The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Conversation

It would be foolish to contest that our hobby grew out of the war games community. How far, however, has it grown? A quick tour of the ever-growing spectrum of RPG blogs will suggest that what growth there has been is not without some serious backsliding into the hobby’s primordial ooze. When virtually every discussion involves combat mechanics, combat options, monsters to fight, or optimal builds for effective adventuring, it lends the impression that all we do is pretend to fight. You know that’s not true, and I know that’s not true, but is it really untrue?

On the face of it, there is this: most roleplayers, for whatever reason,  play D&D or the games derived in homage to it. The focal point of that game has increasingly become, particularly since the mass market editions, combat. Rather than move away from the one thing war games were designed to do toward the variety of things that they were not designed for, that sector of the hobby and many others in a diverse range of genres have instead chosen to circle back to combat again and again, only paying lip service to the idea of offering broader options.

Oddly, from my perspective at least, the games which provide the most freedom from combat-focused stories also provide the most freedom from actual consequence and risk, and therefore reward as well. In other words, they tend toward the boring as they have drifted very far from the idea of a game, from the idea of challenge. This is not to say they are not entertaining, but there is a difference in deriving pleasure from performance, and deriving it from risking failure to snatch victory. Scripting failure to buy success just does not have the same zing. To find systems with the most support for non-combat solutions to problems, it seems like we must turn to purely narrative games, where the purpose is to generate an artistic and traditional story with satisfying character development arcs, but virtually no fear of loss. This is by no means exhaustively true. On the surface, it seems to me that D&D4e managed to combine all the focus on combat with all the bland safety of FATE, but with narrative control resting with the rules, not anyone actually sitting at the table. Neat.

Lest this seem like a rant, let us get closer to the heart of the matter: social mechanics are often too simple to be entertaining in play, often lack the visceral and far-reaching consequences of combat, and when failed, tend to devolve into combat anyway. All of that makes them far too frequently, a colossal waste of time.

Thankfully this situation is not always so, but for many gamers out there exposed to a limited choice from the huge panoply of available games, it might just as well be. In how many systems are social skills relegated to a skill description and a simple or opposed roll, while combat has page after page of specific rules, conditions, and options? Are combats really so much more complicated than successfully conning someone? Really? By the same token, if to find detailed and flavorful social systems a player must surrender the thrill of discovering a story in which they are taking part and must instead pick the same old beats that any tale on the shelf might have in order to ensure that everyone enjoys the inevitable conclusion, where is the motivation to buck a very clearly established tradition? It’s not swimming against the stream if you have to leave the water. That is something of a game-changer, and for many of us, not in the good way.

So, what does this mean? Probably nothing- but it has been on my mind for a while. I am curious about how systems like Ubiquity, which make no overt fuss about social combat and manipulation, can sometimes have a very robust and satisfying method of portraying them. I am curious about groups which take the time to learn the principles of the systems they use well enough to apply more engaging methods to the resolution of non-combat tasks. I am curious about game design which continues to put combat first. I am curious if that will ever change.

Most of all, I am curious if most of us even want it to…

11 Responses to “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Conversation”
  1. Ken says:

    For my gaming group, rules for social interaction have always seemed unnecessary because we can simulate that interaction at the table in a way we could never simulate the combat. I, as a GM, can portray the NPC that a PC is trying to con and we can roleplay through the encounter. At any time, I can decide that the player has made a good enough case to succeed. Usually, at the end of any such interaction, I still call for a test of some sort, but I take into account the interaction to give bonuses if appropriate. Yes, it still boils down to a single test whereas combat is usually a longer series of tests, but the roleplaying of the conversation is usually very satisfying for us.

    We’ve tried the Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits system and it just wasn’t satisfying for us. Breaking a negotiation or a con down into steps with separate tests just interrupted the flow and reduced enjoyment. YMMV, obviously.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I don’t think it varies so much as to take me into the realm of Burning Wheel! 😉 Not a fan.

      I also don’t think social rolls need to be expanded to the point of turn by turn checks to be interesting, just given some respect and depth, like you describe.

  2. Murderbunny says:

    Part of the reason social systems tend to be light is, as mentioned by Ken, social interactions can be played out between the players/GM at the table, whereas engaging in physical combat with the other members of the gaming group is (usually) not desirable. I think that while “I try to hit him *rolls dice*” is perfectly fine, many players who are into the role-playing and character development aspect will view “I try to talk him off the roof *rolls dice*” as a kind of cop-out. “Role-play your character!” they cry. “Act it out, don’t just roll dice!”

    In the New World of Darkness supplement Mirrors (not to be confused with an Old Mage supplement called The Book of Mirrors), they propose a system for “social combat” in which one character attempts to manipulate/persuade/coerce another into doing something that is against their own interests or otherwise would not normally do. It’s been a while since I read it, but if I recall correctly it involves whittling the target’s Willpower down until they are no longer able to resist the pressure tactics of the aggressor. I have yet to try it but it does look interesting.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I think that is a bit of a cop-out, really. I agree that ‘just roleplay it’ is a part of why social mechanics get the short shrift in so many systems, or in the efforts of some GMs, but it’s just a part of the story. As I mentioned in reply to Ken, going the other way and making things directly analogous to combat procedures will not be desireable either. As he mentioned, it will break immersion. So where does that leave us? Some games don’t have this problem.

      Ubiquity as just one example, has a resolution system, drawn into clearest contrast in All for One, where the role of persuasion, time taken, effort spent on refutation, evidence applied in support, and aid from your cronies can all influence the opposed rolls you make with your conversational adversary versus relevant targets, such as will, Status, and the other person’s rolled results. It provides meat and weight to the rolling exercise, the dash of challenge and unpredictability that makes rolling fun, and it guides the player in making their roleplayed contributions, helping those who find it hard to act, and reigning in those who steal the spotlight. A second example would be the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which also has a simple, but effective and compelling social conflict and manipulation mechanic. Using Ken’s game as a final example, in Brass&Steel, all tests are conducted with a clean, single die mechanic in and out of combat. Guideline traits are provided to add colour, and the system lends itself toward encouraging interpretation and involvement.

      It can be done, and it can be done simply and well. It just usually isn’t.

  3. morrisonmp says:

    Once again I find that when you write you tend to say something I’ve been thinking and make it so much clearer and more precise than I’ve been able to articulate it… “scripting failure to buy success” is such an excellent description of one of my major reasons for not being into FATE – style games.

    And I think you point out the problem well. Since the consequences are not as immediate as combat and are more able to be played out at the table, social systems tend to be very thin or incredibly over-mechanized.

    As a big lover of diceless games, I can tell you I’ve spent many long sessions of long campaigns where we’ve done nothing but having talking head sessions.

    Part of the solution is to make social consequences and the weight of social interactions as important (if not more) than any combat. But it also goes to your group’s preferences. If your group is just about thumping… well, let ’em thump.

    I mean, I tend to think about the Star Wars games I’ve played in (d6 system) and you know, some sessions are all about taking out stormtroopers and some are deep sessions with debates about the Force, relationship building, etc. Star Wars is an “action” genre, but character is vitally important. It’s a good template for thinking about balancing these competing parts (for me).

    • Runeslinger says:

      You are too kind.

      Star Wars is a good example, perhaps because the films give us such vivid and memorable examples of characters doing more than delivering pithy one-liners and kicking ass. Gaming is as often about emulation and reformulation as it is about creation, so perhaps this contributes to the persistence of certain tendencies along certain game lines.

  4. anarkeith says:

    I’m wondering if there is a game designer out there who can write a system for roleplaying and exploration (that is not completely dice-based) with the same level of detail that is lavished on combat simulation.

    Is there a template for such a thing? Dave Chalker and Phil Menard had their 5 x 5 method for plotting. Something simple and elegant like that.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I honestly don’t know. It is oddly something to be desired and derided at the same time, isn’t it? On the surface it could solve so many problems, but again we don’t have to push very deep to find it causing problems in other aspects of play. As the Oracle might say, “It’s a pickle.”

      I posed a question along these lines a few months ago on RPG Stackexchange and got an answer which attempts to map combat and social conflict directly, without sacrificing roleplay elements. I am still not sure what I really think about the top answer which came in (Click Here), but it is worth a look. I think it would take a lot of practice with the approach to reduce the game and mechanical elements, and support the RP elements enough before being able to work toward elegance. What do you think?

  5. Murderbunny says:

    A few thoughts, not responding directly to anything said by previous posters, but just on the topic of the necessity of social systems in general:

    I think that the idea that rolling dice to resolve social situations is a means of ducking out of “real role-playing” needs to be challenged. Granted, some players do exactly that; they are too lazy or self-conscious to act out their character, so they default to a flat, “My Bard wants to parley with the bad guys *rolls dice*.” This is clearly poor role-playing and such players should strive to put more effort into depicting their characters.

    There are a couple of problems with the pure-role-play method of social resolution: First, a player should not be limited by their own real-life limitations in order for their character to do what they are supposed to be able to do according to the character statistics. We don’t require our players to be soldiers or martial arts champions in order to play combat-competent characters, so it seems unfair to require a player to have the charisma of a successful career politician in order to play a character who is socially adept.

    It is also not terribly fair that a player who IS very charismatic in real life can carry that ability over to a character who is supposed to be – according to their statistics – a social leper. A savvy player will learn that their social stats are irrelevant if they are never rolled, so they put points into physical stats that do get rolled instead. Social stats become wasted if they have no actual mechanical benefit, so it breeds a peculiar kind of min-maxing.

    In certain situations, such as difficult negotiation scenes or long interrogation scenes, where role-playing the hours (or days!) of back-and-forth between all the characters is neither interesting nor practical.

    There are also situations where it would just be incredibly awkward to role-play, the most commonly cited example of supreme awkwardness being a seduction scene. I was about to type that it would be a rare situation where you find two straight males at the table who are perfectly comfortable with one trying to seduce the other, but it occurred to me that no matter the composition of the players (male/male, female/male, female/female, straight/gay, gay/gay, straight/straight, etc) a fully role-played seduction scene risks opening up a huge bucket of awkward and spilling it all over the table.

    Sometimes social situations get downright unpleasant, and since nobody in real life enjoys being browbeaten, intimidated, insulted, humiliated, harassed, coerced or manipulated by the people around them, there’s little reason to expect a player to enjoy the same when it comes from their fellow players or GM. I’m not saying that unpleasant social situations can never be role-played, but that sometimes allowing the system to step in and guide the characters’ reactions can spare the playing group from a lot of potential for real-world resentment. It can create a bit of distance that is conducive to the understanding that “CharacterA browbeat CharacterB into submission” rather than “PlayerA browbeat PlayerB into submission”.

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