Friday, August 15, 2014

System Shock - Social Combat

Paizo's Social Combat cards for Pathfinder.
Paizo recently released their Social Combat card deck, featuring a quick and handy way to develop social encounters as something more than a single die roll. These cards are modeled after their Chase Card deck and present an interesting spin on social situations in Pathfinder. Today's System Shock article addresses my own interpretation of that very idea, a rules mechanic I've been tinkering with off and on for the last few years.

Originally developed long before the Pathfinder RPG was in production, my initial version of Social Combat wasn't too far removed from what you'll see below. However, some of the principals have been streamlined and molded to fit with Pathfinder's normal combat mechanics. The most important takeaway regarding today's article is that it isn't perfect—not even close. Social combat is a pet project of mine that may not ever really be 100%, it requires more testing than I and my own group alone can do, but my passion for developing a sub-system that takes the ideas of Diplomacy and Intimidate checks to a new level needed to be shared with the world, even if it might not be perfectly ready for prime time.

Maybe somewhere down the line, years from now, I'll have the time to fully develop this system into something more robust, or maybe a fan who reads this article will take the rules for social combat and develop something amazing in a direction I'd never have imagined. That's part of the beauty of 3rd-party publishing and the Open Gaming License—you develop a skeleton and others will put meat on its bones (or tell you the skeleton is broken!)

Let me know what you think of Social Combat in the comments section, or discuss it on the Encounter Table's Facebook page!

“So you see, Empress, were you to grant to my province all of this year’s collected taxes, it would benefit our nation as a whole. The gilding on my provincial palace would most assuredly raise the spirits of the people, and motivate them to work harder, yes?” Saki O-Na waved his feathered fan to one side as he gestured to the Empress’s court, staring up towards the enthroned sovereign. “The people will manage without levees for the autumn rain, and those lands washed out by the flooding can be taken in place of taxes by the empire and used to build new statues in honor of your greatness, my liege.”

The Empress of Pleasant Rains leaned forward in her jade throne, nearly swayed by the selfish wishes of Saki O-Na, one of Minkai’s many provincial lords. The Empress closed her eyes, listening to the impassioned speech, then rose from her throne, slammed the butt of her ebony staff against the marble floor. The sound rang out through the palace and all eyes were on her regal figure. “Saki O-Na!” The Empress' voice boomed in the hall, “You speak with the silver tongue of celestials and your words have convinced many of my advisers to trust you.” The Empress descended the steps from her throne, and Saki O-Na dropped to his knees, bowing his head before her.

“I am most honored, Empress.” His eyes diverted, Saki O-Na did not see the Empress’s close approach, or the baleful look that crossed on her face.

“However,” That single word carried with it the same gravity that the sound of an unsheathed sword might, “I find that you have also enlightened me to the corruption and greed running through my advisory and through my extended government.” Saki O-Na raised his head to look up at the Empress in shock, surely he had swayed the mighty Sovereign. “You are a despicable and deplorable, self-serving maggot who does not deserve to raise eyes to the Empress of Minkai!” With that, the provincial lord found the royal staff of Minkai smashed down atop his head so hard his chin slammed down to the marble floor.

“E-Empress I—“

“You will silence that forked tongue!” The Empress’s voice boomed in the hall as she slammed her staff down again, this time on the floor beside Saki O-Na’s head and shattered the marble tile as a show of strength that went beyond mere words. “I am a merciful woman. In such mercy I will allow you to leave my court after such foolish words. But, you will carry word back to your province! From this day forward, the position of provincial lords is hereby dissolved! A new local government will be appointed by the people and I will no longer bear your insolence and evil in my court!”

The court officials murmured among each other in shock, but the Empress soon turned her baleful gaze upon them, “And for you dishonorable vermin, I hereby dissolve the council of advisers, which shall be replaced by a local governance appointed by the people of Minkai. I grow tired of your ways, of the deception and under-handed dealings! Those who wish to question my authority shall direct their questions to the gods themselves!” The Empress raised her staff high into the air, the four steel rings hanging from the iron falcon at the top of the staff jingled. “Now leave my sight, and if any of you have an ounce of honor left, I recommend you take it with you to the spire before this day passes.”
-The Empress of Pleasant Rain’s dissolution of the Minkan provincial lords and the imperial cabinet.


Some times, boiling down a tense negotiation into a single Diplomacy or Intimidate check can feel lackluster. Imagine if the inverse were true and a daring swordfight with a long-time nemesis was arbitrated with a single attack roll. That dichotomy is what inspired the concept of social combat, a round-by-round system of verbal jabs, retorts, and rebuttals designed to emulate the feeling of a back and forth conversation. Be it a heated debate with a merchant over the price of essential gear to a forked-tongue advisor attempting to sway the opinion of a powerful lord, social combat should evoke the same pumped-fists of victory and groans of defeat as normal combat.

Now, none of this means that every single attempt to sway farmer Joe into giving the group directions should involve a detailed diplomatic engagement. Social combat is best used when reserved for significant moments or important negotiations where there are determinable stakes. With the below rues, you can even blend social and normal combat together and emulate iconic duels where master and student fight on both a martial level and a mental level, trying to outwit one another and push their points of contention as much as their more steely points.


The basics of social combat are nearly identical to a combat encounter, and use many of the same mechanics. In fact it is entirely possible to perform both a diplomatic encounter and a combat encounter at the same time, such as a situation where characters alternate between attempts at imploring an opponent to stand down and defending themselves.

Every action in a social combat makes use of the Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, or Sense Motive skills to varying degrees to create different advantages in the encounter. This is similar to a fighter utilizing combat maneuvers like Disarm, Sunder, Trip, and Bull Rush in combat to provide different tactical options. While simply hacking away at an enemy with melee attacks every round may suffice, some crafty opponents may require more finesse.

Every character engaged in a social combat has a Resolve score, this is similar to a character’s hit-points in melee combat, and is an number representing the character’s willpower and tenacity to continue an argument as well as their ability to continue to find ways to negotiate and verbally maneuver.

A character’s Resolve score is equal to 10 + the characters Will save modifier. This represents a number of resolve points that can be damaged by successful verbal attacks or negotiation tricks in a social combat. When a character’s Resolve reaches 0, he is unable to continue participating in the social combat, just as a character who is knocked unconscious can no longer participate in battle. Special feats and abilities listed below augment a character's ability to recover resolve and resist resolve damage.

A character's Resolve score does not naturally recover lost points until after 1 hour outside of social combat. After 1 hour outside of social combat Resolve recovers at a rate of 1 point per minute. Effects that reduce Will saves or Wisdom also reduce resolve accordingly, just as effects that damage Constitution reduce hit points in normal combat.

The goal in social combat is to drop your opponent's Resolve to 0, ending the encounter and allowing your opponent's attitude to be permanently adjusted.

Social combat is resolved in a round-by-round basis much like normal combat. To begin a social combat encounter the side attempting to present an argument usually begins first.Though GMs can also have each participant roll initiative as normal as well. This is most preferable when interjecting social combat into regular combat.

Every round in social combat represents a roughly six-second slice of an argument or discussion; a single line or presentation or idea. GMs are recommended to play loose with the time constraints for dialogue, but six seconds is the rough establishment of time allowed for game mechanic use, making social combat equivalent to normal combat for ease of play.

Attacking and Damage
When a character engages in social combat they must make either a Diplomacy or an Intimidate check (depending on how they wish to influence the parties at hand) against the target's Social Maneuver Defense (SMD). A character's Social Maneuver Defense is calculated as follows:

15 + Attitude modifier + Charisma modifier

This is roughly analogous to an combat maneuver check against an opponent’s Combat Maneuver Defense. Making a Diplomacy or Intimidate check in this fashion is a standard action.

When a character successfully hits a target's SMD, they inflict 1d4 points of damage to the target's Resolve, plus additional damage equal to the attacker's Charisma modifier (or less damage, with a Charisma penalty). Unlike when normally using skills a roll of a natural 1 is always a failure (and provokes a rebuttal; see below) and a roll of a natural 20 is always a success in social combat. Additionally, when you roll a natural 20 on a Diplomacy or Intimidate check against a target's SMD you have made a critical threat and may roll the check again with the same modifiers, succeeding to hit the target's SMD a second time confirms a critical hit to Resolve, inflicting double damage.

A character’s attitude represents their initial attitude at the beginning of social combat and their continuing stance as combat progresses. A character may switch their attitude one step away from their current attitude as a free action each round on their turn. A character's attitude does not reflect their final overall attitude towards an opponent, but rather the manner in which they conduct themselves during social combat. Attitude effects how easy it is to inflict damage to resolve and how a character's skills effect a target. Most NPCs begin with an attitude of indifferent, but it is up to the GM to determine an NPCs starting attitude.

Hostile (SMD +10, Diplomacy -10, Intimidate +10): A hostile character will go out of his way to make life difficult for the PC, even so much as taking risks in order to berate, physically harm, or otherwise inconvenience the character. Hostility in social combat represents extreme resistance to an opponent's position or ideas and speaking in harsh, hostile tones or utilizing threats and insults.

Unfriendly (SMD +5, Diplomacy -5, Intimidate +5): An unfriendly NPC simply doesn't much care for the PC. They have a bias or dislike towards them, be it from untoward rumors, a poor negotiation in the past, or a racial or national bias. An unfriendly attitude in social combat comes off as resilience to change at best and standoffish at worst.

Indifferent (SMD +0, Diplomacy +0, Intimidate +0): This category of attitude is considered the socially expected level of interaction. An indifferent NPC doesn't much care either way for the PC, be it because they don’t think their conquests mean that much, or they have simply never heard of them before. Indifference is the standard attitude of social combat.

Friendly (SMD -5, Diplomacy +5, Intimidate -5): A friendly NPC is someone who for their own reasons respects, looks up to, admires, or otherwise fancies the PC. A friendly NPC will offer advice or assistance that doesn’t bring risk to them and will generally be amicable to the PC. A friendly attitude in social combat shows acceptance to new ideas or requests and a frienly, welcoming demeanor.

Helpful (SMD -10, Diplomacy +10, Intimidate -10): The most positive reaction a PC can hope to get from an NPC. Helpful NPCs represent a person willing to offer help to the PC with possible risk to themselves; be it physical, monetary or otherwise. A helpful attitude in social combat represents a level of trust and acceptance and a lowering of one's guard as well as a genial and understanding attitude.


Other actions are available instead of damaging an opponent's resolve, detailed below.

After successfully hitting a target’s SMD, you may attempt to use clever wording to misdirect the target from your true motives in order to leave them open your next Suggestion or Rebuttal. Make a Bluff check as a swift action opposed by the NPCs Sense Motive. If you succeed, the target is considered distracted and takes a –2 penalty on his next Diplomacy or Intimidate check and loses any benefit from allies using the Aid Another option on his Diplomacy check for that round.

If you fail, the target sees through your ruse and becomes more distrusting of you, gaining a +2 bonus on his SMD for 1 round and a +2 bonus on all Sense Motive checks made against you for the remainder of the encounter.

Disarming Statement
After successfully hitting an target’s SMD you may attempt to destabilize the foundation of his argument, rendering him momentarily incapable of using cunning verbal tactics against you. As a swift action you may perform a Diplomacy or Intimidate check against the target's Sense Motive check. If you succeed the target is gains the baffled condition for 1 round.

If you fail, the target gains a boost of confidence, granting him a +2 bonus to Intimidate and Diplomacy checks for 1 round.

Verbal Trap
After successfully hitting an target’s SMD, you may attempt to trip him up in his own words by creating a verbal trap, backing the target into a corner that they find difficult to navigate out of. As a swift action, you may perform a Diplomacy or Intimidate check opposed to the target’s Sense Motive.

If you succeed, the target gains the trapped condition. A character who is trapped may spend a move action to regain his bearings and remove this status, but this momentary lapse in conversation provokes a rebuttal.

Any time an opponent rolls a natural 1 on a Diplomacy or Intimidate check to hit an opponent's SMD or spends a move action to try and clear the trapped condition, that character provokes a rebuttal. A rebuttal is like an attack of opportunity, representing a glib jab at weakened defenses. A rebuttal is is a free social combat attack and a character entitled to a rebuttal makes a Diplomacy or Intimidate check against the target’s SMD as normal. The rebuttal deals Resolve damage normally or the character making the rebuttal may utilize one of the special actions such as Misdirection and Disarming Statement. A character may only make 1 rebuttal per round.

Attitude Shift
Changing an opponent's attitude requires use of the Diplomacy skill and associated social maneuvers. Performing an attitude shift is a full-round action that provokes a rebuttal. Attempting an attitude shift first requires you to make a Diplomacy or Intimidate check to hit the target’s SMD. If successful the target finds his attitude shifted one direction towards Friendly. If this check fails the target’s attitude shifts one step towards hostile.

Attitude Recovery
Attitude Recovery allows a character to regain footing by stepping back from the conversation and re-evaluating things. This action shifts the character's attitude an additional step in a single round of social combat. Recovering attitude is a full-round action that provokes a rebuttal from all opponents.

Concluding Social Combat
When all opponents in social combat are reduced to 0 resolve, the social combat ends. At the end of social combat a member of the winning side makes a final Diplomacy or Intimidate check against the current Social Maneuver Defense of an opponent. Only one character may make this check against any given target, but one character may make a final Diplomacy or Intimidate check against multiple defeated opponents. This check permanently improves the target's initial attitude towards you by one or more steps (see the Diplomacy skill.) An NPC's final attitude can never be improved more than two steps in a single social combat encounter. The standard rules for modifying an opponent's attitude with Intimidate check rather than Diplomacy apply.

Social Combat in Normal Combat
If attempting social combat when a character is threatened by nearby melee combatants all participants take a -10 penalty on Diplomacy checks made, however Intimidate checks are not affected. This penalty persists until combat has ended.


You are adept at thinking on your feat and coming up with clever rebuttals to the words of others.
Prerequisite: Int 13
Benefit: You may make a number of rebuttals in social combat equal to 1 + your Intelligence modifier.
Normal: You may only make 1 rebuttal per round in social combat.

Careful Wording
You are not likely to say the wrong thing and open yourself up to a verbal attack.
Prerequisite: Wis 13, Diplomacy or Intimidate 5 ranks
Benefit: If you roll a natural 1 on a Diplomacy or Intimidate check during social combat, you do not provoke a rebuttal in social combat.
Normal: If you roll a natural 1 on a Diplomacy or Intimidate check made to hit a target’s SMD in social combat you provoke a rebuttal.

Verbal Rebuking
You are so adept at speech that you may stun you opponents with your command of language.
Prerequisite: Cha 13, Linguistics 5 ranks
Benefit: Whenever you successfully make a Disarming Statement against an opponent you may declare that you are also making a Verbal Rebuking. If the Disarming Statement is successful the target must make a Will save with a DC equal to 10 + half your character level + your Charisma modifier or be stunned for 1 round. You may make 1 verbal rebuking per day per four character levels you possess.
Special: A bard may use two rounds of bardic performance to make an additional verbal rebuking per day.

Bolster Resolve
Your words of confidence can keep an ally from crumbling in the face of attacks against his argument.
Prerequisite: Cha 13, bardic performance, Perform (oratory) 4 ranks
Benefit: Whenever an ally takes damage to his Resolve in social combat you may use one round of bardic performance to reduce that damage by half.
Special: You may not use bolster resolve on yourself.
Special: This ability does not stack with Mental Defense when used against the same attack against a target’s resolve.

Crushing Words
You know just how to say something to give it extra impact to those who listen.
Benefit: You inflict 1d8 points of damage plus your Charisma modifier on successful attempts to damage someone’s Resolve in social combat.
Normal: You inflict 1d4 + Charisma modifier in points of damage to a characters resolve in social combat.

Improved Mental Defenses
You have an even greater ability to protect your resolve from being crushed.
Prerequisite: Base Will save +8, Mental Defenses, ki pool
Benefit: When you expend a use of your ki pool to reduce damage to your resolve you instead take no damage to your resolve.

Improved Bolster Resolve
You are a rock of stability in all heated arguments.
Prerequisite: Cha 13+, bardic music, bolster resolve, perform (oratory) 10 ranks
Benefit: Whenever you expend a round of bardic performance to reduce damage to an ally’s Resolve in social combat, you instead negate that damage.
Special: You may not use improved bolster resolve on yourself.

Mental Defenses
Special training has allowed you to ward your resolve against attacks.
Prerequisite: Base Will save +4, ki pool
Benefit: Whenever you are dealt damage to your resolve you may expend one point from your Ki pool in order to reduce the damage to your resolve by half.

You can counter a rebuttal with lightning-quick thinking.
Prerequisite: Perform (oratory) 4 ranks or Sense Motive 4 ranks
Benefit: When an opponent makes a rebuttal against you or an ally you may use an immediate action to make a Diplomacy or Intimidate check against your opponent's SMD. If you succeed they may not make a rebuttal.

Quick to Recover
You recover from being baffled, trapped or distracted with grace and poise.
Prerequisite: Wis 13, Perception 5 ranks
Benefit: When you would normally be subjected to the baffled, dazed, dazzled, or trapped conditions, you may spend an immediate action to negate that status. This also applies when an opponent attempts to use a Bluff check to distract you by creating a diversion. If you are successfully bluffed you may spend an immediate action to keep your focus on that opponent foiling his attempt to create a diversion.

Strengthen Resolve
You are not easily swayed by flowery words or threats.
Benefit: You gain 1 additional point of Resolve, +1 additional point of Resolve for every hit-dice you have over 1. This feat is retroactive, and any hit-dice you have upon taking this feat is counted into the bonus.
Normal: Your resolve is equal to double your Will save modifier.


A baffled character finds it difficult to use critical thinking suffers a -2 penalty to SMD and may not take any social combat actions.

A trapped character cannot think their way out of a situation and suffers a -2 penalty to Bluff, Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks.

Open Content: The game mechanics of this game product are Open Game Content, as defined in the Open Gaming License version 1.0a Section 1(d).


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