It took me a long time to realize what it was that troubled me about social skill rolls in RPGs. There are a lot of factors here, but two basic things stand out. One concern is they often become buttons the players press that replace things like talking in character or describing their actions (so "I use Command on the guard" rather than "I try to stare the guard down and shout 'open that door before I make an example out of you"). The other is skills like this can make the actions that the players do take, almost meaningless. They might ask the right questions, say the right things, but if they fail that social skill roll, suddenly all that roleplaying is a bit pointless (the only thing that really mattered was the roll and the roleplaying really had no bearing on the outcome).
|Illustration by Jackie Musto|
These are extreme examples. I realize social skill rolls are not always used this way and don't always produce these sorts of results. But for me, these are issues that irk me as either a player or a GM. When they arise, I find it incredibly frustrating. This was something me and Bill talked about a lot between games and we eventually settled on the following approach (which slowly became how we advise GMs in the rulebook). It is actually pretty intuitive and simple and it allows you to use social skills without having them get in the way or replace roleplaying. I suspect lots of people do this and it just took me an extra long time to figure it out.
First, the most important thing to keep in mind is the GM asks for social skill rolls; the players don't intitiate them. Players can ask if it is appropriate for them to make a roll,but for the most part the focus here shifts to the players describing what they are trying to do. They talk in character and/or describe their character's actions, then the GM either decides what happens or, if there is some doubt about outcome, asks for a roll.
Second, the GM needs to really think about when a social skill roll is appropriate. Every interaction with an NPC doesn't warrant a roll. Asking the innkeeper for a loaf of bread if you can pay for it (and if he has the bread) doesn't usually necessitate a roll (unless you've done something to offend him). The roll is only when the outcome is unclear for some reason.
Third, let the player's actions and words have weight before deciding if a roll is necessary. This is about giving primacy to the role-play and the events in the game, and making sure they stand instead of being trumped by a random roll. It is only when something about the Player Character or something about the NPC would create resistance or difficulty, that you would ask for a roll. A fully cooperative witness, talking to a polite PC asking appropriate questions at a crime scene, is probably going to result in the player getting answers to his or her questions. But if that player character is strange and off-putting in some way, if the NPC has something to hide and doesn't want to reveal anything, then you might ask for a roll based on the interaction.
These three points are really just part of one basic guideline: know when to ask for a social skill roll. This can apply to other skills as welll (and in our games it generally does), but for social skills it is especially important because they can undermine the in game details if you are not cautious in their use. I've found this approach not only allows me to live in peace with social skills at my table, it enhances play tremendously and avoids a lot of the problems I have had with social skill rolls in the past.