Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Embedded Social

Analogies can be dangerous. 

The term "social currency" is a tempting one for RPG designers, because it leads them down a strange dark path towards developing social mechanics in which PCs and NPCs can buy favours from each other, or command each other, after building up a certain amount of social points of whatever kind - a bit like real money to be spent.

But social currency isn't like money. The analogy doesn't work. 

Gold pieces in D&D are desirable (above and beyond XP) because they allow you to do certain things - buy nicer armour, build a castle, whatever - that there would be no in-game mechanism for otherwise. It is necessary for gold pieces to exist as a semi-abstract concept to facilitate certain important in-game functions.

Social currency works in a different way. There is already an in-game mechanism of action and consequence. Get the NPC on side and he'll be your ally. Do something for another NPC and he'll scratch your back some day. Schmooze up the mad archmage and he won't fry you. The mechanism is embedded in the very stuff of the game itself. The addition of a formalised abstract process is unnecessary and distracting and breaks verissimilitude, and is to be discouraged.

Here endeth the lesson.


  1. The 2d6 reaction table is the single best table in all of D&D. Better than the attack roll matrix. It's just the very best. Everyone, even the ref, gets to be surprised by what the NPC or monster decides to do!

  2. I don't disagree, as a game design principle, but the counterargument makes some points which in the abstract are worth considering:

    Sure doing a favor for an NPC gets them on your side....but _HOW MUCH_ on your side relative to other people who have done them favors?

    What if your requests conflict? What if you're "paying" them in different kinds of favors?

    It's difficult to build a model of allyship as just either/or. This is why military simulations have numbers attached to allyness.

    1. I think the analogy between RPGs and wargames is also a mistake. RPGs are not like wargames in crucial respects. It really matters that you have a mechanical and quantifiable way of measuring such things in wargames because it is a contest and about winning, and you want everything to be scrupulously fair as a result. RPGs aren't all about winning. I think the "how much relative to other people who have done them favours" is a stronger argument but I honestly think that is better done intuitively by the DM given what he knows and feels about the NPC rather than explicitly through a defined and abstract process.

    2. In very very late to this discussion, but have something to add. I agree with you that a (capable) GM is better than a system for this purpose, but I think a system is better for a new GM.

      I'm not certain every GM will eventually become competent in every aspect that we expect them to. However, if a GM is given training wheels that are less adequate then their own judgment ought to be, some may rely on the system forever, never improving their ability to adjudicate and measure social currency.

      I don't have a solution in mind, but I do somewhat like the idea of training wheels as a set of rules thrown in the appendix of a rulebook for new GMs to resort to when they lack confidence.

  3. I'm reminded of a story I heard about Ken St. Andre when someone asked him how they could make their character a Thief in "Tunnels & Trolls" (I guess the only available base classes are Wizard and Warrior. I've only played it a couple times.) to which he replied "Steal something."

    In other words, dice can't do everything. This is the part the player's supposed to act out, and the GM is supposed to use their judgement.

  4. Replies
    1. I disagree with your disagreement.

    2. Actually, the only rebuttal I would make is that you think the game implies the social construct but it doesn't. The only implication is from your own interpretation of the source material. "The mechanism is embedded in the very stuff of the game itself" doesn't translate to somebody who doesn't see a mechanic for schmoozing the wizard and so either doesn't attempt or (as a GM) doesn't allow it. Charisma has famously been regarded as a dump stat for many years precisely because there is no rules-as-written mechanic for persuading or charming.

      Social currency for a fictional interaction is also useful for players who are awkward and shy or maybe can't think of the right things to say. It's easy enough to say "I want to sweettalk the barmaid so she reveals where the innkeeper stores his lockbox" and then use a roll to determine success than it is for a GM to ask for explicit details on the talking of sweet. I find it much better to have a mechanic in place and then give a bonus if a player can think of something to elaborate upon.

    3. Reaction check 2d6/2d10/d%? d20 roll under Charisma? That's just from Classic/1e/2e.

    4. Patrick: This idea that players’ flaws and inadequacies should be covered up by the mechanics is lousy. If you’re not good at talking to people (and you’re not really interested in getting better), don’t make a social character. That said, if a person is interested in becoming less shy, awkward, etc. what better way to practice talking to people than at a game with friends? Compensating for a person's flaws like that will only hurt them in the long run.

    5. Spigot: I'm not good at wearing heavy armor or swinging a sword, so by your logic I shouldn't ever play a fighter.

    6. S'mon: social interactions are more complex than fighting with swords, yet they are never resolved with a single dice roll.

    7. I use a form of social points when I eun the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, but the points go towards improving your castles, your holdongs, and your troops. Aside from that, I agree with what you're saying.

      Hat tip for The Untouchables quote.

    8. Wearing heavy armour and swinging a sword can't be done at the table and has to be modeled. (You could say the same thing about buying and selling things with money.) But social interactions can be done at the table and so they don't need to be modeled. That's how I've always thought about it.

      But I was making a narrower point in this post. I am not necessarily entirely against social mechanics, but rather against the idea of social currency.

    9. But not many games use social currency, I don't think?

      The only one that comes to mind that sort of does is Hillfolk.

      Are you thinking of any games in particular in your criticism?