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Keeping Kosher

Rules and Roles

by Walt Ciechanowski
Jul 01,2004


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Rules and Roles

Two of my favorite campaigns over the last few years have been court/class intensive (7th Sea and Victoriana, for those who are interested). In both cases, PC interactions with NPCs have made up the vast majority of the sessions. Combat, on average, has been limited to one occurrence every three sessions. The players in these campaigns tend to enjoy dramatic (okay, usually more like melodramatic) situations that don't involve combat.

Those of you who read my column regularly (and you both know who you are!) have probably noticed my attempts to synchronize player roleplaying with the statistics on the character sheet. In my very first article, "the Art of Seduction," I argued for using the rule mechanics as the ultimate arbiter of a character's success, rather than the player's own glibness. In "Elementary, My Dear Gamemaster!," I refined my position to note that while success depends on mechanics, the actual decision-making should be made by the player.

Some of my thinking stems from the fact that I feel most RPG rule systems gloss over non-combat situations. They usually have several pages devoted to combat and "softer" guidelines for non-combat situations (in some cases, the only part of the rules devoted to the use of the skill is within the tiny individual skill description). Unless a GM takes great care in properly utilizing them, non-combat skills often get ignored in practice except for a few key ones (like "spot," "search," or "research"). This makes it easy for combat-intensive PCs to keep up with their non-combat brethren by devoting a minimal amount of points into those few non-combat skills that are likely to be used in play. By contrast, a non-combat PC usually gives up her combat prowess for higher ranks in the same few useful skills that everyone else has as well as ranks in a plethora of other skills that rarely get used. It hardly seems fair.

Complicating this problem is the fact that while players who favor combat situations revel in mechanically using their characters' skills and abilities, players who favor social interaction tend to shy away from relying on the mechanics. They feel that picking up the dice robs them of the scene, as a single roll negates the need for a few minutes of real-time acting in character. In essence, it cheats them out of what they enjoy playing.

In the past, I've tried to redefine the skill systems in my campaigns in order to "pump up" non-combat skills. I usually make the faulty assumption that, if I make the use of non-combat skills more attractive, the players will use them. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (but apparently more than a stubborn GM) to realize that this is a wasted effort. If your players feel that a simple skill roll is cheating them out of the enjoyment of a scene, they certainly aren't going to get excited by your parsing of a single skill roll into a succession of skill rolls, each with a list of shiny modifiers to go with them.

So how do we overcome this impasse?

First, let's compare and contrast combat-oriented characters with non-combat-oriented characters (especially the ones with a social emphasis). Players with combat-oriented characters tend to favor "crunchy" combat systems. They like lots of combat maneuvers and options. They want to be able to choose whether to parry, dodge, evade, or block, rather than simply make a defense roll. They enjoy hit locations and situation modifiers. This makes total sense. The more detailed the combat system is, the better able the players are to express their character's abilities (and their relative worth to the party). If the character is supposed to be a gun-fu expert, a detailed combat system will better allow that character to act like one. The rules showcase the character's abilities in the mind's eye in such a way that pantomime or miniatures cannot (yes, I realize someone can make the Feng Shui argument here but let's face it, most of us are too lazy to keep that up for very long. We'd rather the rules do the work for us, especially when the stakes are high).

By contrast, players who favor social interaction express their characters through play-acting. They see the abilities on their character sheet much as an improvisational actor would use a crib sheet; it's something to glance at as a guide to help them get into character. They don't want to have to constantly refer to the sheet as it breaks the mood. If the sheet says that the character is extremely handsome and has high fashion, charm, and etiquette skills, then the player will act like his character is extremely handsome, impeccably dressed, and charming. The last thing he wants to hear after describing his character's grand entrance to the ball is the GM saying "hmm, that's not very convincing. Give me a fashion and charm roll" (actually, the GM probably only said "roll your charm and fashion skills" but that is not how the player will take it).

The difference is clear. In combat, detailed rules enable a player to better express the actions of her character; they enhance the roleplay (yes, combat is just as much "roleplay" as any other situation). In social situations, rules tend to limit a player's expression of his character within the scene.

Let's look at another case. All of us who have ever GMed on occasion probably have at least one story where a player designed a combat monster brimming with stacked bonuses and maxed-out weapon skills. With amusement we recall that player confidently trotting her character into a combat scene only to get smacked by some unanticipated rule application that sent her character into intensive care while the rest of the party competently dealt with the danger. It's amusing because it's a slip-up. The player ended up with egg on her face and you can rest assured that rule won't trip her up again.

But what if she got slapped again in the second combat? And the third? And the fourth? And so on? We'd consider the player in question to either be extremely dense or that her character design was fatally flawed. And yet this is exactly the situation we GMs may unconsciously put our socially-oriented players in every time their characters interact with an NPC. In some cases, we may not allow the NPC to give the PC even a minimal amount of respect until the PC has proven himself with a successful charm or etiquette roll. We may allow the player to deliver a convincing, eloquent speech, only to have him suffer the indignity of a failed diplomacy roll. If this happens with regularity, the player is going to get frustrated. He is being prevented from enjoying his favorite part of the game.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic or to propose that we GMs enjoy making our players feel incompetent. I'm simply drawing from my own experience that sometimes we GMs get caught up in our own enjoyment roleplaying NPCs that we don't realize that we're doing the affected player a disservice. Am I saying that a player's roleplay should never be trumped by a dice roll, even when the stakes are important? Certainly not! What I am saying is that a different approach is needed so that the rules enhance the player's roleplay rather than detract from it.


Generally, players of all stripes like to assume that their characters are competent at what their sheets suggest. They are entitled to do so. Just as a player with a half-ogre barbarian with a high strength and constitution score is entitled to believe that his character looks fearsome and would demand respect in a bar full of halflings, a player whose character has high social abilities and a respectable fashion/etiquette level can assume that his character is always impeccably dressed, well-mannered, and deserving of respect. When it matters, a skill roll can be called for, but a failed roll should not be regularly interpreted as the character's complete incompetence at dressing himself that day or that he called the hostess a bloated warthog during introductions. Instead, the GM should come up with situational reasons why the character failed the roll. Perhaps the hansom accidentally splashed mud on him as it drove off. Perhaps there is an as-yet-undiscovered tear in his coat. Perhaps a servant accidentally walked away with his hat. This adds value to the failed roll, as it gives the player something to work with when he presents his character.

Players generally don't enjoy roleplaying when the outcome is inevitably against them. How many players do you know would enjoy playing through several rounds of combat against an invincible foe, dutifully crossing off a few hit points each round until their character is finally defeated? More likely they are simply going through the motions, without enthusiasm, after they've figured out the futility of the situation. They probably would've preferred getting beaten within a round or two rather than waste a lot of time on a one-sided combat.

Similarly, socially-oriented players generally don't enjoy acting through a scene that has been predetermined against them (unless they are tragedians, a topic for another time). They would rather know up front that their efforts have at least a chance of affecting the outcome.

With this in mind, a GM should attempt to call for necessary rolls prior to any acting on the part of the player. Using the above fashion example, the player has been alerted to a negative modifier before he engages any of the NPCs in diplomatic or interrogatory conversations. It is now up to the player whether he wishes for his character to leave discreetly and come back when he is better dressed or to engage an NPC anyway, fully aware of the hurdle he needs to overcome. In some cases, a player may even find an opportunity to negate a failed roll (e.g. the player fails an etiquette roll. Prior to engaging in conversation with the hostess, he cuts a mean rug across the dance floor. The hostess is suitably impressed, and the dance bonus offsets the etiquette penalty).

The GM should also attempt to portray the reactions of NPCs realistically. If the PC is supposed to be charming and suave, have the NPC compliment his appearance and manner. Even if the PC eventually fails to get information from her, he will still feel as though his character's abilities were respected. Also, give the player some idea of the difficulty of the challenge before he engages the NPC. In some games, this can be resolved with some sort of perception roll, but even that isn't necessary. The impeccably dressed duchess who oozes charm and beauty is naturally going to be perceived as a harder challenge than the meek, shy servant who blushes and turns away as the PC passes by her.

When the conversation is complete, the GM should assess whether a success roll is really necessary. If the player is a Duke and he asks the daughter of a Baron if he may call on her, she'll not likely turn him down. An NPC businessman may let a few minor insider secrets slip if he's enjoying the company of an attractive woman or a peer (or both). PCs who survive combat situations usually don't come out of it empty-handed (even if the reward is simply the removal of a threat). Unless there was a great deal of risk involved, a socially-oriented PC should be able to walk out of a social situation feeling as though he accomplished something, no matter how small.

Keeping Kosher
As always, the primary purpose of roleplaying is to have fun. The GM should ensure that all players feel rewarded for their contributions. The key is to identify what each player enjoys doing and to ensure that the rules help him realize that enjoyment, rather than hinder it.

Good Gaming!

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