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Hopefully this produces some interesting sources for inspiration for my own designs: does anyone know of a system with an interesting take on handling social and similar situations, such as a debate or an attempt to seduce a foe to the dark side[1]? A few specifications to help narrow this down:

  1. Rolling a die and mind control (D&D 3.5 I'm looking at you) isn't interesting.
  2. It cannot be simply "Social Combat", and especially not social combat you can arbitrarily op out of to completely ignore (Exalted...)
  3. Rules that essentially are "DM makes things up" are not interesting.

[1] - I suppose this could be redeeming a fallen foe. I guess. Doesn't seem like typical player behaviour.

Thanks for the help!

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

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As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 24 '13 at 5:46
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@Nigralbus But it is legitimate to point out that this is a way of refusing to engage the rest of the social combat rules, and further it's legitimate for the OP to say that they are not interested in games that allow the player to opt out of engaging the social combat rules. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 25 '13 at 15:18
    
This is a bit of a list question. It does seem like it fits into a narrow category of questions where people are looking for ideas of different stuff (social mechanics, dice mechanics, etc.). As a result I think we'll allow it but Community Wiki it. –  mxyzplk Nov 3 '13 at 17:44
    
@mxyzplk I agree, at the time this was originally asked it was a valid question with how it was structured. With current practices the correct place for such a question is the community wiki. –  Glen Nelson Nov 4 '13 at 4:02

10 Answers 10

Song of Ice and Fire RPG have a curious intrigue system, that covers from simple social interactions (seduction attempt, for instance) to complex conspirations, following ten steps:

  1. Type: determine if the intrigue is simple, standard or complex and assign a number of victory points needed.
  2. Scene: describe the location and the participants.
  3. Objective: determine the intrigue objective (friendship, information, deceit,...). Each side can have its own objective (character A is trying to convince character B about a plan, while character B try to obtain as much information about character A as he can).
  4. Disposition: assign each NPC an adjective describing the disposition toward the intriguer (friendly, indifferent, dislike,...). Each one modifies the intrigue general difficulty and the difficulties or persuasion and deceit.
  5. Initiative: determine who rolls first.
  6. Technique: determine which approach would take the involved characters (bargain, charm, intimidate). Each technique uses a different skill and has different modifiers depending on the target disposition.
  7. Roleplay: (at last). Good roleplay can modify the chances.
  8. Action and tests: characters perform a series of actions (fast talk, manipulate, read target,...)
  9. Repeat: If there is still no winner, go to step 2.
  10. Resolution: Determine the winner and the consequences.
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First, a note on Social Combat. While Exalted's system has many flaws (including allowing you to stick your fingers in your ears and not listen), there are still hints there that can help you with your system.

First, social conflict is aggressive and proactive. The participants must have goals.

Second, the system must encourage small changes. As you note, D&D's one roll method for Diplomacy is dull. Exalted's Social Combat covers this with Intimacies. Forcing participants to slowly adjust another character's Intimacies over time to persuade them creates opportunities for thrust and counter-thrust.

FATE Core

FATE Core is an excellent system that takes a step back from the granular details that games like D&D and Exalted focus on. It unifies conflict under a simple model that can be used to represent all kinds of conflict, including economic, social, physical and more.

A conflict consists of using skills to Create Advantage, Harm and Defend. The goal is inflict enough stress (aka damage) on your opponent that they opt to concede (and they will have some control over the result of the conflict) or Take Them Out (so you have full control over the results). During the conflict itself, you can protect yourself from being taken out by accepting semi-permanent consequences that are related to the current situation.

This means that you can play out a scene where you and other characters who disagree on something can manuever around each other and hash out your agreements while also possibly taking some fallout from it.

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Hillfolk

From the successfully-kickstarted-but-not-out-yet collection comes Hillfolk.

This RPG doesn't just feature social mechanics, it's built almost entirely on them. Taking the theory of Hamlet's Hit Points and turning it into RPG practice, Hillfolk is a game by gaming visionary Robin D. Laws that focuses entirely on dramatic resolution - and that doesn't mean the (excellent) way that, say, aims at dramatic resolution.

Each conflict is boiled down to one person wanting something from another. Whether to give the wanter what he wants is largely up to the want-ee. But whether to give it or not is a decision that will be based on what the potential granter wants in the future, and how giving the wanter what he wants now or not will impact those future plans.

I can't explain it better than the links. See above. Go check out the kickstarter, too, there's a ton of stuff there.

My limited experience with this game (I backed it, so I have a draft already) is excellent. I think it finally takes the episodic-TV-drama-gaming crown from Primetime Adventures.

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If this was actually out or even still in Kickstarter, it would probably be my accepted answer. I will keep it on my Radar though! –  Glen Nelson Jan 25 '13 at 22:20
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@GlenNelson - Hillfolk is now available for preorder! pelgranepress.com/?p=12306 –  gomad Nov 3 '13 at 21:52
    
Thanks for the update! I'll grab a copy. –  Glen Nelson Nov 4 '13 at 4:01

Pendragon (I am referring to the older editions here, I own 2nd or 3rd edition but it's in storage now, so can't check - there is a new edition available though) had a set of psychological traits along with the physical ones, based on the system of "virtues" that a proper Arthurian knight should possess. For every positive trait you had a corresponding vice - and the two values were complementary (on a 1-20 scale).

So for example:

Chaste:  17  - Lustful:  3
...
Valorous:11  - Cowardly: 9  

(Wikipedia has a complete list under Personal Traits)

So whenever the PC (or NPC) was forced to confront something that required Courage, he would have to roll a D20 and get 11 or less. Whenever someone tried to seduce him, he would roll Chastity to resist (the "negative" traits could also be used when trying to elicit a specific response, like someone who is prone to get angry could be provoked in acting violently and so on - using for example the "Reckless" value).

While some players may find these traits "limiting", at least at the start, they actually help (imho) to avoid the tendency to always play an idealized version of yourself, and were also pretty handy in creating complex psychological traps and gambits.

I found this useful to model NPC behaviour, too, and ported this to a Call of Cthulhu game - I personally believe a similar system may help modeling someone who has a self-consistent personality (be it PC or NPC) and may be the starting point for more complex/nuanced social interactions in a game.

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Dungeon World has Bonds, which are between party members. Characters get XP when bonds are resolved, then they get new bonds. They have basic moves and class moves triggered by some interactions with NPCs. Social moves cannot coerce PCs but offer XP as incentive. It takes very few XP to level in DW, so the incentive can be quite strong and creates interesting choices for the players to face.

Another game that uses the same underlying engine, Monsterhearts, uses Strings. I haven't played it yet, so I can't go into it, but I've heard tons of good stuff about strings. What I know is that they represent some sort emotional leverage or currency. From everything I've heard, I'd recommend Monsterhearts.

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Monsterhearts

Monsterhearts is an -powered game of supernatural teen romance. I've never cared about any supernatural teen romance except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer so I can't tell you how it works for the genre as a whole. But as a storygaming Buffy fix, it's made of awesome, wrapped in bacon.

For the Apocalypse World-unaware among us, here's the scoop on Moves: In-fiction character actions in Apocalypse World games can trigger Moves. Moves are chunks of game mechanics that tell the players what to roll and how to interpret the results of those rolls. They are a key component of AW and every AW-powered game I've seen is built on them.

Monsterhearts has many moves that are related to the getting and spending of a social currency called strings. A string is an emotional hold you have on someone else - It can be a secret you can leverage, a favor they owe you, a desire you can stoke, affection you can encourage, or whatever else you can think of that's about making them do what you want instead of what they want. An important thing to know about strings is that they aren't defined until they are used. So when you spend a string, you can always make it fit the story at that moment.

Monsterhearts does a great job of making the characters' actions with regard to other characters' emotions mechanically meaningful. It also does a great job letting you play in the high-school-with-vampires melodrama part of BtVS (as opposed to the every-week-we-beat-up-someone-in-a-latex-mask part) with low prep and a high fun factor.

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Burning Wheel

The Duel of Wits is an extended conflict mechanic used to resolve debate and argument in the game (and at the table). Characters use verbal attacks and maneuvers to overpower and destroy their opponents’ arguments and make themselves appear, to all witnesses, correct.

If the parties agree to a Duel of Wits, then their players set stakes for the Duel, roll for a Body of Argument (basically hit points for their side), and then, in secret, plan out their next three actions for winning the Duel. There are a healthy number of actions available, such as Point, Obfuscate, Avoid the Topic, and Incite.

A debate is straightforward, but it could just as easily be a seduction, the swaying of a crowd, or a plea for aid at a king's court.

Scripting sheets for the Duel of Wits are a free download from the Burning Store.

Mouse Guard & Torchbearer

These games use a similar but simpler system for conflicts, which can include arguments. It's very similar to Duel of Wits, but there are only four actions to choose from: Attack, Defend, Feint, and Maneuver.

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Legend

Legend’s social mechanics certainly qualify as interesting, in my book: skill checks don’t get you results immediately, but instead get you “tokens” that you can bid, poker-style, to get what you want. Nicely eliminates Goblin Dice issues that plague most d20 System social mechanics, and also models the idea of escalating negotiations and how much people prioritize given goals (i.e. how much they willing to bid on it).

What is a major problem for the system in general (it doesn’t really fit in with Legend as a whole, which doesn’t use tokens anywhere else) may actually be an advantage here: you can use this mechanic as a part of almost any other system if you like it. And Legend itself is free, so it may be worth checking out.

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Crafty Games' Spycraft 2.0 takes many of its core cues from Dungeons and Dragons 3.X, but adds granularity in its skill system and introduces several Dramatic Conflict minigames.

Spycraft 2.0's social skills expand the Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive of Dungeons and Dragons 3.X to Bluff, Impress, Intimidate, Manipulate, Networking, Resolve, Sense Motive, and Streetwise, plus, arguably, Cultures and Bureaucracy. How to use each of skill is explained in (some say ridiculous) detail; the skills section of the Spycraft 2.0 rule book is over 80 pages compared to the 25 in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Player's Handbook. It's not just a matter saying, "I roll my Bluff skill to lie about having a monkey in my pants," but a whole cascading series of lying-about-a-pants-monkey rules that makes a high result feel just as rewarding to those who've invested in their social skills as a a high combat result does to those who've invested in dual-wielding chainsaws (which a character can also do in Spycraft 2.0, by the way)

Dramatic conflicts expand the skill system to give cinematic montages depth. In these mingames, an evocatively-named strategy--access to which is limited by the character's ability scores, other statistics, feats, skills, and so on--printed on a card is chosen in secret by both sides in the Conflict (usually by 1 player and opposed by Control, the guy running the game). Cards are revealed, dice are rolled, effects are tallied, and the range of effects are wide. Social Dramatic Conflicts include brainwashing, infiltration (abstracted ingratiating of one participant into an organization a la most episodes of Burn Notice), interrogation, and seduction (often misunderstood as sexual but really code for turning another to one's side a la the film Training Day). Probably manhunts are social, too, but in an entirely different way.

If you want mechanics not judgment calls Spycraft 2.0 details exactly what happens every time someone rolls. There is no make-crap-up phase except to narrate the effects of what the dice have already said happens.

The dark side is that the game's a murder weapon, clocking in at nearly 500 pages. The text is dense and has high expectations, desperately wanting its reader to enjoy charts and tables as much as it does. It's extremely mechanized, providing rules for life. It works best with just one kind of play--it is mission-based, resisting sandbox-style games and stifling attempts by characters to take out payday loans for nuclear ransoms. But, despite all this, it's a robust, powerful system that puts social interaction and physical combat on nearly equal footing with mechanics that make both interesting.

A third edition of Spycraft is in the works, and while Fantasycraft was interesting it lacked the borderline-OCD rule-for-everything absurdity of Spycraft 2.0's ruleset. With Fantasycraft's style--a looser skill system lacking in Dramatic Conflicts--a blueprint for third edition Spycraft, you shouldn't wait for third edition and instead get Spycraft 2.0 if you want a seriously rules-heavy system that details social interactions and choking out unsuspecting guards in near-equal measure.

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I had an idea which I am (hopefully) going to introduce into an RPG of my own. Everything revolves around a set of 'adjectives' that are available in the game. Each action has some adjectives attached to it, each character has preferences - adjectives he thinks are important. When you try to persuade a character to do some action, his preferences and the adjectives that are attached to the action are compared. If they coincide (or if there is only little divergence), then the character is successfully persuaded. Similarly, if you want to persuade some character to join a group, it the adjectives attached to the group and the characters preferences are compared.

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