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Social Skills: Evil, Twisted, or Misunderstood?

Posted By Scott Martin On December 22, 2011 @ 2:23 am In GMing Advice | 15 Comments

Fred Hicks linked off to an article by Stephen called Why the Standard Social Skills?. It’s an excellent post, drawing parallels between several popular systems, and noting some of the oddities for character social skills in RPGs. You should read his post (and the comments), but I’ll emphasize a few points that spoke to me.

  • Somewhere along the line, it became accepted fact that RPGs with social skills break them down in very similar ways: you have a skill to lie, a skill to persuade without lying, a skill to be scary, and a skill to tell when you’re being manipulated. The occasional game mixes it up a little, either by combining a couple of the skills or by adding one or two others for specialized uses (e.g., NWoD’s Socialize for being the life of the party). But, by and large, it’s common to arrange skills in a way that you will use a different dice pool for social encounters depending on whether you’re lying, being honest, or being scary. He gives an example of negotiations, where his Paladin is cruising along as the party speaker and things are going well… then he stretches the truth and it switches over to an entirely different skill. A skill that a different character probably has developed.

    Unlike combat, where having everyone contribute occurs naturally, having several characters each contributing different elements to a conversation usually doesn’t work from a “sounds like a real conversation” point of view. It will often be hard to justify switching from the honest character to a dishonest one as the point character in negotiations… especially if you’re switching from the shiny paladin to the shady rogue. “Suuuure I believe you. Just bring back the guy who is known for truth and forthright dealing and have him say it.”

  • Rob Hodgson points out the following.
    My problem with social skills is that they are, for some reason, generally treated as having a very binary effect on the NPCs. Did you roll well on your bluff check? Then the NPC believes you, even if he has a ton of evidence otherwise! and It’s just not indicative of how actual socializing in real life works, where you aren’t actually ever SURE of anything. I suspect a lot of the issues many folks have with social skills could be alleviated a bit if the player weren’t ever told exactly how well they worked. I don’t think you could hide the system from players forever, unless you’re actually playing calvinball with the rules, but I understand the frustration. Look at the detective shows on TV, where even the most intuitive characters need evidence to spark distrust and closer examination. The Sense Motive skill and Detect Lie spells dramatically change the world–in ways larger than the game system ever considers.
  • Stephen brings up some research: There may be poor liars that are good at persuading people with the truth (though politics makes that dubious), but there are probably not many excellent liars that suddenly become unpersuasive if they’re telling the truth. This strikes at the heart of the problem–that the skill layout mirrors reality so poorly. If you’re persuasive, you’re persuasive. Con men often tell truths so that you to believe the big lie later. Though avoiding diplomancers–people who manipulate with their social skills to effectively mind control the opposition without using spells–certainly encourages not lumping it all into one skill. (Unless the skill is as broad or costly as an attack bonus or other path to total victory as an improvement. For example, Presence attacks in the Hero System.)
  • In comments, Rechan brings up one of my wife’s biggest pet peeves: player skill determining conversational success.
    The problem I have with this is that it pretty much says “If you’re a good talker in RL, then your character is good, and vice versa”. Which is pretty ass backwards in terms of gaming. People who suck in RL at social skills should be able to PLAY a social master. This has long been a topic of debate. In the flow of a game, it can feel clunky to break out mechanics for “a simple conversation”. But we let scrawny kids enjoy hewing down their foes and encourage ordinary people to play super-genius villains. It’s nice to allow even the least suave to play charming rogues.

    Heather Grove has a great post on the subject, called playing beyond ability. It has some suggestions and workarounds to reduce the disconnect between the table and our image of the game world. A similar discussion springs from John Arcadian’s The Player or the Sheet article from earlier this year.

What bugs you about social skills in RPGs? I veer wildly, from wanting any player to be able to take on any character, to a Pendragon’s “there are no social skills or mental stats”. Just how stereotypical the problem is, and how many systems are affected floors me.

In my teens, I ran a near freeform game where each character had one super-skill. It was fun to set up, until one player chose to have his character be supernaturally suave… and kept talking librarians into quickies in the closet. It was particularly difficult because I was so blushing and inexperienced myself…

Which is another of the peeves I’ve got–what makes the GM so good at evaluating the speeches? Particularly in systems without social skills? That you can flatter a GM shouldn’t mean that you impress all of the different people in the gameworld, with their widely varying backgrounds and prejudices.

What problems do you dread when it comes to social skills? What brilliant solutions do you have? Please share them in comments–to save me, if no one else!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Social Skills: Evil, Twisted, or Misunderstood?"

#1 Comment By samhaine On December 22, 2011 @ 7:17 am

Er, I’m glad you liked the post, but I’m not Fred Hicks :) .

#2 Comment By Chainkill On December 22, 2011 @ 8:25 am

One of my best friends is about the rambliest person I know. He is not a social butterfly, he has very few direct leadership skills, but he is currently playing a negotiator whose role in the pack is to get other supernatural beings to help them out. He is Benjamin Franklin, effectively.

When he is trying to convince the other players of things, I remind everyone to look at their social skills, and remember that his character has charisma 5 and manipulation 3, despite the fact that his player has both somewhere in the 1-2 range. With a mature group of players, this works. When he is interacting with NPCs, I almost never roll dice, but his stats are always in my head modifying his arguments.

As far as I am concerned, social combat is on the GM, not the dice, to make it work. If someone whom you know to be completely unconvincing in everything is playing a socially apt character, you need to pretend that everything he says is way more convincing, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that they can perform diplomancy, this simply means that they get to play a character who is less like themselves.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On December 22, 2011 @ 10:22 am

@samhaine – I’m so sorry about assigning your opinions to someone else, Stephen. Thanks for writing such a cool post.

@Chainkill – That’s one of the smoothest, best ways to handle it. That’s what many of us did before there were specific skills–let them talk, then modified it based on their character’s charisma or other stat. Skills muddy it somewhat–there’s a number, and you want to reward their investment–but often, just acknowledging their mastery consistently is a better, smoother, course of action.

#4 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On December 22, 2011 @ 10:56 am

For a system that’s not so binary, I’d like to point out Earthdawn. Most of the social skills (or magical talents) in the game aren’t for making a convincing lie or what-not, but for shifting the targets attitude toward the speaker to a more favorable one.

For flat out lying or intimidation or requesting favors, it defaults to a charisma test. The handy thing about those skills is that with a better attitude, the target is more inclined to agree with the speaker, or the skill gives a bonus to the interactions that follow. This lowers the difficulty of the action, and makes getting a higher result level (average, good, excellent, extraordinary) more likely.

@Chainkill- Yea, that’s the best way to handle things. Hopefully, the GM isn’t as socially awkward! (Glances in mirror.)

#5 Comment By danroth On December 22, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

I am not an eloquent speaker, but I often know what I want to say. Especially as a DM, however, I need to play characters who are better speakers than I am. I understand the dilemma of playing a character who is better at something than the player.
So, I take the approach of letting the player explain what they want to convey, and their general approach. From there we’ll do a mishmash of role-playing and out-of-character explanations to resolve the situation, and I’ll take into consideration the Charisma of the people involved. I’ve had good results so far.

In the case of a character being “smarter” than the player, I’ll occasionally point out that their character “would notice that…” when they start attempting something that their character really wouldn’t do. (Of course, I can’t take this approach until several gaming sessions in, because before then I’m not familiar with what the character would and wouldn’t do!)

I’m also inclined to say that a player shouldn’t play a character who is vastly better than them at something, at least not while they’re still new to gaming. Role-playing is a skill that takes practice. Good role-players can effectively play characters who are more adept than themselves in certain areas, but it takes time to work up to. Maybe it is best after all to play as yourself (or your inverse) the first time you game.

#6 Comment By OberonViking On December 22, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

Coming from Pathfinder setting:
I’m tempted to run a 4-for-the-price-of-2 skill points in the social skills – put one rank into any two of these, gain two ranks in the other two.
At least, I’m curious as to what others think before I try it.

#7 Comment By Toldain On December 22, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

I liked the social skill breakdown in Legend of the Five Rings. It was not along normal lines. There was Sincerity, which was used to convince others how much you believed in what you were saying, regardless of whether it was true or false. One of the most critical uses of it by my own character was to convince the Emerald Champion that I was capable of healing the Heir to the throne, which I believed I was. But it can also be used to propagate a falsehood.

Then there was Etiquette. It’s what you think it is, and more. It can be used like Gather Information – put someone at ease, get them to loosen up a bit. Or it can be used to shame someone subtly, with that ever-so-slight snub.

To note what others are doing, there was Awareness and Perception. These were used in both social and non-social situations. Perception was used when you were focusing on noticing something, Awareness when you weren’t necessarily focused. Kind of like how some use Spot and Search from D&D, only it applies to both social and non-social situations.

#8 Comment By Riklurt On December 22, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

” When he is interacting with NPCs, I almost never roll dice, but his stats are always in my head modifying his arguments.” – Chainkill, this is pretty much exactly how I reason too. An easy way to administer social rules is to simply use a rule of thumb: If the character has high social skills, or rolled very well on the dice, just assume the NPC likes them.

That said – this article does bring up some very good points. I’d never really considered the strange assumptions that underlie the social skills in most systems.

#9 Comment By madscientist On December 22, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

I believe in only letting players roll the dice when it serves the story, otherwise let players state their intent, let them state what skills and their ranks in those skills, and role play from there. This seems very similar to the comments above.

I’d also like to point out that being a good liar (ie making it difficult to tell if someone is telling the truth or not) is not the same as being persuasive or convincing. Thinking about my friends, some are terrible liars but very persuasive, some are highly effective liars but not very good at persuading others regardless (they are just not good at putting together a persuasive argument with the truth or fiction but they rock at games like balderdash) and some who good, or bad, at both.

#10 Comment By Nice Ogress On December 22, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

Some game systems are better about this than others – right now my absolute least favorite is Deadlands, which has so many nonsensical and mutually-exclusive social skills that you’re forced to needlessly overspecialize in one or two areas and be flat-out bad at everything else. Honestly, though, this isn’t a social skill-system problem – all of Deadland’s skills are like that. They’re much too splintered. Its possible to build a character that’s simultaneously good and bad at the same thing, depending on the GM’s whim.

The problem with having a whole bunch of ‘little’ social skills is that, after a while, the GM will let you roll *any* of them in a given social situation, just to expedite play. At that point, what’s the difference? Most of the time, social skills are recon. The GM wants to give the player information. The player wants to recieve information. Having seven different ways to jump through the same hoop isn’t nearly as useful a roleplaying tool as RPG designers seem to think.

Personally, I tend to favor skill systems that use more general social rolls as a base and then add specialties – extra dice when the situation dovetails into what your character is *really* good at. L5R is a good example. Exalted/NWoD, though unwieldy in other ways, is another. (I’d add Serenity RPG to that list in theory, but my experience with it so far has been mixed.)

#11 Comment By Razjah On December 22, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

I think Iron Heroes did a good job of helping social characters while still working in the Diplomacy,. Bluff, Intimidation route. The characters who were skilled at social interactions were able to put a single skill point into the group and get 1 point in each social skill. It really helps keep the “party face” from needing to turn to another to lie for the group.

#12 Comment By 77IM On December 26, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

Great linked article!

One thing I do is, I never allow the “Empathy / Sense Motive”-type skills to reveal truth or lies directly. Instead, I say one of the following:

(Success) “They seem like they are lying about something.”
(Failure, or Success but the target actually is telling the truth) “They are either telling the truth, or they are lying and beat your roll.”

Thus the players can never know for sure when someone is honest, and even when they detect lies I don’t tell them exactly what the target is lying about.

—–

At a high level, my approach to social interaction now revolves around motivations and leverage. If I keep the NPC’s motivations in mind it is much easier to respond to the PCs’ speeches. Plus part of the game is for the PCs to try to discover the NPCs’ motivations to gain leverage over them.

So to me a more interesting system would feature an Intimidate skill that allows you to discover what someone fears, a Taunt skill that allows you to discover what angers them, a Charm skill to discover what they like in others, a Tempt skill to discover what their selfish desire is, a Deceive skill to learn what it is that they want to believe, etc.

#13 Comment By Tanthalas On December 27, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

Created an account to reply to this! Social skills have been both bane and boon in games that I have run.

In college I ran into many a player who demanded that social interactions simply be settled with their die rolls, looking up results in a table, and then moving on. Needless to say, these people are no longer in my gaming group. However, at the time I was playing D&D and it is very difficult to include any sort of actual mechanics into a social interaction without heavily relying on that die roll, I will admit.

However, for systems with, what I believe, are good social mechanics, I agree The_Gun_Nut about looking to Earthdawn. The abilities are very centered around bringing an NPC around to being your friend slowly and cautiously BEFORE you ask him to start taking the risks and helping you out with any potential dastardly deeds (of course in that game you are supposed to play as legendary heroes, but as we all know, the dastardly deeds do slip in there).

Another interesting game I would like to point everyone to is the Song of Ice and Fire roleplaying Game by Green Ronin. This social system is designed with rounds, and even includes a variety of attacks and defenses. The mechanics are a bit clunky at first, but with practice you find yourself making exchanges with NPCs and wearing one another down, changing tacks, and coming at one another again. By the time the ‘challenge’ has ended, you have almost certainly agreed to some terms in the middle from where both parties started and the end set of results feels really natural to me.

Lastly, those of you that talk of never rolling a die during a social interaction I think are missing out. If a conversation seems to be going well, the PCs are properly roleplaying their social skills and they are getting towards the goal they wish to achieve, then by all means keep your hands away from those dice. But when you run into the situations where the PLAYER can’t quite match the social skills of his CHARACTER (for better or for worse) I tend to recommend that, after the interchange is more or less complete, let the player roll the dice and see if his character really said things exactly how the player did. This encourages both sides of the coin. Players who lack social grace could attempt to make up for it with the skill, and players who just seem to ooze suave still may want to spend points on the skill because you may make him roll that zero skill and have him come off sounding like a fool.

That’s my two cents and since this is my first post let me add in the obligatory ‘Love the Stew, keep it up!’

#14 Comment By webmaren On December 28, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

I find the system used by Exalted (storytelling) to be a good way to preserve realism in social combat. All Exalted rolls take the form of Attribute+Ability+Specialty. Honesty/Deception is keyed to the Attribute score in social combat, so if a player working from a Charisma pool of 5 suddenly has to lie, dropping down to his Manipulation pool of 2, his rolls are still supported by his Socialize pool of 4 and Specialty: Gods and Spirits 2. The difference goes from a 60% drop in the Attributes, to a more reasonable ~30% drop.

As for realism, I would say that there are plenty of realistic explanations for a character having high deception and poor honesty. It could be that the person is so lost in their web of lies, that they forget what the truth really is; while in their deception-fantasy-world, they are good enough to manipulate the mess more and keep going, but once they have to be bound by the rigid constraints of honesty, they have trouble.

Or on a smaller scale, you could imagine one of those people who is sarcastic constantly (everybody knows one). Works great for deception, because you can’t ever quite figure out what’s going on, but in an honesty situation it can be unnerving.

#15 Comment By Wordman On December 28, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

Two quick (unrelated) points about social skills:

1) In most of the “stereotypical” systems mentioned in Stephen’s article, the social skills are largely just vestigial appendages tacked onto a game that is mostly about fighting. It’s not really surprising that they don’t work: the game really isn’t actually about that (though maybe it should be). In keeping with Stephens thesis, it is worth noting that games which actually do focus on social interaction are usually not “RPGs with social skills”, but use other mechanisms to handle social interaction.

2) When playing “RPGs with social skills”, one trick that has worked for me is to use the social skill check not to determine success or failure, but rather as a means to deliver semi “metagame-y” information the player can use to roleplay, essentially giving them hints at what will help them succeed. For example, say the player makes a decent Negotiation roll to get a good price on something or a better rate of payment. The GM can then say something like “you get the impression that this guy needs to move quickly, so might react well to a lower offer in something lightweight, like gems” or “you’ve heard rumors that this fixer pays higher wages if you give him a kickback”. In other words social skills in game work like they do in real life: providing observational and inferential cues that a person takes advantage of to further their own goal. The GM has a massive advantage in applying a system like this, because they know exactly what the NPC wants and to what they will respond favorably.


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