Social Conflict Barriers

Sorry for being a day late, I’m supposed to post on Fridays, but I kind of got caught up in working on the Third Edition of The Artifact. It’s pretty exciting stuff and I don’t like interrupting flow when I’m in it. So that I don’t interrupt my flow, I’ll talk about a subject that I just smacked into related to Social Conflict. I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while and thought I had it pretty well down to a science but just realized I was missing an element that’s important for realistic and character driven Social Conflict and that is principles and priorities.

When I was writing Steampunkfitters I included the concept of a personal code that the character wouldn’t cross. In some ways it seemed a bit rigid but now that I think of it, is more or less how people handle things even if they don’t notice it on the surface. Obviously in a modern setting, most people aren’t going to follow the same moral codes as those found in the 19th century but they still do exist, they just tend to be more self serving. For instance, one could imagine a modern character that, consciously or unconsciously, lives by the principal “No one disrespects me.” Another could be “Don’t do anything that’ll get you fired, I need this job.”

Those would be the principles but what about priorities? The way I’m looking at this, a priority is how a person weighs how important a subject is. For instance a person’s priorities could be, myself, my kids, my job, mom and dad and boardgames. When there’s a conflict between taking care of this person’s job or his kids, his kids wins out because they come first.

The problem with using this model and assigning it to a modern game is that people don’t usually consciously think in these terms, they just react to habits that they’ve built up over time. Giving the process a rigid structure seems inauthentic to the modern psyche.

That’s unfortunate because in a social conflict, a character should really be immune to things that blatantly violate their principles and priorities. So what can we do?

Leave It Up To The Player

So one option is to let the players say “My character would never take that bribe because it goes against who they are.” It could work with the right players. You know, that perfect player that would never misuse the system because he knows the GM could use it later to drive a story. Maybe a little misuse is okay because it leaves the player with more agency over their player.

Where I start to have a big problem with this is that now the GM has to develop a clear mental model for how the merchant in this town thinks because the players want to convince him that they’re his best friend and he should totally help them out by giving them free stuff. You know they’ll try it. It leaves a big mental load on the GM who will resort to cookie cutter NPC motives for all the guards around the palace because they all love the lord of the land.

A GM usually has a lot of mental load remembering how the rules work, making him generate mental models for NPCs on the fly is a bit much.


This one might seem a little random (and it is) but it would resolve the issue of coming up with mental models on the fly.

Whenever a character successfully defends against a social attack, the player (or GM) gets to write down what drove them to reject the idea that was being pushed on them. If a similar issue comes up in the future, they get to use the precedence to boost their ability to defend themselves. There would, of course have to be some limit on how much precedence it would be practical to record.

This makes it easier on the GM, he lets the dice tell him as to who this character is. Unfortunately this makes an NPC potentially very easy to push over on the first attempt but harder and harder as he defends which is exactly the opposite of how a real social interaction would take place. Usually at first a stranger is a black box that you don’t know how to influence and then as you learn about them through conversation you begin to see how to key in on things they see as important.


Along with that thought, you can try to blindly guess what a person’s motives are or you can strike up a conversation with them, get to know them a little, then with that information try to work around that. This would be an effective model, but it would also suggest that everyone knew how to do this. In my experience, most people aren’t aware of how to do this. It also doesn’t resolve the issue of knowing what motivates an NPC, it’s just a different model on how the interaction should take place.

Tables, Tables and More Tables

You could list a group of principles and priorities on a table and then roll on them for each NPC. This is probably the most straightforward way of doing this but it takes up a lot of space and it’s mechanically very slow. Each NPC needs to be rolled for so you need the tables for almost every encounter. My other issue with this is that each culture you’re dealing with potentially has their own set of tables.

Skip it

The problem with skipping over this idea is that it leaves a player with a character that could be influenced into something that they feel the character would never do. The protection of having a core set of internal rules that they hold as important to who they are is really important to having a character with a cohesive personality. The question is, what’s the simplest way of implementing this concept?

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