Fantasy RPGs with good social systems

I’d like a good fantasy role-playing game with a strong social element.

That is, I want the game to build-in rules for handling all sorts of social situations mechanically with the kind of love and respect that is usually given to killing things. Simply adding a set of skills like “persuade” and “intimidate” is not sufficient. I find anything that treats persuasion as “social combat” to be psychopathic.

Here are some use cases I’d like an RPG to address:

  • Building rapport and trust as the primary means of non-psychopathic persuasion
  • Swaying groups of people
  • Making friends and enemies
  • Winning long-term political challenges
  • Building factions and larger organizations
  • How power dynamics (rank, popularity, etc.) influence persuasion

So right out of the gate, D&D is out. People are going to mention Burning Wheel but I don’t think it does these things that well (and Duel of Wits is semi-psychopathic “social combat”). One Roll Engine maybe?

Any contenders out there? Is this still a ruleset waiting for me to write it?

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Gonna tag Any games for political machinations? here, as well. I’ve read it but it’s not answering the same question I’m asking.

I’m not sure if it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but you should take a look at Stonetop (loosely based on Dungeon World) for examples of a game/setting that focuses heavily on the social ties in a small community, along with building (or breaking) those bonds to accomplish large-scale political objectives.

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It has specific rules for interacting with people and groups that is more complicated than a single roll?

My frustration is that getting into physical combat is super exciting: you have a list of special powers, magic weapons and armor, special stats like hit points, and time literally changes into rounds and it gets all this attention.

Then when you get to social interaction, the rules are, like, “dude, just roleplay it” or, at best, “roll Diplomacy to make him do what you want.”

This answer may not work depending on what kind of mechanics interest you, but having played a few sessions of Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, I feel like the game really focuses on social roleplay in an interesting, multilayered way. (This is a sci-fi game by default, but the playbooks are general enough I think they could easily be adapted for fantasy).

The game is a gmless/gmfull system where each player has an aspect of the setting they run, a primary character they play, and then everyone plays NPCs and contributes to worldbuilding as needed.

The setting elements are broken up into things like community, gangs, war, poverty, so the complications players introduce are inherently about a mix of societal forces and factions. One player remarked that in one session we’d already naturally defined a gang faction in more complex, creative ways than they get after multiple sessions of using Blades in the Dark factions.

You also play a primary character, and the mechanics lean into relationships and social motivations there too. For example, each character type has different flaws and problems (almost all of which tie into relationships or how society treats them). You often frame a scene by asking the group how that flaw is causing you a problem, then play out the scene from that conflict. So the central or opening tension is socially focused.

But the game also motivates you to think about relationships. If your primary character interacts with another primary character in set ways (e.g. ask a favor from the fixer playbook), you get a token which can power special abilities. As a player, I found myself actively looking for ways to pull in other characters because I wanted that token so I could use my cool psychic powers. At the end of each scene, if your relationship changed with another important character in a significant way, you earn a check/xp towards advancement.

Now, the game doesn’t use dice rolls or skill checks like some traditional games…but I think that’s part of why the social elements work. It’s about creating complications and trying to solve them through relationships…while often creating more complications in the process.

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@Cass, that sounds really cool. Thanks for the link, too!

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The more I play it the more I am impressed by the mechanical balance.

I will say, my best experience is with my longer term game group. We’d all GM’d for each other before trying Flotsam, and I think that made it a smoother experience. Since you do think like a PC and a GM throughout the session.

@calris, I found this for Stonetop. Is there a PDF I can buy somewhere?

@Jeremy_Strandberg is the author - guessing he can point you in the right direction - though doing a search here might also get you a pointer to relevant docs…

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Anything using Fate. the Fate Fractal means organisations can be stated up in such a way that PCs can interact mechanically with them.
Meanwhile there’s a good range of social skills that can be used to attack, defend, create advantages and overcome just line ‘fight’.

Hi Adam,

Stonetop is still in production, but I’ve got my nose to the proverbial grindstone. You can find most of the relevant rules in the documents at the bottom of that blog post. Specifically, check out the Moves & Gear and the Stonetop Steading Playbook. We’re in closed playtest right now, but it’ll likely switch to open in the next month or so. Let me know if you’ve got a group that’s interested in playing!

The game is definitely rooted in D&D style play: you go on adventures, often exploring ruins and killing monsters and saving kidnapped villagers. The moves for violence outnumber the moves for social interaction.

But, as @calris says, the game’s premise (and the class playbooks) are rooted in a specific home town. They’re going on expeditions to kill monsters that threaten their home and neighbors, or acquire resources they can use to prop up the town, or to rescue someone’s lost nephew… that sort of thing. The PCs themselves often have big personalities and big goals, too, but the bulk of the game gets pushed and pulled by the needs of the community.

Rules-wise, the main social mechanic is Parley:
image

You’ll notice that it doesn’t give the PCs any ability to control minds or force agreement. It ends up being an information-gathering move a lot of the time, revealing how you could convince them to go along, and then it’s back on the player’s to decide whether they’ll do that.

The town itself has stats: Fortunes (morale and general well-being), Population (growing or shrinking), Prosperity (material wealth and trade, quality of gear PCs can get), and Defenses (militia’s skill and readiness). There’s a subtle economy between all those stats, but it all serves to generate threats and opportunities and give the players projects to work towards.

There aren’t mechanics for tracking popularity or factions per se, but fictional positioning goes a long way here: as the Marshal, I can probably get everyone to go along with building a palisade, as long it’s not taking bodies away from spring planting or fall harvest. But if the Seeker wants to get a workcrew to help him build his crazy magic weather-vane, he’ll need to do some convincing.

The game also borrows from Apocalypse World 2e and has you create problematic NPCs and factions and afflictions as “threats” with stakes questions and/or countdowns. Because these people are your neighbors, you can’t just ignore them*. You can’t just kill them or beat them up, so you have to work with them or around them, and factions and popularity and politics can come into play there, too.

There’s a generalized Make a Plan move for designing long-term challenges, based largely on the Savvyhead’s workshop framework, so if you wanted to undertake a long-term project to, say, establish a town council and get yourself elected mayor, you could.

Mostly, though, the social interactions go back to that one Parley move: it really does a lot of heavy lifting in the game.

Happy to answer any questions you’ve got, about this or the linked materials!

*(Or, I guess you can. But that’s how you end up with a nascent cult kidnapping refugees and sacrificing them for power out in the Great Wood.)

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Jeremy,

This is all very clever and very exciting. I’ll have to dig in deeper and see if it’ll work for my Towerlands setting, and how much adaptation that would require.

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If you haven’t already, look into Dramasystem games (like Hillfolk) for a pretty involved model for social exchange.

And while persuasion moves in Apocalypse World offshoots can seem pretty one-and-done, Apocalypse World itself has a lot of social complexity built into moves even beyond “seduce or manipulate.” Rather, you have multiple ways to get information about motives and needs of other characters, and either negotiate or coerce them to get what you want. This is more obvious in the recent hackbook “Burned Over,” which lacks an explicit seduction move, and which modified the original “go aggro” move into “confront someone,” making it not necessarily about violence, in addition to the move that gets information by reading people. What’s interesting to me about these is that they very much aren’t psychopathic mind control moves; they constrain what a target can do, but don’t dictate it. On a strong roll, they can still refuse to intentionally give you what you want, but leaving themselves at your mercy (confront someone), leaving no room for doubt as they shut you down (charm or deceive), or giving answers to certain kinds of questions through nonverbal cues even if they refuse to speak (read someone). The 7-9 results tend to open things up to even more complexity, such as leading to bargaining, promises, or demands for proof of claims, any of which potentially leading into entire side ventures to meet their wants, needs, or expectations.

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I would look at Urban Shadows, amongst these other wonderful suggestions. The game as a whole may not be what you’re looking for, but I think the way its moves center relationships, community, and social interaction are (at least) a wonderful starting point.

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I’ve played Apocalypse World quite a bit, and a fair number of PbtA games including Urban Shadows. I get what you’re saying but all of this complexity is fictional positioning and not directly supported by the mechanics the way, say, D&D combat is. At best, these games support one-on-one social interaction better than most games, but they don’t really manage group interactions or political games very well.

I do love the mechanical idea of Strings in Monsterhearts and how a social interaction might not make you do something, but it certainly makes things hurt if you don’t do it. It’s sort of the “with teeth” game design philosophy of In a Wicked Age and I’ve used a similar mechanism in some of my own game designs.

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A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones rpg) might be what you are after. You can take a sort of damage from verbal “combat” and verbal conflicts are treated the same mechanically as a physical duel but with different consequences

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I am not sure I follow. The way I see it, the mechanics are very much the point here: whether you do or do not get what you want is dependent on how you roll, which is mathematically influenced by how good your character is at persuading people. And there are a lot more rules for resolving social interaction than there are for resolving combat (at least in Burned Over, though that may not be the case in AW 2nd edition). The only difference I can see between how much these rules support social interaction and how much D&D supports combat is that the Apocalypse World rules require everything to be tied to fictional position, while D&D combat rules can be 100% abstracted to hit points and attack ranges without ever discussing what that means in fiction—but I thought that was precisely the model you didn’t want for social rules.

To be clear, I’m not trying to do a “gotcha!” here. I’m just not clear on what you’re looking for, but I’m really interested in the topic, and curious to find out more.

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This might be a little slant to your core question, but I think The Spire has some interesting ideas around this. You play revolutionary dark elves resisting colonization by high elves in a mile-high city with a hole in reality at tits heart.

I don’t think the system avoids your critique about how “anything that treats persuasion as ‘social combat’” being psychopathic, but it does have mechanics that make your character feel like a member of a community, rather than a murder hobo.

To further your revolution, you form relationships with individuals and communities, and recruiting those relationships to help you puts stress on the relationship. Ask too much, and they might decide to stop helping you, or run into trouble with the authorities. This gives your social web a certain granularity and self-direction, and keeps it from feeling like your friend the gunsmith is just a weapons-vendor or an extra die.

Most interestingly, virtually every special ability in the game is tied to a particular community, religious sect, or secret society. The advancement system is technically accomplishments-driven. When you make a major change in the city of Spire, you get a major advance (potentially game-altering special powers).

However, because powers are also tied to particular communities and communal knowledges, your character either has to cultivate relationships with new groups, or take on greater roles (and therefore greater responsibilities) in the communities they’re already a member of to level up. I really love the ways this reinforces the game’s themes of revolution and coalition-building against oppression.

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Another suggestion: I really like what Chris McDowall is talking about for his upcoming follow-up to Into the Odd, Electric Bastionland. You can see it described in a few places already, but the one I found most helpful was this Twitter thread (which I was just reminded of by another thread around these parts).

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Do you know Blades In The Dark yet, Adam?

As, if nothing else, your City of Brass fits it fairly well with a different crew sheet. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it for a couple of months.

It doesn’t have moves in quite the same way as most pbta games, and has as much support for talking to people as it does for hitting people. Long-term politics can be clocks, which are player facing and not quite what you’re used to from pbta.

I think it hits a lot of the notes you’re looking for. But who knows.

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