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Most RPGs I know about and have played are fighting-centered. That doesn't mean that all gaming is only about fighting, but that most of the rules and character abilities are primarily useful in combat. In most games, in-fight time is clearly regulated (combat rounds) and each character has each round a new chance to decide between different options on how to influence the fight. Usually multiple rounds are needed to end a fight.

Social situations are handled differently:

PC: "I want to parley with the ambassador of the neighboring kingdom, about sending troops to help against the invasion."

GM: "Make a charisma check."

PC: "I got a ten."

GM: "You're successful, the kingdom sends help."

There is usually one single check, as illustrated here. Maybe you get better modifiers, if you bring a gift. Same with searches (perception checks) or crime investigations.

Do you know systems where non-combat parts of the game are covered more deeply by the rules, and are more sophisticated than only requiring one skill check? How are these situations handled?

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I'd say, would you let players get by in combat with a similar non-roleplaying? Because this is the exact equivalent of "I attack this goblin. 25 against AC". "Hit". "Ok, 15 damage". "He's bloodied". RPG by telegram. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Feb 3 '11 at 13:10
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16 Answers

D&D 4e has Skill Challenges whereby the group has to succeed at multiple skill checks (the number depending on the difficulty) before accumulating 3 failures. The choice of skills boils down to whatever the players can justify.

The Essentials red box (spoilers ahead!) has a nice example in the prewritten adventure "Talking to the Dragon" which gives some suggestions about what players might attempt to do. Insight and Nature skill checks can help figure out what the dragon wants (so the heros can offer that), Bluff checks help if they don't intend to follow through with those promises and Diplomacy if they do. An Arcana check for a minor illusion or some Stealth could make the party seem insignificant and not worth killing. History, Religion and Bluff can flatter the dragon. And so on. The book then goes on to give reactions for the dragon when a skill check is failed (changing its posture, dealing some cold damage, then attacking outright). It does a good job of keeping the mechanical results of the skill checks away from the talk.

Burning Wheel has the Duel of Wits, which happens to be one of the sample chapters available from the game's wiki.

Exalted has explicit social Charms and basically boils down to attacking character's Will Power until they give in and do what you want.

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Various systems have extended rules for social conflicts. For example:

  • The Dying Earth RPG has a back-and-forth dice-rolling mechanic. I say something, I roll to see whether I convince you; you reply, you roll to see whether you convince me. Skulduggery uses the same mechanics.
  • Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits mechanics frames social conflict similarly to combat, with feints, rebuttals and obfuscations. (You can download it from that link).
  • Kagematsu is a game about courtship and seduction. Although social conflicts take one roll, they're the heart of the game.

More generally, many indie RPGs combine combat and social conflicts into the same mechanic. For example, Dogs in the Vineyard uses a back-and-forth dice mechanic for both social and combat. Whether you draw your sword or make an argument, you use the same mechanic.

As a rule, you'll find that traditional RPGs work in the way you suggest: extended combat mechanics, single rolls for social challenges. Indie RPGs are much more varied in the way they handle social conflicts.

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I would like to add that DitV includes social combat as a level of conflict. "Just talking" is an arena of conflict. And you can escalate to physical conflict from there. –  gomad Mar 18 '11 at 15:59
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My group, at least does not handle social interactions this way. Instead of what you listed above, we usually do:

PC: I want to parley with the ambassador of the neighboring kingdom, about sending troops to help against the invasion.

GM: You go to the ambassador and he looks unconvinced. After all, there is [situation] in their country that is needs their troops.

The PCs and the Ambassador engage in a nice conversation about why the invasion in the PCs country needs the ambassador's military to come to its aid. Factor in that the PCs are asking for help, they are effectively telling the ambassador that their country's military is not up to snuff to defend its own borders, and that their attention is on the border with the invaders, and you have a situation that should take MUCH more than a simple Charisma check to resolve. It's called ROLE playing for a reason. You have a role, and you should try to talk your way through the social interactions.

In fact, my group tends to shy away from social rolls unless the DM feels that the characters are either not making their point, or doing a poor job of it. Reward playing the role, and then you won't have to play the roll. If you catch my meaning.

And this has applied to my group playing:

  • AD&D 2e
  • D&D 3.0
  • D&D 3.5
  • Shadowrun 2e
  • Shadowrun 3
  • Old World of Darkness Vampire, Werewolf, Mage
  • Aberrant
  • Hero
  • A few others that we've done as one-off adventures.

I'm not sure if your situation came about due to lazy DM or lazy players, but try talking through your situation next time instead of relying on the crutch of a die-roll.

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@Mnementh Actually, a lot of "old school" D&D'ers do run searches exactly like that - the DM knows that the treasure is behind a loose stone in the wall behind a tapestry and the players try all sorts of things to figure it out without rules intervention - "I try wiggling all the bricks to see if any are loose." And in those games, a lot of the focus is on PCs doing little fiddly explorations of their environment - it's a good example of focus by removing rules instead of adding them. –  mxyzplk Nov 29 '10 at 14:42
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+1 This is exactly how I handle it in every game i run. Play it out. I have found that everybody (yes even munchkins) love to have a go at a verbal fight also, and take great joy in developing their characters along with their skills. Use the dice to tip the scale, or, if you are confident on your players objectivity, let him roll and play it out according to the roll. –  daramarak Nov 29 '10 at 20:41
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@Daramarak, I've never thought of rolling, then playing the roll. I'm about half tempted to try this in a future adventure. Could add a bit of entertainment to the proceedings. Especially since I tend to roll 1 WAY more than statistically probable. –  Pulsehead Nov 29 '10 at 22:27
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@Pulsehead I have done this in several occations, and some of my fellow players are absolutely brilliant in making this kinds of improvisations. Playing out a social fumble can be truly entertaining. I can recommend it ;) –  daramarak Nov 29 '10 at 23:35
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It obviously depends on the group's preferences. I'm not new in this course of action and it seems the default in role playing tournaments (focus on the role as it has been pointed out). The direct consequence about this approach is that social skills (or perceiving ones, in the case of searching clues) should be left out of character sheet because they become useless. A good player could wriggle out of a diplomacy impasse even if his character is a misanthropic orc that has never seen more than one person a time. –  Erik Burigo Jun 1 '11 at 10:44
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Stalker0 developed the Obsidian skill challenge to address what he saw as faults with the D&D 4E skill challenge system. Here you have the thread and PDF at enworld (registration required). Quoting from the first page:

Consider using the Obsidian System if you believe in the following:

  1. Players should always be included in skill challenges, but shouldn’t always get to use their best skills. A social character should shine in social encounters, and an athletic character should shine in athletic encounters.
  2. Players shouldn’t feel that their participation is actually hurting the party’s chances of succeeding at a challenge. Players should always feel that they are helping the challenge, even if it’s to a smaller degree than a character with better skills.
  3. A skill challenge should work as a decent encounter, but be easily scalable to a much longer and epic scale.
  4. Players should spend more time describing their actions, and less time trying to find ways to use their best skills.
  5. The skill challenge math should be solid enough to allow DM tweaking without causing problems.
  6. The standard skill challenge system for whatever reason just isn’t for you.
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One of my favourite mechanics is Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits - see a pdf that Luke makes available (direct link here).

It's something like a reflavoured and tweaked version of its combat system, and the "social combat" aspect is interesting in and of itself, but there also are interesting differences. For instance, it's aimed at convincing everyone around the arguers (with the result being binding on but rarely mind-changing for the parties involved), and there is a compromise mechanic.

From what I've heard of Mouse Guard, it extends that idea of having "combat-like" systems for other forms of conflicts - Arguments, Chases, Fights, Negotiations, Journeys, Speech, War, and a generic Other that is apparently usable for any kind of conflict.

That basic idea is fascinating and I think ideal - have your "combat" system be, at its core, general enough to deal with all kinds of conflict mechanics. Give your social/foraging/haggling/etc situations multiple rounds and different options as well.

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Do you know systems where non-combat parts of the game are covered more deeply by the rules, and are more sophisticated than only requiring one skill check? How are these situations handled?

There are many games that do this; some are mentioned above. I'd also add to that list games where violent combat isn't even an option. Black and Green Games' entire product line is pretty much predicated on social rather than physical conflicts.

As a designer, your first task is to decide what your game is about. Then build mechanics that ruthlessly support that. Your courtroom drama RPG has no need for rules for bullet tumbling effects on soft tissue. Your gritty post-apocalypse game has no use for rules on courtroom drama. Depending on your approach, either might not need special rules for fighting at all.

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Also you can check out A Song of Ice and Fire RPG as well as John Wick's Houses of the Blooded. Since I am a big fan of Wick's work, I advise the latter. It IS awesome. They are both beautiful about that kind of thing.

The social combat system in SIFRP is equivalent to the physical combat system - in recognition of the fact that the books it's modeling have conversations that are just as deadly as sword fights. There are social skills for attack and defense, initiative, and a social damage track.

As swords and maces are not identical, neither are earnest and deceptive social tactics. I had some criticisms of SIFRP, but the social combat system (and the regular combat system, for that matter), is top-notch. It puts social combat on equal footing with physical combat and uses a similar mechanic without making either one feel bland or making both of them feel the same.

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There are a lot of games that treat non-combat actions with complexity and sophistication. As mentioned by others, some games have specific subsystems for noncombat conflicts, like Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits: A set of options like Point, Rebuttal, and Obfuscate, with the position you're arguing assigned a hitpoint total.

Other games employ a universal procedure to cover a variety of conflicts and contests. Mouse Guard, for instance, refines Duel of Wits to the point where you have a single set of actions: Attack, defend, Feint, Maneuver, which can be "skinned" fictionally to cover any sort of competition, from a fight to a debate to a chase. Dogs in the Vineyard has a "combat" system that covers Talking, Physical, Fighting and Shooting, with the win/lose stakes defined up-front, anything from "convince him to repent" to "kill him dead." Smallville RPG has a Contest procedure where characters can wrangle over convincing each other to change their behavior, or "convincing" each other to get punched in the face and fall down.

The game The Shadow of Yesterday (and its generic variant, Solar System) has a system where everything, fighting included, is resolved in a single roll--unless someone wants to contest the result, in which case you enter bringing Down the Pain, a series of back-and-forth combat-like rolls that can encompass any sort of action that's applicable to your goal.

A couple of common features to all these rulesets: 1, a focus on only invoking the complex resolution for actions that will be fun to play out in detail. In Dogs if a conflict is unimportant you just get your way; in BW, MG and TSoY you have a single-roll check for most actions. In Smallville you only use Contests in direct conflict with major characters; vs. Mooks or to, say, stop a runaway train, you use a single-roll system. On a related note, these games all depend on taking action that's important to the character's beliefs and goals; if someone wants to do a simple action like hopping a fence, it's either a gimme, or else you ask why the character wants to hop the fence until you arrive at what's really at stake in the scene.

The second common feature is, the results aren't just win/lose: there are additional consequences for engaging in conflicts. In BW's Duel of Wits, you might win the argument but have to agree to a Compromise. In Mouse Guard the GM inflicts Conditions on you--Angry, tired, sick, etc--as a result of Tests and Conflicts. Similarly, in Smallville you inflict Stress on your opponent--Angry, Insecure, Injured, etc. independently of (or instead of) getting what you want. In TSoY Bringing Down the Pain means trading a bunch of harm back and forth, both physical and emotional. And in Dogs, when you Take a Blow (have a low defense roll, essentially) in a conflict, you suffer Fallout--from stinging shaming words, to the bullet that might kill you--whether you win or lose.

This is one of the biggest benefits of fleshing out the noncombat portions of a game design: you can focus on a wider, richer array of fictional consequences for your characters. Instead of simply living or dying, you can see characters shamed, terrified, exhausted, self-doubting, or heartbroken--all above board and by the rules!

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How about just using the same combat rules?

F'r'ex, let's say that you're...oh, I don't know, trying to charm the merchant's wife so that you'll get a good deal on...I dunno, grain. MAGIC grain. If you're playing D&D, you might roll 1d20 + CHA mod, against 10 + her INT mod. A success lets you roll 1d6 (maybe 1d8 if you're a thief or bard) plus CHA or INT modifier, but instead of these being lost hit points they're lost "Resistance Points", which the GM has derived from the average of her INT, CHA and WIS stats. Whittle her down to 0 RPs and -- bingo! You're in her good graces. Of course, her husband is doing the same to YOU, and if he talks you down, then you're out of the shop on your ear.

In other words, the GM can set up a pool of points, or a chain of difficulty numbers, or a required amount of successes, etc., which the players can beat against using the same mechanics that they'd use for killin' somethin'.

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Burning Wheel and Burning Empires: Duel of Wits is a separate combat system focused on narrative handling of convincing a third party by the two opposed sides. It's fun, but very stylized. Mechanically, it's a redress of the combat system. Damage isnt wounds, but to a stat (disposition) generated by skill roll at start of conflict.

Mouse Guard: One Conflict system as an extended system; it is used for combat, duel of wits, chases, and more. I've used it to cover moving a hive of bees from one location to another, for building a damn across a river, etc. Aside from being one generic conflict resolution, all of it is focused upon disposition. When you are down to disposition 0, it's over, and the compromise owed is based upon how much disposition oss you inflicted upon the other guy.

FATE engine games Including Diaspora, Legends of Anglierre, and Starblazer, all have damage tracks for non-physical damage. They also have systems for non-combat conflicts, and make little distinction between unarmed melee and cutting remarks. Diaspora has a specific mini-game for social combat, another for personal combat, another for space combat, and yet another for mass combat.

D20 System: a couple of d20 system games have added mechanics. Dying Earth and A Game of Thrones both do. The semi-official Birthright adaptation for 3E also provided a large scale conflict, but not, per se, a social combat system.

Reign has extensive options for non-combat conflicts. I can't say I grasped them, but I've also never tried to run it.

4E D&D skill challenges can be for social conflict effects.

MANY many games use a reaction roll, then skills to modify the reaction level. Many GM's of such systems don't use the modify the reaction roll mechanics, tho. And it's not quite a social combat system.

Hero System has the Presence Attack system, and the various mental attacks... these can be used to mechanically create changes in a character's state of mind.

Aces & Eights in addition to skill rolls modifying reaction rolls has a special Jury Trial mechanic, set up as a mini game.

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It depends whether you are just talking about D&D or not. In most variants of D&D, combat is what most of the rules revolve around, with only complex skill checks or skill challenges providing more in depth meat to other activities (social, investigation, etc.) Some people prefer this and like handling those other things via player-GM interaction and not rules per se.

Many other games, however, have one or more of the following attributes:

  1. Much simpler combat rules or are very rules light in the first place, which closes the "gap"
  2. Specific detailed rules for other important non-combat activities
  3. A unified mechanic where combat is treated exactly the same as other activities

As an example of #1, the Amber Diceless RPG. Every character has only a couple stats, characters are the only meaningful challenge for each other, and one character has a Warfare score higher than the others, so there's not really crunchy multi-round combat and other activities are way more important. Or the Jenga-powered Dread RPG, where whatever action you try is adjudicated by a pull form a Jenga tower, not a multiround combat mechanism. Basically, some games "reduce fights to a single roll too." Storygames tend to like this.

For an example of #2, in the "Aces & Eights" Western RPG, there are complex combat rules, but there are also large complex and crunchy rule sets for prospecting, trials, and cattle drives. This is a different design approach, that says "Whatever is super important, make a big ol' ruleset for it." Activities deemed unimportant get one roll or just aren't explicitly addressed.

#3 is probably best demonstrated by the FATE system, to cite a specific implementation the Dresden Files RPG. Characters have physical, mental, and social stress and combat isn't really treated any differently from other activities; you could do a round by round battle of wits doing mental stress just like you could a combat doing physical stress or a seduction using social stress. This makes all activities reasonably parallel in terms of resolution and complexity.

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Going back as far as 1977 you have games like Chivalry & Sorcery in which the social aspect of the game was just as important as the physical. The rules in C&S had the notion of "influence factors" which you could use in an attempt to get NPCs to do things for you -- and of course they could be pitted against each other in social conflicts. Getting allies for wars in particular were common mini-games, in effect, in many C&S games I played in (or even ran).

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I suspect that it's not just combat, but any physical action that needs to be systematised. So combat, jumping, climbing, craft skills, stuff like that; it's stuff the player can't do but the player can. Any time there's a mismatch, you have to create a system.

Social and intellectual rolls can be mostly handled by players -- deduction, politics, argument, tactics, etc can all be handled by the players role-playing as the characters, talking and thinking together and with NPCs. There's often no need for rolls. Personally, I prefer to do as much as possible without reverting to system. Again, personally, I find it more engaging that way. The only advantage is to allow a mismatch between the player's abilities and the character's. I once played a general, for instance, and because I'm not Napoleon my tactical decisions were awful. Systems can help there.

In general, though, it can be a flaw to revert to system -- especially a complex system -- when the player can handle things.

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Several systems can handle this. One example is PDQ, which takes damage from your abilities, so you could apply the same to anything. This only really works for conflict, and could handle intimidation, but not necessarily cooperation.

FATE can set up stress tracks for anything, and Legends of Anglerre's plot stress could be particularly appropriate for handling this. Since it's plot stress it wouldn't necessarily be only negative things that can be handled.

A Dirty World has all types of interactions being mechanically the same, so you can handle anything with the same rules. Your attributes increase and decrease very quickly over the course of the game, and throughout these interactions you make trade offs, as an improvement in one area often means you lose something in another. There are even some interesting moments of giving characters the opportunity to feed off each other to increase stats through certain interactions.

HeroQuest, and other games using conflict resolution by their nature handle all conflicts the same, since you negotiate end conditions for success and failure and then make rolls.

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SpyCraft 2nd Ed. has the notion of Dramatic Conflicts - story-critical non-combat situations that you don't want to risk on just one roll of the dice. They work through the concepts of Lead, Predator and Prey - for every round of the conflict, the Predator tries to reduce the Lead to 0, while the Prey tries to increase it to 10. Each round, both participants choose a strategy, then make an opposed roll using whatever skill is appropriate - the winner of the roll gets the advantages of the chosen strategy e.g. in a car chase where the winner of the opposed roll chose the Ram strategy, the advantages are a bonus to attacks made on the other particiapnts of the chase, and damage to the other vehicle. The core rules lay out dramatic conflicts for

  • chases
  • brainwashing
  • hacking
  • infiltration
  • manhunts
  • seduction
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Apocalypse World has to be one of my favorite games for mechanizing social situations (and rewarding/incentivizing in-character social machinations that are fully role-played out).

All character classes can roll for a basic set of social conflicts--and different kinds of social interaction are broken into separate kinds of rolls. For example, attempting to intimidate someone would use different stats than seduce/manipulate, threatening with intent to follow through on harming the other person if crossed is different than bluffing, etc. Characters can gain something called hold over each other as well, which allows them to get something they want from them--but not necessarily everything they wanted. There are also special moves belonging to various character classes that add different conflict mechanisms (social or otherwise) and a stat between PCs measuring how well they know each other, which can also influence various rolls and is a method of character advancement. Quick 'I roll 10, get everything I want' situations are rare, as AW is all about making tests hard, successes mixed, and resources scarce.

Graham's right that most indie rpgs spend a lot more time on their social conflict mechanisms than traditional rpgs. Games that I'd describe as more simulationist, like Shadowrun or World of Darkness, also allow for somewhat more extended social interactions than D&D, etc, but don't quite make them as inherently central to the game as indie games like AW.

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