Avid game design enthusiast, Craig Perko, over at his projectperko blog, brings up a topic that I’ve wrestled with for long periods of time myself: in essence, can we create game mechanics for/related to social interaction, and should we?

My first instinct is that it’s not something that should be done.  No big surprise… it’s one of the two big taboos in pen-and-paper gaming, after all.   PnP RPGs can have 10 pages of intricate detail on European heraldry, and entire books of stats and charts describing esoteric forms of magic or sci-fi weaponry, but you don’t dare offer any details on perception/awareness or communication/persuasion.  Those topics are GM-only territory: designers are most definitely not welcome.

My second reaction is that it is definitely something that should be looked at, in the MMO design space in particular.  It’s a possible intermediate avenue for creating some minimal “story” in such games, landing somewhere between the “vending machine” NPCs of today and the “personality simulation AIs” of some future utopia/dystopia.

In the simplest abstract, communication and persuasion are a turn-based phenomenon.  You say something, I respond, you respond, etc. until some goal has been achieved.  Participants may have cooperative or conflicting goals, perhaps only obliquely in conflict: I may be trying to find out the features of item A, while you are trying to sell me Item B.  Or perhaps I am trying to get you to agree to some philosophical POV, and you are trying get me to drop the subject.  Or I am trying to master some particular item of knowledge, and you are trying to help me achieve that.  Or you are trying to cheer me up, and I am intent on feeling morose.  And so on…

In my dream design, I have a process-oriented communication resolution model that takes a rudimentary stab at adjudicating such situations.  The goal of any particular communication task is determined and given a rating to be achieved.  Techniques under various skills such a Intimidation, Bribery, Oratory, and the like are resolved as “attacks” against the “target’s” mental and/or emotional health/energy scores (Sanity and Spirit), with “critical results” granting various amounts of progress toward the established goal.  The target probably has access to various “defensive” techniques as well (allowing them to more effectively resist the persuasion/communication effort, if that is their goal), as well as alternative “assistive” techniques which aid in the effort, if that is their goal instead.  In other words, a system that is substantively similar to the physical combat system.

Is that system workable?  For NPCs, it at least creates a system which can be machine-adjudicated.  For PCs, it might or might not be acceptable, depending upon the circumstances.  Losing control of one’s own character is always a dicey situation: is it more acceptable if it’s the end result of a process as opposed to the result of a failed behind-the-scenes coin flip?  Is it less acceptable to have the character act outside of one’s own control than to suffer a game death (which is the analogous end point in physical combat, after all).

The deeper question is, does it really achieve the original goal?  Does the interplay of a persuasion effort in a game, defined by such mechanics, help or hurt any immersion that might have been achieved?  Does it even come close to resembling (“feeling like”) the real-life interplay that such efforts would generate?  I really don’t know… (that’s one of the many questions that I want to try to answer by getting a demo up and running.)

It’s an interesting thought experiment, at the very least… and I am definitely intrigued by the possibilities.  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to put some of my existing ideas to test in the near future…