Why is having a social "combat" system a good thing

Hello wheelys. (if this is the wrong forum for that, please move it)

I am in a discussion over at the Order of the Stick Boards over why having a social system and the ability for the system to change the character a good thing. It’s somewhat clear to me but i can’t put it in words.

So my question for you :

Why should a RPG have such a system?
What are it’s advantages?
Why is it sometimes good to loose control over a character?
Why don’t you want to game without one?

It really depends on what the game is about whether you have one or not. Burning Wheel is about tests of character where the player makes difficult decisions.

The social conflict in Burning Wheel is a way that you can say to the GM or the other players what you want to happen next and if you win then that’s what happens.

This is fundamentally different from D&D, (which is the Playground’s default viewpoint,) in which the GM decides what happens if you win and makes it as good as he wants or if you lose and makes it as bad as he wants.

Because you’ve said what you want, and the other person has said what they want you both assess whether you can risk them winning and you “losing control” versus you winning and getting what you want. Everyone at the table knows what’s at stake. (There are other options too such as walking away, or planning on escalating to violence.)

Whether you win or lose is important to the players, but more important is the why. What is happening in the fiction of the game that justifies the risk on each side?

This isn’t just for Duel of Wits (the full social conflict system), it’s true for simple versus test which are resolved in a single dice roll.

So when you lose, it can be bitter but knowing why you opted in in the first place, that makes it fine. The game was fair. The risk was real. Even though the game content is all imagined, the choice that you made was real.

I have had a Big Bad try to lure one of the heroes over to his side. The player wanted the villain to cease his evil plan. If we were playing D&D both sides would have just said “Never!”, the GM can’t roll for his villain against a DC or Save, the player has no skill which can bind such an important character in that way. But using Burning Wheel we played it out as legitimate game content. It was really climactic. The result ended up as a draw and they both changed their behaviour based on the other’s words. Both the characters became more human and believable.

I wouldn’t say that I don’t want a game without social conflict. It’s more accurate for me to say that I want a game to be good at what it does and to be upfront and honest concerning what it is about. There are plenty of good games that don’t need social rules.

I am a veteran of a thousand such discussions. Run! They always end in flames :wink:

But if you’re like me and can’t resist:

Well, it should have such a system if the players want to make the social interaction of the characters part of the “game,” if the players want their characters to throw them curveballs that they have to roll with, rather than being in complete control of the character’s internal reactions. Burning Wheel social mechanics force change on characters and demand that a player accept that the system will sometimes constrain their behavior. If that seems like an exciting challenge to the players, then such a mechanic is a good fit for them.

What are it’s advantages?

Well, it allows you to engage the system during some of the most dramatic and intense moments in a session, when you’re roleplaying your character interacting with other characters. To me that’s a strong advantage, but if someone wants a free hand to roleplay things as they see fit, they will likely see it as a disadvantage.

Why is it sometimes good to loose control over a character?

Because it is another avenue for surprise and challenge during play.

Why don’t you want to game without one?

That may be making too strong a point. I play games without social resolution. But, I will say that my favorite games all include it in some measure. And I prefer them for the reasons above.

You should see the thread he’s talking about. I can’t be bothered with it. Those guys consistently try harder to misunderstand people than they do to understand them.

Aw man, I’ve given up on engaging with these kinds of threads. Doesn’t really matter which forum they’re on. There’s no reasoning in the realm of taste and preference. The second the word “should” shows up in a discussion, you’re now talking orthodoxy.

The only correct answer is “because I think it’s fun and makes for a game I enjoy.” Period. Full stop.

Answering your questions in order…

  1. It should or should not depending on the goals of the game in question.
  2. One purpose of social conflict systems is that they force characters to compromise on their principles. If I believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity and I am a D&D character, I cannot fundamentally be forced to any meaningful compromise. I can win for my beliefs or I can hold strong in defeat or even death, but I can never be made to accept that I must work with someone who fundamentally hates equality in order to further the cause of brotherhood. (This is neither the only purpose of social conflict, nor is social conflict the only way to include this in a game, but it is primary in both cases.)
  3. Because the resulting choices are more interesting than the choice between staying pure or being a total loser.
    3a. A possible corollary is that breaking that “My guy is the untarnished eidolon of noblest belief” cherry lets you go to more interesting and nuanced places in general. Once you’ve been forced to a compromise you hate, suddenly you’re in a position where you can have him make mistakes and it’s no longer forced, you’re not intentionally making bad choices because you’re some kind of drama-school washout,* all the characters do suboptimal stuff sometimes. Now you can explore the consequences of being someone mostly good who fucks up sometimes.
  4. What do you mean? I totally want to game without social conflict systems. I do it all the time. I want to game with them too.

*Did you ever have that in D&D? Where some player was just like “Yeah, my guy hates lightning, he won’t use any electrical spells for ROLEPLAYING REASONS” and it was cool for like one session, but pretty soon it was just like “Why can’t you just cast Chain Lighting like everyone else, you’re making this way too hard for no reason?” When you’re never forced to be less than pure, never forced to do anything but live up to the fullest expression of your beliefs, it puts any step off the path in kinda the same light. “Why did this guy just fuck up on purpose and then make us watch him wallow in it?”

Yup. That is about the size and shape of my jaded gamer forum heart.

I too should know better but cannot resist the temptation of the dangerous debate.

Why should a RPG have such a system?

Why not? Annoying answer I know, but there’s more. We regularly handle violent combat with a rules system. We could get rid of combat systems. That would mean resolving combat through a single die roll and/or role play. Which would totally work in some settings. (Courtly intrigue, for one.) But, in the right context, complex combat resolution adds to the fun. Same goes for complex social resolution. In the right context, of course.

What are it’s advantages?

Exactly the same advantages of a complex combat resolution system. Complex combat resolution allows the player more control than a single die roll. It adds a layer of uncertainty to the game, which increases the drama. Complex combat resolution allows the GM and players to declare what is important. (Spending months of play finding the evil litch king then killing him with a single die roll would be really unsatisfying.) All of these apply to complex social resolution.

Why is it sometimes good to loose control over a character?

I’m not going to argue the "good"ness of it. Instead, I’m just going to point out that we regularly loose control of character all the time when we game. Every die roll runs the risk of loosing control. If I fail the GM is going to make something bad happen to me. This even happens in combat. If I fail a Dodge roll I get it and take damage. That’s not something I want. Loosing control is an inherent part of gaming.

Why don’t you want to game without one?

Kind of a false argument, I think. I play games without social conflict systems. I love me some D&D for killing things and taking there stuff. But if I want a more character and drama based game it needs a complex social resolution system. (Or, a complex generic system. See: Mouse Guard.)

I feel that a game with only a complex combat system, and no complex social system, the game is weighted towards combat. In a dramatic conclusion it is more fun to roll lots of dice than just one die. So if I have the option of fighting (making lots of rolls, heavy drama) or talking (making one roll, little drama) I’m more inclined to fight. Which is okay!! But sometimes I want the option of a complex social system.

There’s also the group that doesn’t use any dice in social conflicts. The above argument doesn’t apply to them. I don’t even understand that.

And finally, what Paul said: “The only correct answer is “because I think it’s fun and makes for a game I enjoy.” Period. Full stop.”


(Apologies if I’m repeating anyone.)

In case someone wants to use it. I’m a fan of toolbox systems with a robust core and additional, optional subsystems.

  • Better than a coin flip when you want to see who’s won a pvp conflict in an imaginary world.
  • Allows real-life underdogs to influence group decisions/conflict outcomes despite their low position in a group.
  • Allows people who are shy, uncommunicative and otherwise socially handicapped to play social monsters, thus giving them a chance to practice their real-life social skills without being punished by the rest of the party for their inefficiency (a.k.a. “shut up or you’ll mess up our only chance to convince the Prince of X!”)

You didn’t ask the question, but I’ll also list disadvantages:

  • it’s not actually making things equal for everybody. It gives advantage to (that is, makes the game easier and probably more pleasant for) people who are better at tactics in comparison to people who are better at social manipulation.
    a) No-one likes to give away their advantage. People who find it easy to bullshit the GM and/or other players into something will be unhappy at the restriction (just as people who like tactics would be unhappy if their favourite system was changed into a total GM fiat).
    b) many RPGs already have plenty of rules that favour tactics masters over social masters. As a consequence, the game becomes even less appealing for people who aren’t in it for tactics. You might be taking away their last refuge of fun, so to speak. Generally, the feeling of winning an argument because you (the player) are smart, well-spoken, and come up with good arguments, instead of because you (the player) were lucky on a dice roll, is quite pleasant.

  • if you consider a character to be your avatar, a body that is controlled by your mind, this feels like mind control. Instead of forcing the character to compromise on their ideals, it forces the player to compromise on their ideals. This makes the game much less fun if you’re playing it for escapism. There’s enough unpleasant compromises that the real world forces on you.

Dunno. I find it unpleasant, but I’m willing to go with it for purposes listed above as advantages.

I don’t like leading questions. Just because I’m playing a game that has social combat doesn’t mean I will necessarily use it, or like it, or only play games with one.

As a player, I’m fine with either. I prefer the “avatar” approach, but I can let go of the character when I need to.
As a GM, I find that this relieves me of the burden of “eyeballing” the results. I don’t GM a lot and I find eyeballing things like Obstacles etc to be exhausting, therefore the more of it I can let go, the better.

Why should a RPG have such a system? What are it’s advantages?

Because I love characters, with all their strengts, all their foibles and all their Heart! I also love Stories!

Characters aren’t infallible, at least not in (most) Stories. In stories, the villain may talk a White Hat over to the proverbial dark side, and only his/her core beliefs (or “Heart”) will make her return to the side of the heroism.

I think (some)RPGs* should have a social system, so that we can be spared ‘dump-stats’ and having player-(ability/popularity/bargaining) skills be more valuable than the Character’s skills.
I never liked how those who prioritized physical (combat) Stats over social one’s got more glory, babes/hunks and in-setting recognition than those who spent them on Charisma (appearance/status/reputation/etc).

I also didn’t enjoy how a so-called face-character could (since the player was liked by the GM) talk most NPCs into relinquishing whatever the PC wanted, but the same PC could never talk his friends - who trusted him with their lives - to (help) do whatever.

In the drama-classes, I took 'round The Turn of the Millennium, as it was called then, I learn of the Big No-No “blocking”, and I realized that all to many times I’d experienced just that. Alcoholic PCs would refuse drinks because they either suspected the player was up to something, or they just liked to say “no” and “be their own men”. When I ST’ed V:tM I noticed that people would act suave and intelligent, but having average mental and social stats, and setting the rest on combat-abilities. When I made them roll their social skills, they liked it - as all to many times they’d experienced that social skills (at least) were useless to prioritize.

I also love how it levels the playing field, were the slick and suave (or well-liked/feared) players who “win” social arguments without the dice are prey to their whims as we all are in combat.

Why is it sometimes good to loose control over a character?

It emulates the stories, were we listen to someone do a bad choice or being lured by a silver-tongued villain. It helps to portray believable characters that aren’t impenetrable or a paragon of whatever (philosophical) beliefs they hold. It makes the stories more interesting - as we’re both partaker and spectator in RPGs and, not the least, it makes the characters more interesting (for all) as they provide surprises and aren’t slaves to their players will. Surprises are good!

Note that seldom are (the) Social Combat-system (I’ve experienced) substitites for mind-control spells.

Why don’t you want to game without one?

I’ve gamed without one, and will again.

Note @3Jane: The social leader in my old group really likes having the dice decide. Not only will he not get blamed for everything:P, but the more who’s input/will is influencing the game and the story woven, the more we’ll be surprised. “More brains, more thoughts.” After I first implemented “the dice rolls and rules, and in the darkness binds us” more player input has been the (at least perceived) norm. Some people like losing control, I hear some even might have crushes and experience gland-activity.

You ever play a game of D&D and watch the party argue? For like, an hour? And then:

a) The player who is the most stubborn and assholish wins the day because he wears everyone else out?
b) Someone just does something, because they’re sick of wasting time, and there might as well have been no planning at all? (Alternatively: a PC KILLS another PC because they’ve got no lesser options that will work?)

Social combat is an option to resolve actual group issues without either of those two things becoming the rule. Social combat also means you can, in fact, build a character who is socially strong, and even if they can’t convince someone to think the same way, they can convince them to go along for the moment, and often that’s what’s needed to get things done.

Notice, though, for BW, that your “loss of control” is voluntary. You either agree to debate or you walk away. There’s no someone ambushing you with an argument and FORCING you into a social conflict.

Now, there’s a group of players who actually hate this because NOT doing things is actually a major point of play for them. And I mean, not doing anything at all, not just stuff other people want of you.

There’s players who don’t trust the rules, don’t trust the GM, don’t trust anything, and the only way they feel “safe” is to waste time… often planning or arguing but not actually doing anything: http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/abused-gamer-syndrome/ (Not saying all people opposed to social combat are in this category, just that this category of folks show up very vocally against anything that involves actually resolving things and moving forward…)


Some thoughts:

Social conflict mechanics focus the game on different kinds of challenges. Debate in D&D is basically toothless; things are only really decisive when swords are drawn. How do you tell a story where the main challenge is to convince to overcome your fear of the bishop and force him to agree to donate to your expedition?

You could have a dungeon crawling game where all combat was resolved through role-play (e.g. the GM deciding). I’ve done it and it can be fun. But it’s also fun to have mechanics that support the subject of the game, which is why so many games have combat systems.

We ‘lose control’ of our characters all the time - we fail saving throws against Fear, we take damage, lose equipment or ourselves when the character doesn’t want to. A saving throw against Fear seems uncontroversial; we accept that a scary monster is just going to make some people run away (particularly in a game about fighting scary monsters).

Why not a saving throw against being debated into looking stupid in front of your friends, or getting flustered and agreeing to something you regretted? (Particularly if that’s an important part of what the game is about.)

I don’t like the term “lose control of your character” or the worse one from the thread on the OotS forum, “the GM taking control of your character.” Losing control sucks. We’re talking about ceding control through an agreed upon resolution mechanic.

If we were playing poker, we wouldn’t equate losing a bet to someone breaking into our house and walking away with our television.

This. I agree 100%.

Re. “loosing control of your character”

The term is fairly hyperbolic, I feel. Plus, I don’t game to be in complete control of my character. If I wanted that I would write a book. I game to make a cool story and social combat systems help with that.


Maybe we should just go all-in and explain that social conflict rules allow us to sodomize the characters in exacting detail, the better to humiliate the player. If the player isn’t angry you’re not doing it right!

i knew it :rolleyes:

The real reason to have a social combat system? For fun, obviously. But the less obvious part is why having an analogue to combat is fun, or what it brings to the game. Simply, it puts social interactions on par with martial interactions in the amount of emphasis they get in the mechanics and, most often, in table-time.

Make a social master in D&D, and you’ll shine when you’re chatting up NPCs. That can be critical to your party’s success, but it’ll still boil down to a roll, or a series of rolls. Combat, in contrast, is a large numbers of rolls and tactical choices and takes a very long time. There are games that abstract combat to very simple rolls so they don’t take up time and the game can move on. BW goes the other way: arguing, persuading, and pleading can be just as tactical and dramatic as swinging a sword.

An RPG should have a system if it wants to make the social at least potentially as important as the physical. As a corollary, it shouldn’t if they’re not intended to be equal. D&D is, for many players, a game that’s supposed to be about dungeon crawling and combat. Yes, it has social skills, but they’re not the focus, and shoehorning in a social combat system would be a bad thing. Yes, that means I think some RPGs shouldn’t have such a thing. But some should, and trying to play a more nuanced, political game of D&D can be very frustrating because the system isn’t made for that. Matching the system to the game you want to play is actually a very big deal, and one that I believe gets short shrift at many tables.

The other thing is losing control of a character. In BW, you don’t. Not really. If you engage in a Duel of Wits for an audience, your character isn’t risking anything personal, just failing to get NPCs to do what you want. When you argue with other characters about what you’ll do, though, you’re still not risking changing your character’s mind unless you want to. The “losing control” is essentially being willing to risk having to go along with someone else’s plans or desires because you can’t defend your own well enough. Yes, it’s a risk, but no system is fun without risk.

To put it simply:

Social Combat puts the Game back into the Roleplaying of social situations.

You actually chose a very good example. I’d argue that saving throws against Fear (or loss of sanity in Call of Cthulhu/Trail of Cthulhu) can be as unsatisfying as social rolls that “convince” your character of something. There is a reason why MGs discuss ways to scare their players.

That’s why I tried to describe the “avatar” situation. When your character looses equipment, this doesn’t touch you (the player) as directly as when they’re convinced/scared/seduced/whatnot by NPCs, because there is no “character mind”, there is just your mind in there. Being told “now you’re scared”, or “now you’re convinced”, or “now you desire him”, or “now you trust her” doesn’t automatically cause these feelings in us.

(Mind you, the “avatar” description is a mild case of character control; I’ve also known players who wouldn’t play a woman because they were men, or wouldn’t wear setting-appropriate jewelry that in real life was associated with a group they disliked, or wouldn’t to part with an equipment piece that in their mind defined their characters and made them cool).

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for putting this so eloquently.

Also, sometimes it isn’t an asshole, but just someone very charismatic who motivates everyone IRL to go along with whatever they want in the game. This can be great and fun, but it can also marginalize quieter players.

And on the topic of quiet/shy players- sometimes they like to play a persuasive, charismatic character, but they lack the real-world ability to sound eloquent. Giving them in-game tools helps to bring their concept to life, despite their lack of acting abilities.