You spit in her decolletage

This article was forwarded to me quite a while ago. I don’t know if the original was on a mailing list or on a website or from someone’s blog. A bit of googling didn’t turn it up. If anyone recognizes this and can help, let me know. I’d like to credit the original writer (or link to them if it’s out there somewhere).

That said, this is obviously someone else’s work, and I don’t want to encroach on someone else’s stuff. Therefore, my caveat is that I’ll leave this here as a placeholder for now. If the original author can be found, I’ll link to them instead.

We’ve discussed the mechanic used here, and sort-of tried to implement it in one scenario that was run. It needs some further elaboration, perhaps, but the concept is a good one. And I think it’s worth sharing.

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As we left the theatre after watching Brotherhood of the Wolf for the first time, I confided to Ramee that there was this role-playing game I had never given much thought to before, but apparently it was pretty much exactly like all that crazy shit we had just seen on the big screen, all that and moreso. Ramee walked over to the movie poster and pointed at Monica Bellucci and said, “I want to be her. If I can play her, I will play that game. Make me the Pope’s killer whore.”

Thus our ongoing 7th Sea game was born.

Last night we kicked off the first of several sessions that will focus heavily on politics and social intrigue. I’ve never pulled that off before – not successfully, anyway – and I’d been pretty nervous leading up to last night’s game. Our group has often run afoul of the perennial dilemma that surrounds social mechanics: how do you use dice without devaluing player input? how do you roleplay it without reducing the decision-making process to GM fiat?

In a game like 7th Sea, where witty courtiers are supposed to be viable heroes right alongside the flashing swordsmen and daring pirates, I think it’s important that social skills have some sort of objective measure. Everyone in the group can quip in pseudo-medieval Olde Englishe with roughly equal facility, but a high rating in social skills makes your character unique, and provides a niche to fill. On the other hand, abstracting social interaction into a roll of the dice can disempower the player:

PLAYER: “I attempt to impress the Countess with my dazzling social acumen.”

GM: “What’d you roll?”

PLAYER: “I rolled a 1.”

GM: “Tough luck. You say something completely stupid and spit in her
décolletage.”


Somehow, that just doesn’t play very well.

The solution I finally hit on was inspired, in part, by Jared Sorenson’s “I-system” and James West’s Pool – which stipulate that the result of a die roll does not determine success or failure, but rather who gets to narrate the result. Now, our group is structured much more traditionally than either of those games, but I was able to incorporate that philosophy into one small part of the mechanics, I think to good effect.

All social intrigue revolves around the basic currency of favors. The NPCs are not merely information banks and clue-dispensers; the object of the game is to get them to do something for you, and to do that you have to do something for them in return. So all the improving and kibbitzing and Olde Englishe quipping eventually leads up to the critical moment where the player puts her cards on the table and says, “Okay, I’m trying to get this guy to do this for me.”

We roll an opposed test of her social skill vs. the NPC’s. Already this changes the “feel” of play from simply making a flat roll against your own skill. We have a tendency to interpret the results of an opposed roll relative to each other, rather than in absolute terms. A crappy roll doesn’t mean your character did something stupid; it just means your opponent did better.

If the player wins the roll, she gets to dictate the terms of the agreement – that is, she decides what the NPC will do for her, and what she will do for the NPC in return. As the GM, I reserve the right to dicker a bit if the player gets ridiculously greedy (“Gimme the keys to the royal treasury, and I’ll buy you a hot dog…”), but for the most part the player takes the reins and determines the outcome of the scene.

If the NPC wins, then I get to dictate the terms of the agreement instead, both how much the NPC is willing to give and how much the player has to pay for it. The kicker here is that either way, the player still achieves her objective, which was to get a favor from the NPC. In no case does the NPC simply brush the player off and refuse to negotiate. A “failed” roll, then, does not signify a dead end; it just means the player now has to do more than she expected. Ideally, the player will have to do just a bit more than she can accomplish on her own, which should drive her to more NPCs looking for more favors, until the web of promises and obligations gets hopelessly entangled and then voilá – instant intrigue.

It worked splendidly. Ramee’s character now has to find a way to convince the Lady Jamais Sices du Sices to spend one night with Prince Donello Falisci – whom the Lady despises – in order to get an important favor from him. Meanwhile, Brian’s character has already slept with Lady Jamais in an attempt to get a favor from her. And the most important NPC of all, Duchess Thérèse Rois et Reines du Roché, is the only person who can get the heroes what they most vitally need – and she hates Lady Jamais with a boundless passion. Lord knows what she’ll ask the players to do.

And all that is from a bunch of failed rolls.

Lots of fun, and a great solution to an old problem. Can’t wait until next week.

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