Social combat and Cartesian dualism

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.

Image of Golden Boddhisattva characterEspecially 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 save by a roll or

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.

Pre-gen PCs 2: Kathalla the Theologian

This is another of the pre-gen characters from my Medieval Mountain Monastery Mystery scenario.

Kathalla is not from Morensia, the main culture where the adventure is set; instead, she’s from a nearby kingdom that is, arguably, more advanced than the main culture. However, she practices the religion of the main culture, so she’s a sort of minority within a minority within a minority. Like a lot of religious practicioners from enclaves, she knows the religion better than those who practice the religion in the comfort of a majority setting. The combination of being more religiously knowledgeable and in some ways more culturally sophisticated than the people she lives among, yet inextricably linked to their culture, has given her a wry sense of humor and a critical eye. People have had a great amount of fun with this character.

Kathalla the Theologian

Wringing more from rumors

One thing I’ve noticed from using rumors: players never want to treat them as just rumors. Instead, it feels like every scrap of information, no matter how small or large, demands immediate follow-up questions. Players often want to question whoever gave them the rumor for further information. That’s reasonable, really. If someone mentions to you in passing that they heard there’s going to be an attack on the town tonight, you don’t just wish them a good day and take your leave!

Sometimes the source has faded away...Also, those scraps of information are an example of things that get reified. Whatever gets mentioned in the game is what becomes important for that game, so it’s natural that an important-seeming sliver of information would be something the players would seize on as an opportunity, or at least as worth following up on.

But the thing is, information is often fragmentary. Sometimes, there really isn’t any more to a rumor. Sometimes, there are no leads to follow. Is it possible to make those interesting alleys meet satisfying dead ends? Here are some possibilities:

  1. “I was drunk when I heard it. Sorry.”
  2. “Oh, crap, I shouldn’t even have said that much. The boss has been on my case for talking too much to the customers. Sorry.”
  3. “I overheard it from someone else in the marketplace. They were a merchant with a funny accent. I think they’ve left town now, sorry.”
  4. “I think I heard it from my cousin. Or was it my aunt’s awful neighbor? I always get them confused. They’re both really quite horrible people. Let me tell you all the ways they’ve ignored my advice over the years…”
  5. “I heard it in the temple. You know, the one that echoes? I was trying to chant my prayers, so I didn’t pay attention to who said it or where.”
  6. “Yeah, I thought it was an odd thing for a thief to say, too. But I couldn’t argue, considering they were holding a knife on me at the time. I just glad I survived.”
  7. “No, no, Zadras has said enough. Zadras always bores everyone around with this nonsense. Zadras has gone too long without a good silence. Zadras will now be silent for a nice long time. Yes, silence. Silence is good for Zadras.”
  8. “Details? You want details? Everyone knows this. And no one knows any more. You might as well ask me why cats don’t bark, or why trees grow up instead of down.”
  9. “Someone whispered it to me while I was half-asleep. I’m pretty sure I heard them right, anyway.”
  10. “Sorry, I don’t even remember who I heard it from.”
  11. You didn’t actually hear the rumor — it was sloppily written on a scrap of parchment that you found on the street.
  12. The person you thought you heard say it has already vanished into the crowd.

Some of those, in and of themselves, suggest adventurous possibilities… Even if the rumor can’t be followed up on, maybe the reasons why it can’t be can lead in interesting directions.

New Traits for Blade & Crown: Happy

Another classic personality trait that makes a good Trait:


You are generally happy. Most of the time, you enjoy yourself. You usually seem to have a smile on your face, and your expression matches your feelings.

Other people might take you less seriously, or believe you to be a fool. (People who are Sardonic or Serious, especially, might be prone to this.) You might respond inappropriately to distressing news or serious counsel.

But your bubbly demeanor can help forge deeper bonds of friendship, and help buoy yourself and others in times of crisis. It may make you hard to perturb, or to sadden.

Clickable Hârn map

Columbia Games, one of the two publishers of Hârn materials, has uploaded a clickable, Google Maps-style map of the island of Hârn. It includes a huge amount of information as pop-ups on the map.

I once got to see one of the amazing multi-layered PDFs of the island that they sell, with layers for languages, wind currents, historical borders, etc. This is not that. But that PDF was a thing they sold, and this link contains a really remarkable amount of information — nearly everything that’s in the original gazetteer, I think. Very worth checking out.

Reviewing campaign notes

Since the last time I collected my current Blade & Crown campaign notes into a PDF, they have (of course) only grown. I recently completed a re-read of them. It was very instructive, as well as fun.

Illustration of a bookThis time, I didn’t bother to reformat or typeset the document, so the PDF was 82 pages long. 82 pages! And that’s with very terse text. Again, it’s easy to imagine that writing it out in more descriptive prose could be a full novel, or series of novels.

As I was going, I kept another document of notes on it. I ended up creating a high-level summary of the general course of things. Which NPCs are doing what? What’s been happening off-stage as the PCs have been having all their adventures?

The summary document ended up being three pages long, again with pretty dense text. I feel like I need a summary of the summary!

But writing it up really got the creativity going. I easily came up with a list of a dozen ideas for future campaign events. Either threads that were already dangling and unresolved, or possible side-events that might find their way into the spotlight in interesting ways. Over the course of the campaign, I’ve often managed to find interesting third ways for events to go. These third ways often suggest interesting side-stories: “Wait, Baroness Sermae did it that way? When the obvious course of action would’ve been to do A, or at least B? She did C? Huh, there must be a story behind that…” Those back-stories automatically just naturally produce interesting game happenings.

A campaign that runs multiple years ends up laboring under a lot of history. But much of that labor is in the form of planting campaign seeds for future happenings.

A Hugo for Naomi!

I don’t talk too much about fiction here, and I don’t talk much about awards, either. But I have to mention this year’s Hugo for Best Short Story. The story that won was “Cat Pictures Please,” which might seem at first to be cute and light, but which is also about whether treating people according to the Golden Rule is possible, and several other quite deep ethical issues. It’s a great story. Go read it.

The author, Naomi Kritzer, is a friend of mine, and I’m incredibly happy that she is getting this much-deserved attention and praise. Check out her other short fiction, her novels, and her nonfiction writing.

Finding third ways

Joss Whedon has had a lot of influence on geeky storytelling, I think. Not just with his particular cleverness with dialogue, or in his original (though in their own way trope-laden) characterizations. The way I’m thinking of is in how he finds interesting, genuinely surprising, but yet somehow logical, directions for stories to go.

It’s hard to give a concise example of how he does this with plot, so I’m going to use this famous line of dialogue to illustrate it instead:

My days of taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.Mal Reynolds, Firefly

The quotes illustrates nicely how Whedon finds original, surprising, yet logical ways of doing things. The first way this line could’ve gone — the obvious way — would be for Mal to say “…are coming to an end”. That is the standard way that the idiom runs, and you’ve probably heard close variations on it thousands of times.

A protractorA lot of writers would turn the idiom on its head, in an almost-predictably contradictory way, by having Mal instead say “…are just starting” or perhaps “…are coming to a beginning”. This kind of deliberate 180° contradiction is what I call the second way. For almost any situation, if there’s an obvious way it could go, there’s a directly contradictory way it could go. The PCs are expecting an ambush from the left-hand corridor, so the ambush comes from… the right-side corridor! Ha-hah! The players logically surmised that the monster was susceptible to fire, and the mage prepared Fireball, so it turns out to be a monster that’s immune to fire! Ha-hah!

The problem with the second way is that it often feels somewhat reactionary. The line of thought seems to be, ‘Whatever the players are expecting, give them the exact opposite!’ I think I’ve seen this happen in games, and while it can surprising in its way, it also seems to breed some resentment in the players. If you feel that, whatever you predict, you’ll get the opposite, then it’s easy to feel like your efforts to suss things out are not only wasted, but unfairly turned against you.

This is why it’s important to try instead for a third way. A third way should lie somewhere between the obvious and its exact opposite. It should pretty much make sense, but in a still surprising way.

It’s important that the third way is not something totally wacky or pointlessly bizarre. If Mal had said “…are coming to a very thin, flightless point”, no one would’ve found it clever; we’d have just found it uncomfortably weird or poorly written. (And indeed, many scriptwriters who try to imitate Whedon’s style end up coming off this way). Clever lines, and clever plots, find a way to almost reward the players for speculating on where things are, yet still finding a way to surprise and even delight them.

If the first way is 0° and the second is 180°, then the third way usually lies somewhere in between them on protractor. The ambush comes not from the left or right, but from above (“They’re in the ceiling!”). The monster is susceptible to fire, but only because it is riddled with a disease that relies on making its host die in flames to spread to its next host.

Of course, the trick with finding a third way is that it takes more thought than either the first way or the second. But once you get into practice, you can easily think of alternate, interesting-yet-logical ways of handling most situations. It’s not always easy to come up with third ways, and indeed getting good at it can just lead to falling into wholly different ruts. Nonetheless, aiming for a third way, in my experience, makes gaming richer and more fun for all concerned.

Warehouse 23 basement

Don’t look now*, but SJG’s Warehouse 23 basement is back. All sorts of weird objects, many hilarious, many slightly creepy, many just kind of head-scratchingly incomprehensible. My favorite continues to be the 1:1 scale map of North America. Potentially good inspiration if you need something weird and mostly useless for PCs to discover.

* although maybe now would be okay

B&C via net

Since my move to Taiwan, my monthly Blade & Crown group has continued pretty much unabated. Our group is now pretty widely scattered. Most of the players are in the Twin Cities, but one is in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m of course on the other side of the Pacific.

  • The quality of microphones and speakers, unfortunately, matters. We’ve had some sound issues for one player, and it seems largely to do with the sound equipment involved, on both ends. Moving to computer-moderated play can mean you have to sink a little money into a high-quality headset or speakerphone. It’s also Really Nice to have a nice, wide monitor, so I can see everyone clearly in one window while I keep the campaign wiki open in another window.
  • So, unfortunately, does bandwidth. Some of the players in our game have taken to joining up together at one player’s house, even though it means a lengthy commute, because the one player has a much more reliable, high-bandwidth internet connection.
  • However, some simple little tricks can also help. When we had some trouble getting everyone at a (pretty large) table heard through a speakerphone, messing with the technical settings didn’t help. But putting the speakerphone on top of a can, so that the device was elevated above most of the various objects on the table (bowls, dicebags, computers, etc.), worked brilliantly.
  • Scheduling can be tricky! I’m almost exactly on the other side of the planet from the other players, and most of us work 9-5, Monday-Friday-style jobs, so that means we can pretty much only play on weekends.
  • However, as the person who has historically been late most often to the game, having the game session happen right from my living room is very nice. No need for me to commute means it’s just a matter of plopping down and starting, so I’ve been much more on time recently.
  • Sharing visual information — maps, mostly — works quite well. Screensharing makes this possible. However, I’m always a little leery of letting Google or whoever else get their digital claws on my graphics.

Shiny Trait tokens: A pile of glass beads.Computer-moderated play has also gotten me thinking about the tangible aspects of gaming. The stuff you can touch. We all have our own dice, so that continues to work fine. But in B&C, another major tangible component is Trait tokens. Having shiny little baubles to trade back and forth has always been a part of the enjoyment. And having tokens makes it immediately apparent to all concerned how much Trait usage is still possible. How to handle that when trading each token back and forth would cost a hundred dollars and take three weeks?

So far, the only solution I’ve found is for me to keep a text file to track tokens. It works, but it utterly lacks the tangible benefits of physical tokens. Not only does it lack the tactile enjoyment and shininess of tokens, it also makes it difficult for anyone but me to know how many tokens someone currently has left. I haven’t found a better solution yet. Do you know any free online sites that allow tracking of this kind of thing? I can already envision a site like Doodle where you input characters’ names and then select how many tokens you have for each, and then the GM can activate or deactivate those tokens. Perhaps with a choice of different icons for each: little stars that either flash or glow dully as embers; storm clouds that quietly rumble or flash lightning; little characters who bounce with activity or slump; etc. Is there such a thing out there?

In my monthly group, we haven’t needed to do any minis combat yet. I’m wondering how that will work when or if we do. I actually have pretty much my full minis collection here with me, but the camera setup will certainly be a challenge. I’ve seen lots of mentions of mounting cameras on the ceiling or whatever, but that isn’t an option for me, for any variety of reasons.

In any case, as I said before, it’s very nice to live in the future.