Die Rolls and Social Scenes

I know quite a few people who get quite upset over this topic but ultimately I think that dice rolls need to trump acting when it comes to social encounters.  Knowing that is likely to cause some disagreement I’ll attempt to explain why and what it means when it comes to games I run.

What Do I Consider “Roleplaying”

Among some folks I know this is a sticking point but honestly I don’t consider things like speaking in the first person or doing a character voice/accent or only answering to your character’s name to be roleplaying.  Acting?  Sure.  However acting is not roleplaying and roleplaying is not acting.  They are related but they are not the same thing.

I consider roleplaying to be making a decision for your character based on your character’s life, experience and understanding of the situation they are facing.  It can be, and often is, an internal process.  The first person, accent and all that is only the window dressing.  Someone can be a great roleplayer while saying things “I ask the king to let us have some troops” rather than giving a long drawn out speech at the table.

So with that in mind, into the meat of things.

It is a Game

RPGs are games in which the players take on the roles of imaginary characters.  As part of the agreement regarding the game there is usually a randomizer of some nature to be used when the outcome is in doubt.  Can someone break down a door?  Roll the dice!  Can someone pick a lock before they are caught?  Roll the dice!  Can someone convince the king to release a prisoner?  Well…what do you say to the king?

Notice the difference?  That’s the sort of thing that is played out time and again at table after table.  Games stop relying on the dice as soon as social interaction is involved.  Suddenly the rules and mechanics and everything go to the wayside so the player can try to convince the GM that the NPC the GM is portraying should do a thing. The GM may say “make a roll” or they may not, but 90% of the time they will assign a modifier to the roll based on the player’s acting ability.  My $0.02 is that doing so is just plain wrong.  We never ask a player to recite a prayer to give them a bonus on casting a clerical spell nor so we ask a player to demonstrate how to properly wield a sword to get an attack bonus.  In all other avenues, a player’s skill does not affect the character’s ability.

At that point it’s no longer a game but an acting exercise.

Character Skills not Player Skills

At the most basic level a Role-Playing Game is about playing a character who may be fundamentally different than yourself.  They use all sorts of mechanics and randomizers to handle everything from researching esoteric lore to climbing a mountain to firing a plasma gun.  They even, generally, include rules for lying, persuading and intimidating and the players (GM and non-GMs alike) should treat those skills with the exact fidelity to the rules that they treat everything else.  If the players like to act out their characters and so forth that’s all great but it’s the seasoning and not the main dish.  A shy player shouldn’t be discouraged from making a smooth talking con artist any more than any other player would be dissuaded from playing a warrior from the harsh dessert world.  That is what character skills are for.

Description, Intent, Approach

There is nothing wrong with a player saying “Adara will walk up to the guard and convince him to leave his post by talking about how good the hot soup at the tavern is and she’ll watch things if he wants to slip down for a couple minutes on this cold rainy night” and there’s nothing wrong with the GM just making a decision based on the description of the intent and the approach.  Remember that dice rolls are made when the outcome is in doubt.  If Adara has a very high persuasion skill, maybe the GM doesn’t ask for a roll.  She’s got a good enough point and it’s really only for a few minutes.  Excellent.  Maybe she does have a good point but the guard knows abandoning his post means death.  Then no roll is going to make him risk his neck for soup.  However, maybe the guard is kind of wet and miserable but also worried that he’ll be reprimanded or lose some coin.  Nothing too serious but enough to give him pause before agreeing.  That’s when a die roll comes in.

At no point does success or the difficulty depend on the player’s acting ability.  The player decides on the approach (persuasion), the intent (have the guard leave for just a few minutes) and the other details.  All of which fits handedly under role-playing and none of it requires acting ability.

Where Does the Acting Come in?

None of this is to say that acting, voices ,accents, first person etc. don’t have a place.  They absolutely can.  They just don’t play into the success or failure of a character any more than a players ability to do a push up plays into an attack’s success or failure.  In the example above, the player has described what they want to do and how they want to do it.  That’s all that is needed for the game to continue.  However, most groups do enjoy playing through the interaction between the PC and the NPC and that’s awesome.  In this case though, the clear statement of intent helps to focus the scene – both the player and the GM know what the desired outcome is.  This works exceedingly, exceedingly well if the roll is made at the start of things so you already know as the conversation starts what the result will be and you can guide it there naturally.

The No Sell

I have an issue when a player or a GM just doesn’t buy in to their opponent’s success and I’ve found that happens more often when success or failure is based on roleplaying or acting.  The dice rolls and rules are objective.  Did a character succeed or not?  Whether or not a character is intimidated or charmed or frightened is dictated by the impartial roll of a die.  It doesn’t do the game any favours to no sell or short sell that success.  If a character or NPC wouldn’t be intimidated then take abilities etc. that do that.

In Closing

  • Roleplaying is not acting.
  • Dice and rules are (mostly) objective.
  • Only roll when the outcome is in doubt.
  • Treat social skills with as much respect as combat rules
  • Good roleplayers will play to the outcome the dice dictate.
  • Be as clear as possible in the character’s intent and approach.
Chris Fougere
Currently running - Conan, Shadow of the Demon Lord, D&D Odyssey of the Dragonlords, Stars Without Numbers, D&D Greyhawk and Fallout 2d20

Currently playing - Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG, Forbidden Lands, D&D

Chris Fougere

Currently running - Conan, Shadow of the Demon Lord, D&D Odyssey of the Dragonlords, Stars Without Numbers, D&D Greyhawk and Fallout 2d20 Currently playing - Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG, Forbidden Lands, D&D

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