Preamble: I found these rules buried in an early, early, early His Majesty the Worm draft. I pulled them out and cleaned them up. I think they fit nicely in my Wilderlands/Errantry series since it is obviously inspired by the work there.
If you want to know how I eventually did "social encounters" in His Majesty the Worm, check out my post here.
|by John Howe|
"In a great hall with pillars hewn out of the living stone sat the Elvenking on a chair of carven wood. On his head was a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again. In the spring he wore a crown of woodland flowers. In his hand he held a carven staff of oak.
Long and searchingly he questioned the dwarves about their doings, and where they were going to, and where they were coming from; but he got little more news out of them than out of Thorin. They were surly and angry and did not even pretend to be polite."
- The Hobbit
Use these rules when the player heroes are trying to convince a person or group of a particular thing, or when they’re trying to illicit action from another person on their behalf. This could be at a bandit’s war council, at a trial, or at a folkmoot.
When a Council is called, it’s important to determine who the deciding person is. Are you talking to a local leader directly? Are you speaking to stir up the people? Are you trying to convince several people of your plea—perhaps begging help from an assembled gathering of kings from different realms?
The Body of Arguments
At the beginning of a Council, the GM must decide the Body of Argument. These are the reasons why the NPCs are reluctant to accept the PC’s proposal. If the GM can’t think of any arguments against the PC’s plan, the NPCs should merely acquiesce to the PC's course of action.
Most Councils have about three arguments. Councils that are inclined to favor the player heroes might have fewer (as few as one argument, even) and more antagonistic Councils might five (or more!).
An argument is just a short phrase that sums up a major concern. Write each down separately. These arguments are the talking point for the GM’s characters during the Council.
- Helping you would draw the ire of the Winter Witch, which we can ill afford.
- This would cost too much money.
- The time involved would drive me away from my fields during harvest.
- Your rival has offered to pay me more to do the same for him.
- This way is too dangerous at this time of year.
- This is not our affair—we must mind our own business.
- What you propose would aid our ancient foes, who wrongs against us we have not forgotten.
- Your errand is impossible. It is a waste of time for me to help one afflicted with madness.
- This plan would offend the Fair Folk nearby. I’ll have no part of it.
- I am afraid of the magic that you are said to wield. I’ll not meddle with witches and wizards.
- I’m a simple man, much to unimportant to actually make a difference. You should ask somebody that can actually help.
GM Note: I find it useful to jot down the arguments on separate note cards. Then, when a particular argument is “defeated,” I just turn the note card over. It’s nice for me to have these things written down in front of me for easy reference.
A player hero makes their case by role-playing what they’re saying. If the GM determines that this argument is relevant to a particular argument, the player makes a relevant skill test. If the roll is successful, one of the arguments is “defeated.” That particular reasoning no longer troubles the decision maker, or it is no longer deeply relevant to the point at hand.
When all the arguments are defeated in this manner, the Council will rule in favor of the player heroes.
However, every time a roll is failed, the player hero has failed to make a convincing argument and tested the patience of the decision maker. The Council will decide against the player heroes once a certain number of failed rolls occurs.
The Council's tolerance for failed arguments is [number of arguments -1]. So if there are three arguments on the table, the Council will move against the PCs after 2 failed rolls.
Focus during Councils
As opposed to battles of arms, Councils do not rigidly track who goes first and who is doing what. The fellowship is typically considered “one side” and any antagonists are considered “another side.” Both have a chance to speak in turn, rebutting or building on arguments as they go. GMs can adjudicate this however makes the most sense, but typically there is only one speaker and one dice roll per side per turn.
A fellowship might call on the most sociable person—the person with the highest skill—to make almost all of their rolls. In this case, that player must role-play the arguments made. Other player heroes might speak up on the fellowship’s turn when they have what they consider to be a very good argument. When they speak up, they roll instead of the normal speaker. This sort of “butting in” usually happens organically.
Sometimes only certain player heroes might be the only ones who can plead their case. For example, only one of noble blood might be able to speak at a council of kings. Or only a woman might have the right to speak in the Women’s Circle of the village.
Disposition in Councils
Disposition affects your dice rolls during council. If the argument that you are role-playing would appeal to a particular disposition trait possessed by an NPC, the GM may tell you to roll with advantage. However, if your argument would contradict or displease a particular disposition trait, the GM can tell you to roll with disadvantage.
Consider this example. You are trying to beg support of a king in your errand to rescue your stolen love from a dragon. The king does not like the idea of strangers on his land and is worried that stirring up the dragon will create trouble for his people. The king is chivalrous, stubborn, and materialistic. As you try and convince him of your need, you mention out loud that rescuing the weak from the strong is the responsibility of any true hero. The king, being chivalrous, can’t help but agree. Your roll to convince him is made with advantage. Then, you try to dissuade his fears of the dragon’s wrath, and compare a few fields to the life of an innocent maid. The king does not like to hear of crops and fields burning, being materialistic. This roll is made with disadvantage.
GMs, as always, should grant advantage/disadvantage for good ideas or bad ideas, as they see fit.
When you observe a character in a back-and-forth exchange, you—as the player—should have a fairly good idea about what disposition traits they have. The GM will be hamming these traits up.
Bidding Lores and Disposition
You can attempt to bid lore to find out more about the characters around you. If the GM accepts that your lore is relevant, they will tell you one of the NPC’s disposition traits. If, for example, you have Court Lore, you can ask “What is one of the local steward’s dispositions?” The GM will consult their notes and say that he is a definitively Greedy man. The player heroes can then use this to their advantage as they try to navigate the world of castle life.
Persuasion Isn’t Domination
One cannot hit the moon with an arrow, no matter their Strength score. Neither can you persuade a random off-the-street NPC that they’ve been transformed into a donkey, that you’re their rightful king in disguise, or that they should cut off their arm for you. Sometimes the players will try to use social skills to convince NPCs of the most unrealistic things. After all, he’s just a stupid NPC and look how many points I’ve put into all these social skills!
This is not how the game is intended to be played.
Skill rolls help players curry favor with their rhetoric. Even so, the player must first have an oration that is plausible to defeat a particular argument.
When a player hero tries to use persuasion in scenarios that stretch believability, just say no. The NPC chuckles in amusement at the bizarre nonsense. If they persist, the NPC might get angry—or fear for his life while talking to this dangerous lunatic.