Gamemaster School 6: Use Your Words

In the last post I breached the idea of social plots being a large game event as opposed to small scenes, and gave some examples but it was mostly theory and some movie and video game references without a lot of in game system weight to it. This one I am going to talk about how to actually create a social encounter to take full advantage of your player characters abilities.

Primarily, you need to have some reason for the social event to take place. That will be the basis of your plots requirements, such as finding who killed a family member or where the money is hidden or how to get into the secure building. This determines how many interactions this will have, since an investigation into a secret society is going to take more asking around than finding someone who can get you out of town.

Next you need to know the type of interactions needed. It could be as simple as a social meeting between vassal and leige in a medieval type game or it could be an interview/interrogation type scene for a police character or it is an criminal talking to a mark or informant to gain information. There are any number of reasons that you may come up with socialising with people, so just find something that fits the story. These let you know the situational modifiers of stats and RP issues that you are looking at, so that you can keep the scene interesting. After all, you want to paint the image for them, so they can get a feeling for the scene and also they can take part in it as much as they might a combat, as opposed to it being busy work between encounters.

So, let’s use an example, where Joe Smith, a mercenary, is trying to find who killed their wife. So, we need to decide who killed her, let’s use shadowy corporation A, because Joe had done a job against them causing one of their execs to lose face and they were overlooked for promotion. A revenge killing to make him suffer. This will be complex plot to resolve, so Joe is going to need to meet a lot of people, usually will be rough interrogation types but he could play it cool and maybe be smooth in some situations. So, potential targets are the killer, the fixer who gave the contract, various suits working for this exec like an assistant/secretary and a coworker/subordinate, perhaps even a rival corporation looking to get Joe to work for them in exchange for information.

Usually at this point, you’ll want to come up with some twists and turns to use in making this information gathering interesting. Look at any cop show and you can see how they try and make the same questioning scenes unique. Various things from how they act and what they wear to what they talk about and so forth. The interactions of the different people will also affect this as well, since people will talk and they will know you’ve questioned their associate. Same as the stereotypes like the two having an affair being possible murder motive or trouble happening to a friend or family member, such as sickness or financial troubles, as a motivation for criminal acts. There are many different reasons for people to do things, and different ways they will be affected by any sort of questioning.

A lot of this post has focused on information gathering, usually by questioning, which is a mix of intimidation and diplomacy, to use the D20 terms, but there is many more uses of social skills. Most systems define it as a breakdown akin to D20’s Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, Sense Motive. For example, Shadowrun 3rd Edition had Etiquette, Negotiation and Intimidate as its skills. However, does diplomacy mean telling the truth and bluffing is lying? If so, does that mean that you can’t be diplomatic if you’re trying to tell someone they look great when they don’t? What about an actual diplomat, isn’t a lot of that lying in some shape?

If we look at uses rather than terms, your standard con movie shows how to use two main subsets of bluff, fast talking and cons, the former being how to ‘confuse’ someone into accepting something by overloading them with information that they forget their concerns and the latter is to make them believe a story that is not true by lying to them.

An example of fast talk is some of the old Abbot and Costello routines such as ‘Two tens for a five’ and ‘Payday’, where Abbott fasttalks Costello out of money in both situations. Other uses of fast talk can be to get yourself access to an area usually in something like the Bavarian Fire Drill where people believe you have more authority than you do have, or out of trouble, such as the Abbott and Costello way to prove that ‘I’m not here’ to prevent violence.

You can use your skills with no guile, and get a lot done as well. For example,  sweet-talk someone into things, such as some people may be more willing to give you something for nothing if they like you, such as little extra items in an order because of being so nice. Also, sometimes a polite telling of your situation can open doors that would be closed to force, such as holy orders helping those in need or someone sympathetic to your cause, ie rebel movements.

Some other obvious examples of Diplomacy range from things like appealing to a governing body for assistance, usually by means of favors and protocol to haggling. You could be pleading the King to let you pass through their lands, convince the senate to pass your bill with a rousing speech. I use haggling as an example, though nostly any interaction with people without guile or violence you could call diplomacy, such as trying to prevent people from fighting or similar. Seduction could be its own skill or a subset of Diplomacy, depending on your game.

As this is a social approach post, I have touched on some topics so far that can give some adventure ideas. The next post in this series will be on use of non-social skills for non-combat encounters.

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