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The Storytelling System has balanced traits, with power, finesse, and resistance attributes and skills for the physical, social and mental traits.

Still, until recently only physical combat was described, letting the social and mental ones fall on the shoulders of the storyteller and players. (Requiem for Rome and WoD: Mirrors recently introduced social/mental combat, but see below for the problems with them.)

This had at the very least the following consequences:

  1. A player with easy social/mental skills could shine while role-playing or solving puzzles despite the low social/mental skills of his character
  2. On the opposed side, a player with average-to-low social/mental skills would never be able to really play Mata Hari or Sherlock Holmes, despite having maxed out his social/mental skills
  3. Thus, it is more profitable to invest experience in physical combat skills – there, one is sure experience will be efficiently used, where in social/mental skills the points' contribution is unsure at best
  4. Conclusion: You end up with combat-skilled characters

This happened to our group, because:

  1. Our mental challenges (i.e. investigation, puzzles, etc.) were failed or missed by the players. (Not to mention hours of useless and boring discussion to decide the course of action, which killed both the pace and the mood of sessions…)
  2. As everything social was "discussed" and not standardized, players could ignore anything that didn't please them

The problem is we're playing Vampire: The Requiem, and half the interactions between important the PCs and other vampires are simply social – Elysium stuff, etc.

So we (the two storytellers for our group of 6 people) are trying to bring social/mental combat mechanics into our games. Our first experiments were interesting (players were to throw dice to investigate), but we are still working on it.

My question is: Have you devised systems for the Storytelling System* for social and mental combat?

There are mental/social combat rules in Requiem for Rome (mostly rhetoric and reason debates) and in World of Darkness: Mirrors (Sway for generic social combat; and Anticipation, Setup and Declaration for mental "special effects"), but I'm looking for alternatives that merge everything interesting together. (For example, half of the rules for Sway are interesting, but the need for a simple roll and simple success is too easy for a "combat".)

* Though we're playing Storyteller System, answers for other systems (D&D, Shadowrun, etc.) would be interesting, too.

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Have you thought about treating debate like combat, but using the social skills instead of the physical ones? Willpower becomes the Social health, Manipulation to hit arguments, Charisma to force them, etc, etc? –  B.A. Thomas Aug 24 '12 at 16:10
    
@B.A. Thomas: Yes, it was my first idea. But loosing Willpower for a discussion seemed a bit too much. –  paercebal Aug 25 '12 at 11:00
    
Well, if they don't use their virtues or vices afterwards it very well may be, but I find that willpower reduction, or a hit to resolve would be the most appropriate penalties for having someone convince you of something you were against. I'll research more into this and post my answer later. –  B.A. Thomas Aug 25 '12 at 14:20
    
@B.A. Thomas : Thanks. Note that an alternative would be to use a virtual "current WP" as health, but regain those lost points after the social combat. Instead, granting a bonus or a malus of 1 to WP for a won/lost discussion. This bonus/malus could increase according to the importance of the discussion. –  paercebal Aug 25 '12 at 16:16
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7 Answers

A good GM will force the player to use both roleplaying social ability, and character stats, in combination. Neither the Shadowrun 4E core book, nor the Pathfinder book, seem to have a good write-up on this, so I'll try my own:

The roleplaying should come first. It's a roleplaying game. If the character wants to do something, the player needs to make at least a faint effort to act it out. If the player is shy, or socially inept, give them a little leeway, but don't just let them roll the die.

An example from a pathfinder/steampunk game (loosely based on a true story):

The bard wants to convince a journalist to divulge information.

The player says, "I convince him we're government agents," and rolls his die. "I got a 31 on my Bluff check!"

The GM says, "Okay, roleplay it. What do you say to him? How are you gonna convince him?"

The character isn't convincing unless the player at least tries to talk as that character, no matter what the dice say. If the roleplaying effort isn't very good, their character's high skills can make up for it.

Conversely, good roleplaying can bolster a bad skill total. If the player concocts a lie that's especially believable, and entertaining, the GM might award a bonus. Ex:

The bard (different campaign) wants the crew of an airship to believe they've been rescued from the "traitors" defending the airship by government special forces.

Player: "I confront the captain, and tell him: 'We're a special forces team, working for the Emperor, may He live forever, in service to one of the Nine. Our Lord learned of a conspiracy amongst these guards to capture the airship, and steal it's cargo. We've disposed of the traitors.'. I show him the forged government documents."

GM: "Okay, roll your Bluff check. I'll give you +6 to your check, because the story's pretty convincing, and you've got the documents to back it up. But, I'm gonna roll for the documents, too, and if they don't hold up on their own, they won't believe you."

Even if the player has a good story, a blown check is a blown check. Your lie is exposed, your attempt at mediation results in escalated violence, or whatever. The GM should come up with a good 'in character' explanation why the NPCs react badly to a good story.

You can penalize very poor, blatant lies or faux pas in diplomacy, but be careful about handing out penalties too heavy-handedly, since it can be discouraging to the player.

D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder use an 'attitude' rating system, with discrete steps of friendliness and helpfulness. These steps modify the difficulty of the skill check, and beating the skill check by a certain threshold moves the NPC a number of steps closer to being friendly. An Intimidate action might temporarily raise the NPC's attitude to a helpful level (for game mechanic purposes), but lower it later.

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I'm afraid I'd have to disagree a little with RMorrisey.

The traits exist to catch those players who are not as outgoing or skilled as their friends. Its great to reward a good bit of roleplaying with a modifier or simply with an automatic success, but don't do so without taking into account the numbers on the sheet and the dice.

The quiet guy who rolled a character with a big score in bluff should still succeed even if he can only mumble a few vague examples of what his character is trying to say. The skilled orator who can fill the room with honeyed words should still fail miserably if his character has bugger-all dots in the appropriate bullsquat skill.

There is nothing wrong with simply rolling a contested roll for what is in the game: a battle of barbed tongues and witty put-downs. Its not as much fun, but then neither is being expected to be Oscar Wilde as a player when you already forwent the muscles to be witty on the character sheet.

If me as a 9-stone weakling gets to play a bone breaker because of how I spent my dots, then my beercan crushing friend and his wallflower girlfriend both should get to play the charismatic quipper because of how they spent thier dots.

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I can see how this argument has merit. I guess it really depends on whether your GM/game style is more "crunchy" or "creamy". I try to create a more "creamy" emphasis by encouraging as much roleplaying as possible in my games, and reward or penalize players' accordingly (though I err on the side of helping out struggling players). If you are doing a more dungeon-crawly "crunchy" game, this might not be appropriate. –  RMorrisey Sep 11 '10 at 5:26
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I disagree. A high level fighter might have a high base attack bonus but if the player is a tactical clod he's going to get owned - player skill and character skill are both utilized in combat. Should be the same in mental and social. –  mxyzplk Sep 11 '10 at 13:30
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White wolf has a social combat system in Second edition Exalted. I don't know how closely this fits to what you want or whether it's too similar to the examples you posted in the question. I've never played it through, but I do know of people who do and like it's oddities compared to some other systems.

To start it's a very literal conversion from Combat to Social Combat:

  • Join Debate rolls replace Initiative
  • You attack attributes in a similar way to combat.
  • Expending will power can stop your values being eroded

Here is a very good example of combat in action.

It may take some effort to work this into a WoD game though.

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System for social combat in Requiem for Rome is hardly first :-) There is a quite powerful system for social combat in Burning Wheel system (but I don't recommend it altogether, because Burning Wheel is quite complicated and doesn't seem playable). I have seen it also in polish games (Klanarchia, Wolsung and a additional rules for this in Monastyr).

The system is usually very similar to the one introduced in RoR: you divide social confrontation into series of actions, you provide some social health attribute and describe actions, that can be used (with some additional effects and one action having advantage over other). Then you simply make them fight, just as if it would be a combat.

However, in World of Darkness I found it too much effort. You simply need to stick to some rules. Imagine, one of your players (not characters) is a martial artist. If he doesn't buy dots, he won't be such in the game. Why is this different, when one of your players is very social? If he doesn't buy the dots, then he still needs to roll, when he wants to persuade someone - and he will fail, even if he as a player is very persuading. People forget about it, because role playing is the most important, so if someone is social, than he doesn't need to roll. That's wrong, because actually player with no social dots delivering great speech is not role playing - his character is not social and this is how he should role play him. Instead, he plays himself, which is cheating. Simply tell him to roll and see the result - soon he will learn, that he needs to have social skills.

When we played Vampire: the Requiem the most powerful characters where those with Dominate and Majesty, not the ones who could kill an opponent in one round. You just need to get your player used to the fact, that social skills are rolled and they provide great benefit (just like in life, how many of us really know how to kill someone?).

There is also one more thing: if you always roll, then players may feel tempted not to role play at all - why should they bother. That is a social problem, not a gaming problem. We play role playing games rather than board games to role play. If your player refuses to role play, that you should have some serious talk or don't give him experience for role playing. Of course, there some situations, where you shouldn't really penalize the player - someone might be very shy, but wants to play a very social character and all he can say is I persuade him. That's ok too - encourage him to role play, but don't force him. You know your players best, you will know what to do.

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Uh? Burning Wheel is entirely playable. I wouldn't recommend Burning Wheel's social combat system for this question simply because it's so closely tied to Burning Wheel's other mechanics. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 30 '10 at 23:28
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Burning Wheel's social combat is involved...but a lot of fun. A simpler mechanic, however, can be found in Mouse Guard, and the process can be used easily with WoD, because all three are dice-pool count-successes systems. –  aramis Sep 7 '10 at 2:59
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I want to +1 this for "role-playing yourself isn't roleplaying your character", but I think that's more personal opinion rather than answering the question. –  B.A. Thomas Aug 25 '12 at 23:13
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Social combat v1.2

[this appears to mirror very closely what was suggested by @Pureferret after a quick look.]

Conviction is health, based on, but separate from willpower. Social stats are used as physical combat stats. Defense is Wits or Manipulation. Arguing with intelligence requires a declaration during combat, otherwise is manipulation or presence.

Who goes first?

  • Have the members of the "discussion" roll a die, add this to their total Manipulation + Resolve ( or if the parties are peaceful, they may choose to flip a coin ). This determines who goes first in debate-initiative.

  • You can hold this initiative to go at any time in the second round.

  • You may initiate a surprise attack. (Blind-side them with your intense logic!) Opponent rolls Wits + Composure to not be caught off-guard, can only be first action in debate.

Attacks

  • Rolls to force the issue: Presence + Empathy, Expression.

  • Rolls to get them to concede to your point of view casually: Manipulation + Politics, Persuasion, Subterfuge.

  • Rolls to Threaten into submission: Manipulation + Intimidation.

(Heal your/other Conviction): Presence + Socialize, just like Int + Medicine)

Zero attack dice rule applies here as well.

Drawing out new evidence in the same turn you speak requires Eidedic Memory.

Equipment

  • Support group, +1 for each pair of persons on your side of the argument in debate.
  • Proof +2 - +5 (Eye witness account, physical proof)
  • Appeal to Emotion - +2 to Presence.
  • Appeal to Logic - May use Intelligence in place of Manipulation
  • Appeal to Ethics - May use Resolve in place of Presence.

"Circumstantial bonuses"

  • Drunk -2 - -5
  • Improper Sleep -3
  • Previous argument (annoyed) -1
  • Previous argument (heated!) -2
  • Previous argument (intense!) -4
  • Offhand remarks -2 (poorly considered, insulting)
  • Exposed liar -4

  • Moral high ground +2

  • Status (As per Fame)
  • Fame (As per rule)
  • Inspiring Looks (As Per rule)

Damage:

  • Id(Bashing),
  • Superego(Lethal),
  • Ego(Aggravated).

Id damage can be healed in a matter of minutes, Superego damage heals in days, Ego damage heals in weeks.

Id attacks attack your lesser nature, specifically your bad habits and vice.

Superego attacks deal with your better habits and Virtues.

Ego damage deals with you as a person

( To address your concerns about removing willpower from players, I suggest only penalizing "aggravated" ranks of willpower damage.)

Defenses

  • "Rebuttal" (Debate's dodge) is determined by lowest of Wits or Manipulation.

Health

Willpower = "Conviction". This pool is derived from Willpower alone. You may spend points on arguments to bolster them, but you may not use Willpower to increase your conviction. Once your Conviction is depleted you are "convinced". Conviction recovers as Bashing x5, Lethal x2 and Aggravated x1.

Resolution

  • If someone would be knocked out by the debate, they cannot act against the opponent.
  • If someone would be killed (Lethal) by the debate, they see the point they've made and agree ( but don't have to act on it ).
  • If someone would have been annihilated (aggravated) by the debate, they act on it listlessly, unsure of their own mind or reasoning powers. This is an earth shattering realization to which they will have to apologize profusely to friends or higher powers.

You can spend willpower on defenses, but as per @Pureferret there may not be a reason for the defender to do so, in character.

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If you want a comparable social combat system,you'll need to either steal or write one. My WoD system knowledge is a bunch of years old (haven't played WoD in over a decade... VDA was brand new!)

That said, you need

  1. A damage track for the combat. Will+best skill sounds about right... 1st one out loses the argument.
  2. A system of actions in social combat...
    one to shore up one's own argument,
    one or more to take down theirs
    one or more to make use of alternate skills
  3. a system of evaluating the effects of damage after the social conflict.

The Burning Wheel and Burning Empires systems could be easily cribbed. Not cheap; $25 entry price (BW books, or BE PDF), and complex, but given that dice pools in both systems tend to be in the 4-8 range, and have a total range of 1-10.

Mouse Guard has a simpler system, more flexible, and the same range of dice pools. And is more easily adopted.

Diaspora has a great social combat system, but it's Fudge/FATE based, so it will not be as easy to convert as BW, BE, nor MG...

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As an 2013/2014 update to this question, the new revised nWoD presented in God Machine Chronicles and Blood and Smoke (the updates to WoD and VtR, respectively) have a new social combat system called "Doors" based on Resolve as a defense trait and social as a combat trait. There is a nice simple system based on breaking down more doors and setbacks.

It is currently (early 2014) available from DriveThruRPG as a stand alone rules update to the World of Darkness corebook.

YMMV on if it is to your tastes, but it now exists.

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