A Social Interaction Engine

I’d love the ability to use social interaction and have a tactical system associated with it and not the players simply winging things. I think that players (including GMs) enter playing a character with far too much of themselves bleeding through. I don’t want to take control from the players but I would like something that gave as much texture to social interaction as physical interaction gets.

Being keen on simulation, I research psychology and neurobiology to gain insights into how to model interactions. In my studying there was a particular finding on willpower that fascinated me. In some situations, making choices cost mental energy but for people with strong beliefs on a subject, the choices are nearly automatic, they can resist temptations of certain sorts all day long and feel fine.

Knowing how to describe that in a game would be really useful. I made a crude approximation of it for the 3rd edition system with principles and priorities but I had a new thought on how to model it today.

It involves knowing the desires of a person. Having a desire for something means that a person has to use mental energy to resist a temptation. If a person will be deprived of something they want, they’ll fight to get/keep it. This can work two ways though. Say that I want chocolate cake because it’s a food I like. Then say that I desire to lose weight. The two might cancel each other out to an extent and so making a choice is difficult. It would take an effort.

Now what if I could add things like “really doesn’t want to exercise” to argue with myself that I shouldn’t eat it. Then maybe “hungry” could kick in and “It’s a small piece of cake” could deliver the knock down blow. Resisting now will be especially costly.

What this becomes is a list of draws on the character, not barriers that protect them. However if something takes the character away from one of their draws, the character gets a bonus to resisting. If it goes against several draws, the choice is automatic and can’t challenge the character.

So what this looks like is a system of tags that add or subtract from the argument for and against. The problem is that in any person’s own mental argument, there could be dozens of desires that come into play and naming them all would be difficult to impossible.

So either a simplified list would be needed or some way of intuitively calling them up would have to be created.

One idea that comes to mind is that most desires are in balance, it’s the really strong desires that sway things one way or the other. Then a character could have a short list of desires and only deal with those.

But to have this work well, the players have to see having desires as a net benefit. They need to mechanically benefit the character in most situations and only be harmful occasionally. In part, that means the GM not overusing them to the players detriment. Players may also view it as taking away some agency, so there has to always be the choice of resisting at a cost.


Filed under Experimental Mechanics

6 Responses to A Social Interaction Engine

  1. I’m working on a system like what you’ve described.

    At different stages in development, I’ve researched rhetoric and debate, logical fallacies, emotions, intelligence, social structures, and so forth. In fact, I think I’ve read the article on Willpower you referenced above — it sounds very, very familiar.

    I think one of the things that needs to be taken into account when developing a “social interaction engine” is the end result every PC will be aiming for — see, in combat you’re trying to disable your opponent to stop them continuing to try and kill you.

    Successful combat results in the enemy surrendering, fleeing, or dying. What should the goal of a social encounter be? The NPC agrees with you? That seems kind of… short-sighted. Not useful in the long term, I mean.

    I only just popped ’round because I saw this post on RPGBA so I don’t know your system of preference, but I know I’ve been trying to bring back “follower rules” in my home campaign for this very reason…

    I think perhaps the end goal of a social encounter should be to “recruit” a given NPC to your cause. Even if you leave them behind to tend bar or whatever, the goal of such an encounter might have to be “a new follower has joined!” Probably worth some serious consideration.


    • Loc

      At the moment I model conflict by a trait check using the character’s charm (Charisma) or intelligence (IQ) as an attack value. The defender uses willpower (Psyche) or intelligence (again IQ) to resist the attack. That’s pretty vanilla so far.

      If someone fails to defend they choose to agree or take stress. This is really important to the concept. That the player always has the choice. They may suffer for it but they never lose the choice.

      As of the current rules, a player can declare principals that block attacks but they’re recorded and if the player crosses them later, they get a stress penalty.

      Then there are priorities. The character gets a bonus for an attack if they win, but take double stress if they lose.

      The goal of social conflict can vary under this system. You may just be trying to degrade the character’s ability by stressing them out. It also may allow you to get them to agree. I include some guidelines on how a GM should interpret an NPC’s stress.

      • When and why do the characters “fight” like this? Can it happen with a merchant or a person on the street? Does the system work equally for them? Many of these NPCs won’t have a level unless they matter, right? What would happen if a PC were to walk down the street berating every guard they encountered?


        • Loc

          The only differentiation that I make for an NPC is that PCs have Physical, Functional and Mental stress while NPCs that are of little consequence have only one stress value. That’s just to simplify record keeping.

          About the berating PC, I think they’d end up exactly like they would in real life. Surrounded by a bunch of angry guards. (Which could actually be a great distraction, if you can take the lumps.) Just like real life, social conflict can be answered by physical aggression.

      • What if it “worked” thought? The PC rolled really well and managed to browbeat the entirety of the town’s guardsmen into answering directly to him? Could a specialized PC do it at 1st level? Could a Bard use charm skills to accomplish the same thing?


        • Loc

          An exceptionally skilled PC (which can be a starting PC) could be very effective. The trick would be to use the social attacks to either confuse, entice, or otherwise get around the fact that their pay comes from defending whatever it is they’re defending. In the guidelines I talk about thinking about the stakes for the NPC.

          If the stakes are (or seem) low, they should acquiesce at the first hint of stress. After all, who wants to be hassled? If the stakes mean danger for the NPC, like they might get in trouble, they’ll resist up to a point. If they’re dire, like they’ll be executed or lose their job, they should take a lot of stress before giving in.

          I think thats where what I’m proposing above will make a lot of difference. The number of draws used in an attack could multiply the stress making it much harder to resist the effect. It would make it easier to gauge when the GM should have an NPC give in.

          If I for instance, run up and start saying that the guards should come and follow me instead of their deadbeat lord, I’m probably giving myself a few negatives by the draw or their paycheck, the draw that they like to stay out of trouble and the draw that they probably think of themselves as loyal people.

          Now if I run up and say that a vicious monster is ripping apart a woman and her children and I’m soooo scared can they please save us and I’m crying and slobbering for their help. I hit some draws that it’s their job to protect people (maybe, depending on their position), that they get to be heros, and that they’re the big macho men and I’m nothing to be worried about.

          Defining that on the fly might be difficult though. It needs refinement.

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