My favorite roleplaying system to run is Legend of the Five Rings (L5R): a fantasy samurai setting where characters find themselves fighting just as hard in the political ring as the martial fields. I find myself naturally drawn to systems where the pen is at least as mighty as the sword. Because of this, I was naturally drawn to L5R’s social combat: intrigue scenes. So I quickly was drawn to Fantasy Flights newest edition of the game. Characters in L5R have to rely heavily on their social skills as well as combat prowess in these scenes where progress toward predetermined political or social goals is tracked mechanically, similar to progress in a combat encounter. This is the feature that drew me to L5R, but I recently realized that in my year and a half of GMing it, I have almost never used the social system, and now I have to know why. Is this an inherent flaw in the idea of a mechanically-heavy social encounter? A flaw in the specific rules L5R uses? Or my failure as a GM?
1) What’s The Point?
In any roleplaying system, by the time combat begins, the players already know their objective; the question the players are answering is how not what. Typically the heroes will win; it is simply a matter of how much damage they will take, what price they will pay, and how they accomplish their goal. This allows combat to give player choice in a way that structures without hindering the GM’s ability to let the world respond to them.
Social combat should ask the same questions. The purpose of social combat is not to seek an end result but rather to ask questions about a known end. Who will the players owe a favor to? How many different weaknesses of their enemy did they uncover? How many of their own weaknesses did they reveal in the process? Starting a social scene by trying to determine the player’s next course of action is like rolling initiative before knowing if there is even a monster in the room. L5R even pushes players towards this end by having players decide beforehand what their goal in the scene is. Both social and martial combat aims to answer how and if players are successful, not what players are successful in doing.
2) Breaking Plot Armor
Asking the incorrect questions in social combat leads this to become a tool to take control of characters out of the GM’s hand. The main reason why physical combat is so mechanical is that the GM doesn’t govern the physics of the world, just people in it. In many social situations, player success is determined by the people in the world, not the world itself and it’s mechanics. NPC’s can choose to be unreasonable but they can’t always choose not to be on fire. The more interesting parts of roleplaying are watching players decide what kind of deals to make and what kind of solutions to take. Any social combat should support this goal while still leaving its questions open ended. Social combat needs to be more than rolling to see how a character reacts to something said to them. Players should be asked to problem solve not simply to construct what they are saying.
3) Social Battlefields
Of course, the tools that we can use in our systems are only as good as the setting that we put them in. One game that does this well is another one of my favorite roleplaying games, Urban Shadows. The heavy focus on political factions, not individuals, is what makes this stand out to me as opposed to the L5R intrigue system. Urban Shadows continually focuses on the setting as the true main character of the story. The landscape of a game of Urban Shadows sets a political battleground that presents players with multiple options. Social combat often wants to track how successful you are at convincing a political leader to assist you without accounting for options to go around them like working with that political leader’s enemies. Players need to be given the space to choose which characters they want to work with.
L5R’s equivalent “battlefield” needs to present the players with more options than the standard “what do you say to the one person I told you to talk to”. This is why these systems work better when the subject matter involves vying for political control. L5R’s intrigue system has a scope that is a bit too small. Focusing on individuals rather than groups and individuals’ roles within those groups. L5R and several systems have the capability of this but don’t give the necessary backdrop often enough to support it. Focusing on this bigger picture gives the players more options to attack a problem without being overly restrictive with rules.
More codified social conflict rules can give a game system a lot of strength, however I feel like they can be really hard to use. It’s harder to set a stage where talking your way out is actually the correct answer. However, a lot of my most memorable sessions don’t revolve around a large combat encounter. Rather, they are centered on my players coming up with unique manipulations of the characters in the story. A lot of the community inherently associates story heavy systems with rules light systems. This leaves ideas for mechanically heavy story-driven games unexplored. I believe that the correct implementation of this kind of system could make a really unique and interesting system that we are currently missing out on.
Bo Quel is a Legend of the Five Rings Fanatic From Virginia. He plays and GMs several systems where he focuses on telling enriching stories and making characters that are memorable. He also is the GM/Host of Secondhand Strife, an L5R RPG actual Play Podcast.
Picture provided by the writer.
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