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Tentacled Vitriol – Social Combat

August 18, 2010

Once upon a time, I talked about how much I liked the Social Combat system in Exalted. I still do, but I have some problems with it, problems I’ve always had but that have been exacerbated by my most recent game with my roommates. I felt it would be an excellent topic to showcase the newest feature here on Octopoid Prevarication: Tentacled Vitriol, where I spit and froth at some aspect of Exalted that pisses me off.

The Social Combat system has two major problems as I see it, both of which combine to make the system vary wildly in its usefulness, from cripplingly unhelpful to idyllicly smooth, depending on one’s Storyteller. The first problem is that the Social Combat Abilities are frustratingly vague, and the second is that there is no established guideline for spending Willpower to resist mental influence.

There are ostensibly four Attributes that govern Social Combat: Investigation, Performance, Presence, and Socialize (Integrity is a special case, and not terribly relevant to this problem). Investigation and Presence are, ostensibly, used to make Social attacks against individuals, while Performance is used on crowds, and Socialize limits the others in Mass Social Combat, much like War does in regular Mass Combat. However, there is no clear delineation between when one uses Investigation or Presence (which is less of a problem, as they are interchangeable), or when one uses a flurry of Presence attacks or uses Performance on a group. Moreover, there is no clear delineation of when Mass Social Combat begins. Finally, Mass Combat is, by its definition, making an attack against a social group of multiple individuals… does that mean only Performance is viable? What happens to the guy who is cornered by three men in an alley? Does he have to make a Performance attack to convince them to back down, since they’re in a group? And why the hell is there a Social attack Charm in the Linguistics tree?

The second isn’t something I have questions about, so much as gripes. There is no set mechanic to determine when NPCs spend Willpower to resist mental influence. This leaves the mechanic entirely in the hands of the ST, who can choose to make NPCs spend Willpower on every single attack, or can choose to make mental influence nigh irresistible. Now, normally I’m happy with options to make individual powers as strong or as weak as the ST needs for his game, but the utter lack of guidelines is… problematic at best. It means players never know if their Social character is going to be amazing, worthless, or in-between.

Aside from those problems, I’m really happy with the Social Combat system, because it’s a unique and insightful way to model Social influence without abstraction (at least, without AS MUCH abstraction as some other systems). However, these two glaring flaws do detract from the enjoyment of the system without significant hand-wavium, an element I prefer to remove from my games as much as possible.

If you have suggestions for how to avoid or repair these flaws, please don’t hesitate to post them! I’m always eager for more feedback!

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