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.