Wednesday 7 September 2016

Inner Worlds #1: Connections and Consequences

The skills list.
I decided that I'd talk about game design. Specifically, about the design of language, thought, morality, social interaction. This is the first of a short series.

So forty-odd years on, role-playing games as a thing have developed in no shortage of directions; the approaches to gamifying fictional worlds have developed in all kinds of ways, and game writers have always found it easier to model things in the physical realm.

I mean, it makes sense really; physical activities are, at least at first inspection, much less subjective. In a role-playing game, a more traditional one, you for example might roll to jump over a wall. If you pass the roll, you jump over the wall, and if you fail the roll, you don't jump over the wall, and while there might be some variation depending on how good you are at jumping, or how high the wall is, or both, it's as simple as that really. Either you do it, or you don't. Negotiating, though. Getting people to come round to your way of thinking, that's not so clear-cut. 

The original role-playing game, and of course I mean Dungeons & Dragons here, which lest we forget began as an expansion to a miniature war game, generally didn't bother with rules for this. The assumption was that while you're sitting around a table, you're not actually swinging a sword, so you need rules to simulate it, but you can actually talk. So when you meet, say, a goblin sitting on a chest in a ten-foot square room, the assumption was the the Dungeon Master would put on a funny voice and you'd talk like your character and you'd talk. Or you'd run the goblin through. And early versions of D&D had a rule so you could work out how hostile or friendly the beings you met on your adventures would be to start with (you rolled dice on and checked the result on a table, basically; every character had one statistic that gave a vague idea of how good they are with people), but then you were on your own. 

The issue with that is that of course not everyone is actually all that good at talking. If you're playing a bard (and let's get proper old school here, this is someone with six levels of fighter and five of thief before he even gets to bard) called Elwyn the Eloquent, and you're a really shy kid, you're at a natural disadvantage compared to the president of the school drama club playing Org the Barbarian, who seems to be doing all the talking.

The clue with social skills lies in the name: they're skills, skills you can learn and which your character might be better at than you.

(One solution might be to ban players who can't represent from taking on certain characters, in the way that the very first Star Wars rpg had a hilarious rule that if you couldn't make a convincing Chewbacca noise, you couldn't play a Wookiee, but come on! If someone really unfit can play a mighty warrior, why can't someone socially inept play a charming bard?)

By the time the first version of Runequest came round at the close of the 1970s, that game had added a skill to the list of jumping, climbing and fixing things skills: Oratory. It treated it like climbing a wall. You made your Oratory roll, you convinced the person you were talking to, and if you didn't, you didn't.

Again, this became the standard for a long time, and the only real development on it that was commonly implemented for much of that time was the same as games did with other skills that weren't based on physical conflict, they split and expanded them. So Runequest's younger, simpler sibling Call of Cthulhu had Persuade and Fast Talk (that is, one skill for getting your point across while telling the truth, one for lying). Vampire: The Masquerade and its various descendants had a baseline of seven or eight based on the iteration of the game, ranging from Intimidate (get people to do what you want by making them afraid) to Empathy (understand how people are feeling), Socialise (get people to loosen up by hanging out with them) and Performance (get a crowd on your side by acting, or playing a musical instrument). Supplements would add many more optional social skills, among them Seduction (of which more in a later post).

D&D itself, being historically about five to ten years behind trends and innovations in game design, would eventually introduce social skills, by its third edition.

But the thing is, just modelling a social interaction that way is unsatisfying. And also. That's not how people work. You can't fool people unless you're plausible. You can't persuade people unless at least part of them wants to be persuaded. You can't make someone fall in love with you.

That isn't how it works.

Inevitably games started to approach this by offering more complex systems for these complex interactions. A fashion for making systems that covered all conflicts, whether social, mental or physical, adapted the complexity of physical combat to the social sphere.

It even got called "social combat" in some games. I suppose this was because of the way that role-playing games had always been so beholden to the trappings of fictional genres where fighting fixed everything. And of course while a social interaction might be a test or an ordeal, and is a ripe source of conflict, this isn't the whole of it either.

The paradox is of course that the more closely game designers tried to create systems for social interactions in the interest of realism or truth, the more open you become to wrong-headed ideas about how people work. One of the most pernicious, near-ineradicable assumptions of Internet discourse is that if you argue accurately and persuasively enough, the other side will see the light and change. And I think that more than once, the assumption has found its way into game design, or at the very least into how people play them (I'm reminded of an account of a FATE game where a player rolled well against another player and made the other player's character fall in love with theirs, a ruling which the games master upheld).

Whatever. When you start modelling the inner world of a character, and the way in which characters interact, the more complexity you add the more complicated still it gets; each new problem you solve, new complications arise.

This is one of the breaking points of role-playing games, the one place where their limits are in sharp relief.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently. My own take is this: I don't think it's in the mechanics. I think it's in the framing.

OK. Back to the Goblin in the little room, sitting on a chest. You go in carefully, hands up, and for whatever reason (I don't know, you're not feeling genocidal today or something) you try to gain the little fella's trust.

OK, let's assume that you're playing a pretty standard game like the current version of D&D. You roll a really good result on your Persuasion roll.

What actually happened? Did you magically get the Goblin to change his ways? What does the roll signify?

I think the roll signifies you got lucky. Maybe the Goblin turns out to be tired. Or maybe he has moral objections to his work. Maybe he's really curious about adventurers. Maybe you remembered a bit of old Goblin poetry and it turns out by coincidence it was something his granny used to recite to him when he was a tiny Goblet being tucked into bed at night and he hasn't heard it for years. So he's like, what's the next line of that, and you connect and start talking, and your adventurer mates are like, Elwyn, this is great but we've gotta get going because the Evil High Priest isn't going to defeat himself you know, and meanwhile you're sitting next to Arg'sh (because you're on first name terms now) and finding out he's got a couple kids and a wife and two husbands, and you're saying hey, you know, you want to get out of here because it's all going to go down in a bit and he's like, man, I never liked this job. And now you've not only made a pal, you know more about Goblins.

The point being, it's still just a Persuasion roll, but the point is that it's not representing you forcing a change, it's representing you making a connection, it's you sucessfully making the leap to understanding what's already there, and lucking out a bit.

And even negative social actions like the Intimidate skill, they're also all about exploiting what's there. It's not –poof!– making someone afraid of you where they weren't, it's playing on what they're afraid of, and recognising that there will be consequences. Even lying to get something requires connection, and has consequences.

And this works for games like FATE or Heroquest, or Apocalypse World (or, let's face it, Chariot) where the social interactions are modelled with complex backs and forths of risk and resolution.

I don't think this is new, really, but I think that if you are going to have rules for social interaction, you'll get better, richer, more interesting games and more interesting worlds if instead of concentrating on the result, you frame social interactions in the light of the connection they make and the consequences they create.