes in order to get a Speech roll and be potentially influential.

For example:  “My lord, if you continue to let these bandits raid the countryside, your tax revenue is certain to fall” would be an influential point.  “My lord, your wife is lovely today” would not be.

And in order to prevent social interactions from going too long, points can only be made once.  Characters can’t make the same point over and over again to generate Influence; any Influence generated is generated the first time, repeating it is just a waste of time.  This goes for the entire party.  If PC Bob makes a point, Bill making the point later in the same Scene does not get a chance at more Influence.

There are ways to reduce someone else’s Influence over you, too.  The easiest way is to know something about the character talking to you.  All characters (PCs and NPCs) have character hooks.  These are aspects of their character like “arrogant” or “family was killed by orcs” that other people might have heard about that character.  An influenced character can attempt to Doubt the influencing character.  Successful Doubts remove Influence, and Doubts that are tied into the influencing character’s hooks remove additional Influence.

This is a very quick-and-dirty rundown of the social system and the way it works.

So we have a system by which characters can be convinced to perform certain actions, and it plays out pretty smoothly.  We have a way to influence and we have a way to defend against influence.  We have different methods to effect the outcome.  We have, in short, all of the things we have for combat.  So we come down to one vital question:

Are the NPCs allowed to convince the PCs to do things for them?

And boy is this a loaded question.  On one hand, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” is a classic and powerful argument and lends itself toward the answer that yes, of course the NPCs can.  There are other arguments which say that this is a helpful roleplaying tool, giving players a limitation so they do not run roughshod across all the NPCs they encounter.  It allows us to play characters who make decisions we know are bad but just can’t quite stop because they’ve encountered an NPC who is too convincing.

On the other hand, roleplaying games are generally played as an escape from dreary reality, as an escape from all those pressures that in real life force us to do things we may not want to do.  It allows us to follow the heroic (or mercenary) impulse, and be in charge of our own powerful little avatar of destruction.  We can do, in games, what we cannot do to that jerk who cut us off on the highway.  And with that in mind, what fun is it for the NPC boss to tell the PC employee what to do?

What this question ultimately comes down to is, should players have absolute agency and authority over their characters, or should they have to sacrifice some of that control?

And ultimately, we didn’t want to make that decision.  Too many different players are too interested in both of those options for us to decide for them.  I could see, even myself, sometimes wanting to play it one way and sometimes wanting to play it the other, depending on the nature of the game and who I was gaming with.

And that depending on the game is what made us realize that this question should be a modular component to the Infinite Earths ruleset.  That is, the table should get to decide at the beginning of a game whether they want the PCs to be Influenced.  So, as part of Session Zero, the players decide and majority rules as to whether or not the players are fully in control of their characters.

Yes, in a way we’re sidestepping the question.  But in another, we’re answering it: the choice is yours.  We provide the structure, you decide how to play.