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Verbal Duels

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 176
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can crush your spirit. Verbal duels are battles of words rather than swords, in which skilled duelists use facts, wordplay, and rhetorical flourishes against each other to win arguments or sway crowds. This kind of duel typically takes place in front of an audience, but the rules presented below can also be used for private discussions, or even large debates where multiple viewpoints conflict in an arena of opinion.

Many of the following rules assume the duel is between two chief opponents and is conducted in front of onlookers the duelists are attempting to sway—indeed, sometimes a duelist and her allies can improve their odds by discerning the crowd’s biases and playing to them. A verbal duel’s audience might be an angry mob, the members of a ruling council or senate, the jury during a court proceeding, or socialites at a party—anywhere two characters might best each other with wit and cutting remarks.

Setting the Scene

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 176
It is important to set the scene of a verbal duel so the PCs participating in it know what is at stake. Sometimes these conflicts are simple, two-person struggles where each duelist attempts to shut down the other’s argument. These can be fun and whimsical affairs—two duelists may engage in an argument about the merits of competing operas or fencing defenses, and the loser has to buy the evening’s drinks. Verbal duels can also be nerve-wracking conflicts in which the participants spar over some serious issue, such as a debate in front of a council of war chiefs on the merits of peace or war.

It is also important to determine whether or not the verbal duel involves an audience that can be swayed. For example, if the duel occurs between the captain of the watch and one of the PCs, the PC could be trying to get a mob to attack the tower of a corrupt high priest, while the captain is attempting to convince the crowd to disperse. Crowds often have their own motivations and predilections, and certain tactics during the duel will have a greater or lesser effect on its members, which can affect the results. Determining the nature of such crowd attitudes and how to affect them can sometimes grant a powerful advantage.

Dueling with Words

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 177
Often, how a duel starts and which duelist goes first is determined by the particulars of the scene. For instance, if the dueling PC is the defendant in a court case, she may be on the defensive, being forced to counter in the first exchange after the prosecution opens the duel. A PC trying to elicit the duke’s help may open the duel, asking for favor and presenting the case for why granting aid is in the duchy’s best interest. A playful battle of wits during a dinner party might start when the party’s host chooses a guest to begin the first exchange.

At the start of a verbal duel, each duelist gains a pool of determination. Determination is a mix of personal magnetism, native intelligence, the ability to gauge and react to an opponent’s tactics, and any other mitigating factors pertinent to the duel. As the verbal duel progresses, exchanges take place and the stakes increase. A duelist loses determination equal to the exchange’s ante each time she either concedes or loses an exchange. Other factors may also decrease a duelist’s determination. When a duelist’s determination is reduced to 0 or lower, the verbal duel ends with her defeat.

Determination: A duelist’s base determination is the average (rounded down) of her Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma modifiers (minimum 0) + her total Hit Dice.

Adjusting Determination: Circumstances and effects might increase this pool of determination points, at the GM’s discretion. For instance, for a particular type of verbal duel, it might make sense to use a single ability modifier rather than the average. For a longer verbal duel, especially at low levels, it might make sense to use the highest of a character’s three mental ability modifiers or even add two or all three together.

One of the main ways to adjust determination is to consider if one of the characters has a social advantage or disadvantage. While the GM is free to determine the particulars of a character’s social advantage or disadvantage in a situation, the four default categories are extreme advantage, significant advantage, significant disadvantage, and extreme disadvantage. A character at an extreme advantage multiplies her determination by 2 and gains 5 edges. A character with a significant advantage multiplies her determination by 1.5 and gains 3 edges. A character at a significant disadvantage multiplies her determination by 3/4. Finally, a character at an extreme disadvantage multiplies her determination by 1/2 and loses 3 of her starting edges (minimum 0).

Multidirectional Duels

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 181
In unusual circumstances, a verbal duel might involve more than two independent duelists. In this case, the rules work the same with the following modification. First, when a duelist opens an exchange, she selects one of the other duelists and the exchange continues between the two of them. When that exchange’s winner is determined or the exchange ends, the winner must then start an exchange with a different duelist. This goes on until only one duelist remains.

Team Duels

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 181
Team duels are a versatile option that can represent a variety of situations where there are several or many people representing one side of a debate, from a team of adventurers attempting to reason with a mob of angry peasants to a legislative body attempting to deliberate on a new bill. Team duels are particularly useful in adventures because they involve the entire party, rather than just the character with the most social skills.

In general, team duels work best when both sides have at least three participants, unless the outnumbered side possesses a significant advantage in skill against the other, such as in the case of adventurers and a mob of peasants. While a multidirectional team duel is possible, it is not recommended. Team duels generally don’t have an audience because often the audience participates as one of the two teams instead.

In a team duel, each team shares determination among all members, based on the best determination among members of the team. Since this gives some advantage to a team with a single powerful duelist, the GM can choose to multiply the determination of a particularly large group with a strong common belief or opinion by two or more (depending on the size) to represent the difficulty of swaying their unified resolve.

In a solo duel, when a duelist wins an exchange with a given tactic, that tactic takes a cumulative –2 penalty for the rest of the verbal duel. In a team duel, when a duelist wins an exchange, that character takes a –2 penalty on skill checks associated with all of her tactics instead. Hearing many different voices, even if they have similar opinions, lends credibility to a team’s arguments.

An Example Duel

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 181
Lem has discovered that Meligaster is manipulating a group of nobles, and he hopes to expose his brother’s evil schemes. He calls his brother out for a verbal duel in front of the nobles. Meligaster, who knows he has a significant advantage and knows the nobles well, eagerly accepts the duel, seeding the nobles’ positive biases toward wit and flattery. Because of his significant advantage, Meligaster starts with 12 determination to Lem’s 8 determination, and Meligaster also possesses 3 edges from his advantages, as well as edges to use in each of wit and flattery.

Lem starts the duel using logic, with a result of 20 on the associated skill check, starting the ante at 1. He rationally and factually explains some of the ways that Meligaster has been manipulating the nobles for his own devious profit.

Meligaster responds by making an emotional appeal to the nobles’ pride and honor, raising the ante to 2 and redirecting the conversation away from the facts successfully with a 28 (including the bonus from countering logic with an emotional appeal).

Lem decides to continue the exchange, raising the ante to 3. He tries to use rhetoric to expose Meligaster’s trick, with an initial result of 18 due to a low roll. He uses an edge he gained from his circlet of persuasion to reroll and manages 30, just enough to counter Meligaster.

Meligaster knows that 30 is going to be tough to beat. He decides to raise the ante to 4 and uses flattery as his tactic, obsequiously singing the nobles’ praises. The nobles are positively biased toward it, he seeded that bias for an edge, and he chose to associate flattery with Bluff, so he gained an additional edge from his consummate liar class feature. Meligaster has to use both edges to reroll twice, but his third roll is a natural 20, for a result of 36, so he counters Lem.

Lem realizes that he would be hard-pressed to beat that result, so he knows he’s about to lose the exchange. He has to choose how to lose it, though. Because Meligaster used flattery, when Lem loses, the ante will decrease by 2 and Meligaster will gain an edge. That means Lem has to decide whether to simply end the exchange, giving Meligaster a total of 2 edges and losing 2 determination, or raise the ante to 5 and try a skill check, losing 3 determination if he fails (thanks to his brother’s flattery). but allowing Meligaster to gain only 1 edge. In the end, since Lem only has 8 determination, he feels he can’t risk losing 3 all at once, so much to his dismay, he surrenders the exchange to Meligaster.

Now Lem has 6 determination left. He can open a new exchange against Meligaster and try again, and at least Meligaster suffers a –2 penalty on future uses of flattery, so Lem doesn’t have to worry about beating another 36.