On Social Combat

By | December 10, 2016

One of the things we set out to build with Forthright is a really great social interaction system that would allow players who had no clue how to behave in social situations a way to participate without themselves having to be terrifically social. This was our holy grail – and the holy grail of a lot of gamers, given what I read on various gaming forums. But over the years of developing this, that and the other, I’ve come to believe that such a system is not only impossible, but dangerous.

Here is the fundamental philosophical concept underlying social interaction systems: There is a combination of behaviors (statements and actions) that will guarantee that I can change someone else’s mind or make them do what I want.

It took me a while to realize that, but ultimately the goal for social interaction systems is to hit the loot-piñata with your tongue instead of your sword. The idea behind such a system, like the idea behind combat, is that the conclusion to an interaction can be forced.

If randomness is not involved, then such a system becomes an illustration of sociopathy (Dexter brings donuts to work every day to get people to feel more warmly to him) or “Nice Guy” behavior (“I bought you dinner and a movie, now I’m owed sex.”). If randomness is involved, such a system says that people may behave contrary to good sense for no discernible reason (“Yes, you’ve made good points, but you didn’t roll high enough on the die, so I don’t care.”).

Developing such a system adds another philosophical caveat that I’m also not comfortable with: the more mechanized roleplay becomes, the less you need to bother having people doing the roleplaying. The story becomes paint-by-numbers randomness, and the people playing are just along for the ride. This is the way I’ve felt about JRPGs since Final Fantasy XII, when I fell asleep during a boss battle in the demo and awoke to find the characters in the game had just continued on and beaten the boss without me.

Games should require interaction. Otherwise they’re just novels, or movies, or TV shows.

I’m not interested in building game systems that actually detract from roleplay, nor am I interested in building game systems that encourage “Nice Guy” behavior. For that reason, we’re yanking out the Rapport subsystem entirely. Instead, we plan to provide advice in the social section of the rulebook that should help players and guides to improve their roleplay and which will illustrate methods to successfully persuade characters.

My hope is that this section will be more helpful than having a roll-the-bones social combat system, and that it will lead to a richer experience both at the table and away from it.

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