The Crown Jewel: Social Interaction

By | March 29, 2014

Hello and welcome back!

Today I am very, very pleased to announce that the crown jewel of Forthright Open Roleplay, our social interaction subsystem, is now ready and available here for beta-testing.  It’s taken us a long time to develop this and get it feeling just right (to us), and now we’d love it if you gave it a try.

Our goals were many and high for this social system:

  • Model Social Interaction: Modeling social interaction is hard, because people are complicated.  Consequently, a lot of game systems just leave it up to the GM or the Players to “figure it out,” but that operates under the assumption that everyone has the same or similar experiences with the way people behave.  When one side of the table or the other has more or less social experience, the situation can come to seem arbitrary very quickly.  We wanted to provide an interaction system that exposed the structure of conversations and negotiations in a way that enforces a common ground within the framework of the game, regardless of any individual roleplayer’s experience with society.
  • Make Talking Tactical:  By “game-ifying” social interaction, we’re introducing something that has long been missing or weak in many roleplaying systems.  By making social interaction a part of the game instead of something for roleplayers to “just go with,” that means we’re providing structures that can be used tactically.  Players can plan out their methods and their talking points, and have some level of confidence in their success independent of understanding how the GM thinks.
  • Encourage Interaction with the Gamescape:  We wanted any social interaction rules to encourage the players to feel like they are inhabiting a living imaginary world.  Our ruleset empowers players to interact with NPCs as if they are living people instead of merely quest-givers or enemies, because suddenly they have reasons to want to know more about NPCs.  Even if that reason is purely selfish, it encourages more interaction with the Gamescape and makes the work the Guide puts into creating backstories and personalities valuable to everyone playing.
  • Feel Real:  More than anything else, what we built had to feel real.  There’s a long-standing argument that social interaction means “An apple a day gives the kingdom away.”  Specifically, that if you do enough nice little things for somebody, they’ll do something ridiculously awesome for you in return.  Alternately, there’s the case of the “One and Done,” wherein characters can roll a single Diplomacy or Bluff or whatever check and an NPC just rolls over for them.  Of course, all that doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t feel real, and this argument has long held a power to say that “social interaction systems are bad.”  But we saw this as a challenge not against social systems, but against social systems that don’t factor in the immense complexity of human interaction.  We’ve tried to solve the problem of social interaction feeling vaguely unreal.
  • Play Well:  That said, the biggest challenge was to make something modeling social interaction that was also playable.  Our earliest iterations made social interaction feel like a talk-piñata; players would just talk at an NPC until they got what they wanted, or would talk and talk and talk and talk until everyone else at the table wanted to murder the NPC just so the talking would stop.  We had to provide a layer of abstraction that would make the social rules playable, but would also provide a degree of realism without getting too crunchy or making roleplaying feel stilted or bizarre.  We had to give players a way and reason to stop talking.  In a way this was the toughest challenge we set before ourselves, because supporting the level of structure we do can lead to “I roll and get Influence.”  We’ve wrapped the rules inside a necessary level of roleplay.  Abstracting it out to just roll-playing actually makes it nearly impossible to play, thereby encouraging roleplaying instead of interfering with it.
  • Divorce Player Skill from Character Skill:  Different roleplayers have different levels of skill with roleplay and social interaction.  And that’s good and wonderful – but the point of roleplaying is that you’re playing someone other than yourself.  And so long as social interaction was based on the person you are instead of the character you were playing, you couldn’t actually have true “roleplay” to our minds, because your character was effectively just combat statistics powered by you the person.  We wanted to create a system that has social skills as divorced from the player as combat skills are divorced from players, so that less confident speakers can have that same success in social interaction as less battle-hardened roleplayers could have in combat.  After all, I’ve only rarely met a roleplayer who would be terrifying with a battleaxe or who could sneak like the Gray Mouser.
  • Make Social Interaction as Viable as Combat:  We also wanted to make social interaction as viable as combat when it came to interacting with the Gamescape.  Many games focus so heavily on combat and combat rules that social interaction goes the wayside.  But when you have a ruleset that largely ignores social interaction and tells you to figure it out for yourself, you have a ruleset that essentially says “fighting is the way to play this game; it is how you have some way to guarantee success.”  We didn’t want that for our game, because that’s not the way we the designers play.  We think the power and the structure of these social interaction rules is that they do make conversation just as potent as combat, and can enrich the game experience tremendously as a result.
  • Get Everybody to Play:  By divorcing player skill from character skill and making social interaction as viable as we do, we also got to achieve a long-held dream of ours that everyone gets to participate and have potential success in social interaction if they want without having to sacrifice the viability of other aspects of their character.  Oftentimes in traditional roleplay, the player with the greatest skill at talking and persuading plays the social character, so that he has the stats to back up what his mouth can do, and everyone else around the table uses their Charisma (or whatever the stat is) as a dump stat, because the “Social Player” can handle all the social interactions while they just wait for him to be done with it so they can get back to fighting.  This is a trained behavior because of the way game systems and adventures are traditionally structured.  We’re trying to change that – in Forthright Open Roleplay, Presence isn’t a dump stat.  Everybody participates in the conversation; there’s no reason not to participate, because the “spotlight” moves from character to character in social interaction just as it does in combat.
  • Make Your Actions Matter:  And finally, we wanted to ensure that your character’s actions – whether they take place in a battle, or in a conversation, or while you’re performing an extraordinary feat of skill – mattered.  Not just to the accomplishment of your goal, but to the Gamescape as a whole.  The actions that you take in the game world, and the decisions that you make, shape who your character is and how other characters within the Gamescape perceive your character.  Some of them may like you more for the things you do; some may like you less.  Some may have never heard of you, others might know everything about you because they follow your exploits rabidly.  Social consequences for your heroic (or un-heroic) activities help provide you with an investment in the game world and the characters around you, and incorporate social interaction, as in real life, into everything you do.

Lofty goals.  Many was the time we wanted to throw our hands in the air and give up.  But we didn’t, and the results of those efforts now lie before you.

But we can’t be the final judges of whether these rules succeed.  You will do that, and we want you to.  Look upon these rules, ye mighty!  Tell us what you think.  Let us know what works, or what doesn’t work.  We want your opinions!  Help us make it as good as it can possibly be.