WS1: On “Social Mechanics”

How many times have you heard something like this?

D&D doesn’t have good mechanics for social situations — there’s nothing like PbtA moves, Fate’s skills or aspects, or even something basic, like Burning Wheels’ Duel of Wits. You can’t do, for example, Game of Thrones with D&D as-written.

…yeah. We’re going there. This is likely to be a spicy take for some readers, and it’s likely going to require multiple parts to cover all that is worth saying on this subject. For now, I’m leaving it as-is rather than labeling it part of a series, because I want to see how the topic develops.

The excerpt above is paraphrased from a story-games forum discussion circa 2017, but even in 1987 you had Persuasion skill mechanics that had started appearing in the Gazetteer series, specifically in The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Discussions about how to increase the immersion within the social fabric of a given D&D campaign setting crop up numerous times in the “letters to the editor” section of Dragon Magazine.

This list from GAZ-1 is one of the first skill systems for D&D ever. How hype is that?

I say this to establish context and to make my position clear: the question “how to handle player-NPC and player-player socialization” has long been a long and valuable topic within the tabletop RPG design sphere. The topic is valid and multi-dimensional, the topic is complex and not simply resolved, and the resolutions that exist are tailor-made for subsets of the population. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this discussion, and I don’t mean to suggest that in anything I will write today.

Rather, today’s topic is a challenge of a different sort. When I challenge the conversation about mechanical genre in this post, I do not contest the idea that [some undefined aspect of socializing in real life] benefits from [some undefined in-game emulation].

Rather, I want to draw your attention to how imprecise the colloquial naming of this mechanic is, and how that muddies the waters for discussion. I don’t mean to suggest that the colloquial naming is somehow degenerate or that it defies sense. The nomenclature evolved organically and is valid, insofar as organic nomenclature can ever be valid – it’s just…messy.

Social mechanic…?

So-cial me-cha-niiiiccccc…

It’s, well…it’s an atypical classification, is how I would charitably put it. To me, speaking personally and not in a more objective fashion, I find it mind-boggling that it’s the term we use, that it seems to be treated as a useful unit of communication, and that despite many arguments where clearly two sides are using different definitions or preconceptions about the term “social mechanic”, both sides will continue to use the term as they grow increasingly frustrated with each other. In a word, it’s absurd.

The two-word phrase casts a wide net, covering a dizzying array of tabletop designer creativity and diversity. The breadth and scope of this net is colossal, in my opinion, when compared to how narrowly and carefully we classify other mechanics in the tabletop RPG world. The breadth and scope of this net are furthermore disastrous when it comes to discussing things as designers and fans of games like D&D, Fate, Burning Wheel, etc.

Consider, if you will, the following: “dice mechanics”, “combat mechanics”, “travel mechanics”.

All of these (and indeed most tabletop RPG mechanics) involve direct examination of the subject being mechanized. When it comes to talking about them, the designer’s intent is also generally specifically focused on that thing, rather than merely something adjacent. For dice mechanics, you study dice probabilities. For combat mechanics, you focus on how wounds are emulated, how HP might translate to actual health, how weapons compare to one another, how combat out to feel “relatable” or victories to feel “earned”, “worthwhile”, etc. For travel mechanics, you look at how to handle distances between cities, how to emulate the dangers and trials of camping while traveling…things like that…you often want to emulate real distances or real rationing concerns.

As a result, protocols technically adjacent to combat or travel can trivially be excluded from those mechanical genres. For instance, imagine combat is resolved through mutual agreement or through a single coin flip. Combat clearly isn’t the focus – there’s a protocol to deal with it should it come up, but designers are more than likely going to delineate this sort of mechanic as a “conflict resolution mechanic” for precision’s sake.  It wouldn’t be out of place to say, for example, “Golden Sky Stories doesn’t really have a combat mechanic”.

Or, alternatively, take 13th Age’s Montage System for traveling, which is usually thought of as just a way to pace out adventures or as a way to handle traveling for players who don’t want to handle interim travel – it’s not considered a travel mechanic in the style of point-crawl and hex crawl procedures.

This is actually what I use in my 5th Edition and OSR campaigns 90% of the time.

This exclusion is immensely useful, because it means that when designing a combat engine for your TTRPG, there is an understanding that conflict resolution mechanics are not a patch for what you want. Put another way, it allows a degree of focus, and for priorities to align more closely.

Social mechanics, on the other hand…there are mechanics such as Powered by the Apocalypse moves which barely interact with the conversational dimension of social interaction – the resolutions of said moves have results akin to mind control, reading someone’s mind, or skipping to the next dramatic scene of the game. Some mechanics focus on having an improvisational theater structure, but with various players “sitting out” and “rating” the actors, like Tenra Bansho Zero. Other mechanics like the Duel of Wits protocol strongly mechanize conversation, but with a focus of making them fair and making them dependent on a player’s tactical skill rather than their social acumen.

Future posts may cover more specific and/or speculative musings on the problems of bunching all these under one umbrella term, and those posts may prove instructive.

But, for now, all I want is for the reader to consider the mess you might get. Imagine yourself a designer or a fan trying to have a conversation about one of these types of mechanics, and your choices are either to use a nebulous term that could mean any and all of them, or a detailed description of exactly what sort of mechanic you mean.

You can hopefully envision at best a degree of exhaustion, at worst a cornucopia of miscommunication. I’ve talked to indie developers who have researched social mechanics that they were told would increase the quality of social interaction in their games, only to find that the mechanics they were recommended replaced or cut out conversation entirely. It’s also common for people to disagree about what social mechanics are meant to do, and have both sides be correct, if only because they are talking about completely different mechanics that were crafted with completely different priorities and intentions in mind…but lacked the vocabulary to articulate this.

Here are just two examples of an alternative mechanical genres that I personally find more precise:

PbtA moves often exist to reinforce pacing or a certain aesthetic, so I think of them as “authorial mechanics“. They were designed by people who wanted to help the players tell a story with a particular aesthetic, they allow you to author what happens next if you succeed, and they cause you to lose authorship to another player if you fail. Lots of other games (Hillfolk and GUMSHOE come to mind) have authorial mechanics, so it’s not like this is a lonely genre.

I think of Tenra Bansho’s kabuki theater protocol as a form of acting training, and so I refer to them that way as well. They are “acting training mechanics”, meant to teach players a particular theater format by throwing them forcibly into that format each time they enter a social encounter, and then having their peers rate them. Through repeated cycles of rating others and receiving ratings themselves, they come to improve as kabuki actors, or at least to improve as actors from the perspective of their gaming group. I’d categorize other games with rate-and-review scenes the same way, since it’s almost identical to how actors improve in an introductory acting class environment.

This post…has no particular conclusion. It’s the start of a longer examination, but I hope that it conveys my own unique hesitation around the continued emphasis and usage of the term “social mechanic” when people are attempting to reach some productive common ground in design discussions.


The art for this post is from Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. 

The format and scripting for this post are inspired by Innuendo Studios’ recent foray into weird terminology in gaming. Ian discusses the oddly broad and potentially confusing umbrella-term of “adventure games” in video games, which caused me to think about this analog in tabletop RPGs.

Housekeeping Note.

This is part of a new series called the Word Salad series (WS will be a prefix for all of these posts). They can be summed up as a series where I take a common term in tabletop RPGs and explain my quibbles with the term, my belief that the term is misused, or my belief that the term is imprecisely used.

2 thoughts on “WS1: On “Social Mechanics”

  1. 1. I agree that “social mechanics” is a nebulous term. However, I feel like your article described it as wholly negative and I’m a bit cautious of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As an example, historically I think everyone who joins in these conversation knows what it means to be social and knows what mechanics are; therefore, “social mechanics” is a really fast short-hand to get on the same page about what we’re going to talk about (a system that helps define a mostly social scene).

    Do you feel that we should do away with the term altogether, though – because it’s just too risky?

    2. I was very surprised you didn’t go the extra step here and start to dissect the term into a few more buckets. I definitely appreciated you defining “authorial mechanics” – I think that’s a really useful term. I’d love to see you take a swing at that!

    3. I think you’d really enjoy this video released this week by Mark Brown. In particular, I like Brown’s lens on this problem by focusing on the parts of a “social encounter” that are most fun – and how to extend that fun in reliable and/or novel ways:


    1. 1) Subdividing and dividing would both achieve the same thing, which is “give us more language tools to be clear” and that’s the primary complaint I have. If we keep the term and give it subdivisions, that’s fine. If we get rid of the term and cut it into slices of pie, that’s fine too. My negativity is to highlight the problems – there’s no need to highlight the good, because the good is that “social mechanics” is more granular than “mechanics”.
      Personally, I think it’s useful to maybe avoid using the term cuz it is so unclear, or to use it and then immediately clarify. I’ve legitimately never seen two people use the term and reach understanding without clarifying, there’s always some hiccup. But other people might be able to use it if they’re part of the same design community (like say they both work exclusively with PbtA games) that this communication issue never occurs.

      2) Blog length constraints. Might have more exploration in the future. I tend to like separating proposals with “problematizing” posts. When I “problematize”, what I want is for readers to confront the problems and see if they are valid. If I include too many solutions, it can lead to a conversation about how valid or useful the solutions are, which is usually a discussion I think should ideally be separate. The step of making sure people understand the problem is a good one to stop at and reflect on.

      3) Watched that! Not sure if you wanted a more detailed, but I have watched that and enjoyed it quite a lot :3


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