As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of social combat as it has so far been implemented in RPGs. Inevitably, it either forces play into author stance (where players describe their actions with minimal actual RP) or results in RP with bizarre pauses to roll dice (“You should do this…” “He still has social HP left” “I mean, you should really do this…” “Okay”). As someone who likes to have persuasive conversations in a game happen entirely in character, but still realizes that it’s important to give some tangible bonus to characters that actually invest in social skills, this has always put me in a bind. Hopefully this system is one step of the way to a numerically-based system that causes minimal delay on actual play.

This system is based on FATE’s compels. In a conversation where two parties are trying to convince one another to take action (even if one side is simply trying to convince the other “stop asking, I won’t do it”), this system can be used to base resolution on character statistics.

At the beginning of the conversation, both characters make rolls of a relevant social skill (see examples, below) against a difficulty based on the opponent’s perceptive skills + modifiers (also see below). This is an indirect conflict: both sides can wind up with successes. Each success gained translates to a Persuasion Point (effectively, a FATE point that can only be used for compels within the boundaries of the current conversation).

Each side’s Persuasion Points should be represented by colored counters, with a different color for each side to more easily determine where the points came from. When one side of the negotiation asks the other for a favor, that side must offer the other a number of Persuasion Points based on the following chart:

  • 0 Points: The favor would create a minimal inconvenience for the target (he or she is not in danger and will not suffer noticeably from granting it).
  • 1 Point: The favor creates a noticeable inconvenience or a very minor chance of harm or loss. The target will remember granting this favor for some time, and may be set back somewhat on other goals by granting it.
  • 2 Points: The favor creates a serious inconvenience or a definite risk of injury or loss (but not death). Doing this will be problematic for the target and will certainly impact his or her life.
  • 3 Points: The favor will almost definitely result in the target losing something of minor importance or taking an injury, and has a small chance of death.
  • 4 Points: The favor is extremely risky, and has a good chance of ruining the target’s life or causing death if everything doesn’t go well.
  • 5 Points: This is a suicide mission; almost guaranteed to cost the target his or her life and/or everything that matters to him or her.

Once this favor is asked, the negotiating character must also offer something in compensation. Based on the significance of the compensation, the target must offer Persuasion Points of his or her own to reject the favor. The cost to the target is based on the compensation:

  • 0 Points: The negotiator did not offer compensation. This favor is obviously and purely to the negotiator’s benefit, with nothing in it for the target.
  • 1 Points: The compensation is present, but not measurably equivalent to the favor.
  • 2 Points: The compensation is roughly equivalent to the difficulty of the favor; the target will be paid a fair amount for his or her time, or believes granting the favor will be personally lucrative.
  • 3 Points: The compensation is measurably greater than the favor; the target will actually profit from granting this favor over any other uses of his or her time currently forseen.
  • 4 Points: The compensation will be a tremendous boon to the target, dwarfing the risk of the favor; only an idiot would not take this deal.
  • 5 Points: Even an idiot would take this deal; the payoff for granting the favor makes the risk of it completely negligible.

If the target offers points to reject the favor, the negotiator can offer greater reward in an attempt to force the target to offer more points to buy out of granting the favor. However, once the negotiator has stopped offering, and the target still wishes to buy out of the favor, the matter is done and the negotiator cannot ask the target for basically the same thing until circumstances change (likely not within the same conversation, or even the same session).

If the target decides to grant the favor, the negotiator gives the targets the required number of points.

If the target rejects granting the favor, the target gives the negotiator the required number of points.

For example: 

Anthony wants to get Brenda to describe the men that were in her establishment the night before. There is a small chance, in her estimation, that the men might find out or she’ll gain a reputation as a snitch, but he’s offering $100 and that’s still pretty lucrative, even given the risk. Anthony must offer 1 Persuasion Point, and Brenda would have to spend 2 to reject the offer.

Cassie is attempting to convince Dominic to accompany her on an attack against the men she believes killed her parents. Dominic thinks this would be terribly dangerous, but her parents were old friends, so his desire for vengeance is almost as strong as hers, and she’s offering to pay him well for his time and has an even greater amount in escrow that will go to his family if he doesn’t make it. Cassie must offer 4 Persuasion Points, and Dominic will only have to spend 2 to reject it.

Only Persuasion Points of the negotiator’s own color can be spent to ask for a favor (e.g., the negotiator can’t ask for a favor, have it rejected, and then use the points from the rejection to ask for an even greater, though different, favor). Points of either color can be used to reject a favor (though, obviously, rejecting a favor with points already gained from the opponent does create the possibility of more requests). Unless in-game circumstances intervene, either character can prevent a conversation from ending if he or she still retains points of the original color by asking for one last favor.

Once the conversation ends, any character with points from the opponent may record them as a bonus for future social conflicts (as the target now owes him or her one). These points work as a direct modifier to subsequent conversations, but may atrophy over time (and may need to be traded in on an X for 1 scale for a less granular system like FATE).

The social skill used to initiate the conversation guides the tactics available in the conversation:

  • Persuasion/Diplomacy/Rapport: The character intends to deal honestly. Anything offered to the target is genuine, so an accepted offer should result in no hard feelings: the target knew exactly what he or she was getting into.
  • Subterfuge/Bluff/Deceit: The character is running a con, and is either under-representing the threat to the target or over-representing the potential rewards. If the target finds out the reality of the situation, he or she may exact retribution (or stop in the middle of granting the favor). For the duration of the conversation, though, the negotiator’s offers seem genuine.
  • Intimidation: The character is offering an implicit or explicit threat to the target in addition to other compensation for the favor. Rejecting granting the favor costs 1-2 points more, but future attempts to influence the target will be much harder for all involved (i.e., the relationship worsens). The imbalance of power in the situation also serves as a modifier to the target’s difficulty for the initial roll (e.g., modify the character’s defense trait by +2 if he has two friends while the target is solo).

If a group is able to coordinate, use the social skill of the active speaker for the roll, but the highest defensive trait of the entire group for the opponent’s difficulty (e.g., if the speaker has Sense Motive 10, but his friend has Sense Motive 15, use 15).

Example: D&D

At the beginning of the conversation, roll Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate. The DC is equal to the target’s Sense Motive + (0-20, based on whether the target is Helpful through Hostile).

If the roll beats the difficulty, gain 1 Persuasion Point. Gain +1 Persuasion Point for every 5 by which the roll beats the DC (e.g., a roll of 30 vs. DC 15 would be 4 Persuasion Points).

For Intimidation, each equal CR to the speaker on his team adds +2 to the Sense Motive difficulty, while each equal CR on the opponent’s team subtracts 2 (e.g., in a typical party of 4 all intimidating a given target, the speaker receives +6 for the three assistants. However, if the target is a boss creature with a lot of lower-level flunkies sufficient to raise the EL two points higher than the boss’ CR, penalize the speaker by -4). The target’s attitude worsens by one for subsequent conversations after being intimidated.

Example: Dresden Files

At the beginning of the conversation, roll Rapport, Deceit, or Intimidate. The target is equal to the opponent’s Empathy.

The number of shifts is the Persuasion Points gained.

For Intimidation, add the difference in the Conviction scores of the speaker and opponent to Empathy (e.g., if the speaker, using Intimidate, has Conviction 3, and the opponent has Conviction 1, add +2 to the Speaker’s Empathy), then + or – 2 for the relative imbalance in power in the situation.