Finding the Social Sweet Spot

By | May 9, 2015

Hi everyone!

While literally every member of Room 209 Gaming spent last week sick, we had plenty of time to think about Forthright and the Beta 3 design.  We’ve been unhappy with the social conflict engine from Beta 2 for a while; playtests illustrated several flaws with it that kept it from doing what we wanted it to do.  It was awkward to roleplay a conversation when you constantly had to interrupt yourself when making convincing arguments in order to roll dice; doing so disrupted the flow of roleplay and broke immersion.

Further, it required rules explaining that winning an argument or conversation wasn’t mind control, because you could change your mind later.  We also had to have rules on how to handle outrageous requests, how to disengage from a conversation without having to concede to social demands, and an entire substructure for social expectation.

This engine ultimately mechanized roleplay to the point where many players didn’t want to bother with it; it transformed NPCs into tools of the PCs, PCs into tools of the NPCs, and subtracted from play because some players only wanted to talk to NPCs when they had to get something out of that NPC.  The mechanics otherwise were too intrusive to bother with, removing the “living world” feeling that we’ve been trying to capture.

It was kind of depressing to realize we’d built a structure that did exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do.

Then last week, Sarah presented a kind of radical idea (for us):  rather than resist the Guide’s absolute authority and straitjacketing him with all these structures, why not embrace that authority?  We had reached a point in the development of the social system where the players always had absolute sovereignty over their characters’ decisions (regardless of Influence generated), so why not explicitly grant the Guide that same sovereignty over the NPCs’ decisions?

This would remove the need for the roleplay-hampering rules and “convince me” structures.  We could then refocus those rules and the Personas on the development of long-term relationships in the game, allowing any rolls made during a conversation to provide extras.  Ray pointed out that, in fact, we were trying to build a game where the main resource PCs have as they progress through their story is the relationships they develop with NPCs, so this would be very much in-keeping with that design focus.

I had some strong concerns about this idea.  The entire reason I had been pushing for a robust social system in the first place was for players who might not have the personal skill to convince an NPC or the Guide; I wanted them to have some way of tracking, independently, whether a conversation was “going their way” or not.  I also wanted to explicitly divorce a player’s roleplaying (read: bullshitting) skill from the character’s social interactions.  Throwing our hands up in the air and saying “oh well, let’s go back to the way it’s always been played” struck me as a failure to reach either of those goals.

But then I started to consider that we’ve abolished any kind of “noticing the environment” or “information-gathering” skill from Forthright – it is explicitly the Guide’s responsibility to provide the PCs with all the information available to them.  That includes clues, body language. . .and whether or not the conversation seems to be going in the players’ favor, if they ask.  This is done to keep the game and the story moving, and also is available for use to specifically provide the social data we had been trying to build an entire subsystem to provide.

I still was not convinced this was necessarily the right thing to do, though, for Forthright.  The first thing I did was think about my own experience GMing, and how I’ve classically handled conversations.  What I found, upon reflection, is that I always looked at the dice to give me permission to allow the PCs to succeed at a social interaction.  Which was, in many ways, why I’d had difficulty with play in the past – players would roleplay their hearts out, have low rolls (almost invariably because Charisma is a dump stat, right?), and not be able to get anywhere.  To my mind at the time, this was acceptable because Charisma isn’t a dump stat, dammit.  On the other hand, that’s not a behavior we needed to invoke because of other design decisions we’ve made.

So I then checked with other GMs to get their at-the-table experience.  And I found that almost invariably, GMs were deciding on their own, through roleplay or fiat, whether or not the player(s) would succeed at a social interaction.  Die rolls were being called for, not to determine the outcome, but to determine any extras or caveats that might ride on said outcome.  This helped GMs remain in-character, kept the interactions realistic, and benefited the overall flow of the game and story.

So with that signals the death knell of the “speech piñata” that the Forthright social system had become. . .had always been.  We’re redesigning around those extras (and caveats) and looping individual interactions into the larger relationship game.  This is making the rules easier to explain, which should also make play easier and more engaging.  It’s been a hard thing to kill this particular darling, but it needed to die.

Thanks for reading!  As always, we’d love to hear your comments 🙂

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