The Alexandrian

Go to Part 1

Okay, I’m almost done ranting about dissociated mechanics. This is the last post in this sequence.

But before I signed off on the subject, I did want to briefly discuss one area where I think the basic structure of a skill challenge works very well: Social encounters.

One of the reasons they work well is that human behavior is not easily quantifiable. If, all things being equal, a wall is harder to climb one day than the next, that’s inexplicable. If, on the other hand, I’m happy to take the garbage out one day and then get snippy with my girlfriend when she asks me to do it the next day… well, I’m just being grouchy.

In other words, the inherent dissociation of the mechanics gets lost in the chaotic intricacies of human relationships. In fact, things like the probability skewing we were talking about can actually end up being features instead of bugs when you’re dealing with social scenarios.

Of course, you’d want to sidestep the railroading WotC demonstrates in their own sample skill challenge. But once you’ve done that, even the basic skill challenge mechanics we’ve seen for 4th Edition offer a more robust — if still fairly simplistic — improv structure that is preferable to a situation in which the group is either left rudderless or in which the DM boils the whole thing down into a single opposed roll.

Ideally, however, I’d want to make the system more robust, dynamic, and responsive. A few ideas:

(1) Good guidelines for determining the degree of the skill challenge (how many successes) and the difficulty of the skill challenge (ratio of failures). Are the relationship and risk-vs-reward scales that I use for my current Diplomacy rules a starting point for such guidelines?

(2) Opposition. NPCs who are actively working against the PCs. Their successes count as failures for the PCs, but their successes can also be undone.

(3) Obstacles. These are tools for modeling more dynamic situations. For example, the main challenge might be 8/4 — but before you can start tackling that main problem, you first have to overcome a 2/3 obstacle or a 6/3 obstacle. (It might be interesting to define opposition as a specific kind of obstacle: You could eliminate the opposition entirely by overcoming the obstacle, or just deal with them complicating matters as you focus on the main challenge.)

(4) Tactics. These might also be thought of as templates or tactics. I’d be drawing generic inspiration from some of the material in Penumbra’s Dynasties & Demagogues (among other sources).

Over the past few years there has been an increasing move towards trying to figure out “social combat” mechanics in RPGs — with the general idea being that you’re bringing the robustness of combat mechanics to roleplaying encounters. In my experience, however, most of these systems end up categorizing all social interaction as a form of warfare. This has limited truth to it. And even when it is true, it usually ends up being a gross over-simplification.

In the ideas of social challenge mechanics, on the other hand, I find the nascent promise of a mechanically interesting system for handling social encounters that doesn’t try to ape combat mechanics.

I’m hopeful that something interesting might come out of this. If it does, you guys will be the first to know. (There’s also a part of me still hoping that I’m wrong about 4th Edition’s skill challenges and that the core rulebooks will, in fact, unveil something far more impressive than the lame and crippled examples they’ve proffered to date.)

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