How to deal with social interactions in a role playing game is often a difficult subject. In many games, truly inspired ideas (of whatever type), should just work, and having a die roll interfere with some good improv acting just breaks up the flow. On the other hand, letting a player play a character who is much more charismatic, or socially adept, than he is pretty much begs for mechanics to translate desires into working action.

In a more generally practical sense, having some form of rules for how NPCs react to player actions can take a lot of burden off an overloaded GM. The particular version of this in GURPS is the reaction roll, one of the primary mechanisms of the game, and the one with the least other rules related to it (compared to success rolls, quick contests, and damage rolls). GURPS Social Engineering changes this, as an 88-page supplement that is centered around the reaction roll mechanic.

As such, the bulk of the supplement details different types of social interactions (looking for information, debates, lying, bribery, propaganda… and oh, so many other subjects), how they should be handled in play with appropriate skills, modifiers, and types of reactions. (An appendix has twelve new tables of reaction roll results using the same general result categories, but geared towards particular types of situations.) It is an amazingly thorough list, and full of good advice. The immediate building block to all this is a good breakdown of the six skills GURPS generally uses to influence someone, and points out that the differences are a matter of approach instead of subject. A few well-chosen side boxes point out things like the fact that the use of quick contests does not mean social challenges are a ‘struggle’ (though they can be), but often center around decisiveness and insight.

How these rules should be used with the players comes up a few times. “Influencing PCs” talks directly to PCs using social skills on each other, and the fact since some NPCs can have a penalty to be influenced, or limited to certain reactions, similarly a player cannot be forced to change his PCs actions because of a roll. It also talks about existing Basic Set advice where successful influence can be turned into a skill penalty, and gives a couple of examples applying it. At the very end, the chapter “Throw Away This Book!” is a page that talks about how necessary all the little detailed mechanics really are. It’s a nice quick discussion of the problem, and ends with some very good advice: “The dice are there to help players who can’t come up with good lines, and to hold in check players who can’t restrain their wit…. Beyond that, treat Social Engineering as a compendium of social situations and challenges for any campaign.”

But it is also more than just that compendium outlined above. The book starts with a look at social activities in a game, beginning with where they may crop up in an action-oriented game, and then moves on to some general campaign types that are much more socially focused. From there it does not get crunchy, but there is a lot of good discussion that amounts to ‘how to set up your game world in GURPS terms’. This starts in the first chapter with discussion of the concept of the ‘reference society’, which spells out a few assumptions GURPS implicitly makes. After that, a full chapter is dedicated to fleshing out the existing Rank, Status, and Wealth (dis)advantages with variations, and lots of advice of just what types are available in a society.

Overall, Social Engineering is a surprising package. I wasn’t expecting to see general world-building advice show up here. I… don’t think I was really expecting the bulk of the book to be a detailed cataloging of types of social encounters, though it pretty much had to be something of that sort. For a GURPS GM, I think the former part makes it a valuable (though expensive, if that’s all you get it for) addition to laying out campaign basics. The main compendium part seems like it could be of use for someone wanting to tinker in any system that has a reaction roll type idea already. In some ways its too much to just use straight, as there’s a lot of different little modifiers and procedures and the like. On the other hand, reading it for general inspiration, and just recalling ‘it said to handle it in this general way’ can do a lot for a GM. And it can be used directly for special occasions of specific inspiration, when you know a set piece event is going/likely to happen. “How do I run two characters having a formal debate?” is a question that Social Engineering provides an answer for, along with things like “How does a character talk down a hostile mob?” I find it a good extension the core rule set, specifically because all it really does is extend what is already there and offer advice.