I got intrigued by the idea of the “duel of wits” mechanic from the TTRPG The Burning Wheel, which has since been reused in Torchbearer and Mouse Guard. It’s also used for some combat as well, but reports are that it is crunchy, requires substantial setup to work well, and can be somewhat unsatisfying dramatically, despite being clever.
It’s based on an expanded rock-paper-scissors idea, with four to six choices and three or more outcomes, but the core requirement seems to be that you must specify three plays at the beginning, which leaves you something of a spectator as the conflict gets resolved.
A battle of wits is a great idea that can be useful for resolving a negotiation with a nobleman or foreign emissary, a civil or criminal trial, a peace treaty, a surrender or ransom, a trade dispute, a negotiation with pirates, or even a romantic entanglement. So I wanted one of my own.
My idea is to base the mechanic on tic-tac-toe and let the players play out the conflict in real time. The strategy of tic-tac-toe is very simple, but the game generates drama by making each choice contested. Hollywood Squares introduced drama to tic-tac-toe by requiring the contestants to answer trivia (or, rather, agree with trivia answers). My version requires the players to engage in a roll-off or contested skill check for each square. This mechanic allows characters with negotiation, deception, or even entertainment skills to gain an advantage for some plays.
Role-Playing a Battle of Wits
You can role-play making (brief, simple) appeals using persuasion, intimidation, or instruction combined with a rhetorical skill of charm, shade, or dismissal. If preferred for simplicity, you can merely quote the square in the layout.
Persuade: You appeal to the facts, justice, honor, and fairness. Relevant skill: negotiation.
Intimidate: You appeal to the law, rights, authority, or, in subtle ways, even might and wealth. Relevant skill: hearten/dishearten (or the law, pirate code, etc., where relevant to an NPC).
Instruct: You appeal to logic, consequences, tradition, history, and common sense. Relevant skill: lore.
Charm: You make your point with an attempt impress, charm, delight, or trick the audience or opponent. Relevant skill: entertaining (any verbal version).
Dismiss: You make your point by an attempt to dismiss, sidestep, belittle, or reject the opponent’s arguments. Relevant skill: gambling.
Shade: You make your point by casting doubt on the facts, witnesses, evidence, or motives of the opponent. Relevant skill: deception.
Playing Out the Battle
To begin, each side makes an opening argument that states their case, such as adventurers vs a nobleman: “We should be allowed to keep all this treasure, because we found it,” as opposed to “I should be able to claim all this treasure, because it was found on my land.”
Then the opponents alternate selecting and contending over squares. Use your TTRPG’s contested skill checks or the shambles rules I posted previously to see who makes the better point in the back-and-forth of appeals and rebuttal. The winner takes the square, and the loser chooses the next square. An official may remark on the insightfulness of the point; an audience may laugh and cheer.
One side can even try to overturn a square taken by the other (effectively rebutting the point to make a point of their own). If overturned, that square should then stand. In casual disputes, the GM may allow only one overturning; in formal court argument, the opponents might try to overturn nearly every point; in courtly intrigue, a square might be overturned twice.
Winning a Battle of Wits
In the end:
- If one side has three in a row, the opponent is likely to concede, or the judge or audience is likely to come to a conclusion heavily favoring one side.
- If neither or both sides complete three in a row (possible, since both get to have their say each turn), they have both made a good show, and there should be an even compromise.
- If the winner makes three in a row vertically (using all shade, charm, or dismissal techniques), the argument is weak, and the judgment may include some compromise.