I’m an advocate for modes of play, especially in roleplaying games. What does this mean? It means you don’t always play roleplaying games (or other complex games) the same way all the time. In video games, we often see this in the guise of minigames, like when you are fighting monsters one minute and later get caught up in a puzzle challenge for reasons that are either satisfying or choppy. But tabletop roleplaying games have modes of play as well, and they always have. In many ways, the original psionics rules in D&D were minigame that only specific characters could participate in (or at least well). Grid play with miniatures, maps, and terrain is a mode of play that you engage in when theater of the mind just isn’t cutting it, is a mode of play (as is theater of the mind and the normal flow of exploration).
When I worked at Paizo, we produced many different modes of play—from kingdom building, to abstract mass combat, to the chase rules. When we designed Pathfinder 2nd Edition, we put the three main modes of play—encounter, exploration, and downtime—at the forefront of the game’s design. And the basics of these three modes of play are also the backbone of the Delve system. However, I rename the downtime mode as the settlement mode. All the activities that inhabit that mode assume that you have a basic settlement (even if it is just a hidden cave) and which activities you can take are predicated on the settlement’s resources. But I’ll talk more about that particular mode later.
There are some other play modes in Delve that often either complement or enhance these main modes. Grid play is definitely one of those modes. Later plans for the game involve a hex exploration mode for outdoor discovery (if anyone remembers my old NeoGrognard blog, I started developing a little game tool I called Hexploration, and a version of that tool will see the light of day in Delve). But there’s a mode of play often overlooked given the bare-bones treatment, or comes in later as an afterthought in roleplaying games, and that I wanted to tackle right out of the gate, and that’s social conflict.
Social conflict rules of one stripe or another are legion and often go unused or used once and then discarded. There are many reasons for this. First, they can often seem techy, and I think our inclination is to just see it as a just conversation. Other times the rules are so focused on the violently adversarial nature of most roleplaying games that they start with such benchmarks as hostility, apathy, and friendly, which often forgets the fundamental of social conflict—self-interest.
No matter why a group of heroes engages in a war of words, they do so for their own self-interest, and their adversaries have their own interests in mind. The whole reason for the conflict is the heroes are trying to change their minds. And this starts as simply as, “Hey, don’t attack us even though we are yummy and quite soft once you peel the armor away.” Or it can be as complex as defending themselves at a trial for using forbidden magic. But the nature of the conflict is a tug-of-war to win over minds.
And that’s exactly how I designed social conflict—as a kind of complicated tug-of-war. On one side are the heroes and the other their adversaries in the conflict. It doesn’t matter how many heroes participate in the conflict, and it likely doesn’t matter how many adversaries there are. That’s because social conflicts, like combat encounters, and designed to have the playgroup in mind—or at least a stated baseline with ways to adjust if you’re using published adventures. The ebb and flow of the system are about sides and the challenge of the conflict.
The system works like this. There are a number of Edges in play. What are Edges? Think of them as the focus of the conflict—the ideas and subterfuges in play. Some of these Edges belong to the adversary in the conflict. After all, more often than not, the heroes are trying to gain something from the—information, concession, and opening for friendship, or a victory of argument. There are a number of floating Edges representing luck, cleverness, and imagination.
There are rounds and turns in social conflict, using the Delve “initiative” system. Basically, adversaries go first, and the heroes go in any order they want to after. And like encounter play, Heroes can also use the Heroic Surge talent to go before the adversaries, but as in combat, haste has its price. On each of the participant’s turn, they get to add to the conflict. This is done via roleplaying first. Each person gets a turn and roleplays it out. There is an underlying structure. Currently, there are nine basic social tactics that anyone can use. The players can shoot for these tactics, and it’s a good idea to do so, but the tactic used after the roleplaying is done is ultimately decided by the Delve Master. Usually, what the player plans and what Delve Master chooses will be in concert. Other times the player may fumble in their roleplaying or end up being befuddled and saying something confounding. On rare occasions, the heroes may inadvertently commit a faux pas which could turn flattery into an insult. The Delve Master gets to decide. Each social conflict has its own effect based on a resolution roll, usually Charm, but some tactics allow you to use other primary attributes.
Successes and crits, gain Edges. Sometimes the Edges gained come from the adversary, sometimes one of the floating Edges, based on the effect of the social tactic used. Edges go back and forth until one side, either the heroes or the adversaries, possesses all the Edges. At that point, that side wins, the Delve Master wraps up the conflict and details what is gained or lost. The Delve Master also has the power to end the social conflict whenever it seems that it has run its course. Of course, there are other ways to end a conflict. For instance, the Taunt social tactic, if fumbled, just automatically ends the conflict, and it might end up turning violent!
My aim—as always—is to make choices robust but the system as playable and straightforward as possible. While social combat is not necessary with every roleplaying encounter, the mechanics are tailor-made for creating tension, strategy, and even benchmarks for roleplaying the interaction.
The draft of the rules from the Play chapter of the Delve Proto is currently available on the Delve Patreon for backers of the Delve level. The Mastery chapter contains guidance on creating exciting and challenging social conflicts and creating unique social tactics for adversaries to spice up the system from time to time.