I’ve only played a few games that included dedicated social combat mechanics. And I’ve played even fewer that had social combat mechanics that actually seemed to work in play. Even when the mechanics made sense in themselves, the actual play irked me somehow.
There’s been a lot of theorizing about why social combat mechanisms just don’t work for some people. I think I’ve had a small insight into the underlying problem with social combat for a lot of people.
Many of us tend to view our existence as people as being a mental force enshrouded in a material body. There are, of course, many different ideas (philosophical, religious or both) about what exactly that mental force is, what the material body consists of, and what the relationship between the two is. Whether that mental force is something ultimately above the physical realm, or dragged down by it, or simply an emergent state of that physicality, a lot of us have a tendency to our bodies and our minds as very separate things. Cartesian dualism, in other words.
I know I certainly have that tendency. If you have this view of existence, it’s easy to tend towards viewing your body as just something you’re in, while your mind is who you are.
Especially if you’re playing a character who’s physically very different from you, then it’s easy to feel a huge amount of distance between your in-character body and your actual mind. Put another way, it’s very easy to play a character with a body completely different from your real body. But, on the other hand, playing a character with a completely different mentality from your own can be difficult or impossible. As the authors of Hârnmaster once noted, it’s very difficult to play someone who is fundamentally smarter or less intelligent than you are. The body of my PC may be incredibly different from my own real body — heck, I once played a character whose body was a bunch of tiny, separately-propelled metal spheres, like a wandering pile of ball bearings — but the minds of my PCs are rarely so different from my own. While I may try to model a different personality somewhat, the possibilities of modeling a different body are vastly greater.
This seems intimately tied in with the tendency of so many RPG gamers to reject social combat mechanics. Physical combat is basically physical action — actions that are not only easier for some to envision than all the subtle nuances of social conflict, and also somehow easier to accept. Suffering a physical wound to a body that isn’t actually mine seems somehow not that hard to accept. The damage is to a body that isn’t actually mine.
But accepting damage to my character’s mind — whether in the form of suffering humiliation, or of being convinced of something against my will or better judgment — is that much closer to hurting my actual mind. I think much the way my character does, therefore I am hurt when my character’s mind is.
There are a lot of other issues involved with the ill-acceptance of social combat mechanics among so many gamers, certainly. Closely related to the mind-body dualism I’ve noted above is deprotagonization. Really, deprotagonization and mind-body dualism problems may just be two sides of the same coin. If the GM throws my character in a cell, that’s only physical danger; but if they start dictating to me how my character’s imprisonment has changed my thought patterns, the seat of control for my character is no longer my own.
Another big problem for social combat mechanics is the social contract. If we play a game with social combat mechanics, we have to agree, rather explicitly, that we’re going to allow our PCs’ heads to be messed with. And because the damage seems that much more real, and that much more personal, the damage our characters suffer from social combat has to feel equal, or at least fair, much more than it does with physical combat. If we all agree that our PCs can be (for example) gaslit, and then somehow only I suffer gaslighting, then it feels like I’ve been doubly gaslit. If we all agree that our characters can be enticed to fall in love with each other, but then only your character actually gets charmed to do so and I just wave it away as ‘well, my character would never do that’ — then the social contract has, I think, been quietly but deeply broken, and in a way that hurts more deeply than in my character just suffered more damage in physical combat.
There are also the ways that social combat in games doesn’t model actual social conflict well… Physical combat, for all its feints and tumbles and jabs, contains only a fraction of the back-stabbing, frenemy action, curiosity probes and wheels within wheels that true social conflict can have. It’s all too easy for an RPG’s social combat system to ring hollow. And for many of us nerdy folks, social interactions can be not just a minefield, but a multi-dimensional, constantly-evolving mine-nebula, that makes social combat mechanics seem like too complex a thing to ever try modeling in a game with a die roll.
So there are a lot of factors that contribute to many folks’ hostility to social combat mechanics. I’m sure there are others I haven’t listed here. But I think it’s a useful insight that a big chunk of it may be due to Cartesian dualism.
It seems like the one game in which more than a few people enjoy social combat mechanics is Call of Cthulhu, with its Sanity mechanic. I’ve had people squee with joy when their character goes insane. Of course, the game has a very explicit social contract that: “prolonged contact with Mythos entities – and sometimes even one contact – is likely to drive your character insane.” Interestingly, of course, social combat with a Mythos entitity tends to be about as asymmetric as social combat gets.
Sanity in CoC seems to have some elements of generalized social combat, while lacking others… It’s very mono-dimensional, for one thing. “Lose 1d10 SAN” without much way to employ tactics or whatever.
Yet the critical part is very much Cartesian dualism, so it’s an interesting system to consider with this framing!
As you said, CoC also has the (usually very) explicit assumption that characters may go insane. Higher acceptance of (and even glee towards) that certainly makes it feel less intrusive, or less explicitly like a loss of control, anyway.
Also, from my (very limited) experience with the game, that insanity often gets a curtain drawn across it: “Okay, your character goes to spend a month in an asylum. Regain 1d8 SAN.” So there’s loss of mental control, but it somehow doesn’t feel as intrusive.
Interesting in our Achtung! Cthluhu campaign, one player character lost quite a bit of SAN (aka the Savage Worlds equivalent for A!C) without going insane. But the PLAYER was clearly shaken by how quickly that happened. So even there, the loss of SAN can be an unpleasant form of deprotagonization, especially when it occurs so early in a campaign.