Social Skill and Disco Elysium

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Pictured: Yours Truly, after writing this article
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It is currently 3:20 AM as I’m writing this. This might not be entirely coherent. I’ve recently decided to pick up Disco Elysium again, after bouncing off it when I first played it in 2020. Everyone and their mother has already done a review or a video essay about what a masterpiece it supposedly is, so I won’t bother. I’m only a few hours in, I won’t be able to contribute much to that discussion anyway. I do, however, want to talk about its skill system.

In Disco Elysium, you have four stats, each of which has six skills. Sometimes, to access certain dialogue options, you need to pass a check. The game rolls 2d6, adds the relevant stat and skill, and compares it to a DC. So far it’s pretty identical to general action resolution mechanics we’ve seen in many TTRPGs. However, there is a much more interesting thing that skills do.

Sometimes, the skills talk to you. As best I can tell it’s dependent on a hidden roll, but that’s neither here nor there. The most straightforward example of this is the Encylopedia skill. During a conversation with NPCs (or your necktie, because this is Disco Elysium), the Encyclopedia skill will occasionally pipe up and give you a piece of trivia that’s relevant to the situation. Often, this pushes you towards a certain dialogue option. That – in and of itself – is a pretty interesting way of sharing exposition.

There are many such skills, and most of them are far less straightforward. Inland Empire performs the role of gut feelings and hunches, as well as imagination. What’s interesting is that most of these skills offer anything but an objective perspective. Disco Elysium’s skills, then, are a way of observing the world through different lenses, where each can offer some new perspective or information that might otherwise be missed.

The other piece of this puzzle of a blog article is a recent analysis by Arnold K. on how to do social encounters in OSR TTRPGs. It’s a great article, but Arnold is pretty down on Social Skills. It’s an understandable perspective – using rolls to resolve discussions, debates or parleys runs the risk of the loss of player skill: the strength of the actual argument is lost. On the other hand, if we do away with social skills, we lose the archetype of a charismatic bard or another persuasive manipulator – that’s then a role anyone can fill, regardless of their character. Furthermore, it means that players who themselves are not persuasive might find it difficult to persuade monsters or NPCs of something in the game.

The issue then is that social skills are executive skills. They chiefly measure your ability to perform a certain action. Persuasion measures your ability to be persuasive, just as Stealth measures your ability to be stealthy. On the other hand, there are knowledge skills. They measure your knowledge of a particular field. A skill like Magic or Natural World might measure how much you know about magical sigils or physics or whatever. Knowledge skills are relevant because it’s very difficult for a player to play a smart character without the GM giving the player a bunch of information. A solution is to take after Disco Elysium and turn social skills from executive to knowledge.

A player with the empathy skill is informed by the GM that a person seems distressed and panicked – or that such emotions are merely acted, not genuine. A player with authority is informed that a person seems to be hot-headed, and doesn’t like being told what to do.

In doing so, we give the players information that they can act upon. It allows creatures to be understood and reasoned with, while still allowing players to draw their own conclusions. It allows players to make a charismatic character that has an edge in social conversations, whilst simultaneously not doing away with player skill in crafting arguments and doing the actual persuading. After all, information should reveal possible paths to take and things to prod, without immediately resolving the encounter.

What might this practically look like? It will depend on what system you’re using, but I’m assuming you already have some form of skill or proficiency system in your game. Then, use whatever method your system uses to decide whether a player knows a thing during a social encounter. I’d just give the player the information when they have the skill, but you could also use a die roll if you’d like. Here are some skills you might use.

Empathy You can detect emotional states and know what it takes to connect with someone. You know what someone wants to hear.
Authority You can tell who respects who and how they’ll respond to threats. You can sense weakness and fear, as well as dominance and power.
Discourse You know who is susceptible to debate, and what it might take to persuade them. You know when arguments are weak.
Deceit You can recognize lies, and discern possible motives. You know when someone is being dishonest or evasive.

If I were running D&D5e, these skills actually map surprisingly well onto Insight, Intimidation, Persuasion and Deception. For other games, they also cover a wide set of possible actions and strategies. Of course, I’m sure there are many other possible skills. Feel free to share them in a comment!

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  1. Arnold K.

    It is a great idea to turn the social skill from an “I win” button to a “I learn what I need to win” button. It keeps the Bard feeling bardy*, and the players still have to do a little legwork to actually perform the negotiations. My only worry is that it’ll still be a win button if the players ask “what is this guy susceptible to?” *roll* “Ah, he’s weak to intimidation. We intimidate him, then.” So it just becomes a win button with more steps.

    It’s not a deal-breaker though! You would just have to design encounters with this in mind, and write it down in the NPC descriptions. “The orc is scared of his boss.” Okay, how do we find out who his boss is, and how do we leverage that? “The elf responds well to gifts.” Okay, what kind of gifts do elves like? So there is still a part of the interaction that requires talking. (The DM has to have an idea of what elven gifts are acceptable, though, even if it’s just a general sort.)

    I like running high-information games, where I try to tell the players as much information as they might know. Without requiring a roll, you can just address the bard character and say “You sense that this elf is expecting a gift.” thereby letting the bard feel bardy without a skill roll (that they could potentially fail). Alternatively, you could just tell the party “You’ve all heard stories about how elves seal contracts with gift exchanges” and let them figure it out on their own.

    Having said that, I like your idea a lot. Definitely a step up.

    *there are lot of ways to let the bard feel bardy because of their high Charisma. Hirelings look up to them more, monsters assume that they’re the leader, and when NPCs have something discrete to say, they whisper it to the bard first. None of these require a skill roll. The alternative is to lock away the desired interaction behind a Persuasion check, and set the DC so that the bard is likely to hit it while everyone else is likely to miss it. (I’ve even seen advice columns recommending setting social DCs lower, if no one in your party has good Cha skills, which just reinforces how artificial the challenges are.)