One of the things several games have tried to tackle over the years is to make the core conflict mechanic for their game not physical combat. The problem with this is that it's very hard to properly gamify an argument in a way that feels reasonable while still being understandable and easy to parse. A lot of games get around this by simply moving basic combat encounters over to social encounters. Today I want to talk about this, and a way to tweak it that may make everything work out a bit better over all.
Attack, Defend, Counter
When it comes down to it humanity is a conflict driven race, and as such our games are the same way. This is what games like FATE Core key off when they use the same rules for normal combat for social combat. Whether you are dueling with rapiers or having an argument, your moves are the same. You either make an attack, defend against an attack from an enemy, or make some sort of counter move. But what is the cost?
In systems like the Narrative Dice System by Fantasy Flight Games (used for Star Wars, and the pending release of Genesys) you lose Strain. When out of strain you are taken out of the scene. In other games you take penalties. In FATE you gain consequences after filling a wound track, and if you get to the big consequence your opponent chooses your fate...meaning you could die, from an argument, in theory.
These work well, and with proper GM adjudication. Still, there is a tweak that I have yet to experiment with but I like in theory. It works best with Strain systems like the Narrative Dice System, but could also be used with FATE easily enough.
Running Out Of Points
RPGs use points for lots of things. Hit Points in particular basically represent how much 'fight' you have in you. Run out of Hit Points and you are no longer able to fight. You fall over unconscious, potentially dying, because you have fought until you had no more fight in you. This works great for physical combat, but less so for arguments. After all, when was the last time someone took a sick burn in a heated argument and just collapsed into an unconscious heap?
Instead, I am looking at what these points represent which is our ability to remain in control of our needed faculties. You run out of hit points, you lose control of your body and collapse unconscious with all the penalties associated. But what happens when you lose control of your mental faculties? We don't collapse. We do however lash out, break out, and otherwise do things we wish we didn't but can't stop.
Ever been in a heated argument? Say something you didn't mean to say? Say something so cruel that it just kind of stopped the argument and now you had to go into reconciliation mode or risk losing something you never wanted at risk? Congratulations, you ran out of social hit points.
How we lash out is the hard part, but the idea is simple. Your character gets in an argument with someone, you treat it like combat. Someone runs out of points, they lash out. They say, or do, something that they wouldn't normally. Afterwards they regain some of their hit points (the same way you regain some after being unconscious) and you can continue from there.
I like this idea because to me it works.
Lose an argument with a loved one and you say something that damages that relationship, perhaps irreparably. Lose a negotiation and you give up something that really ruins it for you. Can't keep someone from provoking you, and you throw the first punch and now are the dick. Lose your cool due to fear and you run off, isolating yourself, and are now easy pickings!
Context Based Reaction
The hard part of this is that the GM has to make the call for what is on the table, but you still have to respect player agency. For the most part this should be easily determined by the scenario. A character in a horror scenario that runs out of points does the horror movie special of running off in a panic and ends up isolated in an area they don't know where they're at risk. But what about in social situations?
The key point is, you lose all your points you do something you can't take back that is "not smart" and makes things for you worse. Just like falling unconscious in a fight makes things worse. Think of it like a free triple critical botch...just one that gives you a handful of points back so you can decide if you want to keep pushing or just get worked over again and again.