Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Social Combat Part I - Social Hit Points

About two years ago I did a post on Social Combat where I touched on some of the basic issues with the idea of systems having social combat rules, but didn't go all that much in depth to how it worked. It's been irking me for a while, but I'd mostly left it out of sight and mind. Recently, that article came back up when I was browsing around the internet and I wanted to revisit it. Only, this time, I wanted to go more in depth and I figured the best place to start was with the concept of Social Hit Points. Shall we begin?

Physical vs. Mental/Social Combat
A lot of times when you talk about Social Combat for RPGs people don't like it because it doesn't add up in their head. I mean, how do you throw a verbal punch? How do you track social and mental damage? Why should I die because I lost an argument? I mean, some of it sounds silly right off the bat (i.e. dying when you lose an argument) and some of it not so much. One of the interesting things though is that a lot of people I've spoken to or read about over the years dislike the idea of hit points for a social/mental conflict because it's just not how those things work. These same people are often ok with hit points for physical confrontation not because it does a great job of adequately representing physical injury, but because it's what we have and we need some way to track damage the body has taken. The thing is, when I started to really think about it, I think that hit points are actually a much more accurate way to represent social/mental damage than they are to represent physical damage.

The Stubbed Toe Death
How many times have you been playing in your RPG when someone does anywhere from 1 to 4 hit points of damage to the big bad and everyone then breathes a sigh of relief because those were the last hit points the monster had? No matter that the monster  shrugged off 30-100 damage hits earlier and throughout the fight while it kept going and ransacking the party. It ran out of HP and now it is dead. An astute GM would say that it succumbed to its wounds. An astute system might argue that HP doesn't represent your actual damage threshold but how good you are at avoiding taking a lethal hit. With that system the 1-4 damage wasn't a low damage hit, the monster was just to tired to turn it aside and so the character took a good hit and died from it.

The thing is, this system is still flawed. Lets look at another example. Fighting games (video games) also use a HP system for their fighters in the life bar. Odds are that if you've played a fighting game you've seen a fight end when a blocked jab just barely does enough chip damage (damage done through a block) to end the fight and secure victory. No matter that moments before the fighter showed no sign of injury and had successfully blocked giant beam cannons and been kicked through buildings. That little jab ended the fight.

Now, this isn't impossible, but think about it in terms of real life - or better yet, movies and cinema - how likely are you to buy that the hero who just shrugged off being batted through a wall is going to drop unconscious because the dwarf clapped her on the back too hard or a ratling bit her hand? It doesn't make much sense, and it is kind of anti-climactic and odd to say the least. But it is something we all accept and are used to. It is simply put a problem with the HP system, and yet..

The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back
And yet that very phenomenon is something we all experience and accept as part of everyday life when it comes to social and mental conflict. Think about it. Odds are you've had a friend who has been going through a rough patch. Maybe their dad died, they lost their job, they got dumped by their significant other, or some other horrific event. When you hang around them you take care to be nicer to them and keep them cheered up. Even if they seem like they have it all together. Why? Because we all expect that anything could set the friend off.

Hell, let's go to the extreme. Sarah has had her parents killed, been kicked out of the holy order of knights, failed to protect her husband from a dragon, and is now drinking her sorrows away at a tavern when some annoyingly happy pipsqueak of a halfling jostles her and spills her tankard of ale. How many of you envisioning that scene just winced for what is coming for the poor halfling? Sarah has had a bad day, and while her ale being spilled is incredibly minor, especially compared to what she has just managed to go through with head held high, we'd all understand if that was what made her snap.

Simply put, mentally (or socially) Sarah is at 1 HP from all the crap that has just happened to her when the tankard spill does its pitiful 1-2 HP of damage. Only, in this situation, the violent reaction and loss of control is not only accepted but something we would all expect and can relate to. Simply put, it makes a lot more sense for Sarah to hit a losing condition from this light damage, then if it were the physical counterpart.

Letting Off Steam
Just like HP works with Physical Combat, Social HP can regenerate just as fast. In fact, even more believably so. Let's go back to our physical examples. Jeff the Paladin gets into a fight with a dragon and he comes out of it with 1 hp. He's been slashed by claws, thrashed by tail whips, buffeted by wings, and dropped from 100 feet up through several levels of scaffolding. There isn't a spot on him that isn't black, blue, purple, or cut and bleeding. He then goes to see a healer who rolls really well on a non-magical healing check and suddenly Jeff is back at near full HP. He has somehow, non-magically, healed almost all of those wounds, bruises, and cracked bones in a little under 12 hours. Even if they're still visible, they leave no physical/mechanical harm. Totally practical and makes sense, right? Yeah, sure.

On the other hand, let's go back to Sarah.We'll be a bit nicer to Sarah this time and say she's only been kicked out of her Holy Order of Warriors which has led to her being rejected by her family and many of her friends. Only, the thing is Sarah wasn't kicked out because of a failure on her part but because of political manipulations of a rival. She's pissed. Pissed at the injustice of the situation. Pissed at the foolishness of her superiors. Pissed at how far up their asses everyone's head is. She's about half a step from just ripping someone in half, or being pushed over the brink into full on depression on rage. Sarah's friend recognizes this problem and brings her out to the tavern. Sarah and her friend have a few drinks when an unlucky halfling spills Sarah's ale. She loses it. She lets the Halfling have a piece of her mind. The halfling fires back and next thing you know there is a huge bar brawl (not a fight, but a brawl.) The next day, in a little under 12 hours, Sarah is still angry but she's nowhere near as pissed. She let out a lot of steam at the bar the day before and now - with a much clearer head - she can focus on her problems.

Doesn't that make a lot more sense?

Moving Forward
I'm going to leave this off here today and come back tomorrow with the concept of 0 Social Hit Points, 0 Mental Hit Points, and what either of these things could mean for a character, why they are just as dangerous as 0 Physical Hit Points, and ways to prevent that from happening.

For now, comments?


  1. I don't have any experience with "social combat" games so hard for me to comment on that. Interesting concept.

    Your example of a PC near death who makes a full recovery in 12 hours via a doctor's care + natural healing seems unusual to me. In my very limited exposure, in quite a few RPG games natural healing of critical wounds can take a while...even weeks.

    Your example of PCs taking all kinds of damage with little to no effects until they're suddenly dead certainly sounds familiar enough. Does seem like that's the norm, as you suggest. I've never liked that from a realism standpoint, but it probably cuts down on TPKs. Otherwise, one can envision PCs starting to take damage which weakens them. Which causes them to do worse in the fight, causing them to take more damage which weakens them more...and the domino continues until TPK looms ahead.

    The game I run (Dark Heresy) just had a 2nd Edition Beta come out last week which addresses this very thing of effects from being wounded. It eliminates Hit Points. Instead each hit that gets through defenses counts as one Wound and causes immediate Wound Effects on the character. All pre-existing Wounds cumulatively cause the Wound Effects of each subsequent Wound to be worse...eventually leading to loss of limbs, organs & death. No experience with it yet.

  2. While some systems do cap physical healing others don't. From a meta perspective it makes sense. A lot of games want the players to be able to get back into the action and PCs who are near death aren't likely to do that as readily as those who are fully healed.

    Wound Penalties can do what you say and snowball a fight against the PCs. At the same time though, in my experience wound penalties will also click a player into "I can't win this fight, I should run" faster or looking to other possibilities. It also puts a lot of emphasis on being the first person to get a hit in. Aside from that, the biggest change wound penalties makes to combat is the optimal strategy. In a system like D&D with no wound penalties you want to drop an opponent (often the biggest damage dealer first) and then move on. In a system with wound penalties, you want to injure as many people as possible so wound penalties will make everyone have a harder time hitting people.

    1. Your meta-game point is right on target. It intrinsically seems off when the beaten & bloodied party is good-to-go and raging in a fresh combat 24-hours later via psionic & Fate Point healing...but we do have a good time in that fresh combat.

      Yup, I like when players have to adjust to the reality of things ("perhaps your character should have gone for cover before opening fire"). What's a grim deadly RPG game without a little TPK risk?