The trouble with social conflicts

DiplomacyI have been roleplaying for about two decades now but there’s still one thing that causes me headaches as a GM: social conflicts. Usually when player characters act in a roleplaying game, it’s their characters’ skills and abilities that count, not the skills of the player. But when it came to social interactions I often let the players’ skills trump the character’s abilities.

When you think about it that’s actually not how it should be done. But sometimes I can’t help myself. Isn’t it much cooler when one player gives a great speech in front of the battle instead of just rolling a few dice? Or isn’t it much more fun when the player acts out how he bargains with the shopkeeper instead of just saying: “I bargain with the shopkeeper”?

I know that I am not the only one who handles it that way. But that way of running social conflicts actually makes it harder for people who are not that outgoing or not that great with words to enjoy roleplaying games. After all it’s supposed to be a roleplaying game and not an acting class. But on the other hand it’s undeniably cooler if the players act out social conflicts and interactions instead of just rolling the dice and stating their intention.

So what can we do to solve this issue? In order to keep things fair you should probably start by following the rules. Most roleplaying games have some elaborate system for social conflicts or at least a few social skills you can use. When a player enjoys acting out these scenes, you should allow him or her to do so (if the rest of the players approves). Some games allow you to grant experience points for good roleplaying or there’s some other metagame currency that can be used as a reward.

Of course in games where there are no rules for social interactions at all, like in the old editions of D&D, it all comes back to acting it out and letting the GM decide. But in most modern games it’s probably better if you use the rules as written to decide the outcome of all actions and let the players act out conversations, social conflicts and the like, if they enjoy doing so.

How do you handle such situations? Have you done the same mistake as I did, or do you have an ever better method to handle this? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

18 thoughts on “The trouble with social conflicts”

  1. For social conflicts in my game (which is currently Savage Worlds), I do roleplaying first, dice second. As SW has a system in place for social conflict resolution, if their speech/argument was particularly convincing, I’ll give a bonus to the die roll. If the player in question doesn’t stay in character very often and I can tell the scene was difficult for them, I’ll give them a benny (an in-game reward) as well.

    That’s strictly for PC/NPC conflicts. PC vs PC conflicts must be handled by roleplaying only. I can’t think of any circumstance where I’d allow a die roll to determine the result of a conversation between players, but I suppose it’s possible.

    I somewhat agree that that may give more outgoing players an advantage, but I don’t know that I’d think it unfair. It’s no different than the more creative players figuring out puzzles easier, or the more tactically minded players to breeze through combats. Everyone brings their own skill set to the table, and as a GM I try to make sure everyone has a chance to shine.

  2. I use the rules but award bonuses for good acting. That way anybody can do anything, but I value the fun and capabilities of the player. The bonuses are totally a thing of gut feeling and rule of thumb. I guess I do judge a good argumentation not as favorably (not not favorably at all) as I do the acting itself, but both should could roughly equal.

  3. getting the player to relax and . ACT his/her part .Start at the botton with them. describe the action you are doing now. you find most players will just say i hit it with my sword, then roll a dice leaving the GM to create the drama and action in that scene. but if you can get the player to say how that action looks the =n other social events will slowly come to them. action is the easier to start with then social will naturaly come to them. prompting by the GM and also if he/she leads the way

  4. I’m with Glenn. An RPG should not put a more introverted player through a wringer by forcing social situations to be roleplayed; that’s just punishing the player. The dice should be there to let that player achieve his or her goals in playing the character. After all, I love playing fast, agile fighters and kicking ass, but I couldn’t come close to doing that for real. My personal skill shouldn’t prevent me from enjoying it in the game. At the same time, if a player enjoys and does have good skill with social interaction, the game should let her or him exercise that skill. So, like Glenn said, I say RP first, dice second as the backup.

  5. Use the rules. Do you give bonuses to people interestingly describing their combat moves and the action of battle? If not, why do you do so for social interactions?

    For me, role-playing is its own reward. No need to reward/reinforce it with arbitrary rules intervention from the GM.

    A good game system does it the other way around anyway: The rules provide the space for role-playing, prompt players to use the character traits they have chosen and let rp emerge organically.

  6. @Ralf: I sometimes give bonuses to combat rolls when the players come up with creative descriptions or interesting applications of their abilities. But you’re making a good point. Roleplaying should be its own reward.

    Perhaps the approach Glenn and Andrew are proposing is a good way to handle it.

  7. Yeah, as I would give a bonus for someone coming up with a good idea to convince an NPC (or waive the roll entirely). But for acting it out nicely? Playing a bit of devil’s advocate here: Would you give out bonuses for the martial artist in your group (should you have one) if he stood up and showed you a few sword moves?

    I think player/character ability separation is important, and I’m not sure why it should stop at social skills.

  8. @Ralf: I fully agree with you. I actually started the post by saying what I did wrong for a long time and that I think I need to make sure that there’s player/character skill separation.

    Luckily my players haven’t complained yet, but it’s something that bothered me for a while. Even though I have ran games for ages, I still want to improve myself.

  9. I always try to have my players do a little of both. In game talking and dice rolling.

    There is lots of talk about player vs. character ability, but I think we also forget that perhaps the GM also isn’t as verbally adept as the NPC’s he’s trying to portray.

    Because of this I often times interpret the PC’s social roll, not as how well the PC does in the conversation, but how the NPC interprets what has been said, for good or ill.

    I see this kind of thing a lot during my teaching. I’ll tell a student something that is meant to motivate, or is totally innocuous (in my mind), but their reaction is totally out of left field since I really don’t know what has been happening to them out of school or in their home.

    Usually when I get an update from guidance or the office it makes sense, but at the time it really does appear that I failed that social check.

  10. @Ralf unlike fighting, you can actually talk at the table. The times when you are talking like your character, or at least describing what your character is saying are one of the few precious times in the game where there’s almost complete congruence between what’s happening at the table and what’s happening in the game world. Discarding that for “I’ll try a Diplomacy check, that’s +2 because of my Charisma, but -1 because it’s a racial enemy” would be a great pity. You can give shy or inarticulate people who nonetheless want to play smooth-talking charismatic sorts support in the rules by treating their character sheets as giving them a saving throw or even a minimum competency (because of your charisma, no matter what you actually say you won’t get a reaction worse than X).

  11. #Joshua Note that I’m not arguing against acting/RPing in social interactions at all – in fact I love it. I’m just arguing that it should not be the decisive factor whether a character achieves his intent.

    1. Just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that the rules/dice be foregone completely, especially in potentially hostile conditions. What I meant was that I require the players to state what they are doing first and then the dice get involved. ie: “I walk up to the guard and tell him that there’s an urgent matter that needs his attention in another room.” [die roll] instead of “I walk up to the guard and make a Persuasion check to get him to leave.” Potential game rewards (roll bonuses, et al) would be involved if a particularly elaborate description is made.

      Is it arbitrary? Sure. I like to incentivize good roleplaying and staying in character at my current game table, though, and the occasional +1 to a roll or benny is a good way to facilitate that.

  12. One thing to think about, if you’re using a social conflict mechanic what effects does it have on the characters?

    For instance, if I pass my “convince” roll, does that mean the character has to be convinced? If I pass a “haggle” roll does that mean I get the price I want?

    A lot of times GMs deal with social conflict rolls this way and it works ok for NPCs but players don’t like it when their character has to do what an NPC wants because they were beaten in the conflict.

    I think the answer is in giving the NPCs and the PCs a choice. If they fail the roll, they choose if they will follow what the other character wants from them or to take a penalty. I use stress to model this. Each time a character fails a contest they choose if they will acquiesce or take stress. (Of course stress has to have it’s own function in the game then.)

  13. I take what the player said and imagine as presented by the character through their dice roll. This is important as some tactics are going to be better than others. Threatening a ruler in their court is usually a bad idea no matter how good the roll is. On the other hand, an offer that can make a merchant very wealthy might have a good reaction even if crudely presented. It’s not judging the player’s acting skill, but it is taking their strategy into account. Just like a combat doesn’t take the player’s sword skill, but it does use their tactical knowledge. For major NPC’s I try to have a few notes as to how they’d react to physical intimidation, social intimidation, flattery on something they think they’re good at, flattery on things they don’t pay much attention to, etc. I don’t have a list on everything, but I try to think of some of the approaches a player will take. For example, Countess Alyssa gets many suitors and ignores comments about her beauty. But she’s proud of the decor of her audience chamber and she has an interest in illusion magic.

    @ShadowAcid, that’s something that should be repeated in lots of areas of rulebooks. Sometimes a failure (or success) is not due to the character’s skill, but due to things beyond their control. Perhaps the character used a turn of phrase used by someone the listener hated. Or their tone of voice reminds them of a beloved relative. That’s something that can’t be captured with just using player skill.

  14. IMHO, the best solution lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly, the *character’s* capabilities (i.e. stats) should have some impact upon what they can accomplish in a “social/intellectual conflict” much as they do in a physical one. However, just as the clever-thinking, strategy and tactics of a player will positively impact their effectiveness in combat (taking advantage of flanking, higher ground, cover, etc), so should a player’s effort and enthusiasm when role playing in social sequences.

    Long story short, I’ve always called for skill/ability checks when it seems some random arbitration is needed and simply modify the rolls based upon the player’s efforts in the related role play.

    Believe it or not, you *can* have your cake and eat it too!

  15. I like the middle of the road idea. When using Savage World I give the bonus for being creative, but they have to be really creative in their role playing at the table. Otherwise, good role playing gives them a bennie. Someone said that earlier but it is how the system is designed and needed repeating.

    Lately I have really appreciated systems that do not have intricate social interaction mechanics.

    A friend’s home brewed system used an old school idea of a Charm score that modifies an NPC’s initial reaction to them, but that is all. When the characters interact with the NPC’s the GM just keeps a mind to how the attitude of the character would change. If it is an important NPC, one that has a background he might even set up Triggers that will change the NPC’s attitude when hit. For example a greedy guy might get a better attitude toward a character if he provides him a source of money. In other words he lets the interaction occur logically. He allows the players to either say how and what they are doing or actually act it out. Either way works in his style.

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