In Pulp Adventure games using the Ubiquity Roleplaying System what is an effective method to add tension, and ensure consistency in applying results, when handling social interactions based on Con and Diplomacy?

In some of the source fiction, there are often scenes of high import to the story where a primary character has to wrest a crucial decision from someone. This might be a main feature of how the protagonist works, such as 'The Shadow' or 'The Avenger,' or it might simply be a feature of a specific setting, such as Richard Wentworth (the Spider) needing to keep Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick off his back for long enough to crack the case and stop the villains' plots. In other sources, these scenes are more situational, and hinge on forging alliances, redeeming the morally lost, restoring confidence, or persuading a battered and bruised group to adopt a wild-sounding plan.

Some aspects of Social Combat in Ubiquity have been addressed in the system's musketeers setting (All for One: Regime Diabolique) but little seems to have been presented to help use the system to its best advantage so that players can thrill to the achievement of persuasive successes as they would to those gained in more physical actions.

To that end, what are the best methods for using the game system as written to handle instances of persuasion (Con/Diplomacy) so that it is not just a simple test for success/failure?

  • \$\begingroup\$ It should be noted that Triple Ace Games has released Richelieu's Guide to Serious Situations, which provides a variety of excellent new ways to look the mechanics of Ubiquity for scenes of many kinds, including social interactions. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 31, 2012 at 23:25

3 Answers 3


The best insight into an interesting philosophy of persuasion comes from Imre Lakatos' philosophy of science.

In Science and Psuedoscience:

First, I claim that the typical descriptive unit of great scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis but rather a research programme. [Science is not simply trial and error, a series of conjectures and refutations.] 'All swans are white' may be falsified by the discovery of one black swan. But such trivial trial and error does not rank as science. Newtonian science, for instance, is not simply a set of four conjectures - the three laws of mechanics and the law of gravitation. These four laws constitute only the 'hard core' of the Newtonian programme. But this hard core is tenaciously protected from refutation by a vast 'protective belt' of auxiliary hypotheses. And, even more importantly, the research programme also has a 'heuristic', that is, a powerful problem-solving machinery, which, with the help of sophisticated mathematical techniques, digests anomalies and even turns them into positive evidence. For instance, if a planet does not move exactly as it should, the Newtonian scientist checks his conjectures concerning atmospheric refraction, concerning propagation of light in magnetic storms, and hundreds of other conjectures which are all part of the programme. He may even invent a hitherto unknown planet and calculate its position, mass and velocity in order to explain the anomaly.

It is the idea of the hard core, protective belt, and heuristic that we can adopt for interesting combat with ideas. Any given persuasive act will try to manipulate the opponent's protective belt or hard core. (More meta-persuasive acts will try to manipulate the heurstic) By modeling the opponent's arguments as combat, the player will have to strategically defeat elements of the protective belt before attacking the hard core. Successes and failures in any given persuasive test determines how well the opponent's protective belt holds up to attack.

In terms of mechanics, you have two options. The first option is to treat the belt like HP. Each player has HP, successes on persuasion reduce the opponent's HP. First one to 0 loses the argument.

The second option is to model the debate as combat (and this is why Lakatos is so useful here.) Have the players place representations of their arguments (power determined by the persuasion test) on whatever you use to perform combat. If you can decorate it, abstract/surreal art makes a perfect landscape. Have "minions" be the protective belt, heroically sacrificing themselves to protect the hard core. Over this combat, have players describe their verbal attacks and represent the efficacy of the attacks through movement and the combat mechanics of ubiquity.

Mechanically, for important persuasion attempts, I would use the second option. Simulated combat could be quite effective, especially set in a useful metaphorical arena. Defense would be (Willpower + Intelligence + Reasonability), Stun would be Willpower, Move (Charisma+Intelligence), and Health would be (Charisma + Willpower - Reasonability). Reasonability is an attribute that is treated similar to size, but is based from the distance from the center of the debate's Overton window.

Once all arguments are statted up and described within the metaphorical arena, grant them weapon equivalents based on the knowledge the person arguing them has about the topic. (Someone with high skill but little knowledge can still win, but facts make a remarkably simple and useful hammer.)

Apply combat as normal, but take note of the final Health score of all the arguments. For the audience's reaction, the higher the final health of an argument, the more the audience considers that argument to be "valid" as filtered by their own worldviews. The lower the health, the more compromises the specific argument must make with the opposing sides. If necessary, model this as the opposing sides being able to say "Yes, but..." for every lethal point of damage the argument has taken, restricting and confining the topic area where the argument applies.

Obviously, this should only apply to important persuasive attempts, but this could be easily modelled as an attempt to persuade a guard to open an important door (Different skills would necessarily be used) or a debate in front of a court.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a fantastic response! I appreciate the inclusion of the quote and the suggestion of how to implement it. At first it seems somewhat abstract, but on reflection it is really not all that different from the method I am currently using. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 6, 2011 at 5:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Something like the first option is used in some FATE games, I believe (at least in Agents of S.W.I.N.G.). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29, 2012 at 0:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Brian Ballsun-Stanton So how would you approach doing this in Ubiquity, exactly? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29, 2012 at 1:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ as outlined in edit: make social/mental stats into combat stats, make the overton window a determinator of size, and make facts map to weapons. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29, 2012 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good addition/clarification, thanks~ \$\endgroup\$ Mar 30, 2012 at 4:50

The approach I take to resolve attempts at persuasion (Con/Diplomacy) is to first determine if the scene is looking for a short-term effect, or a long-term effect. The second step is to determine if this is an attempt versus a passive target (not trying to persuade back, just resisting) or versus an active target (arguing a point with intent to convince the character)

Passive Targets For both cases I use the target's Willpower as a base. However, if the desired effect (short or long term) could not reasonably be obtained in the time available, another resolution option will have to be pursued... like knocking the blighter out. An example of this is a fellow trying to bluff his way into the sultan's hareem, or into the holy-of-holies with nothing to back him up but charm and a smile and only a turn or two available to him before the guards chasing him catch up. He has no time for the long-term persuasion required to sway the guard to let him in, so he must resort to some other option.

For short-term effects, I prefer to resolve it as a Standard Action (single roll), using the target's unmodified Willpower as the difficulty. This can create tension through the uncertainty of what the target's Willpower might be leading to bidding of Style points, and to making a decision to roll or Take the Average. In some cases, it might even cause the player to resort to asking for Chance Dice. Success grants the short-term success desired, failure creates a complication - transforming the task into an Extended Action, and a Critical Failure (no successes rolled) ends the attempt and brings on unpleasant results of an appropriate nature (such as summoning of more guards).

For long-term effects, I prefer to resolve it as an Extended Action, using the Target's Willpower + Intelligence as the target. As successes are accrued, the target will warm to the idea, if a round passes with no successes being generated the character has misstepped, and will need to recover their momentum (add one to the total successes still needed).

Active Targets For arguments I prefer to resolve the scene as an Opposed Action.

For short-term effects, the victor is simply the one who generates the most successes on a Standard Action.

Long-term effects require the victor to generate successes equal to or better than the Willpower + Intelligence of the adversary first.

Competition In those cases where two speakers are seeking to persuade a passive target to choose between them, it again becomes an Opposed Standard Action for short-term agreement or an Opposed Extended Action for long-term agreement, with the difficulty set as the target's Willpower (short-term) or Willpower + Intelligence (Long-term). Each seeks to beat the difficulty before the other.

  • Variant: To make this latter scenario more fun/competitive, the player can opt to attack the opponent's argument rather than directly persuade the target for a turn. Any successes accrued can decrease the earned successes of the opponent on a 1 for 1 basis. The Difficulty for this would be set as the opponent's Con or Diplomacy Rating.

For more general situations of Influence and Ingratiation rather than outright manipulation, the standard rules for Influence (p45. HEX core book) work very well. I see these as typically for cases where the NPC can formulate an opinion of, or attitude toward the PC, or there is already a connection of some kind (a scale of ally to enemy), which needs to be built on, or modified before additional social actions are undertaken.

  • \$\begingroup\$ It should be noted that Triple Ace Games has released Richelieu's Guide to Serious Situations, which provides a variety of new ways to look the mechanics of Ubiquity for scenes of many kinds, including social interactions. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29, 2012 at 12:42

What I would do in this situation (keep in mind I have only passing familiarity with Ubiquity, so I'm answering this in a generic task resolution system sense) is keep it based on pass fail, but look at components much more closely. You're not thinking about it in terms of general conflict resolution, where the focus is the end goal, but you're looking at it in terms of multiple cons that you need to pull off, and have it develop organically. This would also require thinking of things to say that don't result in the failure meaning the other person doesn't believe them, just that they're not convinced.

In the typical instance where you have an imposter giving an 'order' from the head honcho, who then asks "what's your name, so I can tell the captain why his orders weren't carried out?", failure doesn't mean that they're not believed, and the person immediately calls the other guards, it means that they're not entirely convinced, and are mulling over following standard orders vs new orders.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very helpful response, and a good method for adding tension to a scene of this type. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 6, 2011 at 5:38

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