Argumentative combat

There’s a cool session coming up for my game, in which I should be able to put the wood elf culture of Qosid on display. You see, one of the party members decided to kill a Labarean merchant during an interrogation and now he (and the others) will be tried before a communal assembly.

This allows me to put the exotic politics of the wood elves on display. Finding out what happened, reaching a verdict and deciding a punishment are all done through collective decision-making in what is effectively a libertarian socialist confederation. The commune of Yhaoltum will weigh in, ask questions, provide arguments one way or another and from this messy public deliberation the outcome of the trial will emerge.

But as is more often the case, bringing worldbuilding to the forefront of a roleplaying game can interfere with the, well, game part. If I’d play out the situation as I am envisioning it, there would be a large crowd of NPCs making comments throughout the session, drowning out any semblance of player agency. Since that would not be fun, I would probably refrain from this approach in practice, but then I would not convey the ideas of Qosidian Law.

This got me thinking. Why not gamify the public deliberation? Why not find a way that guarantees player agency and that can be used to convey world lore? And is there a way that ties into the 5E system, so that players do not need to learn weird new rules?

I think this can be done by looking at a public assembly as, essentially, combat. Let me explain how that would work.

Preparation by the DM

Argumentative Combat — which is what I am now calling this — is built around an Audience and a Thesis. The Audience, in my particular case, is the assembly itself: all the wood elves that joined for the discussion. The Thesis is the statement that is at the heart of the discussion. It’s important to realize that the Thesis might change during Argumentative Combat, but let’s first deal with a situation in which it doesn’t. For example, the statement could be:

Bor Durlyne murdered Theodorius Battlewheel

What the DM now should prepare are two tables: one with arguments in favor of the Thesis and one with arguments against the Thesis. These tables will be used to roll for arguments that are brought in by NPCs joining the debate. In the case of popular assemblies, this is the Audience itself.

Because there might be prior expectations about the plausibility of a Thesis (e.g. things might look really bad for Bor from the get-go), the DM should also allot Plausibility Points to either position. These will function as hit points during Argumentative Combat: the position that is stronger at face value should have more initial Plausibility Points.

In my case I am going to say it is fifty-fifty whether or not the Thesis is deemed plausible and I am giving 40 Plausibility points to either position. This reflects the general opinion of the Audience — if one position is out of Plausibility Points, nobody in the Audience subscribes to that position anymore.

The DM can also prepare other stuff, such as questions that might prompt new arguments, or even changes to the Thesis that might pop up during the discussion (see Complications below).

Running Argumentative Combat

To start the debate, each player rolls the equivalent of Initiative, which in Argumentative Combat is a Charisma check. Instead of each specific NPC also making such a roll, the DM rolls for an amount of slots that is equal to the amount of PCs, for purposes of pacing. These slots can then be filled in by various NPCs on a round-to-round basis.

Each round, a PC (or NPC filling a slot) can perform one of the action listed in the table below on their turn.

ActionDescriptionMechanic
QuestionAsk a specific person to elaborate on a claim, explain something or otherwise answer a questionThis action consumes your turn.
ArgueProvide a substantiated, novel argument that support or opposes the ThesisRoll a Persuasion check against a DC of 12. If you make the check, roll 1d4. The result of this throw is subtracted from the Plausibility Points of the position that you argued against.
Counterargue (reaction)Negate an argument made by someone else.Once per round, in response to someone using the Argue action, you can roll a Persuasion check against a DC of 12. If you make the check, roll 1d4. The result of this throw is added to the Plausibility Points of the position that was initially argued against.
Witty comeback (reaction)Soften the blow of an argumentOnce per round, in response to someone using the Argue or Counterargue action, you can roll a Charisma ability check against a DC of 12. If you make the check, the effect of the respective Argue or Counterargue action is halved.
PassRefrain from participating in the discussionThis action consumes your turn.
Table 1 – Different actions during argumentative combat

Note that this setup works best if players and NPCs make actual arguments. If these are then strong, the DM can choose to use 1d6 or 1d8 to attack a Thesis. Similarly, if someone touches a nerve with their appeal, a DM might grant advantage on the Persuasion check.

Ending Argumentative Combat

Argumentative Combat ends when on of the positions runs out of Plausibility Points. It can also end earlier, with a call to vote, for example. This depends on the context in which the Argumentative Combat takes place. For example, during a judicial assembly in Yhaoltum, the moderator of the discussion can call the vote, after which there is one more round of deliberation. Another way to end it is to postpone further deliberation.

Regardless of its size, the Audience beliefs follow the distribution of the Plausibility Points. Let’s say that deliberation on the above Thesis ends with 6 and 14 points in favor and against the Thesis, respectively. This means that 30% of the Audience believes that Bor murdered Theo and 70% does not.

Complications

  • Amending the Thesis: in real-life deliberation, the Thesis can be expanded or altered as discussion progresses. Perhaps ‘Bor Durlyne is complicit in the death of Theodorius Battlewheel’ is a better Thesis than the original one. To catch this mechanically, a DM could consider making amendments part of the combat cycle. Perhaps at the end of each round, all character are given the opportunity to Amend the Thesis, via a Persuasion Check with a relatively high DC.
  • Shifting the Thesis: similar to amendments, sometimes there are wholly new issues to be resolved. Let’s say there’s doubt whether it’s up to Yhaoltum in the first place to discuss Theodorius’ death. This would be a different Thesis that needs to be discussed. At the DM’s discretion, the Thesis can be temporarily changed. For pacing reasons, it’s good to use small pool of Plausibility Points for such secondary theses.
  • Dynamic DC: to keep things simple, both the Argue and Counterargue need to beat a fixed DC of 12. This is a simplification of real debate, in which positions have different strengths, and arguments do, too. Moreover, as debate proceeds, finding new ways to attack a position becomes harder and harder. One solution to this is to to change the DC, for example by increasing it by 1 or 2 each round.
  • Natural 20: Since Argumentative Combat takes place using Persuasion checks, there is no special consequence of rolling a natural 20. But since the checks replace an attack roll, you might consider introducing a ‘critical hit’ doing ‘double damage’.
  • Reusing Arguments: if an argumentative attack fails, a player might be tempted to just retry with the same argument. In real-life, this is a bad approach if it means repeating a bad argument, but a good approach if it was a good argument that people just didn’t understand on the first try. Although it complicates things, the DM might choose to state that the latter scenario applies for any given argument, so that it can be reused. This avoids the situation in which poor dice outcomes negate all sorts of strong arguments, so that the debate is left undecided while everyone is clutching at straws for move it forward.

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