Tips for running dynamic social encounters and house rules for resolving social conflict.
Conflicts can take many shapes in Shadowrun. Not all come in the form of streetside shoot ‘em ups or hallway brawls with corporate security. That troll bouncer who won’t let you into the night club, that ganger who doesn’t want to rat out his BTL dealer, that elf receptionist who isn’t quite certain if you are the new cleaning crew, are all sources of conflict. Because of this, you cannot truthfully call any conflict a combat encounter or a social encounter. Frankly, any combat encounter can turn into a social encounter with enough Charisma, and any social encounter can become a combat encounter with enough guns drawn.
In most games (including Shadowrun: Anarchy), the mechanics for resolving physical conflict are far more robust than resolving social conflict. For physical conflict, you have multiple opposed Skill Tests, Ranges, Movement, Modifiers, Armor, Condition Monitors, and plenty of applicable Plot Points. For social conflict, you usually have a single opposed Skill Test…and that’s it. Within that inequity, lies the potential to rob the Face/Con-Artist/Spy/Enforcer of their Spotlight Time, and thus their Engagement and Challenge.
For those that want to increase Engagement and Challenge for the Negotiators, Deceivers, and Intimidators in their games, I submit the following top three tips on building and running NPCs and house rules on influence resolution.
#1 Know Objectives and Motivations
You wouldn’t start a combat encounter without knowing what Armor and Weapon the NPC has equipped. Similarly, each NPC should be supplied with an Objective (“What do they want?”) and a Motivation (“Why?”). You can do this even for the NPCs you expect to be riddled with bullets later.
Knowing an NPC’s Objective helps you know when a conflict is resolved or needs to evolve. If the players can prevent an NPC from completing an Objective, then the conflict is essentially resolved. If the players attempt to prevent an Objective that the NPC does not actually have, then the conflict evolves into a race to complete Objectives. For instance, if Corporate Security’s Objective is to stall until HTR arrives, but the players think it is simply to kill intruders, they might get into a prolonged firefight that plays into the Corporate Security’s Objective when they should be heading toward the door.
Knowing an NPC’s Motivations helps you know how different approaches to the conflict might play out. Depending on Motivation, they might respond to different Skills more favorably. For instance, if the BTL ganger’s Motivation to protect his friend, then offering a bribe (Negotiation) won’t work but offering to help his friend (Con) might work. If, however, his Motivation is to protect the steady chip supply, then offering to split the dealer’s stash with the chip-head (Negotiation) might work. Motivation can also tell you when an NPC might capitulate or press an advantage based on the status of the conflict.
These factors help whether the players intend on entering physical or social conflict. Players can uncover an NPC's Objectives or Motivations by using Judging Intent (Charisma + Charisma).
#2 The Conflict is Not the NPC
The conflict is NOT the NPC; the conflict is the NPC’s combination of Objective and Motivation that is deterring the player characters from completing their Objectives. Seeing the conflict as the deterrent (not the NPC itself) allows the players many more vectors to resolve the conflict. I talked about this in The Anarchy Primer: The Narration:
…The Conflict is that the Corporate Security gets paid to stop intruders from entering the building…
Sure, if the CorpSec is dead, he cannot keep doing his job. But also, if the CorpSec thinks he is about to be dead (Intimidation), he might not be getting paid enough to keep doing his job. If the CorpSec gets another source of income (Negotiation), he might be willing to overlook intruders and risk his job. If the CorpSec doesn’t notice an intruder (Stealth), he can’t properly do his job. If the CorpSec doesn’t recognize the players as intruders (Con/Disguise), then he might think that he is doing his job.
This also allows you to re-evaluate the conflict every Narration. If the NPC can no longer achieve his or her Objective or if their Motivations are subverted, it might be time to change tactics or wind up the Scene. Re-evaluating conflict allows the GM to run the NPCs in a more dynamic and realistic manner because their actions are based on something meaningful.
Of course, if an NPC’s Objectives and Motivations are not opposed to the PC’s, there is no conflict. And if an NPC’s Objectives or Motivations are in line with the PC’s, they may even have reason to help them. Don’t roll dice; move on and find the conflict somewhere more engaging.
#3 Introduce Influence Resolution
Conflict resolution without bullets and mono-swords is about the contest between the PC’s influence and the NPC’s resolve. Influence can include getting an NPC to do something, to say something, or to believe something. Players can influence with bribes or bargains (Negotiation), with threats or torture (Intimidation), or with lying or acting (Con/Disguise). There are other factors at play, such as the NPC’s attitude and leverage held by either side. It looks basically like this:
SOCIAL CONFLICT CONDITIONS
PCs start with an Influence value of zero.
NPCs start with a Resolve value of zero.
NPCs become Influenced when Influence is equal to NPC Willpower.
NPCs become Intractable when Resolve is equal to PC Willpower.
Influence is a measure of the PC’s sway over the NPC and Resolve is a measure of the NPC’s resistance to the PC. They work the same; if it is easier, you can think of these as "Social Conflict Points."
Attitude is a measure of the conflict between the player’s Objective and the NPC’s Objective. For instance, if the runner wants to enter the club, a bouncer whose Objective is to keep out riff-raff might be neutral (+0), while a bouncer whose Objective is to keep out that particular ‘runner might be hostile (-3), even if he is not particularly mean about it. Remember, if an NPC and a PC have similar Objectives, there may be no need to roll dice. Attitude is a dice pool modifier for the PC only.
Leverage is a measure of material advantage that one side has over the other. For Negotiation, a material advantage could be something that the other side wants. For Con/Disguise, a material advantage could be supporting evidence, fabricated or factual. For Intimidation, a material advantage might be a strength advantage or a credible threat. Leverage is a dice pool modifier for either party.
To influence an NPC, the player makes a Charisma-related Test, which is opposed by the NPC using Resisting Social (Willpower + Charisma), Resisting Mental (Willpower + Logic), or Resisting Physical (Willpower + Strength), whichever seems most appropriate. If the PC wins, increase their Influence by one plus net hits (remember, in Shadowrun: Anarchy, a tie is a success with no net hits). If the NPC wins, increase their Resolve by one plus net hits.
The conflict is a race to each other’s Willpower: the NPC become Influenced when Influence is equal to the NPC’s Willpower. When an NPC becomes Influenced, they take the deal, or spill their guts, or fall for the story, etc. The NPC becomes Intractable when Resolve is equal to the PC’s Willpower. When an NPC becomes Intractable, no further Test will change their mind: they won’t take any deal, or will die before they spill, or won’t buy any of your bulldrek (at least not in any timeframe conducive to completing a Scene Objective).
The NPC then acts accordingly. If the players press the issue or start some violence, then you have a different type of conflict underway (physical or moral).
Plot Points work about how you would imagine. Live Dangerously increases reward by increasing risk. Get Revenge allows an NPC to bolster their position by using their own skill set with counteroffers, red herrings, or counterthreats. Push Forward allows one player to set up another player for success, even in failure (classic "Good Cop/Bad Cop" tactic).
<< That was a lot of word count to describe something that becomes intuitive immediately. It is no more complex than shooting a Firearm but instead of wearing down each other's CMs to win, you are building up "Social Conflict Points." The main thing in running this is (just like in running combats), do not let the players feel the numbers; keep those to yourself and let them feel the reactions. >>
<< It may also need to be said: PCs do not have Resolve. Nobody can make them do something, say something, or believe something that the Player does not want (aside from spells like Mind Control, I guess). This is a large part of maintaining Player Agency, which is a large part of Player Engagement. >>
Example: Tennessee Tophat, the troll adept face standing in an alleyway, needs to talk his way out of a Knight Errant frisk (he is holding). He starts with Con + Charisma of 11 (after Born Liar Positive Quality) while the pair of Knight Errant Officers start with Resisting Mental of 7. Tophat has a Willpower of 5 while the KE Officers have a Willpower of 4.
The KE have an Objective to harass suspicious people until they leave, which is semi-hostile (-2) to Tophat’s Objective, which is to wait here until the team shows up. This gives Tophat a dice pool of 9. The KE also have the full authority of the law behind them for Leverage (+2). This gives KE a dice pool of 9 too. [Influence: 0/4, Resolve: 0/5]
Tophat starts out with a classic, “I am a bit lost. Can you point me to the nearest Stuffer Shack?” He rolls 3 hits and KE rolls 2 hits. Tophat gains 2 Influence (1+1 net hit). A good start, but the KE are still approaching and continuing to put on their latex gloves, “Your ‘link down, chummer? You running silent?” [Influence: 2/4, Resolve: 0/5]
Tophat counters, “Not running silent, no sir! Just powered down until I find a charge.” He rolls 2 hits and KE rolls 3 hits. The KE Officers gain 2 Resolve (1+1 net hit). [Influence: 2/4, Resolve 2/5]
It gets worse as they spend a Plot Point on Get Revenge to roll an Intimidation (their specialty) on Tophat, “You know that being powered down is just as illegal as running silent in this district. We could take you in, right now!” They roll 3 hits and Tophat rolls 2 hits. They gain 2 more Resolve (1+1 net hit) as they pull out their stun batons. [Influence: 2/4, Resolve: 4/5]
Tophat is unnerved a bit and he knows what is coming, so he goes big, “Wait! It’s not down or silent! It was stolen by the Halloweeners in the next alley. I just didn’t want trouble.” He rolls 3 hits and KE rolls 3 hits. Tophat wins but gains only 1 Influence. [Influence: 3/4, Resolve: 4/5]
He doesn’t want to risk another exchange with the Pawns, so he adds, “You could catch them, if you hurry!” and spends Edge to reroll, getting 1 more hit. [Influence: 4/4, Resolve: 4/5]
They face-mash Tophat out of the way and hustle down the alley, eager to jackboot some clowns. Tophat thinks it’s time to exit.
Node Mapping | Combat Encounters | Social Encounters