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.
7 Challenges Of Social Events
Barak thumbed the edge of his axe as he listened to his companion drone on about the intrigues of court. Prince Kheldar was a master of political schemes, but Barak would have none of it. Give him a good honest fight any day.
“Get to the point!” he snarled. “Did you talk to your aunt about the Bear Cult?”
Kheldar nodded. “You aren’t going to like it.”
“She won’t help?!” Barak was incredulous.
“Oh no, she’s fine with it. We can get the information we need...if we all come to dinner tonight.”
One of the ancestors of the D&D game is the writings of H. Rider Haggard, whose barbarian protagonists solved problems in Gordian fashion. There can be a refreshing clarity to quick violence, but domains like Richemulot, Borca, and Dementlieu are expected to have courtly intrigues, and Nova Vaasa and Darkon are no strangers to social schemes. If you’re looking for a challenge that doesn’t look like a battlefield, consider a formal social event. Whether a private dinner party or a public auction, a social event can have all the thrill of slaying a dragon, if you focus on these seven major challenges. For the first six, it’s easy enough to assign points for varying degrees of success and total them up at the end. The seventh requires a little more scorekeeping, but it’s all worth it to hear a player yell that their insult landed a critical hit.
1) Pleased To Meet You
It’s normal for adventurers to brag about their exploits, but few cultures view brave deeds as the first thing they want to know about you, and many consider it gauche for you to tell the tales yourself. You’ll need to know if formal introductions are based on noble titles, academic degrees, lineage, birth sign, or something else. If you rank below your peers on this yardstick, it’s usually best to admit so up front with a little modesty and wait for an opportunity to speak about your deeds. A good host may give you an opportunity to do so immediately, or a respected member of the group might step in when you are forced to be modest.
2) A Token Of Esteem
Depending upon the occasion, formal gift giving may be expected. If not, it pays to know how a small unexpected token would be received. Whether you’re giving, receiving, or exchanging, gifts represent status, and the subtext underneath a particular choice may have many layers. In the real world, a single birthday gift of Cuban cigars, for example, might snub other gift-givers by the price tag, beard the authorities by being contraband, and bear a secret reminder of a lost weekend in Cuba. On other occasions, gifts can scream rather than whisper. A powerful figure who knows her rival intends to publicly shame her with a priceless gift at their next meeting may hire outsiders to steal it, or to find something worthy of exchange.
3) Clothes Make The Man
In all but the most barbaric of societies, social gatherings call for clean clothes, but that’s just the beginning. Clothes indicate status as much as gifts, and following the latest trends in fashion--or deliberately setting your own--involves a significant amount of time and attention. Even the smallest accessories can speak volumes, and usually do: social movements often identify themselves by a pin, badge, or ribbon showing you support the cause. Even without such explicit accessories, adept socialites can convey subtle messages in the choice of a hat or lapel pin. Reading the messages in a person’s clothing may grant a bonus towards influencing them, or at least eliminate the faux pas of asking where someone stands on a matter when they are literally wearing their sympathies on their sleeve.
4) Soup Or Salad?
You can generally judge how challenging a dinner party is going to be by the number of courses. Each course has a specific set of expected behaviors: utensils to use, bites to take, how to speak, etc. To know how to behave, a PC can either rely on their knowledge of nobility, or just watch other people carefully and do what they do. Prepping ahead of time can grant a bonus to either of these rolls. Failure, however, means an error that the character must mitigate diplomatically to avoid diminishing their status in the eyes of those present.
5) Small Talk: The Smaller The Better
Career adventurers will get the reputation of being crass and insensitive unless they learn to avoid “shop talk” around people who don’t engage in regular mortal combat. The weather may be a boring topic, but it’s a safe one: it’s slightly different every day and no one can be blamed for it. Topics with equally high variety and low sensitivity might include crop expectations, the latest opera or public games, and how fast children grow. Middling territory for small talk would be things like popular books and what people do for a living. If someone at the table brings up politics or religion, that doesn’t make it open season. You’ll usually score more points by steering the conversation back into safe waters than you will by joining in on boorish behavior.
6) Double Your Speak, Double Your Fun
It’s rude to have prolonged side conversations at the table, so folks who want to go beyond small talk had better get good at hidden meanings. Know your default values to exchange innuendo, and consider establishing code words and phrases ahead of time to grant a bonus to these checks. The Message spell is also useful for unobtrusive speech, but the whispers it employs can be overheard. Try covering your mouth with a napkin, or whisper while pretending to take a sip of wine. Once away from the dinner table you may be able to talk more freely with your target, but only if you have an excuse to meet together. Even the most casual meetings can become fodder for gossip, especially across political lines or between sexes, especially in societies that have strict gender roles.
7) Casual Debate
Small talk is intended to avoid arguments, but some settings actually call for something more spirited. To engage in a casual debate is perhaps the closest thing to social combat, and I highly recommend the use of some kind of reputation point system so players can actually feel the progress of the fight. For example, you can extrapolate the “hit points” and AC of each person’s argument from their related skills and abilities, and let people take aim at an argument using various social skills in place of an attack roll. Everyone should have a role to play, but those roles are often reversed from traditional combat: if a previous support character like a bard is suddenly the front-line fighter, allow the mighty thewed barbarian with minimal social graces to support the bard by laughing at jokes and glaring at the opponent to throw him off.
Done properly, a good social event can feel like the party went through a minefield blindfolded, followed by a pitched battle. The fact that reputations were the only casualties only complicates the matter, because losers may have long memories and yearn to settle the score. Of course, this is an adventure game, but you should have enough here to keep it from being boring even before things take a turn for the deadly. If your players enjoy it, you can discuss whether they want just the occasional change of pace or a longer detour. Who knows? Your next campaign might be set in a more socially dangerous setting. With scheming courtiers hiding behind pleasant faces, there’s hardly a need for monsters at all.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
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