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Psych: A Social Challenge Example for Gamers

psychThe TV show Psych has some of the best writing on TV these days. I’ve been watching it this week while I get over a head cold, and I was watching an older episode from Season 3 that had one of the best examples of a social challenge that I could ever have found without even looking.

First, let me explain what I mean by a social challenge. Most role-playing games have dice mechanics for “how do I beat someone up?” Because when we’re rolling dice around the table, we do not throw punches at each other to test our ability to knock out an NPC. If we did, there would be a lot fewer people willing to GM! The resolution mechanics are used for physical challenges or combat.

Social challenges occur when someone wants something, usually from another person, and they need to convince that person to give or do it. The challenge is when the other person is reluctant, and then we engage in a battle of words to convince them to do that thing. A real-world example might be a parent convincing their teenager to clean their room. You don’t want to haul off and hit the kid- -you need to convince them to clean his room.

Getting back to Psych, this is the scene I’m talking about:

[Spider_Single_Video track=”4″ theme_id=”8″ priority=”0″]

The basic structure of the scene:

  1. Shawn says he’s looking for information.
  2. Pookie resists telling him anything.
  3. Henry attempts bribery.
  4. Pookie resists bribery– he indicates that skill is not going to work.
  5. Shawn attempts to deceive Pookie.
  6. Henry assists Shawn by backing his story up.
  7. Pookie believes Shawn.
  8. Pookie tells the sleuths everything.

So, I want to break this video down in terms of game mechanics, as it would appear in different systems:

Dungeons & Dragons

If this scene were in D&D (4e, but it would be similar in 3e), it would be considered an extended skill challenge, involving Diplomacy, Bluff, and Insight. The DM might have static difficulty ratings, or he could give Pookie a skill and a die roll. You would role-play out the failed bribery attempt, but the DM would know from the outset that the PCs don’t have enough money on them to bribe Pookie. It would go something like this:

  1. Shawn says he’s looking for information and Pookie resists telling him anything. The GM now starts the skill challenge. Pookie’s scene isn’t supposed to be difficult, so he says they need 2 successes before 2 failures.
  2. Henry attempts bribery, which could either be a Diplomacy or Intimidate roll. Let’s say he rolls really poorly, or the GM has already decided that this is an avenue that is an auto-fail. I’m not a fan of auto-failure in skill challenges, but some module writers like them. the Living Forgotten Realms early modules were chock full of auto-failure for using Intimidation.
  3. Shawn attempts to deceive Pookie and rolls moderately well on his Bluff check.
  4. Henry rushes in to Aid Another “Uh, he’s a… psychic.” This gives Shawn a boost on his Bluff, and Pookie is well-disposed.
  5. Shawn pushes for another Bluff check (or, maybe we switch the focus over to Gus and let his smile and nod be a similar Bluff). Either way, they convince Pookie to tell them what they need to know.

4 dice rolls, one failed.

Dungeon World

In Dungeon World, most of the role-playing mechanics is left to the role-playing, but there are Bard moves and the basic Parlay move. Parlay doesn’t work here, though, because the PCs don’t have leverage and don’t really want to get a promise out of Pookie. In this case, the best fit would be either a custom move, or the bardic Charming and Open…. except while Shawn is charming, he is not Open, since he’s lying. Henry would be using Aid Another, and Pookie’s resistance to bribery is not enough of a consequence to be considered a GM move.

Two dice rolls, which succeed or no rolls at all.

Out of the Blue

I mention Out of the Blue here because it’s a new RPG in which you tell a buddy cop story. I’ve playtested it with some friends, and enjoyed it. This scene in Out of the Blue would be a challenge with Shawn and Henry (Gus isn’t one of the cops in this scene), and Shawn and Henry’s players have picked Dialogue (because they aren’t going to beat up Pookie, just talk with him in their ultra-70’s disco way). The Beat would be using an Information scene– the cops want information, they need a clue, and Pookie is resistant to giving it to them.

  1. Things started out…. The cops and Beat roll, and Shawn and Henry are doing all right (Shawn has a higher total, but Henry didn’t do well with his bribery attempt). Pookie isn’t hostile to them– he’s just resistant. Shawn and Henry have a +1 going forward because at least one of them beat the Beat’s roll.
  2. And then they went…. better. Everyone rolls again, and Shawn and Henry apply their +1 and both of them beat the Beat. Now we have the full resolution of this scene, but narrating it is a collaborative endeavor. The players decide that they want to move forward on solving the crime, so the result of the scene is that Shawn and Henry get one of the major clues about the case.

Two dice rolls by all three players.


GUMSHOE is the framework used by several RPGs (Ashen Stars, Esoterrorists, Night’s Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, and TimeWatch) to create an investigation RPG. In Gumshoe, this scene would be “find this Interpersonal clue,” because it’s using a social skill. Although there isn’t really a Gumshoe setting for “modern day sleuths,” let’s assume that there is one, and “psychic bluff-out” is a skill that Shawn has in spades. Henry has “contacts” and is using it here. Gus isn’t left out– he has money, which could be a skill of its own.

  1. The players have asked about where they might get more information, and the GM has told them that Henry has a connection. Cool– they go there to talk to Pookie.
  2. In Gumshoe, using an investigation skill is an auto-success, so Shawn, Gus, and Henry only need to spend a point if they want to succeed “over the top.” They role-play the scene, already confident that somehow, the players will find out about the Soldiers Against Government.
  3. Shawn starts with “I’m going to flat-out ask him,” but both the player and GM know that Shawn is a nobody to this guy, so it just opens the scene.
  4. Henry tries to bribe, but Henry isn’t the one with Resources, Gus is. And anyway, the GM feels like this scene should have some kind of groovy 70’s hippy vibe to it. Shawn’s psychic bluff is, after all, the focus of this storyline.
  5. Finally, Shawn does the psychic bluff skill, which Henry assists with “this guy knows me– I have contacts with him” and Pookie reveals everything he knows.

No dice rolls.


In Fate, this would be a series of social rolls between Shawn’s Deceit skill, Henry’s Contacts, and Gus’s Resources.

  1. Henry’s attempt to bribe is a Resources roll between Gus and Pookie– but Pookie has something like a +6, because he’s actually quite wealthy, so the roll fails.
  2. Shawn rolls his Deceit, which is very high (and is opposed by Pookie’s Empathy), and Henry tries to create an advantage using Contacts. Henry succeeds, so Shawn succeeds, and Pookie tells everything.

Five dice rolls: Henry and Pookie, then Shawn, Pookie, and Henry.

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2 thoughts on “Psych: A Social Challenge Example for Gamers”

  1. Savage Worlds would simply use the Social Conflict rule. Three rounds, opposed Persuasion rolls, +2/-2 for great insight/faux pas. Each Success and raise add up. End of third round, compare number of Success. Subtract to find the difference, boom, result.

    You can also use specific knowledge skills (or other skills as appropriate).

    Fast, Furious, Fun.

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