I see a lot of plots where it plays out a lot like a video game, or a Hollywood Action-Adventure movie. Heroes get a mission and charge off after it, slaughtering various creatures along the way, come back to get rewarded, and then a new adventure is given (this would be a sequel for movies, usually another chapter in most video games). This continues for a while with the occasional break for shaking things up, like a boat ride or a desert caravan run, perhaps some sort of minigame.
This party has usually a similar distributon to a Gauntlet game, and usually the same mindset; kill everything and take their stuff. It’s why Munchkin card games are as popular as they are, after all. However, this normally leaves the more social type skills by the wayside and can completely eliminate some great options for games. I’m here to try and bring back the social elements, similar to some of the stuff in my Bard post, but I want to go further now and give GMs ideas on how to make the most of social encounters, so much so that it is possible to have a session where you never need to draw a weapon.
Now, some people may say Game system X uses rules that are better for social than system Y, and I agree, that is a problem in some ways. You can be a great liar (Bluff) but the moment you try to tell the truth (Diplomacy) you lose all your skills in being a social person. Or games have ‘Social Combat’ rules like Exalted and Song Of Ice and Fire, have skills that work better for it. That they do, sure. But it doesn’t mean any system does not have the possibility of playing a social character.
The characters may need to /also/ be able to fight, if you want to be involved in everything the GM does, though not always. Look at Inara in Firefly. She was a Companion, a social character in their world, and she took part in various con jobs but was not seen to do much in the way of violence. It is all in playstyle and how the GM works with the characters to get them involved.
Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Deus Ex series, and many other games have it where you can find a social and/or sneaky approach through almost all the scenarios in the game. It may require more work, so some people just take the Slaughter Your World path, because it is easier. Also, in some games like Bloodlines (usually because of bad/rushed design) there are fights you cannot avoid if you hope to win. GMs can be like this too, in my experience. A lot will know the fighting rules and use them because they are roughly cut and dry, but the social rules are used less frequently as a major campaign point because they take up less pages and have less information for making decisions.
Since the rules are usual limited on social skills, when you run into ‘broken situations’ with the social characters it can seem harder to rein them in than sending a bunch of monsters against the fighter. I mean, isn’t that like every of the action movies of the last few decades? One person against an infinite number of mooks. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a perfect example of this on the fighting side, and movies like Usual Suspects or Lucky Number Slevin are examples of great social types.
Though when you look at most ‘social skills’ in movies, it usually makes the characters look like gods as the bad guys usually have little in ways to stop them. Ocean’s Eleven went off without any major problems and in the sequel the bad guy manipulates them for his money back. In Usual Suspects, it isn’t until the very end that his story begins to be questioned. In so many movies, a quick exchange of social engineering and they give in to the person’s request. This can be a reason foe a GM to say no on use of social skills.
How do you challenge a social character when they can talk their way anywhere they want? The primary answer is by making them work for it, and I don’t mean make the player roleplay what his character says. Not all players are as skilled as their characters, so if you ask that of a specific test, have your fighters sparring for their attacks. I think a gym mat could fit in a gaming area. Could also help with the ‘Gamer Gut’, though that may be too LARPish for a lot of people.
Situational modifiers are one example of how to challenge them. In a modern scenario, if someone (usually a random stranger) came up to you at work dressed in body armor with a gun, would you have a pleasant conversation or try to get away as quick as possible? What about, in a fantasy game, the random traveller who just came into town with a sword and all sorts of cuts and bruises, would you be inclined to tell them anything? So, how they look is important to the reactions of the NPCs. However, so is how they act. Do they observe protocol and wait or do they barge in looking to be served immediately? Do they seem to know what they are talking about or are they taking a shot in the dark? If you try and verify their story, does it check out?
A whole adventure can be done on this legwork. A lot of spy shows like Alias and Nikita feature this, as they gather clues towards a larger goal. Other shows like Hustle and Leverage are con-men dealing with the grifting of people, and there are examples where they fail at times because of various reasons, but it also shows it is not always the end of things to fail. Just because you failed to get what you wanted that way you don’t need to give up or resort to immediate combat, though security/police/bodyguards/etc may be an issue right away. You can usually try a different angle and get something to help.
It doesn’t need to be the whole adventure, but can still have impprtant scenes that play a major role. Paizo Adventure Paths has the Age of Worms feast as well as the Demonskar Ball in Shackled City, with a larger fan addon to make it a whole adventure instead of a few thematic references. Final Fantasy 6 had the Dinner with the Emperor scene where how well you handled yourself determined rewards given. These are not done with one skill check, these are done with many. This link here shows an example of the D&D 4e skill check system to convince a political figure for assistance.
Also, just getting past one person or group is not the end of the social adventure. In a modern building, you have employees, guards, cameras, locked doors and so forth that can stop you. In fantasy, guards and servants and animals and possibly magic can all be issues as well as technology. So you managed to talk past the gate guard, but now the cook wonders who you are and asks a random guard who comes to check you out. Maybe he brings a few buddies if you have some too? You could end up bumping into random people as you walk, like the Stormtroopers on the Death Star.
Personalities can be one of the stumbling blocks for a lot of the GMs. Coming up with drives, motivations, reasons the NPCs would help the PCs. There are many different systems for the personalities and motivations, though you juat need to find what works for you. As for why they may help, in a modern game system, the PCs can be reached for calling in favors and so they can be of use to people as problem solvers. They give you something important and later call you up asking you to fix a problem for them. If you don’t, well you lose rep and no one wants to work with someone with a rep of not paying back debts. In a historical game, it is usually more you do this and then I’ll do that, but sometimes the goals align and they will capitalize on a sitiation you create like your assault on a key noble as part of your associate’s kingmaker scheme. By you going and doing something, they can use it to there advantage to show that the current regime is not as powerful as first thought.
Of course, not everyone is playing on the same level and being upfront about allegiances. Double and triple agents, spies in the organization, listening devices/spells, blackmail, even someone just finding a reason to change like religion or the opinion of a loved one, these can all change the tactics in the middle of the game. If it is the first time used with this group of players, I’d start off dropping veiled hints as part of RP and legwork that show this NPC may have some reasons not to be trusted, like meetings late at night with questionable figures, unpopular decisions, greed, maybe a confrontation with a previous partner or someone they hurt. These let your players realize maybe this NPC is playing an angle, and if they can figure it out, they could use it to their advantage. If they miss the clues or don’t figure it out in time, it is possible they could be sold out.
Don’t make two faced NPCs the regular occurance or players will not use them, but also don’t make them 100% reliable either. These are people serving their own needs and those with power do like to keep it. So you probably want to make a system, perhaps a loyalty chart or statistic, giving you options on how likely this person will waiver in their beliefs and if they would be going back on their word and things like that. A list of loyalties can give you an idea of who ranks where in the balance, for example, church or state.
Just remember, not all loyalities are open for all to see. Your employee is also a founding member of the city’s thieves guild and your neighbour is a legacy at their fraternity. Maybe the police chief is married to the mob boss, or perhaps the mayor is able to crack down on crime because he used to be in the organization and knows where the bodies are buried. Secets leave things to be determined, giving the PCs a richer world and more to be determined. It may not be for everyone but it can make things interesting, like finding out a superheroes secret identity.
There is more I want to say on this, but as this is turning into a really long post, let me continue it in a second post where we go more into practical information on playing social events.