The mechanics of role playing games allow us to be faster, smarter and stronger than we are in real life, so why shouldn’t they also let us be more persuasive? This is an old discussion in RPGs, but it takes on a different life in LARP, where it’s far more likely for social mechanics to be used by one player’s character against another.
The presence of mechanics
All LARPs have rules, most LARPs have mechanics. The important question for this discussion is what is the purpose of the mechanics? If a system exists solely as a means to safeguard players from attempting actions that may, if attempted in real life, cause them to get hurt then there is no place in that system for social mechanics. Simply put, in such a case someone’s failure to convince another character of something will never result in injury to the player. More often than not, though, mechanics are included in a system that allow for players to have characters that can perform feats or have skills and knowledge that the players themselves do not possess. If this is the case there needs to be as much legitimacy in the rules for a martial arts master as there is for a silver-tongued master politician. The two in theory should be mechanically inseparable under such a paradigm. This however leads to a problem:
Balancing free will
Players never want to have the actions of their characters dictated to them. No player wants to be told what their character thinks of another character, especially when the reason their character’s attitude change occurred was beyond their control. I think a lot of the discontent over social mechanics exist because players are made to have very little agency as changees, since the mechanic onus is on the changer.
Many mechanics resolution engines in LARP use on the spot randomization to ascertain success or failure. These are the systems that use card draws, rock/paper/scissors or die rolling. The problem with these systems is that success or failure occurs arbitrarily – at the moment the test is required you pull a randomizer and based on mechanical alchemy success or failure occurs. If a player feels like their character would resist an attempt to socially influence there is no mechanical way for their character to fight harder; it’s at the whim of the dice and the player has no agency over the result.
Other LARP systems, ones that I personally don’t see as often, use a resource-based mechanic. In these cases characters have a fixed amount of resources that their players may spend at their discretion. Unlike the randomization method above, if a player feels their character would resist social manipulation they may exert more resources to ensure that the correct result (as dictated by the challenged) occurs.
As I’ve said earlier, I believe that LARPs around the world do themselves a disservice by insisting on socially distancing PCs and NPCs. In the end, whenever a character walks into a game it should be ascribed the same perceived value, regardless of who created the character. This backs me into a bit of a corner, because many traditional RPGs create social mechanics that player characters are by design immune to (or in the very least create mechanics which afford different privileges to PCs and NPCs). If I want to argue that social mechanics should exist I need to argue that such a mechanic would be applicable unilaterally between all characters.
Roleplay vs Rollplay
Further complicating this matter is the roleplay vs rollplay debate. Ideally a player should strive to play their characters role as much as possible without resorting to using mechanics. Mechanics are, by their nature, intrusions to acting and are perceived to be a cop out of the unimaginative. Many argue quite effectively that a player should attempt to first roleplay a social conclusion before resorting to using a social mechanic, however a corollary can also be reached that is of interest to me: if mechanics are employed at the outset it allows for both players to work within the confines of a pre-determined outcome and act in such a way so as to make that resolution interesting. Often if a player attempts to roleplay a solution and they find it’s not working it becomes awkward to change up and resort to a mechanic, but if the mechanic prefaces the interaction then resolution of the coercion challenge can be shown to succeed or fail based on the initial mechanical interaction.
The limits of coercion
How much of an attitude change should a perfectly mundane social mechanic be allowed to cause? How long should such a shift in attitude take? When measuring mechanics it’s always advantageous to look at extremes and then dial it back to a reasonable point. The most radical adjustment possible would be to take a character that is physically hostile to another and make them willing to die for that character. The most subtle adjustment possible is probably something like moving someone from wanting to buy one thing at a store to two things. The actual limits of mundane coercion lie somewhere in between, but it’s very seldom that a system with a social mechanic lays out what it considers to be an acceptable degree of mundane coercion and how long that takes.
If a supernatural ability which enables a character to coerce another supernaturally was added how does this all change? The answer obviously varies according to the mechanic and the setting, but my experience has been that supernatural mechanics do a poor job of telling the reader what the limits of the coercion can be.
There are some pretty hefty and competing ideas at work here:
- The Gamist’s desire to use a system to create a predictable result (based on percentage chance) vs. a Narratavist’s desire to choose a result which tells the best story vs. the Simulationist’s need to ensure that possible outcome of social mechanics using mundane coercion are within acceptable limits (see GNS Theory).
- The need for a system to allow for players to perform tasks with their characters that they themselves cannot perform vs. the idea that a LARP with fewer mechanical interruptions is preferred to one with many.
- The need for a sublime system that uses a simplest base engine with consistently aspected exceptions vs. the desire for entirely different rules paradigms to handle (in this case) physical and social outcomes.
- The need to lay out what is mundanely possible vs. what is supernaturally possible.
I do believe that it would be possible to create a resource-based system that better tackles the idea of social mechanics and rewards players who do not resort to using them. Under the most prevailing theatre-style LARPs, though, it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile these ideas in a way that really satisfies anyone. They have thus remained elephants in the room not visible by the proverbial Mind’s Eye. Individual storytellers often attempt, but ultimately fail, to address the issue because ambivalence and uncertainty is programmed into the mechanics themselves.
So now I want your thoughts… because a. it’s a very complex subject that has been explored much more in pen and paper than in a LARP context and b. because I’d like to see where each of your limits of acceptability are based on certain contexts.