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Charisma Check - A System for Social Combat
"Social combat" to me is a contradiction in terms. Combat is about the use of force, and social is about use of words. Combat is about domination, and social is about consent. Combat is predatory, while people form societies for mutual benefit.

I don't know that this applies to anyone here, but there are certainly sects of gamers who feel yapping in character gets the short end of the stick. It's not given equal time in the rules. In practice, a lot of people just like to roleplay it out, so there's no point in building a "high Charisma" character if the player is plenty charismatic. So some people think "social" skills should be handled like combat. Of course this is absurd in the sense that persuasion is all about gaining cooperation, not forcing your will onto another on account of your superior personality. When it's been attempted to treat it just like combat or other skill rolls, it can be rightly criticized as working like in-game mind control.

Many, many, many years ago, bothered by this, I developed certain ideas that would allow for "social skills" to have useful mechanical effects in-game without undermining the free choice of any PC or NPC. The idea is that skill checks could be used to do things like cold read to determine a character's motives. Once known, it would be on the player to use that information to formulate an argument. But a skill check could be used to emphasize that the PC has delivered that argument well (or badly). Or, if the PC has to lie in order to convince another character of something, a check to see how resistant the telling of that lie is to skills such as lie detection. But so long as the player's case made sense, it matched the motives of the character to be convinced, and the words in-game seemed trustworthy, the attempt would work.

Over the past years, I've refined the system. I've read all the books and actually put them into practice professionally as a persuader. In doing so, I've been able to filtered out the 95% of things written that don't actually work at all. What's left is streamlined and, when put into broad strokes, makes for a workable mechanics-driven social interaction in the RPG. My hope is, because this is based in reality, it is naturalistic so that the dice checks can smoothly accompany roleplay. So it will not be jarring to those who believe you don't need such nonsense. But there will be enough crunch to satisfy all the jerk faces who believe in contradictions like "social combat."

What I have is a generic (systemless) method for detailed social interaction. For now, I'm calling it the Charisma Check  system because I think that might make a great blog title or something. The Charisma Check  system breaks persuasion attempts into five phases: Introduction - Discovery - Presentation - Elaboration - Close.
A description of the 5 phases follows:

Introduction - The key of the introduction is you’re getting the attention of the party to be persuaded (the prospect). It doesn’t have to be a literal introduction. You may already know one another. The idea is that the person is intrigued at least enough to listen. A skilled persuader can also set an “up-front contract” during the introduction, which is really a set of ground rules so that what follows proceeds in a productive manner. The most common pitfall in persuasion is not a “No” but a blow-off where the prospect gives a non-commital answer such as, “Let me think about it.” The up-front contract establishes the expectation of a direct answer.

Discovery - This is where the persuader gathers the necessary information in order to formulate a proposition to get prospect to agree to what the persuader is after. This involves discovering the prospect’s relevant likes, dislikes, and motives. In a classic persuasion attempt, this is done through conversation. Often it is direct questioning, but it might also be more subtle with the persuader relying on skills that allow him to “read” the prospect. In a quest or an investigation/mystery type of scenario, however, the information gathering might very well happen outside of the prospects presence and may rely more on adventuring skills rather than people skills. A skilled persuader will summarize the relevant information learned and pose it in the form of a question to the prospect. The prospect’s answer tells the persuader whether the discovery phase is over or not.

Presentation - Once the persuader knows what will work to convince the prospect, the persuader must then make his “pitch” to effectively communicate the proposition. Good communication is generally streamlined and to the point, not full of flowery, poetic language. Though in certain situations, the latter may be necessary as per etiquette, customs, or class dictates. The persuader should avoid presenting extraneous information. He need not present every last detail of the proposition. Only the parts that pertain to the relevant likes and dislikes of the prospect. If this is done exceptionally well, it is possible that success will be determined here with no need to go through the further steps.

Elaboration - After hearing the pitch, the prospect may have some questions. It is almost certain he will if either the presentation was lacking or the discovery phase failed to turn up a crucial bit of information. Depending how damaging the questions are to the proposition, the persuader may have to revisit the discovery phase and find a way to re-pitch. But if the proposition is indeed a good fit for the prospect and the persuader answers all the questions skillfully, the interaction will draw to a close with favorable results.

Close - Here the persuader asks for the agreement. This could be sealed by a trading of goods, a signature on a contract, a handshake, a toast, a blood ritual, or anything else fitting to the precise situation. If the persuader fails to get agreement at this stage, he can fall back to the discovery phase again to try to salvage the deal.

A graphic of a flow-chart would be nice to illustrate how to navigate between the different phases, but assume a skill check is called for at the end of each phase. The following table shows which phase to go to depending upon the dice roll.

  • Fumble - Persuasion Failure.
  • Failure - Persuasion Failure.
  • Success - Proceed to Discovery.
  • Critical - Proceed to Discovery with bonus.
  • Fumble - Persuasion Failure
  • Failure - Core concern not discovered. Move on to Presentation with penalty
  • Success - Core concern discovered. Move on to Presentation.
  • Critical - Positive impression made. Move on to Presentation with bonus
  • Fumble - Persuasion Failure
  • Failure - Go back to Discovery
  • Success - Go forward to Elaboration
  • Critical - Skip to Close.
  • Fumble - Persuasion Failure
  • Failure - Go back to Discovery
  • Success - Go forward to Close
  • Critical - Persuasion attempt successful.
  • Fumble - Persuasion Failure
  • Failure - Go back to Discovery
  • Success - Persuasion attempt successful.
  • Critical - Persuasion attempt successful.
Do not give into the temptation many rules tinkerers will have to make the interaction flow in a more "symmetrically." I can foresee someone just imagining a critical success always moves you forward two steps while success moves you forward one, failure moves you backwards one, and fumble moves you backwards two. What I have outlined above is based on natural conversation flow. A couple tweaks may be called for depending upon the RPG itself. You may want to put a limit on the number of times the persuader can loop back to the Discovery phase before the prospect loses patience and the entire attempt is a failure. Or, if criticals are rare, also allow a regular success at the end of the presentation phase to skip to close IF the discovery phase was a critical success. (If the system you're using is LA, the bonus offered for critical success during the discovery phase should be substantial and translate to a deduction from the dice roll, -20 would be a good figure, and would vastly increase the odds of getting to skip-to-close at the end of the presentation.)
One final note, and this is most crucial. Remember, the jerk faces argue that "social skills" should work just like "combat skills." You don't have to be good at swinging a sword in real life to win a fight in game, and thus you shouldn't have to be persuasive in real life to play a slick wheeler and dealer.

However, suppose your character is fighting a werewolf. You, as player, don't have to know how to swing a sword. But you DO have to choose which weapon to use against the werewolf. And if you choose a non-magical, non-silver weapon, no matter how great your character's stats and no matter how lucky the dice rolls, you will NEVER kill the thing. That fact is determined without deferring to the game system at all. Because some monsters have special vulnerabilities and invulnerabilities that supersede the normal rules.

Remember. Jerk faces want "social combat" to work the same. Some individuals will have special vulnerabilities and invulnerabilities to certain words, ideas, or arguments. Used properly (or improperly as the case may be) can mean the result is determined without any dice or deference to stats or rules at all. In fact, if you want to gear play towards social interaction, just like a combat-oriented adventure you're careful to have all the relevant monster stats on hand, you should have notes about the personalities and motives of your NPCs on hand just as well.

Just like the werewolf, you don't always know you're fighting a supernatural creature until it's too late, so to is the case of special NPCs who will not listen to reason.
Very cool. Worth trying out.
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I really should come up with an example or two of the system being used, I just haven't had the time.
Unless you go and share this system with the players, players generally won't know what the 5 steps are. But it's obvious that the persuader will need to get the prospect's attention first and foremost. And it's obvious the persuader will need to present his case at some point, and that hopefully this ends up in a deal. The Elaboration phase is optional and will be initiated by the prospect only according to questions or objections the prospect has, so the player need not know about that phase to proceed to it.

The only part of the system that is not 100% obvious is the Discovery phase. And this is key. If the player doesn't know what the prospect wants, the outcome of the persuasion attempt will seem random to the player. It will seem as if the GM is disregarding dice rolls and stats in appropriate skills and just making an arbitrary ruling. GMs who've run social interactions according to role play and common sense are often accused of this. And it is thought (and often griped) that the player's Charisma, not the characters, is what's driving the outcome. But it isn't. It's a common sense adjudication.

In my experience as a GM, players who are presented with challenges generally want more information. If it's a battle, they want more information about their enemies, about the battlefield, anything that might give them an edge. If it's problem or puzzle solving, they want more information, more clues so they can come up with the right solution. It's important that players treat social challenges the same. If they find themselves wanting more information about the person they are trying to persuade, they may start asking you as GM, "What does it seem like this guy really wants? Do I get the sense he's being truthful with me?"

In the case of the latter question, I would call for a skill check. In the case of the former, especially if it's not an ultra-important encounter or if the NPC is reasonably patient, I would turn this as a teaching moment. I would say something like, "I don't know, why don't you ask him?" Probably the first time, the player will come out with, "What is it you really want?" Which in most cases is too vague to be a useful discovery question. So I'd have the NPC answer in a smart alecky way. This will prompt the now probably frustrated player to ask a more exacting question. But I think once the player sees it work, they'll have a lot more fun with such encounters in the future.
In doing some research on this topic, one hit that turned up was a question on Stack Exchange from 3 years ago on how to boil social skills down to a list of just 4 skills. Here is my full essay on it. Of course, I prefer LA-style skill bundles, so I'm not hard pressed to narrow it down to 4 skills. But this could be helpful for RPG designers.

Quote:I realize I'm late to the party here. This came up as the 1st hit on a google search for social skills in RPGs, which I was searching for in doing a little research for an essay I'm planning for future publication.

My point of view is that of a professional persuader. It's what I do for a living. A lot of other people do as well, and they may have different views on this. I'd like to suggest two things, though, that would make my approach more "correct." One, I'm very introspective so I've included to the best of my ability tacit learning from experience that is difficult to codify. And I'd also suggest that it is possible a successful persuasion may appear on the surface to be more similar to a different approach, but it also fits my approach, and when you concern yourself at the goings on beneath the surface, I believe this system most accurately describes how persuasion is actually done.

I break down the anatomy of persuasion into 5 phases. Introduction, Discovery, Presentation, Elaboration, and the Close. I'll get to the skills in a bit. If you understand the process, the skill list almost flows naturally from it.

Introduction - Need not be a literal introduction. You might be persuading someone you already know. The idea at this stage is to get their attention and willingness to listen.

Discovery - In classical persuasion, you discover what the other person wants by talking to them. Usually it involves direct questioning. But it could also be more subtle. Getting a "read" on the other person during an interaction. Of course, in some cases, discovery can happen outside of the person's presence. Investigation and any number of normal adventuring skills may apply to gathering the necessary information.

Presentation - This is the phase that most people think of as being the beginning, middle, and end of persuasion. If you're not always very persuasive in real life, it's because you skip right to this phase. Without knowing for sure what the other person wants, it is possible to hit on the right things by dumb luck. But that's all it is. Luck. Not skill. The skill involved in the presentation phase is about clearly communicating the proposition and framing it in a way that is appealing.

Elaboration - This phase is optional, and will be initiated by the person you're trying to persuade. They're not 100% convinced, so they still have some questions. The nature of the questions may signal to the persuader that he failed to collect all the necessary information in the discovery phase, and a skilled persuader must fall back to that to avoid failure.

Close - Typically a simple yes or no question. If you've done everything right up to this point, it should be an easy yes. If it's a no, the skilled persuader must once again fall back to the discovery phase to avoid failure.

With this in mind, the vital skill areas are:
1) Haling/Parleying/Charisma/Oration to gain that initial opportunity,
2a) Cold Reading/Lie Detection OR 2b) Questioning/Interviewing/Interrogation depending upon how you are gathering your information,
3a) Parleying/Charisma/Oration OR 3b) Lying/Con/Deception depending on whether or not what you're proposing actually does fit the other person's interests,
4a) Cold Reading/Lie Detection OR 4b) Parleying/Charisma/Oration OR 4c) Lying/Con/Deception depending on whether you're answering the questions truthfully or with lies, or whether the person you're trying to persuade is being truthful and sincere with their questions and objections.
5) Parleying/Charisma, but ONLY if the persuasion attempt is still in doubt, otherwise success is automatic without further skill check.

So to boil the above down to a short list, I would use:
1) Parleying - Covers engaging, effective, and purposeful communication
2) Detect Lie - Covers not just lie detection but also sensing motives
3) Interview - Covers interrogation and effective questioning skills to gain desired information.
4) Deception - Covers knowingly passing false information with conviction

Each of these skills are equally important. I think it's natural to assume Parley would be the alpha social skill under this scheme, but it is not so. Remember, without knowing what it is the other person wants, persuasion comes down to dumb luck, skill is irrelevant. This makes parleying only useful in the introduction, to get a chance to "pitch" so to speak if the person isn't skilled at interview.

Detect lie is also important for two reasons. One, not everyone CAN be persuaded in a particular situation. Part of being a skilled persuader is finding out sooner rather than later than you're wasting your time. Two, it indicates that the all-important discovery phase may need to be revisited. Three, the biggest pit-fall in persuasion is not getting a "No" but rather the person agreeing just to shut you up then not following through with what they agreed to. A persuader worth his salt needs to be able to pick up on that.

Finally, deception, while completely unnecessary if you choose to persuade strictly honestly, can be the only means of convincing someone when it is not possible to find a proposition that serves their best interests as well as yours. It can also be used as a crutch in cases when perhaps there is a way for mutual gain but the persuader just can't think of what that might be at the moment.
An Example of Persuasion in Real Life

I recently relayed the following personal experience to a room full of sales managers during a meeting.

When I was 13 I began taking guitar lessons. Prior to that, my God father had taught me a couple of songs, but this was the first time I was making a real commitment to learning the instrument.  Because of a combination of teachers moving on in their careers, my own family moving to a different state, and changes in my schedule as I grew up, I went through a number of different teachers.  I had 4 teachers in total. All of them graduates from the Berkeley School of Music.

Each teacher I had, it was the same thing. I just wanted to play. I didn't want to bother with reading music. My thinking was guys like Slash didn't read music. I wanted to be great like Slash. I never said this. I was never asked. I just said I didn't want to bother with reading music. The teacher's response was always the same. If you're serious about your guitar playing, you have to learn to read music. In the end, I didn't learn to read music.

Until the 4th teacher. There was nothing essentially different about the 4th teacher. She was another Berkeley grad who felt learning to read music was important. What she did different was instead of saying, "If you want to be a serious musician, you have to learn to read music," she said, "So few musicians know how to read music, this would really set you apart."

All the teachers had identical credentials, went to the same schools, had the same professional standards, and the same opinions on the importance of reading music. They were all offering the exact same service. But in retrospect, it's easy to see why her approach worked. What the first three teachers were essentially telling me is they can't teach me to be Slash. He's just a different kind of guitar player from what they teach. The forth teacher, however, was essentially telling me, "Not only can I teach you to be Slash, I can teach you to be better than Slash."

That's what persuasion is all about. Not brainwashing or mind control or verbal jujitsu. It's not about motivating anyone or convincing them to value something. It's about framing the offer in a way that appeals to what the prospect already wants. You'd be surprised by how few professionals know this. Fewer still practice it.
No. The first three were not telling you they couldn't teach you to be as great as Slash; they were telling you Slash isn't great. It wasn't until the fourth teacher that you had matured enough to hear the lesson.
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