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A Taxonomy of Social Conflict mechanics

My weekly [Burning Empires][] group has been having difficulty with some of the mechanics. Some are not well-written as technical specifications. No matter how much fun they are to read, they’re difficult to apply. Some just take a very long time—we’re considering ways to shorten the application of these. But one has caused problems all on its own: the Duel of Wits, Burning Empire’s social conflict mechanic. The Duel of Wits was inherited from Burning Wheel with minimal changes, so you might understand it as well from there.

This has led me to comparison between several games mechanics for resolving social conflicts. They can be classified on several principles:

  • Why is the mechanic here? Is it to force an end to player conflicts, or to simulate convincing characters?

  • What is the conclusion? Does it let one player edit another’s character sheet? Let one character influence another? Provide incentives and influence? Commit players to binding deals?

  • By what means does it operate, combining randomness, character skill, player skill, and player desire?

  • How broadly are they available? Is this just something for dedicated preachers and diplomats, or a common mechanic?

Burning Empires and Burning Wheel

The Duel of Wits is a core mechanic of the game: the easiest way to extend a conflict beyond a single roll. It appears to be there because the author, Luke Crane, had problems with on-running arguments in his group. Now one player can demand another engage in the Duel of Wits or drop the argument. At the beginning, players name forfeits from the other side. At the end, they agree on a compromise between those forfeits based on the result of the die rolls. To cut down on randomness and provide some room for player skill, there’s a RPS-derived mechanic for integrating die rolls to produce a final score. Variance in this score influences the balance of the compromise.

This is a player-level commitment. Once, I thought this was a great idea. Having now seen that some players don’t like being bound in this way, I’m not certain that it’s right for all groups or for long-term commitments. It’s fine for getting one player to shut up about how he hates the group’s shadowrunning plan—for that night. It’s not going to work to get the Elf and the Dwarf to stop bickering over racial supremacy issues.

Weapons of the Gods

An extensive social conflict system, tied to the medicine and sorcery mechanics. All of these work by imposing Chi Conditions: incentive pairs. For example, a Courtier might impose the condition "In Love," specifying that the target receives a bonus to certain other die-rolls, or a resource useful for the broader game, in every scene in which he makes eyes at his beloved. A less pleasant Courtier might make this a negative condition, so that the target receives a penalty in any scene in which he does not moon around.

These are slow to set up—it’s typical for players to show up for a session with the Chi Conditions they intend to use in mind. These don’t show up in high-action conflict. Pre-existing Chi Conditions can have great impact there.

Because this is an incentive system, players never have the chance to complain about others abuse of the system—you’re not bound to behave in a particular way, you merely have set costs.

Exalted, Second Edition

There’s a very complicated tactical mini-game for social conflict. It’s built parallel to the basic physical combat system, without concepts of Soak (armor). Just as a Mass Combat system exists as a modifier to the base combat system, a Mass Social Combat system exists to model religious conversions and the like.

The game is heavily focused on player skill: the vast quantity of rolls smooth out most randomness. At the end, a target character has been convinced of something, but his player may spend a scarce resource to have his character act in contravention of this belief. It’s not clear what this represents in the imagined space: is the character stubborn? strong-willed? Used to mind-control and so willing to act against his own beliefs from time to time? This escape clause is there to make it harder to change a player’s character without his agreement, so it doesn’t have an easy translation to the imagined world.

Over time, repeated losses of this Social Combat system can edit a character’s sheet, contradicting a player’s original intent for his character.

Dungeons and Dragons v3.5

This game has a Diplomacy skill, not often rolled. Most GMs drift this to require player roleplay, use this to judge "plausible reactions," and let dice adjust a bit within that.

There’s an entirely different mechanic around the Bluff and Sense Motive skills. A contest of skill rolls lets one character lie to another. There’s not a lot of opportunity given for a player to let his character fail one of these tests, or insist that one particular test is important.