Thursday, March 20, 2014

GURPS Social Academy: PCs as targets of Influence Checks

This post is the third in the series GURPS Social Academy exploring the use in practice of ideas from GURPS Social Engineering (with some personal twists). These articles relate to my new campaign The Empress of India

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.

Principle: You are not your character

It is important to keep in mind that player skills and knowledge are distinct from these of the characters. GURPS players already know that since a curious character will sometime have to do the wrong thing if he/she fails to resist vs Will. In the Palantir Commission campaign, the characters never found out that the squire could cast spells and simply assumed that the Valars were on their side. The players, however, had great fun with this plot twist. 

This article is about PCs being the target of Influence Checks. You got to be OK with the separation of player/character knowledge for it to work, but it is fun to play out. 

It takes two to tango: PCs as targets

The main issue with failing to resist an influence check is that a character is compelled into an involuntary action or belief. There are mechanisms to make this work in a GURPS way. I'm reconciling here these neat mechanics with the equally neat concepts of consequence and aspects from FATE.

However, let's review the possible outcomes of an Influence check:
  • Obtain a favour or a piece of information (Case 1).
  • Compel an action or a decision (Case 2, 3).
  • Alter reaction by 1+ levels (Doesn't apply to PC targets?).
  • Undermine your target with composure damage (Case 4).
Also keep in mind that the consequence of an Influence check should persist for the rest of the encounter.  That is the cost of failure and it should be making things fun.

Case 1: Letting out some information or granting a favour

Let's define a favour as the granting of the PC's service for one skills check (as if the PC was a contact). 
  • Interrogation: This case isn't too much of a stretch. Losing an interrogation check means that the GM gets to pick what a PC end-up saying without meaning it. The bigger the MoS, the more gets said. 
  • Intimidation: A piece of information is let out under duress. The GM prompts the PC to reveal something. If this information isn't enough, the PC has to keep on going until the GM is satisfied with the match between the MoS of the check and the quantity/sensitivity of the information provided.
  • Diplomacy: The PC got swindled into thinking that a certain piece of information was worth the trade. The GM grants something against a piece of information and the PC must be meeting its end of the deal in good faith. 
  • Savoir-Faire: The PC got swindled through procedural maneuvers into doing or saying something. Otherwise, treat as an intimidation check.
Devasheesh is grabbed into a chokehold by a group of thug. His helplessness gives him a -3 to Will to resist an Intimidation-based influence check. The contest is lost with a MoS of 4. Devasheesh is prompted to reveal whether there are sentries within the embassy: he blurts the that indeed there are sentries. The GM doesn't think that a simple yes is good enough to pay for a MoS of 4, so Devasheesh decides to reveal how many are inside. The GM is happy because the thugs now will get +2 to their tactics check when they burst through the door.  
Devasheesh has the option to lie only if is succeeds the contest. Tough luck.

Case 2: Compelling an action/attitude other than a favour

Losing an Influence check means that you just lost control of the PC in part. This is really the same as being slapped with a temporary disadvantage. The player may attempt to resist as the PC isn't "remote controlled", but this resistance uses the regular disadvantage mechanics.

The list of disadvantages that may be used as consequence of losing to an influence check is long. However, here is a list of entertaining possible outcomes (feel free to suggest some):
  • Careful (intimidation): You are now convinced that this is not the time for rash action.
  • Broad-Minded (general): You are convinced to let things slide that would otherwise make you react.
  • Delusion (general): You are convinced of stuff that other people around aren't buying. It governs your decision and makes you look like a fool (See next case).
  • Coward (Intimidation): You are prone to flight.
  • Dread (general): You have to keep your distance to something or someone.
  • Dull (general): You have lost your zest and exuberance.
  • Greed (general): You are compelled to make the most obvious, highest payoff decision.
  • Guilt Complex (general): You can now be easily manipulated into things... because everything is your fault of course.
  • Honesty (general): You are holding yourself to higher standards of integrity. Darn it.
  • Incurious/Oblivious (general): Distracted, you are less likely to care about the small stuff.
  • Indecisive (general): You got to double-check every decisions, and someone will notice that you are struggling with yourself.
  • Likes and Dislikes: Your outlook on something is temporarily altered.
  • Lazy (general): Hey, why work right now?
  • Pacifism (general): You are convinced that violence isn't the best option and can't bring yourself to it.
  • Selfish (general): You are becoming suddenly aware of your needs, and how they are rarely met. Do something about it.
  • Shyness (general): You are suddenly feeling withdrawn. Assertiveness comes at a penalty.
  • Stubborness (general): Changing your mind is difficult. You got locked into sticking to a plan, without even hesitating about it (unlike indecisiveness).

Lord Daunton walks to the chief prosecutor (PC) before the trial resumes and launches into a tirade about procedure. He calls Law-12 as a supporting skills and Savoir-Faire(high society)-11 as Influence skill. The successful outcome is that the chief prosecutor will be so burdened with details that he will distracted during the encounter. The Influence check succeeds, the GM gives the chief prosecutor the temporary disadvantage incurious until the end of the encounter. 
Later on in the same session, when Lord Daunton tries to fast-talk a witness into slipping into a trap, the PC must succeed a Will check or simply not oppose this unorthodox move. The player knows that Daunton is trying to pass a quick one, but the character is possibly too stressed out to react appropriately.

Case 3: Crazy beliefs

There are two types of crazy beliefs: the passive kind which obstruct free will is modeled by a temporary delusion. The other type is prompting the PC to act: treat this one as a temporary obsession.

The temporary delusion

An NPC tells a tall tale that is obviously a lie, but manages to convince the character that he is a friend after a successful Acting-based Influence check. The player will want to get out of this situation ASAP, but how about the PC?
  • The PC is under a temporary delusion (BS130). It affects reaction to other characters that are not influenced as any other delusions. The player must play the character with this constraint and have fun with it (must have fun while we're at it).
  • A player must stick to the delusion until there is a good enough evidence that the crazy belief is... crazy. Both player and GM must agree that the evidence is valid. A Will check success may be in order to snap out of it.
  • If a Will check, adjusted by context, is failed. The PC should be even more difficult to snap off of the delusion. Impose a composure penalty of -2 against further Will checks.
An exception is with Fast-Talk Influence check. These, by definition, are transient in effect. It compels an action and then vanish. Further more, the target should be at +1 to resist further attempt similarly to the penalty incurred for ruses (GURPS Martial Arts p.101) in melee combat.

The temporary obsession

An influence against a PC compelling to action is treated differently. In its simplest form, treat it as a favour (Case 1) if it can be solved in a single check, statement of a peril-free action. If it triggers a more complex chain of actions, it is more appropriate to impose an temporary obsession to the PC. 

Through negotiations, the Russian agent convinces Miriam to destroy the personal correspondence of the new regional director against the promise of letting her be in the future. This is resolved as a contest of Diplomacy skills that Miriam loses. The Russian agent manages to convince Miriam that she must carry through this task. Miriam is now under an obsession: she must rationalize each action with respect to this short-term goal. If Miriam wins the contest, she has free will to go through the deal or not. 

Case 4: Undermining the PC's determination, wits.

It is possible that the goal of an influence check is to cause composure damage to the target. If it succeeds, the target is shaken: it suffers -1 to Will and IQ until the end of the encounter (-2 for critical successes). This is a good way to take down an opponent as the blow of defeat lowers the will and makes it harder to negotiate, argue, convince, or recall important details for IQ-based skills.

Composure damage is a mean rather than an end. It can be used for coordinated actions by a team of collaborators. I plan to elaborate more on this when I cover assisted influence checks.

Reiko really needs to get Leon to hand over the file. This is her last chance, so before she tries the influence check, she tries to convince Leon that she is desperate for love and likes him very much. She calls acting-12 as supporting skill, and Sex Appeal-11 as influence skill. She wins by the contest with a critical success. As a consequence, Leon effective IQ drops from 10 to 8, his Will from 11 to 9: he is a dribbling idiot for the rest of the encounter.  Leon's player doesn't need to act like a fool: Leon is doing this on his own well enough. Leon's player is completely free to do anything: the only difference is that when it comes down to some contest of skills or attributes, Leon isn't quite himself for the rest of the encounter.

Trying this at home

In a way, what is described here is the social RPGing equivalent of having a bad guy swing a sword at a PC. The consequence should be looked as roleplaying challenge. Ideally, I think that players should be afraid of being taken-out of a game by other means than through bodily harm. That is a concept from FATE and DIASPORA that I very much like.


  1. I like everything I see here - I tend to do this more fast and loose in my past games, but this mechanic feels solid to me.

    I would go one step further and even allow for the change in reaction level as well. Not sure how to make that happen mechanically, but I'd be fine saying "this guy is really starting to grow on you..."

    1. Yea, this could be done. But maybe instead of taking away free will, imposing Likes, or some kind of devotion or obsession would work as well. I honestly make stuff up on the fly when I play, but I find it useful to develop ideas more carefully when I'm offline to explore possibilities that can be underneath the surface.

    2. Totally think the idea of reactions could be applied to PCs; it can be relative or absolute based on the scale of reaction levels, but it still helps to abstract a new dynamic to a social encounter where a presupposed enemy might suddenly begin making sense to the PCs and getting in their good graces.

      The rest of this article is so excellent. I think you could totally put something like this in a Pyramid article. Very nice, Christian.

    3. Player reaction would make sense as long as the player gets tot set the initial reaction or decides to defere to dice for the same sportsmanlike reasons as the GM has to roll for NOC in the first place.

    4. I think we're all in agreement here - that the relative change in reaction score would be given to the player to role play in a way that he sees as appropriate. It demands trust in your players to play correctly, and a strong GM who is willing to point out when they start to drift.

  2. *Very Good.* I just want to know one thing: Why aren't you putting this in Pyramid? This is...worthy of it.

    1. Thanks Christopher. I'm thinking about it. I've got a largish campaign charter with quite a bit of material like this which I'm thinking about putting together for a small GURPS supplement (The Empress of India + My knowledge stuff that I posted last year + The social gaming + real world religion in a social game + the Traveller-style character generation mechanics). The last that I checked, none of the coming Pyramid seemed to fit with this stuff from a theme's perspective.