Friday, January 27, 2012

Social combat mechanics

I am continuing to tinker with game design. I have to come to several conclusions recently. First, I want to do a fantasy heartbreaker, just to get it out of my system. And, specifically, I want to use as a test bed where I can get everything wrong without really regretting it. To that end, I am not using my 7 Kingdoms setting as that fantasy heartbreaker. I really love 7 Kingdoms, and would regret defiling it with a terrible system. Also, I have determined that d20 is really the wrong system for swashbuckling supers, but it is a great system for a heartbreaker.

My new game is set in a world I'm calling Charovnye. It is going to use the d20 system, but one that will bear little resemblance to standard D&D. The setting is your basic late medieval/early Renaissance culture, with a feel that ranges from high fantasy to dark fantasy (but really never low fantasy) depending on where you are and who you interact with. I have an Obsidian Portal page set up, but all the information on there is still very much in flux.

What I want to discuss today is the concept of social combat. I really, really want a system to be present that allows for some level of diplomancy. However, it needs to strongly avoid both the simple binary success/failure of a single roll and the heavy level of mind control that is seen in many current d20 rule sets. How can we do this?

Social combat systems have a number of hurdles that they must overcome. The most common complaint is that they replace role-playing with roll-playing, substituting dry mechanics for exciting description. I will need, therefore, to provide a system that either works seamlessly with the descriptions, or can act nearly invisibly behind the descriptions. Another common hurdle is that many players feel like control of their character is taken away from them when they lose at social combat. The GM makes a few rolls, and then can force the character to dance like a puppet. As such, I will need to make it clear that losing at social combat represents a failure of will, as much as physical combat represents a failure of endurance. It doesn't make the character weak, and it doesn't really take control away from the player any more than failing a saving throw versus poison does.

One of the best ways to do this is to remove the "one roll to rule them all" problem. The D&D system, by default, takes entire exchanges and makes them rest on a single roll (e.g., a single Diplomacy check) to determine the result. Especially given how swingy a d20 roll is, this can be exceptionally frustrating on both sides. It would be far better if it was an entire mini-game, like combat is. In point of fact, it wouldn't be bad to start with the combat rules as a model.

Initiative doesn't make much sense in social combat. It doesn't really matter who gets the words out first. So, we can probably drop that. However, it is important to add another determination during this phase. In regular physical combat, the stakes are usually pretty obvious (stay alive and kill, or at least incapacitate, the other guy), and there really isn't a consistent "attacker" and "defender" across the whole combat. In social combat, though, the stakes are very important. The players will need to establish up front what the loser is expected to agree to. Are you haggling for a lower price? Trying to talk your way out of a fight? Seducing the buxom barmaid? Convincing the guards that you are innocent? There needs to be a sense of what the goal is and, in many cases, what the seeker is willing to give up as a price.

In physical combat, each combatant has a variety of tactics available during the round. Moving, attacking, changing weapons, even changing opponents. Very few of these tactics have direct analogues in a social combat situation. However, we do need to make sure that social combat is at least as tactically rich, if it is to be interesting. Suppose we look at what tactics are actually employed by speakers. You can threaten (a physical threat, a threat of exposure, a threat to withdraw from the conflict). You can sweeten the pot (offer a better price, add a bribe). You can use honeyed words. You can appeal to logic. Et cetera. Looking at a few books on negotiation techniques might do us some good here. Find a way to make each of these tactics mechanically meaningful (perhaps physical threats allow you to use Strength as a modifier, while appeals to logic allow you to use Intelligence).

I don't think I want to call the participants "attacker" and "defender". That has a lot of connotations that are not entirely useful. Similarly, "seller" and "buyer" layers on implications of the kind of negotiation in play. Let's go a little wacky, and use "bidder" and "mark". While each of those words comes with a significant set of connotations, I think that the pair together keeps it generic enough.

So, on a given round, the bidder will try to convince the mark. A tactic will be chosen (as discussed above). There will need to be a simple mechanic to determine how well the bidder does. I think I am going to introduce a Wits stat that works just like BAB (i.e., increases with level, dependent on class, independent of skill system). There needs to be a complementary mechanic for the mark. Let's call it Resolve, a measure of how good you are at saying "no". (As a note, I intend for Resolve to serve the same function as, and indeed largely replace, the Will save.) If the bidder's Wits roll (modified by the tactic and similar factors) is greater than the mark's Resolve roll (I'll get into why this is less cumbersome than it looks in another post), the bidder gets closer to convincing the mark.

Note that I said "closer". Just like few combats are decided with a single attack, few negotiations are decided with a single offer. Now, how do we measure how close the mark is to breaking? Well, to continue the analogy, the mark would need a currency equivalent to hit points. Let's call them stress points (I totally stole this from Spycraft 2.0 and adpated it). when the bidder makes a successful "attack", the mark loses stress points. When the mark runs out of stress points, he agrees to the bidder's request.

Now, there is a basic problem here. In a physical combat, both combatants are trying to kill the other. In a social combat, typically, one person is asking for something, and the other person is simply saying no. That would be like a combat with a sparring dummy. Not terribly interesting for the dummy. So, what can the mark do on his turn? What things make sense? Well, some kind of full defense "No way in hell" maneuver seems likely. Some kind of "raising the stakes" maneuver would make sense. Possibly include a "this conversation is over" way to escape the scene. The best tactic, though, would be to inflict stress on the bidder. The mark's aim, generally, would be to get the bidder to simply stop asking. So, there is a Wits "attack" in the form of saying no. If it penetrates the bidder's Resolve to keep going, the bidder suffers stress. If the bidder runs out of stress, she has to break off the negotiation.

OK, now we have a system that is tactically rich, that should mesh nicely with descriptive text (assuming we apply actual negotiation techniques to our tactics), and should give players a feeling like they lost fair and square, not like they are being abused or controlled. Add in some restrictions on what can be done with this system (e.g., you can't talk someone into suicide), and it should be good.

There is still one minor niggle that I can't shake. That is simply that hacking through a pile of stress points is a lot of work to do something relatively simple like bribe a guard or seduce a barmaid. We can resolve some of it with an equivalent to minion rules. But, more generally, I'd like to see some thresholds put in the system in which people will "tap out" before losing all their stress. After all, unlike combat, your life isn't on the line here. There's even less reason to hold on until the bitter end.


  1. Concessions-esque rule from Dresden. You tap out and get some compromise between the two win conditions, and some meta currency (if any)?

  2. Concessions is definitely an option. But, does it work with the combat style rules? If so, should I also explicitly add concessions to physical combat, to encourage surrender?

    This is certainly not my last post on this topic. There is a lot more rabbit hole left.

  3. I would, but it depends entirely on how tactical you are feeling. Generally it is impossible to run away which is why every fight is to the death, but if the losing side could go "We run away never to be seen in this adventure" well that would be something.

  4. Having been prone to comparing conversation and combat for a while (I once defined an entire conversation in terms of a battle for the benefit of a player of mine who has trouble envisioning talk-heavy scenes, and I only got worse when I started reading military history), I'm inclined to disagree with the idea that the maneuvers of combat don't have equivalents in social combat. (Then again, I'm one of those people who resists social combat anyway. Messes with my immersion something ferocious.)

    Moving: well, you move. In a conversation, one can turn away from someone, turn towards someone; step away or get in their opponent's face; hide behind another person, or step in front of them.

    Attacking: I don't think we need to argue that one. Neither counterattacking.

    Changing weapons: You use a different verbal strategy. If repartee isn't working, maybe logic will. Or conciliation. Or flattery. Or appeal to authority, or... you get the idea. Tactics are like this writ larger.

    Changing opponents: Why not? Not all such conversations involve only one person on each side.

    I'm still working on grappling, I'll admit; maybe maneuvering the topic such that there are things the mark can't say without contradicting himself or looking like a fool? A bull rush would probably be an attempt to ram a topic down a person's throat without giving them a chance to speak at all. A feint might be something like one of those "insult followed by 'just kidding!'" maneuvers... hm. This could make for an interesting post when it isn't so late here.

    That being said, have you looked at the social combat rules in Strands of Fate? It looks like it follows a pretty similar designer approach to what you're noodling out.

    For your victory condition, you might just assign a number to how opposed the mark is to the idea (going from "Meh, I don't feel like it" to "That goes against every single one of my morals and possibly my character concept, HECK NO!"), and using that as a guideline for how much Stress they need to take in order to decide the argument isn't worth it. Same with the bidder; how invested is she in the result?

  5. I have not looked at Strands of Fate. It's been on my "list" for a while, but that's a long list...

    I'm not sure that such a literal, point-by-point conversion of the combat system is useful. There are simply going to be some parts of physical combat that are more important than their social counterparts (e.g., movement). And, of course, vice versa.

    I like your idea of having each side set their own threshold of investment. I might want to have some mechanic involved to strongly encourage players to not simply invest everything every time. Watch for a follow-up post this Friday.

  6. I don't think there needs to be quite that mechanical level of one-to-one correspondence either; I just took exception to the idea that very few aspects of a combat had social parallels. It undermines one of my favorite ways of trying to convince people to let me have a few more conversational scenes.

    Glad you liked the investment threshold. I'd suggest you treat it like some kind of finite resource, possibly derived from a combination of the character's hit dice and Resolve; maybe on a successful social encounter they lose half of the investment they wagered, and on an unsuccessful social encounter half again the investment they wagered. After all, arguing with people constantly, even if you're winning, gets really, really wearing.

  7. Did I imply that there were few parallels? If so, I certainly didn't mean to. I specifically went to combat first, because it seemed like it did have several parallels.

    When I dig into it point-by-point, I find some areas that don't map well. But, the overall structure is very sound.

    I'm definitely mulling over the threshold concept. It will make an appearance in Friday's post, I'm sure.