Mutant Year Zero: Social Conflicts

So to recap, here’s what’s up with social conflicts in MYZ:

* There’s no defense opportunity. if you get targeted by a Manipulate, it’s entirely on the Manipulator whether they succeed or fail. Granted “success” may not extend beyond “you’ll do it but you can ask for something back.”

* If you take all your Empathy damage (from excess Manipulate successes) you’re Broken in exactly the same way as if you had physically damaged or exhausted yourself. You can literally sow so much fear/doubt/confusion that your opponent exposes himself to mortal danger due to being broken. In PvP, players are very reticent to break another player.

Things we’re thinking about:

* Go to what we know, which is the Burning Wheel scheme of social conflict: Either you say no (and the attacker has to exceed some # of damage, i.e. your Empathy, so basically Mutant RAW), or you counter-argue (both sides roll Manipulate and most successes win, but there’s no way you’re breaking each other’s Empathy), or you leave the scene or situation. That middle solution is the system to be worked out.

* Mental/emotional Broken is perhaps treated differently than physical Broken (i.e. strength or agility). Right now any Broken has the same game impact: you can do nothing but Maneuver (i.e. no actions of any kind), and you open yourself up to being killed by an opponent. The enormous threat that comes along with breaking Empathy or Wits I think is problematic. It makes the RAW solution above scary to carry out in a way that it is not in Burning Wheel.

I still struggle with this! And last night the “let’s talk this out” solution was so very good. It actually felt more honest and intense than if The Dice told someone to fold up and do as they’re told. And, yeah, I totally get that all the old problems arise from that: the more persuasive player tends to get what they want, regardless of character abilities.

The conflicting agendas of “I want my good talker to be able to talk good” and “Real conversation produces very satisfying outcomes when we’re all honest brokers” … feels very nearly unbridgeable, given the tools we have available to us.

I think my personal goal right now is to cook up actual Player Versus Player social conflict procedures, where both sides want something but they want to roll just in case they don’t have to compromise. At the very least, I think the illusion of “defense” will feel better if the dice need to come out.

Ooh, an idea: What if both sides just simultaneously attack each other? There’s no me-reducing-your-successes. We’re both trying to succeed and possibly Break the other. Hm.

0 thoughts on “Mutant Year Zero: Social Conflicts”

  1. In many Nordic larps, the rule is “the person targeted says what happens”. I was shocked how well this consistently works. 

    Paul: “I swing my sword at you.”
    John: “I dodge” or “I take a superficial wound” or “I get decapitated!”

    It is also coupled with a culture of play and workshops that encourage players to “play for drama” and “play to lose”.

    Although strangely this works much better in physical conflict. People are happier to roleplay out being stabbed than they are being wrong.

  2. It’s hard to find a game rules combo that a) feels like real-world social interactions, and b) is game effective. When I’ve played BW social stuff it tends to feel like we’re all in a courtroom or some ancient greek assembly taking turns on a soapbox.

  3. Relevant to this conversation: (please don’t tag the author; he asked not to join this conversation today.)

    Seduction and manipulation mechanics, no matter how well-intentioned, remove player agency. It’s better to err on the side of relying on player acting ability than a die roll, even if that means the poorer actor loses. Honestly, though– how often is someone a really persuasive actor, but a bad improv’er (I’m making a leap here and assuming a good improv person will say yes to a clumsy manipulation attempt if it makes a better story)? I know it happens, but perhaps it happens less often than we realize.

    I definitely think there’s a difference between “play to win” and “play to be interesting” styles of play (I won’t say players, because the same player can be either).

  4. John Stavropoulos I can totally see why that’d be a neat way to resolve physical stuff, especially in a Nordic style play space. There’s a whole structure built up to accommodate that.

    Matt Wilson agreed! And I’ve been thinking hard about the feel of social conflict as well. Like…in my head, Burning Wheel games already feel like the sort of fiction where folks give dramatic speeches and passionately implore one another. It also feels like the kind of fiction where being dim-witted or hard-headed or whatever is an important part of one’s characterization.

    But like…I’m thinking about MYZ and my current go-to model for social interaction is The Walking Dead. And that comes with some assumptions: nobody can survive and get away with being dim-witted or hard-headed or whatever. There aren’t a lot of big speeches or impassioned pleas, but a lot of growling one-on-one threats and grumbling. 

    One huge thing that’s missing from MYZ that I think you’d need to make it more BW-y is Talents that reflect something about the character’s personality. Talents are universally positive benefits in the game, so already you don’t have that whole “get paid to play your weaknesses” element in BW. But I think it would be useful to be able to buy a Talent that said you were stubborn (+2 to the empathy damage you can take), or sly (always get a compromise even if you’re Broken), or zealous (+1 Gear die, never accept a compromise) or other genre-appropriate personality tweaks.

  5. I’ll only say that I like that Empathy damage can lead to being Broken and the risk of death. In a post-apocalyptic game where hope is in short supply, that feels right. Your “ooh, idea” version of social combat (an independent Attack test in Torchbearer/BW-ish terms) seems harsh. It’s the most vicious option in the BW ecosystem. If that matches the character of MYZ‘s physical combat (brutish and short), then go for it. But if there’s any cut-and-thrust to MYZ‘s other conflicts, then a “versus roll” of Manipulation v. Manipulation with a Margin of Success feels like the better option to someone who knows nothing about MYZ.

  6. Paul Beakley Two other systems spring to mind. I’m not saying they’re ALL THAT, but might be scavenged for ideas if you want to build a custom solution. 1 – HeroQuest 2e and, 2 – A Song of Ice and Fire RPG.

    I could give you a brief rundown if you like.

  7. Yeah, if I map it to a versus type test, as regular combat is, then you’re looking at multiple rounds of arguing. Not the worst thing in the world, honestly! But then what do I do with “say no,” when the other side just flat refuses you and wants nothing in return?

    (This is occasionally a BW issue as well, but the players have accepted that rolling vs. Will in that game is pretty tough.)

    Agreed that cross-stabbing each other is brutal. Yeah, absolutely. I think if everyone knew that, they’d think long and hard about engaging with it. Maybe to the point where they simply would not.

    Stephanie Bryant yeah, I hear you about the problems of social conflict systems. It’s something we’ve spent the last decade-or-so talking and thinking about! And honestly nothing has changed. Either the table buys it and accepts it (as a means of modeling folks who are more persuasive than the players, or notably characterized as weak-willed or strong-willed), or everyone agrees that we’ll try and be as honest and reasonable as possible and work things out without a system in place.

    There are certainly benefits and drawbacks to both. I love the methodology of Burning Wheel’s social conflicts (either as versus tests or the full Duel of Wits system) but it very much introduces a “when all you have is a hammer all you see is nails” mindset to social conflict.

  8. I feel like that seduction article is all kinds of problematic, in like an elaborate layer-cake way that would take a great deal of time to explicate.

    If it’s real conversation that’s very valuable to the group, there’s a few possible solutions you could work out that rely on assigning the most persuasive player to the most persuasive character in a sort of proxy role.

  9. Yeah, I didn’t really want to dig into the issues I have with that article. Read like someone who hasn’t been involved in this stuff for that long.

    Re. the proxy solution: probably need to set that up in the beginning, yeah? Right now I have two very smart, very persuasive humans playing characters at opposing ends of the persuasiveness spectrum. So like, inside the fiction it’s been hard to wrap our heads around the smarts and social effectiveness that our professional corporate lawyer brings to his ex-slave (who’s both dumb and unempathic). Yes, sure, that’s poor roleplaying but there’s also nothing mechanical there to induce him into character. Either he does it because it’s fun, or it doesn’t happen. (No surprise that he is a huge Burning Wheel fan; he’s totally okay with deep characterization as long as there’s a carrot at the end of it. Feel free to speculate on his moral failings outside this thread.)

    And man, it just doesn’t seem to come up in well-implemented PbtA games that have spent the time/effort to get right — the deal about doing what you’re told and getting paid for it is terrific. Simple and smart and you still retain a lot of agency.

  10. I think what’s most important is players maintain agency unless the point of the game’s experience is that they are losing agency. Burning Wheel handles this by negotiating stakes before engaging the mechanics. Win or lose, you know what you are getting into and agreed to it. Powered By The Apocalypse games don’t have negotiation and minimal talk before engaging mechanics. Instead, the person affected is given choices. Often back out if they lost (possibly paying a penalty or not) or accept the results and get rewarded for it. Either way it feels like a choice vs. mind control.

  11. Tbh I think social conflict is one of the great design challenges of rpgs. Getting it even a little wrong, like Mutant has, is so very wrong.

    Good breakdown of ways to maintain agency. I’ll bet there are others!

  12. I like how Sorcerer works, too. You as the imposed-upon player can decide yes or no, but their success against you are penalty dice if/when you do something opposed to what they want.

  13. . (EDIT: I just had a vision of that the cover of your RPG theory/appreciation/review fanzine would be a picture of you actually chewing an RPG. A page at a time, licking your fingers.)

  14. Paul Beakley Okay you asked for it…

    Sorry for the long post in advance:

    Ok, so “A Song of Ice and Fire RPG” has three major Conflict Resolution Rule Sets. One is for Skirmish Style Combat (regular RPG combat I would say), one is for Warfare (large scale battles), and one is for Intrigue.

    Intrigues are divided into “Exchanges” where one Exchange can be very fluent in time from a few seconds to a day or more depending on the Intrigue in question and the actions taken. An Intrigue to argue in front of a judge and jury that you are innocent and try to outwit your accuser is short, while an intrigue to plant rumours that the King’s Hand is a traitor might take longer. You get the idea.

    During one Exchange all parties get to take one turn to act. On that turn players get to roll Abilities etc to try to manoeuvre and somehow shift the Intrigue in their favour. Once all parties have taken an action, the exchange ends and the intrigues either resolves OR another exchange is initiated.

    The Goal for every Intrigue is to gain enough Influence to make your counterpart do, say, reveal, act the way you want. So this system can be used for anything from as simple as trying to bed a young Prince, to convince someone you are not the droid they’re looking for or simply change someone’s mind about something, to more complicated matters like dethroning a lord etc.

    In a sense Influence acts a lot like Damage. And as in Combat you roll an Ability test, but in this case you use skills like “Deception” or “Persuasion” and instead of targeting the opponents AC you target his Intrigue Defence. Success generates an amount of Influence that is applied towards your opponents Composure (social Hit Points), and once your opponents Composure drops to 0, you defeat him or her and decide the consequences.

    That is the basics. From there they add things like, it’s easier to convince a religious person to act if you use religious arguments… and if you are IN the church when you argue with him you might gain an even bigger advantage. (basically these things act as Damage bonus/penalty etc.)

    HeroQuest uses the same conflict resolution mechanic for ALL types of conflict. Basically it doesn’t matter if we are talking about one corporation trying a hostile takeover, a weapon thane in a village trying to convince the elders to send out a war party, or a Barbarian trying to kill a Troll. It’s all the same thing. The only difference is whether you run it as a Simple or Complex Contest and/or if more than one player is involved. If it is a Simple Conflict it s ONE Opposed roll and then straight to result. If it is Complex opponents compete to get the 5 Victory Points first, and then you compare the difference. The difference in Successes tells you how severe consequence you have to take.

    So how they deal with Consequences here is interesting, because like you said in MY0 you could get “impaired” or even “killed” socially, politically, economically or… physically. What HeroQuest does is simple, yet works. The Consequence you get is only applied to “things related to the defeat”. Basically if you get beat up socially, that might be that you are now shamed and your father despises you and your clan looks sideways at you. (Had you been killed in that conflict, you might have been declared an outcast or similar, basically reducing your Social life to “dead” status.) The consequence here is that you have a large penalty in ALL upcoming Social Conflicts where your family and clan is involved. You are fighting an uphill battle due to your previous failures. “Healing” this type of consequence is done over time. If you were killed in an Economic Conflict you just lost your entire fortune in a bid for power over a company… you are now living on the street… and any economic challenge that comes after that is going to be though on you… but over time you can slowly rebuild, you can base entire adventure sessions around players trying to regain what they have lost.

    I hope I’m making some sense in all this and I know it was a long post… not completely wasted I hope?

  15. AGOT: scale feels off for MYZ, but I do like abstract conflicts that you can map across a conversation or weeks of effort.

    HQ isn’t bad. Gets back to the fact that Broken in the game that treats all forms the same. Good for expedient healing, kind of lacks nuance. But then again they did make one kind of damage different: when your strength is Broken you took on a critical hit table. I could see something similar for every kind of damage.

  16. I guess HQ has nuances in that there are several degrees of victory. You can have a minor victory (1p difference) with only very temporary consequences. Like you talk your way past the bouncer but a few minutes later he’s scanning the crowd inside looking to “bounce” your sorry ass. Etc. so there are degrees there.

  17. What is the ideal goal of your social conflict system?

     Is it to be heard and contribute? Is it to control another character? Is it to change another character? Is it to have fun arguing in real life? Is it to be detrimental enough so that no one actually wants to use it?

  18. My favorite conflict system is the one in Dogs in the Vineyard. We actually had people give up conflicts, because the process of playing it out proved their point of view and intent wrong, beautiful stuff. I have no idea of how to implement it into Mutant though.

    However, I kind of dig Mutant’s social conflict rules as written. Yeah PvP turns into one active player rolling to manipulate the other one, but there are a ton of cool modifiers based on what they want, and who is backing them up. It reminds me a bit of how it works in Apocalypse World (which is the inspiration after all).

  19. Jesse Coombs well that’s an interesting question. Hm. If I was starting from first principles I think I’d come up with something that isn’t actually compatible with the game’s underlying “one system to rule them all” approach.

    That said, here is an example where I found the current system unsatisfying:

    Last night I had a player trying to convince everyone to pack up and leave rather than set about slaughtering the zone ghouls who are running a large, valuable water treatment plant. In the course of making his plea, another player decided to make the case that actually, yeah, they should absolutely slaughter the zone ghouls — the plant’s too valuable to walk away from! 

    So who rolls? The RAW has two thoughts on this:

    1. The player who made the initial pitch (i.e. “the attacker,” loosely defined in the rules but at least identified).


    2. Roll for initiative. The character with the best Agility + d6 would be making the roll.

    Those are both 100% legal and legit. Do either of those make sense? There are two sides to this argument. Who’s the actual “attacker” here? The “let’s take this place!” initially started as an NPC’s idea. Hell, do we back it up that far after the fact? 

    That said, here’s how I handled it: the guy asking to leave is murderously good at Manipulate (Empathy 5, Manipulate 3 or 4 at this point), but he actually had the slave make the roll. The slave is terrible: Empathy 2, Manipulate 1. I’m not sure how we landed there but we went with a “loudest and slowest” type resolution. And the slave got it! With a compromise, which the “let’s leave” guy declined to take.

    And then the big bad Enforcer, whose dream is “I want to build the world, not destroy it,” said he was walking away from any slaughter they might try. Here, take my gun, I’m out. Powerful! He made no roll. But the player so effectively framed his position that the “let’s take this place!” slave player was moved, and conceded that they should just go home.

    It was an amazing interplay. And what scares me to death about resorting to it is:

    1. I have no idea if that outcome could be replicated. 


    2. It does not model that the smoothest talker in the room should succeed most at talking. Just like the fiercest fighter in the room should win more fights.

    The back of my brain feels like the “loudest and slowest” solution has merit but I don’t know why it should. The guy with the smallest pool makes the roll when there are two sides arguing. It means that character has the harder job and is least likely to drive the other side to Broken. It also means the best talker doesn’t get a shot at Breaking the weaker side. It has all kinds of logical problems, but it had a kind of elegance to it.

  20. Paul Beakley​, you keep referring to being broken quite a lot, but at least in the Swedish rules it states that a social conflict is just one roll, not a contest repeated until someone’s broken. However, you may choose to have extra 6s (the special symbols) cause Stress (Agility, or rather “Cool”, damage), or Doubt (Empathy damage). If you succeed in manipulating someone, it states that the losing side most often relents and does what you want, but with a request for something back. It’s up to the manipulator to accept the deal or not.

    Do the English rules differ in the Social Conflict rules? The Swedish rules also has a “Let it Ride” rule, which should further help against being broken by PvP social conflicts.

  21. I have no idea if the Swedish rules are different. Here are the English rules.

    1) The attacker rolls Empathy + Manipulate

    2) On a success, the defender will agree to what the attacker asks, if the attacker does something in return.

    3) Excess successes are applied as damage to Empathy. If they’re Broken (i.e. Empathy is reduced to 0), they will do it without a compromise.

    There is no option to do “stress/agility” damage in the English version. Only Empathy damage.

  22. Duh, of course you wouldn’t know the changes, we had already established that language barrier. Sorry for my poorly phrased question. I’m a dolt.

    From what you’ve outlined the only difference is that in the Swedish game you can also cause Stress damage to Agility (called “Cool”). Unless your step 3 is actually a must, because in the Swedish version it’s a may. I.e. it’s optional to cause damage in a social conflict.

  23. I think it looks like you handled it rather well in your play example, but hear you on the timing issues, and about who actually rolls. Perhaps just explain to the group that any time someone feels like convincing someone else, PC or NPC, we go to the dice with that person as the instigator. If people give in without the need, then fine, but at least it gets around the timing issues, and figuring out who actually instigated the conflict.

  24. I wonder if the easiest fix would be to rename the attributes you roll. Then could you use RAW?

    That being said, it sounds like your solution made a better moment. Rule Zero rears it’s ugly, useful head I guess.

  25. Dunno…it wasn’t exactly a rule zero moment (as I understand it). It was just organic social interplay between actual humans at the table struggling with the ethics of their decisions. 

    Sometimes I fear, a little, that social conflict mechanisms can short-circuit the introspection and turn the conflict into swordplay by other means. Like, it’s a struggle to remember what was actually said sometimes during a Duel of Wits, because we’re so busy finagling and strategizing our plays that we don’t really internalize what’s being said. We say it because it’s expedient and it fits our tactically optimal move, not because our character actually believes it.

    Which may be entirely purposeful if I know luke crane at all. It’s a pretty cynical view on human communication but entirely plausible as well (especially if one or both sides have already decided that They Must Win and damn the ethics).

  26. Hi Paul!

    Tomas here, the lead game designer of Mutant: Year Zero. Very cool to read your thoughts and feedback! Some short comments:

    Regarding social conflict – the system is not primarily designed for PVP social conflicts, but primarily for PC vs NPC conflicts. I do agree that the fact that the defender doesn’t get to roll a defense roll makes PVP social conflicts a little awkward – the initiative is very important in conflicts, and doesn’t really make sense in PVP social conflicts where there is no clear “aggressor”.

    Let me explain briefly why the conflict system overall is designed the way it is. Most of my previous games (such as Svavelvinter, here’s a link to a quickstart in English: have opposed rolls as the basic game mechanism. Not so in Mutant: Year Zero. Why? Because getting a “defense roll” against attacks gives you a sense of security. I didn’t want that in Mutant: Year Zero. When someone pulls a gun at you and fires, you can’t dodge the bullet. You need to be the guy who fires first.

    In social conflicts PC vs NPC, this generally works, but in PVP, it doesn’t always make sense. In these cases, if you do feel a dice roll is in order, I do think an opposed roll (like a close combat attack that is defended against, p 84) would make the most sense.

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