Wednesday, January 5, 2011

IMech 3: The Rise of the NPC

Patience, O Gentle Reader, for some matters cannot be measured in a few hundred words, nor even a dozen paragraphs, but must by every grain be sifted completely.  So snatch not this post lightly, but gravely, that it might be understood in its intent.

I have seen posts occurring spottily about the net on the subject of an interactive/intelligence mechanic (not always as an 'IMech') in the last month.  I have continued to give it thought myself, not wishing to add to the discussion until I legitimately had something comprehensive in scope to offer.  But reading Zak's post here, and Oddbit's post here, and finally Telecanter's post here, combined with far too much play at SimCity 4 since Christmas Day (received a copy of the game that was formatted for Vista), my festering mind generated forth an epiphany, which I should like to share.

From comments written after Zak's blog, the thinking continues to follow the principle of 1. have skill; 2. roll against skill; 3. do or do not achieve goal.  Zak (and his vigorous readers) has attempted to replace the 'roll' element with player prowess at what might be termed 'party games.'  Such games might invigorate a session, but it was discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) that the problem remains that player characters with high intelligence or charisma may not be backed by players so blessed.  In other words, if I cannot think of how to answer a question accurately in ten words or less, this does not mean my 18 intelligence mage cannot do so.

Nevertheless, reading through the various skill-testing ordeals, I was struck by the actual problem in the long accepted 3-point process above.  Let us take a neutral example, a common circumstance, typically managed in the D&D setting.

I wish to bribe a guard, in order to gain entrance into ... well, it doesn't matter.  I propose a sum of money, one of my skills is presented, a die is rolled, and the guard accepts the bribe, does not accept the bribe, or reacts in such a manner as to cause great problems for me.  In the process of roleplaying the event, I draw upon my intelligence, my wisdom, my charisma, my bribery skills ... whatever the DM allows me to invoke.  If I am successful, the guard's demeanor is influenced by me and I achieve what I want.

But let us reverse this situation and apply it to the guard's point of view.  The guard has charisma, intelligence and wisdom also, and presumably 'guarding' skill.  At what point does the guard gain the opportunity to roll dice to successfully force my player character to go away?

Do you see?  It is one-sided.  In discussing the IMech problem, I earlier brought up the point that combat created a dynamic that simply did not exist in those interaction circumstances of the game.  This is why.  Combat is not resolved by rolling the 'to hit' die and either successfully killing the opponent or being killed.  If you boil combat down to one roll, you will very quickly find combat a VERY boring part of the game.

No, no, no, the NPC gets to swing also.  They get to roll dice, damage the opponent or kill the opponent - the ultimate restriction on the character's freedom of action.  It is perfectly reasonable that any lesser freedom of action placed upon the character is potentially fair ... even if that means the player is not able to do something the player wishes to do.

Why should it not be that as my player approaches the guard to offer the bribe, the guard's stance, the guard's demeanor, even the steely gaze which the guard holds as he watches me approach, causes my player to lose heart and not even try?  Is this not also part of the IMech dynamic?  It is always assumed that the player will without question get as far as offering the money - no matter what the player's wisdom or constitution might be.  What if the player simply doesn't have the stomach for it?

Understanding, if I have made my point clear, that both sides should have the privilege of rolling against their statistics or skills in order to carry out their conflicting roles, it becomes very clear that rolling is inadequate to the mechanic.  If I have a 14 charisma, and the guard has a 14 charisma, and I have the wisdom to recognize that I'm being hustled, and the guard has the wisdom to recognize that he's being hustled, how does a die roll based on the success/fail dynamic truly represent what is going on?  Truth?  It doesn't.  However you design the rolls, the end result is a crap shoot.  And craps, without the possibility of winning large amounts of money, is a dull, dull game.

Combat is not a crap shoot.  The die roll in combat is influenced by positional tactics, armor class, the well of hit points one brings to the battle, magic, instrumentation and so on ... so it is not merely hit or miss.  Most of all, a hit does not mean the battle is won, and a miss does not mean the battle is lost.  It takes many hits and many misses to resolve the battle, and that makes the process interesting.

But interactive mechanics are not combat, and shouldn't be combat.  A parallel system of 'mental combat' would be a poor substitute for roleplaying.  And what we would want is an IMech that supports roleplaying, just as a near-death experience in combat does.  Something that allows for an 'attack' and a 'defense.'  Something that allows the element of chance, but reduced.  For that, we don't want craps.  Throw out the dice.  The game here is War.

From Wikipedia:

"The deck is divided evenly among the two players, giving each a face-down stack.  In unison, each player reveals the top card on his stack (a "battle"), and the player with the higher card takes both the cards played and moves them to the bottom of his stack."

Now the reader, myself, and everyone associated with D&D know already that this familiar children's game was ramped to the maximum by Magic: The Gathering.  If you're like me, you hate that game, more for the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the players than for the actual concept.  This gets worse when one incorporates the accepted practice of deck-stacking into the game's competition, so that only the most obsessive can actually play the game publically.  Nevertheless, the principle of the game is worth considering here, in that it changes elements of the game War in a manner that could be applied as an interactive mechanic for D&D.

First, "the deck" is not randomized.  It represents a very specific set of skills or talents which could be tailored quite specifically to any player character, regardless of their stat distribution.  Secondly, the "reveal" isn't random.  The player holds the cards in his or her hand, and has the power of choice.  And finally, the "battle" isn't won on the basis of the higher card, but rather upon a rock-paper-scissors motif.

(as an aside, rock-paper-scissors, like war, also yields the elements of chance without the need for a die roll ... but since the options are so limited, and cannot be customized for every kind of player, it is of little value as an IMech.  It is an IMech, however - in case that was missed)

If the game of War is introduced into D&D, it changes the dynamic of bribing the guard from success/failure to a matter of play strategy.  I have charisma, and the guard has charisma, but success is now dependent on when I play, rather than how much.  Both the guard and I have winning cards; but his heart trumps my ace, unless I have a club that permits me another play, though now both my ace and his heart are gone.

I can see how the play could be accomplished.  To get past the guard, a certain number of the guard's limited supply of cards must be 'deactivated.'  The guard, in turn, as presented by the DM, can play to outwit the player.  Both sides can roleplay the situation in order to encourage the other side to misunderstand what cards will be played.  An edge might be allowed that will enable the player to 'see' some or all of the guard's cards.  The DM will have to 'play dumb,' since the player's cards will always be known.

But there should be more at stake than merely getting past the guard.  Obviously, once the guard gave in, the guard could be expected to do so in the future.  So the real result should be the establishment of the 'relationship' between the guard and the player characters.  Does he become 'Friendly'?  'Friendly with reservations'?  'Resistant but understanding'?  Perhaps he isn't willing to let the players past, but he will be forthcoming with information.  The final analysis must be more than just success/fail.  A wide variety of results must be possible, and those results would be determined by which card was played against which card.

If you are looking for me, right now, to provide a phenomenal list of cards which could now be used to make all this possible, you're going to be disappointed.  All I know at this point is that this is the right road to take.  The exact nature of the cards remains a mystery to me as well as to you.  But surely there would be cards based upon the class skills of the players; cards that would be gained with an increase in levels; cards gained in lieu of experience for traumatic or victorious moments had in a player's life; cards for reputation; cards for status and notoriety; cards for criminal behavior; cards for weakness and so on.  A player's cards would be more or less static - every encounter would be approached with the same cards, which the player would have to learn to use ... though obviously some cards, such as "bribe with more money" would require the resources to back the card up.  And of course, the devastation of a player's reputation would mean the removal of the player's reputation cards.

Complicated?  Oh yes.  But this is D&D, remember?  We shouldn't pale at complication.

One last point, which is implied in the above and in the title of this post, but which may yet not have sunk home.  An NPC should be able, through the application of cards, to force a player character to be the NPC's friend or ally.  Players are forced to die.  They are forced by the roll to be surprised.  They are forced by magic to be possessed.  You cannot have a character who chooses to limit the consequences of their actions to things the player isn't squeamish about.  There must be the possibility of the player seeing the NPC coming down the street, the NPC to which the character has never been able to say no, and the player growing pale wondering what the NPC is going to ask for this time.  If only the player could gain a level, and thus the necessary card (assuming the necessary card doesn't need to be gained some other way) to get that NPC bastard off his or her back.

If only.


James C. said...

Initial thoughts:

1) The most thought provoking thing I've recently read about RPGs

2) I'm still squeamish about forcing the players to habitually behave in any way no matter the persuasiveness and logic of your argument. I'd be more comfortable implementing this to determine the results of one given interaction that could influence rather than determine future actions. In the bribing example, the guard could force the player away and the player could not direct their character to attempt to bribe for the same specific purpose again. Furhtermore, the guard now has some edge in the next interaction... but the player is not the social thrall of the guard.

3) I'd initially recommend that each player begin play at first level with a small number of cards and accrue them through play with no upper limit, but "social combat" will require a specific number of cards less than this value. Now the strategy begins in not so much building a deck, but which cards to I bring. Cards you expend during the social combat are gone forever.

4) In # 3 above, this would make make the occasion for such encounters rarer as player's either cautiously managed or depleted these resources, so every social interaction couldn't be a game of war. Only the important ones.

5) I don't think this system need be overly complex, but it does introduce a whole new level of book-keeping and asset management to the game. It seems worth it to me if the problem is solved.

Alexis said...

James, in reply:

2) You have to have something nightmarish and potentially permanent if you want the thing to matter at all. Forcing the players to accept their shortcomings as well as their victories creates drama...even if it costs them some free will. You want free will? Win.

3) Swinging a sword is an intrisic ability and is not subject to resource management. Once a card is expended with a particular subject, yes, you can't use that card again ... but my reputation or charisma doesn't disappear because I've used it to get a free slurpie at the mall.

4) I see no reason why the application of the IMech should be rare. The management and depletion of cards would always be tense when dealing with Big Name NPC's. But there's no reason why a player shouldn't win every competition hands down against a peasant. This accords with reality. Angelina Jolie gets free shit wherever she goes.

Isle said...

My first impression is that the proposed game is more akin to Hearts than War - but an intentionally unbalanced game of Hearts.

I'm not sure how I feel about cards being expended in an encounter. One's strength or dexterity is (rarely) expended in a combat encounter; doesn't a person bring the same (or more) resources to bear when trying to bribe a second guard on the other side of the city?

I like the whole idea, though I'm certainly not the one to design it. I'm likely to come up with an oversimplification... I was thinking three suits matching the mind attributes, where wisdom > charisma > intelligence > wisdom. But I can see you're thinking much bigger.

James C. said...

2) Still not sold, but I'm here so I'm entertaining the thought.

3) Fair point. Let me provide a variation on permanently losing cards that also addresses your concern in #2: winner takes all cards, loser loses theirs. This system need not be constrained to being analogous to the current combat system, though I understand your using it as a guideline. To make them truly analogous you'd need social hit points. Having a pool of cards to gain and lose accomplishes almost the same thing.

4) It's only made rare by the amont of cards lost or gained, not limited arbitrarily. Angelina Jolie just earns lots of cards.

R said...

I think this is related - but how do you handle situations where your PCs become charmed by NPCs? Do they remain in control and act favorably towards their new friend or do you take over their character's actions? Personally I've had very little trouble with my player's separating themselves from their characters, but this doesn't seem to be the case here. If you tell them the guard is intimidating (in more words perhaps) and the squeamish characters don't respond accordingly, well then I think that reflects on the person's poor ability to play a character in the first place.

As you've already spent hours if not days thinking about IMech, I'm pretty sure you disagree (or don't care).

James C. said...

@Isle, if one continually loses in this sort of social interaction, are they not then less effective for the next one. The permanent loss of cards is only permanent for that specific card. More can be won or earned at a later time.

Alexis said...

James, I think it is a failing to see the cards as a resource rather than as a reflection of ability. We don't need another kind of hit point.

R, the roleplaying argument was dispensed with two posts ago. Please catch up.

James C. said...

Ah, but they can be both at once. The face value of the card may have been determined by ability. Perhaps a first level character with an 18 in their prime requisite, a high charisma and intelligence and whatever else gets a king, two jacks and a 10.

If the cards themselves are always held, never lost but possibly gained, wouldn't all high-level characters eventually have all aces?

Roger the GS said...

Ever read the Castle Falkenstein steampunk-ish RPG from the 90's? As I recall, the whole resolution mechanism was a hand of cards you got dealt for the adventure with different suits doing different things. Not sure if there was also the double-bluff aspect you're looking for, though.

Carl said...

This is interesting, Alexis. You do come up with some thought-provoking stuff.

My gut-reaction to introducing a card-based mechanic to D&D is, "This isn't fucking Pokemon. Use the damned dice and the numbers on the sheet."

However, there isn't enough depth in the non-combat numbers on the character sheet to do a decent job of deriving a mechanic from it. It is intersting that you chose to move away from dice and stats and into something totally different for non-combat task and conflict resolution. It's creative and avant garde. It will also give the players another fetish to bind them to their character, like a miniature or a character portrait or the index cards I use for their backpacks and luggage.

Before I get started on your idea, I have to get something out of the way. I take issue with your cavalier attitude toward complexity in the game. Complexity should never be sought for it's own sake. As I was reading your article I could see myself at my table watching my game drag on for hours while one player stared at his cards refusing to play until he was absolutely certain that he was playing the right one. And then would come the arguments about whether or not I was cheating because I knew which cards they had and they didn't know mine.

Complexity should be avoided in a game. This is why Rock-Paper-Scissors is such a good one. It's not complex at all, and yet it has amazing depth. Go is another example of depth without complexity. One of the great failiings of the RPG hobby and the reason collectible card games have been so successful is that complexity in the CCGs is shunned while in RPGs it is embraced. Rule books are too thick. There are far too many rules and the rules themselves are far too complex. It's unneccessary and does nothing but turn off potential and promising players who balk at the learning curve and the cost of the investment. Minutes to learn and a lifetime to master should be the tag line for D&D and all RPGs, and if it were, we would have millions of people playing worldwide instead of the paltry 250,000 or so we do have.

Now this wasn't the point of your post, I realize, and so I'm going to shift back to topic now.

You're going to need two types of cards in the deck. Those that are volatile and those that are stable. The volatile cards may fall into several categories, but off the top of my head you'll need ones that are time-dependent, use-dependent, and simply removable from a player's stack. The non-volatile cards represent the character's unchanging abilities and these can only be removed if they lose ability score points. They must get more cards as they level up. They must be allowed to attempt to acquire more cards as they play. Additionally, you will need to have two categories of the two types of cards. There will be cards that are beneficial and cards that are not. There must be a provision by which a player is forced to play a non-beneficial card. For example, you're trying to bribe the guard, but you are the cousin of his brother-in-law and he hates his brother-in-law and so you must play your "undesireable familial connections" card.

This is already too complex. Alexis, surely there must be a way to do this with dice and the ability scores we have. Even if it means adding a few more derived stats to Int, Wis and Cha there must be a way. IMech needs to be at least as streamlined and easily-explainable as combat. The card system doesn't look like it can meet that requirement.

Zak S said...

numbered bullet points are nice:

1-I agree that the "party game" NPC resolution is strictly a sideline--which it's why I made it optional. (And I will, arbitrarily, not present that option when it comes to certain NPCs.) I also realize this kind of mechanic is likely totally incompatible with the way you roll. (On account of how it's optional and statistically unreliable, if nothing else.)

2-I make the point in the post you linked to that the actual system that a good iMech-type system -would- require designing variables for each negotiation encounter as complex as those for a good combat encounter. (and, at the very least, a combat encounter involves a monster or hostile NPC, both of whom have stats). So, in principle, I totally agree that a more "responsible" system would pretty much -HAVE- to be fairly complicated.

3-This may seem like a hoary old solution, but Tarot cards actually seem like a good model here, since they are more-or-less considered in some quarters to roughly cover life's experiences soup-to-nuts. In D&D coins are supposed to be practical things like money, wands are magic, cups are emotional, and swords are combat.

By the end of The Hobbit, Bilbo's experiences might've gotten him: 4 of coins (did he get any dragon treasure? can't remember, actually.), 2 of wands (he saw some magic, probably didn't understand it), 5 of cups (probably much more mature after it was all over), and 3-4 of swords.

Or score by a PC's major challenges--were they solved by practical smarts? you get more coins. Magic? you get more wands. Charm or social skill? You get more cups. Or steel? More swords.

Special experiences would naturally by represented by trump cards, which do have a numbering system. Someone who's been killed and resurrected might get "Death", etc...

ChicagoWiz said...

This makes me think of the CCG Dominion in some ways. Alexis, do you play other games? I played a game called Dominion only a couple of times, but it was quick and fascinating. I can kinda see where an IMech could work as well.

For those that complain about "yet another system on top of AD&D" - well... combat is a subsystem, thief skills are a subsystem, chargen is a subsystem and so on... this doesn't have to be complex in setup.

James C. said...

Carl, I'm a little confused about your post. On the one hand you make a good argument for the sake of simplicity but depth to any card-based system and offer some good examples, then go about making things complex and resolving that cards can't provide simplicity and depth.

I think a simple, quick "mini-game" could be developed for this just using the template provided by War.

Alexis said...


Did I seek complexity for its own sake? Forgive me, I thought I was accepting complexity as a realistic byproduct of a potentially effective system.

A designer proposes a tunnel between France and England; the first time travel would be possible between the two countries without being subject to the bad weather of the channel. And he admits, it will be hard.

And you, Carl, rise at the end of the table and say, "Let's not make things hard for hardness' sake."

I don't want complexity any more than you do. Boy, am I onboard with you there! But I don't want a half-done crapfest either. If it is going to address the mechanic of roleplay in the game, it isn't going to be done well without being a little complicated. We can't be dismayed by that. Hammer out the details, and it won't be any more complex than playing Magic.

Have you watched them play Magic? Moves pretty fast.

Oddbit said...

I think RPGs are the only game I've ever seen get hung up for 30 minutes or more due to a question of one rule. Every other game I've played has a quick, 'we'll go with this for now'. I think with Magic I could have hung it up as much as DnD if I felt like hassling my opponent about an unsure rule. However, with two people playing a hand, a conclusion is drawn for the duration of play, the players part their ways, do their research on their own time, and return to concede or even converse productively on their opinion of the rule. I believe after the basics are down and with a confident and firm DM, a new 'complicated' system no matter how complicated can be relatively quick.

Magic is complicated. Do some research into the way modifiers for summoned monster stats work and you will discover that there's something like a 7 layer system with each layer having subpriorities (I learned enough to know that I would rather lose to another player and yield to their expertise than spend the time memorizing something so small in my life). The number of abilities and attributes in the system is staggering, and with the various versions and revisions the names for each ability can even change. But there are things you can learn from it if you wish to implement a card system.

Put unique, or unusual rules on the card itself. If you see the rule on less than 1/3 of the cards, you probably want to write out what it does on the card.

Use clear and concise shorthand for common rules. Why use suit when you can use color? Border the cards with blue, red or green. Put the number in one or two corners. Consistently place information and put the information needed immediately on the edges so it is visible if partially covered.

Uniform size and backing. Use durable cards. Use visible font. A number of different things you could learn just by flipping through someone's card collection.

A lot of effort is made to keep the game quick and flowing, but the most important thing to remember is that the unique advantage RPGs have is the GM. The final word comes from them, if you're too wishy washy I and everyone else WILL walk all over you for an advantage at some point and your game will be slow anyways.

James C. said...

I propose the below as a starting point for systemizing Alexis's idea. Comments and critiques desired.

James C. said...

P.S. I realize that might be bad form on my part. I blogged to have it somewhere handy. I'm not trying to hijack this discussion and send it to my blog... please keep commenting/ discussing here.

Alexis said...

No issue. Life is a moveable feast.

Anthony said...

How about a call and response system? Everything in life should be resolved with insult swordfighting...

PS only half serious here :D

Anthony said...

Or maybe Apples to Apples? You can try to match needs/wants/desires with some sort of gift/service/platitude/threat/etc. It still requires arbitration though, so it is less of a system and more of a role playing issue.

Sorry for the burst of quick posts, just throwing out ideas that people can hopefully piggyback on.

Anthony said...

Another thought, how about Dogs in the Vineyard? The game uses a system of raises and sees with dice rolled. So you roll a certain amount of dice to represent each person's Charisma, for example. Either way, the dice thrown are mapped to certain skills, abilities, and traits.

Then there are ways to escalate the conflict. So you could bring in physical threats or bribes or reputation, allowing a person to roll more dice along the lines of their character's strengths. Consequences (fallout) occur from "taking a blow" or risking a large amount of dice, resulting in some loss whether it is physical, social, or what have you.

It is an interesting system that I just started to investigate and it has potential to map with D&D stats with some work.

Joseph said...

I really like the idea of this system as a basis for an RPG, but I'm not sure it's necessary to add an entirely different (card) mechanic into D&D. The following reflects my personal preferences of tweaking current mechanics rather than adding new ones out of whole cloth. Not better, just different; something to consider.

In the article you mention that craps is a boring game if you're not betting. So why not keep the dice mechanic already present, and bet?

If each character has numerical values indicating their force of personality, charms, reputation, resolve, intelligence, and abilities at bartering and bs-ing, and even the influence of powerful friends they can pit those against the guard's pride, greed, resolve, et cetera in the case of a simple bribe.

It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing situation either. I see it as progressing like a game of liar's dice. Each participant bets secretly using their choice of stats [e.g. I offer him a bag of gold and throw in DM's exchange rate of chips, maybe 1:1 gp, depending on economy, and I pick a stat to try to affect; greed is the obvious choice. We both roll d20 and take a look at our own only. Based on that and some bluffing we may each throw in chips from other categories. Maybe I bring up that I know the duke and the guard counters with his charm to defuse the situation. We reveal and add up the totals. High number wins that round and I can choose to push the issue or not.

In this specific situation, let's say the guard has won. Now I'm out the gold (maybe), and I may have tarnished the dukes reputation by bringing him up. The guard has charmed me, making me a little more sympathetic to him, and may have impressed upon me the nature of his *need* in regards to the gold. I can pony up the dough to try again (maybe just make up the difference by which I lost, at DM's discretion), or try a different track all together and start the game over, albeit with reduced stats.

The important thing about this is that the betting can have lasting effects on other interactions as appropriate. The guard is going to talk to his buddies about the exchange. I could get a reputation that diminishes my credibility or even my presence (we all know he never follows through on his threats). It also brings in another tangible reward system; the favor of a well-known person wherever he is known.

Of course I can't deny the visceral reaction I would have as a player watching the DM shred my "I know the duke" card because of in-character abuse would be much greater than erasing a number.

Symeon Kokolas said...

To me, the essence of social conflict is confidence. My abilities, achievements, wealth, friends, and allies all combine to give me the confidence I need to walk right up to that guard like I'm doing him a favor by dropping some coin in his palm. On the other hand, as a first-level weakling walking up to the 5th level guard captain, I'm probably quaking in my boots even if I the player refuse to admit it.

So, consider this as yet another outline.
Base points come from your (reasonably) permanent assets such as attributes, level, allies, reputation, and wealth. I would suggest one point per level, one point per two attribute points over 10 (and -1 point per two under 10), a to-be-determined table of reputation value, and a formula for wealth being the cube root of your net worth divided by pi (or by 3). Attribute points could be restricted to physical stats for direct threats, for example.
Temporary points come from favors owed, contacts, cash in hand, minor accomplishments, etc.
Each actor commits all of their base points. If they wish to risk their temporary points, they may do so.
Each actor states their main goal. Actors then roll 1d10 and add their point total. Compare the difference to a table for the result (included below). The loser must make a suitable offer (minor or major concession, submission) and the winner may accept the offer or roll again. Points are subtracted as per the table and both parties roll again with their new totals and compare. Actors may add additional temporary points if they have any in reserve. Play continues until a winner accepts an offer, a loser does not have enough points to roll again (rule as submission), or both parties agree to walk away.

+20 or more NPC completely submits, -3 vs. this PC in future (once, -1 for future results)
+15 to +19 NPC pays 5 or submission, -1 vs. this PC in future (once only)
+10 to +14 NPC pays 3 or major concession
+5 to +9 NPC pays 1 or minor concession
-4 to +4 neutral, each party must pay 1 to roll again
-5 to -9 PC pays 1 or minor concession
-10 to -14 PC pays 3 or major concession
-15 to -19 PC pays 5 or submission, -1 vs. this NPC in future (once only)
-20 or more PC completely submits, -3 vs. this NPC in future (once, -1 for future results)

minor concession: useful information, wealth rating in gp gift, minor favor (add as contact)
major concession: dangerous information, wealth rating * 5 in gp gift, major favor (add as support)
submission: the letter of the goal is acheived (player allowed past gates, npc gets free major healing, etc.)
complete submission: the spirit of the goal is acheived (guard helps player avoid patrols, player blesses and protects npc and provides for continued health, etc.)
At resolution, any temporary points risked in the contest are lost (except wealth, unless the deal reduces the actor's wealth). Favors and/or cash is exchanged. Note that this may actually improve the rating of the loser if the winner had to risk several favors to succeed. Failure to uphold the deal results in permanent loss of reputation at a minimum.

If you are dead set on cards, you could use cards to represent important contacts, allies, favors, and financial assets; each card would carry a value proportional to the asset's value. Each actor would choose and play a card face-down, make an offer, then reveal and add base points. Winner chooses to take the offer or play again.

Symeon Kokolas said...

Some examples which may help explain how this method (points) could scale...

pc lvl 3 thief attempts to bribe lvl 0 guard at castle barracks, large city
pc: 15, 4 from stats, 3 from level, 3 from net worth, 2 from party members, 2 from contacts, 1 from rep
npc: 13, 2 from stats, 0 from level, 2 from net worth, 5 from barracks guards, 4 from contacts, 0 from rep

resolution: both roll d10 and add confidence.
round 1: pc rolls 4, total 19; npc rolls 8, total 21: neutral result, both parties -1.
round 2: pc rolls 2, total 16; npc rolls 8, total 20: neutral result, both parties -1.
round 3: pc rolls 7, total 20; npc rolls 4, total 15: +5 result. pc may choose to accept information or continue rolling (npc -1). (I can't let you in, but I can tell you where the Duke likes to drink.) (pay offered bribe to receive tip)
round 4: pc rolls 1, total 14; npc rolls 10, total 20: -5 result. dm may choose a minor favor or continue rolling. (If you promise to help me later, I promise not to call the guard captain and have you arrested.) (npc chooses favor instead of bribe, so no gp exchanged)
(continues until a result is chosen or the actors run out of points)

npc lvl2 merchant attempts to talk pc lvl3 thief out of mugging him.
pc: 15, 4 from stats, 3 from level, 3 from net worth, 2 from party members, 2 from contacts, 1 from rep
npc: 18, 2 from stats, 2 from level, 4 from net worth, 2 from leveled guards, 6 from contacts, 2 from rep

Similar to the bribe, this is a close contest and could go either way. If the pc wants to hold and threaten the npc instead of immediately entering combat, this could be the fallback mechanic.

Alexis said...

Seriously Symeon, I didn't remove the extra posts that followed this ... the blogger spam finder did. If the stuff sounds like spam, what does that say?

Why don't you post all of it on your blog, as James did?

Griffin said...

I haven't read all of the comments, but I did go through most of them I think. Just a little disclaimer in case I'm covering something already said.

Reading this post I was actually reminded of the old card game Brawl. Which was a real-time one-on-one unarmed combat card game. There was an assortment of cards (hit, block, grapple, etc) and there were different 'character' decks (bought that way, not customisable by players). So each character deck had slightly different tactics even though they all consisted of the same kinds of cards, just in different amounts. I remember playing this years ago and a game was 2-3 minutes to play, on the high end. Assuming both people knew the rules. I do remember on the faster games the limiting factor was how slow your hand was physically moving to draw and place the cards.

Anyway, for a card-based mechanic like this I would recommend checking out Brawl as a starting point and/or reference. All the rules are available online these days at

Would be simple enough to do just a straight swap of terms. Hit becomes Intimidate. Block becomes Deceit. Grapple is counter-offer, or so on.

Arduin said...

The problem I see there, Griffin, is that, generally, conversation meant to accomplish a goal, rather than, as said above "insult swordfighting" is that it generally isn't about speed and parrying, so much as it is about presenting to the other person that A. They have no choice. or B. They want what you are offering.

A combination of these is ideal.

In that sense, the bribe isn't a "I need to get in, here's cash", as it is "I'm getting in, but here's something for your trouble."

The guard in this case is operating out of an entirely different set of social parameters, as is any political opponent. If the circumstances put you in the same sphere, there would not be the conflict.

So essentially, the player is wagering his reputation, wealth, and personal magnetism against the guard's greed, sense of duty, and cowardice.

If the guard has a backbone, you probobly won't get in. If that backbone is supported by an empty wallet, you may hit the right button with a bribe. If the guard is greedy enough, they may even attempt to raise it, or blackmail you later, or whatever.

It's not about the punch of my witty retort vs. his kick of moral turpitude so much as it is the maneuvering of our positions and careful strikes.

This is why, generally, when trying to bribe a bouncer, you dont announce "Hey. Here is a bribe." And hand them a fiver.You make yourself appear as if you belong there, and slip the bribe without fanfare - you're doing them a service, and you can make things tough on them if they decide to get beureaucratic on you.

The card system has a great deal of potential, and I see the bluff mechanic as one of the prime sources of that potential.

Social maneuvering isn't about punching the other guy in the gut with your charm (although, if the disparity is great enough, this can happen). It is about the subtle maneuvering of different aspects. Your knowledge of them as a person and your ability to read them is important.

All of that aside, the discussion here and elsewhere is quite interesting, and I'd like to see if/what Alexis comes up with, if anything, in the future.