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Steal this Mechanic: Legend’s Token and Bidding System for Social Encounters

Legend [1] is a reimplementation of the d20 System core rules from Rule of Cool — a d20 fantasy RPG that does things differently. It’s as much of a change from core d20 as d20 Modern was from D&D 3.0.

Through January 14, 2012, it’s available for a pay-what-you-like donation to Child’s Play [2]. If you have the slightest interest in d20, it’s well worth checking out (see my recent post on Google+ [3] for a bit more about why), but that’s not why we’re here.

We’re here to steal one very cool subsystem from Legend: the social encounter system.

A quick caveat: I’ve read the rules for this system, but I haven’t tried them out yet. I don’t see any glaring flaws, though, or I wouldn’t be writing an article about it.


Legend’s social encounter resolution involves two cool elements; the first is tokens. Every time you make a social skill check in an encounter, you earn a token for yourself — and your “target” for that social check gets to make an appropriate roll as well. They make their roll whether you succeed or fail at yours; you’re giving them the opportunity to make the roll.

Everyone who succeeds gets a token. Tokens represent capital that characters can invest in securing an outcome from that encounter, or in resisting someone else’s attempts to do just that.

So how do you use them?


To make a binding demand — to set the outcome of the encounter, in other words — you bid a token. Your opponent can meet your bid, forcing you to raise, counter your bid with a raise of their own, accept your demand, or walk away. There are consequences for each option, of course, which are spelled out in the rules.

They recommend using poker chips for tokens, which should nicely reinforce the bidding mechanic by putting you in the right frame of mind.

Steal this Mechanic

That’s it — that’s the whole system. It’s brilliant because it’s almost a system-neutral mechanic, oxymoron though that may be. You can use this system in literally and RPG that features social skills and skill checks, which is almost all of them.

I view Burning Wheel [4]‘s social combat rules as the gold standard for how to make social conflicts meaningful and awesome, and those rules are eminently driftable as well, but they’re also longer and more involved. What I like about Legend’s social rules is that they add so little to a game’s footprint but look like they’d add a great deal to the play experience. I love mechanics with a high footprint:impact ratio, and this fits the bill.

I encourage you to make a donation and check out Legend on your own [2]. It’s 180 pages, nicely laid out, bookmarked and hyperlinked, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do. And if you’ve played Legend, or used its social encounter rules, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

And if your game of choice doesn’t include social conflict rules (which too few games do), how do you make those encounters interesting?

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Steal this Mechanic: Legend’s Token and Bidding System for Social Encounters"

#1 Comment By Tamerlin On January 11, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

I only play FATE these days and I don’t use the social conflict rules.

Honestly, I don’t understand the need for such rules. I really have some trouble to assimilate social interactions with social conflicts.

I have read some social conflict rules, mainly from FATE iterations, and have enjoyed the mechanisms themselves. But when I tried to figure out what effect they would have on our games I mainly saw them as a disruption of the flow of the game. Why replacing our current way of solving social interactions with something that would throw unwelcomed rules in the process.

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 11, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

There’s nothing wrong with not liking or wanting social conflict rules, but if you’ve never tried them in any game, I highly recommend giving it a shot.

I didn’t understand why I’d want them until I played Burning Wheel for the first time and the social conflict was the high point of the session. Having mechanics that dovetailed with the roleplaying we were doing at the table enriched my whole experience of the game.

I still enjoy games without them, but done right they really add something to the equation.

#3 Comment By Tamerlin On January 11, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

Sorry, forgot to answer to the question (I was more listening to the music than concentrating on what I was typing).

We mostly play social interactions through role playing. I try to give each important NPC distinct traits, a goal and some good motivations. I give them some Aspects that are as many beacons to roleplay them.

From then on, I improvise. If the encounter degenerate into a kind of confrontation, I try to figure out how it could be solved in the best interest of the story and the players’ fun.

If I feel it is better to solve this through a roll of the dice, let’s roll and I compare the final result with whatever skill of the NPC that is appropriate. Often, rather than determining success or failure, the roll of the PC is only meant to evaluate how well he succeeds (remember that FATE gives qualitative results, I find them invaluable when improvising). Once the final rank is known, we roleplay the result.

Sometimes it is enough and/or better to have a look at the character’s skill rank and decide from this.

Most of the times though, the interactions are solved without the use of any rule. I follow the flow of the game… or, at least I try to.

#4 Comment By Tamerlin On January 11, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

[5] – You are right, I have never tested such rules and thus I don’t really know how they affect a game or how they can enhance a game.

I would gladly accept to test such rules as a player but, for the moment, I am not really interested in implementing them as a GM. This would also add another layer of rules… the less the better as far as I am concerned.

When I speak with other players and GMs, we share the same point of view. I live in Toulouse, France, and I don’t know a single GM that is using social rules. May be is it, at least in part, cultural. I think it would be very interesting to hear what our fellow europeans think about all this.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 11, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

[6] – Technically, I’m British (I have dual citizenship), so as a fellow European I think social rules are awesome. 😉

In all seriousness, though, a cultural variation regarding this topic would be really interesting. Color me curious to know if there is one.

#6 Comment By Razjah On January 11, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

I think this is a good idea but rough. It does add some complexity to games as you are adding more rules and I have had problems getting people to learn pathfinder for levels 1-3.

As I am starting a Burning Wheel game in two weeks, I am not really worried about social mechanics for the spring semester.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On January 12, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

[7] – Try thinking in terms of Harry Dresden conferring with White Court Vampires and you may get an idea of what was perhaps intended.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On January 12, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

Forget tokens, steal from Gumshoe with the “skill pool spend” idea.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 12, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

[8] – I’ll have to go back and check that out — it’s been ages since I read Trail of Cthulhu, and it doesn’t ring a bell.

#10 Comment By Tamerlin On January 13, 2012 @ 8:03 am

[9] – I agree that many social interactions can turn into a conflict and as such I can understand why a designer or a GM would introduce social conflict rules in his game. There are already rules for chases and fights which are common conflicts, so why not social conflict rules.

But for the moment I can’t figure out how this kind of rules could impact positively my games or how I could use them to bring something better. I suppose that I won’t know until I give them a shot (I am generally the one that is experiencing new things a… but I am very reluctant.

#11 Comment By Tamerlin On January 13, 2012 @ 8:06 am

[9] – I agree that many social interactions can turn into a conflict and as such I can understand why a designer or a GM would introduce social conflict rules in his game. There are already rules for chases and fights which are common conflicts, so why not social conflict rules.

But for the moment I can’t figure out how this kind of rules could impact positively my games or how I could use them to bring something better. I suppose that I won’t know until I give them a shot (I am generally the one that is experiencing new ideas in role playing)… but I am very reluctant this time.

#12 Comment By Tamerlin On January 13, 2012 @ 8:07 am

Sorry for the double post, if you mind, number 11 is the good one.

#13 Comment By Airk On January 13, 2012 @ 9:07 am

[10] – Maybe I’m missing something, but it sounds like you’re either unfamiliar with social conflict rules, or just not thinking about the effects they have.

Yes, you “improvise” the results of your social conflicts and try to pick something that is fun, but you could use the same approach for combat, and with the same justification. Having rules for something means that, in general, there is some uncertainty about the outcome – otherwise, there’s no reason to use rules and dice at all – and just improvising “whatever seems like the most fun” tends to strip that uncertainty away.

Think of it like this – you can roleplay a 45 minute debate with a general about whether his strategy is going to get his whole army killed or not, but at the end, you know it’s basically just the GM deciding “Well, okay, I guess that was convincing enough.” There might be some sort of rolls involved or there might not be, but even if there are, without real rules for what they mean, they just mean that the GM thinks to himself, “Well, they DID beat three DC 30 diplomacy checks, so I guess I should give it to them.”

On the other hand, if there are actual rules for this sort of thing, ala Burning Wheel, then not only do the players know that they are winning or losing, and that it’s not just you the GM being stubborn or easy, but it creates the possibility for things that NOBODY foresaw. Because maybe not only have the PCs failed to convince the general, but in fact HE convinced them of something. Or perhaps there is a compromise (again, this is all IN THE RULES, so if the rules say there’s a compromise, you need to come up with one rather than just throwing one in because you thought it. It’s a motivator.) and the general decides to withhold his troops but that in exchange, the PCs need to submit to his command in the future.

And so on. The rules, essentially do two things:

#1) They add an element of tension to events that would otherwise be lacking
#2) They bring with them the ability to force you and the players to think about the situation as a different way and create outcomes you might not have even considered before.

#14 Comment By Tamerlin On January 13, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

[11] – You are right I am not really familiar with the effects Social Conflicts rules can have on a game as, though I have read some of these rules, I have never used them in one of my games… I have only imagined what effects they could have and wasn’t really convinced of their use. 😉

But I don’t pretend to be right and would gladly admit I am wrong should I be given the opportunity to test such rules as a player… but it will be difficult as I don’t know a single GM that has given them a shot and my players find the idea equally strange.

About the rules and the two things they do (building tension and producing results you might not have considered), I agree with you 200 % (if not more). This is why I don’t play ruleless nor completely diceless, but I would reply that you don’t need a dedicated set of rules to reach the same result… at least I think so.

Once again, the mere concept of Social Conflict rules is really strange to my eyes and somehow I can’t wrap my head around them… not seeing the point of such rules don’t help I suppose.

Be sure that my intent isn’t to create any polemic nor to downgrade those of us who are using Social Conflict rules. Simply consider that it is something I can’t grasp for the moment. I stay open though and listen to what the others have to say on this ground… they could be right.

#15 Comment By kirezemog On February 2, 2012 @ 1:08 am

I really like this idea. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll get a chance to play it. I almost always play the character with the highest charisma, and take the feats and skills and all that. Unfortunately, the groups I’ve played with like the role play social scenes rather that roll play them.

However, I think this kind of system would work well for skill challenges. Much simpler and more free form. Have a pile of tokens, set the scene and if the hero makes the roll, they get a token, and if they fail, the GM gets the token. After the pile is gone, then you play the scene. For every token you play, you get to describe an action leading towards success. The GM can then play a token to change the scene from a success to a failure.