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Keeping Kosher

The Art of Seduction

by Walt Ciechanowski
Oct 16,2003


Keeping Kosher

By: Walt Ciechanowski

The Art of Seduction

Now there's a column title that commands attention!

Hello and welcome to my new column! Keeping Kosher is a column about fairness in gaming (okay, it's really about whatever is on my mind as I type, but hey, I needed something that sounded good!). So why the title? According to Merriam-Webster, "Kosher" means proper or acceptable. In Judaism, it usually refers to the dietary rules. Even within Judaism, however, there is room for debate as to what exactly is or isn't kosher. So it is with gaming. Every game has its own system; a set of rules to be followed. Every individual gaming group decides how strictly to follow that system. Usually, rules are created, ignored or amended in order to ease play or make things "fair." It's the purpose of this column to look at various topics and debate the fairness while keeping the game "kosher."

Now onto the sexy topic at hand.

Ever since the first dungeon-delving adventurer decided to talk her way past a monster instead of slaying it, there's been the question of how to handle social interaction. Virtually all modern roleplaying games include mechanisms for resolving diplomacy, haggling, interrogation, or seduction (to name but a few). It's been my experience, however, that rules mechanisms for social interaction are among the most ignored or abused. Why? The simple answer is that most players enjoy acting as their characters, and would much prefer dramatizing the scene as opposed to "dicing" it. While this argument definitely has its appeal, I'd like to take a deeper look.

Roleplaying; isn't that the point?

As a general rule, players enjoy taking on the personalities of their characters and interacting with other PCs and NPCs. No "leadership" dice roll will be as entertaining as a player actually delivering a gripping, stirring speech to rouse an inferior force to defend against impossible odds. Roleplaying should be encouraged; it's what makes the hobby rise above its board game/war gaming roots. Some systems (such as the Unisystem) even offer skill roll modifiers based on a player's actual roleplay of the scene.

While I agree with the sentiment, I do think the application is misguided. If you build a character with an expert level of Seduction, why should the character suffer because you roleplay like a cheesy lounge lizard? Conversely, why should uncharismatic Grod the Barbarian steal the barmaid's heart because his player is such a smooth talker?

Sex & Violence

When was the last time your GM tossed the combat rules to the side, handed out nerf weapons, and said "okay, instead of using the rules we're going to act out the fight. If you hit me, the NPC takes X damage, and if I hit you your character takes X damage?" Or how about a GM demanding that the players hop in a car and drive down to the local library to uncover information rather than simply making a research roll? What about a GM insisting that a player who is a political science major in college roleplay the brain surgery technique that his character is about to perform?

"But that's different!" you cry. Social skills are a completely different animal than combat or knowledge skills. You can't roleplay those! The response to that is "sure you can." The difference is illusory once you break it down. Your player who serves in the army reserves could probably work out a decent battle plan and inform the GM of what equipment will and won't work if the combatants are caught in a sandstorm. A player who's an auto mechanic in real life would have no problem describing how his character hotwires a car or fixes engine trouble. The equation is the same for all types of skills. If you, the player, is good at it, your character by extension is good at it. The converse is also true.

The Playground Mentality

I used to be the guy who was picked last for schoolyard football, usually after the blind kid and the girl with the wooden leg. It's a disheartening experience (and I remember those times when I was elated that I wasn't picked last, as if second-to-last was so much better). Of course, there is little you can do about it. Everyone is built differently, and everyone has different levels of skill. Sometimes, a team was so lopsided that it was agreed that the better team would take a point handicap, just to keep things fair.

The same philosophy can be applied to gaming. "Fairness" is imposed by the rules. If you want your character to be good at something, you should build the character to support it. If you neglect an area, the character should suffer when the time comes that she could've used a better point spread. If you spent 3 points in Seduction, you expect your character to be better at it than the characters with 0 points in Seduction. If the points didn't matter, then you wasted points better spent on other parts of the character sheet.

Quality is hard to judge

The biggest problem with "roleplay" modifiers is that it is a qualitative judgment. What a player considers persuasive may turn off the GM and vice versa. People can and do react differently to the same approach, especially if they come from diverse backgrounds. To use stereotypical American examples, someone from Alabama might find a New Yorker bossy, rude, and loud, while another native New Yorker might find him to be caring and considerate. Some people appreciate a direct, no nonsense approach, while others appreciate subtlety.

If a player's approach turns off the GM, she may find that she's often not successful (ironically, these players usually call for skill rolls to rectify the situation). By contrast, a player with a less skilled character may succeed more often simply because his roleplay feels more natural and persuasive to the GM. If the first player paid for the higher skill, she'll correctly feel cheated.

The character's skill level assumes that he can size up a target and use the best approach to get the reaction he wants. That's what the skill roll is for.

What does it mean to fail?

It's important to remember that a failed social check does not necessarily mean the player did a bad job. It simply means that, for whatever reason, the character was unsuccessful. Perhaps he intended to seduce a woman while her brother-in-law was also in the room. Maybe the target just isn't into leggy blondes who come on strong. There are a number of reasons that could apply.

Still, the general complaint among "roleplaying" players is the following scenario: The player did design her character with a large number of social skills. She even picked advantages (attractiveness, charisma, sex appeal, etc) that gave the character an incredible success rate. Still, even after all of that and a seductive roleplay that left most of the gaming group sweating, she botches the roll. To add insult to injury, she knows that this was the only opportunity this session for her character to show her stuff, and she just utterly blew it.

I could make the case that this situation is similar the seasoned soldier who happens to miss a shot during a combat scene. The only difference is that the soldier probably took another shot. Odds are that he won't botch the second or third time around. In the social scene above, why should the character have to rely on a single opportunity? Unless the NPC was leaving the scene, there is no reason why she can't try again.

Consider the same scenario. The character (PC) just failed her Seduction roll. The GM tells her that the NPC politely but quickly blew her off. He asks the PC for an appropriate Notice skill roll, and the PC realizes that the NPC kept looking at another person throughout their conversation. The PC, either on her own or with the help of other PCs, does some quick probing at the party to discover that this person is the brother-in-law of her target. Armed with this information, the PC arranges for the second NPC to be distracted while she has another go at her original target. She also tells the GM that she is emphasizing discretion in order to make the NPC feel more comfortable. She makes a second Seduction roll and succeeds.

There will be situations where an NPC simply can't be swayed by a social roll, but players generally don't feel cheated when it's GM fiat and not the result of a bad roll (as long as it enhances the story and doesn't make the PC feel useless).

Also, don't be afraid to use modifiers. If a soldier shoves the barrel of a gun against someone's chest and pulls the trigger, chances are pretty good the victim will be shot. Similarly, if an NPC is cruising to pick up a man and in walks your handsome, debonair PC, chances are pretty good eye contact and a smile will be all that's necessary to succeed. Not every situation needs to be resolved with a dice roll, and many rules systems suggest bonuses for easy or routine attempts.

Keeping Kosher

I feel a bit sheepish here because it sounds like I'm advocating the elimination of roleplay in favor of dice rolls. I'm really not; not even close. I love roleplay, especially when it's among the players (I don't usually allow persuasive skill rolls against other PCs). It keeps everyone involved and immersed in the game. I encourage roleplay with NPCs as well, and I give as good as I get. However, when the player is looking to persuade an NPC for profit, remember that it's fair to challenge the character's skills, not the player's. It keeps things fair for everyone.

Good gaming!

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