The present survey provides an overview of persuasion mechanics in 15 contemporary and historical commercial pen-and-paper role-paying games (RPGs). "Persuasion mechanics" (not to be confused with "persuasive mechanics", which is another term for Ian Bogost's "procedural rhetoric") here refer to gameplay rules and procedures employed to determine the outcome of in-fiction attempts to exert social influence by or, less commonly, upon player characters (PCs) in RPGs. Due to the RPG medium's historical origins in war gaming and fantasy literature, the vast majority of rules in RPGs concern tactical combat and magical effects, while in-fiction social interactions have been often relegated entirely to "role-play" (RP), meaning that their success or failure depends mainly on actual persuasive performances and judgment calls, rather than gameplay procedures. Nevertheless, many such procedures have been proposed throughout the decades and eventually converged into a number of recurrent design patterns that we will outline in the conclusions.
The main motivation for creating this survey was to improve the quality of gameplay systems governing social action in pen-and-paper RPGs. This immediately prompts the question of whether gameplay rules for in-fiction social interactions are at all necessary, given that RPGs are already a particular from of social interaction (Montola); indeed, Marie Brennan argues that "codified rules for [social interactions] are often cumbersome and deadening to RP" (chapter "Preserving agency"). However, it is our belief that the majority of role-players do not have the social competence needed to actually role-play convincing persuasion and that, just like a good tactical simulation can teach them the basics of squad-based combat, a good set of persuasion rules can improve the quality of their role-playing by providing a mental map of the domain for them.
Beyond the search for common design patterns, other guiding questions of this survey were: How can role-playing performance be factored into the gameplay resolution of social influence attempts? How to preserve player agency when using social influence against player characters? How to simulate character relationships among each other and how to factor them into influence mechanics? And how is physical violence embedded in and contextualized by the social interactions of fictional characters and, especially, how do social interactions escalate to combat? Our answers to these will likewise be presented in the conclusions section.
The specific selection of games examined in this study is based primarily on the availability of their source materials (rule books) to the author and on his personal familiarity with corresponding game systems.
Table of Contents
- Case studies:
- Dungeons & Dragons 5E (Wizards of the Coast, 2014)
- Apocalypse World 2E (Meguey and Vincent Baker; lumpley games, 2016)
- GUMSHOE (Robin Laws; Pelgrane Press, 2007)
- Pathfinder 1E (Paizo Publishing, 2009)
- Vampire: The Masquerade 1E/20AE (Mark Rein-Hagen; White Wolf Publishing, 1991/2011)
- A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (Robert J. Schwalb; Green Ronin Publishing, 2012)
- Numenera 1E (Monte Cook Games, 2013)
- Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games, 2013)
- Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions, 2013)
- Call of Cthulhu 7E / Basic Role-Playing (Sandy Petersen/Steve Perrin; Chaosium, 2014)
- Dragon Age (Chris Pramas; Green Ronin Publishing, 2015)
- Blades in the Dark (John Harper; Evil Hat Productions, 2017)
- Monsterhearts 2 (Avery Alder; Buried Without Ceremony, 2017)
- Dogs in the Vineyard (Vincent Baker; lumpley games, 2005)
- Lace & Steel (Paul Kidd; Pharos Press, 1997)
Full text of the article (for printing etc.) is available here.
Role-playing game (RPG): A leisure group activity with the goal of collaborative invention and exploration of a shared fantasy world. It is structured by agreed-upon rules and procedures, with the most salient one being that most participants (players) embody a personified character within said fantasy (see Montola).
Game master (GM): A specialized player role in RPGs that is tasked with embodying not a single "player character" (PC), but a number of "non-player" ones (NPCs), as well as with tracking, updating, and revealing the overall state of shared fantasy world to other players. GMs are typically granted far-reaching discretionary powers over the game world, referred as GM fiat. Different games in this survey use many terms to refer to game masters, but for the sake of consistency, we will substitute all of them with simply "GM" in the following.
Framing: Gary Alan Fine had applied Erving Goffman's "frame analysis" to RPGs to describe how communication between their participants occurs on three distinct levels/frames: social (between people), gameplay (between players), and fiction (between characters), with participants continuously switching or "keying" between them in the course of a game session (pp. 186-204). This survey will focus on the gameplay frame, but we will also examine how it is keyed from the other two, as well. Gameplay and fiction frames are also referred as ludic (from Latin "ludus" – "game") and diegetic (from Greek "diegesis" – "narration"), respectively.
Social action: According to Max Weber, "an action is ‘social' if the acting individual takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course". Our primary interest here are persuasive social actions taking place in the fiction frame ("in-fiction") of RPGs, wherein the acting character attempts to influence the behavior, beliefs, or affective state of one or more others. In the following, we will refer to the former character as the social agent, and the latter as the social patient(s), or simply as "agent" and "patient". The players embodying them in the game will be referred as "agent player" and "patient player", respectively, even if one of them is the GM (who typically isn't referred as a "player" in RPGs).
Player agency: In RPGs, the ability of a player to make meaningful choices regarding their character and their in-fiction behavior. A player's agency can be invalidated if the gameplay systems allow the GM or another player to render their decisions regarding their own character meaningless, such as (hypothetically) using persuasive social actions in-fiction to make another's character behave in ways contrary to their player's intentions.
Stats: Short for "statistics". Numeric (typically expressed as short integers) representations of character qualities or, more specifically, their effectiveness at accomplishing certain in-fiction tasks. Primary stats are typically few in number and refer to natural aptitudes, such as strength and intelligence; while secondary stats are usually more numerous and refer to learned abilities, such as skills.
Relationship value: A type of stat representing some aspect of a relationship between two characters, such as how much they like or trust each other. Relationship values in RPGs are often asymmetric, meaning that each character has a separate relationship value for everyone else and two character's values are not necessarily equal, simulating unreciprocated feelings and attitudes.
Mechanic: In RPGs, a repeatable procedure that takes the players out of the fiction and into the gameplay frame, in order to resolve, i.e. to determine the outcome of, some in-fiction event according to previously agreed-upon rules.
Game system: A set of gameplay procedures used by players to negotiate and to agree upon what happens in their shared fantasy. According to a principle formulated by Vincent Baker and Emily Care Boss, "System (including but not limited to ‘the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."
Core mechanic: In RPGs, a gameplay mechanic that is used to resolve all player character action in-fiction in a unified manner unless a more specific procedure applies. In cybertextual terms (see Aarseth), the core mechanic in RPGs is a (usually probabilistic) transition function taking as input the agent's objective, the numeric stats of all characters involved (at minimum, the agent's), as well as other circumstantial in-fiction factors, and outputting the outcome of the agent's action on the gradient of success (at minimum, whether it succeeds or fails).
Gradient of success: A unified six-point scale of possible in-fiction outcomes of a player character's action, as described by Eddie Webb. The points on the scale are: No-And (the character fails to accomplish their objective, and their attempt has an undesirable side effect), No (the character simply fails), No-But (the character fails, but their attempt nonetheless has a beneficial side effect for them), Yes-But (the character succeeds, but with an undesirable side effect), Yes (the character succeeds), and Yes-And (the character succeeds with additional beneficial side effects).
Agent-patient configuration: A term used here to describe one of three possible agent-patient role distributions among player and non-player characters in social actions: "PC agent, NPC patient" (a.k.a. "player-versus-environment" or "PvE"), "NPC agent, PC patient" ("EvP"), and "PC agent, PC patient" ("player-versus-player", "PvP"). "NPC agent, NPC patient" is of little interest to this survey, since such social actions are typically left up to the GM fiat and unregulated by the rules.
Experience points (XP): Abstract tokens whose acquisition by a player character represents them learning from their experiences. Upon accumulating some number of XP, the character's stats improve or they gain new abilities.
Dice: Ubiquitous gaming aids used as randomness generators in RPGs. This survey uses the standard dice notation, where "dX" describes a single X-sided die (e.g. a cube-shaped "d6" or a twenty-sided "d20") while "NdX" means "roll N X-sided dice and add up the results".
Dungeons & Dragons
The first game we examine is the fifth edition (5E) of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons (in following: D&D), published by Wizards of the Coast in 2014. While this newest edition is not the earliest release in this survey, the unique historical position of D&D as the first commercially successful pen-and-paper RPG (with its first edition released in 1974) and the world's most popular RPG for most of the time span that it has been in continuous publication (Appelcline), makes it a convenient "baseline" against which to measure subsequent examples.
As a conceptual offspring of the 1960s and 1970s wargaming, the two gameplay emphases of D&D have historically been exploration (of dungeons) and combat (against monsters such as dragons). While the common opinion that "D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff" (cf. Brennan) is perhaps unfairly reductionist to most editions (except maybe the fourth), it is undeniable that a lot of role-playing groups enjoy playing D&D in this manner. From a purely systemic point of view, a considerable chunk of the current edition's rules is devoted to magic (with detailed descriptions of various magical effects taking up almost a third of its Player's Handbook's volume) and combat simulation (from character classes as shorthand for combat roles, through detailed combat equipment and enemy stats, to rigid procedures structuring the flow of in-fiction combat).
As Ron Edwards had famously argued in the early 2000s, "system does matter", and if a role-playing game system boasts a sophisticated combat simulation, it will invariably attract players interested in tactical combat action. Conversely, simply by offering players more gameplay options for certain types of in-fiction interactions than for others, a game system incentivizes the use of the latter over the former. This incentive comes both from the players' fear of missing out on numerous (magical and combat) game mechanics, and the GMs' natural tendency to avoid the additional cognitive load of adjudicating complex (social) interactions if the game offers no mechanical support in this area.
With all of this in mind, it may be surprising to find out that D&D 5E actually contains a rather elegant social interaction system hidden under the hood in its Dungeon Master's Guide. While these rules take up a fraction of the space dedicated to simulating physical violence and magical effects in the same book, it is obvious that considerable thought has been put into it by the designers.
Like almost all examples in this survey, D&D 5E uses a single core game mechanic (referred as an "ability check" by the rules) to resolve all challenges and conflicts involving (player) characters, including social ones. The simplified core mechanic procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM assesses the "difficulty class" (DC) of the attempted action as a number ranging from 10 to 30.
- The GM tells the player which primary (an "attribute", effectively ranging from –2 to +4) and secondary stats of their character (typically a "skill", ranging from 0 to +6) apply to their action.
- The player rolls a d20 and adds their character's relevant attribute and skill scores. Some favorable in-fiction conditions, like receiving assistance from an ally, confer an "advantage", meaning the player rolls twice and takes the better result; others, a "disadvantage", where they roll twice and take the worse result.
- If the end result is equal or greater than the DC, the character achieves their objective, otherwise, they fail.
- The GM and the player collaborate in narrating the outcome of the PC's action in-fiction.
For the purposes of social interaction, a PC can be the agent or the patient in the above procedure, depending on whether they attempt to influence an NPC, or the NPC attempts to influence them. The primary stats (attributes) most relevant to social interactions in D&D are "Charisma" and "Wisdom". According to Player's Handbook (pp. 178-179), Charisma is a measure of a character's capability for effective social interaction, which includes traits like confidence and eloquence, and is most relevant to social agents. Wisdom represents perceptiveness and intuition, and is used by the social patients to detect the agent's unstated ulterior motives. The agent' relevant secondary stats (skills) are "Deception", "Intimidation", and "Persuasion", depending on whether the social interaction involves misinformation, threats, and charm or reasoning, respectively. The main skill a patient uses to detect the agent's ulterior motives is "Insight".
The extended procedure to resolve social interactions in the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration builds upon the core mechanic and is described in the Dungeon Master's Guide (pp. 244-245):
- Objectives. Before the interaction, the player articulates their character's objective, the GM does the same for the NPC patient.
- Attitude. The GM assesses the NPC's starting "attitude" towards the PC agent. Attitude can be "hostile", "neutral", and "friendly" (from the least to the most compliant).
- Role-play. The player and the GM role-play the conversation between the agent and the patient. Depending on the persuasive qualities of the player's lines, the GM may temporarily improve or worsen the NPC's starting attitude by one step at their discretion.
- Reconnoitering. During this dialogue, the player is entitled to a single reconnoitering Wisdom (Insight) ability check, which, if successful, allows them to learn the NPC's current attitude, as well as additional details about them at the GM's discretion.
- Assistance. Other PCs may contribute to the conversation, with the quality of their role-play potentially conferring an advantage or a disadvantage to the agent's roll in the next step.
- Ability check. When the PC makes an appeal to the NPC (request, demand, suggestion, etc.), their player makes a Charisma ability check, adding the secondary stat value consistent with the contents of the earlier conversation, and tells the GM the end result.
- Outcome. The GM adjudicates the outcome of the agent's action. Rather than a binary success/failure of the core mechanic, this procedure introduces a gradient of success, consisting of No-And (the patient refuses to comply and begins actively interfering with the agent's objectives), No (refusal of compliance), Yes-But (the patient complies, but only at no cost or risk to themselves), Yes (compliance at a small cost or risk), and Yes-And (compliance at a great cost or risk). The specific outcome depends on both on the ability check result and on the patient's attitude when it is made:
Attitude No-And No Yes-But Yes Yes-And Hostile DC0 DC 10 DC 20 - Neutral - DC0 DC 10 DC 20 - Friendly - DC0 DC 10 DC 20
We observe that no specific procedure is offered for adjudicating social interactions in the "NPC agent, PC patient" configuration, meaning that the PC's compliance is entirely at their player's discretion, who is also entitled to a Wisdom (Insight) check to assess the NPC's ulterior motives. Likewise, no procedure is offered for the "PC agent, PC patient" configuration, likewise leaving it up to the individual players to decide whether their characters comply or not, effectively moving the interaction out of the ludic and into the fiction or the social frame (depending on whether the players stay in-character or address each other directly, respectively).
If Dungeons & Dragons is as an exemplar of the "traditional" pen-and-paper RPG design (despite 5E taking more than a few queues from more modern and experimental designs), one can hardly go more "indie" than Meguey and Vincent Baker's post-apocalyptic cult classic Apocalypse World (in following: AW). Originally published by their imprint lumpley games in 2007, the version we will primarily examine here is its second edition (2E), crowd-funded and self-published by the authors in 2016. In addition to AW itself, many RPGs have since reused and adapted its core game system to a large number of other settings and genres under the "Powered by the Apocalypse" label (we will examine one such game, Monsterhearts, later on).
Free resources: Playbooks, moves sheets, MC sheets.
Like D&D 5E, AW uses a dice-based core mechanic (referred simply as a "roll") to resolve player character actions, including social influence attempts. The simplified procedure for said core mechanic is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The player and the GM negotiate which "basic move" applies in this situation (see below).
- The player rolls 2d6 and adds to the result of their character's primary stats, as specified by the chosen basic move description (shortened to "roll +stat", e.g. "roll +hard").
- A gradient of success is built directly into the core mechanic: If the total roll result is 10 or higher ("strong hit"), the PC achieves their initial objective (Yes); if it is 7, 8, or 9 ("weak hit"), they achieve the objective, but at a high cost or they are faced with a hard choice as a result (Yes-But); on a 6 or lower ("miss"), they fail to reach their objective and something bad happens to them in-fiction as a result of the attempt (No-And).
- The player and the GM collaborate in narrating the outcome of the action in-fiction, with the GM coming up with an adversity that befalls the PC on anything but a strong hit.
The five primary stats in AW ("cool", "hard", "hot", "sharp", and "weird") typically range from –2 to +3, while an additional stat named "Hx" (short for "history") ranges from –3 to +3 and is a form of asymmetric relationship values between PCs, so each one has a separate Hx score for every other PC, representing how well they know them. There are no secondary stats in this game.
"Moves" in AW are situational game mechanics that are invoked by certain events in-fiction. Every "playbook" (player character archetype) has a set of moves unique to them, but also to a set of "basic moves" available to all PCs (the GM has a separate set of "MC moves", which never involve them rolling dice). Persuasion and more general social situations are covered by three particular basic moves, meaning that in all three the social agent is a PC: "Go Aggro", "Seduce or Manipulate", and "Read a Person" – in D&D terms, these roughly correspond to Charisma (Intimidation), a combination of Charisma (Persuasion) and Charisma (Deception), and Wisdom (Insight) checks, respectively.
Go Aggro on Someone is a basic move that covers coercive interactions. It is invoked when a PC agent makes a specific threat of violence to an NPC or a PC patient while demanding their immediate compliance. The agent player rolls +hard, and on a strong hit, the patient player has the choice of either immediately complying with their demands, or escalating the situation by forcing them to carry out the threat, at which point the agent player cannot pull the blow (if the initial threat is a bluff, the "Seduce or Manipulate" move should be used instead). On a weak hit, the patient player may instead attempt to deescalate the situation without fully complying, while on a miss, the agent typically experiences a dramatic reversal of the power dynamic.
Seduce or Manipulate
Seduce or Manipulate Someone is a basic move that covers non-coercive, mainly reward-based interactions. It is invoked whenever a PC agent attempts to secure compliance of an NPC or a PC patient with a particular leverage. As the name suggests, its primarily use is to lure the patient into an intimate liaison, hence why the agent player rolls +hot (a stat representing their erotic capital), but it is also used for every other kind of appeal and leverage.
Because, unlike "Go Aggro", this move does not involve (threats of) physical violence, its possible outcomes are markedly different for PC and NPC patients: on a strong hit, the NPC complies until the leverage is somehow invalidated, while on a weak one, they comply only if the agent strengthens their leverage (e.g. by making them an explicit promise or by showing hard evidence). Whether a PC patient complies, meanwhile, is left completely up to their player, but on a strong hit, their compliance is rewarded with XP, while non-compliance is punished with the temporary reduction of XP gains (in Apocalypse World 1E, the patient's ludic punishment for non-compliance was instead to make an additional roll that effectively forced them to comply on a miss – an oblique way of negating their player's agency, which was presumably why it was changed in 2E). On a weak hit, the agent player must choose whether to reward the patient's compliance or to punish non-compliance, but not both.
Read a Person
Read a Person is a reconnoitering basic move that allows a PC agent and their player to gain insight into the motives of a PC or an NPC patient in a "charged interaction". While it cannot bring about compliance, like the other two moves, it is designed to be used as a prelude to either of them: by rolling +sharp, the player can be entitled to truthful answers to three (on a strong hit) or just one (on a weak one) questions from the patient player. These must come from a predefined list and range from "Is your character telling the truth?" to "What leverage will secure their compliance?" The GM answers these questions for NPC patients, while the respective player does so for a PC patient. Of course, nothing prevents the patient player from invoking the same basic move, so both PCs alternate being the agent and the patient in this interaction.
We observe that since the core mechanic uses fixed success thresholds, the patient's stats have no impact on basic moves' effectiveness. Since NPCs don't have numeric stats in AW, this is of no consequence to the GM, but the system does provide players with a ludic option to resist other players' social influence, namely, with the basic move "Help or Interfere with Someone". If the patient interferes with the agent somehow, e.g. by talking back, their player rolls +Hx with the agent, which applies a one-time –2 (strong hit) or –1 (weak hit) penalty to the agent player's roll. In effect, the better the patient knows the agent, the less likely the latter is to exert unwanted influence upon them.
In addition to the basic moves described above, individual playbooks have some special moves that modify the basic ones. For example, one special move allows the "Battlebabe" playbook to roll +cool instead of +hard when they "Go Aggro" on NPCs and +Hx, on PCs. The "Hocus" playbook, meanwhile, may roll +weird instead of +Hx when attempting to "Help or Interfere", as long as they have the appropriate special move.
Unlike both previously discussed titles, GUMSHOE is not a standalone game, but a quasi-generic role-playing game system underlying a number of games geared towards mystery and investigation plots, such as Trail of Cthulhu (2008), Night's Black Agents (2012), and TimeWatch (2017). Developed for Pelgrane Press by Robin D. Laws in 2007, GUMSHOE had originally been a proprietary system exclusive to Pelgrane's productions, but was released to the public for free in 2013.
Free resources: System Reference Document.
GUMSHOE has been designed to alleviate a specific issue pervasive in mystery-focused role-playing games: that of the PCs missing vital investigation clues due to bad luck at dice. Laws' solution was to eliminate the element of chance from the investigation procedure entirely (with the justification that the PCs are supremely competent in their respective fields of expertise) and shifting the gameplay focus away from obtaining evidence towards interpreting it. Because this only applies to the PCs' investigative abilities and not to general ones (like hand-to-hand fighting), however, GUMSHOE effectively has two core mechanics, a "Karma"-based for investigating and a "Fortune"-based one for everything else (to borrow the terms introduced by Laws' former co-author Jonathan Tweet in his 1995 Everway). For this survey, we are only interested in the investigative procedure, described on pp. 6-7 of the SRD:
- The player announces that their character is using a particular "investigative ability" to look for clues in the current (crime) scene.
- As long as the PC has at least one "point" invested in the stated ability, the GM reveals to the player all of the key information their character needs to advance the plot.
- The GM announces whether the PC can gain any "special benefits", such as additional clues, from the current scene with their chosen investigative ability, and how many points they cost.
- The player decides how many special benefits (if any) they purchase and "spends" the corresponding number of points from their ability, reducing its effective score until the next mystery.
- The GM reveals any additional clues or enacts in-fiction any special benefits that the player has purchased.
The reason why we are only interested in the investigative core mechanic is that all but one of the primary stats that GUMSHOE classifies as "Interpersonal" fall under the investigative abilities. Consequently, the primary purpose of social interaction in this system is not to influence behavior, but to obtain information from NPCs. Interpersonal investigative abilities (pp. 8-26) can be further split into "parlances" and "techniques" (our terms):
- Parlances are specialized vocabularies and norms that allow for effective blending in and communication with certain social classes or professions. Examples include "Authority", "Bureaucracy", "Cop Talk", "High Society", "Respect", "Streetwise", and "Tradecraft".
- Techniques are specific modes of persuasive communication, such as "Charm" (optionally subdivided into "Flattery" and "Flirting"), "Inspiration", "Interrogation", "Intimidation", "Negotiation", "Reassurance", and "Taunt".
A special investigative technique called "Bullshit Detector" (p. 10) lets PCs recognize when an NPC lies to them. The only Interpersonal ability that isn't investigative but general is "Public Relations" (p. 32), which is used to maintain and to improve the PCs' social standing and credibility.
We observe that because of the system's heavy emphasis on mystery-solving, its only mode of social interaction involves PC agents interrogating NPC patients in various ways. It provides no explicit support for gaining compliance beyond revealing the sought-after information, nor for any of the "PC patient" configurations (like in Apocalypse World, in fact, the GM never rolls dice in this system).
In response to Wizards of the Coast publishing Dungeons & Dragons 4E in 2008, Paizo Publishing has released their own updated version of D&D 3E a year later, naming it Pathfinder (this was made possible by the Wizards' earlier decision to publish 3E under the Open Gaming License). While 3E and, subsequently, Pathfinder bear strong similarity to 5E in regards to its persuasion mechanics, there are also differences that warrant a separate examination. Although Paizo has released Pathfinder 2E in 2019, we will reference the original core rule book in the following.
Free resources: System Reference Document.
Pathfinder uses the same core mechanic as D&D 5E, sans the advantage/disadvantage option (which was first introduced in 5E). However, whereas 5E uses the same gameplay procedure, regardless whether the Charisma roll is modified by the Deception, Intimidation, or Persuasion skill bonus, Pathfinder features separate gameplay procedures for each corresponding skill:
- Bluff (p. 90; equivalent to Deception): When the agent lies to the patient to gain their cooperation, the agent player makes an "opposed roll" against the patient's Sense Motive skill, meaning that both roll d20s and add their character's skill and ability modifiers (the patient player may also add a number of situational modifiers at the GM's discretion). If the agent's total Bluff roll is equal or higher than the patient's total Sense Motive roll, the patient believes the agent's lie. The skill also has combat applications, like feinting, but these fall outside the scope of this survey.
- Diplomacy (pp. 93-94, equivalent to Persuasion) governs three distinct procedures:
- Improve Attitude: When the agent attempts to improve an NPC patient's "attitude" towards them, their player makes a Diplomacy check whose DC depends on the patient's starting attitude and Charisma score. NPC attitude is a five-step scale, ranging from "Hostile" (base DC 25), through "Unfriendly" (20), "Indifferent" (15), and "Friendly" (10), to "Helpful" (0), and improves by one step if the check is successful (by two if its result exceeds the DC by 5 or more) or worsens by one step if its result is lower than the DC by 5 or more. It then cannot be re-attempted for 24 in-fiction hours.
- Make a Request: When the agent makes a request of the NPC patient, their player makes a Diplomacy check whose DC depends on the patient's current attitude, Charisma score, and a number of situational modifiers at the GM's discretion. If the patient's attitude is at least "Indifferent", they comply if the check is successful; otherwise, they refuse and cannot be persuaded otherwise with additional checks. "Helpful" patients comply with almost all requests without the need for a roll.
- Gather Information: When the agent looks for information on a topic or a person by canvassing the general public, their player makes a Diplomacy roll whose DC depends on the obscurity of the information they seek, which is discovered on a successful check. This takes 1 to 4 in-fiction hours and may be reattempted as often as the player wants.
- Intimidate (p. 99, equivalent to Intimidation): When the agent attempts to coerce an NPC patient into obedience, the agent player makes an Intimidate check whose DC depends on the patient's character level and Wisdom score. On a successful check, the patient's attitude shifts to "Friendly" for 10 to 60 in-game minutes and they automatically comply with any request that does not further endanger them; afterwards, their attitude reverts to "Unfriendly". If the check fails by 5 or more, the patient attempts to deceive the agent or to otherwise interfere with their objectives.
- Sense Motive (p. 104, equivalent to Insight): When the agent attempts to reconnoiter a social situation, their agent makes a Sense Motive check against DC 20. If successful, the GM tells them e.g. whether their vis-à-vis is an impostor or whether they get a hunch that they are trustworthy. The check may not be reattempted in the current social situation, although each Bluff attempt warrants its own Sense Motive check.
We observe that, like in D&D, persuasion mechanics in Pathfinder are geared towards the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration, with some lip service paid to "NPC agent, PC patient", and no provisions offered for "PC agent, PC patient".
Vampire: The Masquerade
Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition (in following: 20AE) is a revision of the 1998 Vampire: The Masquerade Revised Edition – itself a revision of the original 1991 Vampire: The Masquerade (in following: 1E). The Revised Edition was produced by White Wolf Publishing after the original's designer Mark Rein-Hagen had left the company in 1996, making many significant changes, which will be discussed below (since the Revised and the Anniversary Editions are largely identical when it comes to persuasion mechanics, everything said here about the latter also applies to the former). Except where noted, all page numbers below refer to the 20AE core rulebook (2011).
The core mechanic of the Storyteller System (referred as an "action", pp. 246-250), is used to resolve all PC actions that the GM assesses to have a dramatic potential for failure. The essential procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM states which primary stat ("attribute", ranging from 1 to 5) and, typically, which secondary one ("ability", ranging from 0 to 5) are relevant to this action. Primary stats most relevant to an agent in persuasive interactions are Charisma, Manipulation, and Appearance (pp. 97-99); the most relevant secondary stats are Empathy, Leadership, Intimidation, and Subterfuge (pp. 101-103).
- The GM adjudicates the "difficulty" of the attempted action, typically ranging from 3 (trivial), through 6 (standard), to 9 (very hard).
- The player rolls as many d10s (constituting their "dice pool") as their character has points in the relevant scores from step 2, added together.
- The player counts the number of "successes" – roll results that are equal to or greater than the difficulty set in step 3 – and reduces it by one for each 1 they've also rolled.
- The gradient of success is based on the final number of successes: Rolling no successes but at least one 1 produces a "botch" (No-And); otherwise, if the 1s reduce the number of successes to 0 or lower, or no successes and no 1s have been rolled, it's a failure (No). Roughly speaking, one or two successes produce a Yes-But result; three are a Yes; and four or more are a Yes-And.
- The GM describes the outcome of the PC's action in fiction, based on the roll result.
A longer procedure of "resisted actions" is additionally employed when the PC's action is opposed by another character, whether player or non-player. In this case, the opposing character's player (the GM for NPCs) performs steps 1 through 5 at the same time, and the character with more successes wins their conflict or competition, with the effective number of their successes further reduced by that of the loser's, before steps 6 and 7 are resolved.
The "Social Feats" are a subset of the "Dramatic Systems" of the game – optional procedures that build upon the core mechanic to model specific in-fiction situations. Their use to adjudicate persuasive interactions, however, is immediately disclaimed by the 20AE: "Roleplaying usually supersedes any Social skill roll, for better or worse. Storytellers may ignore the Social systems when a player exhibits particularly good, or excruciatingly bad, roleplaying" (p. 265). No equivalent advice is found in the corresponding section of the 1991 original (pp. 153-155).
Specific social feats described on pp. 265-266 are (the relevant primary and secondary stats are listed in brackets):
- Carousing (Charisma + Empathy): The agent attempts to get the patient(s) to relax and to drop their guard. This procedure seems to be an evolution of 1E's deprecated Fitting In, wherein the agent attempted to integrate themselves into a group.
- Credibility (Manipulation + Subterfuge): The agent attempts to make the patient believe a specific lie; the patient resists with Perception + Subterfuge.
- Fast-talk (Manipulation + Subterfuge): The agent attempts to confound the patient with a stream of nonsense; the patient resists with their Willpower score (ranging from 1 to 10).
- Interrogation: The agent attempts to make the patient divulge a secret. If the interrogation is non-violent, the agent rolls with Manipulation + Empathy, while the patient resists with Willpower; otherwise, they instead use Manipulation + Intimidation and Stamina or Willpower (whichever is higher), respectively.
- Intimidation: The agent attempts to coerce the patient into immediate compliance. If this involves threats of physical violence, the agent rolls with Strength + Intimidation, while the patient resists with Willpower or with Strength + Intimidation of their own (this last variant appears to be the successor of 1E's deprecated The Facedown); otherwise, they instead use Manipulation + Intimidation and Willpower, respectively.
- Oration (Charisma + Leadership): The agent attempts to mobilize a large audience for a specific cause.
- Seduction (see below): The agent attempts to lure the patient into an intimate liaison.
The "Seduction" procedure deserves a special mention, as it has been included, virtually unchanged, in every edition of the game from the 1991 original onward. This undoubtedly reflects the persistent popular image of vampires as sexual predators, although in Vampire, they often regard sexuality not as an end in itself, but as means to obtain their only real desire – the blood of the living. (In fact, 1E makes it clear that the vampire agent's objective in this procedure is typically just to feed on the patient, and that if their feelings for the patient are genuine, it should not be used at all; 20AE conspicuously omits these clauses.) The seduction procedure is as follows:
- Approach/opening remarks (Appearance + Subterfuge, with difficulty dependent on the patient's Wits stat).
- Witty repartee (Wits + Subterfuge, difficulty dependent on the patient's Intelligence)
- Suggestive/intimate conversation (Charisma + Empathy, difficulty dependent on the patient's Perception).
To reach their objective, the agent must succeed at all three of these actions, in order, though not necessarily within a single uninterrupted in-fiction interaction. During the first two steps, rolling more than one success increases the player's dice pool size for the respective next step. A failure at any step stops the current seduction attempt, while a botch also precludes any further such attempts.
We observe that most of the "social feats" (especially Seduction) seem to be designed with the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration in mind. While the resisted roll mechanic makes flipping these roles (or even having two PCs as an agent and as a patient) trivial, the rules do not address how to execute these procedures without stripping the patient player of their agency. Curiously, Mark Rein-Hagen's foremost prohibition to GMs, "Don't take away the characters' free will" (p. 230 in 1E), has been absent from every edition of the game since his split with White Wolf.
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (in following: SIFRP) is the second official pen-and-paper adaptation of George R.R. Martin's unfinished low fantasy epic, following A Game of Thrones (2005) by the defunct Guardians of Order. Designed by Robert J. Schwalb for Green Ronin Publishing, the game was originally released in 2009, then revised and updated with the A Game of Thrones Edition in 2012, capitalizing on the success of the televised adaptation of the novels, Game of Thrones (2011-2019).
A note on the translation: Unlike with most games in this survey, the only version of the SIFRP rulebook available to the author at the time of writing was the 2013 German translation of A Game of Thrones Edition by Mantikore Publishing, which will be referenced henceforth. This also accounts for any term inconsistencies between the original English-language rules and the text below.
Free resources: Quick-Start.
The core mechanic of SIFRP (referred as an "ability test", pp. 9-24) uses pools of d6s to resolve player actions. The simplified procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM and the player negotiate which primary ("ability", ranging from 1 to 7) and secondary stat ("specialization", ranging from 0 to 7) applies to the attempted action.
- The GM sets the "difficulty" of the test, ranging from 3 (Easy) to 21 (Heroic).
- The player rolls a number of d6s equal to their character's relevant ability score, plus any "bonus dice" granted by their secondary stat and circumstantial factors.
- If any bonus dice have been rolled, the player now discards the lowest results from the roll until only a number of dice equal to the PC's relevant ability score remains.
- The player sums up the remaining results and adds or subtracts any further numeric "modifiers" granted by their character's traits and circumstantial factors.
- If the final result from step 6 equals or exceeds the difficulty from step 3, the PC achieves their objective (Yes); otherwise, their action fails (No). The gradient of success is based on how much the test result exceeds the difficulty, ranging from 1 (if result exceeds difficulty by 0-4) to 4 (15+) and representing a finer gradation of Yes-And outcomes. This "degree of success" has many mechanical effects in various game subsystems.
- The GM describes the outcome of the character's action.
In addition to the basic ability test, the game features three specialized variations. An "extended test" requires the player to succeed at several basic tests in a row, with each attempt taking some span of in-fiction time, before their character can reach their declared objective. A "competition test" is used when two characters compete to reach the same objective: in this case, they roll with the same stats against the same difficulty, and the character with the higher degree of success wins. Finally, the "conflict test" is used for any action that can be considered an "attack" and differs from the basic test mainly in that the difficulty in step 3 is derived from the "defender's" stats, instead of being set by the GM.
Given its source material's heavy emphasis on political intrigue and conspiracy, it isn't surprising that SIFRP provides the most elaborate ludic procedure for resolving social interactions out of all titles in this survey. Social conflict (referred as "intrigue") is simulated in much the same manner and detail as physical battle: an intrigue mechanically consists of one or more "exchanges" (equivalent to "rounds" in turn-based combat, although their in-fiction duration is highly variable, whereas combat rounds typically represent in-fiction time spans of a fixed length), during which each active participant, PC or NPC, gets a single turn in which they can perform a limited number of actions (again, equivalent to turn-based combat).
In physical combat, as simulated by SIFRP, an attacker makes conflict tests with their Fighting and Marksmanship abilities against the target's "combat defense" score in order to deal "damage" and to reduce their "health" (hit points); in an intrigue, the agent makes conflict tests with their Persuasion and Deception abilities against the patient's "Intrigue Defense" in order to "influence" the patient and to reduce their "Composure". The Intrigue Defense is the sum of the patient's Awareness, Cunning, and Status ability scores, whereas their starting Composure equals their Will ability score times 3 and is reset to the maximum at the start of every intrigue.
The main primary stats (abilities) used by the social agent in an intrigue are "Persuasion" and "Deception", with the latter used mainly when deceit as their current objective or when the agent employs a technique normally used with Persuasion as a bluff rather than in earnest. Both abilities have a number of subordinate secondary stats (specializations): "Bargain", "Charm", "Convince", "Incite", "Intimidate", "Seduce", and "Taunt" under Persuasion and "Act" and "Bluff" under Deception.
The ten-step intrigue procedure is described on pp. 148-161 (which is reduced to just five steps in the free Quick-Start guide, pp. 17-21):
- Type. The GM adjudicates the scope of the intrigue:
- "Simple intrigues" play out between the agent and the patient in a single turn, with the agent's ability test result determining the short-term outcome. This procedure is roughly equivalent to simple Charisma checks in D&D.
- "Regular intrigues" play out between two or more participants over multiple exchanges until all but one side either "yield" (see below) or are "defeated" by having their Composure reduced to 0. The winner(s) then achieve their declared objective (see step 3).
- "Complex intrigues" play out between multiple participants pursuing far-reaching objectives and consist of multiple regular intrigues, with "victory points" scored by winning them and lost by being defeated. The first side to reach the victory point threshold set by the GM (ranging from 3 to 6 or more) achieves its objective, while the others fail.
- Scene. The GM describes the location where the intrigue takes place (which can grant situational bonuses to individual participants' Intrigue Defense) and who is participating in it. Additional participants may join the intrigue later on, but doing so effectively resets it, negating any progress made by everyone until then.
- Objective. The player of each character participating in the intrigue (the GM for NPCs) declares the immediate objective their character pursues in it. This step is notably absent from the equivalent combat procedure, since the attacker's objective is always, implicitly, to achieve physical dominance over the defender, and the actual outcome for the loser is decided by the winner after their victory. Intrigue objectives can be changed at the start of every exchange, but doing so restores some of the patient's Composure. Typical objectives outlined by the rules include:
- Friendship: The agent wants to establish or to improve a beneficial relationship with the patient.
- Service: The agent wants the patient to carry out a specific task for them.
- Information: The agent wants to learn a specific piece of information the patient is privy to.
- Deception: The agent wants the patient to believe a specific lie or fabrication. Choosing this objective requires the agent to use their Deception ability against the patient (others rely on Persuasion).
- Disposition. Each participant's player quantifies their current attitude towards every other participant by assigning to it a "Disposition Rating" (DR) – ranging from 1 ("affectionate"), through 4 ("indifferent"), to 7 ("malicious"), – according to a number of factors, such as personal attractiveness (erotic capital), reputation, past interactions, history, and currently declared objectives.
Beyond setting the basic expectations for the tone of role-played conversations, DR two ludic effects: whenever the agent influences the patient, the actual amount of Composure they lose is reduced by their current DR towards the agent, potentially to 0 (this is equivalent to the "damage reduction" by armor in combat); additionally, lower DRs give bonuses to Persuasion and penalties to Deception tests, and vice versa.
After the first exchange between two characters, their respective players may shift their DRs towards each other up or down by 1 step at the start of each subsequent exchange between them. However, if one of them has successfully influenced the other, the patient's DR towards the agent may not worsen at the start of their next exchange (but it may improve).
- Initiative. Each participant makes a Status ability test, and the one with the highest result takes the first turn in each subsequent exchange, then the next highest, and so on. Like in combat, the player may also "delay" taking their turn until after a lower-initiative participant has taken theirs.
- Technique. On their turn, the agent player selects how they attempt to influence the patient, with the chosen "technique" determining which of the agent's stats governs the extent to which they can influence the patient with a successful ability test, as well as which specialization applies if they make a Persuasion or a corresponding Deception test. The seven available techniques are roughly equivalent to the choice of weapons in combat and correspond to the seven Persuasion specializations:
- Bargain: The agent tries to negotiate a profitable exchange of goods or services with the patient.
- Charm: The agent tries to improve the patient's DR towards them by 1 step.
- Convince: The agent tries to gain the patient's support with rational arguments.
- Incite: The agent tries to temporarily worsen the patient's DR towards someone else.
- Intimidate: The agent tries to force the patient to retreat or else to set their DR towards the agent to 3, ensuring their full compliance as long the two of them remain in proximity.
- Seduce: The agent tries to temporarily improve the patient's DR towards them, potentially initiating an intimate liaison.
- Taunt: The agent tries to goad the patient into performing a specific action, at the cost of worsening the patient's DR towards them.
- Role-playing. On the agent's turn, their and the patient players role-play the actual dialogue between their characters, with the GM rewarding convincing performances with bonuses and penalizing obvious blunders (but not poor role-playing if the players are obviously uncomfortable with performing in-character).
- Actions and Tests. On their turn, the agent player may perform a single "action", equivalent to various actions in turn-based combat, making the corresponding ability test for them. The available actions are:
- Influence: The agent tries to influence the patient and to reduce their Composure. This is equivalent to the basic "attack" action in combat, with a successful conflict test against the patient's Intrigue Defense potentially reducing the latter's Composure (it will be discussed in detail below).
- Assist: The player makes a basic Persuasion test that, if successful, gives a bonus to the next conflict test made by an ally of their choice.
- Consider: The player skips their action to gain 2 bonus dice for their action on their next turn.
- Fast talk: The agent tries to confound the patient with a stream of nonsense, with a successful conflict test temporarily reducing the patient's Intrigue Defense.
- Manipulate: The agent tries to goad the patient into using a technique of the agent's choosing on the patient's next turn.
- Mollify: The player makes a basic Persuasion test that, if successful, restores some lost Composure to an ally of their choice.
- Quit: The player may have their character abandon the ongoing intrigue, as long as they have a venue for escape. Doing so, however, often comes with strings attached, at the GM's discretion.
- Read target: Once per intrigue, the player may make an Awareness conflict test against an opponent's Deception to gain insight into their DR and technique. If successful, they gain a bonus die for all conflict tests against that opponent until the end of the intrigue.
- Shield of Reputation: Once per intrigue, the player may make a Status, which, if successful, improves the patient's DR towards the PC by 1 step.
- Switch to Combat: The player abandons the ongoing intrigue by escalating it to physical combat. There is no "Switch to Intrigue" action in the combat rules, precluding a de-escalation of conflict.
- Withdraw: The player makes a basic Will test to temporarily improve their Intrigue Defense.
- Yield is a special action that can be attempted in addition to the above. See below for the specifics.
- Repeat. Unless one party has emerged as the clear winner, the regular/complex intrigue continues into the next exchange, with the procedure returning to step 2 (i.e. potentially changing the scene).
- Outcome. Once one of the parties has achieved a clear victory, the intrigue is adjourned and the specific outcome is adjudicated and narrated by the GM.
Whenever an agent employs the "Influence" action in step 8, they make a conflict test with Perception or Deception and a specialization determined by the technique they chose in step 6 against the patient's Intrigue Defense score. If successful, they deal an number of "influence points" (our term) equal to the degree of their success times the technique-dependent ability score (Awareness, Cunning, Persuasion, or Will). These influence points are then reduced by the patient's DR towards the agent (but not below 0), and the remainder is deduced from the patient's Composure.
The patient player may choose to reduce the influence points inflicted upon them even further by taking points of "Frustration". Each Frustration point reduces the Composure loss by an amount equal to the patient's Will ability score, but also cumulatively removes one dice from all subsequent Persuasion and Deception checks. Frustration points are reset to 0 at the end of the intrigue, regardless of its outcome. This mechanic is equivalent to Injuries and Wounds in the combat rules (pp. 177-178), although the latter are much more lasting and require lengthy recovery.
If the patient's Composure is reduced to 0 or their Frustration points exceed their Will ability score, they are "defeated" (i.e. removed from the current intrigue), and the last party standing is subsequently declared winner and achieves their declared objective. On their turn and only once per intrigue, a losing participant may also attempt to "yield" to the opposition by offering them a compromise outcome, which the opposition may accept or come up with a counter-offer. If either of the offers is accepted, the yielding participant immediately leaves the intrigue; otherwise it proceeds as normal. The same option is also available under the combat rules (p. 176).
We observe that the wording of the procedure heavily implies that player characters work together against GM-controlled NPCs, alternating between agent and patient roles with each exchange (except in simple intrigues, which appear to be reserved for the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration). The same rules, however, are also perfectly applicable to the "PC agent, PC patient" configuration, with players intriguing against each other, just as they would engage each other in an (in-fiction) battle. Player agency is effectively preserved by treating persuasive interactions as a form of highly formalized turn-based combat, while simultaneously offering players mechanical options to abort an intrigue by quitting, escalating it to actual combat, or by yielding to negotiate a compromise.
Monte Cook Games' 2013 debut release Numenera is included in this survey primarily as a counterpoint to the intrigue rules of SIFRP and to demonstrate that the elaborateness of persuasion mechanics in a role-playing game correlates strongly with how important social interaction is to its respective core fantasy. Whereas SIFRP , with its emphasis on courtly intrigue and conspiracy, dedicates an entire chapter to persuasion mechanics, Numenera focuses primarily on mystery, exploration, and the awe of discovery, so the entirety of its social interaction rules fits in a single paragraph.
Said paragraph is found on p. 104 of the core rulebook, in the subsection "Interacting With Creatures" of the section "Action: Do Something Else" under the combat rules. The game features three primary stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence) and social interactions use its core mechanic in combination with the Intelligence stat. The specifics of said core mechanic are not relevant to this survey (given Cook's previous work on 5E, it is unsurprisingly similar to, yet distinct from that of D&D). More important is the fact that by not attaching any ludic procedures beyond the core mechanic to in-fiction social interactions, Numenera contains an example of the smallest possible social gameplay system. The only way to make it even more lightweight would be to leave social interactions entirely up to role-play and player fiat, which would effectively bypass the ludic layer entirely (as is the case, for instance, in Fiasco).
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is the first of Fantasy Flight Games' core installments of the third iteration of Star Wars Roleplaying Game, following West End Games' (1987–1999) and Wizards of the Coast's (2000–2010) tenures with the venerable Star War IP. Fantasy Flight's later installments, Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and Star Wars: Force and Destiny, use the same game system as Edge of the Empire, so the latter's core rulebook (published in 2013) will be examined here as exemplary of the game line as a whole.
The core mechanic in Edge of the Empire (referred as a "skill check", pp. 9-24) uses pools of custom dice to resolve player actions. For the purposes of this survey, these dice come in three sizes (d6, d8, and d12) and two variations: positive (whose faces contain varying combinations of Success and Advantage symbols) and negative (containing Failure and Threat symbols). Each die has a special name in the system, which we will omit in favor of functional descriptors. The simplified procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM and the player negotiate which secondary stat ("skill", ranging from 0 to 5) applies to the attempted action, which also determines the applicable primary stat ("characteristic", ranging from 1 to 6), since each skill is associated with a specific characteristic.
- The player creates a pool of as many positive d8s as their character has points in the higher of the two scores chosen in step 2, then replaces ("upgrades") as many of the positive d8s with positive d12s as they have points in the lower
- The GM adjudicates the difficulty of the action and adds a corresponding number of negative d8s to the pool, from 0 (trivial task) to 5 (formidable task).
- The GM and the player negotiate any situational factors affecting the outcome of the action, then add to the pool a positive or a negative d6 for each significant advantage or disadvantage, respectively.
- The player rolls the assembled dice pool and tallies up each symbol independently.
- The gradient of success is based on the intersection of the Success-Failure and Advantage-Threat axes: if the player rolled more Successes than Failures, the skill check succeeds (Yes), otherwise, it fails (No). However, if there are more Advantages than Threats, Yes becomes a Yes-And, while No turns into a No-But; conversely, if Threats outnumber Advantages, Yes turns into a Yes-But and No, into a No-And.
- The GM and the player narrate the outcome of the character's action, with the former spending net Threats (if any) to introduce in-fiction complications, and the latter expending net Advantages (if any) on beneficial side-effects of their action.
When a player character's action is opposed by another PC or an NPC, an "opposed check" (p. 24) is made instead: at step 4, instead of the GM setting an arbitrary difficulty, the opposing character's player determines the skill (and the corresponding characteristic) they use to resist the action and use the same procedure as in step 3 to add negative d8s and d12s to the dice pool. The action then resolved as normal.
Social Skill Interactions
The particulars of using persuasion mechanics are described in the "Social Skill Interactions" side bar on p. 113, which details how to make "influence checks" with the core mechanic. An influence check is a skill check made by the agent and opposed by the patient's skill (unless the patient is not a single individual but a group, in which case the GM sets the difficulty instead). The agent's objective and approach determine both their and the patient's skills that contribute to the dice pool. The system also factors in any existing agent-patient relationship by adding positive or negative d6s to the pool if said relationship is characterized by trust or mistrust, respectively.
- Charm (and the corresponding characteristic Presence): The agent attempts to persuade the patient by being nice to them; the patient opposes with their Cool (Presence).
- Coercion (Willpower): The agent attempts to scare the patient into submission; the patient opposes with Discipline (Willpower).
- Deception (Cunning): The agent lies to the patient in order to gain their cooperation; the patient opposes with Discipline (Willpower).
- Leadership (Presence): The agent invokes authority (real or perceived) to command the patient; the patient opposes with Discipline (Willpower).
- Negotiation (Presence): The agent attempts to make a profitable exchange of goods or services with the patient; the patient opposes with Negotiation (Presence) if they make a counter-offer or Cool (Presence) if they don't.
We observe once more that persuasion mechanics in SW are primarily designed for the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration, with no additional guidance offered for "NPC agent, PC patient" and "PC agent, PC patient". Likewise, influencing larger groups, while referenced in the side bar and in the Leadership skill description (p. 111), is mostly left up to the player's role-playing performance and the GM fiat.
Fate (also capitalized as FATE) is a generic RPG system originally designed by Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue (based on Steffan O'Sullivan's 1995 non-commercial release Fudge) and released for free in 2003 by their imprint Evil Hat Productions. When Grey Ghost Press acquired the Fudge copyright from O'Sullivan and published a version of the game under the Open Gaming License in 2005, this enabled Hicks and Donoghue to publish the third edition of Fate (as the pulp action game Spirit of the Century) under the same license in 2006. Fate Core, finally, is the fourth and current edition of the game, published by Evil Hat under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution and the Open Gaming Licenses in 2013, which will be referenced henceforth.
Free resources: Complete Rulebook.
Like Fudge, Fate Core uses four specialized dice (denoted as "4dF") for its core mechanic, which, for the purposes of this survey, produce the same bell curve distribution as 4d3–8, ranging from –4 to +4. The simplified procedure (referred simply as an "action", pp. 8-11, 130-143) is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The player and the GM negotiate which primary stat ("skill", ranging from 0 to 4) applies to this action.
- The GM chooses the "difficulty" of the action, typically ranging from 0 ("Mediocre") to 8 ("Legendary").
- The player rolls 4dF and adds their character's relevant skill score to the result.
- The gradient of success is based on the extent to which the player's roll result exceeds the difficulty set by the GM (p. 132): if the result is lower than the difficulty, the action fails (No or No-And, at the GM's discretion); otherwise, the difference between the two is converted into "shifts". Zero shifts means the character achieves their objective, but only barely or at a cost (Yes-But); with 1 or 2 shifts, they simply succeed (Yes); and with 3 or more shifts, they "succeed with style" (Yes-And).
- The GM describes the outcome of the action.
When two characters act in direct opposition to each other, step 3 is skipped, and they both roll dice, adding the skill scores they used to their respective results. The character with the higher total wins the contest, and the difference between their roll and their opponent's is converted into their shifts.
As a generic system, Fate Core doesn't have a fixed list of character skills, but it does come with a "Default Skill List" (pp. 96-127), while encouraging players to tweak it to better fit their campaign's setting and genre. Of these default skills, following are most relevant to social and persuasive interactions:
- Deceive: The agent attempts to make the patient believe a specific lie, to gain their cooperation by feeding them false information, or to trick them into believing the agent is someone else (disguise).
- Provoke: The agent attempts to manipulate the patient's emotions, such as taunting them into doing something they don't want to or intimidating them into submission. Provoke is also the only skill on the default list that can be used to deal "mental attacks" in conflicts (see below).
- Rapport: The agent attempts to charm or to inspire the patient to do something for them, or to establish a beneficial relationship with them.
- Contacts represents both the agent's skill at making useful connections and finding the right people, and the size of their personal social network. As such, it can be used for a wide variety of social purposes.
- Empathy is used to oppose Deceive actions, as well as for reconnoitering actions to gain insight into the patient's emotional state and ulterior motives. It also determines the turn order in "mental conflicts" and is used to help others recover from mental "consequences" afterwards.
- Will is used in social interactions mainly to oppose Provoke actions. It also determines how much "mental stress" the character can take in conflicts.
While the game is primarily concerned with the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration, in the "Social Skills and Other Characters" side bar on p. 105, it also addresses the issue of PC patients. Whenever a PC's emotional state or current beliefs are successfully influenced by another character, it must create a ludic advantage (an "aspect") the agent can exploit later on, but the specific in-fiction nature of said advantage must be agreed upon by both players involved. This goes one step beyond merely reasserting the patient player's agency over their own character and also explicitly gives them a say in how they are shaped by external influence.
Conflicts in Fate Core (pp. 154-173) are a type of formalized ludic interactions that occur when two or more characters actively try to harm each other in pursuit of their previously established objectives. While the game does differentiate between physical and mental (social) conflicts, they play out by almost identical rules. Like in SIFRP, both combat and social confrontations play out in turns ("exchanges"), with the initiative ("turn order") determined by comparing the participants' stats (i.e. it is deterministic): in mental conflicts specifically, the skills determining the initiative are, in order, Empathy, Rapport, and Will.
On their turn in a mental conflict, the agent can take a mental "attack" action against the patient, typically with the Provoke skill against by their Will skill, with the intent of "taking them out". With any successful attack action, the number of shifts it produces is how much "damage" (physical or emotional) it deals. When the patient takes "damage", their player decides must take that much "stress", or else be taken out. Stress, subdivided into physical (based on the Physique skill) and mental (based on Will), is a form of hit points that regenerate almost immediately after a conflict ends. The patient player may reduce the damage they take as stress by also taking a lasting "consequence", which takes much longer to recover from and functions as an "aspect" their opponents can use against them later.
If the patient cannot take any more damage as stress when it is inflicted upon them, they are "taken out". A character who has been taken out in a conflict is at the mercy of the winner(s), who may do anything to them (within the scope of the established conflict, of course). Alternatively, the patient may interrupt any action targeting them – but before the dice are rolled – to "concede the conflict", either letting their opponent(s) reach their objective or simply removing oneself as an obstacle in their path. Yielding this way has a ludic benefit of rewarding the patient player with "fate points" (whose function falls outside the scope of this survey) and a narrative one of allowing them to negotiate the fate of their character with the winner of the conflict (as opposed to having to accept their decisions when they are taken out). A conflict typically ends when all opponents have conceded or been taken out.
Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu is one of the oldest titles on this list, originally designed by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium in 1981. Set in the cosmic horror universe of H.P. Lovecraft's writings, the game runs on the Basic Role-Playing (in following: BRP) game system, which was originally designed by Steve Perrin for RuneQuest (1978) and reworked into a standalone generic system by Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis first published in 1980. It has been used in most RPGs published by Chaosium since, including Stormbringer, Elfquest, and Call of Cthulhu, the most recent edition of which (7E) was released in 2014.
Note on translation: Unlike most games in this survey, the only version of Cthulhu 7E available to the author at the time of writing was the 2015 German translation by Pegasus Spiele, which will be referenced henceforth. This also accounts for any term inconsistencies between the original English-language rules and the text below.
The core mechanic of 7E (referred as a "skill roll", pp. 79-87) uses a roll-under mechanic with percentile dice (d100) to resolve character actions. The simplified procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and describes how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM adjudicates which primary ("characteristic") or secondary stat ("skill") applies to their attempt; both stat types effectively range from 1 to 99.
- The GM adjudicates whether the attempted action is "normal", "hard", or "extreme".
- The player rolls 1d100 and evaluates it: if it is equal to 100, the overall result is a "fumble"; if it is higher than the character's selected skill score, it is a "fail"; if it lower or equal, they have a "regular success"; if it's lower than one half of the skill score, it's a "hard success"; if it's lower than one fifth, it's an "extreme success"; and if it is exactly 1, it is a "critical success".
- The gradient of success is based on comparing the roll result to the difficulty from step 3: if the former equals or exceeds the latter, the character reaches their objective (Yes); otherwise, they fail (No). Furthermore, a critical success brings about unexpected benefits for the character (Yes-And), while a fumble results in additional complications (No-And).
- If their action failed, the player has the option to "force" it, going back to step 4 of the procedure (in-fiction, it is depicted as a follow-up action) and trying again. However, if they fail once more, the GM is entitled to impose additional complications on their character (No-And) even if the result isn't a fumble.
- The GM describes the outcome of the character's action.
One primary and four secondary stats are of particular relevance to social interactions in 7E (p. 53): the "Appearance" characteristic reflects the character's physical attractiveness (erotic capital), while "Charm", "Fast Talk", "Intimidate", and "Persuade" skills represent their proficiency in corresponding types of social influence:
- Charm (ranging from 15 to 99, pp. 52-53): The agent attempts to influence the patient by being nice to them.
- Fast Talk (5-99, pp. 71-72): The agent attempts to confound the patient with a stream of nonsense or to talk them into believing a lie.
- Intimidate (15-99, pp. 54-55): The agent attempts to scare the patient into submission.
- Persuade (10-99, p. 72): The agent attempts to gain the patient's support with rational arguments.
- Disguise (5-99, p. 73): The agent attempts to trick the patient into believing the agent is someone else. This skill isn't explicitly listed along with the other four, but nevertheless follows the same general procedure.
While interpersonal skill rolls are resolved just like any another using the core mechanic, some additional rules are employed for determining their difficulty (p. 87), which is based on the patient's stats. Specifically, the patient uses the same skill as the agent or "Psychology" (ranging from 10 to 99, p. 67), whichever score is higher, to defend against the agent's influence: if the patient's defensive skill is 50 or higher, the difficulty of the agent's roll is set to "hard"; if it's 90 or higher, the difficulty is "extreme". The difficulty is raised further if the patient's own objectives strongly contradict the agent's, while in case of NPC patients, the GM may lower the difficulty to reward particularly persuasive performance by the player. The Psychology skill can also be used proactively as a reconnoitering action in social exchanges, and is thus roughly equivalent to D&D's Insight.
While Call of Cthulhu is primarily geared towards the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration, it does offer a mechanical framework for PC patients (regardless whether the agent is an NPC or another PC) on p. 53. On a successful influence roll against the PC, their player retains full control over their actions, however, if they do refuse to comply, the agent player may impose a "penalty die" (p. 86) on one of their subsequent rolls, which functions similarly to a disadvantage in D&D 5E. Each player (including the GM) may hold at most one such penalty die against another at any given time, and if not used within reasonable time, it may expire at the GM's discretion.
Curiously, the most salient features of the Call of Cthulhu game system, the "Sanity" stat and the "SAN rolls" based on it, neither mechanically factor into, nor are directly affected by social interactions. It would appear that confronting cosmic horrors makes investigators in Cthulhu impervious to any detrimental effects that emotional and social manipulation can have on regular people's mental health.
Finally, several interpersonal skills found in the generic BRP system are not present in Cthulhu 7E due to the specific flavor of its setting, but are nonetheless relevant to this study:
- Bargain (5-99): The agent attempts to make a profitable exchange of goods or services with the patient.
- Command (5-99): The agent attempts to lead a collective action, leveraging some form of authority.
- Etiquette (5-99): The agent attempts to integrate themselves into a group or a social situation. This skill is equivalent to GUMSHOE's various parlances, rolled into a single score for convenience.
- Status (15-99) represents the agent's social standing and, thus, their ability to manipulate their social environment. An agent can have several Status "skill" scores, each tied to a particular social grouping whose attitude towards the agent it represents.
Dragon Age (in following: DA) is a pen-and-paper adaptation of BioWare's eponymous dark fantasy role-playing video game series, designed by Green Ronin Publishing's founder Chris Pramas. Originally released in three sets between 2009 and 2010, Green Ronin has re-released the game as a complete core rulebook in 2015, which will be referenced henceforth.
The core mechanic of DA (referred as an "ability test", p. 46) is similar to that of D&D (unsurprising, given Pramas' work for Wizards of the Coast before Green Ronin), but instead of using a single d20, the player rolls 3d6, one of which (the "Dragon Die", p. 47) is colored differently from the other two. The procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
- The GM assesses the "difficulty" of the attempted action as a number typically ranging from 7 to 21 (p. 48).
- The GM tells the player which primary ("ability", ranging from –2 to +4, p. 11) and secondary ("focus", whose value is effectively +2 if the character has it unlocked, and 0 otherwise) stats apply to the attempted action.
- The player rolls 3d6, sums up the results, adds their character's applicable ability and focus scores, and announces the end result, as well as the value rolled on the Dragon Die, to the GM.
- If the end result is equal or greater than the difficulty, the character achieves their objective (Yes), otherwise, they fail (No). If successful, the gradient of success is based on the Dragon Die result: the larger its value, the more impressive the PC's success (so a 1 can result in a Yes-But and a 6, in a Yes-And, at the GM's discretion).
- The GM and the player collaborate in narrating the outcome of the PC's action.
Two variations of the basic ability test are described on p. 213. An "opposed test" is used when the PC's action is in direct competition with another character's (PC or NPC): in this case, the competing character's player also performs steps 1 through 4, and the character whose player has the higher overall result wins the competition (their Dragon Die results serve as tie-breakers). An "advanced test" is used when a character's objective cannot be achieved with a single action, but requires multiple successes, usually within a limited span of in-fiction time (i.e. a limited number of rolls). In this case, the GM sets not just the difficulty, but also a "success threshold", and the player makes multiple ability checks, summing up the Dragon Die results from successful ones: the advanced test succeeds if this sum reaches the success threshold before the character runs out of time or some in-fiction factor cuts their efforts short.
The most important primary stat (ability) to a social agent is "Communication", and almost all relevant secondary stats (focuses) are also tied to it, including "Bargaining", "Deception", "Leadership", "Persuasion", and "Seduction". A notable exception is the "Intimidation" focus, which is instead tied to "Strength". In opposed tests, depending on the type of interaction, the patient may resist influence with "Communication", as well, or with "Perception" ("Empathy") or "Willpower" ("Courage", "Morale", or "Self-Discipline").
In Dragon Age, like in D&D, the player characters' adventure consists of a series of "encounters" – situations where they have a specific objective and one or more obstacles in the way of achieving it (pp. 219-225). Unlike D&D, DA explicitly categorizes encounters into "combat" (where overcoming obstacles requires physical violence), "exploration" (environmental obstacles), and "role-playing" (social obstacles), and it is in the latter that persuasion mechanics come into play. While the book does not provide an additional procedure specific to role-playing encounters, it does outline multiple considerations that go into their design on pp. 223-225.
First, it outlines two typical objectives ("goals") of a role-playing encounter: obtaining information from an NPC and convincing them to take a specific action (it is obvious at this point that this system is primarily designed for the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration). Obtaining information is further subcategorized into "briefings", where the NPC willingly gives up all relevant data (of no interest to this survey), and "interviews", where the PC agents must first convince the NPC patient to share their secrets. Gaining the NPC's compliance occurs in "persuasion" encounters.
The "obstacles" in role-playing encounters are further categorized by whether they stem from the NPCs' "stance", objectives, or character traits:
- A stance is the NPC patient's attitude towards the PC agent and can be antagonistic, disinterested, or friendly. It is also specific to the agent's current objective, so NPCs can also exhibit "mixed stances", freely assisting the agent in one matter while actively interfering with them in another.
- Objectives are specific goals the NPCs have in a given interaction, which can align with, run contrary to, or go in a completely different direction than the PCs' (a mixture of these is also an option). The book suggests that figuring out the patient's true objectives can be an important sub-challenge of a role-playing encounter.
- Character traits are characteristics of an NPC patient that hinder the PC agent in influencing them, ranging from transient states (e.g. drunkenness), through characterization (e.g. extreme belligerence), to disability (e.g. deafness).
As mentioned, unlike most titles in this survey, DA does not offer an explicit procedure tying the core mechanic to overcoming social obstacles and achieving social goals. Multiple procedure ideas, however, are suggested in the section "Roleplaying & The Rules" on p. 214, ranging from resolving role-playing encounters based entirely on the players' performance and the GM's judgment calls or, conversely, reducing it to an opposed ability test between the PC and the NPC; through a mixed approach, where role-play precedes and provides bonuses or penalties to the decisive opposed test; to an advanced test, where players make several rolls whose difficulty is affected by their role-played performance, in an attempt to reach a certain success threshold before the NPC patient stops listening.
In the "Roleplaying & Roll-playing" side bar on p. 225, the book also identifies and discusses the core issue with implementing persuasion mechanics in pen-and-paper RPGs. Because role-playing is a social interaction mediated by game rules (Montola), letting players talk "in-character" allows them to effectively bypass said rules and to insert their own oratory skills directly into their characters' in-fiction social interactions. (The same is generally impractical for physical interactions but does occur in regards to mental challenges whenever a character's problem-solving skills are significantly better or worse than their player's.) While acknowledging this inconsistency, the rules recommend that GMs simply accept that the character and their respective players' persuasive skills are roughly equal by default and only call for ability checks when the gap between the quality of a player's performance and their character's numeric stats begins to stretch the group's suspension of disbelief.
Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is a fiction-first RPG designed by John Harper and published Evil Hat Productions in 2017. Influenced, among other games, by AW, it casts the players as a crew of petty criminals trying to make it big in a haunted steampunk city of Duskwall. The underlying game system of Blades has been released for free to the public, with a number of games in other settings and genres published since under the "Forged in the Dark" label.
Free resources: System Reference Document.
The core mechanic in Blades (referred as an "action roll", p. 7) uses dice pools with fixed success thresholds and only the highest dice counting towards action resolution. The essential procedure is as follows:
- The player declares their character's objective and describes how their character tries to accomplish it.
- The player chooses the primary stat ("action rating", ranging from 0 to 4) that best matches what their character does in-fiction.
- The GM adjudicates the "position" ("controlled", "risky", or "desperate") and "effect" level ("limited", "standard", or "great") of the attempted action.
- The player builds a pool of as many d6s as their character has points ("dots") in the chosen primary stat plus up to 2 bonus dice (the specifics of which fall outside the scope of this survey).
- The player rolls the dice and keeps only the highest result (if their pool is empty, they roll 2d6 and take the lowest result instead), which determines the gradient of success:
- If the result is 1, 2 or 3 (a "miss", a.k.a. No-And), the PC fails to reach their objective and suffers negative "consequences", whose severity depends on the position established in step 3;
- If it's 4 or 5 (a "weak hit" or Yes-But), they reach their objective, within the effect level established in step 3 (representing an additional "sub-gradient" of success), but still suffer consequences;
- If it's a 6 (a "strong hit" or Yes), they succeed with no strings attached;
- Finally, if the player has rolled two or more 6s (a "crit" or Yes-And), the PC succeeds and their effect level counts as 1 higher.
- The GM and the player collaborate in describing the outcome of the PC's action.
For actions that involve no risk of dramatic failure, a "fortune roll" (pp. 34-35) may be rolled instead, wherein step 3 (setting position and effect) is skipped entirely, and the gradient of success in step 5 is modified as follows: 1-3 = no effect (No), 4/5 = mixed success (Yes-But), 6 = full success (Yes), and crit = exceptional success (Yes-And), with no chance of additional negative consequences. Fortune rolls are particularly common for the purpose of "gathering information" (pp. 36-37), wherein the player asks a question about the game world or the NPCs, and the GM replies in more or less detail, depending on the result of their subsequent fortune roll.
For any objective that requires more than one action to reach, the GM may start a "progress clock" (p. 15) – a circle divided into 4, 6, or 8 segments, which are filled in ("ticked") whenever a relevant action roll succeeds, with its effect level determining how much progress is made (limited = 1 tick, standard = 2 ticks, great = 3 ticks); once a progress clock is filled, the PC reaches their objective. Similarly, "danger clocks" (p. 16) represent delayed threats and are ticked as consequences of misses and weak hits, depending on position (controlled = 1 tick, standard = 2 ticks, desperate = 3 ticks); once a danger clock is filled, the corresponding threat catches up with the PCs.
There are twelve primary stats ("action ratings") in Blades, with three of them in particular geared towards in-fiction persuasive interactions. All three are grouped under the secondary stat ("attribute") "Resolve" and are mechanically identical, albeit framed very differently in-fiction. Interestingly, while the specific action ratings tend to vary a lot between different "Forged in the Dark" games, these three tend to carry over across them virtually unchanged:
- Command (p. 171): The agent demands immediate compliance from the patient by leveraging authority (real or perceived) or direct threats. This roughly corresponds to Intimidation from D&D.
- Consort (p. 172): The agent spends time with the patient in a non-hostile environment, in order to establish a rapport, to improve an existing relationship, or to gain access to goods and services. This action rating is also commonly used in fortune rolls to "gather information" by canvassing popular gathering places.
- Sway (p. 179): The agent influences the patient to comply with their interests, using situational leverage like personal guile or charm, convincing arguments or lies, promises, offers, etc. Like the "Seduce or Manipulate" move in AW, this action essentially rolls D&D's Persuasion and Deception skills into one.
In all three cases, the GM can factor an existing agent-patient relationship into the action roll in step 3, by adjusting its effect level based on how trusting or suspicious the patient is of the agent (specifically, by conferring the "potency" factor to the agent or to the patient), and its position, on how friendly or hostile they are towards them.
Another action rating relevant in social situations is "Study" (p. 177), whose description explicitly suggests its use as a reconnoitering option "to detect lies or true feelings" of the PC's vis-à-vis, similar to D&D's Insight (Study is, in fact, part of the "Insight" attribute in Blades). Unlike the three actions above, an agent Studying a patient before trying to influence them would typically invoke a fortune roll to gather information about them, rather than an action roll. Furthermore, because all action ratings are deliberately flexible, same information may be obtained instead by engaging them in small talk – i.e. by Consorting – before making an appeal.
If the GM decides that the patient cannot be persuaded with a single action, they may use clocks, as described above. In an example cited on p. 16, the PC attempting to seduce (Sway) a noble has to fill out a corresponding progress clock before a danger clock representing the noble's suspicion (or boredom) is filled, with successful rolls ticking the former and consequences, the latter.
While these procedures have been clearly designed with a "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration in mind, descriptions of the Command and Sway actions suggest a potential "PC agent, PC patient" usage (with additional procedures described on p. 41): to preserve the patient player's agency, they must explicitly consent to resolving the interaction with an action roll by the agent player, and both must commit beforehand to how its results will be implemented in-fiction. For instance, the patient player may consent that their character will comply with the agent if the roll is a success, or declare that the agent's leverage is insufficient and that they can only disrupt them somehow, e.g. by dealing (non-physical) harm to the patient or by temporarily distracting them.
Because Blades puts a large emphasis on player and PC agency, NPCs don't have action ratings and rarely take initiative in interactions with them (including in social ones). Accordingly, "NPC agent, PC patient" is a rare configuration, but NPCs who are considered "masters" in their respective fields may inflict preemptive "consequences" upon PCs, as outlined on p. 167 (see also the example on p. 192). In this case, the PC have to "resist" this consequence before they can target that NPC with an action roll. While the specifics of the "resistance rolls" mechanic fall outside the scope of this survey, it lets players mitigate any consequence, regardless how it is inflicted upon their characters; specifically, consequences from being deceived or, conversely, exposed are resisted with the Insight attribute, and those from being pressured or terrified, with Resolve.
Monsterhearts is an indie RPG "about the messy lives of teenage monsters", designed by Avery Alder and published by Buried Without Ceremony in 2012. Monsterhearts 2 (in following: MH2) is an updated second edition of the game, published by Alder in 2017. Both versions are "Powered by the Apocalypse" – i.e. based on the Apocalypse World game system discussed previously, – but whereas AW (as well as Vampire, SIFRP, and DA) merely addressed sexuality and the use of erotic capital in social interactions, Monsterhearts is notable for being all about them.
Free resources: Reference sheets and core skins.
A key difference between MH2 and most other games in this survey is in its modeling of relationships between characters as a resource rather than as effectiveness. These terms, coined by The Forge community in the early 2000s, describe distinct ways to simulate a fictional character's capabilities in gameplay: "effectiveness" covers all qualities of a character that affect the chances and/or the extent of their attempted actions' success, while a "resource" is any abstract quantity that their player expends to power certain in-fiction actions or to mitigate in-fiction setbacks.
While some titles discussed above (GUMSHOE, Vampire, Numenera) don't factor existing agent-patient relationships into persuasion mechanics at all, others do so mostly in terms of effectiveness: in D&D, the valence of said relationship (positive or negative) shifts the outcome of the persuasion attempt up or down the gradient of success; in SW, it also modifies the likelihood of a successful persuasion; both SIFRP and AW grade relationships on a seven-point scale and make them asymmetric, but the Disposition Rating in the former is mainly a defensive effectiveness value, while Hx scores in the latter represent the patient's effectiveness in proactively interfering with the agent's influence.
MH2 instead models relationships as a resource known in the game as "Strings". Strings (p. 16) are an abstract representation of specific emotional and social leverage a PC (or an NPC, see p. 100) holds over another PC. By using the "Pulling Strings" basic move (p. 26), the agent player can expend one String they have on the patient to either offer them XP in exchange for their one-time compliance (similar to the "Seduce or Manipulate" move in AW, minus the element of chance), to give them a "Condition" (a persistent negative status effect that represents ill repute and makes the character more vulnerable, pp. 31-32), or to boost the effectiveness the agent's next move targeting the patient.
Other Basic Moves
While each playbook ("skin") has its own moves for gaining Strings on others, they are most commonly obtained via the "Turn Someone On" basic move (p. 18). When it is invoked, the agent attempts to convert their erotic capital (represented by their "Hot" stat) into social power over the patient: on a strong hit, they gain a String on them, and the patient player must choose from one of three predetermined reactions (including initiating an intimate liaison); on a weak hit, the patient player may choose between one of the reactions or giving the agent a String on them. As the designer notes, "this move is at the heart of how Monsterhearts understands sexuality, especially teen sexuality": neither the patient, nor their player can decide what turns them on (with the sole exception made for asexuality on p. 49), which other players can exploit to shift the power dynamic between their characters in their favor.
The opposite of Turning Someone On is the "Shut Someone Down" move (p. 20), wherein the agent attempts to take away some of the patient's power and confidence, usually in public. Their player then rolls with the their "Cold" stat, and on a strong hit, may choose either to erase one of the patient's Strings on the agent, to gain a String on the patient themselves (but only if the patient has no more Strings on them), or to give the patient a Condition; on a weak hit, they have the same options, but the patient gives them a Condition in return. The "Lash Out Physically" move (p. 22), wherein one character attempts to physically harm another, lets the target's player choose to gain a String on the attacker as one option on a weak hit (similar to how harming another PC raises their Hx towards the attacker in AW). Finally, the "Skirting Death" move (p. 30), which is invoked when a PC takes enough harm to die, lets them survive at the cost of losing all Strings they had on everyone else or else giving in completely to their innate monstrous nature ("Darkest Self").
We observe that because Strings can only be gained on the PCs (by PCs and NPCs), the system is uniquely geared towards "PC agent, PC patient" configuration, with the GM and their characters playing more of a second fiddle. It preserves player agency by giving Strings very specific gameplay effects that never impose on their free will, while explicitly justifying their lack of agency in who gains Strings on them with the unchecked nature of emerging teen sexuality.
Dogs in the Vineyard
Dogs in the Vineyard is an indie RPG designed by D. Vincent Baker before his work on Apocalypse World. Originally published in 2004, the second edition was released by lumpley games in 2005, which will be referenced henceforth. Although Baker has publicly disowned and pulled the game from sale in 2019 due to personal dissatisfaction with its Old West and Mormonism-inspired setting, he has authorized the commercial release of a setting-agnostic version of its game system (titled simply DOGS) in the same year.
The game is of particular interest to this survey thanks to the escalation aspect integral to its core mechanic. While other games, like AW and SIFRP, include ludic options for escalating an unsuccessful persuasive (social) interaction to a violent (physical) one, Dogs provides by far the most robust simulation of this process. The core mechanic of the game, described on pp. 53-83, is inspired by poker and geared primarily towards interpersonal conflict rather than environmental obstacles. The simplified procedure is as follows:
- Stakes. The GM and the players negotiate the specific stake(s) over which the conflict plays out.
- Stage. The GM describes the backdrop of the conflict, after which one player describes how their character provokes the conflict, determining its initial "arena" (mode of interaction), which can be "just talking" (social), "physical but not fighting" (physical), "fighting hand-to-hand" (melee), or "fighting with guns" (guns).
- Participants. The GM adjudicates which characters, player and non-player, participate in the conflict to claim its stakes.
- Dice. For each participant, their respective player takes a number of d6s equal to two of their character's primary stats (referred simply as "stats", each equaling 2 or higher) relevant in the initial arena (social = Acuity + Heart, physical = Body + Heart, melee = Body + Will, guns = Acuity + Will), as well as any dice representing their relationships with people, institutions, places, sins, or demons involved in this conflict (as participants or as stakes). Each player then rolls all their dice and places them on the table in front of them.
- Initiative. The subsequent interactions between participants occur in "Rounds", similarly to turn-based combat in other RPGs, with each character getting one "Go" per Round. The order of their Goes (equivalent to "initiative" in D&D) is determined by the sum of the two highest dice in front of them at the start of the Round, meaning that it typically changes from Round to Round.
- Rounds. On their own Go, the participant is the agent, and their player must choose to "Raise" or to "Give":
- To Raise, the player describes what their agent does that one or more of their opponents cannot ignore (explicitly naming the patients of their action) and puts forward any two of the dice in front of them. Each affected patient now has to "See", to "Escalate" (if they can't See), or to "Give" (if they can't or won't See or Escalate):
- To See, the patient player must put forward any number of dice whose total value is equal to or greater than the sum of the two the agent's has put forward. Depending on how many dice this takes, Seeing has different ludic and narrative effects:
- If the patient player Sees with one die, they Reverse the Blow: the patient turns the agent's action against them in-fiction, and the player gets to keep this die (without rerolling) for their next Raise or See. In every other context, any dice put forward are discarded at the end of the current Go.
- If the player Sees with two dice, they Block or Dodge, countering the agent's action.
- If the player Sees with three or more dice, they Take the Blow: the patient is hurt by the agent's action. The player sets aside a number of "Fallout" dice (see below) whose number is equal to how many were used to See and whose size is determined by the agent's current arena (social = d4s, physical = d6s, melee = d8s, guns = d10s).
- To Escalate, the patient player describes what the patient does to escalate the conflict to a more dangerous arena (not necessarily the next higher one), and rolls extra dice from the stats relevant to this new arena (but not if they've already rolled with these stats earlier in the same conflict), which they can then use to See the agent's Raise.
Note that escalation is unilateral, so every other participant remains in their previous arena until their player also deliberately chooses to Escalate (which anyone can do at any time, including before Raising on their own Go).
- To Give, the patient player describes how the patient backs out of the conflict, forfeiting their claim on the stakes. This lets them avoid Taking a Blow they cannot afford to take.
- To See, the patient player must put forward any number of dice whose total value is equal to or greater than the sum of the two the agent's has put forward. Depending on how many dice this takes, Seeing has different ludic and narrative effects:
- To Give, the agent player follows the same procedure as above. Unlike a patient player, the agent gets to "Cut Their Losses" – i.e. to keep the highest die currently in front of them as a bonus for any follow-up conflict that may result from the current one later in the game.
- To Raise, the player describes what their agent does that one or more of their opponents cannot ignore (explicitly naming the patients of their action) and puts forward any two of the dice in front of them. Each affected patient now has to "See", to "Escalate" (if they can't See), or to "Give" (if they can't or won't See or Escalate):
- Resolution. The Rounds and the Goes (i.e. steps 5 and 6) repeat until all but one participant have Given, who then gets to decide the fate of the stakes.
- Fallout. Finally, each participant's player rolls all Fallout dice they've accumulated from Taking the Blows (if any) and add together the two highest results. This number determines what negative consequence their character suffers as a result of participating in the conflict, ranging from a mild distraction in the next one, through lasting harm and injury, to immediate death. Additionally, any 1s rolled with the Fallout dice represent learning experiences for the character, allowing them to improve their stats and/or relationships.
We observe that out of all game systems examined so far, Dogs is the most egalitarian regarding the agent-patient role distribution among PCs and NPCs. While the subsequent SIFRP merely likened its persuasive interactions to a battle of attrition by making both gameplay procedures eerily similar, Dogs not only makes the latter a ramp-up of the former, but outright equates them by using language like "attack" and "blow" for both. Both games frame their social interactions as contests whose goal is to deprive the opposition of its will and/or means to resist, allowing the winner to seize the contested prize.
Lace & Steel
Lace & Steel is an obscure RPG created by the Australian author Paul Kidd and set in an original constructed world inspired by 1640s Europe and period novels like The Three Musketeers. Originally published by The Australian Game Group in 1989, it was reprinted by Pharos Press in 1997, which is the version we will reference henceforth. While the game is largely forgotten nowadays, it contains another example of framing social conflict in the same terms as physical violence, as well as being the only title in this survey where cards are used instead of dice for randomization.
Social and Courtly Skills
L&S subdivides the stats most relevant to persuasive interactions into "Social" (pp. 34-35) and "Courtly Skills" (p. 36), with the latter mainly accessible to characters of gentle or noble origins. Although all skill usages in the game are resolved using the same mechanic, we will not even attempt to explain here, since the selection of skills themselves is much more interesting that the mechanics attached to them.
Among the "Social Skills", the PC's main tool for influence is "Persuade", which an agent uses to "get others to perform favors that they do not really want to perform". "Carousing" is used to establish or to improve positive relations; "Leadership", to motivate and coordinate subordinates; while one of the uses of "Spin Yarn" is for cover stories (disguise). The game features not one but two distinct reconnoitering action skills, "Assess Personality" and "Detect Lie", for perceiving personality or relationships and deception, respectively. The remaining "Social Skills" run the gamut of setting-appropriate parlances: "Dancing", "Gambling", "Literacy", and "Streetwise".
Among the "Courtly Skills", "Flirtation" stands out as an alternative to "Carousing" for improving relations, albeit relying much more on the agent's erotic capital, while "Orate" can be used to hold public speeches to mobilize larger audiences. All but one of the remaining "Courtly Skills" are setting-appropriate parlances: "Etiquette", "Fashion", "Hawking", "Poetry", and "Political Lore". The last one is "Repartee", which allows characters to use the "social combat" subsystem that we shall examine next.
The game's repartee system is an inflection of its dueling system, wherein the duelists' players (the GM for NPCs) play cards from a specialized deck against each other (pp. 50-55). The 52 cards in this deck have numeric values and come in two suits ("Rapiers" and "Roses") and two types: attacks/remarks (further subdivided into "upper line", representing comments on intellectual topics in repartees; "middle line", or comments on personal appearance and circumstances; and "low line", or insults and innuendo) and dodge cards. The simplified repartee procedure (p. 92) is as follows:
- Both players draw a number of cards determined by their characters' stats.
- The players draw cards to determine whose character has the initiative and is the agent at the start of the repartee. The other character is then the patient.
- The agent player plays an attack card face-down from hand, calling out its line (not necessarily truthfully).
- The patient player plays a card face-down from hand.
- Both cards are flipped over, and the remark is resolved: if the patient's card is on the same line as the agent's and has an equal or higher numeric value, the remark is deflected; otherwise, it inflicts damage to the patient's Self-Image score (pp. 48-49). If the patient played a dodge card instead, they evade or change the subject and may seize the initiative if their played suit matches the agent's (returning to step 3).
- If the two attack cards' suits are matched, the patient may draw a card from deck (but only if they haven't suffered damage); otherwise, the agent draws a card instead.
- If the patient's played card value is higher than the agent's, they seize the initiative and return to step 3.
The repartee ends when the damage to one side's Self-Image hits a certain threshold (at which point they lose the confrontation and storm "off-stage") or one "combatant" withdraws, taking a minor hit to their Self-Image.
Having examined over a dozen of very different role-playing games and their respective implementations of persuasion mechanics, we will now outline most common design patterns that RPG creators have used to realize them. Our conclusions are subdivided into general considerations in social encounter design and specific design elements commonly found in these simulations. The former category includes the questions of player objectives, patient agency, the role of role-play, and the gradient of compliance, while the latter contains implementations of various types of social influence, defenses against it, and the role of relationships and social status.
Objectives of Persuasive Interactions
A question that has to be answered before we come to persuasion mechanics proper is: Which in-fiction objectives can one RPG character reasonably pursue by exacting social influence upon another? While most RPGs tie social interaction objectives to specific stats or ludic procedures used to achieve them, some (like SIFRP, DA, and Blades) formally separate objectives from the methods and let players combine them in almost any way possible. Examining these examples leads us to conclude that the immediate objectives of persuasive interactions generally fall under one of the three categories: informational, relational, and behavioral.
The patient holds a secret which the agent wants to learn.
The "secret" here can be any information of any objective value and actual confidentiality, as long as it is something the agent does not know but desires to learn. In GUMSHOE, for example, obtaining clues to solve the current mystery is the implicit objective of all interpersonal investigative abilities, while Vampire provides the "Interrogation" social feat for just this purpose. In SIFRP, it is codified in the "Information" intrigue objective, while in DA, it is the goal of two role-playing encounter types, "Briefing" and "Interview".
A distinct subcategory is comprised of "secrets" that are not held by individual patients but scattered in bits and pieces across the larger populace. The agent's objective is then not so much to get someone to spill the beans, but to find the right people to talk to and to synthesize the truth out of their fragmentary data. While this can be achieved via multiple consecutive individual interactions (which is the salient point of GUMSHOE), some games offer procedures that aggregate these into a single ludic action, such as the "gather information" procedures using the "Diplomacy" skill in Pathfinder and the "Consort" action in Blades, as well as the "Connections" skill in Fate.
The agent wants to establish a particular relationship with the patient or to shift their existing relationship somehow.
Most commonly, the relationship in question is a personal one: examples include using "Diplomacy" to improve an NPC's (persistent) attitude in Pathfinder; the "Carousing" social feat in Vampire and the eponymous skill in L&S; the "Friendship" intrigue objective in SIFRP, which can be an actual friendship, a seduction, a marriage, a formal alliance, etc.; using "Rapport" skill in Fate Core; and the "Turn Someone On" and "Shut Someone Down" basic moves in MH2, intended to shift the power dynamic ("Strings") between the agent and the patient.
Less commonly considered is the objective of establishing or improving relationships between entire groups. This can be compared to the "gather information" objective, in that multiple minor interactions between individuals are combined into a single ludic action to determine their aggregate result. If the agent wants to integrate themselves into a new group, they would use the "Fitting In" social feat in Vampire 1E, the "Etiquette" skill in BRP, or the appropriate parlances in GUMSHOE and L&S; if the group in question speaks a foreign language, skills like "Linguistics" in Pathfinder or the various "Language" specializations in Cthulhu and BRP may be called for. Alternatively, if the agent wants to improve their relationship with another group (particularly, with the general public) in GUMSHOE, they would use the "Public Relations" skill. Of particular note is the "Consort" action in Blades, which covers all three subcategories: establishing and maintaining relationships with individual contacts, fitting into existing groups, and public relations with the general populace and the law enforcement.
We observe, however, that some titles have modeled relationships as objects that cannot be directly manipulated: in AW, for instance, the Hx scores are unaffected by persuasion mechanics, but rather shifted as a result of dealing or healing physical harm, as well as at the end of each session (at the respective player's discretion). While in Dogs, meanwhile, changes in character relationships are incidental to the conflict, occurring in its "Fallout" stage, rather than being its object ("stake").
The agent wants the patient to do something for them or to change their behavior somehow.
Securing the patient's compliance, whether a one-time service, a long-term change in behavior, or even just non-action (i.e. not interfering with the agent), is by far the most common objective of social interaction in RPGs. While some titles codify it explicitly, like the "Service" intrigue objective in SIFRP and the persuasion role-playing encounters in DA, almost all persuasive procedures in RPGs implicitly pursue behavioral objectives. These include all "Charisma" checks in D&D 5E, "Go Aggro" and "Seduce or Manipulate" basic moves in AW, "Diplomacy" (the "make a request" procedure) and "Intimidate" skills in Pathfinder, "Intimidation" skill in Vampire, all influence skill checks in SW, "Bargain", "Command", and "Persuade" skills in Cthulhu, "Command" and "Sway" actions in Blades, and "Pulling Strings" basic move (the "tempt them to do what you want" option) in MH2.
It can be argued that both informational and relational objectives are just specific types of the behavioral ones, since the patient revealing their secret to the agent is a form of compliance, while a better relationship with the agent naturally brings about a long-term change in the patient's behavior towards them.
Deception and Seduction
Two specific objectives of persuasive interactions often get special treatment in RPGs: deception and seduction.
The agent wants the patient to believe in something the agent knows to be untrue.
Why does the agent want the patient to hold a specific false belief, though? Some games treat misinformation and misdirection as an end in itself, such as with the "Bluff" skill in Pathfinder and the "Credibility" social feat in Vampire. SIFRP, in fact, lists "Deception" as one of four basic intrigue objectives – however, it also features a "Deception" ability, which is substituted for "Persuasion" whenever an agent attempts to secure the patient's compliance with duplicity. This reflects a number of RPGs that instead treat deceit as just another way of securing compliance, such as the "Deception" checks in D&D and SW, and the "lie as leverage" uses of the "Seduce or Manipulate" basic move in AW and of the "Sway" action in Blades. In these examples, a false belief is not a end in itself, but only means of furthering another objective (usually a behavioral one, i.e. compliance).
The agent wants to lure the patient into an intimate liaison.
Seduction is a complicated case because it straddles the line between relational and behavioral objectives, but also because different games treat sex as either an end in itself, or as means to achieve another objective. The former include AW, where intimate liaisons are the main purpose of the "Seduce or Manipulate" move, MH2, which offers to the patient the option "I give myself to you" as a possible reaction to a successful "Turn Someone On" move, and the "Seduction" procedure in L&S (p. 47). The latter category includes Vampire, whose "Seduce" social feat always has the ulterior motive of drinking the patient's blood (at least in 1E), and SIFRP, where the "Seduce" technique/specialization is just one technique to win the intrigue and to achieve another objective.
At this point, we must note that sexuality can be a particularly sensitive topic for role-players and introducing it to the group's shared fantasy requires their unanimous consent. A number of games, from Ron Edwards' Sorcerer (specifically, the 2003 Sex & Sorcery supplement) to MH2 (chapter 3: "Keeping Your Heart Safe", pp. 73-82), contain procedures for negotiating (the extent of) such consent within the group, but because said procedures take place in the social, rather ludic frame, they fall outside the scope for this survey. For a comprehensive overview of such procedures, see Brennan, the chapter "Questions of consent".
Another question central to persuasion mechanics design is: How do they affect player characters? Of the three salient agent-patient configurations ("PC agent, NPC patient", "NPC agent, PC patient", "PC agent, PC patient"), the first one is usually seamless, because few GMs are emotionally invested in their NPCs' free will. However, the other two can become problematic when the rules dictate that a PC patient comes to believe a piece of information that their player knows to be false and does not want to act upon (which is one form of what is referred as "meta-gaming" in RPGs), or if the rules force a PC patient to act against their own player's wishes to comply with those of the agent player. As we have seen, all games in the survey hold a player's agency over their own character sacrosanct, but use different approaches to solve the above conundrums. These solutions fall into three broad categories, which we dub here "Traditional PvE Focus", "Carrots & Sticks", and "Social Combat".
Traditional PvE Focus
More traditional RPGs in the vein of D&D side-step the issues above by focusing player attention on the players-versus-environment (PvE) interactions, meaning that only the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration is actually addressed by the rules, while other two are strongly discouraged. In fact, the only "NPC agent, PC patient" procedure that is typically afforded by such games concerns an NPC trying to deceive a PC, with the GM feeding deliberate misinformation to the players. The patient player is entitled to invoke a reconnoitering mechanic that, if successful, obliges the GM to reveal the deception. Because the player must do so unprompted, meta-gaming is effectively avoided by having the player's knowledge closely reflect that of their character.
Games with a traditional PvE focus include D&D, GUMSHOE, Pathfinder, Vampire, Numenera, and SW.
Carrots & Sticks
Several games go a step beyond the traditional PvE focus and offer ludic incentives ("carrots") and/or deterrents ("sticks") to encourage PC patients' compliance with other players' (or the GM's) appeals that are backed by a successful invocation of persuasion mechanics. This preserves the agency of the patient player, who remains fully in control of their character, but rewards them for going along with another's wishes. To further offset the loss of agency, the patient player is often given ludic tools to make influence attempts against them less likely to succeed.
The "carrots" typically come in the form of XP rewards awarded for compliance, e.g. by the "Seduce or Manipulate" move in AW and by the "tempt them to do what you want" option of the "Pulling Strings" move in MH2.
The "sticks" usually take the form of lasting in-fiction conditions that are applied to non-compliant patients that also have negative ludic effects:
- AW's "Seduce or Manipulate" move deters non-compliance with the loss of an XP trigger, and the "Go Aggro" move, with unavoidable harm to the PC patient.
- Fate deters non-compliance by letting the agent player apply a "mental condition" to the PC patient, making them more vulnerable later on. The patient player is furthermore allowed to co-author the exact nature of said condition with the agent player.
- Cthulhu deters non-compliance with "penalty dice" held over the PC patient by the agent player.
- Blades is similar to Fate in inflicting a "consequence" upon the non-compliant patient. However, it goes even further than Fate in preserving player agency, by requiring both involved players to agree upon and to commit to all possible outcomes of their characters' interaction before the action roll is made.
- MH2 deters non-compliance by allowing the agent player to spend a "String" on the patient to apply a lasting "Condition" to them.
While not specifically related to persuasion mechanics, the same basic idea of "carrots & sticks" underlies the "GM intrusion" mechanic in Numenera (pp. 325-328) and "Compels" in Fate (pp. 71-75).
The "social combat" approach simulates social interactions as a (non-physical) conflict, wherein all involved players explicitly commit to a set of possible outcomes (objectives or stakes) ahead of time, then alternate between agent-patient roles in a highly formalized, turn-based fashion, attempting to eliminate their opposition from the conflict until all but one party remains standing. This party's player is then granted the privilege to narrate the outcome.
Examples of "social combat" procedures include "regular intrigues" in SIFRP (the "simple intrigue" procedure is a much faster procedure in the vein of traditional PvE focus), the core mechanic of Dogs, "mental conflicts" in Fate (as an alternative to the "carrots & sticks" procedure outlined above), and "repartees" in L&S.
This approach is the most rules-heavy and cumbersome, but also the most egalitarian regarding the agent-patient role distribution among PCs and NPCs, since all characters are on equal footing gameplay-wise, just like they would be in a physical combat. Like in physical combat, successful "attacks" or influence attempts cause the patients to lose "hit points", which represent their emotional stability ("Composure" in SIFRP, "mental stress" in Fate, "Self-Image" in L&S), or to suffer "injuries", i.e. negative conditions (equivalent to "sticks") that reduce their effectiveness ("Frustration" in SIFRP, "Fallout" in Dogs, "mental consequences" in Fate). Unlike bodily harm, however, social "hit points" and "injuries" typically take much less time in-fiction to recover from.
A participant is eliminated from a "social combat" when they run out of "hit points", representing a Yes outcome for their opponents. However, all "social combat" systems give the losing side a ludic option to concede the conflict while retaining some say in its ultimate outcome, turning it into a Yes-But for the winner. Examples include the "Yield" action in SIFRP, "Giving" on one's own turn in Dogs, "Conceding" in Fate Core, and quitting a "repartee" in L&S. Alternatively, a losing participant can often instead escalate the conflict into actual, physical combat in hopes of gaining the privilege to decide its outcome with physical violence.
The concept of "social hit points", wherein the patient's defiance can be "worn down" by multiple influence attempts, is also reflected in the "advanced test" persuasion procedure suggested by DA and progress clocks in Blades.
The Role of Role-Play
The question of the role-play is thus: What role does a player's performance of their character's persuasion attempt play in its ludic resolution? Unlike in physical challenges and combat, both the player and their character engage the fictional world in the same mode of interaction (talking), therefore it is excessively easy to conflate their respective voices and to bypass the ludic frame (the character's persuasive stats and procedures) entirely. While this is unproblematic most of the time, it becomes an issue when a glaring gap (positive or negative) between the player's performance (or a lack thereof) and their character's social skills is observed.
Some RPGs (GUMSHOE, Pathfinder, Numenera, SW, Fate, and Dogs) don't explicitly address the role of the player's performance in persuasion mechanics and essentially leave it up to the GM to adjudicate. While they may require a player to at least attempt to role-play a persuasive attempt before the GM allows them to invoke a mechanic, they do not contain any rules for factoring the quality of said role-play into the mechanic itself.
The remaining titles in this survey take one of three distinct approaches to role-play:
- Role-Play Bonus. In these procedures, the role-play performance of the agent player occurs after they invoke a persuasion mechanic and the patient player (typically the GM) judges whether it merits a ludic bonus or a penalty, before randomness is applied and the outcome of the procedure is determined. Convincing performances usually warrant a bonus, while obvious blunders are penalized – however, most games make it clear not to penalize players for unconvincing role-play if they are obviously uncomfortable with such things in the social frame. Examples of "role-play bonuses" include the GM shifting an NPC's attitude up or down in D&D, conferring of bonus or penalty dice in SIFRP, and the patient player lowering (but never raising) the difficulty of an interpersonal skill roll against their character in Cthulhu.
- Role-Play Override eliminates the need for ludic resolution from persuasive interactions entirely by leaving their success or failure entirely to the patient player's (usually the GM) evaluation of the performance by the agent player. While this is implicitly the default procedure for influencing other PCs, few games offer this shortcut when influencing NPCs, presumably because not all role-players can be reasonably expected to deliver passable persuasive performances. The few that do, however, include Vampire, which explicitly advises the GM that "role-playing usually supersedes any Social skill roll, for better or worse", and DA, which suggests that the GM adjudicates NPCs' compliance based on player performances alone, as long as the gap between said performances and their characters' stats doesn't stretch the group's suspension of disbelief (at which point a mechanical resolution is called for).
- Fiction-First flips the script by making ludic procedures completely subservient to player performance – or, more accurately, player narration – by invoking or not invoking specific mechanics only in response to the PCs' actions in the fiction. In other words, whether a mechanic is invoked, which it is, and which modifiers apply to it is first determined when the persuasive interaction is already well underway. Examples of this approach include AW, Blades, and MH2.
A related question is: How should players chiming in during the agent's performance be factored into the ludic procedure? Most RPGs answer it simply by applying their respective general assistance mechanics, e.g. in D&D 5E, the agent player would make a Charisma roll with "advantage" if another player's contribution was helpful, or with "disadvantage", if it weakened their argument. Similarly, the "Help or Interfere" move in AW can be invoked if another PC contributes significantly to the agent's persuasive efforts. Games with "social combat" may additionally have procedures to restore "social hit points", like the "Mollify" action/test in SIFRP, or to treat "social injuries", like using the "Empathy" skill in Fate to heal "mental consequences" (p. 164).
Gradient of Compliance
The "gradient of compliance" is a specific application of the gradient of success of general RPG resolution mechanics to persuasion procedures. Beyond just determining whether an influence attempt succeeded or failed, it represents a spectrum of possible success or failure outcomes, although only one game in this survey (SW) actually implements all of its points. The gradient is most relevant to the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration, as it gives the GM an easy guideline for quickly translating character stats, player performance, and randomizer output into plausible NPC reactions. The gradient of compliance is as follows:
- No-And: The patient does not comply with the agent's appeal, breaks off contact with them, and may start actively interfering with their efforts and objectives.
- No: The patient does not comply and cannot be persuaded to until the situation changes significantly.
- No-But: The patient does not comply, but remains receptive to related appeals.
- Yes-But: The patient complies but only at no cost or risk to themselves, or at an added cost or risk to the agent.
- Yes: The patient complies at a reasonable cost or risk to themselves.
- Yes-And: The patient complies at an extraordinary cost or risk to themselves.
In "social combat", these outcomes can be translated into losses of "social hit points" or "injuries" of corresponding magnitude and severity.
A related question is automatic NPC compliance, i.e. whether the game has rules that outright force NPCs to comply with PC appeals under specific circumstances. This can be a generic rule for automatic success, like in Vampire (pp. 250-251), or specific to persuasion procedures: in Pathfinder, for example, an NPC will automatically comply with most appeals of a PC if the former's attitude towards the latter is "Helpful" (or "Friendly" and they have been successfully intimidated), while in SIFRP, most NPCs will immediately comply with PCs whose "Status" stat is higher than their own, reflecting the highly hierarchical nature of a feudal society. D&D 5E is an interesting example, since while it does not award automatic successes, the DC of successfully influencing an NPC whose attitude is "Friendly" is 0, meaning that the player only rolls to determine whether it will be a Yes-But, a plain Yes, or a Yes-And.
Tools of Influence
All persuasion mechanics in RPGs rely on an implicit assumption of the physicality of human psyche – specifically, that a patient's emotions and beliefs, especially unconscious ones, can be manipulated by an outside agent. In this sense, various types of influence represent a set of tools (or weapons) for emotional and cognitive manipulation. To achieve their objective (compliance), the agent can either provoke emotions that will motivate the patient to carry out some action, foster beliefs that channel the patient's actions in the desired direction, or both.
By using emotional manipulation tools, the agent attempts to induce a particular affective state in the patient. For the purposes of this survey, the only important distinction here is whether the targeted emotion has a positive or a negative valence – in other words, whether it makes the patient feel attraction or aversion towards whatever (or whomever) it is directed at, respectively.
The most common the positive emotional manipulation tool found in RPGs is Charm, wherein the agent attempts to engender positive feelings of trust, joy, and anticipation towards themselves in the patient, usually in order to improve their relationship (a relational objective) or to gain short-term compliance (a behavioral one). Charm is often tied to the agent's erotic capital, which may be explicitly modeled in the character's stats, such as in the "hot" stat in AW and MH2, and the "Appearance" attribute/characteristic in Vampire and Cthulhu.
Examples of the Charm tool include "Charm", "Flattery", and "Flirting" skills in GUMSHOE, the "improve attitude" procedure of the "Diplomacy" skill in Pathfinder, "Carousing" and the first stage of "Seduction" social feats in Vampire, "Charm" and "Seduction" techniques/specializations in SIFRP, "Charm" skill in SW, "Rapport" skill in Fate, "Charm" skill in Cthulhu, "Seduction" focus in DA, "Consort" action in Blades, "Turn Someone On" basic move in MH2, and "Carousing" and "Flirting" skills in L&S. Additionally, several games lump "Charm" and "Reasoning" (see below) into one skill, tentatively dubbed here "Persuasion", which treats erotic capital, emotions, and arguments as freely interchangeable fuel for social influence. Examples include "Charisma (Persuasion)" checks in D&D, "Seduce or Manipulate" basic move in AW, "Persuasion" focus in DA, "Sway" action in Blades, and "Persuade" skill in L&S.
Very few RPGs in this survey feature tools for inducing positive emotions other than liking the agent more. GUMSHOE contains "Inspiration" and "Reassurance" skills, both of which aim to induce hope and to counteract fear, while SIFRP's "Mollify" action is a "Persuasion" check to restore an ally's "social hit points", representing stress relief.
That said, while anger is typically viewed as a harmful emotion, it would be classified as positive/attractive according to our criteria, since it often facilitates a desire to confront its object, i.e. to move towards, rather than away from it. By this measure, Taunting, wherein the agent attempts to provoke anger at themselves in the patient and hopes to goad them into a specific course of action, would count as a "positive" emotional manipulation tool, despite its inherent risk of violent escalation. Examples include "Taunt" skill in GUMSHOE, eponymous technique/specialization in SIFRP, and using the "Provoke" skill to "piss [the patient] off so badly that they act out" in Fate. SIFRP also features the "Incite" technique/specialization, wherein the agent attempts to provoke anger at someone else in the patient, with the relational objective of (temporarily) weakening their relationship.
The most common negative emotional manipulation tool in RPGs by far is Intimidation, wherein the agent attempts to instill fear of themselves or of something extraneous in the patient, hoping to gain their immediate compliance. A particularly common variation, wherein the agent threatens an immediate sanction (violent or non-violent, physical or social) if the patient does not comply, is also known as Coercion. While compliance is usually the main objective of using this tool, some games that quantify NPC attitudes (specifically, Pathfinder and SIFRP) also feature a temporary "improvement" of a NPC's (displayed) attitude towards the agent as a side effect of being intimidated by them, usually followed by a sharp drop as soon as they are out of the agent's reach.
Examples of Intimidation/Coercion tools in this survey include "Charisma (Intimidation)" checks in D&D, "Go Aggro" basic move in AW, "Intimidation" skill in GUMSHOE, "Intimidate" skill in Pathfinder, "Intimidation" and (violent) "Interrogation" social feats in Vampire, "Intimidate" technique/specialization in SIFRP, "Coercion" skill in SW, "Intimidation" skill in Cthulhu, "Intimidation" focus in DA, and "Command" action in Blades. We observe that different games associate this influence tool with different primary stats, specifically, with the agent's capacity to do physical harm (as in AW and DA) or with their natural talent to influence others (as in D&D, Pathfinder, SIFRP and SW). Vampire actually combines both "Strength" and "Manipulation" attributes with the "Intimidation" skill, depending on whether the threat is physical or non-physical ("perceived"), respectively.
An important consideration regarding the Intimidation/Coercion tool is that of bluffing, as players may make in-fiction threats (e.g. for gameplay reasons) without intending to follow through on them (e.g. for fear of in-fiction conflict escalation). AW counters this by having the patient choose between compliance or escalation (on a "strong hit"), removing the agent's ability to deescalate the interaction once their player rolls the dice; the rule also tell players outright that unless they can commit to following through on their threat, they should instead invoke the "Seduce or Manipulate" basic move, using their bluff as "leverage". Similarly, SIFRP instructs players to use the agent's "Deception" ability and "Act" or "Bluff" specialization scores instead of "Persuasion" and "Intimidation", respectively, if they do not actually intend to follow through on their threats even if the patient doesn't comply.
While Intimidation/Coercion is often singled out among negative emotional manipulation tools, several games feature generic manipulation procedures untied to a particular emotion, like the "Manipulate" action in SIFRP and the "Provoke" skill in Fate (used to elicit "fear, anger, shame, etc."). The "Shut Someone Down" basic move in MH2 would also fall under this category, since it is not tied to a specific emotional response.
Cognitive manipulation encompasses tools for manipulating or simply reframing the patient's beliefs about the agent, the world, and themselves, which almost inevitably provokes an emotional reaction.
The most benign cognitive manipulation tool is Reasoning, wherein the agent attempts to logically derive the validity of their claims from the patient's existing beliefs, hoping to gain their compliance or trust by aligning their respective beliefs with each other. Because rationality is valued by most sentient beings, this tool's biggest drawback is the large amount of in-fiction time it often takes to deploy it. Orthodox examples include the "Convince" technique/specialization in SIFRP and the "Persuade" skill in Cthulhu; additionally, as mentioned above, a number of games lump this tool with "Charm", including D&D, AW, DA, and Blades.
Reasoning's evil twin is Deception, wherein the agent attempts to implant a false belief in the patient, whether to improve their relationship, to gain immediate compliance, or make the patient act in the agent's interests without realizing it later. Orthodox examples include "Charisma (Deception)" checks in D&D, "Bluff" skill in Pathfinder, "Credibility" and the first two stages of "Seduction" social feats in Vampire, "Deception" ability and "Act" and "Bluff" specializations in SIFRP, "Deception" skill in SW, "Deceive" skill in Fate, "Fast Talk" skill (see below) in Cthulhu, and "Deception" focus in DA.
We observe, however, that all of these games operate on the assumption that the ability to lie convincingly is fundamentally different from (if related to) the ability to reason earnestly. While current neurological studies do support the idea that lying puts additional cognitive strain on the speaker, some RPGs choose not to distinguish honesty and duplicity gameplay-wise and instead treat lies as just one type of "leverage" used to gain compliance, alongside erotic capital (Charm) and logical arguments (Reasoning). Examples include the "Seduce or Manipulate" move in AW and the "Sway" action in Blades, while MH2 and Dogs chose not to address deception mechanically at all.
A special case of the Deception tool singled out by some games is Disguise, wherein the agent attempts to implant a false belief about their own identity in the patient, using non-verbal means like clothing and make-up. Examples include "Disguise" skill in Pathfinder and Cthulhu and particular applications of the "Deceive" skill in Fate and of the "Spin Yarn" skill in L&S. Blades doesn't dedicate an action rating to disguise, but the Slide playbook has the special ability "Cloak & Dagger" that gives them bonuses to deception while disguised. A common best practice for maintaining narrative tension regarding the effectiveness of a disguise is to mechanically resolve disguise attempts only when it first comes under scrutiny, rather than when it is manufactured and applied.
If Deception is Reasoning's evil twin, then Fast Talk is its antithesis, wherein the agent attempts to overwhelm the patient's rational decision-making capacity with nonsense. Both the "Fast-Talk" social feat in Vampire and the "Fast Talk" skill in Cthulhu aim to make the patient either believe some lie (overlapping with Deception), or leave the agent to their own devices, effectively confusing them into non-action. The "Fast Talk" action in SIFRP instead lowers the patient's defenses against the agent's influence by temporarily rescinding their Cunning score from their Intrigue Defense rating (which is normally a sum of Awareness, Cunning, and Status).
Finally, in a Negotiation, two or more characters discuss an exchange of goods, services, or obligations, intending both to close the deal, and to get the best out of it for themselves. This interaction is different from every other discussed so far because it has no clear agent-patient distinction and, much like the "gather information" procedures discussed earlier, is an aggregation of multiple back-and-forth persuasive interactions (offers, counter-offers, and threats), lumped together into a single ludic action to save player time. Examples include "Barter" peripheral moves in AW, "Negotiation" skill in GUMSHOE, "Bargain" technique/specialization in SIFRP, "Bargain" skill in BRP, "Negotiation" skill in SW, "Bargaining" focus in DA, and using the "Consort" action to "gain access to resources, information, people, or places" in Blades.
All tools of influence discussed until now have been primarily geared towards interactions on a personal scale, between an individual agent (usually a PC) and a single patient (usually an NPC played by the GM), which is the scale that the role-playing game format naturally leans towards. A few titles in this survey, however, have also addressed the issue of persuasive interactions directed at entire groups, including the previously-discussed objectives of "gathering information" (informational), "fitting in", and "public relations" (relational). The missing behavioral objective would fall under "crowd manipulation", wherein the agent wants to gain the compliance of an entire group of individual patients. Embedded in this objective, however, are three distinct abilities that tend to be lumped together in RPGs, possibly due to the aforementioned focus on personal interactions:
- Crowd Manipulation is the agent's ability to communicate ideas to and to manipulate the emotions and beliefs of multiple (typically like-minded) patients at once, in order to instigate collective action. While many of the tools for influencing individuals can also be used for this purpose, they have to be substantially modified to account for the effects of group psychology.
- Authority is the agent's ability to gain compliance (obedience) of groups or of individual patients by leveraging their relative status (authority) within their group. This is distinct from the agent actually having legitimate authority, as a highly respected person may not be capable of giving orders effectively, while one used to giving orders may exploit their patients' instinctual tendency to obey authority figures without question.
- Organizing is the agent's ability to actually facilitate effective collective action, their organizational expertise. It is distinct from the other two in that it is less about gaining compliance, than about ensuring its success.
Examples of "pure" crowd manipulation tools in RPGs are the "Oration" social feat in Vampire and the "Orate" skill in L&S. Pure authority tools include the "Command" skill in Cthulhu and the "Authority" parlance in GUMSHOE (which also features its inverse, the "Respect" skill, used for gaining compliance from a subordinate position). Unlike in Cthulhu, the "Command" skill in BRP is an example of pure organizing tool. Both SW and DA lump crowd manipulation and authority into "Leadership" (skill and focus, respectively), while L&S lumps authority and organizing into its own "Leadership" skill. Finally, the "Command" action in Blades is an amalgamation of all three aspects above plus intimidation/coercion (since coercion is often a legitimate prerogative of the authority).
Just as persuasion mechanics in RPGs have to factor the effects of the agent's stats and tools to into the resolution of their influence attempts, so do they have to account for the patient's ability to resist said influence. Mechanically, this is accomplished in one of three ways:
- Opposed rolls: The agent and the patient players make independent rolls with their respective stats, and the influence attempt succeeds if the agent's result exceeds the patient's. Examples include Pathfinder ("Bluff" vs. "Sense Motive"), Fate, and DA.
- Difficulty: The patient's stats determine or modify the difficulty (i.e. the probability of success) of the agent's roll. This modification can be randomized (e.g. in AW), but often isn't to simplify the procedure, as in Pathfinder ("Diplomacy", "Intimidation"), Vampire, SIFRP ("Intrigue Defense"), Cthulhu.
- Effectiveness: The patient's stats shift the agent's position along the gradient of compliance up or down. Examples include D&D and Blades. In "social combat", this corresponds to "damage" reduction, e.g. the "Disposition Rating" in SIFRP.
Two titles in this survey deliberately don't factor the patient's stats into influence attempt resolution: in GUMSHOE, automatic success of informational objectives is the entire premise of the game, while in MH2, the main influence procedures, "Turn Someone On" and "Pulling Strings", give no ludic recourse to the patient, incentivizing them to take on the agent role instead. Character stats factored into influence resolution can be broadly classified into "emotional stability", "interpersonal perceptiveness", "reciprocal influence", and "relationship values".
Emotional stability refers to the patient's ability to resist emotional manipulation, particularly harmful emotions like fear and anger. Examples include "Willpower" attribute in Vampire, "Will" skill in Fate, "Willpower" attribute and its subordinate focuses "Courage", "Morale", and "Discipline" in DA, "Resolve" attribute in Blades. In "social combat", the patient's emotional stability stat typically determines the number of their "social hit points" and how many "social injuries" they can take: in SIFRP, a patient's "Composure" is their "Will" ability score times three and they can only take as many "Frustration" points as they have points in "Will", while in L&S, repartee "damage" is applied directly to the patient's "Self-Image" score.
Interpersonal perceptiveness is the patient's ability to detect the agent's true feelings and ulterior motives, as well as to spot deception. Examples include "Wisdom (Insight)" checks in D&D, "Read a Person" move in AW, "Sense Motive" skill in Pathfinder, "Empathy" skill in Fate, "Insight" in BRP, and "Empathy" focus of the "Perception" attribute in DA. Some games lump interpersonal perception with general one, e.g. "Perception" attribute in Vampire, "Awareness" and "Cunning" attributes in SIFRP, "Study" action and "Insight" attribute in Blades, and "Assess Personality" and "Detect Lie" skills in L&S. Cthulhu lumps emotional stability and interpersonal perceptiveness into a single "Psychology" skill, while SW uses "Cool" and "Discipline" skills to resist different tools of influence without a clear explanation as to what this represents in-fiction.
In almost all titles, however, the interpersonal perceptiveness stat can also be used proactively for a reconnoitering action (e.g. the "Read Target" action/test in SIFRP), wherein the agent examines or probes the patient in an attempt to gain knowledge of
- Whether they are being truthful in what they say (see below),
- Their current emotional attitude (relationship) towards the agent,
- Their true intentions and desires, or
- Potential leverage needed to gain their compliance.
While deception attempts are often resolved using opposed rolls (even in games that otherwise factor patient stats into the difficulty, e.g. Pathfinder), several titles feature the special ability to detect lies automatically, e.g. "Bullshit Detector" skill in GUMSHOE, the "Flake" playbook's special move "Suspicious Mind" in the Apocalypse World "hack" Monster of the Week, and the "Slide" playbook's special ability "Like Looking in the Mirror" in Blades.
While most titles in this survey use emotional stability, interpersonal perceptiveness, or a combination thereof to resist social influence, several games allow the patient to use the same stat as the agent when both attempt to exercise reciprocal influence upon each other simultaneously. Examples include "The Facedown" social feat in Vampire 1E (lumped into "Intimidation" in 20AE), "Negotiation" in SW, and "Bargaining" in DA. Cthulhu goes a step further and allows the patient player to use either "Psychology" or the same skill as the agent (whichever is higher) to resist their influence, while in Dogs, the same stats constitute a common pool from which the player plays the dice for the "Raise" and the "See" actions on their agent and patient turns, respectively.
The relationship value is a score describing (some aspect of) the relation between the agent and the patient. While the specifics of modeling such scores will be discussed below, we note here that said score can be factored into the patient's ability to resist influence in a variety of ways. In D&D, the NPC patient's "attitude" towards the PC agent determines the effectiveness of the latter's persuasion (that is, the window of the gradient of compliance that the agent operates in); in Pathfinder, it instead determines the difficulty of the agent's attempt; while in SW, the relationship-reflecting d6s added to the dice pool influence both. In the "social combat" of SIFRP, the patient's "Disposition Rating" towards the agent serves as a form of "damage reduction" against the agent's influence, while in AW, the patient player (though not the GM) must proactively interfere with the agent's influence attempt to bring their "Hx" score to bear on its outcome.
Finally, several games consider additional in-fiction factors in their ludic resolution of influence attempts, including the patient's personal objectives contradicting the agent's (Cthulhu, DA), certain NPC traits (DA), the environment where the influence attempt unfolds (SIFRP), and the social status of the patient (also SIFRP).
As mentioned previously, "relationship values" are numerical scores representing some aspect of a relationship between two characters, between a character and a group, or between two groups (an "alliance meter"). The vast majority of titles in this survey only feature PC-NPC relationship values (PC and NPC, PC and NPC faction, or "player party" and NPC faction), which represent the emotional attitude of the NPC (faction) towards the PCs and make it easier for the GM to assess their overall readiness to comply with the PCs' requests. Two games, AW and MH2, on the other hand, mainly quantify relationships between individual PCs – their respective relationship values represent rather the PCs' knowledge of each other's weaknesses and drives, which can be factored into persuasion mechanics without compromising their agency (an issue the GM typically doesn't have with NPC patients).
NPC attitude is an ordinal scale that describes how an NPC or a group (faction) of NPCs generally feels about an individual PC or their group as a whole. Said scale typically has between 3 and 7 gradations, denoting feelings from intense hostility, through indifference (usually the default initial attitude), to open complaisance, which factors into the difficulty or the effectiveness (or both) of the PCs' attempts to influence the NPCs exhibiting said feelings. Examples include D&D, where an NPC's "attitude" can be "hostile", "neutral", or "friendly" and are assigned primarily by GM fiat, and Pathfinder, where NPC attitudes range from "hostile", through "unfriendly", "indifferent", and "friendly", to "helpful" and are shifted through a combination of "Diplomacy" skill procedure and GM fiat.
SIFRP differs from D&D not only in having seven gradations of "disposition" ("malicious", "unfriendly", "dislike", "indifferent", "amiable", "friendly", and "affectionate"), but also in requiring each intrigue participant, PC and NPC, to assign a value to everyone else, which is then shifted according to a combination of strict rules and individual player's fiat. The patient's disposition towards the agent is a major factor in resolving the latter's "social combat" turns, as it affects both the likelihood of successful influence and how much "composure" the patient loses.
Both SW and DA account for the possibility of the patient having mixed feelings ("stances" in DA) about the agent, although neither quantifies them. SW does so mainly in a ludic fashion, by allowing past experiences contribute both positive and negative d6s to the agent's dice pool. DA, on the other hand, frames NPC "stances", ranging from interfering to helpful, as obstacles in social encounters that may or may not come up even with the same NPC patient, depending on the agent's current objective.
BRP does not quantify relationships between individual characters, but it does feature the "Status" skill to model the attitude of entire in-fiction groups (churches, cities, organizations, social classes, races, etc.) towards the PC. Cthulhu does not have a corresponding "skill", but includes "Credit Rating", which subsumes both the character's social standing (i.e. the attitude of the society at large towards them) and their material well-being.
Blades uses two separate systems to quantify relationships: "faction status" (pp. 45-46) and "friends and rivals" (p. 55). Faction status is a seven-point scale ("war", "hostile", "interfering", "neutral", "helpful", "friendly", and "allies", also corresponding to integers from –3 to +3) that describes the current mutual attitude between the criminal gang led by the player characters and an NPC faction, which range from other gangs, through the citizenry of individual city districts, to state institutions. While it is assumed that members of a faction will generally treat the PCs according to their current status with it, only "war" (–3) is actually assigned any specific gameplay effects. In addition, each PC has a shortlist of NPC "contacts" (who may or may not belong to a faction), one of whom their player chooses as a "friend" and one, as a "rival" or even an "enemy", effectively creating a three-point personal relationship scale whose ludic effects are, however, left entirely up to the GM fiat.
In addition to faction and NPC attitudes, Blades also tracks the PCs' "reputations" (p. 93), "rep" and "heat" values, as well as derived values of "tier" (p. 44) and "wanted level" (pp. 147-148). "Reputation" describes how the in-fiction (criminal) society views the PCs' gang. "Rep" and "tier" signify their clout and renown within the game world, i.e. how much the society respects them (tier also has a number of material effects that fall outside the scope of this survey). "Heat" and "wanted level" represent how dangerous the law enforcement considers their gang and mainly affect the severity of repercussions for their criminal activities. Confusingly, each law enforcement institution is also considered a faction whose status isn't mechanically tied to the PCs' wanted level, potentially producing situations where they are at "war" with the city watch but sit at wanted level 0.
The need to maintain beneficial relations not just with individual NPCs, but also with the in-fiction society, from general citizenry to the law enforcement, is also reflected in GUMSHOE by including the "Public Relations" skill.
While most games described above (except SIFRP) focus on modeling how NPCs feel about the PCs, leaving the PCs' feelings entirely up to their players, games with an emphasis on "PC agent, PC patient" interactions tend to instead model relationships between PCs in terms of how well they know each other. In other words, relationship values between PCs model their in-fiction ability to "push each other's buttons" in the broadest sense. Because they must strike a delicate balance between gameplay fairness and player agency, changes in PC relationship values tend to be much more tightly constrained by the rules.
The "Hx" scores in AW range from –3 to +3 and represent how well one PC knows another (not necessarily mutually). In the context of persuasive interactions, they are primarily involved in the "Help or Interfere" basic move. "Hx" scores go up (and occasionally, down) in accordance to very specific rules (cf. "harm" and "end of session"), and upon reaching their maximum or minimum values are reset to +1 or 0, respectively, in exchange for XP.
"Strings" in MH2, meanwhile, are not capped in any way and represent emotional and social leverage a PC or an NPC has on another PC. They are obtained by using one's erotic capital in the "Turn Someone On" basic move or through a variety of playbook-specific moves, and expended to influence the patient's behavior primarily through the offers of XP for compliance and threats of negative "Conditions" for non-compliance, as covered by the "Pulling Strings" basic move.
Finally, Dogs takes a unique approach to quantifying the PCs' relationships, by associating their ludic impact not with in-fiction factors like the characters' feelings and past histories, but with how much narrative importance the player assigns to them.