Rhetorical Combat

   The pen is mightier than the sword. That’s what they always say. But it’s just a saying – because who’d want a pen-wielding character in a game, that’s lame.

   “Merchants say there’s a dragon up north, somewhere in the mountains.”
   “Okay, I’ll write a pamphlet against it.”

   That is not a good adventure-starter.

   Still, fighting an opponent with words instead of swords has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers did it all the time. Courtiers did it during the reigns of Kings Louis XV and XVI. Mandarins did it in ancient China. Rivals did it in tribal Madagascar. Rhetorical combat is a very old thing indeed, and it’s a shame we can’t get a real taste of it in tabletop role-playing.

   When your character fights, technical attention to detail is at its peak, but when your character talks, there are zero technical details. It’s not at all balanced. Some Dungeon Masters told me: “If you wanna talk, talk. Use your tongue. Talk for real.” PCs have to do that, do they? My character gets an audience with the High Priest, and that High Priest decides to disagree with the way I plan to go about my next quest. So, I have to argue for real. But if the Temple Champion then attacks my character with his flaming mace +4, I don’t have to fight for real against a mace swinging brute... Why do rhetorical devices have to be “for real” in the game, and not physical combat? Your character is a level 12 Knight in the king’s court, but maybe you are not physically fit: that’s okay. Your character is a level 12 Mandarin in the emperor’s court, but maybe you are not good with words: that should also be okay. This is why I designed the following system; now, anyone can bash their opponent verbally.

   This “Mandarin System” is very loosely based on the many rich Rules of Rhetorics established by the Greeks. First off, you have to roll up the rhetorics section of your character’s skills – a section that can be added to almost any character record sheet. It goes like this:

Logôs (Proposition)
Base score: 1d10 (%)
+5% per point of INT
Apologôs (Refutation)
Base score: 1d12 (%)
+4% per point of WIS
Apophasis (Irony)
Base score: 2d8   (%)
+2% per point of CHA

   You can adapt it into White Wolf with “dots” and Willpower and Wits. The basic idea stays the same: a To Hit skill (Logôs), a Parry skill (Apologôs), and a full Dodge skill (Apophasis). Dodging an argument is less formal than parrying it. Apophasis is more of a jest: you are not really debating the topic – you’re just fooling around. Apologôs is a real counter-argument.

   “Men of faith only endorse reform when it is not anathema to their beliefs.”
   “Or when it doesn’t impede the anatomy of their relief...”
·        That’s an Apophasis. Dodge.

   “Men of faith only endorse reform when it is not anathema to their beliefs.”
   “It is not up to the clergy to caution reform – which is, in truth, a different faith.”
·        That’s an Apologôs. Parry.

   Your character also have Rhetorical Hit Points, or RHP, and a Renown score that can either go up or down, depending on the number of arguments / debates he or she won or lost. Rhetorical Hit Points are usually restored after any reasonable amount of time spent away from argumentation and debating. Lost Renown, on the other hand, can only be restored by “coming back” and winning new arguments, be it against the same previous adversary, or against another contender. The assumption is that these “arguments” always take place in public, with lots of witnesses – like in the days of Greek philosophers, or at the court of King Louis XVI, et cetera. It was considered fruitless to win arguments in private.

   Damage is always 1d4 + Renown. Subtract from defender’s current RHP. When someone renowned makes a valid point or a good counter-argument (i.e. Obama’s “we also have fewer horses and bayonets”), it carries more weight than if a dude in Dudestown had made the exact same point. Note that Renown cannot drop into a negative score; you can’t have 1d4 -4 rhetorical damage. So, zero renown is the lowest, but you always have a chance to deal some sweet rhetorical damage anyway.

   Here is how a “combat” should go:

   Mandarin #1 has 71% Logôs, 66% Apologôs, and 65% Apophasis, with 14 Rhetorical Hit Points, and a Renown of 4.

   Mandarin #2 has 58% Logôs, 60% Apologôs, and 51% Apophasis, with 11 Rhetorical Hit Points, and a Renown of 1. (I didn’t want to research the Chinese equivalents for “Logôs” and “Apologôs” and “Apophasis”, so just bear with me here.)

   Mandarin #1 opens with a resounding Proposition, and rolls 22% on his 71% skill – it’s a “hit”. Mandarin #2 goes for a Refutation, but misses (rolled 89% on his 60% skill). Mandarin #1 rolls 1d4 “damage” and scores 2, plus 4 for his Renown. Mandarin #2 subtracts 6 from his 11 RHP, so he now has 5. It is then his turn to “attack”, and he rolls 40% on his 58% Logôs. Mandarin #1 tries irony, and rolls 74% on his 65% Apophasis – a miss! Mandarin #2 rolls damage and scores a big fat 4, plus 1 for his Renown. Mandarin #1 drops his RHP to 9 (from 14). Then he launches another Proposition and rolls 95% on his 71% skill. Miss. Mandarin #2 immediately follows with his own Proposition, rolling 33% on his 58% Logôs. Mandarin #1 attempts a Refutation and gets an excellent 07% on his 66% Apologôs. Successful “parry”. No damage.

   And so on, and so forth.

   When one of them hits 0 RHP, his opponent wins the argument. Applause and warm congratulatory cheers from the many witnesses all around. Loser drops 1 point of Renown, and cannot debate again in 2-5 days.

   You decide if you want to allow skills increase by XP, or not. (Mandarin #1 wants to raise his Logôs skill from 71% to 80% and how much experience does he has to spend in order to do so. Depends on which core system you play in.)

   You also decide if RHP can go up, and if so, are they linked to ordinary HP increase (when the character levels up), or can the additional Rhetorical Hit Points be “bought” separately with XP. All choices are acceptable.

   So, there you have it. Mandarin System. That’s my proposition.

   Now, try to refute me.

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