Friday, March 6, 2015

In Defense of Social Stats and the "Can I Just Roll For It?" Play Style


I know Friday is normally our discussion day but something hooked my brain and I decided I would get it out here rather than let it sit and simmer. See, on Wednesday a friend of mine linked me to this article. I've read it before, but something about it this time stuck with me. Now, to be clear, I like John Wick. I like his style. I think he is a great game designer and a very intelligent mind when it comes to the philosophy, psychology, and tactics of GMing. But there are things in here that I just can't let sit and not voice my disagreement to.

What Exactly Do I Disagree With?
If the topic of the post isn't a good enough hint, the part I disagree with is where John mentions that he throws out social rules because people rolling for social interaction isn't roleplaying and that if they want to roleplay they need to roleplay and the only way to get better at roleplaying is to roleplay. The only problem is that by throwing out dice rolls and social stats for social encounters, we're not roleplaying. We're improvisationally acting and performing theater. Roleplaying is something different, and that's if I use John's own definition.

Wait, what definition?
Earlier in the article John defines a Roleplaying game as "a game where players are rewarded for making choices consistent with their character and furthering a story." Not a perfect definition, but workable. However, if a roleplaying game is defined by that then the act of roleplaying would be something along the lines of "making choices consistent with a character (of yours or another's creation) to further a story."

In short, the act of making the choices and dictating the actions is the roleplaying.

How does that counter the social play?
It counters the social play because the act of roleplaying in and of itself is not in acting out the explicit act, or saying the exact words, that the character uses but rather in deciding the approach and methodology that the character uses.

To better explain, let's look at it as if social interaction were combat. Both are part of stories in RPGs so what works for one should work for another. When in combat we are fine with simple phrases to explain things. "I attack the orc." "I shoot him in the face." "I draw my dagger." And so on. We don't go into depth of describing the attack and how it works with our weapon against the opponent's defenses. We don't throw out the dice, arm Bob with a mace and Sarah with a lance and have them go at it (some LARPs do though, but that's different all together.) No, we use the system for it.

If Sarah can barely lift the PhB with one hand, but wants to play a Barbarian capable of winning the world caber toss games she is allowed. So why can't John, who is socially awkward, get a chance to play James Bond?

In other words, why is it ok to play a character stronger, faster, smaller, more attractive, more skilled, or a different sex than we are, but not ok to play a character who is more confident, socially aware, and charismatic?

But why is this a big deal?
It is a big deal because of exactly that. By limiting players to their ability to actually talk for their character - which also, btw, discounts the fact they're talking to you the GM and not Lara the Elven Minstrel they wish to charm onto their side - you remove the ability for that player, and thus your group, to tell certain kinds of stories, and you are doing so in a way that is unfair because no one else is under that same constriction.

It isn't about making one stat more powerful than another, or mechanical balance - which is also a factor - but about fun and telling stories, which is what RPGs are about, right?

With all that in mind, I ask you this: is it so bad if someone tells you that they want to woo Gronk the Mighty into being on their side, and then making a diplomacy check, instead of actually acting out the conversation and how every little bit is done? If so, why is that not ok but you don't actually have your players act out their physical actions, or confine them to physical stats like those they have in real life? (oh, and have fun explaining to Timmy Gym-a-holic that he's only strength 14 and not the 16+ he is arguing for, or telling Suzie Know-it-all that there is no way she's Int 18 because you're at best a 16 and no way she's smarter than you ;) )


  1. I have found that most groups are fine with basic social mechanics (and calling it social combat is a big no-no, apparently). So my regulars in D&D never have a problem when I have the player with poor RP skills roll a persuasion check....but when one of my cohorts introduced us to Green Ronin's Song of Ice and Fire RPG with its social combat mechanics all hell broke loose.'s all about the packaging, and making sure that you reward good RP where its due and compensate for those who can't with some appropriate rolls.

    1. As much as I love the concept of Social Combat and what it means, I have yet to really try it out in game. I can also see some groups balking at it. It is one thing to point out how an argument 10 minutes ago could have you mad, and thus more easily taken down in a fight now, but a lot of people also cry foul at it.

      Still, even beyond social combat stats have a place. Pendragon makes the conscious decision that all mental stats are the players and not the characters. That is fine, but it comes with a cost and that cost is in the story potential certain players can play.

  2. Excellent points. I also respect John Wick but disagreed with article. At the end of it I got a sense that he was telling me "you are doing it wrong"...which I completely disagree with.
    Some groups like it one way and some like it the other...neither is invalid.

    1. The thing I've figured out about John Wick is when he speaks about gaming he is speaking specifically about how he and his group games and nothing else. This tends to make it sound like he is preaching the one true way to game, but in truth he is - I believe - actually speaking about the way that he has found he gets the most out of gaming with. He has made statements in other things that how you game is up to you, he just doesn't clarify it all the time. It makes him come across as arrogant at times, which is a shame because even when you disagree he at least tends to bring up decent points and a point of view worth considering.

  3. The notion of completely throwing out social skills, I think, is a pretty extreme one you don't hear much about...maybe one goal John Wick had for the article was controversy.

    A more fundamental discussion in this area, which is touched on in this post, is how to *balance* the player's social skills against his character's social skills. Put another way, should a player who comes up with a compelling argument (especially when delivered in-character) for getting a NPC to do something, be given an advantage over a player who simply says, "Can I just roll for it?"

    What I strive to do in my games is encourage the player to make a case to the NPC in-character. Then I have the player make a roll using the social skill that best applies to the approach they took (i.e. charm, intimidation, deceive, etc.), irrespective of whether the PC has that skill or not. I determine the *base* Target Number according to the NPC's basic disposition towards the PC and what the PC is asking of them. Then I'll give a positive modifier for any compelling argument that the player came up with (and, again, especially if delivered in-character).

    So the player *can* just roll for it, and if their character is very good at persuasion then that's reflected in the roll. However, players are rewarded for good ideas & good roleplaying.

    Great topic.