Monday, June 13, 2011

Cutting Words: Thoughts on Social Combat in RPGs (Part One)


Let's begin with a big question: are social combat mechanics necessary in a game system? A system encourages what it rewards, but it also encourages what it actually provides mechanics for. Where a game system glosses over something significant, the GM and/or players may rightly assume that such elements are secondary to the gameplay. I'm going to leave out games that hand-wave away interaction rules as left to the adjudication of the GM- I think that's pretty equal to not having rules. So I imagine that we have a continuum from highly detailed and mechanized sub-systems to no rules. Mind you, that doesn't take into account systems which cover these issues by their leveling of conflict- for example, HeroQuest, which I'll be coming back to, has all conflict in all forms as equivalent. There's no difference between a battle of wits, throwing rocks at each other, or scaring someone in that system from a mechanical standpoint.

Aside from complexity, there's also the question of elements and division: when I say social combat, what exactly am I talking about? Debate, persuasion, fast talking, argumentation for example, would all seem to fall into that- with some of those explicitly having an attacker and a defender and others switching that state back and forth. But what about things like whispering campaigns, propaganda, rumorcrafting, reaction rolls, merchants and salesmanship, and the like? What else falls under that rubric of social combat. This post will just start to think about some of the issues wrapped up in social combat (and I suspect I'll split it into a couple of posts).


This builds on an excellent geeklist by Aramis, drawing together the various game systems which have rules for social combat. You can find that list here.

My earlier post on Trading and Merchants in games also got me thinking about this. Look at those games on that list above. It is worth looking at the games presented on Aramis' list (and added to by other contributors). I don't want to paraphrase here, but combat's fairly broadly defined- more a sense of conflict and the ability to have mechanics covering a character's abilities to influence other persons. He mentions the concept of minigames, which some might also call subsystems. These games have very different approaches (though I notice James Bond 007 isn't there). They take social interaction one step further than other games. Let's take for a moment GURPs as an example or even World of Darkness. Both have powers and abilities which allow you to control a target's actions (Psionics for example or Presence in Vampire). But the standard base level system usually has skills, like Diplomacy, Leadership, Fast Talk, etc. The target begins in X state and the player attempts to change that state, often by a skill roll. In GURPS you have the Reaction Roll table which explicitly has the player moving the target along a continuum. WoD has three different social attributes, but still presents essentially the same mechanics for social influence as fixing a car (when push comes to shove).

Now as I stated that it seems like a bad thing, but that, of course depends on the GM. Some GMs want that fixed as easily adjudicated. They want that as doable, but also flexible. In my experience, GMs treat social skills as shapers of interaction, but rarely allow them to have an absolute effect. In other words- if I roll a seduction roll, it isn't as simple as “I seduce him.” Generally when players affect another character's autonomy by non-magical means, GMs tend to be wary.


So the big question, I think revolves around how social interactions get played out at the table. I read an interesting post recently about how skills are dangerous over at Grognardling. Now this particular perspective comes out of a kind out game- Old School, systems which don't have skills built into them. And the author's point is a good one- that players could fall back to calling for a roll instead of actually doing the thinking necessary at the table. In his case, not having skills to fall back on, the players had to look at the situation and come up with solutions based on their player knowledge and character abilities.And that sounds reasonable to me, to a certain extent. That is, is the game setting is simplified, if the details, puzzles and situations are closer to something like Zork or point and click adventure. It means the GM always has to mediate to the players level of knowledge. And I've seen some players fall back to skill rolls over creative thinking about the situation. Or I've seen players try to double up on description and skills rolls. (example, we had a player in Champions who would use his Investigation skill to search a crime scene for clues or hidden objects. If nothing showed up, then he would begin to narrate his search instead “I go back and pull the bed knobs off and see if there's anything in there...”).

A good GM can ask the players to describe or narrate the context of their skill rolls. They ask the players to describe what they are doing, and then ask the player to make a roll to complement that- giving them a bonus or penalty depending on the narration. That description works as an adjunct to the roll. And sometimes the GM might just have the player make a roll because they want to hand-wave a situation, which in itself is a signal. If a player asks to make a roll, and the situation is significant, a good GM can use that as an opportunity to get the player to narrate their purpose. And a good GM can use skill rolls not to substitute for task solution, but as a means to provide additional information, to provide some clues. If a player has invested points in skills or expertise of a certain type, they should be rewarded for it- but it doesn't always mean that a roll substitutes for problem solving.


As a side note, our own home brew takes a kind of middle ground between fully skill-oriented games and OSR game which have spells and combat abilities only. Players don't usually ask for a skill check- instead they describe what they're doing or ask questions about the situation. Then, if necessary, I have them make a check, based on what are essentially attributes. Their relative degree of success impacts how much progress is made, how much they implement their ideas or how much information they have. Where skills come into play is that having an appropriate skill gives a reroll if they wish. So the default state is to assume players have a general body of knowledge and ability, and assuming the task doesn't require specific, trained knowledge they wouldn't have, to give them a chance to make a check. The other way we uses skills are as support in making arguments for actions. For example, someone says they want to start a rumor that will spread around town about X character being in love with someone. They might say “I'm going to do that by trolling around various pubs and speaking to my friends. I having Carousing, Streetwise and Network of Contacts as skills.” Those skills provide support to the argument that the character can carry that out. I might then have them make a pull to affect the quality or rate of that success.


For many games, skills serve a necessary mediating point for interacting with an environment where the characters possess knowledge, skills, experience and familiarity with the situation which the players do not.

Which brings me back to the big question and sticking point with any social interaction skill? Rolling versus Playing Out.

Which I have to come back be continued.


  1. Social interactions seem to put a magnifying lens on the question. Some players are naturals when it comes to interacting with NPCs and saying the right thing, and other players tend to be shy or fumble for what to say. Playing it out benefits one, using skills benefits the other. But how to make both work in the same system?

    I look forward to your next installment.

  2. [You wrote] In my experience, GMs treat social skills as shapers of interaction, but rarely allow them to have an absolute effect. In other words- if I roll a seduction roll, it isn't as simple as “I seduce him.” [end quote]

    If I roll "to hit" or roll "to hit upon" and I do not succeed despite my successful roll, I would rage quit. And rightly so. WTF? I build my character to take advantage of the social combat and then it does not matter Mr. GM? I am encouraged to make the build but it does not matter the way I want it to matter because the GM's prerogative? You just said "No and."

    Social combat should not exist as a rule in RPGs. It is not social combat but player interaction. I do not pull a knife on the player in the role of GM. I might engage him. If he is not a douchebag and has some experience, this method without a mechanic should work with even the most timid inexperienced role-player ever. And the table will encourage the role-play (not a rulebook suggest to everyone how it is done)

    I see players fitting into four quadrants, along an X & Y axis (two continua).

    X = Players who want to be engrossed in the play (speaking in character, etc) to Players who want to spectate on their characters' story (watching a film determined by dice);
    Y = Players who want to play a game (risk) to Players who want to bring a guitar to the campfire (no risk/game, PC death only if the player explicitly says so).

    IMHO designing a game that intersects all four quadrants (bringing all 4 types of players together to play simultaneously) means it is a game no one is going to be satisfied with; and will lose whatever identity its marketing department wants by chasing every dollar possible.