Tuesday, March 18, 2014

GURPS Social Academy: The unassisted influence check

This post is part of a the GURPS Social Academy in support of my new campaign The Empress of India. This article follows from the last article on Reaction rolls.

I use liberally the concept of aspect that I have taken from FATE. There is a lot of RPG wisdom in FATE, but the resolution philosophy of GURPS wins the cake for me.

The later posts are the following:
  1. The Reaction Roll
  2. The Unassisted Influence Check 
  3. PCs as targets of Influence Checks
  4. A non-fantasy model for religions
  5. Mitigating the reaction Roll
  6. Reward structure in social-oriented campaigns.

GMing with Influence Checks

The influence check is about using a skill or an attribute to influence the narrative by manipulating others. An influence check is unique: its outcome shall be final for the duration of a scene.

It is important to let a failed roll determine the outcome as negative. Re-rolling, in a sense, is taking away the rewards to building a character to be good at something.

Influence checks should be made when both success and failure makes for an interesting story. If this isn't the case, then there is no need to roll: just say so.

Workflow (unassisted influence checks)

Let’s assume that we have and influencer and a resister.

  1. The GM frames the scene: states the challenges and how it affects social interactions.
  2. The influencer states an outcome.
  3. The influencer describes how the outcome will be achieved and proposes a skill or attribute to be used.
  4. The GM determine a difficulty modifier (if applicable). Resolves all applicable disadvantages/quirks that can affect the contest.
  5. The GM determines the mean to resist the influence check, specify modifiers and applicable perks.
  6. The influencer may propose one supporting check to boost the influence check, or overcome one challenge.
  7. Supporting check is resolved: +1 for success, +0 for failure, + / – for critical outcomes.
  8. Resolve contest, GM and player narrate the outcome while taking into consideration all factors.
  9. Outcomes
  10. The outcomes of an influence check should be stated before any kind of role-playing begins. This is necessary in case that the role-playing in a scene isn’t really supporting the effect, then it would hinder the influence check rather than support it.

Typical examples of outcomes:

The outcome should be tangible if successful:

  • Obtain a favour or a piece of information.
  • Compel an action or a decision.
  • Alter reaction by 1+ levels.
  • Undermine your target with composure damage (IQ, Will, DX, see upcoming articles on combats).

Failures are interesting beasts. By default, and unless it is a critical failure, it is fair to assume that it didn't work and no harm is done. However, some skills can be more dangerous than other to use: Fast-talk, intimidation and Sex appeal can be infuriating to the resister if unsuccessful. 


You can run an Influence as a quick contest, or a full contest between the influencer and the resister. I propose to use a midpoint where the influencer must succeed the check and obtain a positive margin of success in the contest. There is no re-roll in case of failure: it just didnt’ work.

The difficulty of an outcome should be applied to the skill/attribute of the influencer, which modifiers to passive resistance to the resisting skill/attribute of the resister. The distinction must be made unless the resolution employs the quick contest rules.

Supporting Influence checks

A supporting check can leverage any skill or attribute that will add flavour to the encounter. It is a way to make a character’s strength in resolving a conflict or overcoming a challenge. It should be fun to include. There can only be one supporting check that has a significant impact on the outcome. Other skills can be invoked for flavour only.

If a supporting check is meant to overcome a scene aspect such as overcome the noise or lost in a crowd, you should allow a PC to turn this challenge into a full fledge Influence check. However, if the support check is no addressing a scene aspect such as I make a strong legal case to support the negociation, then resolve this check normally.

Designing social challenges

It is better to design an opponent that would resist with an advantage of 1-2 over the player's influence skill/attributes. This will require the player to support well the influence through auxiliary skills and role play. Specific scene aspects may be defined to compel a PC to prepare the action by overcoming the challenge instead of jumping on the dice right away. Easy influence checks are like easy monsters, they are boring. 

A good challenge should require multiple characters to act together to in support of an influence check. This will be the object of my next article.

Playing with Influence check (An example)

Maritje is looking for information on the place where her sister is detained during her trial. She approaches Leon, a clerk at the court, and tries to engage him into divulgating what he knows about the trial.

I want Leon to tell me where my sister is kept. , the player states the outcome of the influence check. The GM secretly determines that Leon has a good reaction to Maritje, largely because she is attractive (it would have been otherwise neutral). A good reaction isn’t good enough for him to divulge work details as it contravenes work ethics.

Maritje uses her Interrogation-11 skill to oppose Leon’s Will (It is a matter of work ethics). Maritje is pretty (+ 1), and Leon recognizes her as a known writer (+ 1). In TEoI, she can as a perk substitute Sex Appeal for any influence check (It is a campaign perk for all female characters), but she chooses not. Maritje invoke Current Affairs-12 as a supporting skill and pass (+ 1). Maritje rolls 13 vs Interrogation-14, a MoS 1. Leon is lonely, he resists his loneliness (rolls 8 vs Will-10). His effective Will is 10 and he rolls an 8 again ( MoS 2).

Although Maritje succeeds, Leon tries to be helpful but doesn’t spill the beans as his margin of success is larger. The GM narrates:

You spend a while talking to Leon, asking various questions about today’s big news. Leon figures out that you are after specific details amid your chit-chat. He looks at his pocketwatch often, and excuses himself as soon as he can.

This is it. Maritje cannot attempt to get this outcome anymore with Leon for the time being.

Alternatively, has Leon failed to resist his loneliness, the contest would have been won by Maritje with no margin. The GM could narrate:

“You spend a while talking to Leon, asking various questions about today’s big news. Leon is eager to talk to you and converse enthusiastically with you. He often slips in a few details about various court cases that are not published in the press. You find out that your sister isn’t kept in jail but rather in house arrest somewhere in a good English family. Be ready for Leon to ask you on a date…”

Cranking up the heat

The example above was too easy to succeed, but again I wanted it to have a good chance to work for the narrative's sake. To make this encounter more difficult: 
  • Leon could be part of a cohesive crowd and requires to be cut-out of it (Social Engineering p.81). This defaults to -4 unless Maritje has point in this technique. 
  • There could be a time constraint making Leon in a rush. To negate this scene aspect, Maritje may need to perform another influence skill to overcome the limitation by convincing him that he has time to chat with her (Fast-talk, or Sex appeal). 

In the next few articles, I'll discuss team efforts and "social combats" as a way to take a PC/NPC out by other means than physical harm. I also want to discuss reading people, defensive strategies, NPC influencing PCs, and the particulars of some social skills.


  1. This is really neat. I'm hoping to accomplish a very neat mix between memorable martial and memorable social combat in my upcoming campaign, and the more I read about social combat, the more I get sold on the idea. But maybe its influence on me is easily achieved because I'm already a pragmatic at heart.

    1. I'm loving it. I like how everyone around the table really gets into it. It feels like we the most exciting part of combat becomes more or less the baseline as everyone is in problem solving mode all the time.

  2. Have you thought about using this to affect a target's morale? A gentleman insulted successfully might be "off his game" if he were subsequently required to defend himself. (See Lace and Steel)

    1. I did, and I'm adding here although I was thinking of discussing this in the combat article. It makes sense to be there. Thanks!