The Cudgel and the Contract

One of the most interesting play-aesthetic gaps in gaming to me is the chasm between how players want to resolve in-game social conflicts. You can prefer natural, normal talking, or you can prefer going to the dice. Maybe some folks don’t feel strongly about social conflict resolution, but I haven’t met them. It should come as no surprise that conversational conflict in a conversational medium is a fraught space.

So which are you? Do you prefer the cudgel? Or the contract?

The Cudgel

The cudgel refers to mechanized social conflicts. This might be the Duel of Wits system of Burning Wheel, or social combat rolls in Year Zero Engine games, or “following the fiction” moves applied to other players in PbtA games. If social conflicts can be addressed with a system (conflict resolution or skills/actions, whatever), that’s a cudgel.

Here are some arguments in favor of the cudgel:

  • So much of tabletop gameplay is procedurally mediated conversation that leaving arguments to just-talking puts too much emphasis on the conversation side, and not enough on the procedure side.
  • If you’re not good at arguing, pleading, weaseling, manipulating or browbeating in real life, you can’t play toward any of that in a game.
  • Just-talking is classist and ableist, heavily favoring well-educated, neurotypical players in and out of play.

The Contract

No rules, no masters

The contract refers to the social contract at the table. A game may mechanize physical player-facing risk (combat, jumping over chasms), maybe even proceduralize social interactions with NPCs, but the moment player agency comes into play, leave it to the players.

Here are some arguments in favor of the contract:

  • Talking and arguing are some of the richest moments of play for the players to really express and embody their characters.
  • Arguing between characters can feel like arguing between players, and that visceral thrill is powerful.
  • Maybe most important is the fact that the social contract – spoken or unspoken – provides a lot of structure we may not even know about.

The Tradeoffs

As in all things, every choice you make comes with tradeoffs.

Contracts are Tribal Ritual

Every time we fall back to our social contract, we reaffirm it. Where rolling dice to win a character argument may drive players apart (particularly a bad-faith player who won’t respect the outcome anyway), forcing the players to agree to their characters’ outcomes can help build camaraderie. If social bonding is an important part of your play, elevating the social contract can help that.

Cudgels are Democratizing

It’s hard to play a smooth-talking rogue when you’re a clumsy dork. The cudgel evens the odds against the real-world talkers, particularly if those players didn’t bother building their character that way.

Contracts Are Unfair

Not everyone can make an impassioned argument that actually convinces anyone. Or sometimes the GM just likes another player more and is more sympathetic to their needs. I know this is shocking and let me say right now, completely untrue: GMs don’t have favorites. (Narrator: GMs have favorites.) Contracts are unfair because there are no objective procedures to which everyone has agreed.

Cudgels Require Good Faith

So you went to the dice to get what you wanted, you won, and now your opponent is just ignoring the outcome. Sucks! What’s your recourse? Roll more dice again? In the real world, not all players are skilled at playing their characters at arm’s length, or happily accepting outcomes that didn’t go their way. Every “system,” whether procedural or interpersonal, has a fail state. I have never seen a cudgel that could overcome an opponent who simply refused to accept the outcome.

Contracts Maximize Agency

The appeal of never being forced into action by another player is real. You may have a vision of the narrative truth of your character, and outside influence on that may rob you of that. It’s a bit of authority that no other authority can override.

Cudgels Are Surprising

Sometimes a social conflict victory comes as a surprise to everyone. That’s exciting! There are few more thrilling moments in a game than when I get surprised – within the bounds of acceptable surprises, that is. Same goes for fiction, right? Who expected Hades’ heart to withstand Orpheus’ appeals in Hadestown? Don’t know about you, but “I don’t know…” was not what I was expecting out of the big Broadway finale.

Contracts Demand Consensus

Because nobody wants to threaten the social contract,  interesting interpersonal conflicts can be bleached of their excitement. Talking is good, don’t get me wrong. But constant cooperation means you’re leaving out whole realms of play. I have found that players tend to temper their characters’ needs and play toward consensus. Is consensus always the best and most interesting fiction?

Cudgels Egg On Conflict

When you have a cudgel, the whole world looks like heads to bonk. The phrase “social combat” is commonly invoked. Social combat can be exciting but it can also be the wrong tone. I’ve also found an unfortunate tendency for cudgel-preferring players to actually just want mind control. Every rules text I’ve ever read clearly calls mind control out as bad play, and common sense should cover that as well, but here we are. If you’ve got a cudgel, what’s to keep you from bonking heads to get what you want?

How To Choose?

I think social contract-level PvP is pretty great, still, particularly in high-trust groups without any big gaps in real-world social ability, leverage, or neurotypicality. If everyone’s pretty close, knowing you can’t fall back to dice produces fundamentally different outcomes. Ideally the players reach some kind of compromise because they’re committed to playing together in the future. Social pressure works.

That said? When we’re just talking I really miss the tension of not knowing how a conflict is going to come out. I also have a lot of respect for the position that shy players deserve to play social monsters too. Unfit nerds have eagerly pretended to be bodybuilder-warriors since the earliest days. And sometimes even the best-intentioned players still arrive at loggerheads about deeply held positions.

For me, where I fall on this comes down to the game I’m playing. If there’s a lot of internal tension – that is, the characters are expected to disagree about things, even strive against each other from time to time – I prefer the cudgel. But if the game relies on, or is about, the characters sticking together, I like the contract.

…And The Twist

Here’s the stuff nobody talks about.

The so-called cudgel of rules-based social conflict? They make an excellent basis for a functional, healthy social contract. When everyone agrees to follow the same rules, that means everyone agrees to the outcomes. If they don’t, well, that’s a quick way to flush out the bad-faith players. These are the rules, you agreed to the rules, and now you aren’t abiding by the rules. Where do we go from here?

And that nice-sounding social contract you think you can fall back on? Can totally be used as a cudgel by bad-faith players who will leverage goodwill and the geek-fallacy “the game must go on” stuff to get their way. This is a toxic fail state I wish/hope more roleplayers were aware of. This sort of social-level manipulation is often not apparent, either. If a player threatens the accepted social order of the table because they didn’t get their way, that’s a bright red flag.

1 thought on “The Cudgel and the Contract”

  1. Cool overview! I don’t think I cleanly fall into either camp, mostly because I see social conflict systems as a specific tool developed to address inadequacies in social contract play. I think that there’s a lot of gaps they don’t wind up covering–but you can also build mechanical frames around those gaps as well. Something you allude to in your post, which I’ve been largely disappointed by in social conflict systems, is the lack of constructive social exchange. I enjoy mechanics as a way to get people to step back and explicitly think about the dynamics of what’s going on, and I feel a big thing that social conflict systems do is to encourage you to think of the destructive, even toxic ways that social exchange breaks down into contests of will.

    My favorite stealth social exchange system is the Sword To Sword minigame in The King is Dead/Firebrands, and I think that’s a very compelling way to handle the multifaceted nature of how social exchanges can go. You have plenty of opportunity to take it in a conflict direction if things go south, but it equally encourages cooperation and the building of intimacy between characters. You go from prompt to prompt, and it’s your choice what to offer to the other participant–and their choice to respond as they wish. What it does really well is allow for an emotional win-win outcome, where both sides have shifted themselves so that they both gain from the exchange by building a relationship.

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