Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review: Social Engineering

Title Page
The social aspect of role playing games can be a contentious issue. You can argue about whether or not they should be purely role-played, handled by repeatable applications of system mechanics, or a combination of both. What if we give bonuses for someone that gave a really good speech? Is that fair to the guy who's trying to come out of his shell using RPGs as a vessel towards that ends? What if we reduce all high stakes debates and trials to a single roll of the dice because talking is just fluff and Jane Doe doesn't know that much about 17th century law and doesn't want to embarrass herself while fumbling through some awkward role play? Is that fair for the other players who have really found themselves emotionally invested and in that sweet zone of the suspension of disbelief to be shaken out of it by just saying, "Lawyer bad guy rolled 10, Lawyer Jane rolled 10, Jane has more skill, so she just barely persuaded the jury on behalf of her client?"
Where am I going with this? I dunno. I think that it should be self evident that both of those opposite poles taken to the maximum extreme are destructive; all mechanics, and you have an RPG without the RP; no mechanics, and you have an RPG without the G. GURPS comes standard with pretty simple socialization and negotiation rules, but entire engaging epics exist that don't have a single moment of violence, and consist solely of the complex fabrics woven of the interlinking threads of relationships. Social Engineering is the toolbox to help better enable this.


Table of Contents
Social Engineering is a huge book largely focused on mechanics and GM advice. It is 88 pages long and it is broken down into 6 sections. Well, that's to be expected as "All Social Interactions" is an astoundingly huge scope for a game supplement. It builds on the foundations established in the Basic Set, so that might be required to understand some of the more mechanically explicit sections of this book, but a lot of the rules are explained in enough detail that you won't need to be constantly paging back and forth between two open documents to find what you need. As for the the writing and content style, the book is mainly mechanical, with some editorial. Each major chapter starts with an on-point fictional anecdote to give a flavor for what kind of questions you should ask yourself or hope to have answered by each section, and one of my favorite elements, the book is scattered with poignant pull-quotes that do a good job of syncing with the accompanying text.
This is not a joy-read or an informational dense book like the genre or tech books, but more like a reference that does not make sense as a book to just plow through from cover to cover. Instead, it makes most sense if thought of more as a strict manual of guidelines that you can pick up and put down when wondering what the appropriate social outcome of a given situation might be.
With that pre-amble, let's take a closer look at each chapter in detail.

Social Relations in Campaigns

This chapter is probably the lightest chapter of the entire book and serves as a gentle introduction. It gives some very high level advice on the appropriate usage of the book (IE, rules don't exist for rules sake; only use more rules if it makes the game more fun.) It deals with meta-game concerns like establishing a social contract so all players are aware of the expectations of the game so everyone can enjoy themselves more fully, and then goes into several examples of scenarios rich with hooks to insert complex social interaction opportunities, and how these opportunities might present themselves. These include some one-off scenarios for breaking up the action-packed bits of a more "traditional" on-going game, or scenarios on which an entire campaign or adventure might hang its coat. It finishes on a riff with advice for dealing with social traits that are more a product of the environment than a description of the character. Of all the chapters, this is probably the easiest read, and the least rules intensive. The advice is tailored to GMs and all of it is useful.

A Place to Stand

This is the beginning of the meat of the supplement. In this chapter we start with a look at the intricate interplay of Rank, Status, and Wealth, and how these all play off of each other. As an aside, a later produced spin-off supplement, Social Engineering: Pulling Rank goes into even further mechanical detail. This chapter has rules for calculating how much status a particular rank or wealth might incidentally produce, or likewise how much of any a high value in one might necessitate. We then go into dissecting some of the finer points of the other social disadvantages, like when it is appropriate to apply a reputation versus a regard or stigma. It then goes into other advantages and disadvantages that give bonuses and penalties to social reactions like appearance and charisma, and explaining how expensive ornate clothes might be priced for different levels of status, and how it might affect reactions. Altogether, this chapter is a straightforward look at the most important advantages and disadvantages to consider when calculating reaction modifiers. There are a few interesting optional rules scattered here and there in aside boxes. It gives good advice for what traits might make sense and how they might go together when trying to create a character of a particular social standing and regard. I highly recommend the rules from Pulling Rank if organizations are important to your campaign, and it makes some references to this chapter. In short though, this chapter feels very optional.

Face to Face

This chapter is the star of the book and is almost three times as long as any of the other chapters. This chapter describes in exhaustive detail many rules and considerations for one-on-one conversations and negotiations. As this is arguably one of the most common social situations to come up in the capacity of an adventure, it only makes sense that so much of the book is devoted to this section.
The first section details how to find people to interact with, for example, for hiring, for finding jobs, for getting information, and the like. Each type of search target has detailed mechanics for modifiers that can help make the search easier or more difficult.
The next section, Social Perception, gives some rules for piecing together the social standing of an NPC. For Example, how to observe someone to discover what kind of background they have to see if they would be a valid mark for a particular plan. It gives rules for figuring out who to approach in a crowd of apparent strangers or to decipher motives of someone to whom you would converse.
After that, Reaction Rolls and Modifiers gives a bunch of examples of different social situations and how particular circumstances can affect them. It includes very pragmatic topics like haggling or asking for help, as well as more interesting topics like looking for friends or romance. There is a box on advice on how to Fade to Black; I will say no more.
Influence covers one of the most important mechanics in GURPS for social interaction: the influence roll. It goes into more depth about what skills can be used for influence, and then begins a discussion on the less orthodox influence measures, like non-verbal means, or interactions with animals. This section has a very interesting Optional Rule to convert the typically binary reaction quick contests into a spectrum similar to typical reaction rolls. We also have an interesting aside on Influencing PCs, another contentious argument in RPGs. Take it or leave it, everyone has different opinions, but I think it is a decent compromise of the two poles of A) A player may never ever try to use his character to convince another player's character to do something and B) A player won the quick contest, the other character is now effectively mind controlled.
Indirect Interaction deals with some of the subtle disconnects that might take place when people aren't literally meeting face-to-face; perhaps a conference call, meeting in an online video game, or via some magical means. Certain modifiers might no longer apply, but other opportunities might present themselves. 
Team Efforts includes rules for concerting a group as a single entity versus another entity. This has been personally helpful to me. I've had players insist before that they all wanted a chance to haggle the price of the same item with the same NPC... I reasoned if it wouldn't fool a regular person if six people came in together and asked for a 20% discount one by one, it shouldn't work here. At the same time, it felt a little unfair that two characters could invest in merchant skill for example, but one player would never get a return on that investment. This chapter helps deal with both of these problems.
Competitive Influence speaks to the subject of two parties trying to convince a third party to go with one of the two over the other. Two contractors bidding on the same proposal; two suitors courting the same mate. This is one of the most mechanically novel and interesting sections of the entire chapter. Like the other sections, it includes interesting mechanics for deeper strategies depending on the debate at hand. Note to self: I need to apply this more.
Deception is again, another interesting chapter to me. It's really hard to pretend like you know you aren't being lied to when you just heard your players puzzle out their strategy right in front of you! Along with Competitive Influence, probably one of the most helpful sections of this chapter. It includes rules and ideas for deceiving NPCs, or for catching NPCs in the act of deception. Some amusing asides in this section like the confidence games and the optional considerations for subtlety are worth mentioning.
Continuing Relationships gives interesting mechanics for making long term relationships more dynamic. John Smith has a dependent; when does he take care of this adopted orphan if the appearance roll says "don't worry" this time? This chapter has ideas for establishing a relationship, maturing it,and working with contacts, allies, patrons, and dependents among others.
The final section, exotic social traits, deals with the otherworldly and unique. If one species communicates by telepathy, how does that affect their relationships with humans. Orcs have ugliness as a racial trait. Do orcs think they themselves are ugly? Does a slime care about a character's perfect facial symmetry? This section answers these types of questions.
Altogether, this chapter is useful but pretty dry. It is peppered with interesting optional rules, but it is still hard to read straight through; reading it straight through is missing the point. It is purely a reference guide for handling mostly one-on-one situations.

The Organization Man

This chapter goes into a more one-to-many kind of relationship prescription. It gives rules similar to some of the content spelled out in the previous, but focuses instead on finding organizations, joining them, or creating them. We start off with ways to solicit organizations as a customer or consumer of the products they create, with the same kind of detailed list of skills and social modifiers that have existed before now. After finding the organization and proving ourselves worthy of acknowledgement, we have rules for how we might access their services or influence them. We then go into details about getting a job, managing a career, and rising through the ranks, as well as the benefits that typically go with particular ranks. We then have a section on Hostile Organizations, probably one of the most useful sections for the "orthodox" action-oriented adventure.  How does a player deal with being captured, interrogated, or imprisoned? Vice Versa, how might they achieve the same? This chapter in short is similar to the previous but with a different target; many of the rules are usable in either context. Though it is shorter, it is by no means no less important.

Moving the Masses

Continuing the discussion of one to many, this chapter deals with communications on a macro scale, from a crowd in a theater through public speaking, to a populace through propaganda campaigns. First, it goes into gathering sentiments of large groups of people; knowing how receptive or hostile the target population is to a message. Next is a short bit on finding particular elements of society. We then take a look at how Status can affect communication to a large audience. We get to the focus of the thing with a discussion on influencing a group directly by talking with them, or indirectly through means like propaganda. It then goes into political struggles and how to interact with them. This section is probably one of the more interesting sections since the first chapter as we dive into some informative discussion on types of political groups and how they can leverage their power. I find this chapter to be one of the more interesting in the entire book. I wish I could find a way to apply it more directly in my campaigns.

From Persuasion to Force

This chapter covers methods to provoke, dissuade, disarm, or incite violence. I find the section on working a mob the most interesting; it has rules for how mob mentality can spread and envelope large groups slowly, and how to channel and use that to effect in game.


We start with Throw Away This Book! a petition to use common sense: refraining advice from the introduction, rules should only be used if they make the game more fun. Social Interactions have probably the widest range of expectations among RPGs; some groups put them ahead of everything, some find its a distraction to keep to a minimum, and this section editorializes these thoughts.
We have a bunch of extra reaction tables for more specific situations as well for people that prefer more detail than that already provided by the basic set.
Finally we have a catalog of new advantages, perks, skills, wildcard skills, disadvantages, and modifiers for existent ones that account for all the depth exposed in the book. The techniques are especially interesting in my opinion.
The bibliography is filled with many great pieces of fiction for people interested in inspiration for their own campaigns.


This book is one of the critical foundation pieces for GURPS. What Powers does for advantages and customization; what Martial Arts does for hand-to-hand combat, Social Engineering does for all socialization. It is next to mandatory in a campaign where social interaction hopes to be as important or even moreso than combat. Subjectively, it is hard to read for pleasure, but in the same way it would be hard to read a car manual from cover to cover just for fun, because this book is a toolkit and manual for dealing with problem spots in social interaction. And as always (actually, I forgot in my last reciew) my favorite pull quote is on page 10, by Bernard Shaw.

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