'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Monday, October 28, 2019

Persuade & Social Encounters in Conan 2d20

I often have players try and talk there way out of a situation. In one game the characters had been shipwrecked and a band of beach scavengers showed up with the intention of taking what was theirs and killing anyone in their way, the solution, "We should talk to them." In another example I had a group of players come across a barricaded path guarded by some Khitan warriors, they wanted to talk their way past the guards. It is almost like no one has seen 1984's Conan the Destroyer, which I only bring up because of the line enjoyed by Matt John over at Rogues in the House Podcast...


ENOUGH TALK!



Still despite that, it is an RPG and the characters have social skills like "Society" and "Persuade". This article is going be about a simple mechanic you can use to help control how a social encounter might play out using these skills. Keep in mind this is a mechanic for a time when a social encounter is appropriate, you probably don't want players to be able to negotiate with the skeletons that populate your tombs.

In the past when this has come up I have made it into a struggle and a single roll; either they convince them or they don't. It has the advantage of being simple, but it has the disadvantage of resolving something of importance in a very very simple way, which can take the spotlight away from players who excel in social skills, and while the struggle isn't slow to resolve, it isn't as fast as a single die roll.

For me, the heart of how the social encounter will go is going to be based on two factors; how open the NPC is to listen to the PCs and how easily their mind can be swayed once they are listening. A friend is going to be willing to listen a lot easier than the bandit leader attacking you, but it is possible your friend will be harder to sway than that bandit leader. With the system, I have in mind and momentum spends you still might be able to convince a friend to help you quicker than an openly hostile opponent.

Likely to Listen?

This is how difficult the actual negotiation is, and so it makes perfect sense to make this into the difficulty of the skill test, running from close friends to hostile enemies we can set up a simple difficulty chart.
  • D0 - Good Friends
  • D1 - Friendly
  • D2 - Neutral
  • D3 - Dislike
  • D4 - Veiled Hostility
  • D5 - Outright Hostile

This gives us a place to work from that we can apply to the social encounters the players find themselves involved in. You can either make note of them beforehand or implement them on the fly. Like all difficulties, feel free to modify these as you see fit by other factors. Are the PC and NPCs Good Friends, but the PCs failed to do something for them? Move the difficulty up 1 or 2 notches. Perhaps the NPC is generally neutral towards the party, but they have a high level of renown in the area, you can move the difficulty to 1.

Success and Failure: If the social test is successful, simply determine momentum and move on to resolving the effect, "Are they Swayed" of the roll in part 2 of the test. However, if they fail to move the difficulty of the test up by 1 notch. If they fail at D4 or D5, the test is an outright failure.

Complications: The simplest complication for these sorts of encounters is putting your foot in your mouth or offending the person you are talking to. Keeping in mind a complication is about 2 doom we have a few simple options.
  1. Increase the difficulty one step.
  2. Reduce the generated momentum by two.
  3. If the test was D3 and there was a failure with the complication, make the test an outright failure.

Are they Swayed

This part of the mechanic centers around convincing the NPC once they have heard what was said. It might take several rounds of convincing to get them on board, but anytime during that negotiation, we might see that NPC stop listening and have the communication break down. The easiest way to work this is with a "hit point" or "effort" system, which will require a point pool for the NPC to resist with and a way for the PC to whittle away at that pool.

Conan has a mental damage track that might work for this, resolve and trauma. Generally, we see this damage track in regards to actually trying to scare away or mentally break the opponent, or simulate the effects of fear and is soaked by courage. I don't think it is the perfect fit for what we are trying to accomplish. We also don't have a great "weapon" to use to try and convince the NPC. We aren't trying to Steely Glare them into seeing our side of things and convince them we are correct. This is supposed to be a social encounter and not a scare the pants off of the local b├╝rgermeister.

I think the Willpower attribute will work well for this number, which sits around 7-10 in most humans. Adding a simple modifier based on how easily swayed they are will let us make the NPC a little more interesting.
  • Easy to sway - -1/2 willpower attribute
  • Default - Willpower attribute
  • Difficult to sway - +1/2 willpower attribute

With that in mind, we still need a way to bring that value to 0 and convince them to buy into the social encounter. Give the players 1 combat die for each level of FOCUS they have in their social ability (generally Persuade or Society) and use the following momentum spends as a guideline.
  • 1M - add 1 to the combat die roll - repeatable
  • 1M - Re-roll any number of combat dice
  • 2M - Reduce the difficulty of the test by 1

Example

Example 1
Balor is trying to convince the local sheriff to let his friends go. They were captured and locked up after a night of drinking. You could of course just do a 100% roleplay if that suits your group better, but if you want to work it mechanically it might go something like this.....
Balor says, "Ah come on man, they didn't mean any harm to the village, they were just blowing off steam after all the horrors they have seen defending this place!"
The sherrif looks Balor up and down and says.....
GM - Balor, make a D2 Persuade test, he dislikes you and your crew, but will be neutral due to the aid you have rendered the village.
Balor - Ok my Persuade TN is 8 with a focus of 1. I will roll 3d20, and give you a point of doom....

Balor - 4,14 and 12...So 1 success. The Sherrif looks at Balor up and down and says, "no harm? they burned down the blacksmith and caused considerable damage to the tavern. You may have defended the village, but perhaps we would have been in better shape with the creatures of the dark!"
"Balor replies with, "Ah come on, you know that isn't true! It was only a little fire!"
GM - Ok, if you continue the difficulty will now be at D3. Do you want to continue?
Balor - I roll 4d20, and give you 2 more doom.....

Balor - 6,2,9 & 13! for 4 successes! and 1 momentum!
GM - Great! roll 2 combat dice for your persuade focus!
Balor - OK.....

Balor - I roll a 1, and a 2 for 3 points. I want to add 1 more point with the momentum bringing the total to 4!
GM - ok. The Sherif is easily swayed so he only had 4 points.
The sheriff shrugs, "Trouble follows your party around, but we do appreciate what you have done for us..", and tosses the keys to Balor.

Example 2
Ismene is working to try and sell some stolen goods, she is locked into negotiations with a local kothian fence she knows.
"Come on! This is the finest Stygian gold, This statue has to be worth more than a measly 3 bags of gold, how about 5? ", Ismene smiles slyly.
The fence looks at the statue and then at Ismene and says.....
GM - Ismene, make a D1 Persuade test, he is neutral towards you but knows of your skills, so we will treat him as friendly.
Ismene - I will give you 2 doom and roll 4d20.....

Ismene - 2, 17 and 2 20s...... GM - Ok, roll a combat die equal to your persuade focus.
Ismene - OK, I have a focus of 1, I roll..
Ismene - 2!
GM - Ok, you reduce is resistance to moving to your price by 2 points leaving him with 4!
The fence looks at the statue and then at Ismene and says, "The statue is truly of great quality, but I am just can't give you 5 bags of gold."
GM - But you rolled 2 complications.....
GM - During the negotiations, you mention the words "cursed temple" and "dangerous Stygian sorcery" one too many times...
GM - Negotiations are now at D3 as the Kothian fence becomes less certain he even wants this potentially cursed item and is growing untrustful of your intentions.

And so Ismene could continue the encounter attempting to get more money for the Stygian gold she has stolen or cut her losses and take the original gold offered....

Summary

This gives you a way to walk through social encounters in a fair and even manner, and may even convince a few of your players to spend a few points on persuade for reasons beyond simply striking at your opponents. As you can see in the examples it gives us a quick way to mechanically guide the narration between the players and the NPCs.

Games like 2d20 can be mechanically heavy at times, especially if all you do is roll the dice and apply the results. These games really shine when you narrate and work together as a group to not simply roll and apply, but roll, apply AND use your results to guide your narration.

If you thought this was interesting drop me a comment and let me know your thoughts. Is this something you would use? What would you change? Do you think the social struggle is already enough to accomplish this? Let me know.

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