Social Skills for Old School Games?

persuasion graphicNew school games often include social skills (like Persuade, Intimidate, Seduce, Lie, etc.). I’ve never been a fan of such skills because they tend to eventually greatly reduce (or even completely replace) conversational roleplaying. Since in most such systems, the result of the die roll determines the success of what you are trying to do no matter what you say when roleplaying the conversation, I’ve noticed that many players and GMs using such systems tend to eventually reduce or even skip the conversation completely in favor of something like the player saying “I try to persuade the baron to loan us some troops” and making a Persuade skill roll to see if the character convinced the baron to provide the troops.

I much prefer the “old school” method of actually roleplaying the conversation with the GM making reaction rolls to see (modified by the PC’s Charisma and exactly what the PC is asking — and offering compared to the NPC’s needs) how the discussion is going. New school proponents point out that this means a player is always limited to the player’s ability to persuade, intimidate, etc. so a character really can’t be better at persuasion than the player is.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with this as I define a PC’s reasoning and social abilities to be those of the player. However, after reading a long discussion on this on a message board recently, I starting to wonder if there wasn’t a more old school way to handle this that did not replace the reaction roll with a skill check.

After some thought, I decided to look at my Talents system for my OSR Microlite20-based games as it is just a variation of the simple “Good at” skill system. Here’s the Talent rules from Microlite74 Companion 1 (These rules are open game content under the OGL):

At level 2 (and every 2 levels thereafter), characters may select one narrow area of skill where they are better than average: something they are “Good at.” This talent should be either something directly related to their class or background — or something they have spent game time and/or money learning. If the player wishes (and the GM approves), instead of selecting a new talent a talent the character is already “Good at” be improved to “Expert at” at a later even-numbered level and a talent the character is “Expert at” may be improved a final time to “Master at” at yet a later even-numbered level. The GM will consider the character’s talents just as he would the character’s class and background when deciding if a character will succeed with an action.

Version Suitability: Any.

Notes for the GM: Many players used to more “new school” styles of play want rules-based, mechanical ways to customize their characters. Talents provide a way to do this that does not add much complexity nor restrict characters from trying to do things anyone should be able to try because they failed to select some special mechanical customization feat. Talents let characters choose to be better than average in some specific, limited field. For example, while any character can try to swing from vines, a character that is “Good at: Swinging from Vines” is going to be more successful at it than the average character. If you need to assign numerical benefits to talents for when a success roll is needed, +2 per level is a good place to start for most talents (i.e. Good at +2, Expert at +4, Master at: +6).

Why not extend the Talent system to include social skills like “Persuasion” or “Seduction”? That way you could have a character who was “Good at: Intimation” or “Expert at: Fast Talk”. However, what would these mean in game terms. To start with, the GM could simply take a character’s “Good at: Persuasion” into account when making a decision about the success of a persuasion attempt.

If the GM uses Reaction Rolls to chart the course of such conversation and their final result, he could add +1 to the reaction roll for a appropriate “Good at” social skill (+2 for an “Expert at” and +3 for a “Master at”). Only one such skill could be added at a time, however. However, if one uses Greyhawk or B/X style attribute bonuses (where the Charisma bonus could be as high as +3), this could make the total bonus as high as +6. This seems a bit much for a 2d6 die roll.

Perhaps the easiest fix would be to rule that a character could add the better of his Charisma bonus or his “Good at: Appropriate Social Ability” bonus to the reaction roll. This would mean that high Charisma was a natural social skill bonus — which would take a lot of training to better. For example, someone with a Charisma of 17 has a natural +2 bonus to their Reaction Roll. They would have to train to “Master at” in a social skill before it would provide a bonus better than their natural ability. At the opposite end, this system would really help those with low Charisma. Someone with a Charisma of 3 would have a -3 bonus to reaction rolls. However, if he had a “Good at: Persuasion” that -3 penalty would be replaced by a +1 bonus when the character tried to be persuasive. While this may seem a bit extreme, it does not strike me as completely unrealistic as in real life a little training in things like eye contract, posture, tone of voice and language can turn a poor speaker into a slightly better than average one, but if you already do these things naturally, it can take a lot more training and practice to improve beyond one’s natural abilities.

Another possibility would be to roll more dice to extend the reaction roll scale so +6 was not so dominating. Perhaps roll 3d6 or even 4d6 instead of 2d6 for reaction rolls. A third possibility would be to add the Charisma bonus and the talent bonus together to get the bonus to the reaction roll but cap the bonus to a +3 under the “you can only be so good and you can get that way through natural ability, through training, or through some combination of both.”

Of course, if you play a pre-Greyhawk version of OD&D where the best attribute modifier you can get is +1, you probably don’t need to worry about the interaction of Charisma bonus and Talent bonus as a total bonus of +4 isn’t that much better than you’d get with post-Greyhawk Charisma bonuses alone.

Please note that this has not been playtested at all and I’m not sure I would even want to use a rule like this in my games, but it looks like it would work and seems a fair way to handle “social skills” in an old school game for those who feel the need for them.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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"New school proponents point out that this means a player is always limited to the player's ability to persuade, intimidate, etc."

I used to subscribe to this view, but found that it produces some odd results in play unless limited to physical, rather than mental, differences between you and your character. In the case of persuasion, I'd be fine with something like comeliness influencing the roll. Honestly, I've been thinking about ditching mental scores, except for NPCs, to emphasize that your character is an avatar of sorts — a means of interacting with the fantasy world


ProfessorOats: I don't think I've ever really subscribed to this view except perhaps for a brief time in the early 1980s. And evben then I was skeptical at heart. A finalized version of these rules will end up as an optional rule for Microlite74/78/81 where those who want something like this can use it. There are a lot of optional rules in the two Microlite74 optional rules companions that I would not use it my own games.

Rachel Ghoul

My view is on the pro-skill side, but only just– it is useful as an aide or stepping stone for those players who want to take a turn as the fast-talking smooth operator that they might lack the confidence or grace or what-have-you to be in reality (after all, I reason, isn't the thrill of getting to be someone unlike ourselves a huge part of the fun of roleplaying?) Affecting the reaction roll is a great old-school way of handling it. My instinct for how to handle it would be to treat it like any other ability/good-at check, with success… Read more »

Rachel Ghoul

Pretty close to what you were saying, anyway, but with the d20 roll involved for the sake of similar systems working consistently.


Rachel: I'm too old school to worry about something like "similar systems working consistently". 🙂 Especially when adding a D20 "skill roll" to the mix just makes character's worse at social stuff than skipping the D20 roll and just adding the talent roll to the talent bonus to the reaction roll (because by requiring the skill roll, the talent bonus is only effective "skill roll as a percentage" percent of the time).

Rachel Ghoul

Well anyway I think half the usual bonus seems about right in this context, so it seems like the basic math checks out on the instinct test. I mainly only like having the d20 roll because… I dunno, it feels more active, I guess, if there's a chance of failure. But you raise a good point that there's no real *need* for it if we're already assuming that we want to model the PC being a better talker than their player. It's that old-school assumption of competence raising its head again.