Writing Series

Writing Atlas: The Cancelled Social Pillar

Alright now I reveal what has been my master plan all along. The Crafting and Travel pillars will come next week. For now though, this is the article the previous ones were building up to. I wanted to talk about this before I went on to the other pillars that would be active, but to talk about this I felt like I needed to say some of the things that came in the previous articles released this week.

But now we’re here! So originally the Triumvirate system used the three pillars Combat, Crafting and Social. The thing about it is, I could not for the life of me figure out a decent way to make a social pillar work in Atlas without grinding gameplay to a halt or feeling totally shoehorned in so it got replaced for the Travel pillar. The reason I did away with Social was because I really wasn’t feeling it as a simple, but interesting concept the way I felt about Combat and Crafting (and the way I do feel about Travel.) The way I kept building Social pillars would either result in grinding out silly tasks collecting “influence tokens” or making die rolls which could just be attributed to Charisma anyway, or in probably the worst case, just forcing the player to talk to an NPC in character without saying something stupid. Nothing that really constituted “core rules” rather than just common sense.

The earliest form of a failed Social Pillar that I can remember involved using the five colors of Magic: The Gathering as a basis for NPC personality types and character alignment as I understood it from this TVTropes analysis of the personality of the MTG colors and their combinations. (Be careful, that is a TVTropes link. If you don’t want to lose 18 hours of your life, finish reading this article first before you click any links in that one. You can easily get lost…)

Anyway, in that early system, basically the way your character behaved would adhere to one of the five basic colors that MTG uses (or possibly a combination of them) which formed your Alignment. If you were lawful or virtuous, you gained White alignment. If you were selfish or ambitious, you gained Black. You get the idea, but the premise was meant to exclude acts of strict “good and evil” and focus more on the depth of your characters personality. Your alignment, when wielded correctly in conversation by treating topics the way a character of your alignment would (shouldn’t be hard since you earned the alignment somehow right?) would net you benefits when speaking to people of similar alignments. The problem here was tracking alignment fluidly and without causing an argument as to if an action was more Blue than Black or whatever. Doing this on the fly for every major decision or interaction, and calculating a characters motivation for their actions, would have been tiresome over time and the whole thing was only for a social boost. So it felt like too much for too little and I scraped it.

The second attempt at a Social pillar was a point system where the GM would have a couple lines of dialog prepared for important NPCs. Not much of a stretch from how some people currently run their games. When the players need to convince someone to do something against their judgement or desires, they would simply speak to that person with their best attempt at changing their mind. As the PC made their point the GM would award or detract Conversion Points (because they convert the target to your way of thinking) based on how the GM judged the players argument. If they made a weak point, the GM would detract points. If they made a solid case for their argument, the GM would award points. Ultimately the goal was to get as many conversion points as possible to achieve certain goals with the exact amounts determined by the GM before the interaction began and more difficult or outlandish requests costing more points. In this method, a high Charisma would net you more points when you gained them. The problem with this basically boiled down to requiring a lot of GM preparation, and if the rule was enforced for every minor interaction (imagine having to do this every time one of your players tries to haggle prices) it would become very cumbersome. Sure you could just default to Charisma rolls for the minor stuff, but then how often would you actually use the Social pillar? Only when it’s important? Well if it’s important to the plot, then isn’t the fate of the NPCs decision basically already decided in favor of whatever moves the story along? So this one got scrapped as well.

The third and last social pillar construct was a sort of clean slate attempt at starting from absolute zero, and if I still wanted a Social Pillar in the Triumvirate System, it would probably be this iteration. I rethought what “social” means and came to a conclusion that I was kind of narrow minded about my earlier approaches. Everything I had written before was basically about one on one conversations. And while that is technically “social” it really didn’t fit the definition of the word proper. So I started thinking about how to apply the rules to a town or community rather than just one player and one NPC. This take on the Social Pillar had three main constructs. First, one on one conversations could come down to Charisma rolls or just in-character interactions (whatever the GM wants.) Second, I liked the points system from my 2nd attempt so I would use points again somehow. Third, I needed to apply the rules to a group of people rather than individuals and I needed it to be done in a way that would help a story progress and not interfere with other elements of the game.

What I settled on was a Social Token rule. The GM would create events or situations where the players could gather information about it to earn bonuses when they confronted… whatever it was they were confronting. For example the bad guys big dark castle might have a secret entrance to allow the PCs to skip some of the guards and traps. They would earn this information by speaking with people in the nearby town, asking the right questions, checking the right sources. Arcane classes would check archives and libraries. Skilled classes would speak to bartenders or local storytellers. Nature classes would perform recon outside the town for hints of how the castle was constructed. All of these things would award social tokens provided the players did the right tasks. When they achieved enough tokens they would learn of the secret tunnel, or a weakness of the bad guys, or whatever. The awards for using the Social Pillar this way would all be superfluous things that didn’t need to happen to move the plot forward, but benefited the players for doing a little bit of preparation and exploring the world rather than simply marching in the direction of evil with the intention of stabbing it to death.

As much as I thought this could work, I actually wasn’t sure how much people would want to play it. Again, it felt like I was asking GMs to plan all their big locations, villains, and events with special loopholes just to make room for a social aspect of the game. If someone wanted to add a secret tunnel or weakness to their castle or villain and have the PCs discover it, then they would make a way for that to happen in the story already anyway without a block of rules to tell them how they should do it. So again, it got scraped.

Currently the Social Pillar sits defunct in a couple of notes, and anyone reading can feel free to use some of the earlier ideas I talked about if they work for your game (let me know how it goes) but they won’t be included in the final version of Atlas.

Travel and Crafting pillars next week, then I think I’ll start on races and classes and other stuff like that. Thanks for reading these though. If you can be bothered to read more, there’s a patreon page for Archfossil where you can support everything that goes on here directly. Still being worked on, but you can see the details of how and why that’s happening after the link.

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