Fate games offer wonderful mechanics for diverse combat situations, especially when you consider that they can apply to more than gun fights and tavern brawls. Social combat, for example, has an entire dynamic to it that most other systems limit to a single skill check or at most a contested challenge of skills. In Fate games like Dresden Files and Spirit of the Century, social combat can have lasting consequences that mechanically affect your character.
Now Social Combat technically works the same as physical combat, but my experience is that many players and GMs struggle with that aspect of the game and often overlook it. Perhaps we are more comfortable with physical combat because we have more experience with it thanks to tabletop and video games. Or perhaps we are afraid that our characters will not have much to do in social combat. Or maybe many of us assume that social conflict is boring.
You may be reading thinking none of those things, and that is great! Either way, we’re gonna take a look at Social Combat and simplify it down to the basics. Then we can talk a bit about how to build some exciting encounters with those basics.
Social attacks use your communication skills: Deceive/Deceit, Rapport, Provoke, Intimidation, etc. You roll the check, the target rolls an appropriate defense, and you inflict stress the same way you do with a physical attack. Depending on the Fate system, you may be inflicting Social or Mental stress as is appropriate. And if you take someone out with a social attack, they are taken out of the scene as surely as if you had kicked them out.
Social Attacks are a great place to get into character. You can actually say what the character is saying and have that count as the attack. Sometimes there is unspoken pressure to make the character say things that are cool or profound or way cleverer than we think we can come up with, but that should not hold you back. In social conflict, the dice rolls determine how impactful your words are. The words themselves just need to be in character.
Be sure to be clear about what you are trying to accomplish with your social attack. If you are trying to evoke an emotion, specify what emotion. Yelling angrily can just as easily scare someone as provoke them into yelling back, and it can even make them cry. Being specific can help everyone at the table see what you are trying to accomplish, and that means the results are more likely going to reflect your intentions.
You defend against social attacks with skills that keep you true to who you are: Conviction, Discipline, or Will. In most situations you can also defend by trying to identify what the attacker is trying to do with Empathy. Other skills may be used during some circumstances, but that generally requires a stunt and a good explanation from the player using it.
Describing the effects social attacks may take a little practice if you are not used to them. A punch to the face doing 3 physical stress is easy because we all watch kung fu movies, right? But how does an insult about how your parents were hamsters leave you equally reeling? The big key is to think about what sort of emotion the attack will trigger in the target.
If a social attack makes you angry, snarl or glare when you take stress. If it makes you sad or scared, sniffle a little or take a step back. If you are being tricked or conned, smile and open your posture up a little. If you identify the source of the trouble, give it some intense focus.
Consequences also take on a unique twist to your standard physical consequences, because we do not always recognize that a social consequence is bad for us in the same way as broken ribs or burned flesh. A sexy white court vampire may have gotten you hooked or smitten. A crooked politician may have convinced you that his agenda deserves your trust. These consequences are still valid, grant boosts to your foes, and limit your character in and out of combat scenes.
Antisocial Characters for Social Combat
Not many characters are socialites in typical RPG parties, unless you somehow force it at the start of your campaign. In fact, you generally have only one character as the Face of the party. The rest of the group is generally made of fighters, wizards, and if you are lucky a healer. But social interaction is a big part of roleplaying because it is an interaction you can do with every NPC in the game.
Many hero stereotypes are antisocial: the lone wolf, the quiet shy kid, the barbarian with low intelligence, or the prodigy that would rather talk with spirits/computers/animals that other people. Parties often have more than one of these characters, and they need to be a part of social combat too.
The easiest way to avoid making people feel left out is to encourage them at the start of the campaign to have at least one social skill. Every fate game has multiple options, and if you do not want to be an easy target in social settings you should really consider a way to socially defend yourself. Remember that hostage situations, threats of violence, and organizing troops are just as much social combat opportunities as tea parties and debates.
If you already have a character with no social skills or really want to play the hardships of your antisocial PC in the midst of social combat, find creative ways to Maneuver/Create Advantages in the game. Causing a distraction with Performance or Burglary can give your more social players a leg up for a better attack. And if all else fails, wait until the NPC has taken all those social consequences an then punch them in the face. Most NPCs don’t have separate consequence slots for different types of consequences, after all.
An Example of Social Combat
The more you play Fate, the less you will find that combat is neatly divided into social and physical. There is a lot of overlap. People shout insults in a fist fight, and tomatoes are thrown in a social conflict of opinions. But for those of you that really want an example of what social combat looks like, we have just such an example below (again using the Dresden Files RPG, in case you do not recognize some of the skills from Fate Core).
Harry Dresden stands before the wizard council, trying to defend his best friend’s daughter Molly from being condemned to death for hurting two of her friends. The GM decides that even though the room is filled with wizards witnessing the trial only the Merlin (judge and head of the council) and Morgan (the executioner and lead warden) are actually participating in the conflict. That makes it 2 on 2.
The group rolls Empathy checks for initiative. Molly goes first, then Morgan, then Harry, and finally the Merlin. Molly’s player goes first. She has some consequences from previous encounters, and according to the setting she is not sure that she is supposed to speak yet. So she tries to create an advantage by rolling an Empathy maneuver to give Harry a boost. Unfortunately she rolls a low total of 2 and does not want to waste a fate point, so she ends her turn just making sure that Harry is still there for her.
Morgan goes next, so the GM has him roll Contacts to create an aspect on the scene where one of his wardens gives a report of how bad the victims were messed up. There is no defense against this, although Jim (Harry’s Player) tries to protest. Morgan rolls a total of 4 and succeeds in creating the aspect Carlos’ Condemning Testimony with a free invoke for him. The testimony is not given in public, but it is there ready to tap.
It is now Harry’s turn. Jim decides that if Morgan can call a witness then so can he. He attacks Morgan with Contacts for a total of 4, calling in the Summer Lady to testify on his behalf. Morgan defends with Discipline, but only rolls a 2. Jim spends a Fate Point to tap the current World Aspect: Bloody Red Vampire War to give his attack an extra +2, which would be enough to take Morgan out. Jim describes how the Summer Lady awards both Morgan and Dresden for their services in the war, making it harder for Morgan to look down on him. The GM decides not to use up Morgan’s free aspect yet, and instead lets Morgan take a mild consequence of Grudging Mutual respect and 2 social stress.
It is the Merlin’s Turn, and so the GM has him attack Molly with a Deceit check of 6. He wants her executed, so politely applauds Harry’s forgiving heart but feels that the law must be followed to the letter. Molly rolls a defense with Presence, since she cannot speak much for herself, and rolls a 5. The GM invokes Morgan’s aspect to have Carlos testify as well as Molly’s two consequences: I Enslaved My Friends’ Will and Hooded for Trial to make his attack a 12, which is more than enough to take Molly out. She takes her moderate consequence (Doomed To Die) to reduce the attack by 4 and just take 3 social stress.
Back to Molly’s turn, her player is getting worried. Once she is taken out of this conflict, she will be executed. She tries to create an advantage this time with her Presence, wanting people to Molly as human. She rolls a 5 this time and spends a Fate point to tap her hooded consequence (it is still an aspect) to have it removed. The aspect changes to Scared and On Trial, and she gets a new aspect of Not a Faceless Victim with 2 free invokes.
Morgan takes his turn and attacks Harry with an Intimidation glare. He rolls a total of 2, and Harry defends with a 4. The attack fails, so the GM spends one of his 2 fate points (1 per PC at the start of a scene) to have Morgan reroll. He gets a total of 3 this time, which is still too low. Jim says that Harry is too busy focusing on the Merlin and does not even notice Morgan.
Now it is Jim’s turn. He wants to take the Merlin out with an attack, so he uses Rapport to play up the crowd as to why they should not be executing kids. He rolls a +5 and spends his last Fate Point to invoke his Chivalry’s Not Dead aspect for an extra +2. Molly spends a fate point to invoke her aspect of Special Interest In Harry and gives him her free invokes on her aspect, so the total attack on the Merlin is a whopping 13. The Merlin rolls Performance to try and sway the argument away from this direction, but actually rolls 4 negatives for a -2 total. He spends his last fate point to reroll and comes up with a total of 1, meaning he still takes 12 stress and has no fate points to spend.
Jim thinks he has won, but the GM knows that another attack on Molly will take her out. So he lets the Merlin take a mild, moderate, and severe consequence for a total of 12 reduction. Sure the players have 3 consequence aspects he can invoke on the Merlin, but now it is the Merlin’s turn to attack and they have no fate points. Not to mention Molly has a new consequence with a free invoke of her own.
The Merlin attacks by flat out saying that he condemns her to death and asks Morgan to execute her. He rolls a Conviction attack, since he is acting out the authority of his beliefs and position, and gets a 7. Molly rolls a 2 discipline check to keep it together until her turn, and her player invokes the 3 consequences on the Merlin to try and get someone to stop this from happening. The Merlin invokes her untapped consequence as well, leaving the total at 8 vs 7 in favor of the Merlin. But the Merlin has a special stunt for his Conviction which gives his social attacks weapon damage of 3 whenever he is in a position of authority, which this trial counts as.
Molly cannot take a 4 stress hit and has no consequence slots left or Fate points to boost. Jim asks the GM if they can use the consequence on Morgan to boost her defense, since Morgan is the one doing the executing. The GM asks them the players to explain how they would use Morgan’s consequence to stall things. After some very quick talk, the players point out that the Gatekeeper (a member of the senior council) is in attendance and should get a vote before an execution is carried out. It would be Morgan’s duty to see protocol through, so out of that he speaks up to have the execution wait.
Molly gets a turn and rolls a Contacts attack, wanting her father or someone else to rescue her. The Merlin has no consequences left to take, and the players win the conflict.