Saturday, May 16, 2020

Social Procedures in Practice: A report

Not long ago I wrote up a codified version of my social procedures. In addition to posting them to this blog, I shared them with my players. I have run two sessions since then, during which I have taken care to call out these procedures as I use them and make clear how I am interpreting them in play. This is meant both to help my players better understand the game, and to enforce upon myself a kind of rigour in testing them out in this more defined form.

In the latest session, one PC managed to activate every single social mechanic. So here's how that went:


The Ballad of Haddock

Part the first: The Wyvern and the Snacc


Haddock is a PC in my game. It's a long story why, but 5e's Dragonborn made it into my OSE game, and Haddock is one of them. That's pretty much what you need to know about him, background-wise.


Haddock was creeping through a trench when he was surprised by a wyvern (wandering monster with a failed surprise roll). I decided the wyvern had been napping in a recess in the side of the trench, and he'd wandered straight into its sleeping spot. The rest of the party was elsewhere, so he was on his own in front of a creature that could kill him with a single sting.

He rolled an Initial Reaction roll and got an 8, meaning its initial reaction was indifferent. An indifferent creature follows its natural inclinations above all. I figured it would adopt a defensive posture and try to appear large, not knowing if this newcomer was a threat.

I asked Haddock what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to try speaking in soothing tones and communicate that he wasn't a threat. So we rolled on the Further Reactions chart. He got a 9 this time: the creature will comply with safe requests on its own terms. I said as much and asked what he was doing to make it feel safe. The request, implicitly, was not to attack.

To reassure the wyvern, Haddock took a ration from his pack and took a bite of it to show it was safe to eat, and then extended it to the creature. I told him wyverns are about as intelligent as a big cat or a fairly stupid elephant, and that there was a chance it would misunderstand the gesture as him offering food and then taking it away. He would have to make a persuasion attempt to properly communicate the message.* He succeeded.

At this point it was on me to decide what the wyvern's terms were. I decided it would take the offering if Haddock didn't show fear. I wanted to create some uncertainty around this, so I described how its long teeth glistened as its jaw unfolded and approached to encircle his outstretched arm, and asked if he would retract the offering. He said no. The offering was accepted.

OSE has a rule that non-intelligent creatures possessed of an appetite and presented with food, have a 50% chance of dropping whatever they're doing to take the food. So I decided the wyvern had a 50% chance of being satisfied and flying away. I rolled; it was, and it did.

*At this point and a number of others, I informed Haddock's player what mechanisms he was engaging and asked if he wanted to proceed. Because different social actions resolve in different ways, I saw it as a question of agency to make sure he knew what mechanics he would activate with a given course of action.


Part the second: High-flying antics


Fastforward an hour and Haddock is clinging for dear life to a furious Manticore streaking through the sky 150 feet above the ground, his sword buried in its shoulder, an enchanted crown on its head. Don't worry about it. Point is Haddock is currently interested in two things: 1) Getting the crown, 2) Not having his bones split and organs splattered like an egg dropped upon the ground below.


It's already passed a morale check and seems hellbent on staying in flight. He presses the sword in deeper and tells it he'll keep stabbing if it doesn't land.

Oh man, wouldn't it be nice if I had rules for forcing NPC actions?

Oh man, I do have those rules.

So he makes a roll against its morale. It succeeds. This establishes two things beyond any doubt:
1. It will not comply with this request.
2. It can no longer be reasoned with. That threshold is crossed.
I inform him of these things.

Here enters another character, unimportant except for his role in resolving the situation. The Manticore can't be reasoned with, and it can't be compelled, but it can be provoked. He uses a spell to conjure an image of a person they know to be the Manticore's nemesis, and the party all bow before the vision.

I figure this is kind of like throwing food at it? In the sense of appealing to its instincts and leveraging its rage. So I give the plan 50% odds. No other rolls are needed, as the spell doesn't allow for a save.

So I make the roll, and it works. The Manticore reverses course and begins speeding toward the illusion.

This brings it within shooting range of the party's archers, and it isn't long before Haddock gets that crown.

Reflections

I don't have a ton to say besides this worked well. The mechanics were transparent to all and generally quite quick to resolve. They did a good job of moving the situation forward and delivering outcomes with clear stakes and affordances. I worried that having a bunch of different mechanics that varied based on approach, might be too confusing, or that the use cases would bleed into each other. In practice that didn't seem to be the case.

The Manticore thing was especially edifying. One player behaviour I'm not really fond of is when, for lack of a better term, they just start saying shit in the hopes of turning a situation around. I like and encourage using communication to alter your situation, but I want it to be done thoughtfully. In practice, the saying shit approach tends to feel like a kind of social brute-forcing. All these mechanics, but action-forcing especially, are meant to give social actions enough weight such that saying something means committing to what's said. Haddock's threat to the Manticore was a good one, and I was glad to have a way of honouring it. At the same time, the mechanic allowed the Manticore a certain autonomy as a character, which bounded my thinking about its responses to good effect. The way the group altered their strategy once it was clear, both narratively and mechanically, that the creature was now bent on killing Haddock, was quite rewarding and led to interesting decision-making.

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