Gaming My Way

14 Jun

Utilizing Social Skills in Roleplaying Games

It’s easy to know what to do when someone wants to try to make a 50 foot leap across a gaping chasm while gaming. Have them roll an athletics, jump, or other relevant check. If they are very skilled, and roll very well, and the game system is cinematic enough, they just might make it. You’re done. Same with attacking, dodging, rock climbing, and any other physical activity they perform.

When it comes to social skills though, things are never as clear. Mechanically, it’s exactly the same, but in practice, I’ve never seen it work the same. When you deal with social skills, it’s something the players can actually do themselves, to varying degrees of ability, without risk of injury. Except perhaps our pride. Add in that some people actually want to roleplay in an rpg, and it makes things less clear. So now we get to the meat of the issue: how to resolve social skills and abilities with roleplaying. There are many ways to do so, and an appropriate method will depend on the GM’s style and the play styles of the players.

One way is to nix roleplaying completely, or have it be a background activity. In this case, players may just say they want to use a skill, roll it, and the GM tells them what happens based on how well they roll. What happens includes the kind of lie a player tells if he makes a check to lie to someone, the negotiating process that plays out for various negotiating skills, and so on. Of course, a GM could also just say it’s a success or failure, and the players get what they wanted or don’t. For players and GMs who don’t care much about roleplay and social interaction, this method can help get everyone back to fighting. Of course, if that’s the case, most games could probably just become one fight after another. It’s not a bad option for getting in some quick story between fights though if everyone wants a story without doing much active roleplaying.

Another method is to do away with the use of social skills completely. Everything social is done through only roleplay, and you’d better be good at it. This is great for groups who like heavy roleplay, and acting through things. Of course, if you go this route, you can expect players to dump everything mental and put all their points into physical abilities unless you police their character builds or they are good at policing themselves.

Alternatively, you could have everyone roleplay through what happens, then have them make a check at the end to see how effective they were. This can take two forms. One way, the roll is completely unmodified by how the player roleplays a situation. This has the advantage of letting players play characters much better than themselves socially without punishing them for their own lack of ability in social situations. The disadvantage here is that it doesn’t encourage good roleplay, as there’s no game reward for roleplaying well.

The other option is to give a bonus or penalty based on how well someone roleplays through a social situation. Depending on the approach and how convincing an argument the player makes, they may earn a small bonus or penalty to their check. This encourages players to roleplay well because they get a reward for it, but also punishes players if they just aren’t as good socially as other players. No one becomes less effective if they can’t run at a brisk pace for an hour overland, but I guarantee lots of players couldn’t do it well.

Personally, I use a mix of these methods, heavily favoring making everyone roleplay through situations, then giving them a roll. If they roleplay well, I’m likely to give them a small bonus, but I usually don’t penalize rolls based on poorly roleplaying through a situation. It’s a compromise to reward good roleplay while trying not to hurt people who just aren’t as good at it. The other methods come into play based on the needs of the game. If we’re all really into the game, in the middle of heated negotiations, and everyone is roleplaying well, I’ll just forget about the rolls and let things play out as they will. And sometimes, if someone wants to lie to a guard to get into a minor facility, there’s nothing wrong with just saying “roll bluff” and letting the character get through if he rolls well enough.

These probably aren’t the only way to deal with social skills, but I think this should at least cover a lot of ground for anyone trying to figure out how to deal with them in a game. Experiment with them, and see what works best for your group.

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