Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.

In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.

This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.

Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.

Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.

I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.

What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.

Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

5 thoughts to “Intriguing…”

  1. How do you feel about Dogs in the Vineyard for this?

    Its escalation system is not terribly genre-appropriate for the high-political stuff of ASOIAF, but I think it solves a lot of your other concerns, such as:
    – “tactics”, by picking the right traits to use at the right times
    – leveraging (and changing) an existing relationship, by the use of relationship dice
    – tying the mechanics to the roleplaying (so that neither is ignorable), by the linking of the “roleplay” description to the mechanical type of raise you make.

    I know we’ve agreed the system can be a little laborious, but surely no more so than most trad RPGs, and I would imagine ASOIAF is at least as complex – and I’d have thought DitV does a better job of the social modelling you’re talking about.

    1. Honestly, it wasn’t the kind of thing I had in mind. I’m thinking of specialised systems here – whereas DitV is the very definition of unspecialised, as you use the same mechanics for everything.

      Having said that, it does tackle some of the problems, as you say. But it comes with problems of its own. For example, on every raise players are incentivised to take actions that will activate their traits, with relatively little regard for what the other participants are doing.

      One thing I do like about Dogs and might seek to copy is the ability to “give”, so that not every exchange needs to end in defeat per se.

  2. Your thoughts mirror much of my own here, but I don’t think a complicated system will ever capture what makes social interactions engaging.

    I mean, we have combat rules because we need (apparently) to model something complicated without actually having to do it in real life. There’s no such requirement with social interactions, since we can model them easily! So any rules will feel superfluous to a degree. And in fact the more all-encompassing and nuanced they are, the less we need the accompanying roleplay.

    No dice roll will ever make a player care about their narration, if the dice roll is actually the only thing that will have a lasting impact on the game. Only strong fiction can make players care about their narration, when their narration will have a lasting impact.

    Not to say you can’t have dice in your social interactions. Apocalypse World systems seem to do it quite well, just giving you mechanical hooks you can use to give your social interactions a bit of mechanical weight. Sure, the dialogue should have weight anyway, and that’s still the main point, but here’s something tangible and undeniable to quickly throw down and shift things.


    “For example, on every raise players are incentivised to take actions that will activate their traits, with relatively little regard for what the other participants are doing.”

    As a raging DitV fanboy I’ll say that’s a feature (meant to be representing the temptation to abuse your abilities to force your own way), but I would (and do) cut down on the sheer number of traits available when running Dogs. If someone is using a trait inappropriately, then call it up like you would any other game. ^_^

    For interest’s sake, purely because I’m lazy and although I admire the system, I developed an (almost) diceless variant. I tried to keep the same effects in though, as much as possible.

    1. Nice one, Oreso. I basically agree that you care about narration if you care about narration, and if the game makes it real. It’s tough to design that in though, because you’re essentially just exhorting your players to pay attention to narration and call people out if they ignore it – which is what Dogs does AFAIR. It should be possible to design this shit in rather than just rely on the group being hot on it. This is the same thought process I’m going through on combat, on some level – how to make narration count without having to back it with a cumbersome set of mechanics.

      1. I also forgot to say that I’m not 100% in agreement about intrigue being something we can all do. I think there’s a risk that the GM (if it’s a GMed game) has their own view of what would work in an intrigue and imposes that on the game, so that players who aren’t on the GM’s wavelength, or who are just not that confident, get screwed over.

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