Monday, September 2, 2019

"Social Combat" - How I run social challenges

As I said in my very first (?) post on this blog, I'm into out-of-character challenges. The "you wouldn't make the fighter's player do push ups so you shouldn't make the wizard's player solve puzzles" argument is a false dichotomy that's so far up D&D's butt that WotC should press charges. 

Conversation is one of the things you do not need an in-game system to model because you are already talking. Having systems to handle jousting make sense because I don't have a suit of plate, a destrier, or a lance. I do have a mouth and the ability to suss out context. Finding a way to convince a powerful NPC to do what you want them to do is, essentially, what role-playing is about. It's puzzle solving in the same way that dungeon exploration is. 

I have put good faith effort to get into "social combat" subsystems. I played the crap out of Exalted and have dug into Burning Wheel's "Duel of Wits." Frankly, nothing with abstractions around conversation-as-combat has worked for me. It hasn't felt fun. Players would come up with amazing arguments only to have them fall flat with bad rolls. The exchange of arguments quickly became tedious and repetitive. 

Similarly, I remember once being frustrated at a particular ST's insistence that he "wasn't convinced by my arguments." I had 5s in all my social stats. Shouldn't that have counted for something? 

I put the following system together for my homebrew game His Majesty the Worm (which you see me talk about sometimes on this blog).

  • It is more free form and less bounded by timing than combat. It does, however, provide structure that the GM can use to think about their NPCs. 
  • It is designed to help the GM role-play more effectively and clearly. 
  • It lets the GM telegraph an NPCs mood, needs, and interests. 
  • Players use this information to solve the "puzzle" of a social encounter. 
  • It does not ignore a character's charisma, but it doesn't make everything dependent on a single persuasion roll either. 
  • Everybody has fun. 

I have been playtesting this for the past three years (!) and have found that it works really well. 

Bargaining and Disposition 
In the Underworld, you’ll encounter the bizarre denizens that live in dungeons and other adventurers trying their best to slay them (or you). A character’s attitude and their goals are referred to as their Disposition 

All intelligent creatures can be negotiated with (assuming a shared language). Clearly roleplaying a character’s Disposition is one of the GM’s many jobs. The Disposition informs the GM how he how that creature should act, how hostile or friendly it is to the guild, and what the creature would demand in a parlay. 

Disposition is imagined using the Wheel of Disposition. There are seven basic Dispositions: anger, distaste, sadness, joy, surprise, trust, and fear. They each have three steps of severity: mild, basic, and intense. Mild emotions are in the inside of the circle; intense emotions at in the outside of the circle. Related emotions are grouped near each other.  

Players who offer or provide bargaining chips that appeal to the Disposition of the creatures should be allowed to test Wands (or other "Charisma" stat). Depending on the test’s results, the Disposition will either increase, decrease, or step to a related emotion.  

If this test is successful, the GM should slide the character’s Disposition up a category (e.g., from intense to basic, or from basic to mild). Great successes might step the Disposition to an adjacent petal and to a related and more-beneficial emotion (e.g., from anger to boredom). 

If this test fails, the GM will slide the character’s Disposition down a category as the player hero annoys or angers the creature with his paltry offerings. Great failures might cause a slide in Disposition level as well as a step to a more negative petal.  

If a character is afflicted with a severe negative Disposition (e.g., rage, terror, loathing), they’ll bring the conversation to an end. They no longer have any interest in exchanging goods or services with the guild. If the encounter continues at all, it will be in a combative capacity.  

GMs should consider the relative positions of the guild and the encountered character when applying favor or disfavor to this test. Major size differences or displays of strength or power will obviously influence how the creature feels about the guild’s ability to threaten or aid them.  

Sidebar: Put up or shut up 
Note that adventurers must offer or provide something substantive to GM characters to even qualify for a test of Wands. Nobody gives anything away for free. If the players want GM characters to scratch their back, they have to be willing to provide actual evidence that they’ll scratch back. 

You’ll also notice that the Disposition subsystem requires players to make judgments and decisions about the social situation before their stats are called upon. In this way, the social encounter relies on a mix of role-playing and the adventurer’s personal “charisma” (as represented by their Wands).  

Starting Disposition 
Usually, a creature’s starting Disposition will be obvious based on the scenario in which the guild encounters it. If there is a question, or if randomness is desired, the GM should look at the top card in the discard pile of the minor arcana: 
Draw from the Minor Arcana 

The Seven Dispositions 
The seven Disposition are listed below, with the core emotional state being flanked by its mild and severe states. A list of emotional synonyms are also given, as one of those terms might be more appropriate and might aid in the GM appropriately role-playing the Disposition. Some notes are given as to how a creature with that Disposition might act in a combat encounter.  

Acceptance / Trust / Admiration 
Trust is a measure of belief in the general honesty, fairness, or capability of the other party. A base level of trust is a common starting Disposition for many benevolent creatures. Creatures who accept or trust the guild will generally negotiate in good faith, but will still cautious ensure the exchanges are fair. Betraying the trust of a creature is a good way to change its Disposition to sad or angry.  
Synonyms: confident, hopeful, optimistic, playful, interested, inquisitive, curious 
In combat: Typically, creatures with this Disposition are not inclined to fight. If the situation obligates a fight without changing the trust Disposition, the creature might attempt to learn more about the guild’s prowess through non-lethal methods.   

Pensiveness / Sadness / Grief 
Sadness is emotional pain associated with loss, despair, helplessness, or disappointment. Sad creatures often have obvious needs to be alleviated, which might change their Disposition for the better. However, sadness often causes creatures to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, and sadness can create a significant barrier to influence.  
Synonyms: anxious, empty, helpless, hopeless, depressed, irritable, guilty, lonely, abandoned 
In combat: In battle, those afflicted with deep sadness fight with abandon. They take chances they might otherwise not take. Often, they attempt to move first in initiative, recklessly charging into battle, but exposing themselves to danger.   

Boredom / Distaste / Loathing 
Disgust is a reaction to something offensive, distasteful, or unpleasant. This revulsion is often a product of breaking hygiene norms or moral codes. It is a common starting Disposition for potentially antagonistic creatures. Remember, it’s a dirty, dirty business being an adventurer.  
Synonyms: disapproving, repelled, judgmental, appalled, nauseated, horrified, hesitant 
In combat: Creatures full of loathing delight in violence against the targets of its distaste. The creature’s main desire is to cause harm or pain. This harm might be centered on a particular creature type (e.g., a witch-hunter pursuing a witch), or perhaps it’s more general (e.g., a vampire’s general disdain for all mortal life). 

Anxiety / Fear / Terror 
Fear is an emotional response to a perceived danger or threat. Fear is one half of the flight or fight response. Creatures responding with fear often want to just end the social encounter and might make any concessions necessary to accomplish this. Or, if they think they can do so successfully, frightened creatures will try and abandon the encounter altogether.  
Synonyms: weak, rejected, threatened, exposed, nervous, persecuted, inferior, worried, helpless 
In combat: A fearful creature will attempt to flee the source of its fear. These creatures will try and avoid combat, unless combat is necessary to escape. They prioritize high value cards for their Initiative.  

Annoyance / Anger / Rage 
Anger is an intense emotional response that arises from a perceived provocation, threat, or hurt. Displays of anger are very aggressive and intimidating, and might quickly devolve to violence. It is a common emotional response for creatures with bestial intelligence–or even certain maladjusted humans. Anger is one half of the fight or flight response. Anger can impair the creature’s ability to take in information or make wise decisions during the encounter.  
Synonyms: hurt, humiliated, threatened, hateful, violated, furious, provoked, hostile, ridiculed  
In combat: Anger makes people stupid and clumsy. The angry creature will try and focus on the source of their anger. An angry creature will attack recklessly, with little regard to the environment.  

Distraction / Surprise / Awe 
When there is a disconnect between expectations and reality, a creature reacts with surprise. Surprise might come when the guild interacts with more “normal” society of the City—not everyone is accustomed to the adventurer’s life. Surprise might also occur during confusing or bewildering encounters in the Underworld.  
Synonyms: startled, confused, amazed, shocked, dismayed, perplexed, excited 
In combat: A surprised creature wasn’t planning on fighting today. It will fight if it believes itself threatened, but won’t pursue combat for their own purposes. They will try and disengage as early as possible.   

Contentment / Joy / Ecstasy  
When their needs are met, creatures feel a sense of joy or happiness. Like anger, feelings of joy can cloud judgment. This is the ideal state for influencing a creature, as they are well-disposed to entreaties and exchanges.  
Synonyms: happy, peaceful, intimate, aroused, proud, thankful, powerful, respected 
In combat: Creatures who are joyful will not usually start or desire to engage in conflict. However, if the situation calls for it, joyful creatures might be cocky or overbold, perceiving the combat as a “game.” Cocky creatures might toy with, taunt, or tease the player heroes during combat.   

Likes and Dislikes, Wants and Needs 
Dispositions are transitory and change during the bargaining process. A GM character’s personality is defined by more permanent features: their likes and dislikes, and their wants and needs.  

Dislikes are gates around the castle of the character’s heart. 
Likes are the key.  

Wants are the queen of the castle.  
Needs are the king.  

  • Dislikes trigger negative emotions like distaste or anger.  These triggers can be behaviors (“lying”) or traits (“all elves”). GM characters won’t bargain with adventurers that they dislike. 
  • Likes trigger positive emotions like trust or joy.  These triggers can be behaviors (“sharing alcohol”) or traits (“good at music”).  GM characters will bargain fairly with adventurers that they like. 
  • Wants fulfill the character’s wishes.  Wants are discrete. These can be items (“enough money for a dowry”) or events (“marry the widow Prescott”).  If you give a GM character what they want as a bargaining chip, make your Wands test with favor.  
  • Needs represent the status quo Needs are abstract and essential (“as long as Baron von Nas is in power, my peasants will pay their taxes to me”).  If you threaten a GM character’s needs as a bargaining chip, make your Wands test with favor but their Disposition is hostile. They won’t bargain with you again.  

When designing a character, the GM must ensure that their personalities are evocative, strange, conflicting, and well-broadcast. This is true for all creatures, no matter how monstrous! An encounter with a wolfpack that howls and attacks to the death is lame. An encounter with a wolfpack that calls itself the Corpse Mothers (in their own lupine speech), respects the bonds of family, seeks vengeance against a werewolf that devoured a litter of their pups, and is afraid of medusae can be memorable and fun.  


  1. This is an interesting system, I'll have to try it sometime. I recognise Plutchik's wheel of emotions -- what led you to discard the "interest/anticipation/vigilance" spoke?

  2. I like this a lot. Like you I've never been convinced by conversation-as-combat mechanics and I dislike the binary "I rolled a 20 on my persuasion check so it worked" of D&D.

    I agree that there should be some element of problem-solving and that PCs need to have some sort of incentive to be able to roll.

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  4. This is great! Something like this will probably become my go-to social mechanic. I have some questions

    How do you handle lying? Does it tie in in a specific way to the system?

    Telegraphing moods/needs — should an NPC have no secrets? should a GM telegraph everything? Would you ever allow or call for 'perception' rolls to discern any of these things?

    Why include 'surprise' on the wheel and not 'anticipation'?

    Why do likes and dislikes trigger a shift, but wants and needs only trigger a roll? Doesn't that make likes more powerful triggers than needs?

    Could you simplify the needs/likes/etc by having certain squares on the chart having an associated topic like 'sharing alcohol' that trigger a disposition shift instead of defining in a separate list?


    1. These are great questions. I don't know if I have _the_ answers, but I have _some_ answers. Maybe they will be helpful.

      1) How do I handle lying? I lean on my general principles about when to roll for things like this. Is there something of consequence on the line? Are both failure and success interesting?

      If the party would be helped by a success, set back by a failure, and there's a good reason that the NPC would doubt them, I will have the party face make (the equivalent of) a Charisma check. On a failure, the NPC would take a negative reaction.

      2) I wouldn't call for a perception check for these sorts of things. PCs explore social situations in a similar way to how they explore physical situations.

      For example, if I described an abandoned church and mentioned a tapestry on the wall, a PC might assume there's something interesting behind it. They could say that they were looking behind it and I'd tell them what they find.

      Similarly, if I described the king's brother's extremely expensive, extremely beautiful clothing, I'm broadcasting that this character might be vain and/or might value the finer things in life. The PCs can try and investigate these assumptions in conversation--perhaps they compliment his clothes or ask another noble about their opinion on the king brother's fashion sense.

      3) I dunno. No real good answer here. I wanted 7 dispositions, and "surprise" seemed more gameable.

      4) Your point is probably pretty solid. The way that I play it at my table (which has worked, more or less) is that the likes and dislikes give me a way to create a snap ruling about what an NPC's starting reaction is. It gives me a starting point. Then, based on how the characters act (thus triggering rolls) I can give them a "fair" bonus or penalty. That's the thinking behind it anyway.

      5) That's a really good idea!