I was on Twitter the other day, and someone wrote something akin to "I want a system that lets me use social skills in combat."
This is either a gamer power fantasy of using all your abilities freely, or a terrible delusion of roleplayers about how social skills, especially in combat, work.
Let's delve into this.
Delusion # 1 - Social Skills Are Magical
In reality, social skills do seem like magic. You simply pass wind over your vocal cords and someone does what you want them to do.
In linguistics, we call this illocutionary force. But illocutionary force has many limits, such as context, relation of speaker and listener, etc. This is how UPenn defines it:
"Illocutionary force is the combination of
- the illocutionary point of an utterance, and
- the particular presuppositions and attitudes that must accompany that point, including the
- strength of the illocutionary point
- preparatory conditions
- propositional content conditions
- mode of achievement
- sincerity conditions, and
- strength of sincerity conditions."
This means that social skills do not work the same for everyone. A prince might have no trouble bluffing his way past the palace guard, but a beggar would not be listened to, and might get the butt of a pike or even a night in irons for trying to do so. In real life, someone is likely to open a window if you ask them politely and the room is hot, but unlikely to do so if you call them an idiot or it will let in too much cold.
In the short term (i.e. game session), the GM has the right to decide if a PC's abilities are useful or relevant to any situation in which a player might want to use them. In the long term (i.e. over a scenario or campaign), the GM also has to know what social abilities PCs have, and suggest opportunities to use them for advantage. By doing so, he or she teaches players what are acceptable uses of social skills, and encourages them to play into this, to everyone's satisfaction.
Delusion # 2 - Talking In A Fight
I don't think lots of roleplayers have been in actual barfights, because if they had, they would know that fighting is the time to shut up and kill or be killed, not flap your gums. I've been in three, two in Canada, one in Japan. More importantly, I've used my own social skills to avoid fighting at least a half dozen times. I've also seen when social skills backfire and violence breaks out.
There are basically three times for using your social skills - before, during, and after the fight.
Before A Fight
If things are heading towards combat, you should have a chance to use social skills to avoid needless combat. Police and social workers call this de-escalation. Note that if your foes are hellbent on conflict, ie they are under orders, have a valid grievance, or have the advantage of numbers or firepower, then this should either be impossible or improbable (ie skill penalty or limited success, ie they ask you to surrender immediately). Also, people spoiling for a fight are generally already wary of one another, and so should not fall for Cons or Fast Talk (ie heavy penalty or flat out impossible). Instead, using Persuade with some sort of sincere promise or give and take should have a chance of success.
During A Fight
To be honest, once fists are flying, talk is usually out of the question. I got a bloody lip in a 2-on-1 situation in Canada for trying this. About the only option I can see is using a Taunt of some sort to have your opponent drop their guard in favour of a more aggressive attack. This means they will do more damage if they attack, but you get a better chance to hit them as well. Note that using Taunts should also preclude any mercy after the fight, as the opponent is fighting in (to them) righteous anger, and thus are unlikely to stop without some sort of Will roll or intervention of allies.
After A Fight
When the fight is done, there are basically only two situations - you've either won or lost.
If you've won, you can choose your demands, but the degree to which they are met will depend on your social rolls. Talk insincerely or roll poorly and expect revenge at some point; offer the losing side a way out or mutual agreement and roll well and you can expect at least peace, at most a new ally. You shouldn't have to roll for immediate conditions (ie drop your weapons, pick up your wounded and walk away if you want to live), but will need to roll if making longterm or unreasonable demands (ie never come to town again, go back and bring us your leader for arrest).
If you lose, you may ask for mercy or clemency, but again, only if sincere or reasonable. Trying to Con the victor into surrendering should be met with laughter, but asking for a horse to bring the wounded to a hospital or church should have a chance of success, and might not even require a roll.
I've had players complain to me that they 'want to be the hero,' and use their social skills willy nilly to manipulate NPCs. However, even heroes in life and fantasy have setbacks, defeats, and captures. It is persevering DESPITE these setbacks that makes real heroes, and games I've been in where players' egos are fanned with continued, unopposed heroic successes burn bright for a session or two, but inevitably fizzle out due to a lack of stakes.
Delusion # 3 - Spamming Social Skills
This is not combat specific per se, but I see lots of players trying to spam social skills, in other words to pile on skill rolls. For example, I have seen one PC Persuade a guard to let them into a stronghold, then other players line up to Fast Talk or Con them into getting goodies.
I advise any GMs to allow ONE social ability rule per interaction, and that the PC with the highest ability should get first crack, as I proposed in a previous post on alternate forms of initiative. In the real world, if you manage to get a discount on a car rental from an agent, but then your friends chime in asking for more perks, the agent is likely to feel used, rescind the offer, and tell you to take your business elsewhere.
Basically, NPCs should not be patsies or social punching bags for loot, but instead living and breathing inhabitants of their world, and only acquiesce to social requests to a certain point.
Since we are playing games with genre tropes that often circumvent reality, I have to acknowledge that there is some leeway in certain types of games. In Superhero or Swashbuckling games, heroes and villians should be allowed to have dramatic speeches with social effect in certain circumstances. I'll leave the details to GMs, but there are at least 2 considerations:
1) The social skill use must fit the situation, ie superhuman telling hordes of weak foes to surrender and live, and expecting them to agree.
2) Anyone giving such a speech, be they PC or NPC, must be free of interruption. No one shoots Batman when he is explaining that he is the night, or touches Robin Hood until he is done insulting King John. Genre specific social rules should be tit for tat, and not just an advantage for players at the expense of the villians, who should be actual threats, able to profit from the conventions of their game genre or world.
Social Skills as I conceive of them can only be used in four contexts:
1 Out Of Combat - To elicit a situation-specific response if proper conditions are met.
2 Before Combat - To de-escalate conflict.
3 During Combat - To taunt your foe into reckless attacks, but with the understanding that they'll come at you harder and without mercy.
4 After Combat - To beg for mercy when you lose, or negotiate long term conditions acceptable to both parties.
Also, stop spamming social skills, as it deflates the tension from dealing with NPCs.