Mental Combat please help

I run a game at my house. Two of my PCs decided they wanted to be focused on mental attacks. To the degree that one refuses to wield any weapons at all. Does anyone have and examples of the kinds of effects that “death” from mental attacks can have? I want it to be more interesting than they turn and run away.

Gibbering messes
Mistakes (shocked and therefore trips and falls on a blade)
Infighting (panicked and so they end up fighting amongst themselves)

Honestly I am not a huge fan of “threat without ability to back it up” as a deadly weapon in Conan 2d20, it doesn’t feel right to me. Especially when paired with the right talents. As it doesn’t matter what mental soak the enemies have the party members will just plow straight through it.

The weedy people with no physical ability weapons, magic or power who wade into battle with only their steely glare and some how come out successful and effectively killing all their foes, is my issue.

If the cause of the mental attack is supernatural, such as fiend from the Outer dark or sorcery, just dying from the shock, going into stupor and the gibbering mess mentioned by lostsanityreturned are completely acceptable options. :slight_smile:

Else I would make the NPC surrender, give up and run, play recklessly because of he is ■■■■■■ off (not using withdraw) and try to make it as logical as possible having the conditions of the threat in mind. Even if the players disagree and play rule lawyers.

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That is what I do in most cases.

It is a cool thing in Conan that there is something like mental attacks. Depending on the mental attack, I also mostly let NPCs run away or surrender.

What is the character concept of the player who refuses to wield any weapons? How should these mental attacks work? If they are magical, the character could be a sorcerer with e.g. the Dismember spell. You could say the spell is purely mental and does not have a visible projectile. Then the effects can be as brutal as desired, like exploding heads.

Another possibility would be a Mesmer or a Mummer (from the Book of Skelos). A Mesmer basically hypnotizes their subject and a Mummer is someone who uses tricks to suggest that they are much more powerful than they really are. Both could maybe be used in someone who mentally takes down enemies without weapons.

Honestly I am not a huge fan of “threat without ability to back it up” as a deadly weapon in Conan 2d20, it doesn’t feel right to me. Especially when paired with the right talents. As it doesn’t matter what mental soak the enemies have the party members will just plow straight through it.

The weedy people with no physical ability weapons, magic or power who wade into battle with only their steely glare and some how come out successful and effectively killing all their foes, is my issue.

agreed, I always found the notion of killing blows with words to be somewhere between slightly amusing to ridiculous, in particular if it all goes into one physical damage pool. In so far I really like the two damage pools of Conan and with the requirements for the displays you get halfway decent narrative plausibility.

Personally I would tighten the requirements a bit to make them more plausible, for some of the displays of the core book:

  • A Mighty name: not just the renown value but the char should be known for killing stuff (however you want to measure it), being a well renowned healer and pacifist doesn’t cut it.

  • Dead Man’s stare: the char should have been seen to do physical damage during the kill of that enemy, just partaking with a steely glare or holding up the head of another char’s kill wouldn’t be enough - that subtlety would be entirely lost on the enemy

  • Stain the Soil Red: addendum, every required kill must at least contain some sort of physical attack (or visible spell) so the enemy can actually know the char was involved.

  • Steely Glare: either only once per mob or in sequence with at least one followup direct attack - after a while a steely glare becomes just awkward :wink:

Sure, these suggestion would downgrade the effectiveness of pure mental attacks and that is something that should be mentioned to the players before they make their chars, but overall I think it makes them narratively more sound. Given that the GM has control on how and if somethings satisfies the requirements anyhow, these changes wouldn’t be too harsh as long as a char isn’t purely built for mental damage.

It’s worth noting that “kill” is a result that can actually only happen from physical attacks - mental attacks cannot actually kill, and are never described as killing in the rulebook. Five Traumas may mean a character’s mind has broken - rendering the character just as unplayable as if they were dead - but it doesn’t kill, because that’s an outcome only possible through suffering 5 wounds.

So the clarifications in this thread are redundant in some places - Dead Man’s Stare and Stain the Soil Red both require death, which requires physical damage already.

And, with Steely Glare being the “unarmed attack” of mental damage, adding in extra conditions feels like asking people to reload their fists between attacks (which, contrary to the below gif, isn’t actually necessary).

Still, the GM sets the difficulty of all skill tests based on circumstances, and there’s nothing to prevent the GM from upping the difficulty of a mental attack if the character doesn’t look like they can carry out the threat, or the threat is otherwise unconvincing or hollow in some way. I wouldn’t apply a hard cap of “you must stab someone to use steely glare”, in part because it should be a potential way of preventing a fight.

Honestly, though, in hindsight, I’m not entirely happy with the way mental attacks worked out, though for different reasons. The fact that Traumas only affect mental attributes makes logical sense but doesn’t support gameplay - a scared foe isn’t any worse at fighting, and doesn’t bring a foe closer to defeat because it’s running on a different track from physical injury.

A simple patch for this is to change wounds so that they add +1 Difficulty to all tests, and traumas add +1 to the complication range of all tests (being hurt makes things harder, being scared makes you uncertain and unreliable). Suddenly, scaring enemies actually helps the wider fight, and the “one guy who only does mental attacks” is now contributing to the wider fight rather than playing his own game.

There are other changes I’d make, but some of that would require getting into the guts of the damage system and rebuilding part of it, and I don’t have time for that right now.

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The threat without a reason behind it is clearly ridiculous and a previous ‘Zoolander’ thread talked about it. Players should be prevented from making characters who cannot fight and who think mechanically it is viable to make a stare-down character with no physicality or supernatural nastiness to give it a firm basis to work.

The potential for this to arise as a metagaming consideration however is easily solved within the RAW.

If someone puts all their build into a social threat character, they will have neglected their physical or ‘sorcerous’ stats and will not look overtly threatening. Therefore the GM is entirely justified to raise the base difficulty of a threaten attack to D3, 4 or even 5.

To take an example - a Brawn 7 court fop who has shown no combat skill is surrounded by Picts… he glowers at them, with a 5 or even 6 [CD] steely glare. However, the only concern the Picts have is that the reedy little weakling won’t make a good sacrifice and the Picts are likely going to be little more than amused by an attempt at intimidation. The GM askes for a D5 roll. IF the PC makes the roll with successes enough to spare and actually damages the Picts, one could narrate it as the superstitious barbarians thinking the court fop is a sorcerer (for who else would confidently stand there trying to intimidate them?) or even more of a stretch, that they think the PC is a demon in disguise…

Nothing else makes narrative sense, and as I said, the rules allow for the extreme difficulty because of the situation. Tough enemies used to violence are not going to be easily moved by those who stand before them seemingly ill-equipped to inflict any harm themselves.

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He is a charlatan. His entire build is based around manipulating people and healing mental wounds.

I would definitely allow that character some form of mental attack. Not saying something super powerful or over the top, but maybe a renamed Steely Glare or Flaming Brand. I would require that they perform some sort of action to make others think they had sorcery. Sorcery is terrifying in this setting, so it makes sense it would scare opponents. It is also perfect for a Charlatan.

The healer in my game is a priestess of Ishtar with no sorcery; her primary combat usefulness is in making threaten attacks where she calls on the Queen of Heaven to lay fell curses on her target, driving them to madness.

And it’s the possibility of concepts like this which is why I’ve always been reluctant to limit basic Threaten attacks to only those who actively commit acts of violence. The Steely Glare is the “unarmed attack”, the universally-available baseline for threats. If you want more mental damage, or bigger effects, there are Displays (and feel free to devise your own Displays to supplement that basic list in the corebook), which are the ‘weapons’ of mental attacks. Also, “Steely Glare” is just a name, you can describe and reflavour it as anything you like. I also use it for taunts, giving it an alternative Harm effect of compelling the enemy to attack.

Yes, it’s possible to try and work the system in bad faith, but that’s where the GM’s arbitration comes in, and I’d still give such characters an opportunity to try and roleplay their threats.

Still, a threat from someone seemingly unprepared for violence can often be revealing - two equally dangerous-looking mercenaries sit down at a table. One draws a dagger, and places it on the table, glaring at the other. The second pulls out a spoon and glares back. Which of the two is more scary? The one who promises violence with a blade, or the one who promises violence with a spoon?

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Nathan - you just made my point actually in your example preface.

" - two equally dangerous looking mercenaries…"

Yes, it is credible to intimidate even though no weapon is visible or violence offered because BOTH mercs look dangerous. My example with the court fop is in a situation where a D5 attempt would be justified.

In the later mentioned case of the Priestess of Ishtar, threatening people with your Goddess qualifies in many circumstances - because the threat of divine retribution is real to those who believe, and even Conan doesn’t step into their shadows, and he is the biggest social convention rulebreaker there is…

… the GM clearly needs to judge each situation from the baseline of credibility for Steely Glare, regardless of what a twinked-out social character is capable of on paper. It’s the scene that matters, and Zoolander has no place in the Hyborian Age.

To me, the very idea of that archetype is an example of someone playing in bad faith. Bad players are not a problem with the rules, because a designer can either write rules that encourage and enable creative players, or ones that restrict attempts at cynical manipulation, but not both… and honestly, bad players are something that the GM and the group should sort out like adults, rather than using dubious in-game “fixes”.

As creative players benefit from the same opportunities that bad faith players exploit, I prefer to do the former and not give any more attention to those playing in bad faith than I absolutely have to.

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You are absolutely right, although the original question was about what to do about it in play, and this solution is best used to prevent this kind of character entering the game in the first place by communicating with the player.

GURPS is a system I ran for many years, and that system, as is, had the potential to allow players to munchkin their characters to unprecedented levels of abuse. Judicious GM guidance was always necessary, and as a skill-build game, 2d20 also needs it, or one-trick pony characters can indeed come out of the woodwork.

Thank you all for the input! You have really given me a lot to think about and actually helped me make some rulings in my game to help with the situation. We’ve adjusted the way we were doing it and that made a big difference. For one I’m requiring him to rp out what he’s threatening in the situation which helps a lot in deciding how the npc in question will be affected.