All for One: The Importance of Social Combat

I will clap my hands three times, you full moon! On the third clap, I want to see you eclipse yourself!

Don’t you find that too often in RPGs, the sheer eloquence and majesty of language used as a weapon, fuelled by passion, ego, and the momentum sparked by the furious pressure of dozens of eyes, is diluted into one meagre roll of the dice, or worse – replaced with another form of combat, usually to the death, entirely out of context? That many of us who game can no more fight a duel of wits as deadly as the characters of period literature than we can wade bloodily through hordes of villains in actual combat is a simple truth of the species… but, for decades now, the games we play have supported many levels of simulation for physical combat. Where has the social duelling been? If we are so willing to simulate the one, should we not be more willing to simulate the other?

In the fiction of the period it is this social duel, far more than the flash of swiftly drawn blades which receives the full treatment of the authors’ prowess… This and the detailing of motivations both fair and foul, but that latter point is the object of a later post.

It is to Cyrano de Bergerac, written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, that I turn for an example to inspire and entice those who might be on the fence about what sort of game might be run in All for One: Regime Diabolique. Fast and furious fights will no doubt feature, but these moments of brilliance… these are the stuff of kings and legends. If we are to embrace this game for all it offers us, we must remember to reference pages 109 and 110 of the core book as often, if not more often, than we do pages 98-102.

With thanks to Project Gutenberg, the first example I wish to share is a short part of Act 1, wherein an irascible Cyrano, upon finding a pathetic actor whom he as previously ordered to never again darken the stage, proceeds to use threats and bluster to intimidate and threaten his way to getting what he wants:

CYRANO:

I order silence! And I challenge every man here! Come, all you young heroes! I’ll write down your names and give each of you a number —everyone will get their turn! Come now, who wants to be first? You, Sir? No? You? No? Come on, the first opponent will be done away with honorably and sent straight to glory! Come now, who wants to die? Hold up your hands! [a silence] What is it? Too modest to face my naked sword? No one? Not one name? Good, then I shall proceed. [turning toward the stage, where MONTFLEURY waits in agony] This theater must be cured of this boil! [He puts his hand on his sword.]And if it won’t leave of its own accord, then I shall have to lance it!

MONTFLEURY:

I—

CYRANO:

[leaves his chair, and settles himself in the middle of the circle which has formed] I will clap my hands three times, you full moon! On the third clap, I want to see you eclipse yourself!

AUDIENCE:

[amused] Ah!

CYRANO:

[clapping his hands] One!

MONTFLEURY:

I—

A VOICE:

[in the boxes] Stay!

AUDIENCE:

[divided] Stay!—Go!—No, stay!

MONTFLEURY:

I think, gentlemen—

CYRANO:

Two!

MONTFLEURY:

I think it would be wise if I—

CYRANO:

Three!

[MONTFLEURY suddenly disappears. There is a tempest of laughs, whistles and catcalls.]

AUDIENCE:

Coward! Come back!

CYRANO:

[delighted, sits back in his chair, arms crossed] Come back if you dare!

A BURGHER:

Call for the speaker of the theater!

[BELLEROSE comes forward and bows.]

THE BOXES:

Ah! Here’s Bellerose!

BELLEROSE:

[elegantly] My noble lords—

AUDIENCE:

No! Give us Jodelet instead!

JODELET:

[advancing, speaking in an exaggerated nasal voice] Miserable calves!

AUDIENCE:

[laughing] Bravo, go on!

JODELET:

No bravos, Sirs! The fat tragedian, whom you all love, has had to—

AUDIENCE:

That coward!

JODELET:

—was obliged to go.

AUDIENCE:

Call him back!

SOME:

No!

OTHERS:

Yes!

A YOUNG MAN:

[to CYRANO] But, Sir, why do you hate Montfleury so much?

CYRANO:

[graciously, still seated] Young man, I have two reasons—either will suffice. First, he is a terrible actor. He heaves up his lines as though they were buckets of water drawn clumsily from a well, when instead, they should soar from his lips like the lightest of birds. The second reason …well, that’s my secret.

A BURGHER:

[behind him] Shame on you! You deprive us of La Clorise! I must insist—

CYRANO:

[turning his chair toward the BURGHER, respectfully] You old mule! The verses of Baro are worthless trash! You should thank me for stopping the play!

LADY INTELLECTUALS:

[in the boxes] Our Baro! Oh dear! How dare he!

CYRANO:

[turning his chair toward the boxes gallantly] Fair ladies! Bloom and radiate, fill us with longing, intoxicate us with your beauty, charm death with your sweet smiles, inspire poetry—but don’t attempt to judge it!

BELLEROSE:

We must give back the entrance fees!

CYRANO:

[turning his chair toward the stage] Bellerose, that’s the smartest thing anyone has said all afternoon! You know how I love the theater and its actors. Therefore, I would never intentionally rend a tear in Thespis’ sacred cloak! [He rises and throws a bag onto the stage.] Catch then the purse I throw and hold your peace!

AUDIENCE

[dazzled] Ah!—Oh!

JODELET:

[catching the bag skillfully and weighing it] At this price, Sir, you are welcome to come and stop the play anytime!

I feel, that in my time at the table, I have seen moments such as this come and go, sometimes with greater dialogue, more often with worse, but either way, I find nothing here to which we as gamers and average folk cannot aspire to deliver to enliven play and bolster the rolls we invite to engage in social combat.

I would like to note, however, that as demanding as Cyrano seems in this short scene, he belies his boorish behavior with the presentation of funds fit to refund the audience, and mollify the management. Even when behaving as an ass, Cyrano de Bergerac does not lack in panache.

The second example I wish to cite is a little longer, but comes just a heartbeat after this first scene in the flow of the play. Cyrano, finding himself face to face with a feckless fop who had thought to embarrass and subdue our hero, turns the tables and achieves brilliance in a way emulated centuries later by Marshall Mathers’ ‘Bunny Rabbit’ character in 8-Mile, by turning taunts against himself into an indisputable litany of the faults and foibles of his foe.

CYRANO:

Here’s a word of advice for any other fool who might find something amusing about the middle of my face. Let it be known that if the jester is a nobleman, he will not just taste my boot but will taste my steel instead!

DE GUICHE:

[who, with the MARQUISES, has come down from the stage] He’s becoming a nuisance!

DE VALVERT:

[shrugging his shoulders] He’s quite arrogant!

DE GUICHE:

Won’t anyone silence him?

DE VALVERT:

I’ll take the challenge. I’ll treat him to one of my quips! See here! [With a conceited air, he goes up to CYRANO, who is watching him.] Sir, your nose is…hmm…it is…very big!

CYRANO:

[gravely] Very!

DE VALVERT:

[laughing] Ha!

CYRANO:

[calmly] Is that all?

DE VALVERT:

What do you mean?

CYRANO:

Ah no, young man! That was a trifle short! You might have said at least a hundred things by varying the tone. Shall I give you a few examples?

Aggressive:

“Sir, if I had such a nose, I’d amputate it!”

Friendly:

“It must annoy you when it dips into your drink. You really should have a specially shaped goblet, I think!”

Descriptive:

“’Tis a rock, a peak, a cape, a peninsula!”

Curious:

“What is the purpose of that large container? Do you keep your pens and ink in it?”

Gracious:

“Oh, how you must love the birds! I see you’ve made them a nice perch for their tiny feet!”

Hostile:

“When you enjoy your pipe and the smoke spouts from your nose, the neighbors must think the chimney’s on fire!”

Considerate:

“When you stroll, keep your head bowed low, else head over heels you just might go!”

Tender:

“Oh, someone please get a small umbrella made, else in the sun its bright color might fade!”

Pedantic:

“Only such a beast as Aristophanes’ hippocampelephantocamelos could have possessed such a large lump of flesh and bone beneath its forehead!”

Flippant:

“What a fashionable hook to hang your hat on!”

Emphatic:

“No wind but the Arctic blast would be strong enough to give you a cold, oh majestic nose!”

Dramatic:

“When it bleeds, it’s like the Red Sea!”

Admiring:

“Oh, what a perfect sign for a perfume shop!”

Lyrical:

“Is that a conch? And you, a Triton?”

Simple:

“Is that monument open for public viewing?”

Rustic:

“Is that thing a nose? No, it must be a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize watermelon!”

Military:

“Aim that cannon at the enemy and blast away!”

Practical:

“Put it in the lottery! I’m sure it would be the biggest prize!”
Or, in a parody of Pyramus, “Behold the nose that mars the beauty of its owner’s face. How red with shame it is, the traitor!”
All of these things you might have said, if you were a man of wit and letters in the slightest. But, sadly, of wit you never had an atom, and of letters you have only three—and they spell Ass! And even if you were intelligent enough to think of witty remarks like the ones I just listed, you would not have been able to utter a single one of them. Because I allow such jokes only when spoken by myself, and never by any other man that breathes!

DE GUICHE:

[trying to draw away the dismayed DE VALVERT] Come away, Viscount!

DE VALVERT:

[choking with rage] Listen to this arrogant lout! A barbarian who wears no gloves …who comes out in public without any ribbons and lace!

CYRANO:

True, all my elegances are within. I do not dress up like a pretentious dandy when I go out. But I’ll tell you this: I groom myself more thoroughly than you. I would never venture out in public with a soiled conscience, a tarnished honor, or scruples grimy and dull. I do not adorn myself with gems and ribbons, like you. Instead, I decorate myself with truth, independence and a clean soul. I am not ornamented with tassels and lace but with proud and brave exploits instead. My spirit is sharper than your stiff mustache. When I walk among the crowds and chattering groups, I make Truth ring bravely out like a clash of spurs!

DE VALVERT:

But, Sir—

CYRANO:

I wear no gloves? And what of that? I had one, the remaining one of an old pair. And, not having any other use for it, I threw it in the face of some young fool.

DE VALVERT:

Base scoundrel! Stupid lout!

CYRANO:

[taking off his hat, and bowing as if the VISCOUNT had introduced himself] Oh, delighted to meet you! And I am Cyrano Savinien Hercule de Bergerac.

[Laughter erupts throughout the CROWD.]

As I opened and began inspecting All for One: Regime Diabolique, it was for this form of combat that I looked first. I had every confidence that all the furious action of film and fiction would be found within the folio upon which I feasted my eyes, but forsooth, I feared a fatal flaw of want would force my fortunes forward into a fate in which I must forego the finely-wrought features which festoon this fantastic find. Is there a means to conduct social duelling, as well as that of a more martial nature?

In short, I, in joy, respond: Yes~

Thrust home!

In play, creating such scenes, like most everything else, requires cooperation between players and the GM, but it also requires a sensitivity for the ebb and flow of conversation, the perils and pitfalls of social positioning between peers and posers, and it lives and breathes in knowing to whom one is speaking.

Compare the preceding verbal dance between Cyrano and the Viscomte de Valvert, with the following discourse with a nameless, common, member of the audience.

A BORE:

[coming up to CYRANO] The great actor Montfleury! How could you? Shame on you! Don’t you know he’s protected by the Duke of Candal! Do you have a patron?

CYRANO:

No!

BORE:

No patron?

CYRANO:

None!

BORE:

What! No great lord to shield you with his name?

CYRANO:

[irritated] No, I’ve told you twice! Must I tell you again? I have no protector…[He puts his hand on his sword.] but I do have a protectress —right here!

BORE:

But now you must leave town, then.

CYRANO:

Well, that depends!

BORE:

The Duke has a long arm, you know!

CYRANO:

But not so long as mine, when it is lengthened out [He shows his sword.] …with this!

BORE:

But do you really dare…?

CYRANO:

Oh, I certainly do!

BORE:

But—

CYRANO:

Get out now! Go!

BORE:

But I—

CYRANO:

Go! Or tell me why you stare at my nose!

THE BORE:

[petrified] I—

CYRANO:

[walking straight up to him] Well, what’s so strange about it?

BORE:

[drawing back] My lord, you’re mistaken!

CYRANO:

Is it soft and dangling, like an elephant’s trunk?

BORE:

[still drawing back] I never—

CYRANO:

Is it crooked, like an owl’s beak?

BORE:

I—

CYRANO:

Do you see a wart upon the tip?

BORE:

No—

CYRANO:

Is there a fly upon it? What is there to stare at?

BORE:

Oh!

CYRANO:

What do you see?

BORE:

But I’ve been so careful not to look!

CYRANO:

Oh? Why is that?

BORE:

I was—

CYRANO:

Oh! It disgusts you!

BORE:

Sir!

CYRANO:

Are you sickened by its color?

BORE:

Please, Sir!

CYRANO:

Or it’s shape?

BORE:

No, on the contrary!

CYRANO:

Why then that look of distaste? Do you think it’s too large, perhaps?

BORE:

[stammering] No, it’s small! Quite small! It’s minute!

CYRANO:

Minute! How dare you accuse me of having a small nose!

BORE:

Heaven help me!

CYRANO:

My nose is enormous, you snub-nosed, meddling idiot! And let it be said that I am proud to possess such an appendage! ’Tis well known that a large nose indicates an affable soul, one kind and courteous, liberal and brave, just like myself! Such qualities you could never hope to have, you hateful wretch! For that dull face which my hand will soon slap is as empty…[He slaps him.]

BORE:

Ouch!

CYRANO:

…of pride, of glory, of feeling, of poetry and godlike spark—in fact, as empty as all that is embodied by my big nose, [He turns him by the shoulders.] as what my boot will soon meet! [He kicks him in the backside.]

BORE:

[running away] Help! Call the Guard!

CYRANO:

Here’s a word of advice for any other fool who might find something amusing about the middle of my face. Let it be known that if the jester is a nobleman, he will not just taste my boot but will taste my steel instead!

By now all of this insulting behavior might begin to grate on our politically correct sensibilities, but taken in the spirit of the age, with a grain of salt and an appreciation for taking no insult from any but the King, the Cardinal, and one’s own leader, we can see Cyrano as a genius of social dueling, who, although always willing to resort to swordplay to back his dominance of the scene, has the ammunition to unman a total stranger by not only pointing out his flaws, but attacking that stranger with his fairly accurate assessment of what that man might fear.

In both examples, Cyrano uses his unusual nose, and the embarrassment it would be expected to cause a weaker man, and turns it into a weapon against his enemy. In the case of the bore, he fights with the experience born of long-suffering, and no need for explicit details of his verbal sparring partner. In the case of the Viscomte, he combines the two to devastating effect, but as this is the third such encounter in one scene, the action moves on to an actual duel, wherein again, we see what mastery Cyrano can bring to bear as he not only bests his opponent, he does so while composing a poem, and on top of that, wins the duel at the precise moment he declared that he would:

Better for you had you lain low.
Where shall I hit you? In the heel?
Or how about the heart, my worthless foe?
Or in the hip, and make you kneel?
Oh, for the music of clashing steel!
Where shall I land my spike?
’Twill be in the belly the stroke I steal,
When, at the end of the refrain I shall strike!
Oh, for a word that rhymes with “o”!
You wriggle, so white, my eel!
Your face is as pale as fresh snow, As I parry the point of your steel.
Oh there, a thrust you hoped I’d feel!
But alas, you missed, little tyke!
Now we’re nearing the close of this deal. Watch out! At the end of the refrain I strike!

[He declaims solemnly.]

Refrain:

And now I shall make you kneel.
Pray for your soul if you like!
I thrust [He thrusts.] and your fate I seal,
As at the end of the refrain—[DE VALVERT staggers; CYRANO salutes.]
I strike!

[Acclamations and applause rise from the boxes. Flowers and handkerchiefs are thrown down. The OFFICERS surround CYRANO, congratulating him. RAGUENEAU dances for joy. LE BRET is happy, but anxious. DE VALVERT’S friends hold him up and bear him away.]

AUDIENCE:

[with one long shout] Ah!

A TROOPER:

’Tis superb!

A WOMAN:

A pretty stroke!

RAGUENEAU:

A marvel!

LE BRET:

Oh, madman!

AUDIENCE:

[presses around CYRANO, shouting] Compliments!—Bravo!— Quite unsurpassed!

A WOMAN’S VOICE:

There’s a hero for you!

A MUSKETEER:

[advancing to CYRANO with outstretched hand] Sir, permit me to say that you are a fine swordsman—and I am a good judge of such things. I stamped my feet to show my admiration!

[He goes away.]

CYRANO:

[to CUIGY] Who is that gentleman?

CUIGY:

Why, that’s D’Artagnan!

Mastery fit to impress even so famous a musketeer as D’Artagnan.

Setting such scenes:

To set such a scene in the game, what must occur? What must be considered, on both sides of the screen, before we as players have a chance to fence with words as Porthos and Cyrano have done before us?

First and foremost, I envision a need to not let every duel go to the death. Restraint, both in actually drawing steel, and again in where one thrusts it is a definite requirement. It is a fine line to walk, being both willing to engage in a swordfight at the drop of a glove – or handkerchief as it were – but also being willing to respect the life of one’s opponent and choose to wound rather than kill, if circumstances allow. If one kills everyone one duels the first time one duels them, how is one ever to acquire great enemies?

A second requirement I see is the need to be aware of who is who and what forces are being played against each other in the setting around you. While this is wise at the best of times, it is doubly helpful here in that it not only provides a sense of whom one can safely rebuff, but also provides the ammunition with which to do it.

Finally, one must take sides. If your character has no beliefs, then they are not the stuff upon which these dreams are made.

Share and share alike~

I am very curious about others’ experience with this game in general, and this aspect of it in particular. Come forward gentlemen, and regale us with tales of villains vexed by the vitriol of violent verbiage.

Comments
8 Responses to “All for One: The Importance of Social Combat”
  1. Brian says:

    Social combat is an interesting topic in today’s RPG world. While no one expects people to actually role-play a fight scene, some GM’s do expect to a greater or lesser degree that players act their way through in-game social exchanges. The obvious problem is that people are usually smarter, or dumber, or more loqacious, or more laconic than the characters they are playing. How am I, the GM, supposed to adequately role-play a Death Lord in Exalted, or a human-appearing avatar of Nyarlothotep?

    I’ve seen lots of attempts to add social combat sub-systems, most of which merely mirror physical combat, with guns replaced by quick wit or some such modifier. The minimalist approach can be found in some indie games where conflicts are definded, usually physical, memtal, and social, and there is one overlying system for resolving each. You lose details but the story moves along quicker.

    I get disenchanted from time to time with RPGing because it seems like it never lives up to its potential. Like you, I see dramatic bits of dialog in movies or on TV and wich I could draw something likle that out from my players. It rarely turns out as nice.

    Not really sure if anything I said had any direct relevance to what’s above… but hey, it’s fun to discuss RPG mecahnics and theory.

    • Runeslinger says:

      No, it’s completely relevant, Brian. As you know, I am not fond of gimmicks in my games, and expect the game to give me a complete set of options for covering basic interactions in the game world.

      I think ignoring the idea of social combat is an error of game design, and I think that forcing a player to act out their dialogue is as unfair and pointless as expecting them to act out their gun battles and lock picking. We do not penalize a player for weighing 40kg and not having a clue about fencing, why should we penalize a player for not having a silver tongue?

      I like systems that present a simple system for determining the result of an interaction (whatever it might be) and in this case, that revolves around presenting a broad system of delivery methods, modifying that by supporting proof, and letting the player roll to ‘hit and do damage’ socially, to the opponent’s reputation. Works for me: it breaks down the discourse into component parts, in much the same way as combat has been broken down over the years in other games, placing the relevant factors in opposition and letting the players roll.

      We can enjoy victory when our imaginary warriors win duels. Why can’t we enjoy victory when our imaginary poet embarrasses some tin-plated duke?

  2. Brian says:

    One of the big complaints about Exalted 1E was that the protagonists included social combat monsters who could supposedly sway entire kingdoms with their quick wit and sliver tongue. Alas, there was nothing in the rules mechanically to represent this. Meanwhile, there was page after page after page with combat options and modifiers and whatnot. They rectified this in 2E and came up with a pretty robust system that included some of the things you listed above.

    As for me, I’m satisfied with a system that rates NPC’s by how “friendly” they are to the PC’s., with a scale such as friendly, unfriendly, opposed, furious, etc. along with a corresponding difficulty number to overcome. That’s the system I have in mind, anyway, for my B3 system.

  3. faustusnotes says:

    I like the social combat system in Exalted.

    I agree that it’s strange to have a complex system for abstracting combat to avoid role-playing it, but to then expect everyone to be able to function in all sorts of social situations entirely on role-playing.

    I particularly think it’s important for rousing speeches, disguise and deception, and political debate. If you’re playing a marxist agitator in Space:1889 you shouldn’t have to actually understand Marxism to whip up a crowd; and no players should have to sit through such a debate.

  4. faustusnotes says:

    I actually had an image of a kind of cyberpunk campaign where the PCs are radicals of some sort. There’d be quite a few political debates and to keep the game working you would absolutely have to have a mechanism for not going near them. In a group with politically active players it would be fun to set the parameters of the debate (e.g. “I’ll use a dialectical materialist model of the conflict between the nuclear family and the state to try and convince this person that selling illegal ovaries is a radical act”) but you absolutely don’t want to go any closer to the details than that, and most groups would just have a desire to skip the debate and get to the next riot. “We convince them to free the mink already! Now let’s throw rocks at the cops!”

    Social combat is a godsend in any game where you actually have to make speeches or deal with council officials.

    • Runeslinger says:

      In All for One, I am very much hoping to see it work in synch with duels to both create the sorts of courtly enemies that need to be beaten, not killed, and to further motivate people to interact with the setting in broad ways. ..

      Although, I do hope I will see this as a player, not as the GM.

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  1. […] Ubiquity, which make no overt fuss about social combat and manipulation, can sometimes have a very robust and satisfying method of portraying them. I am curious about groups which take the time to learn the principles of the […]



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