Friday, July 2, 2010

I Hate Social Combat

... I really do. But that doesn't mean it can't be fixed.

I like the idea. It's a roleplaying game. Why not have a game-y bit that supports roleplaying? Why not make talking at least as mechanically interesting as combat? Why reduce the complex cut-and-thrust of a discussion to a single roll? Not to mention the classic argument "My character can do a whole bunch of stuff better than I can. Why can't he talk better too?" Which is a solid argument. I've just never seen it work in practice.

Why is that? As far as I can tell, it's for a couple of reasons, but they mostly stem from the fact that the basic assumptions of RPG combat don't really apply to conversations. They don't necessarily proceed in a logical order, they don't always involve the whole team, and most importantly, it's hard to synchronize the roleplaying aspect of them with the mechanical aspect.

The problem basically comes in when you have to break up a conversation to roll dice, and the dice deny the logic of the conversation. Of course, you can just ignore them, but then why have the system at all? For example, and this has happened to me, a player spouts a perfect, cast-iron argument in a social duel, amasses all his Rule of Cool bonuses, and still rolls garbage. The GM has no comeback; the NPC just says "Nuh-uh!" Utterly shatters the whole roleplaying immersiveness and leaves everyone feeling let down. The GM in this scenario was adept enough to make the next social 'hit' on the NPC basically do what the total flub should have done, but it was a jarring experience.

The attempts at doing a social combat system that I've read or played all had these problems, though some were smart enough to attempt to address them. Some games simply use the same system for physical or social combat. Examples are Mouse Guard and Spirit of the Century, aka My Favourite Game I've Never Played. These games are both clever enough to know that conflict, in whatever form, has consequences other than getting battered into the dirt, and both encourage the players to consider what 'losing' a conflict means in the circumstances of the conflict. This is a good start. They still have the problem of running out of things to say before the conflict is over, break up the conversation with arbitrary initiative rules, though do okay at incorporating multiple participants.

By contrast, and those who know me knew this was coming, Exalted has the most execrable excuse for a social combat system. A single attack is apparently five minutes of back and forth, so is therefore impossible to roleplay (which is the whole point, isn't it?) and doesn't need to follow any sort of objective set from the start. You can imperiously command some schmoe to go fetch your slippers from your affordable studio apartment in Great Forks forty times until he's out of social hitpoints, then, as long as you can hit his social defence value and keep him from punching you for five minutes, he's your willing slave. One could make the excuse that the book is supposed to include a table describing how much willpower people are willing to spend on single issues, but asking for clemency based on something the authors forgot to include in the book is a bit of a weak argument - no stunt bonus to MDV there. On top of Exalted's generally bulky dice-rolling mechanics, you have a social combat system that actively disrupts in-character roleplaying, arbitrarily governs the discussion with its '2 willpower per topic' rule (a necessary evil to prevent assholes from making the same arguments over and over - though it does also mean that the arguments that don't work are the ones that get repeated more in the conversation), and makes little to no logic when it comes to the endgame. Also, though this is more an issue of personal taste than an inherent flaw that makes things less fun, physical combat is fully incompatible with social combat. If a character makes a remark so cutting that someone pulls a sword on them, it doesn't sound to me like the conversation's over. It sounds like that character is winning, though. Why punish them for pushing the right buttons?

Friend Kris over at Glitterdust just took a swing at social combat for 4th Edition D&D, which I'd love to discuss, but this is getting a bit long. I'll look at his system, as well as attempts from my game design projects - one of which is based on 4E as well - tomorrow.


  1. I have nothing to say about the Exalted social combat system. I've only used it once, and I would not choose to do so again.

    What you need to keep in mind with social combat, the thing that makes it workable, is the distinction between "Intend to Say" and "Says." When you're using a social combat system, you don't say something until the dice come down. This is much like a normal combat system in that you _intend_ to stab a guy in the soft bits, but the roll of the dice actually determines whether or not that intent is actualized.

    A poorly-spoken, uncharismatic character may _intend_ to say "The trade negotiations with the Duchy of Encephalitis are going poorly because of dissent in the ranks of the merchant guilds. They do not wish to pay the new taxes on foreign grain, even if that grain is of a poorer quality, if that grain is tax-free." What might come out of his mouth would be something more akin to "Those merchant guys are just being greedy assholes." It's a well-thought argument, sure, but it's not well delivered, and that hurts it's effectiveness.

    And the opposite is also true; the well-spoken character will communicate in a much more effective way than many players can. It should be assumed, in the course of play, that when a charismatic character's player says "Those guys are douches, and all they want is money," it can be translated "The trade negotiations with the Duchy of Encephalitis are going poorly because of dissent in the ranks of the merchant guilds. They do not wish to pay the new taxes on foreign grain, even if that grain is of a poorer quality, if that grain is tax-free."

    To get something like that across in a role-playing game can be difficult. While it would be awesome to put the onus on the players, sadly not all players are capable of coming up with convincing, sound, well-thought-out dialogue while improvising. Systems for social conflict take that into account and provide them an "out" that doesn't cripple them or break from the role-playing experience. They allow a character's skill, rather than a player's skill, to determine the outcome of events.

    And really, I'm not all that good at swinging swords. That's why we role-play, to pretend for a while that we're someone cooler than we really are. For some of us, that means being a world-class sorcerer. For others, it means being able to hold their own in an argument against the Queen of Aphasia.

  2. The "intend to say" thing is pretty interesting, but I hate the idea of punishing players that come up with clever things to say. It's also hard to work in Rule of Cool bonuses if you don't talk until after the roll.

  3. You say what your character is intending to say before the roll; your character says the thing after the roll, taking the roll's result into account as a modifier on intent.

    You're not punishing players who have clever ideas; you're rewarding players who express an interest in social encounters by incorporating those interests into their character sheet.

    Myself, I'm a force of charisma. I'm a salesman, and I'm pretty good at making people see things my way. And I'm a clever player, having been at this for some twenty years.

    But if I make a fighter character with an eight in Charisma, a ten in Intelligence and my only social skill is Intimidate, I don't think it's a stretch to say that in social situations, that character should be less than effective. I've stated, through character creation choices, that my character will be pretty average in the brains department, and a little stunted when playing with others. It wouldn't be fair of me to stomp on the toes of the guy who has a solid 20 Charisma and a +22 to Diplomacy that my clever idea trumps his character concept.

    If, every time that same bard came up with a clever way to stab a dude in the guts, he got an automatic critical hit, it would be roughly equivalent.

  4. I don't disagree at all that character sheet choices outweigh what a player comes up with. Hell, I've been the guy with the massive social skills on the character sheet but nothing to say as a player. It sucks. And suddenly pulling out your sparkling wit as Gurthump the Fighter is just as disruptive to a well-roleplayed conversation as going through a bunch of tedious rolling after every sentence.

    I haven't made clear in this post what it is I DO want from a social interaction system. For me, the ideal is something lightweight that doesn`t impede the flow of a well-roleplayed comversaton, that rewards player creativity as long as they remain IN CHARACTER. Sometimes, the Gurthumps of the world say just the right thing, in a blunt, not-quite-realizing-the-impact-of-the-statement way.