Friday, March 22, 2013

Social Combats in GURPS

This post explores the use of a mechanic analogous to Diaspora's Social Combat. I like to use role playing where combat isn't the only technical way to play, and merely the extension of diplomacy by other means.  I like to offer a mechanic for players to let them use their wits to exploit. The idea of social combat is to move characters and NPCs through conceptual states to achieve an outcome, without losing all of their composure. 

Some definitions and connections to GURPS

You walk into the staff tent, needing something.

A PC named Carl walks into the staff tent, determined to divert a supply train toward an otherwise quiet frontline. Reactions rolls are made for the three main NPCs in the tent: Otto von Bismark, Helmuth von Moltke and the Prussian general staff as a whole. Bismark is annoyed at the intrusion, and so is Moltke to a lesser extent. The staff, however, remember fondly the previous evening of drinking with the PC. Here, the actors are these three entities, and the states are the reaction table's possible outcomes. In GURPS, the set would be staged and the GM would use this setup as a starting point for a role play session. The map can be drawn on the table, on a whiteboard, or on a surface like Roll20. 

Setting up the social combat

Social combat provides a mechanics to resolve social confrontations using roleplay and skill checks. Let's relabel the states to fit the situation better. The cost to move someone from one box to another is also added to the diagram.

The conceptual battle space is taking shape.

The PC needs to get Moltke (Helmuth) to send the train ASAP, and this by moving him to the rightmost state. Otto wants the PC out of the tent, and needs to get Moltke to order them out. It may be desirable to simplify the diagram further as follow:

The reject states is consolidated and the cost of entry/exit adjusted.
The PC (Carl) is added to the diagram.

The combat order will be Otto, PC (Carl), "Staff" and finally Helmuth. The GM decided that. However, as the players are bursting into the tent, they get the advantage of surprise and get one turn for free. The GM also sets the engagement to last for two full turns (not 3 seconds as in tactical combat...).

There are four actions that can be declared by the actors:
  • Move self : Used to align yourself with others by shifting your own pawn in any directions. 
    • Select a skill, narrate briefly how the skill is used, then roll. You can then shift according to your margin of success. The cost of each shift is indicated on the social map.
    • This move makes sense when a player wants to bluff an NPC to make him/her believe that you agree with them more than you really do.
  • Obstruct/clear : Propose an argument which makes one state harder/easier to get in or out. 
    • Select a skill, narrate briefly how the skills is used. A success changes the cost of one or more adjacent transition by a total up to the margin of success (two for a critical).
  • Composure Attack : Degrade another actor's ability to influence the scene. 
    • The attacker and defender select a skill and do one round of skill contest. The loser of the duel gets a -2 on all future rolls for the rest of the engagement (Lost composure). Nothing happens on a tie.
  • Move another : Sway another actor into shifting toward your direction (or away if you hare the same state). The closer the two actors are aligned, the easier the move will be.
    • Both attacker and defender select a skill and do one round of skill contest. The attacker get a -1 penalty for each state separating the two actors.  If the attacker wins, the defender is shifted toward the attacker up to a cost equal to the margin of success. If the attacker loses, he suffers the effect of losing a composure attack (-2 on all future rolls). 
Subsequent use of the same skill is done at a cumulative -2 penalty. 

Example of Social Combat

Carl the PC decides to declare an Obsure/Clear action to decrease the cost of exiting the reject state toward his position. He uses his skill in History-13 to invoke the immortal words of Clausewitz about the willingness to fight and the need to supply the alternate front. He rolls a 10 and gets a +3 margin. Carl adjust the cost of exiting to the right of the reject state by 1, and reduces the cost to the right by 2. The social map now looks like this:

Getting Helmuth to expel the out of the tent will now be more difficult. 

Otto is kind-of pissed by this intrusion. He wants Carl out of the tent. He declares a Move Other action one Helmuth. There is no distance penalty as both are in the same state. Otto will use his Leadership-16 against Helmuth's Leadership-15. Otto rolls a 13 (+3 margin), Helmuth rolls a 11 (+4). Helmuth wins by 1; the attacker loses composure and now suffers -2 for the rest of the engagement. Otto just learned the hard way that we don't tell a Field Marshal what to do while he is in his own tent.

The Staff believes that the plan merit a second look and attempts to sway Moltke to consider the plan. They call a Move Another action with their combined Strategy-15 (13 because of the distance of 1 state). Moltke opposes with his Leadership-15, adjusted to Leadership-13 because he last used this skill. A mistake, but hey, I want to show a range of situations in this example. The staff rolls  8 (+5), Moltke roll 10 (+3). The staff has enough margin to shift Moltke to the right. The map now looks like this:

Helmuth's leadership was overcome by the sound strategic thinking of the

Helmuth can now act. He now believes that the proposal is worth considering, thanks to the ghost of Clausewitz. He calls a Composure Attack on Otto: Moltke won't take advice from Otto on matter of operations anymore. Helmuth uses his Strategy-18 against Otto's nasty Intimidation-16 (down to 14 because of the lost composure). Helmuth rolls 12 (+6) while Otto rolls 8 (+5). Otto get another -2 penalty: his intimidation looked foolish against Helmuth's sound reasoning. He now gets a -4 to all rolls from now on. 

Otto is diminished, he sees Carl as a threat to his masterplan. He begs to not make any sudden decisions due to the political consequence of cutting off the main front. He cuts his loss and calls an obstruct action on "will reconsider". He uses Politics-17, adjusted to 13 due to the loss in composure. He rolls 11, a margin of 2 that he applies to the transition between "will reconsider" to "Send tomorrow". The map now looks like this:

Otto's political considerations are blocking Helmuth from jumping to

Carl has his last chance to sway the old "Blood and Iron". He desperately calls a Move Other on Moltke with his Fast-Talk-14 while Moltke sticks to his Strategy-18 (down to 16 because he last used is). Carl rolls 7 (+7) while Moltke rolls 8 (+8).  Carl can't win against the Field Marshall with a string of cheap puns. Carl is now penalized by -2 for a loss of composure. 

The Staff consolidates the "will reconsider" by calling an obstruct action using their Strategy-15 (down to 13 because it was last used). They roll 5 (+8). They add 4 on either side of their box. The new social map looks like this:

The Staff has locked Moltke into their happy place, with both Carl and
Otto down in composure, this engagement is all but over.

We could continue this example, but Carl should realize that the odds of moving Moltke through a faster decision is likely to cost him further composure. Let's call it a day. The blow back of this encounter is as follow:
  1. Moltke will consider the proposal and make a decision in the coming days, not before tomorrow.
  2. Otto von Bismark has lost face, he really dislike Carl from now on, and is angry at Helmuth and his staff. 
  3. Carl is seen as having overstepped his place by making vacuous arguments against the Field Marshal. This will reflect in future encounter with the General Staff, but Carl can claim a marginal victory.

Beyond this example

  1. A social map doesn't have to be a line: it can reticulate into a number of possible outcomes. It can form a web! 
  2. Not all actors may get a turn, or they may pass when appropriate.
  3. Some states may be associated to physical spaces. Obstructing a physical space may be done using entertaining strategies to stigmatize or paralyze a state. An example is to engaging on a long an boring anecdote using Acting or Fast-talk to prevent other people in the state from acting in this turn. 


I have played a few social combat in Diaspora. I love the idea of mixing good roleplay and combat in a different arena than weapons and armor. The key is for the GM to abstract the combat into a social map, and for the players to use well their non-combat skills to smite the opposition with all their might.

The original rules on social combat can be found here.


  1. Fascinating. When I first heard about GURPS Social Engineering, I thought something like this would be the basis of the product—a set of game mechanics akin to combat for social engineering. I'd love to see this fleshed out more and playtested.

    1. I'm throwing the idea out. Unless my players decide to plow through the next episode of the campaign, there will be some playtesting for this. Making good social maps is both the key, and one of the fun part.

    2. I like this method and the visualization. I find the visualization will help the PC understand their objectives much better.

    3. Agreed, it doesn't have to be complicated. And even the slower roleplayers get to have a good understanding and a say on what otherwise tends to fly fast between 1-2 players and the GM.

  2. Interesting. I may give this a spin the next time my players are in an appropriate situation. I would be interested to see what you have in mind for modifiers for using a skill that doesn't quite match the situation, such as using Politics in a scientific discussion.

    I'm afraid I can't make the numbers in your drawings add up, though. In the first round, you say "Carl adjust the cost of exiting to the right of the reject state by 3," but the number goes from 4 to 2, while on the other side of the "Reject Plan" state it goes up by 1. Later, when the staff make an Obstruct action, you say they add 4 on either side of the "Will Reconsider" box, but on the left the value goes from 2 to 8.

    1. Hi Chris, I'd say that a Political argument made in a scientific discussion, if the target is a scientist would be very unfavourable (-2), while it could be simply unfavorable to others (-1). I like to use the terms the task difficulty to come up with modifiers (p.B345-346). If the link is tenuous, increase the penalty. More interestingly, create a state where the link between Politics and science is established and let the players try to drag the discussion down THAT road. The social map is plastic, keep the markers on the table just in case.

      Social combats are much better when done as teams, with some interfering while others are trying to achieve the group's goal. I just wanted to keep the example short (enough).

      My numbers were off, and they are fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. I think this is brilliant. Thanks for this post. I will definitely be trying out something like this in future games.

    1. You are welcome. I'm thinking about posting another example where there are physical zones and more than one branch. So much can be done without making things too complex.

  4. How does using Influence Skills differ than using normal skills? For example, my character has Charisma which give him +1 to several relavent skills as opposed to using normal skill levels.

    1. I think that the Charisma bonus applies for these selected skills, or if you can argue that it should. It's kind of like having Magery 1, but for social skills. Does this answers your questions?

    2. well if the Charisma bonus counts for these skill in these instances, which i would see as being influence related tasks, then im good! thats why i took the charisma, to influence people and make friends, you know!