In Which I "Hacked" A Social Conflict System In Fate, Didn't Use Most Of It, And It Was Awesome Anyway

Joe: I don't know what game you guys are playing, but Ella and I are playing Warhammer 40K.
Ella: [fist bump]

I recently posted about my recently wrapped-up Fate Campaign, The Bastards. 
( ) Set in a steampunk future on a distant planet, it was designed to be a campaign of intrigue and social conflict. I had months of planning time before the campaign started, so I had plenty of time to work out a whole bunch of elements - hacked or taken from various Fate books - to use in the campaign. I may have overdone it a bit.

I had read both Diaspora and Legends of Anglerre; I originally thought about using both straight out of the box. Instead, I took elements from each and hacked away. In the end, my eyes were bigger than my game table, and a lot of this stuff got handwaved in play. I'll write another post with actual examples of social and mental conflicts, but first: here's what I tried, what worked, and what didn't.

What's a social conflict?
There's a fine line between a mental and a social conflict. In the end, I decided a social conflict needs an audience: you are attacking somebody's status, their reputation, their power base.

I also had to decide what happens when you take somebody out in a social conflict. In theory, you could have them killed, but it was rare that was warranted. Eventually I ruled that a taken out NPC, had to lower some or all of their social skills; the victor could rewrite their "Place", which was a key Aspect in this game; and the NPC couldn't get involved in social conflicts until the next campaign milestone. (They could still kick your ass physically if you tried to knife them in their cell, though.) No PCs were taken out socially, so that didn't come up.

I wanted more than one social skill, but I didn't want characters to be spending all of their skill ranks on buying status. I started with a skill to grant a social stress track: Repute, representing someone's good name and their innate resistance to social attacks. I then added three parallel skills: Court, Trade, and Underworld. All three skills are analogous: a combination of Resources and Contacting, they allow you to maneuver, attack, and defend socially within certain social circles.

None of them represent actual status - that requires an Aspect. So you could take the Aspect "Emperor of Everything," but without a Court skill you would find yourself basically a figurehead - easily manipulated by your grand vizier or whatever.

How did it work out? Pretty well, but as it turned out most of the game's action took place in the Court spheres, so the other two skills didn't get much use. It made Court a very powerful skill, but that wasn't really a problem. 

Blank character sheet here…

Social Zones
I created a single social map for the City of Myrmidon. Each zone - or sphere, as I called them - represented a social strata or caste in the city. There were also border values, so the man in the street trying to start a rumor campaign against the ruling caste would be operating at a significant minus - although, frankly, the reverse was also the case. (Lord So-in-so can't really effectively smear the local barkeep.)

In fact, most of the action took place in only a few zones, so the map ended up being less of a tactical playing field than I imagined. However, it was a great reference to have on the table, and the PCs put a lot of Aspects on various spheres - "Tasted Blood In The Arena," "The Primarch Will Save Us," etc.

Key to this scheme was that character Aspects would "place" your character in one or more zones, thus establishing who you could attack and how well. On the other hand, anybody could make a Maneuver to get into another zone - if the local barkeep wants to slam Lord Delphinius, he can somehow get an invitation to his birthday party - at which point he is "in" the same zone, has his audience, and operates at no penalty. Again, that part came up less than it could have, but I kept in mind as characters implicitly moved between zones.

Social map here. The wacky names are the various castes of the city - the Komi, for example, are the six Great Houses, with uncanny abilities to manipulate ancestral tech.

Reputation Stress Track
The social stress track I called Reputation. I made one tweak to it: it doesn't "heal" after each conflict. Instead, characters  need to make a roll  to clear it out - basically like recovering Consequences in Fate Core.

The point of this was to allow the PCs to attack their enemies in ongoing conflicts ranging over multiple sessions. It worked reasonably well, although when it came to NPCs I usually just let them clear out their track if they went more than a couple of sessions without being attacked.

Long-distance Social Attacks
In keeping with the idea that the PCs would spend multiple sessions starting rumor-mongering campaigns and poisoning the minds of younger sons, I wanted them to be able to attack from a distance. Borrowing a page from Diaspora, I decided that, each session, each PC could make ONE - and only one - "strategic" social attack against an enemy without actually being present. The NPCs had the same option. 

The goal here was to keep the action moving, but still let the PCs think long-term (and be sneaky). It worked out moderately well. Actually, in some cases it worked amazingly well: the PCs would spend a session setting up Aspects by making Rapport rolls against fiances, spreading lies in bars, brainwashing henchmen, etc. It was a lot of fun. 

But logistically, it could be tricky. It could be hard to arbitrate what Aspects could actually be used: if you spread a rumor about your nemesis with the bartender, and put the Aspects "I'm a regular" on him, can you use it in your social attack? And do you need to roll against the bartender before you make your actual attack on Lord Delphineus?

By the end of the campaign, the whole "once per session" thing had more or less fallen by the wayside - the PCs made social attacks when it made sense in the story. That probably counts as a success. And there were some truly epic takedowns.

Aspects and Experience
I really tried to push the social… aspects… of this game, and tried to reflect that in the Aspects. Each character had an Aspect for Place - "Eldest Daughter of Hours Khymon," for example - and one for Goal - "Establish My Son As Heir." These worked really well, and they got a lot of invokes and compels. They could only be changed at major milestones - at least one character went from "Commander of the Fifth" to "Player of Uncertain Means And Motives" to "Dictator" (or whatever he ended up on.)

Speaking of milestones, I pegged advancement to player-determined goals, which… well, it needs its own post. It worked really well, and then people ignored it in the final third of the campaign. When players care more about the story than advancement, I know things are going well…

I went into this game planning on statting up organizations a la Legends of Anglerre. The more I planned, though, the more I felt that I didn't want an extra layer of abstraction - I wanted the PCs to go head-to-head with specific NPCs, rather than rolling organization skills vs other organizations. So, I boiled down organizations - factions - to a single index card each, with three Aspects. PC Aspects determined which Factions they were connected to - so "Eldest Daughter of House Khymon" automatically had access to the House Khymon Aspects. 

I had planned that players could invoke those Aspects as well as their own, but factions as resourses got less play than I expected. Basically, we were all new to Fate, and we spent the first few sessions really learning the rules and the info on the actual character sheets -  so the faction cards weren't on the table that much to begin with. 

The idea was that factions had no stress tracks - if you want to defeat one, you go into a conflict with an NPC, and if you take them out (or they concede), you can change one of the faction's Aspects (instead of the NPC's). Again, my players didn't spend much time really doing that - they went after the NPCs directly and very effectively. That sometimes mean meant they got screwed - "Well, Vervaine Van Saar is in prison, but House Van Saar is as powerful as ever." On the other hand, removing the "face" of various factions definitely worked as a strategy in the long wrong - by the end game, there weren't a lot of foes left.

The lack of faction "skills" was occasionally a problem, like when two houses went to war and troops were literally tearing down the doors. A few skills would have made those easier to arbitrate; instead I handled them through a mix of Court skill rolls, melee skirmishes, and invokes/compels. In theory, I like my approach, but I wish I had spelled it out more clearly and established a slightly more tactical approach. I think it would have given my players more "handles" on some of the action. 

Needless to say, lack of rules for burning down a great House didn't stop anybody.

End of part 1…
So that was the set up, in brief. I had specific goals going in: personal conflict, tactical social combat, proactive player-based objectives - and I got them all, just not always the way I expected. If I used these exact same rules a second time, now that my players are more experienced with Fate, I could probably get more juice out of some of them… but I might dump some as well. 

I definitely learned that if you can make  tactical rules for a situation visible and accessible to your players, they will use it - but it takes time and effort to set up a new framework, so you have to decide as a GM where to put the work.

In part 2, I'll go through some of the actual social conflicts, when I used conflict rules vs. when I didn't, and what worked.

People who wanted to know when I posted this: +Stefan Shirley
+Bill Collins +Fred Hicks +Dan Hall 
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