Thursday, December 2, 2010

An Open Letter to Trollsmyth

Posted here because my reply to his post was too long for his comments section.

Yours is a position I have heard several times before, and each time it leaves me shaking my head. In this reply I am going to detail exactly what is wrong with this system, and why it is good to have to at least SOME rules about social interaction.

First I shall establish a few facts for those who are reading. Prior to writing this, I talked to Trollsmyth over IM and asked him the following questions:
Erin: I believe your thesis to be "We do not need rules for social interaction because that is what talking in character, i.e. role-playing, is for."

Trollsmyth: Yep. For certain values of "we."

Erin: How would you define "we", then?

Trollsmyth: People who want a game about social interaction.

Sir, your thesis is flawed. Allow me to point out these flaws to you. 

Your System is Open to Abuse
Let us say that I am an unethical type of gamer – perhaps not a cheater as such, but one who is willing to exploit gray areas in order to have a more powerful character – and I am playing in a game such as this. My immediate thought will be "Since social actions will be carried out through role-play alone, and without consultation of stats or rules, Charisma will become my dump stat because I won't need to roll it ever and I can count on my natural quick wits and ability to improvise to keep me afloat. Meanwhile, all the points which would have gone into social skills can now go straight into combat abilities, which I will be rolling quite frequently."

Congratulations, you (the DM) have just made your problem worse. Would you care to do the same for mental skills and have puzzles etc. be handled with player brains instead of character abilities? Wonderful! Now I can dump all that as well and become even more of an unbalanced twink. And when you call me on it, I will argue with you that I am just playing the game the way you laid it out, where (obviously) the only mechanics which matter are those for combat, and everything else is player ability.

Good luck getting the genie back into that particular bottle. Even if you win that argument, it's a fair bet that the rest of that game session is a total loss. 

Your System is Not Fair to the Players
Conversely, sometimes I want to play someone who is far more skilled than I am. What if I, the player, have no social skills whatsoever, but I still want to play a smooth-talking seducer or a quick-witted scoundrel? Well then I am screwed, because it doesn't matter what my Charisma score is, because you won't let me roll it (no rules for interaction, remember?) and I am forced to embarrass myself in front of friends as I fumble an attempt to be suave.

The same holds true for mental abilities. Too bad for the player who wants to play a genius if he's not one himself. Again, he is unfairly penalized for wanting a character who is greater than himself, and once again the attitude that "Only combat stats are important because they are the only ones which have rules attached to them" reigns. If I were this player, having made a social or brainy character only to be effectively told that it didn't matter what my PC's Intelligence or Charisma was, I would loudly complain that I had been screwed and I would quit your game immediately.

Your System is Prejudiced
Do you require your players to actually swing swords to determine if their characters hit in combat? Do you require them to perform acts of dexterity to adjudicate success with lock-picking? No? Then why do you require actual performance of actual social abilities? Especially since, as I have mentioned earlier, not everyone is comfortable talking in character? Are they somehow less deserving of a game they can enjoy? Are they simply not welcome at your table? Or are they forever doomed to be the big stupid beatsticks and meatshields of the party?

In Conclusion
Unless you are gaming with a group of theater majors or other actors, odds are excellent you will have at least one player with sub-optimal social and communication skills. You state that "Festooning [social interaction] with mechanics undercuts [the game]. The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them," but in my experience, mechanics are sometimes the only way to make sure that some players are given a fair chance to shine. The shy girl who wants to play a social butterfly and be popular for a few hours; the slow-thinking guy who wants to pretend that he is brilliant and on top of every thing; these people are disenfranchised with your system, and worse, those players who are smart and quick-witted and smooth-tongued are probably going to run roughshod all over them.

I am not advocating a bloated rules system to be tacked onto social interaction. But I very, VERY strongly feel there should be at least some rules, because your system as stated is not fun for a significant chunk of the gaming population. Role-playing is supposed to be inclusive, and your approach is exclusionary.

Your post is titled "Support, not Replacing." In that vein I urge you thusly: support your players, or you will certainly be replacing them.

Erin Palette


  1. I've made a similar argument to Trollsmyth's before, but the curious thing about that was that most of my gaming experience involved either groups of amateur dramatics types playing almost-completely diceless investigation/interaction games, or were comedy dungeon crawls where the social stats genuinely didn't matter and, to be honest, neither did the interactions all that much.

    I've since come to realise that most roleplaying happens to fall somewhere between these points, and it was my own limited perspective that was making the argument against bits of the systems I wasn't using.

  2. Word. It's pretty much like the people complaining about "rogues are underpowered" in DnD when they're freeforming the social interactions and deliberately play in adventures where traps are rare or non-existant.
    For bonus points the main enemy is probably undead or something.

  3. Ding! I like diceless/narrative systems, but relying too much on the player's natural abilities (or lack thereof) with no mechanics to balance out the RL persona can end badly -- usually with the GM playing favorites or using event and NPC reactions to punish or teach a lesson instead of rolling with the player's intent. Both lead to player desertion.

  4. "Do you require your players to actually swing swords to determine if their characters hit in combat? Do you require them to perform acts of dexterity to adjudicate success with lock-picking? No?"

    Do you require your players to actually consider their resources (hit points, spells, torches) to determine if their characters should push on or go home? Do you require them to map out the dungeon to adjudicate success with navigating? If your answer is yes, that's a game about exploration. All the rules, the swinging of swords, the picking of locks and the casting of spells, concern peripheral activities. Even if her character bites the dust, a player can still sit at the table and give unsolicited advice.

    I don't think Trollsmyth meant that players in a game about social interaction should be impressing the referee with their suave manners and fast-talk. But they should be able to figure out who to talk to, who to avoid, who is friends with who, and so on.

    Personally, I don't do funny accents or even talk in character much at all. I've got a stammer and can only think of witty retorts a day after the argument. But just in saying "I compliment the visbaronetess on her dress" or "I bribe the lackey to let me into the ducal bedchamber", I get involved in the game. I don't need rules for that, only for knowing whether my character is allowed to address the lady directly and how much the guards get paid.

  5. The problem with mandatory social rules in role-playing games is that they force people who don't need them to use them for the "one player with sub-optimal social and communication skills". A much better option is to give the "one player with sub-optimal social and communication skills" training wheels to let him or her play with players just role-play through those situations. It's not that hard to let the player choose to replace talking through a social situation with skill roll result and just play around it without making skill roles or even more complicated social conflict mechanics mandatory for those people who don't have sub-optimal social and communication skills and would like to just play through the scene in character.

  6. "In that vein I urge you thusly: support your players, or you will certainly be replacing them."


    ::waits to be replaced::

    Hm. Maybe in another 100 sessions?

  7. Fuckin' A.

    That's probably more crude than I need to be, but this is a brilliant, incisive, precise and beautiful presentation of exactly why Trollsmyth's entire philosophy is predicated on blindness. I find myself in awe.

  8. I've struggled with this from both sides. I'd hate to run a game where interactions with NPCs come down to, "I butter him up. (rolls dice) Yes!" But I do understand your point and I've seen it far too often that the witty player with the barbarian character with low INT, WIS and CHA is nevertheless doing all the talking, and the shy player with the socially adept bard is left to tune his lyre between battles. There has to be a middle ground.

  9. Hey, I was just thinking about social resolution mechanics recently, and why I don't like them myself. I just wrote a blog post trying to explain my thoughts.

    Check it out here:


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