Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Social Skills - Intimidation

One of the things a lot of people are quick to notice with role playing games is that while we get chapters and chapters of how to use any given rule system for combat we're often left on our own when it comes to non-combat skills. Even systems where the social/political aspect of the game is just as important as the fighting part do this (looking at you World of Darkness and Legend of the Five Rings.) This can then cause problems as GMs and Players have different ideas on how things should work. This gets even more complicated when you consider that socially, people are quite complex and no two people generally react the same way. Today I want to start a small conversation about this, beginning with one of the common "weapons" in the social skill arsenal: intimidation.

What Is Intimidation?
Just what is intimidation? A quick check on gets me the following definitions.

  1. to make timid; fill with fear
  2. to overawe or cow, as through force of personality or by superior display of wealth, talent, etc
  3. to force into or deter someone from action by inducing fear.
I like this definition and it fits with the basic premise of the skill. Intimidation is using force in order to get what you want. This can be as easy as a steely-eyed 1000 yard stare to make someone back down instead of fighting or it can be leaving the severed head of a horse in someone's bed to get them to put a favored cousin on the cast for a movie you're shooting. Of course, only one of these two examples is a good example for how the skill is used in game.

The Intimidation Skill
If intimidation is using force to coerce someone into doing what you want, then the intimidation skill is knowledge and talent in how to do that thing. The problem then comes in with the many ways that this skill can be represented. For example, a grizzled veteran fighter with a dozen battles under his belt is going to be intimidating by relying on his experience and the dead set in his eyes that you can't really stop him. A gambler/gunfighter on the other hand might give much the same appearance but the reliance is more on bravado and playing themselves up.

Consider a Lion and how it just stares at you next to a house cat and the way it will turn sideways and flex its body to look bigger than it is. Both are intimidation tactics, but they're very different in how they work. Which brings us to the other problem with intimidation.

How The Target Responds
Intimidation by definition is using fear to get what you want. Maybe that's the fear of what you'll do. Maybe it is the fear of what not doing what you want will cost. Doesn't matter, it is using force and threat to shove your will onto another person. The problem is, people react to fear differently.

A mook soldier may back down, but what about the short fused brawler? He's liable to throw down because that is how he deals with fear, he attacks. Then you have other problems when someone uses intimidation on that grizzled vet we talked about earlier. I mean, how much are you going to be able to cow someone who has been through war and lived to tell the tale? How much do you expect to be able to cow a level 15 warrior? Do you really think that yelling and beating your chest at a direbear is going to do anything but make it think "oh goodie, my lunch isn't running away today?"

This is where my biggest problem with how intimidation, and a lot of other social skills, works. They take away choice. It doesn't matter that your character has faced down abyssal horrors that can not be named, you rolled bad on this save check and so now you'll do what this character wants out of fear. There is no middle ground. Either the skill works and effectively enables you to control another character, or it doesn't and is effectively a waste of time, effort, and character points.

PC vs. NPC
This all or nothing impact has me effectively thinking that in most systems social skills are things that should be used on NPCs and not PCs. The only problem there is that rewards the PCs quite a lot for places where they have weaknesses. It enables a character that isn't built for social interaction to be protected from being socially defeated in a certain way because otherwise the skill takes away the player's abilitiy to control their character.

It also leaves open the problem of special NPCs who then either need the same immunity or have the same problem.

Mechanical Benefit
To work properly I honestly think that a system needs a way to treat the social aspects of the game like combat. FATE does this, as do a few other games. 

What about other games though? The "normal" ones without that? There should still be something. With NPCs maybe the GM can wing it, but in the event a PC tries to use intimidation on another PC shouldn't they get something out of it? Shouldn't there be some tangible benefit to successfully using that skill?

After all, we see it all the time in stories. The winner of the stare down carries an edge into the resultant fight that maybe makes the difference on whether they win or lose. Personally I'm for it, and I've assigned them in my games from time to time.

I am curious though. What are your thoughts on the matter?


  1. Players losing control of their characters is one thing that many of the gamers I know reject it out of hand. It IMO has made a number of games less interesting. I have played Numenera and Fate and was disappointed by how players reject every single compels or complications even in systems that offer reward.

  2. In Fate rejecting a compel requires a fate point. Accepting a compel is the only way to really generate fate points. So if you want the player to accept you can just create a situation where they are out of fate points, at which point they can't reject a compel.

    It also might be worth talking to them about the point of the game and how things work.

  3. Completly agree! As a Master, I want the characters acting differently than players controlling them. But my players don't feel it this way...

  4. I kind of feel like the comments on this post lead to a great post topic. Group culture, and the social contract of your game.

  5. First of all, this is a great blog series topic and I look forward to "Charm", "Command", "Deceive", etc.

    I think withdrawing agency from a PC due to being intimidated would require pre-published heavy structure that everyone playing is aware of.

    For example, the game I'm running has what is basically a morale check for exposure to various shocking entities or situations. The results of a morale-check failure, the test of which is based on a stat, is mandatory & very specific. I know that's not the same as Intimidation, but I think the analogy is useful. Taking away PC-behavior agency cannot be capricious.

    You make a great point A.L. that PCs not built for social interaction tend to be unaccountably protected from being socially defeated because of this phenomenon. That's exactly how it is in my game, unfortunately, and I'm not aware of a great solution. To boot, the Fellowship characteristic is the red-headed stepchild of pretty much every PC in my game. That's why I have them roll it as much as can possibly be justified.

    The game I'm playing has an Influence characteristic for each PC. They can't affect it with XP, rather, the GM adds or subtracts from it based on their meta-choices/accomplishments. Then it can be used as a Test when they want something from somebody.

    Then the party has a group Subtlety score that the GM changes based on group actions - do they quietly infiltrate or do they kick in the door? Neither is "wrong" but will change their Subtlety. The group never knows exactly what the Subtlety # is, the GM maintains it & uses it for tests for things like seeing whether an NPC recognizes them, etc.

    Those are just a few thoughts...but forgive me if I also keep having them make Fellowship Tests as much as possible.