From the Socratic method to “You can’t handle the truth!”, the concept of asking leading questions in a conversation to verbally trap an unwary target has a proud place in the history of language. I once ran a game with a silver tongued villain, and often found myself frustrated by my inability as a GM to compel my players to certain actions that shouldn’t have broken a sweat for my villain.
The Dresden Files RPG has a great example of a physical “cat and mouse” chase, in which the good guys (mouse) are trying to escape bad guys intent on killing them (cat). How is this different from a politician, seductive vampire, or rakshasa prince trying to trap the players in a web of lies? Or for that matter, the party’s bard/Templeton Peck/grifter trying to do the same to an NPC?
Today, we’ll take a look at a conflict mechanic from The Dresden Files RPG called “Cat & Mouse.” The core rules for DFRPG actually talk about using this mechanic for non-physical contests, but no extended example is given. In my experience with gamers, the thing that prevents us from using mechanics for social conflicts isn’t whether the rules give us permission, but knowing how they can be used. So, after examining the rules, we’ll take a look at an extended example where these rules are used in a conflict.
Dresden Files RPG “Cat & Mouse” Mechanic
The core mechanic of DFRPG’s “Cat and Mouse” extended contest is simple. The GM picks a number of rolls for the contest (the book recommends 3 to 5). The cat rolls and adds their margin of success to the “total” (which starts at zero). The mouse rolls and subtracts their margin of success from the total. If the final total is greater than zero, the cat wins, if it is less than zero, the mouse wins, and if it is zero, it’s a draw (so no one gets what they want–i.e.: the cat doesn’t catch the mouse, but the mouse doesn’t get away).
These rolls don’t happen in a vacuum–they are normal skill checks where skills can be used situationally, and aspects can be invoked or compelled as normal. A cat and mouse chase that starts on a rooftop is going to use an entirely different set of skills than one that happens in cars. And one that involves guns or magic will no doubt have options that an unarmed contest lacks.
Cat and mouse is dead simple to use in a social conflict–so much so that DFRPG actually has a trapping on the deceit skill with this name. Just as “Athletics” is a skill that’s appropriate for a foot chase, but not a car chase, so is “Intimidate” a skill that’s appropriate for an interrogation, but not wooing a potential suitor. (Although if “woo” is involved in your conflict, Cat and Mouse probably isn’t the best fit for you.) Pick a menu of skills that’s allowed in the contest, use the advice given in “Better Social Conflict, part 1″ (set aside player ego, limit the participants in the conflict, state character intent, and stop when appropriate–here, at the end of the dice rolls!), and run the challenge.
I Will Trap You with my Inscrutable Logic!
So, when is it appropriate to use such rules in a roleplaying game conflict? The rubric is simple: any time one party holds a strong investment in a specific outcome in a conflict, and the other party’s investment is simply focused on any outcome that allows freedom, “cat and mouse” is a good mechanic.
Here are some examples:
TV legal dramas love to show when a DA or even a defense attourney gets up in front of the jury and forces the witness on the stand to rip herself a new one. In these situations, the “cat” can be seen as the lawyer, and the “mouse” as the witness. The cat’s objective is to make sure a group of observers hear the mouse concede a point. The mouse’s objective is to keep an air of reasonable doubt about her. In this case, a “draw” means that the witness hasn’t spilled the beans, but the jury finds them somehow untrustworthy.
In specific situations, the witness could actually be the cat–imagine the mob boss, serial killer, or necromancer who manages to imply that his minions are poised to kill loved ones unless the barrister “goes easy” on them. In this situation, the cat’s objective is to make sure the one questioning them “folds” and walks away from the conversation, and the mouse’s objective is to keep a clear head, not damage their case too much, and get their loved ones safe as soon as possible. Generally, in these situations, a “chase” mechanic will probably work better–we’ll take a look at a “social chase” next week.
We already explored the interrogation a bit in Part 1. This has a lot in common with “the cross-examination,” but it lacks the observers (the jury, hoi polloi, or what have you), and instead focuses on the interrogator taking on the role of the cat, trying to extract information from the mousey prisoner. If the cat wins, they get the info. If the mouse wins, the cat’s efforts are frustrated, and some “block” is placed against further attempts to get the information through interrogation (think “I won’t talk until I have a lawyer,” “the boss will kill me if I talk,” “my second molar is actually a cyanide capsule”). In the case of a draw, where neither character gets what they want, the prisoner probably gives up some clue that serves as a lead, without giving away all the information.
This can be turned around just like the cross-examination; this is most useful when time is a concern and the “prisoner” is not intimidated by his trapped situation.
Cons are very hard to pull off in RP situations when you’re trying to get one player to con another player (even if one of those is the GM). This is where “leaving the player ego out” really comes into play. It’s fun to see a con at work, even if you know it is coming. In the situation of a con, the conman plays the cat and his mark plays the mouse. Success for the conman doesn’t mean the mouse is compelled into specific action, but it does mean that they believe that course of action is prudent. Success for the mouse means that the mark is free to interpret the situation as she will. A good way to handle a draw is to suggest that the conman convinced the mark of the prudence of a course of action, but failed to convince the mark that working with the conman was the best way to profit.
Sometimes, the efforts of the “cat” aren’t malicious. Consider the conspiracy nut who truly believes the FBI is out to get her. She’ll do anything she can to convince any mouse who will listen of the actions they need to take to keep themselves safe. Just like the con, if the conspiracy nut succeeds, then the mouse is convinced that the conspiracy is true, and he’d better act accordingly. If the mouse succeeds, he sees the smoke and mirrors and doesn’t buy the tinfoil hat theories. A draw probably leaves the mouse doubting, though shaken, and leaves the conspiracy nut without the ally he was courting.
Consider this the inverse of “conspiracy theories.” The psychotherapist with her “firm grip on reality” plays the cat, and her patient plays the mouse. Victory for the therapist might actually be a “cure” (or at least a crutch) for the patient, whereas victory for the patient probably means he has deluded the therapist into thinking he’s stable. A draw sees the therapist’s efforts frustrated, and the patient aware of his disorder but unable to do anything about it.
Want to pit a psychotherapist against a conspiracy nut? Since each has a clear goal (the conspiracy nut wants to convince the therapist of his reality; the therapist wants to convince the nut of her delusion), a chase mechanic is probably a better idea. Stay tuned for next week’s articles when we’ll see how to put that into play.
Example Cat and Mouse Social Conflict in a Fantasy Fate RPG
The setting continues the example from “Better Social Conflict, part 1.” The players have already agreed to set aside their egos for in-game social conflict, and the participants in this conflict are limited to Malec the Mage, Fred the Fighter, and Rhonda the Rogue. Notice how there’s no GM here? This is PVP conflict, baby! Malec and Fred want to go after Igor, the evil Nosferatu-style vampire, while Rhonda wants to stick it (literally) to Ephraim, the lascivious lust-vampire who is pulling strings all over the place in this town. The players have agreed to let the outcome of this contest stand as the party’s decision. Brenda the Bard doesn’t have a strong feeling on the outcome, so she’s sitting this one out. Rhonda’s going to be using a deceit-heavy approach, lying to her teammates about Ephraim’s involvement in their personal sufferings, so the players have agreed to a three roll cat and mouse social extended conflict.
Gertrude the GM: OK, I’m just making sure we’re all on the same page. Rhonda’s going to try to deceive Malec and Fred into believing that Ephraim is a greater threat than Igor, so Rhonda’s intent is to convince the party to go after Ephraim as their next step. Malec and Fred both want to escape her web of lies, so if they succeed in this conflict, Rhonda’s deceit will be exposed, and Malec, Fred, and Brenda will go after Igor while Rhonda (probably) follows with her tail between her legs. Is that about right? The players all nod. To prevent mathematical advantage, Fred and Malec will get one roll between them. I’m going to rule that they each will need to resits Rhonda’s deceit at least once, but the third roll can be their choice (as long as it is appropriate to the situation)
Brenda the Bard: I’m sitting this one out. I want to be clear that I’ll go along with whatever outcome happens, and I will also be totally ignorant of Rhonda’s lies here, so they’ll hold no weight over me unless she and I engage in a conflict about this later on.
Rhonda: Makes sense. So, three rolls, right? And as the cat, I get to start.
Malec: Not that it matters who starts–we each get to make three rolls, and it’s the positivity or negativity of the outcome that counts.
Rhonda: Right, but the skills I use might limit your choices. So, I’m going to open up with Deceit, surprise, surprise.
Gertrude: Tell us your lie.
Rhonda: OK, I’ll target Fred with this one. “Fred, there’s a name you’ve told me I’m never allowed to say again, and I’ll respect that. But we both know that you picked up your sword to put a stop to the monsters who killed the woman you loved. Search your heart: you know it to be true that Ephraim was aware of the attack that killed her, and he did nothing to stop it.”
Gertrude: Stop for a second–everything you’re saying is true. Should this be a rapport check instead of a deceit check?
Rhonda: Ugh, my rapport sucks. Let me amend that to “Search your heart: Ephraim didn’t just know about that attack. He was behind it. Didn’t you notice how all those thralls we killed last week were high society dilettantes before their minds were wiped? Do you think Igor has access to those people? Ephraim and Igor are in league, man!”
Fred: So, could I use Discipline to resist that? I feel like she’s trying to make me angry, and Discipline will keep me calm enough to realize the truth.
Gertrude: Sorry, you need to use Empathy to defend. You may know that she’s trying to make your character angry, but your character doesn’t realize that until you make an empathy check.
Fred: Great. Here’s my roll with zero empathy.
Gertrude: Give us some color. Even if you don’t know whether you’ve succeeded or not, you’re surely responding to this.
Fred: I bare my teeth at Rhonda and say, “Knave, you’re coming dangerously close to the line that divides my friends and enemies. Take care that you do not cross it.”
Contest 1: Fred rolls a +1 to Rhonda’s modified +4 on Deceit. As the cat, Rhonda’s rolls are added to the total, and the mouse’s (Fred’s) rolls are subtracted. So, after contest one, the total is 0 + 4 – 1, or 3.
Rhonda: Normally, it doesn’t make sense to compel an aspect when you’ve won a contest, but in the Cat and Mouse contest, it’s the end total that matters. So, Fred, sliding a Fate point to Fred, I’d like to compel your “Anything to Avenge Miriam” aspect. You’re so blinded by your desire to kill her murderer that you’re more easily swayed by my lies.
Fred: sliding a Fate point to counter the one Rhonda is offering, No, thanks. I’ve got quite a stack of Fate points already, and I really want to go after Igor. In fact, sliding a second Fate point to Rhonda, I’d like to compel your “Easily Distracted” aspect.
Rhonda: I’ll take it. Cool, I just got two Fate points!
Gertrude: That shaves two points off Rhonda’s margin of success, so the contest “total” is now at 1 in the cat’s favor. Let’s start Round 2. Remember, I’m requiring that both Malec and Fred defend against your deceit. You don’t have to try to deceive Malec this round, but if you skip him this time, you’ll have to focus on him in round 3.
Rhonda: No, that’s cool, I want to leave Fred stewing in my web of lies for a little bit. I’ll say to Malec, “Speaking of the thralls, it’s just too convenient for Ephraim to pin those attacks on Igor. I was talking to some of my connections on the street… one of them told me he was running a con on one of Ephraim’s footmen and got into his stables. He said the whole place smelled like brimstone, and there were scorch marks that looked like wolf prints. And there was a pentacle on the wall. Remember those hellhounds we fought last week? I’m really beginning to suspect it was Ephraim who sent them!”
Malec: OK, wait a minute. She’s including details about the characteristics of hellhounds and how to summon them. And she’s missing the obvious point that summoning a creature of fire in a barn is like throwing a fireball on a dry prairie–I feel like Malec should see through this easily with his background in occult creatures. Can I use Lore to defend?
Gertrude: to Rhonda, That makes sense to me. You OK with that? Rhonda nods
Malec: I place my fingertips together and look evenly at Rhonda. “You’d have done better to make an emotional appeal, girl. I know how the hounds of the devil are called to these planes; what you’re describing is nonsense. I’m calling your bluff.”
Gertrude: Cool–you can say that, but you still have to roll. You won’t necessarily believe her if you fail this roll, but you will believe her if you and Fred fail this contest.
Malec: But Malec wouldn’t believe that this is how you summon hounds–that’s just not the way it’s done!
Gertrude: So, you’ll believe her that she got evidence that Ephraim summoned the hounds, and you’ll just suspect that her information about the details is wrong. Or something like that. We can figure it out when the contest is over. OK guys, roll off–Rhonda’s Deceit versus Malec’s Lore.
Rhonda gets a +2 Deceit, while Malec scores a massive +7 Lore. Rhonda’s +2 is added to the contest total of 1 to bring the contest total to 3, and Malec’s 7 is subtracted from that to bring the total to -4 (the contest is going in the mouse’s favor).
Gertrude: Dang, Malec knows his hellhounds. Any Fate points to be exchanged?
Malec: I’m a wizard, so I rarely have Fate points to spare.
Rhonda: I’m good. Let’s do Round 3. Rhonda figures her best bet is to win Fred’s sympathy, so I’ll Deceit against him again. “Fred, think back to those thralls. Scan their faces. Is there anyone in there you recognize? A friend of your lover’s, or an enemy, perhaps? Someone linked to Ephraim?” OK, this part is out of character. I’d like to do one of those Ghost Whisperer “cold read” things to try to implant some suggestion into Fred’s mind that he saw someone among the thralls that he’d recognize. I don’t know how to do that well, but I think my character might.
Fred: I’m cool with that. I’d like to let the dice determine how I respond, though… let’s roll the contest, and I’ll respond based on how the contest comes out. I’m assuming I still roll Empathy here–success means that I see through her scheme, and failure means I come up with the connection she’s trying to make me see?
Gertrude: That seems fair. Roll ‘em.
Rhonda rolls a stunning +6 Deceit to Fred’s +1 Empathy. The contest total is now -4 +6 -1 = 1. Since the overall contest result is positive, the cat (Rhonda) wins, and the party agrees to go after Ephraim.
Gertrude the GM: OK, so the decision is made. Let’s make this conflict have consequences, though. What do you guys think of putting a sticky aspect on both Fred and Malec–maybe Fred has “Rhonda will show me to revenge,” and Malec has “Frustrated by Rhonda’s Spurious Logic.” Rhonda gets a free tag on each of these.
Fred: I know we try to end conversation once the conflict outcome is decided, but it seems appropriate to respond. Can I still do that? Gertrude nods. “Rhonda… you’re right. Baron Holmes… the bastard… he fancied Miriam and sought to woo her…”
Rhonda: interrupting “… And he used to help Ephraim traffic stolen art, and one of their deals just went bad…”
Fred: shaking his fist: “EPHRAIM! You will pay for this!”
Malec: shaking his head:”And here we go.”
Gertrude: And cut!
Next week, we’ll look at using a Chase mechanic to run social conflict in your games, which is appropriate when the interests of the parties are more evenly matched. We’ll wrap up with week with a brand new mechanic called the Dynamic Conversation Map. Have you used cat-and-mouse-like mechanics in your social conflicts? Do you have other insights to offer on social conflict in roleplaying games, or situations where such mechanics are appropriate? Let us know in the comments!