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.

Emotional Manipulation

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

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.

Group Influence

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).

Resisting Influence

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).

Relationship Values

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

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.

PC Familiarity

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.