Saturday, 30 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 06

Opining at great length

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 6

The Episode

Despite my confusion a fair bit of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed this game (rather to my surprise) and am genuinely keen to play more of this system. I'd happily play more Demon Hugh Jackman, but I suspect I could come up with some more ideas now I have a little more understanding of the game.

That being said, I suspect my ideas would tend to be a bit out of kilter with the White Wolf expectations because I'm just genuinely not very interested in playing characters that are miserable or being all angsty. So what I want from a Demon game is, basically, a superhero game with pseudo-Catholic trappings and a vaguely antihero sort of tone, with pacting and house-appropriate background work. This is of course much easier for your wilderness dude than almost any other school: Shimiel has some obvious options for looking into conservation work, mistreatment of animals, corruption of the wild and so on (much like your average D&D druid) whereas I'm just not sure what a demon of Death, Water or Patterns is supposed to do with their time.

I was wrong about the bear (around 28 minutes) - "that guy" was, of course, Lord Byron and he attended Trinity College, Cambridge.

On pacting

I think the pacts would be a lot more pleasing in a longer-term game that wasn't a one-shot. There would be space to let them breathe, and so a long-term pacting plot would be possible, whereas I was really just looking to test out the mechanic and grab some fall-back Faith in case things went bad, not really knowing much much my lack of refills would be a problem.

Although Dan's right that pacts don't offer a huge amount while you have low Faith, I think there are a couple of disclaimers. One is that he began the game with pacts, so I think that gives a slightly different perspective on things - there's a lot of difference between a small pool that refreshes every day, and having a small pool that only refreshes if you take drastic and risky action, in this case Reaping. Also, in a long-term game where pacts took longer and were more of a subplot, it's likely that your Faith might increase roughly in step with your pacts, and so actually each pact would be significant. As with many things, his existing knowledge of the game probably made him less concerned about depleting Faith than I was.

Another point is that I imagine your pacted mortals might play a bigger role in events, especially where rival demons, demon-hunters or just people suspicious of the pactee's sudden turn of fortune come into play. Chad had a bit of subplot in this one, and I can easily see some pactees getting actively involved in the demon's machinations.

Why so many social skills?

I made what I smugly think is an insightful point about skills. Dan expressed bemusement, or possibly exasperation, at the sheer number of social skills you need to be good at socialing in WOD. But I think this is to be expected in a game that is trying to make sure socialing is significant. WOD is, from what I understand, heavily about character interaction and often PC interaction, frequently in antagonistic ways where mechanics become important (arguably) to maintaining balance, and therefore wants that interaction to be interesting.

There's an interesting comparison with combat. Combat often relies only on one core skill, or even on none. In WOD, there seem to be three - Brawl, Melee and Firearms. It's not quite that simple, though, because depending on your playstyle, combat is likely to be far less abstract that social interaction with NPCs typically is.

In a lot of games I'm familiar with, social situations are basically adjudicated with a single roll at an appropriate point. Unless someone shifts the situation in some way, another roll isn't necessary. Either you managed to intimidate the NPC for information, or you didn't. Either you psychologised them (or persuaded them, or deceived them) or you didn't. Sometimes, an entire social encounter will be denoted by the roll. At other times, each of a small number of rolls produces a significant shift in the NPC's behaviour, depending whether it succeeded or failed - an attempt to intimidate them might make them nervous and talkative, or just antagonise them.

In contrast, combat generally involves a whole series of rolls that produce non-binary results (hey, remind you of anything?) These rolls may well be on the one core Kill Things ability, but actually there are often at least a couple - Dodge is common, and a Melee/Ranged split is fairly common, with even D&D using Strength or Dex respectively. It's generally hard to be good at all fighting.

But combat isn't just that simple, either. Within a fight, you might try to push something over (Be Strong skill), vault over a car (Jump), swing on a chandelier to land behind an enemy (Show Off), Intimidate your opponent, pull off a feint (Bluff), roll between enemies (Tumble), catch someone in a tapestry (Finesse), or use a sparking bit of broken machinery to set alight a pool of petrol (Luck? Finesse? Science?).

Wait, there's more! Combat isn't just about the actual fight. What about your initial scouting foray to assess the strength of opposition (Sneak, Spot, Listen, Use Periscope)? How about the trap you rigged up over the door (Set Traps)? Your scrutiny of the area (Tactics: Assault)?

In short, engaging in combat frequently offers many more opportunities for dice-rolling than social encounters, and potentially includes a wide range of skills that may not be immediately obvious. Moreover, the changing round-by-round situation within a combat, and the risky consequences of combat, tends to make each use of the combat skills feel different - one or other gets injured, people seek advantages, allies may gang up, enemies are finished off and the balance of power shifts, and so on.

Unless players and GM are very careful about it, and there are obvious and satisfying consequences from each roll, a multi-roll social encounter risks being boring or frustrating - is the GM waiting for you to fail, or stalling for you to pass? There's a reason people think about things like social combat models.

Also, social skills are potentially far more powerful than combat skills. With six dots in Brutalize, I can hack my way through a phalanx of SAS troopers. With six dots in Befriend, I can get the SAS troopers to let me into the general's office to steal confidential papers, then carry my gear to the bar, where they buy my drinks and regale me with stories, before dropping me back at the airport. Social skills, especially because they're typically so non-gritty, are really kind of mind-control. That in itself is a reason why splitting different kinds of mind-control to dilute the points may seem a good idea.

Combat in games tends to be a highly abstract mechanic with detailed resolution. What I mean by that is, most of the time, you are essentially declaring "I use violence to overcome this obstacle" and roll the Combat skill - possibly one of several style-specific combat skills, but it's rare for there to be separate skills for different approaches to combat. However, each roll only resolves a small part of the overall conflict. In contrast, social obstacles are rarely broken down to such an extent, and they tend to be roleplayed through much more explicitly than combat encounters, and so to try and make them seem less artificial and to match this roleplay, games gravitate towards multiple skills.


On powers

The discussion about powers around 24 minutes in was interesting to me. I do think it's a shame that powers are often so specific, because glancing through the rulebook, a fair number of them are useful only in very specific situations (there will be more on this later, watch this space). Many of them will be hard to use within the scope of a given scenario, such that you can easily end up essentially playing an ordinary person with slightly better stats.

I also agree with Dan that the game seems quite prone to the issue where the fluff gives you a vaguely cool concept for a character but you can't actually give them abilities to do what you want as a starting character.

And yes, turn duration of powers really doesn't seem to have been thought about in any context but combat. The entire Beast Lore is undermined by mostly lasting for about ten seconds, which makes it hard to play a low-key character who spends a lot of time hanging around in the heads of animals or walking around with an animal escort - in direct contravention of the fluff about you leading armies of ferocious beasts into battle. Similar issues likely apply elsewhere.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.


  1. I think the problem with the large number of social skills is that it creates a game environment in which social interaction is simultaneously (a) frequent and (b) hard for PCs to reliably succeed at.

    Because the dice pools are so swingy (and subjective) and the game is so paranoid about min-maxing, it's very had to play a character who can reliably *be effective* in social situations. No matter where you put your points there's always a very good chance that you'll wind up having to roll [The attribute you didn't put points in] + [The skill you didn't invest in] and needing [An indeterminate number of successes which will probably always wind up being one more than you got].

    Perhaps this is just years of bitterness talking, but to me it feels like a system that is designed to punish people for playing characters that are insufficiently socially focused, but which does so by penalising people for trying to use social interaction to get their way unless they're completely maxed out in every possible social skill.

    1. I don’t disagree, and I think it’s partly because combat skills are more fungible.

      Being good at combat seems to require at least two attributes and at least one combat skill. Taking a fist to a gunfight is suboptimal, but providing you survive the trip into melée, a massive Brawl will let you beat up most people. Brawl, Strength and Dexterity is enough – you can even use Brawl to defend. Brawl is slower than other weapons for winning fights, but it’ll get there if you roll enough times. But Firearms will work too. The outcome of your efforts determines which side is beaten up.

      Social skills aren’t always interchangeable in the same way; you need to take different approaches because each approach has consequences. If you want to weasel information about a crime scene out of the officer on duty, then matiness or charm might well achieve that, whereas trying to intimidate them should get you arrested – at the very least the cop isn’t going to be friendly in the future. If you want to get someone to drop a plan that’s clearly in their interests, intimidation is a better bet than friendliness, because your act will start to fall apart when you’re clearly arguing against their interests. The outcome isn’t a first-past-the-post victory like fighting; often it’s a case of whether or not the instigator gets what they want, rather than which of you gets what they want.

      In fact, although they’ll play somewhat differently, a strong, fast or tough character can all end up being good at winning most kinds of fights. A manipulative, intimidating or inspiring character will end up being good at that specific kind of social interaction.

      I don’t know what you’d do to change it, really. Is combat insufficiently diverse, so that one skill can get you whatever you want? Should social skills be defined differently? Should the subsystems be rebuilt? What about other kinds of skills, like perception and knowledge?

      Alternatively, should we be shifting our ideas about categories, and considering different kinds of social encounters to be different spheres of activity? Then one skill making you good at one type of social encounter would make more sense. I dunno.

  2. Further thoughts.

    It occurs to me that one reason for the difference is high stakes. As Dogs in the Vineyard highlights, conflict tends to escalate from conversation to aggression to violence to murder.

    A common result of separating skills is that an unskilled PC will be unable to influence the game in their preferred direction. Thinking about social skills, it’s pretty common that only one kind of skill will work in a situation, either because others will spark unwanted side-effects (like enmity), or because an NPC is not susceptible to others for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hard limit or the PC can’t hit the target or the roll just botches; the result is blocking that line of action. In general, a failed social roll is a missed opportunity, but doesn’t prevent you from seeking alternative approaches, including escalation to combat. It is very rarely an existential threat to the PC. Not having the Intimidation skill means you can’t take Intimidation approaches, but it’s a limitation rather than a vulnerability.

    Combat is usually as serious as the game gets, and poses the threat of death. If we modelled combat skills like social skills, so that only a specific combat skill could defeat the antagonist, then PCs without it would once again be unable to progress the situation in their favour. The difference is they’d probably wind up dead. This is probably one reason we don't do this.