I Want to Believe

Demystifying the art of persuasion, and practical tips for refereeing illusions and enchantments.

I Want to Believe

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Ahem. I said I was going to try and write something a bit more practical than my initial definitions of terms, so let's take a crack at what a referee is supposed to do when a winsome player comes to them desperate to play an Illusionist or Enchanter, or Elysium-forfend a psionic Telepath. These archetypes all have a rather poor rap for disrupting usual play and giving the referee headaches, yet they have proven an enduring appeal with players.

For the ensuing discussion, let's use the term mind magic to cover the broad church of illusions, enchantments, and similar psychic powers and monstrous abilities that alter how another person thinks, feels, perceives, or acts.

My best solution (for now) is to bring it back to brass tacks and conceptualise all of these effects as just extensions of an underlying framework for handling persuasion in play.

Art of Persuasion

There is of course an entire field intersecting psychology, linguistics, business and academia about the principles and methods of persuasion. But we just want to have a laugh with some mates as we play make-believe for grown-ups, so we're opting for the no-frills rough and ready approach here.

Persuasion is the art of influencing another's thoughts, feelings, or actions. And the basis of Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy is that thoughts, feelings, and actions are inextricably linked in an Ouroboros-like feedback loop. That's certainly a useful premise for us, and it happens to sound an awful lot like our definition of mind magic, right? What a coinkydink. So we can also see mind magic as persuasive magic - hence, if we can handle mundane persuasion, then any magical version can be just like that, but a bit more potent or flexible.

A useful rubric for adjudicating persuasion at the table is to consider Robert Cialdini's seven heuristics for persuasion that he published in Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (2016):

  1. Reciprocity: We are more inclined to be persuaded by someone when we are receiving something in return.
  2. Scarcity: We are more inclined to be persuaded when we believe the supply or opportunity is limited, and we fear missing out.
  3. Authority: We are more inclined to be persuaded by someone who we consider to be of a higher office or status.
  4. Liking: We are more likely to be persuaded by someone we are kindly disposed towards.
  5. Commitment or consistency: We are more inclined to be persuaded when it aligns with our previous actions and self-identity.
  6. Consensus or social proof: We are more inclined to be persuaded when it aligns with how our peers are perceived to think, feel, and act.
  7. Unity: We are more likely to be persuaded by someone who we share a social identity with and makes us feel included.

Now, I'm not going to actually run through that list every time a ne'er-do-well PC leans on a town guard to turn a blind eye while they carry out the stiffs from a barroom brawl turned hot 'n' spicy. Instead, let's distill it down to just the following memorable highlights:

  • Exchange: We are persuaded to give when we receive (or think we're getting something for nothing!), or when we fear missing out.
  • Leverage: We are persuaded by people we like, respect, or fear.
  • Consistency: We are persuaded to keep in line with our self-identity, shared identities, and society at large.

We can use these three factors similarly to Time, Gear, and Skill for most physical obstacles: if a PC is trying to persuade an NPC of something reasonable (which can only be judged by referee fiat), then only make some sort of roll if they have 2 of these 3 factors. If they possess all 3, automatic success. If they have but 1 or none, automatic failure.

In terms of what to roll exactly, your system of choice probably already provides something, but consider this minor old-school hack: use the staple 2d6 reaction roll for recruiting hirelings from OSE to determine the outcome of a persuasion attempt.

Otherwise, a straight Charisma check might suffice, or alternatively, if you are playing with an Xd6 roll-under skill system, then you could set the difficulty of the CHA test as a base 2d6, plus 1d6 per factor you're missing (with no automatic success or failure). Extrapolation to other dice mechanics is best left as an exercise to the enthusiastic reader.

The advantage of this slightly more structured approach is it provides the players more transparency to 'get their ducks in a row' when engaging in social encounters. It feels less capricious to be told you can't possibly convince the king to just hand the crown over to you, when we can agree you aren't offering an even vaguely equitable exchange, you don't hold leverage through debt or authority, and it's not consistent with his identity as a ruling monarch.

Good Problem People

Now we know how to be persuasive, we need our mark- I mean, conversational buddy. It should be reasonably evident that a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for persusaion to be satisfying is for some non-player characters to be obstructive (for whom their existence or present activity poses an obstacle to the players), and others to be supportive (from whom the players want goods, services, land or the like). The former is the social equivalent of a hostile creature encounter or trap, while the latter is the tantalising treasure cache. Best of all is when a character offers a bit of both.

To nut out a simple rubric for designing these wonderful specimens of imagined humanity, I'd like to triangulate these three references:

  • A nice razor for so-called "OSR" problems are those that have no obvious solutions, but many possible, and require only common sense and abilities (rather than special tools or training).
  • An objectified character is honed for presenting a challenge to the players: they have a social role/title, they have something to offer (assets, social resources, unusual knowledge or skills), and they have drives, fears, and liabilities that can be leveraged to manipulate them.
  • Zelda-style NPCs can be summed up as having something they are very interested in, having something that is of interest or value to you, and they are not inherently interested in you or your goals.

Let's make our second triple-distilled mana for Good Problem People:

  • Obsessive: One or two special interests that don't directly align with the PCs goals, but be exploited for Exchange (the bug collector wants a rare specimen), Leverage (the wizard-fan is awed by a showy display of magic), or Consistency (the hermit enjoys being stubborn and alone, and will take a path of least resistance to return there).
  • Obstructive: One or two clear reasons they are either being obstructive or hostile in the first place, or are disinclined to provide the potential support they could offer. This might be a lack of readily accessible wants (impairing Exchange), a greater respect or fear of an opposing force (impairing Leverage), or being put in a difficult situation where they can't easily stay true to themselves or follow the crowd (impairing Consistency).
  • Useful: One or two pieces of helpful information, skilled services, or resources they could be persuaded to part with. Their obsessions and sources of reluctance could suggest these, like a conspiracy theorist or fashionista.

There is nothing wrong with some NPCs having wants simple and few, or being generally amiable, or lacking any particularly useful assets; they are called extras, and you'll likely forget about them by the end of the night.

A Kind of Magic

Finally, we've arrived at our long-touted destination: how to adjudicate persuasive or mind magic. Generally, a suitable persuasive magical effect can substitute for any one of Exchange, Leverage, or Consistency:

  • Creating a Phantasmal Force (Minor Illusion) of a chest full of glittering gold on your vessel while boarding a pirate ship might provide the necessary inducement for them to lay down their weapons and negotiate, given you evidently have the means to buy them off (providing Exchange, though likely to have repercussions when they discover the deception).
  • Casting Charm Person on the villain's henchman and telling them to assist with a coup against their master could cause their new-found intense affection towards you to overcome their fear of the master (providing Leverage).
  • Using Glamour (Disguise Self) to appear as a suitably-aged long-lost squad mate when asking a veteran soldier to come out on one last adventure (providing Consistency, as answering the call would then match both their self- and group-identities)

What about more powerful effects like Charm Monster or Hallucinatory Terrain? They mostly just do what they say on the tin, but generally a higher level effect can nudge the limits of what is a a reasonable persuasion.

Hopefully, I have managed to persuade you that these sorts of characters needn't cause trouble, and can actually fit well into classic adventure gaming. I'd love to read comments or your own blog posts about issues you have had with persuasive magic and your approaches to refereeing them, or really any other topic that the theme inspires in you. Get in before the turn of the month to be part of this exclusive and one-time-only RPG Blog Carnival on Illusions & Delusions!