They say love is a battleground. I say “then why not stat up love-tanks?”
I’ve talked before about alternatives to standard combat to break up the monotony. At the same time, I know that few things bore my combat-monkey players faster than a lengthy negotiation with a semi-hostile NPC, or a complicated infiltration run that involves posing as foreign ambassadors to find out where a bomb is being placed.
“Would rather kick ass than attend dinner parties” is sort of the motto of a good half of my regular players.
But then it occurred to me that there’s very little difference between a tense negotiation / long con / Victorian dinner affair and open combat (especially the latter). So what’s to say we can’t rule them the same way?
Treat the target’s resistance to being convinced as its own HP total – a concrete measure of how hard they are to convince. Some systems already have a similar scale, but it’s typically in 4-5 large stages (things like “hostile” to “friendly”, or levels of reputation). These stages have the right idea and work great for those one-roll encounters, but they’re not quite granular enough for a sustained exchange to make the player feel like they’re gaining headway every round.
What HP value you set depends on the system you’re using to chip it away. In most systems, there’s already a binary pass/fail measure for success in these exchanges: you roll the appropriate skill against a set difficulty or the target’s appropriate stat, and if your roll is higher, they move one step closer on the hostility meter. We’re switching the model so that success leads to rolling damage, which chips away at the HP until it’s all gone and they’re agreeable to whatever the PC is suggesting.
So to determine HP, we first figure out damage.
The straightforward way is to just extending the existing scale. Instead of a 4-5 level reputation system, make it 1-10. Each success just chips away 1 HP. A 10 HP opponent is likely to take a group effort (or a very long night), whereas a 1 HP opponent already likes the PC and doesn’t take much convincing to help. It’s the same model, it’s just a little more granular to extend what’s already there.
To really give your players the feel of combat, we need to get a little more clever. Leverage the system’s built-in model for damage dealing. In D&D, you use the weapon to determine the sidedness of the die, add in bonuses for quality or enchantments, and add in the PC’s relevant stat bonus to figure out the total damage. For social encounters, the stat becomes Charisma or Intelligence instead of Strength or Dexterity. All we’re missing is the weapon.
Start at an “unarmed” value of 1d4+stat bonus. This is when a PC is just trading on faith – the “trust me, I know what I’m talking about” argument. Increase the weapon size based on any existing reputation the PC has built up. If they’re known in this region, can prove they belong to an influential organization (like the guard or the thieves’ guild), or have just done a favor to prove their worthiness, the weapon size increases by a step. If they can do multiple of these things (they’re a renowned member of the thieves’ guild who just slew a dragon for the king), the damage die gets big in a hurry.
The enchantments for the ‘weapon’ then become facts or logical arguments the PC is using to make their case more convincing. Evidence they can provide to support their claims could grant +1-5 damage, or add an extra d6, just like with ordinary weapon enchantments.
For added fun, you can treat criticals the same way you do in regular combat (even when a natural 20 on a skill check is normally just really good). Leave the crit modifier at x3 and enhance it, if you wish, with the PC’s reputation or the facts/arguments they make. Crit fails could actually add 1d6+stat bonus HP back to the target.
A similar model works for other systems. In Shadowrun, if your default damage is Light, you can use the PC’s Karma Pool as the Power of the weapon, and target’s Intelligence or Willpower serves as their Body stat for soaking damage. In Eclipse Phase, base damage can be 1d10+(SAV/10) DV, with the standard +5 DV per 30 MoS to keep things interesting, and work against the target’s Insanity Rating, with social Traumas being applied as normal.
With a system like this, you can also allow a group of PCs to gang up on a target, pooling their damage to make the negotiation go faster (and gaining bonuses for flanking or ganging up as normal). It will help quantify the negotiation process for your players who are less savvy in that area without changing the nature of it too much for your players who love a good negotiation or long con.
But, as a disclaimer, these sorts of advanced systems should be used only where appropriate. If someone is expecting a quick one-roll interaction off to the side before getting back to the meat of the session, stick with the regular rules for your system. This is only when a sizable portion of the session is going to be a social encounter that might otherwise be daunting or snooze-worthy to those who don’t already love social encounters for what they are.
Send in the love-tanks!