Monday, 6 June 2016

Provocation in RPGs

So I was listening to the Adventuring Party talk about social combat. There were two parts that particularly struck me. The first was an anecdote of using the Intimidate skill successfully, then realising there was no indication of what that actually meant for the game - "okay, this guy's intimidated I guess?". The second was a recurring point that, even in games with explicit social combat, players are often very resistant to allowing their own characters to be affected.

A third factor was recalling a game of Demon: the Fallen where Dan tried to use a "you are utterly terrifying" power to frighten a guy into submission, but the power very explicitly always makes everyone run away.

I'm not about to try and create a social combat system. Today, though, I wanted to explore the idea of an excessively complicated system for determining just what happens when you scare someone. Because I could.

I'm going to try and bear in mind the rough fight-flight-freeze response that panic tends to evoke, but also that simply bending under pressure is a common and less extreme phenomenon.


There are various factors that affect people's composure and behaviour under pressure in real life, and I'm not even going to attempt a comprehensive approach. I'm going to pick out three that I think are reasonable and see what happens if I play with them.

The three factors I want to try playing with are confidence, self-control and aggression.

Confidence is fairly self-explanatory I think? I suppose you can think of it as largely representing how much you feel in control of a situation. When someone's very confident, they're likely to behave in the way they want to without much concern. Someone moderately confident is likely to be alert to changes in their position, and to think about compromises that reduce the risk of "losing" while maintaining their interests in the long run. Someone with no confidence is likely to look for ways to escape a situation, and may be willing to accept poor terms (rather than risk even worse ones); they may also act rashly or unexpectedly to try and change the odds.

Self-control reflects how well someone regulates their behaviour in the face of other factors, and so their ability to follow a planned course of action. Someone with high self-control can remain calm in the face of provocation, or keep up a convincing fa├žade despite expecting to lose; they can also take undesirable actions they decide are sensible, and are generally better at projecting whatever image they choose. Someone with low self-control tends to react instinctively to the situation they find themselves in: they may act aggressively to a threat or provocation, or back down when their confidence is shaken.

Aggression roughly represents whether someone is inclined to respond to stress by "fight" or "flight". A highly aggressive character is prone to defiance and/or violence, while a low-aggression character is prone to submission and defensive behaviour. When an aggressive character is provoked, they may lash out even if it seems a bad idea; a low-aggression character won't. However, the low-aggression character might still be aggressive because their high Self-Control determines that it's a good idea.

In general, Self-Control beats Aggression, and Aggression beats Confidence.

All three of these would play off each other. For example, let's say Archibald is a guard. He's approached by a party of PCs, and he challenges them.

Archibald is a professional guard with reinforcements within easy reach, and so has high Confidence. Being professional and fairly sensible, he has high Self-Control as well. He's quite high Aggression because that's why he became a guard. So he waves a halbrd at them and tells them to stop.

The PCs are trying to get inside and murder an evil duke, so they try to muscle past him. They use an Intimidate ability to threaten him, which shakes his Confidence. His instinct is to respond aggressively, but he has enough Self-Control to still control his actions. However, another ability like Provoke might damage his Self-Control and cause him to strike the first blow, potentially luring him into trouble. Situational factors could also influence these; for example, having seen the murdered bodies of a couple of other guards might increase his Aggression, damage his Self-Control, or reduce his Confidence.

Broadly speaking, whichever attribute is the highest would govern reactions. Someone very Controlled can generally act however they think is appropriate; their opinion will be influenced by their other stats and the situation. Someone very Aggressive tends to act aggressively (even violently); low Self-Control will make that more likely, while high Confidence may intensify or reduce it depending on the character and situation. For example, a bandit is more likely to attack if confident of victory, while a thug sent to give a mobster's warning might simply smirk infuriatingly in the confidence that nobody can touch her.

A low Aggression, high Confidence character might try to take control of a situation verbally, or simply ignore their antagonists. A low Aggression character with low Confidence tends to fall back on "freeze" or "flight", though Self-Control can mitigate this.


Well, the idea is that it might help make it clearer how people will react in stressful situations. It always seems odd that, where there are rules at all, everyone tends to react the same way. In reality, some people react to threats by throwing a punch, or are so confident they simply shrug them off. Some people lose their nerve and empty their gun into the first target they see, rather than running from it. Some people can maintain iron self-control even when they firmly believe they're doomed, and exploit that to turn things around or at least mitigate the consequences of loss.

Under this sort of model (not, I suspect, this specific one) you'd be able to get that variety. Choosing social tactics would be important: provoking one guard might distract them enough for someone to sneak past, while another would simply haul off and belt you one; menacing this thug gets him to back down, but menacing that thug rattles her enough that gets desperate and opens fire.

It would be particularly relevant for social-based interactions, where your choice of approach could make the difference between Civilian X doing you a favour, reluctantly going along with your instructions (and then reporting you to their boss), getting on their high horse, and turning pale before breaking your nose.

Most of my working life is in customer service. My basic training included the following, which I've always borne in mind: it doesn't really matter if someone's red and shouty, but when that person turns suddenly pale, pull back fast. Apparently this is blood being redirected from the surface as part of the fight-or-flight response, and indicates there is a much greater chance of them suddenly trying to murder you.

So far I haven't had to find out if it works. So far I've never been hugely worried. For one thing, there's generally a very wide standing-height desk between me and my clients. For another, my work area is filled with large books, which are excellent stab-proof shields which also function as effective clubs, as well as cutting implements and many cups of scalding-hot tea. More importantly, apparently I have a lot of ranks in Diplomacy. Or possibly a high APP.

No, I'm pretty sure it's the Diplomacy thing.

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