Better Social Conflict in Roleplaying Games

Commentary Advice Conflict Social Encounters

The Purpose of Argument by ImNotQuiteJack, on Flickr. Please note that the content of this post reflects far less wisdom than this fortune cookie.

A friend once complained that he didn’t enjoy TV because television conversations were not realistic. I asked him to elaborate, and he pointed out what he called a “cop out” of a conversation ending right after a point of emotional tension. For instance, a spurned lover might say to his spouse, “I know you’ve been cheating on me,” and the scene ends with the look of horror on his wife’s face.

My friend wanted to see what came next. Ironically, however, his claim that TV wasn’t enjoyable because the scene ended too early was exactly wrong–TV (and movies and fiction) are enjoyable precisely because of where the conversation ends. Compare a conversation to a fight scene: the words exchanged are the kicks and punches, and the statement containing the biggest emotional impact is the killing blow. Now, in the fight scene, we rarely want to watch the aftermath (cleaning up the mess, reloading a gun, soaking one’s fists in ice) unless it contributes in a significant way to the story. The same holds true for entertaining fiction.

Translate this to real life. Imagine a fight with your spouse or significant other. Wouldn’t it actually be nice sometimes if such fights could simply end on the “high point,” instead of dragging out in perpetuity while either side kept re-stating their point, hoping that saying it with just a little more emotion or logic will make their SO see the light of day? Isn’t it simply soul-draining to go round-and-round on the same thing until you’re too exhausted to talk anymore?

Today’s question, then, is why the hell do we do this in our roleplaying games? And how do we stop? After exploring the problem, I’ll outline four key elements: setting aside ego, limiting the participants, engaging in dialogue with clear intent, and learning when to stop. Finally, I’ll give an example of an all-out social conflict that takes these points into consideration.

Case Study: The Neverending Prisoner Interrogation

The prisoner interrogation. The thorn in the side of roleplaying games. The purported “heroes” seek to “leave one enemy alive” so they can get the intel. Players determine who is “good cop” and who is bad, then proceed to keep asking the same questions while the prisoner says “I won’t talk.” Sometimes we use rolls to sway the course of these conversations, but in most games I’ve played, we keep the conversation going ad infinitum.

Compare this to an interrogation on any cop drama. The cops get intel, decide what angle they want to take,  then go in. After pithy exchanges each way, the cops either say something so compelling that the bad guy talks, or the bad guy says something so definitive (think “I won’t talk until I get a lawyer”) that the cops simply “give up” on the interrogation.

Is this realistic? Not in the least. Would it be fun to watch it if it were realistic? See the previous answer.

Roleplaying games are often focused on combat. While I shudder to approach “real life” conversations with a militaristic metaphor, if our games are combative, using this model makes sense. The three elements of introducing dramatically appropriate dialogue in our games will build off this combat metaphor.

Setting Aside Egos: Character’s Mouths should be like Character’s Muscles

I’ll totally own my sins in this category: I don’t want to be perceived as foolish, and so I do not like to “lose” a dialogue in a roleplaying game.

But for some reason, I don’t take it personally if I get my ass handed to me in combat. And I’m not terribly concerned if my brute character can bench three times what I can, or if my intellectual character can hardly lift both shoes–I know that these are my character’s physical strength or weakness, and not my own.

But, for some reason, when we translate this to character’s intellectual or social skills, it’s harder to draw the player/character distinction. Still, actors do this every day; we should be able to do the same with our characters. If we don’t, then it’s actually us bickering around a table rather than our characters engaging in a conflict. Really, this isn’t very different from throwing punches at each other.

Step one to better social conflict in roleplaying games: say to yourself, “I am not this character.”

Limiting Participants in Dialogue

This is probably the biggest challenge in a roleplaying game. We’re used to letting everyone around the table do something. But go back to the interrogation room again: we seldom have more than three people interacting with one another in these scenarios.

It’s a reality that GMs struggle to run more than one NPC at a time in dialogue; the solution is not to try to overcome this. Rather, players ought to intentionally limit characters actively participating in a conversation to no more than 2 participants in addition to the NPC.

An easy self-imposing limit is to suggest that the NPCs “win” a verbal combat if any of the PCs are “taken out” as a result of the exchange. The more people the PCs bring to the conflict, the more likely the “weak link” is to get taken out, which likely will sink the whole party into defeat.

What do you do with everyone else? Bryan has some suggestions.

Examining Intent for Verbal Combat

We don’t often have to think about intent for martial combat in roleplaying games because it is generally obvious. Either the bad guy needs to die, or the heroes need to defend the castle, or the good guys just need to survive–in any case, the nature of the conflict makes the reason for the conflict quite obvious.

Game-changing dialogue in role-playing games should be on the same terms. While I’m all for casual dialogue as a way of setting a scene, as soon as characters go from “I’m chatting with the innkeeper to set the scene” to “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in this town,” the dialogue becomes purpose-focused with win/loss conditions.

What does win/loss look like when your bard is asking the innkeeper what’s going on in the town? Simple. “Winning” gives the players information: maybe this is mission critical (in which case the verbal combat looks like a fight with a significant enemy), or maybe it it is incidental (in which case, it’s more like a wandering monster). Either way, the players get information if they succeed, and this information should be worthwhile.

If they lose, well–it’s hard to accept a TPK-like situation for a chat with an innkeeper. But there are a number of options. The innkeeper could give bad information, or waste a lot of time while the bad guys do something even worse that the heroes could have stopped, or the players could inadvertently offend the innkeeper and get thrown out, or they could accidentally implicate themselves, or the innkeeper could wait until they go to the room and then betray them to the enemy… There are a lot of possibilities.

The key is to accept defeat when it comes. See step one, setting aside ego. Allowing the dice to decide whether you “won” or “lost” a conversation doesn’t say anything about your intelligence or savvy. Not realizing the difference between your character’s personality and your own, however, does say something about these things.

Learn when to stop

Every player around the table (not just the GM) has two words at their disposal that facilitate dramatic dialogue in games:

“…. Aaaand cut.”

I remember how liberating it was when I realized as a GM that the players didn’t have to slay all the little guys–when the BBEG fell, the mooks could just run away, surrender, conveniently die in a flash of shaded text, etc… Conversations can end the same way. If a player is going on and on but not making any new points, someone should “cut” the action.

If you’re dealing with someone sensitive, well, getting over it is always a good strategy–but if that isn’t possible, a “cut” doesn’t have to bleed. Do normal conversation stuff–restate what you’re hearing from them to make sure you have the gist of it, explain that it’s time to draw the “verbal combat” to a close so everyone can participate in the story again, and make sure they know they get to roll to see the impact of their words.

Example

Gertrude the GM is running a game for Brenda the Bard, Malec the Mage, Fred the Fighter, and Rhonda the Rogue. (See the alliteration? It’s your friend :) ). They have been approached by Ephraim the Emo-Vampire, who is trying to enlist them to destroy Igor, the Impaling-Vampire. While this exchange could happen in any system, I’m going to use Fate’s social conflict rules, mostly because they’re the best rules I’ve seen for such exchanges. (Yes, Matt, this is inspired by  our last game :) )

Gertrude: Across the dingy light of the tavern, you see Baron Ephraim, the city’s poet-laureate and–as you know but can’t prove–a vampire who feeds on lust. He smiles lasciviously at you all, then approaches your table with open arms. Conversation in the bar stops for a moment as patrons watch their town’s hero, and whisper to one another about the people he is moving towards. That’s you.

Fred: I stand up and draw my sword.

Gertrude: You’re in a crowded and public place, and remember, the town loves Ephraim–and you can’t prove he is what you know he is.

Brenda: I put my hand on Fred’s shoulder when I see his hand going to his sword and say, “I know you don’t like it, but we’ve got to talk to him. This isn’t the place to fight.” Fred, are you OK with me stopping you?

Fred: Yeah, but I still stand up, and my hand still goes to my hilt.

Gertrude: That’s fine. Ephraim says, “Come friends, let us enjoy a drink!” He looks at Fred, then behind him, and says, “I see no enemies here.”

Malec: Guys, I think we should treat this encounter as a verbal combat. I know I want to talk to him, and it sounds like Brenda does, too. Rhonda or Fred, do you want to participate in the dialogue?

Rhonda: Actually, yes, I’d like to. I know you’ve got a higher empathy, Malec, but I want to keep this guy off balance, and show him that he’s not the only one who can be slimy in a conversation.

Fred: I don’t need to participate. In fact, I gotta pee.

Malec: OK. I really only did want to participate because of my stats, but it’d be more fun to watch Rhonda talk to him. Brenda, I’m just going out on a limb and assuming that the bard wants this guys ear.Brenda laughs and nods. Good. Gertrude, I’m going to move to the bar and try to strike up a conversation with the most intelligent-looking person who was staring at Ephraim as he walked across the room. I’d like to try to gather some information, but we don’t have to role-play it; I’ll just make a roll if that’s OK with you.

Gertrude: That’s just fine. So, let’s just say Fred’s character is going to the alley to take a leak while Fred goes upstairs to LARP peeing. Malec is at the bar chatting up some nerd, and Brenda and Rhonda engage Ephraim in verbal combat. Let’s get some banter out of the way so you all can get a feel for where this conversation might be going.

The three characters chat for a minute, and it becomes clear that Ephraim wants the party to work for him to bring down Igor. Brenda is trying to placate Ephraim’s ego while still making her disapproval clear, and Rhonda is drawing a hard line that she won’t work for Igor.

Gertrude: I think we all know where this is going. Ephraim’s intent is to enlist you to work for him. It sounds like you’re both interested in stopping Igor, so can we say that your intent is to get information and perhaps material support from Ephraim, while making it clear that you’re working with him and not for him? If you lose this exchange, Ephraim will make good on a threat to release damning evidence of your involvement in the slaying of the Duke’s huntsman. If you concede, you’ll be agreeing to work for Ephraim. And if you win, you’ll get the info and material support. Is that good?

Brenda: That’s fine with me.

Rhonda: I’d like to take a different angle–yeah, we’re going after Igor, and yeah, he’s probably got some information to help us. But we have other ways of getting information. If we win this exchange, I’d like to force his hand into doing or saying something that makes him look like a fool in front of all these people in the bar watching us.

Gertrude: OK–since that sounds like Gertrude’s desire and not necessarily the party’s, let’s see how the dice play the scene out. We’re going to use the “Presence” skill to figure out initiative here–do either of you beat Ephraim’s 4? Rhonda shakes her head

Brenda: I have a four, too. Can we use Rapport as a tiebreaker? Gertrude nods, and it’s determined that Brenda can gofirst. “Ephraim, let’s cut this dialogue short. We both want the same thing, to stop Igor. Isn’t this just a semantic argument about whether we work for or with you? I’m not going to be able to convince Fred or even Rhonda here that we should work for you, but we’ll work with you. We can…”

Gertrude: ….Aaaand cut. I get the point, you’re trying to reason with him to not manipulate you, right? Brenda nods. OK, you roll Rapport, and I’ll defend with Conviction, as Ephraim interrupts you and says “I have my reasons for needing your compliance in this, and I don’t think you want the information about the huntsman to reach the town guard.” Brenda gets a +6, and Ephraim gets a pretty pathetic +1. Wow, Brenda, you did 4 social damage, and Ephraim only has 3 boxes. He’s going to take a moderate consequence and check off his 1 social damage box.

Brenda: Ooh, can you make it “Confounded by Reason?”

Gertrude: That sounds appropriate. It’s his turn, and he sees Rhonda as the weak link in this conversation, so he will shift his attention there. “Come now, if this is merely semantic, it shouldn’t matter what our pronouns are. Rhonda, I should think you in particular would be interested in avoiding another strike on your criminal record. If the duke…”

Rhonda: ….Aaaand cut. Gertrude laughs. So, he’s trying to threaten me. I’m going to use Rapport to try to laugh it off. Gertrude prompts her to say something as her character. “Seriously, vamps, no one liked the huntsman except for the Duke. If you go public, the Duke will hate me as much as he already does, and the rest of the town will think I’m a hero.” Rhonda and Gertrude roll; Rhonda gets a -1 Rapport, and Gertrude gets a +4 Intimidate.
Ouch… That’s 5 shifts of social damage. I’m going to take one shift of social damage and a moderate consequence here myself–is “Paranoid” good?

Gertrude: Let’s amp it up a notch–make it “Everybody’s Out to Get Me.” Rhonda, your turn.

Rhonda: I don’t want to take another social hit this early on in combat. I’m going to do a scene maneuver to give me a better chance to defend next turn. Let’s see here… I’m going to deliberately spill, trying to make it look like an accident, and even trying to get some on Ephraim to place the aspect “Distracting Spill” on the scene. Can I use “Deceit” for that? The GM nods, and says it’ll take at least a +2 result. I got a +3.

Gertrude: First exchange is done. Brenda managed to out-reason Ephraim, then Ephraim spooked Rhonda. Rhonda responded by tossing her beer on him. Rhonda, you took a hard hit there–and given the distraction you made, you can bow out if you want to let Brenda handle this alone. Rhonda shakes her head no. Remember, if you get taken out, “the whole party” loses (or leaves you on your own). Brenda, your turn.

Brenda: I’m going to continue my push from last turn with another Rapport role. “Ephraim, we’re both reasonable people. We both want Igor taken out. Let’s leave the power game aside and simply help each other.”

Gertrude: He defends with Conviction: “I do not require your help. I require your obedience. Surely you can comprehend the difference.” They roll, with Brenda getting a +5 and Ephraim getting a +2.

Brenda: That’s +3 shifts. I’m going to tag “Confounded by Reason” for free for a +2, so I get +5 shifts. I’ll also pay a Fate point to invoke “Et cetera et cetra,” because even if I’m not talking for a long time, my character is, so that’s +7. And I really want to take this guy out–Rhonda, can I have the free tag on “Distracting Spill?”

Rhonda: Sorry, I want to save that for defense if I need it.

Brenda: No problem, I’ll pay a Fate point to tag that, too. That’s +9 shifts.

Gertrude: OK–that would take him out, and he’s already used his moderate consequence, so he’s going to take a severe one and check off his “3″ box. He’s pissed at you, so this consequence is going to name you. How ’bout “Brenda shamed me publicly?” Brenda nods. OK, Ephraim is willing to concede here–if he does, you’ll get information, but no material support–and you won’t get to humiliate him further. Are you willing to accept? Rhonda shakes her head “no.” OK, then, Ephraim is coming after Rhonda again, still pushing the Intimidate angle. “Child,” he says, “you jest about the huntsman, but murder is murder. I don’t think the townsfolk will find you so cute when they imagine a defenseless man’s blood spattering your mooncow face.” Ephraim rolls a +3 Intimidate.

Rhonda: Look at that, all four pluses! That means I get a whopping +4 Conviction! I shake off his insult, and it’s my turn, right? Gertrude nods. I’m going to use deceit here. I raise my voice and say, “Ephraim, I know you’re terrified that people will find out you had the huntsman killed for murdering your lover, but we’re heroes in this town. I don’t think you’re going to have success in framing us for this murder.”

Gertrude: Just making sure here–your intent is to make the people in the bar think Ephraim had something to do with the murder? Rhonda nods. OK, then. Success won’t mean you’ve convinced everyone that what you’re saying is true–but it’ll certainly start rumors. Normally, I’d say this should be intimidate against rapport for Ephraim to laugh it off, but you can use deceit this time. Let’s roll. Rhonda gets a +5 Deceit to Ephraim’s +3 Rapport. And I’m going out on a wild limb guessing you’ll want to tag “Distracting Spill,” right? Rhonda nods. OK, +4 shifts means he’ll cross off his 2 social damage box and take a minor consequence–one more hit will take him out.

Rhonda: Handing a Fate point to Gertrude. Not so fast, I’m going to tag my “Insolent Wench” trouble aspect. The waitress has just brought another mead to the table to replace the one I spilled. I take it off her tray and throw it in Ephraim’s face, yelling “You monster!” That means I get +6 shifts.

Brenda: And that means the +0 Rapport rogue just took out the vampire in social conflict.

Gertrude: And that means you get your way. Ephraim is “taken out,” which, if you accept, means he turns bright red (which is very red for a white-skinned emo-vampire) and storms out of the tavern without a word. The patrons are stunned speechless.

Rhonda: I order another mead.

Gertrude: That’s great. You know Ephraim is going to try to kill you now, right? Rhonda nods, smiling. OK,  so since you won, there’s some information he spilled during the course of the conversation. Gertrude gives the players their reward for the victory, and combined with the information Malec got at the bar, the players devise their next step in the war against all vampires.

Brenda: Wow, that was an interesting exchange! I wonder if other gamers have ideas about how to improve social conflict in roleplaying games–maybe they should talk about it in the comments of the Intwischa blog!

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