I've been writing a lot of RPG theory on a small, local-language forum to an audience of half a dozen or so. It's mostly ideas I've already posted in here or that I have read elsewhere. But one new idea came up today and I wanted to write about it in English as well.
It's that social mechanics (speaking only
about encounter-level, like "I roll Fast-Talk so the guard lets us in", not
network-level, "Let me roll Circles to see if I have a contact in Cincinnati") serve two audiences, and because of that, often serve one or both of them poorly.
• The additive group: Players who want their character to be more capable in a particular context than themselves.
• The subtractive group: Players who want their character to be less capable in a particular context than themselves.
Additive mechanics, I've found pretty much one of those. The first is "skill rolls handle it" "Fast-Talk" example above. "I roll Intimidate to get the goblin to talk", things like that. The more involved subgames like in Fate and Burning Wheel where you Point, Counter Point, invoke their "Doubt" aspect etc also fall into this category.
There's a variant, "bonuses help me with the skill rolls", like "I get a bonus on the reaction roll because I have the advantage Beautiful Appearance", or "I invoke my aspect Savage Fury to get a reroll on that Intimidate roll".
These can be fun if they're involved like a big subgame, and you have a lot of decisions and creativity when making a character very different from you, but they can feel pretty bad if it's just a Fast-Talk, even (or especially) if you know you wouldn't be able to do it yourself. It feels like a pat on the head, a lump in the stomach. Like the gutter covers they put out for kids' bowling.
The subtractive mechanics come in two variants.
First its the above additive one, but with low stats. I really dislike this, actually. You have this great idea and leverage on the orcish captain but the dice fail you. When playing in a campaign like that, we actually asked the DM to be able to roll first, RP later, so we could RP according to what our dice showed, good or bad. (It was WFRP -- all stats are low!)
The second variant is the only one of these three that I actually like really much. It's the "fail deliberately to get reward"-method. Invoke your: Flaws to get insp, Keys to get XP, Dramatic Pole in dramasystem to get bennies, BITs in BW to get... artha iirc? Aspects to get fate points. Sometimes the reward isn't moment to moment but rather upfront, you get the reward when you take the flaw, like Disadvantages in GURPS and your mental balance in Kult 1e and 2e. That's fine, too.
It's pretty weak that after so many years of RP theory, this is all we've got. Extremely minor variations on two themes: "skill rolls", and "currency".
When it comes to "skill rolls vs RP" in encounter-level social mechanics, I've found six variants.
Four that mix RP and rolling:
• The Dell'Orto model
(also used in Dungeon World): You need leverage AND you need to make the roll.
• The IOR model: You need leverage OR you need to make the roll. Can sometimes be unfair since some can dump their mentosocial stats and some have to pay character-building-resource to get them high.
• The "advantage" model: You need to make the roll. Having leverage gives you advantage on the roll.
• The Fluff and Crunch Shall Never Meet model: You need to RP to roll. Whether your RP contains leverage or not doesn't matter, all that matters is the roll. The contents of the RP is ignored, the roll is what matters, but RP is needed because that's what the group desires.
I haven't liked any of these four models. When Dungeon World presented its "leverage" idea, I was fascinated, and it was a good tease for Dramasystem (see below), but then you also need to make a roll? Huh.
Two more "pure" models:
• The Dramasystem model: You need leverage. No roll needed. (This is my current favorite... or rather, I even dislike the other five of these six models.)
• The "charisma blast" model: You need to make the roll. No leverage, or even any RP, needed. (This used to be my favorite, especially with more detailed and choice-driven system like Battle of Wits or Fate Core's contests, but even with a simple "Fast Talk"-roll, until I got burned out on that sort of gameplay.)
D&D 5e, in its desire to be all things to all people, grants permission in the DMG for the DM to decide on any of the six models. (It doesn't identify the six models; it explains roughly what I've called the Dramasystem model, the "charisma blast" model, and the "advantage model", but does it vaguely enough that the other three models can find some sort of permission.
All six models can be, and often is, augmented with the "fail deliberately to get currency"-idea. I think it works best w/ the Dramasystem model. It wasn't really invented by Dramasystem, it's the old Breeyark model. "To say it, say it."
But, the way Robin Laws puts it in Unframed (which A: strips away all the tokens, and B: drills much deeper in the "how to organically judge who has leverage" part) is absolutely genious. That Unframed chapter is the best RP text I've ever read.