Social Combat in Swords of the Serpentine
When words cut as sharply as a knife, you don’t actually need to carry a knife.
Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell…
…That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced. Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
You know what you don’t see too often? Robust and fun social combat systems that lets you defeat a foe without laying a finger on them. You know what we really wanted for this game?
Classic fantasy is full of examples of morale-based social combat. In Tolkien alone you’ll see Smaug trying to intimidate an invisible Bilbo (above), Frodo and Gollum’s riddle game, the One Ring trying to corrupt mortal hearts and minds, terrified orcs breaking ranks before the charge of the Rohirrim, and the paralyzing fear caused by Nazgul. Other fantasy and Swords & Sorcery novels carry on that tradition; Stormbringer used Morale combat to try and manipulate Elric. Most of Terry Pratchett’s characters use intimidation, groveling or clever wit to get what they want without ever lifting a weapon. Cugel the Clever in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels lives on his wits alone, confident that he can talk his way out of any situation. Robin D. Laws’ Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, also published by Pelgrane, is one of the few RPG systems that makes social combat a joy.
So our design goal was to let you play a Hero who’s completely viable and effective without ever needing to pick up a weapon. How do you make that feel amazing in a game where epic and cinematic combat is one of the whole points of the game? The answer is a five-piece puzzle: Morale, Sway, Social investigative abilities, Maneuvers, and Teamwork. Let’s take a look.
In most GUMSHOE games, you have one defense pool (usually Stability) which measures how well you can keep it together when everything around you is going to Hell. Swords of the Serpentine has Morale; a high Morale usually means you’re stubborn, confident, and relatively self-assured. Overcoming someone’s Morale is handy because it defeats them without leaving a corpse, and you’re not going to get tried for murder if you just clashed with someone socially important.
As long as your Morale is above 0, your willpower and courage won’t break. If it drops below 0 and continues downwards towards -12 you become first Unstable, then Panicking, and finally Broken. Your foes may try to defeat you by using Sway attacks to reduce your Morale, and lots of other things might reduce your Morale: terror, curses, Sorcerous Corruption, ghostly possession, poison, and more.
Sway is the General ability you’ll use to socially attack someone’s Morale, just like Warfare is the General ability you’d use to physically attack someone’s Health. A Hero with a high Sway is incredibly good at manipulating the people around them. Whether they beguile foes, terrify them, or taunt and belittle them, they’re probably capable of getting enemies to surrender or flee without ever causing physically harm.
You can describe and roleplay your Sway attack however you want – witty repartee, terrifying intimidation, subtle terror, veiled threats, social blackmail, whatever seems like the most fun. If you successfully hit your foe’s Morale Threshold, you inflict damage that comes off their Morale. You can score a critical hit that does an extra die of damage, and there are rules for affecting more than one foe at once with your Sway attack.
Reduce your foe’s Morale to 0 (or -12, depending on the importance of the enemy) and you defeat them. You’ll also get to describe the consequence, whether that’s surrender, swooning, fleeing, or just giving you what you want. Mind you, a defeated and humiliated foe probably has a long and bitter memory for revenge, and repeated rivals or enemies make for fun games.
Social Investigative Abilities
Want to do more damage with your Sway attack? After you hit, you can spend points from an Investigative ability to inflict extra dice of damage on your Sway attack.
For instance, mock someone with a Sway attack and then spend two points of the Investigative ability Taunt, and you’ll deal two more dice of Morale damage by making them incoherently furious at you. It’s up to you to describe or roleplay the extra damage. You’ll refresh these spent points in your next adventure, but it gives you tremendous flexibility when you really need to succeed.
As in other GUMSHOE games, you can also spend Social Investigative abilities to manipulate the supporting characters around you. Want people to trust you so you run a scam? Spend a point of Trustworthy. Want people to ignore you while you slip into their mansion? Spend a point of Servility. You get the idea.
Sometimes, though, you want to manipulate people socially without spending an Investigative point – and that brings us to Maneuvers.
In the quote from The Hobbit that opens this article, Smaug is using a Morale-based Maneuver to convince Bilbo to show himself.
Morale-based Maneuvers are what you’d use when you want to manipulate people socially but spending Investigative points would be overkill. Maybe you want to avoid a government bureaucrat, or convince a passer-by to lend you his boat, or simply lie about something fun. Make a Sway attack, and instead of taking damage, your opponent needs to then match your result on a d6 roll or accept what you’ve told them. The higher you roll, the more likely they are to fail.
Your opponent can spend their Morale points to add to that die roll before they roll it, effectively inflicting Morale damage on themselves in order to resist your suggestion. There’s a chance your Maneuver will fail, sure – but if it does, your opponent still paid a price.
Hang on, what if you’re the only person in your group with a high Sway and everyone else wants to stab your enemies in the face? Does it do any good for you to attack your foe’s Morale, since their Health is likely to hit 0 first?
In these situations, use a Teamwork attack to give your damage to any other Hero to inflict, as long as their attack lands successfully. If you’ve spent Investigative points for extra Morale damage, that bonus damage goes too. You’re effectively distracting a foe long enough for an ally to get a more effective physical attack in. Teamwork attacks work both ways, so a Hero specializing in Warfare could also use Teamwork (and the threat of physical violence) to make your successful Sway attack do more damage than normal.
Playtesters really liked Teamwork attacks; they involve other players in your own success, and they ensure that no one gets left out of a conflict.
Putting It All Together
You’ve decided your Hero is an incredibly popular thief and con-artist (well, popular in the bad parts of town among the Commoners, at least) with a strong aversion to violence. You don’t carry weapons, but all your combat skills are focused only on Sway. With a heavy focus on social Investigative abilities, you figure you can use Maneuvers or Sway attacks to convince just about anyone of anything. If you run across an inhuman foe (or heavens forfend, one who can’t hear you), you’ll use Teamwork attacks to assign your Sway damage to your friend the Mercenary. Time for adventure!
It’s worth noting that I have a secret plan to run a SotS game where physical violence is either impossible or is strongly discouraged, and so all of the real combat is done through subterfuge or through social, Morale-based combat. I probably wouldn’t want that for every game, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.
Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.