Monday, March 25, 2019

Charisma Issues

So. Charisma.

I've been thinking about why it is such a headache.

Attempts to impose systems that enable characters to use charisma to have an immediate, direct effect on the dealings of others, principally by players against non-player characters, has largely failed. The tendency of players is to see NPCs not as believable entities, but as tools towards an end ~ and thus, charisma is used as a weapon to dominate or coldly manipulate guards, officials, common persons or enemies into a state of obedience and submission by virtue of a die roll. Given any chance that this will work, without any real consequence experienced by the player, the player is bound to try again and again, like pulling a slot machine, addressing each NPC with the expectation that the roll will work, so that this time, the character-victim will instantly become the player’s vassal.

This suggests that die rolls cannot work.  However small the chance for success, the player will always go for it; and supposedly, the high-charisma character should have a fairly decent chance of winning over strangers and influencing people.  Without a consequence, failure to do so is fairly meaningless; and what consequence can we provide that will mean something to a player outside of the NPC immediately taking  up arms?

We can leave interactions to role-playing, insisting the player win every success through parley with the DM ... but then we're forced to accept that the NPC is always the same person, with the same likes, dislikes, buttons, prejudices and recognizeable behaviour patterns.  However much the DM might try to take on another personality, we're still going to the same well and, ultimately, that well is predisposed to allow success or impose failure based on the DM's agenda.

In effect, the player character is a psychopath.  Because charisma is used as a tool, the expressions are glib and superficial. The PC is bound to have a grandiose and exaggerately high estimation of self with compared to NPCs.  The PC feels no resistance to lying, cunning or manipulation of NPCs.  If an NPC dies under the player's watch, it is easy to lack remorse or guilt.  Players are generally very callous towards NPCs and rarely possess empathy for them.  Players casually kill NPCs without notable impact on their self-identity.  Players are overly impulsive, particularly in their dealings with NPCs.  They will usually objectify NPCs, seeing them as possessions.  And so on.

None of this really matters, because NPCs are fictional objects and the players know it.  It requires an enormous build-up of a particular NPC to gain a player's concern or empathy for that fictional character ~ and some players will simply refuse to invest themselves personally in something that is "just made up."  It is a challenge that has frustrated many writers for centuries, in having to deal with readers who insist on treating film and literary characters as "not believable" for a host of pejorative justifications.  These range from not liking strong women, superheroes, drug addicts and other criminals, the presence of intelligent black people, anything verging on a racial stereotype, LGBT issues, anything suggestive of weakness and, of late, a pronounced dislike of cultural appropriation.  "I hate your Egyptian character because you're not Egyptian."

Whatever the motives, players often won't adopt a sense of wrongdoing when using their 18 charisma to flat-out exploit NPCs, wringing out their last hit points dry before casually leaving them to face the dragon while the party beats a hasty retreat.  So it is crucially difficult to create a game system that doesn't detrimentally empower characters with high charisma (leaving those with low charisma to shut up while the beautiful people talk), while encouraging the abuse of NPCs while vastly reducing the immersive qualities of player/NPC discourse.

What's needed is a consequence that doesn't depend on the nuclear option.  At low levels, it's enough to make one NPC draw a weapon to discourage a player from getting too bossy, but as the levels climb it's necessary to have the whole tavern draw weapons, followed by the arrival of a substantial city guard, two or three knights and a local mage, half the town and perhaps a good portion of the kingdom eventually, because a 19th level fighter took it in mind to bitch-slap a fictional 14 y.o. servant.  It gets a little ridiculous.

We humans, of course, don't act like psychopaths, in very small part because of the legal consequences involved but because we would feel awful for long periods afterwards, even our whole lives if the choice to do something really selfish and vindictive caused us to lose a friendship or question our legitimacy as likeable human beings.  Guilt is a serious consequence; and not something that players feel overmuch.

Guilt can have serious physical and mental consequences.  It can lead to headaches and stomach aches, muscle tension, lack of sleep, feeling on edge, feelings of desperation, self doubt, anger, overcompensation and a tendency towards suicide.  In game, these are all measurable responses, none of which require an NPC to draw a weapon.  In fact, they will tend to manifest because the player was successful in their manipulation, rather than the contrary.

Of course, players want to be free to be as evil as they like, without consequences.  There's enormous fun in teasing small fictional children to fall out of windows to their deaths and pushing an unsuspecting townsperson into the open to "see" if the enemy has bows or not.  What evil female character hasn't pretended to be a prostitute long enough to lure a client into a private place in order to assassinate them and pick up a few coins?

If we impose a guilt rule on such persons, what then?  Where's the fun?  And in what ways are we challenging the principles of player agency?

I'm not sure there's an answer for that.  It may be that player characters must be self-declared as creatures immune to guilt, a condition that cannot be possessed by characters with a charisma above a certain point.  Someone will inevitably argue that Hitler had a charisma of 18, but I'd argue there's no measurable evidence of the assertion, and that our mythology of his charisma is due to our needing to explain the irrational willingness of the German people to embrace him into their hearts.  When I look at the little corporal with his silly mustache, stomping and strutting, and hear the words of his speeches and his manic delivery, I don't see this "charisma," though I do see a certain drive and intellect in his unbridled ambition.  Accounts of Hitler in the 1920s don't bear out this "charismatic" argument, but it is clear that he was loud, irrepressible and willing to surround himself with gangsters, whom he then organized and empowered through his ruthless strategies.  We know that the crowds of "adoring" Nazi synchophants were populated with gangsters who did not hesitate to club and beat those who did not show enough sychophancy.  It is probable large parts of the crowd attended in order to be seen by their neighbors and therefore not called out as traitors to the state, rather than any appreciation for a maniacal racist megalomaniac.  The charismatic theory has some considearable holes in it.

But ... we're only interested in game procedures, at any rate.  If we regulate evil persons out of the exploit-through-charm option, and if we impose meaningful repercussions upon players who use charisma in order to callously exploit NPCs, reducing their constitution, wisdom, ability to rest or their ability to be fully charismatic for temporary periods, or even potentially permanently, players might hesitate to use their 14+ charismas as a "let's fuck over everybody" game strategy.

I wouldn't think it would be popular.  Quite a number of players, used to acting as assholes towards NPCs and shrugging it off like a speck of rain, will chafe at the notion.  It would probably be embraced only by players who already don't want to use charisma as a weapon.  The idea wouldn't be adopted at tables run by DMs who actively encourage players to lack empathy or concern for anyone except their selfish selves ... so long as they pay fealty to that DM.

Such a rule, however, would be constructive in causing a player to hesitate before flashing a smile, winking, and suggesting the princess betray her father, her people and her virginity, so that she can run off to a life of adventure with this gorgeous adventurer whose going to dump her in the next kingdom over as soon as the quest is complete.

A player might, then, feel a little bit bad about doing such things.


Ozymandias said...

There's more rumbling about inside that head of yours, I'll warrant . . .

Interesting thing about psychopathy: we can assign it a chance of occurring naturally in PCs. Meaning every character has a chance of not being affected by those penalties (whatever they are).

And . . .

If we have a penalty, we might also have a bonus (depending on the mechanic used). Which means we'd finally have a way to express bonuses for things love, friendship, family, heroism, etc.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You're right about rumblings. I went and wrote another post on the subject as soon as I finished this one.

JB said...

Well, you could always add alignment back to the game and say, "You know, acting this way is going to lose your paladin/ranger those special abilities," or "Your deity might not feel so hot about you mistreating a would-be worshipper/follower."


You know, I was just thinking the other day (literally yesterday, while prepping myself for church), "Maybe ol' Alexis is right. Maybe it would just be best to cut alignment out of one's game." I mean, it serves very little mechanical purpose, and...depending on how one defines the cosmology of her/his's not even all that necessary for the interactions of deities-clerics-spells. I was reading Gygax's early thoughts on transitioning the three-fold alignment to a five-fold version in an archived copy of The Strategic Review, and while it made sense and I LIKED what it had to say, I couldn't help but consider A) it's just such a damn artificial construct for what (with real world humans) is a very fluid thing, and B) do we really want/need to be micro-managing players behavior using such constructs?

Real people are motivated by a lot of things, not the least of which is conscience. The Catholic church's stance about GUILT is that it is a sign of a well-developed conscience. As you point out, most folks aren't psychopaths, we feel bad about injurious actions (whether we're injuring others or ourselves). Some RPGs model this mechanically (Pendragon with its laundry list of virtues/vices and even Vampire with its "humanity" stat), but those games are ABOUT this stuff (Pendragon about being a "chivalrous knight;" Vampire about retaining humanity while battling your monstrous urges). D&D isn't. It's about exploring a fantasy world and finding treasure.

Whatever purpose alignment was originally supposed to serve (dividing up sides for Chainmail's mass combat system, etc.) it IS possible to use it as a shorthand for conscience without adding an actual mechanic that keeps track of a players' guilt or degeneration into sociopathic behavior. I agree that alignment's far too often been wielded as a bludgeon to enforce player behavior, and that it offers little in the way of mechanically modeling the fluidity of player motivation (how many transgressions can be tolerated before requiring a shift in alignment? And should there be consequences for such a shift? Should such a shift equate to a break in a PC's sanity, a step towards psychopathy?). But as a kind of "guidepost" perhaps it could be used to tell a DM when an action might tick/trigger a PC's conscience.

[ comment is too long]

JB said...

[second part of comment...continued]

Without SOME sort of mechanic, you're left with players trying to "feel" something for imaginary (NPC) individuals, such that they act in a way that's not overly callous. That's a pretty tall order (as you rightly point out in this post). But I'd hesitate to add a real, mechanical effect to guilt...NOT because it's not a real phenomenon (it is) with real effects (it is) but because...well, because that's not really what the game is about. Is it something that you want to emphasize in play? Will it contribute to the escapism and enjoyment of the game?

I suppose you *could* simply make it difficult to "fully exploit" someone using ONLY charisma. Look at the film Dangerous Liaisons as an example to model. Even for the most Charismatic, experienced, and callous individual seduction can take TIME...a long break down the resolve of someone and get them to do something that they wouldn't ordinarily be willing to do (whether because of their own conscience or the expected boundaries of society or both). It's just not so easy for a PC (even one with an 18 charisma) to get some NPC (even a weak-willed one) to throw away its life or risk its reputation. Seduction and manipulation requires time and effort (unless one wants to resort to magical use...and who doesn't?), with probably an extended series of rolls over time to break down an NPC's resolve. Something akin to dragon subdual rules or (better yet) a variation of the Ego struggle with a magical sword. Regardless, if you make it less convenient (because of the time and effort required), perhaps PCs will think twice before exercising the option. That might be a preferable resolution to the dilemma.

Rosenritter said...

Classic D&D mechanics, run fairly close to as written, have managed to serve me quite well: Upon first encounter, the PCs roll for reaction. Charisma adjusts the initial reaction: 2d6, 2 is worst, 12 is best. Everything after that is solely role-play. It's possible that I'm merely seeing correlation, not causation, but I have at least found that taking this stance is effective in keeping away the stereotypical 'psychopath PC' characteristics.

Alexis Smolensk said...

And it works, Rosenritter. I've been doing it fairly the same as you since I started. But it's also fairly mechanical, not particularly interesting for the players and produces no real momentum for the game nor tension.

Therefore, there are probably better ways.

uripadeez said...

Or possibly this can be resolved by the weight of narrative fiat. Or perhaps some sort of rules for social combat with consequences to status (social hit points so to speak). I don't like the label of psychopath or murder hobos - it debases the game into some kind of anti-social nihilistic fantasy - where players get to do what they can't in real life without consequences. Invent consequences - the world/narrative pushes back. So you seduce the princess and dump her in the next kingdom - hell hath no fury - and as a DM I would unleash that fury outright for the sake of narrative. Hell - might actually spice things up if psychopathy is your group's bag.

Alexis Smolensk said...


It's a commonly proposed solution, and has a long history. But ...

Who is the DM to decide when the world/narrative should push back? And how hard? Is this not the DM imposing a personalized, prejudiced moral will on the party. You say "fiat" ~ but I call the DM's fiat a form of arbitrary tyranny, where the DM's power can only be held in check by the constant threat of breaking the game, by the players quitting in disgust. This does not seem a good basis for resolving game play.

uripadeez said...

Ah. "Narrative fiat" is not necessarily determined by DM alone. The narrative force/fiat I am referring to could be created by the group with everyone (including the DM) pushing and pulling on it (hopefully equally, but not always). I've been reading a lot about "that guy" with the 18 Charisma character that purposely "ruins the game" by being allowed to strong arm the narrative with the rules as written. I would hope the DM wouldn't need to be a tyrant to resolve those issues. Instead the DM could look to the agreed upon narrative of the group to create the potential of consequences. I know if I were a player in a game with "that guy" who dumped the princess, I might mention "you know, that was probably not the smartest move, if I were her, I'd come back on you with the fire of 1,000 suns." (nodding to the DM) "We might just end up seeing her again, who knows?" No strong arming needed, no fiat required, but as a player - I just created some potential in the narrative that might make "that guy" wonder. No morality imposed, maybe implied.