Social Skills in RPGs (Alternative Title: Persuasion is Not Mind Control)

MGibster

Legend
I’m running a Deadlands game using the Savage Worlds rules, and one of my players was trying to find information about a missing man. His character isn’t the friendly sort and doesn’t so much ask questions as he tends to threaten and bully others into giving him answers. i.e. He uses the Intimidation skill. During the session, the player tracked down the missing man’s girlfriend to ask about his whereabouts. Instead of asking politely, he slammed his hand on the table and raised his voice demanding, “Tell me where he is, dammit!” His Intimidation roll was successful, but instead of getting the answer he wanted she fled the scene.

When I run a game, for most skill rolls, when the player makes a successful roll they tend to get what they want. i.e. If I ask for an Athletics roll to jump and the player rolls successful then they jump the fence. With social skills, I find I tend to handle things a little differently in that I want to know what their character is saying. For those players who aren’t smooth talkers, they’re free to give me a general idea of what they’re saying and what they’re trying to accomplish. In this particular case, the young woman was in love with the man the PCs were looking for, and knowing he was in danger, felt as though the PC meant her beau harm and would not speak to him. It dawned on me that I fundamentally handle social skills differently from other skills. Why? I’m glad you asked.

When I play an NPC, I try to assign them their own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. This NPC loved a man and felt his life was in danger, so was not predisposed to giving a stranger information about his whereabouts without proper motivation. Could Intimidation work? Yes, it could have worked had the PC been more concise in how he communicated with this NPC. Threatening her or her family might very well have worked, but just acting like a jerk wasn’t going to work no matter how well the player rolled.

But that’s not exactly fair to the player, right? When a player makes an Intimidation roll, how are they supposed to know what will or won’t work based on the inner workings of an insane GM’s (mine) mind? That’s what I’m mulling over. In some cases, I try to have players make rolls to figure out what might work. After all, we tailor our arguments based on our audience in real life, right? It makes sense for a PC to do the same.

How do you handle social skills in your games? Do you just have the players roll and have them get a positive effect if they roll high enough with little care for what they say?
 

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ichabod

Legned
There are ways they can find out things about the NPC, like insight checks from talking to them or investigation checks to track down information on them. Then they give me their spiel (what they say to the guy, allowing for third person roleplay if they want). If they effectively use what they learned about the NPC in their spiel they get a bonus to the roll. Depending on how well they succeed, the NPC gives more information or expends more resources or takes more risks. But up to a reasonable limit. The king will not give you his throne. With a good roll he might give you a large force of soldiers to help you on your adventures, though. Certain NPCs have lines they will not cross. But these lines need to be serious things: true love, deep loyalty, heavy indoctrination. It's not something every NPC should have.

Basically, what's in the 5E DMG.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Yes, it could have worked had the PC been more concise in how he communicated with this NPC.

For my understanding - is "concise" the word you want here? "SLAM! Tell me where he is!" seems pretty concise and to the point...

How do you handle social skills in your games? Do you just have the players roll and have them get a positive effect if they roll high enough with little care for what they say?

Broadly, what the player describes or acts out, in the context of the narrative and NPCs in question, provides a modifier for the difficulty of the roll needed to get what they want.

What you describe, in a game I run, would be the result of the player using an approach that increased the difficulty, and they then failed the check and didn't get what they wanted. The contact fleeing is a consequence of that failure.
 
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kenada

Legend
Supporter
How do you handle social skills in your games? Do you just have the players roll and have them get a positive effect if they roll high enough with little care for what they say?
I handle them in my homebrew system the way I do every other skills. When the someone expresses a goal, the opposition foregrounds consequences. That triggers a Skill Check, which is a form of simple conflict. What you are doing establishes the method, and how you go about it establishes the approach.

Using this particular example, the player wants to get information from the girlfriend (that’s the goal). The GM, being responsible for the NPCs, notes consequences such as her fleeing or sending word to her boyfriend to flee (these are possible consequences). That establishes we are making a Skill Check. The player goes on to describe slamming the table to try to intimidate her into giving them what they want.

The player would then make a Skill Check using Coercion + Strength. If the result is a success, they get what they want. The girlfriend spills the beans and tells the PC what she knows. If they get a mixed success, the PC still has to get what they wanted — there is no negating success with consequences; but the girlfriend flees. She’s no longer available for further information (without further action to stop her or track her down, which risks its own consequences). If the result is a failure, she not only flees, but she tells her boyfriend (invalidating any information the PCs may have collected so far about his whereabouts).

In situations where this is too big for one roll. Perhaps the whole scene is about trying to get the information from her, and she’s trying to push back with her own agenda, there are complex conflicts. These have a progression mechanism that has to be completed to establish that someone got what they wanted. Along the way, the players interact as normal, and the girlfriend may also act and follow her agenda (making her own Skill Checks).

As far as not caring what they say goes, that’s not an option. It must be established in the situation in the game world what the characters are doing. You can’t just say “I want to make a Coercion + Strength Skill Check” because that’s not the trigger for making Skill Checks. It’s saying what you want, confirming consequences, and then describing the what and how you are doing to pursue that goal. Note that if the opposition can’t foreground consequences, the PC would get what they want. Either she doesn’t care, or the PCs have completely outmaneuvered her.

Edit: I should add that the goal must be something one can credibly get from the opposition given the current state of the situation. For certain skills (like using Manipulation to tempt someone), you may need to establish first that they want what you’re offering before you can do it.
 
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Sparkle_cz

Explorer
For me it's absolutely understandable that certain NPC's cannot be persuaded at all by some means and about some topics. Especially important NPCs. If every NPC was always "persuadable", that would be way too unrealistic and "easy" for my taste that I wouldn't enjoy the game. So, as a GM, I'm perfectly fine with telling a player that his social action autofailed because that approach can't work on this NPC in this particular situation.
However, I try to be as transparent about it as possible. When I know that the action cannot succeed, I don't make them roll for it. I will tell them outright that it autofailed or I give them a chance to "roll to at least mitigate bad consequences".
So, in the case above:
A player tries to intimidate the NPC girl. I, as GM, know, that the girl will not spill the info this way, it is totally against her character.
So I tell the player: oops, this doesn't work on her and was totally counterproductive but you can roll Intimidate to see if you at least managed to not screw it up totally.
Then he rolls and: if he rolls badly, she runs away.
If he rolls a success, he will still not get the desired info from her but at least he mitigated the "she ran away" effect and she will stay there and be willing to communicate somehow. The successful roll here basically meant "you intimidated her badly but are so good at it that she didn't find it so serious as it really was, and thinks that it was just a joke" or something like that.
This is for me a compromise between the desire to give the player agency (he still gets to use his skill and the roll matters) and the desire to have the gaming world and its inhabitants realistic and challenging.

Also, there is one more technic that I use for cases like this: long-term projects to convince a NPC. I borrowed this mechanic from FitD and tweaked it a little into my PbtA rules. It goes like this:
Any time in the campaign, players can declare that they want to work on some long-term project. Be it renovating a house, inventing a new weapon etc. It is basically like classic FitD long-term projects. They are long and need time to spend but at the end they succeed automatically (the rolls only tell you how long it took).
And these projects can also be used for persuading a NPC through long-term convincing and socializing with him.
So, let's say that a player wants to extract some info from an uncooperating NPC. I know that it's not very believable at that moment that he succeeded. So, I tell the player : "Look, you barely know this NPC and he dislikes you, so at this moment he will not give you the info by persuasion. But we can create a long term project for it, with length 6, and if you fulfill it, the NPC will open up to you."

So my players get what they want in the end, most of the time, but we manage to keep the NPC behave like real people, and that is ideal for me.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
During the session, the player tracked down the missing man’s girlfriend to ask about his whereabouts. Instead of asking politely, he slammed his hand on the table and raised his voice demanding, “Tell me where he is, dammit!” His Intimidation roll was successful, but instead of getting the answer he wanted she fled the scene.
Tactical note for future reference... When trying to scare someone into complying with your request, make sure they can't flee.
 

MGibster

Legend
For my understanding - is "concise" the word you want here? "SLAM! Tell me where he is!" seems pretty concise and to the point...
It wasn't a specific threat. i.e. Tell me where he is, or what?
Broadly, what the player describes or acts out, in the context of the narrative and NPCs in question, provides a modifier for the difficulty of the roll needed to get what they want.
There are some games that have this baked into the rules and it's a decent idea. TimeLords and WarpWorld used such modifiers to Intimidation checks. A six year old using a stick to threaten a grown man was a negative modifier while threatening to torch someone with a flamethrower after you just torched someone else was a positive modifier.

What you describe, in a game I run, would be the result of the player using an approach that increased the difficulty, and they then failed the check and didn't get what they wanted. The contact fleeing is a consequence of that failure.
For Savage Worlds this is probably the most elegant solution. Just give the NPC a bonus when they try to resist the Intimidation roll or the PC a bonus if they're pressing the right buttons.

For me it's absolutely understandable that certain NPC's cannot be persuaded at all by some means and about some topics. Especially important NPCs. If every NPC was always "persuadable", that would be way too unrealistic and "easy" for my taste that I wouldn't enjoy the game.
In a game of Trail of Cthulhu, a player character police detective threatned a mid-level mob boss with arrest if he didn't speak up. I put the game on pause and explained to the player that his character would know this tactic won't work. This guy is not going to squeal because some flat foot threatened him with a night in the cooler.

Tactical note for future reference... When trying to scare someone into complying with your request, make sure they can't flee.
Avoid crowded restaurants during the lunch rush.
 

I use Zweihander, d100 skill-based system.

There's four social skills:
Charm
Guile (BS'ing and deception)
Intimidate
Interrogation: In your face, likely combined with physical pain.

There's also Scrutinize, which is reading body language and attitude.

So, the PC leads with a Scrutinize, judge attitude and demeanor, and then chooses an approach, either Charm (smooth-talker) or Guile (BS artist); if that fails, depending on the situation and social classes involved, they may go to intimidate , or even to interrogate (perhaps hustling the NPC off to somewhere away from prying eyes.

So the player has to weigh all the circumstances, choose a path, and then make the dice work for him. I usually note the best likely approach for key NPCs.
 

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