The Alexandrian

There are essentially five problems with Diplomacy:

First, there is no defense against it. This doesn’t even qualify as a save-or-die effect, because the target of the Diplomacy check doesn’t receive a saving throw: If the diplomat is skilled enough to pull it off, the character they’re targeting is affected and there’s nothing they can do about it. With a save-or-die mechanic the tactical complexity of the system is stripped away and you’re left with a Vegas craps game. With a Diplomacy check you don’t even get the charm of the casino floor — two Mafia guys just come over, rough you up, and take your wallet.

Second, it doesn’t matter who you’re using it against. Although the DC of the Diplomacy check is adjusted based on the target’s opinion of you, the perception, wisdom, and power of the target play no role whatsoever. It’s just as easy to become bosom-buddies with the local drunk as it is to become best friends with King Arthur, Galadriel, or the God of War.

And this isn’t just a matter of the power which becomes available to you as a result, it’s also a matter of believability. Does it really make sense that you could slaughter someone’s parents right in front of their eyes and then, six seconds later, be their best friend?

Third, it can’t be used against the PCs. Actually, I don’t consider this to be a bad thing in a general sense: In a traditional RPG like D&D the only thing a player controls is their PC. For the DM or the rule system to take control of the PC away from the player is to completely remove the player from the game.

(But, if you’re going to embrace that philosophy, isn’t it a little weird that PCs can be targeted by charm spells?)

In any case, the fact that PCs can’t be affected by Diplomacy compounds the other problems with the skill: Not only is it an insanely over-powered technique, but it’s a technique that the PCs can never be threatened with themselves.

(This actually ties into a piece of general DMing advice: If your PCs have ever come up with an unbeatable tactic you can’t figure out how to counter, simply set up a few encounters where the NPCs use the same tactic. You’ll either convince the PCs that the tactic is the result of a broken rule which needs to be fixed or your players will teach you how to counter their tactics.)

Fourth, there are no negative outcomes possible. If you’ve got a Diplomacy bonus of at least +4, there is absolutely no reason not to try a Diplomacy check. The target of the check will never resent your attempts to manipulate them or become angry at your mischosen words. The absolute worst thing that can happen? They’ll feel exactly the same way about you after the check as they did before the check.

Fifth, the Diplomacy rules are only half-finished. Imagine that the combat rules had mechanics for determining whether or not you hit someone, but no mechanics for determining how much damage you caused (or even how damage could be tracked or what effects damage would have on a character). That’s what the Diplomacy skill is like: It gives you a very simplistic mechanism to make somebody like you more, but gives you no guidance on what might cause them to stop liking you. It even suggests strongly that, after you’ve known someone for a 1 minute (and made the resulting Diplomacy check), further Diplomacy checks won’t have an effect. That means that you can never get to know somebody and slowly become their friend over time: It’s either love at first sight or you’re forever indifferent to each other.

And, yes, it’s easy to say: “Any DM worth his salt will work around these problems.” Of course they will. But can you imagine saying the same thing about the combat rules? “Well, sure, these rules don’t give you any guidance for how to handle damage. But any DM worth his salt will handle wounds on the fly!”

In fact, I’d rather have no system at all than only half a system. Particularly when the half system they’ve provided to us is so horribly broken in terms of game balance. The rules of an RPG should be there to help you run the game. If the rules are just getting in the way, you’re better off going back to the freeform of Cops ‘n Robbers.

FALSE PATCHES

WE’LL JUST MAKE IT TOUGHER: The logic of this “fix” is simple: If a DC 60 check is too easy, then we’ll just make it tougher. Maybe it needs to be a DC 80 or a DC 100 check. Really push it up there to the epic levels of play.

There are two problems with this approach: First, it makes it too difficult to use the Diplomacy skill for the legitimate things you want to use it for. It shouldn’t take someone with a tongue as sly as Loki’s to butter up the barmaid.

Second, it doesn’t actually fix the problem. It just postpones it. Whether it’s a DC 80 or a DC 180 check, eventually the PCs will be able to make the check, hit the win button, and call it a day. And if your goal is to just make the DC so high that the campaign will end before the PCs can make the DC, you might as well get rid of the skill entirely: A rule that nobody will ever use is a complete waste of time.

RANDOM MODIFIERS: In this “fix” the DM simply applies circumstance bonuses or penalties to various Diplomacy checks, depending on how tough it should be to convince a particular target. In principle, this is exactly what circumstance modifiers are for. The problem is that, given the absolute and irreversible nature of a Diplomacy check and the lack of any meaningful guidelines for applying meaningful circumstance modifiers, this basically boils down to a simple equation: If the DM wants you to succeed on the check the modifier will make it possible to succeed. If the DM doesn’t want you to succeed on the check the modifier will make it impossible for you to succeed.

What you’re left with is essentially DM fiat. With a good DM, of course, this fiat will be informed by how you roleplay the scene and not just arbitrary whim. And that’s fine. But if you’re just going to rely on DM fiat to determine the outcome of these types of encounters, then it doesn’t make any sense to throw a whole bunch of rules in the equation. Why waste the DM’s time calculating modifiers and the player’s time rolling dice when the outcome has already been decided?

Like the previous “fix”, this one basically concludes that the rule is so horribly busted that you shouldn’t bother using it — but it leaves all the mechanics lying around to clutter up the gameplay.

HELPFUL DOESN’T MEAN HELPFUL: Here’s an actual quote from someone I was discussing Diplomacy with: “In my campaign a [ friendly person] tells you to get out of his way so he doesn’t have to kill you, and asks his mate to do the same… Indifferent ones run you off with force, unfriendly ones take you for slaves, hostile ones kill you and piss on your remains.”

Guh– what?

If this is the way this guy’s friends treat him, then he needs better friends.

Now this slightly-less-than-intelligent fellow was actually claiming that this is the way the rules are supposed to work. How he got “I will kill you unless you get out of the way” from “chat, advise, offer limited help, advocate” (the game’s definition of “friendly”) is a question which may never be satisfactorily answered.

But there are many people who do the same thing quite consciously. They say, “Sure, the guard is helpful, but that doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily do X, Y, or Z.” Where X, Y, or Z are all things which clearly fall within the definition of “helpful” in the rules.

Once again, however, we’re simply back to DM fiat. Once you’ve removed the actual definition of “helpful”, the rules no longer provide you with any meaningful guidance for what an NPC will do under the effects of a Diplomacy check. Which means that, once again, we simply have the DM deciding whether or not the PC should be able to convinced a given NPC to do something… while still leaving all the rules to clutter up the gaming session.

WILL SAVES: A variant with a bite more mileage than the other one’s we’ve considered is to give the target of the Diplomacy check a Will save. I’ve seen the DC of the Will save set in two different ways:

Will save DC = Diplomacy check

Will save DC = 10 + diplomat’s HD + 1/2 diplomat’s Charisma modifier

The former, of course, is just a straight-up opposed check. The latter essentially makes the Diplomacy check into an extraordinary ability with a DC set like a racial ability. Either works fairly well, but both have their shortcomings. For example, it seems odd (in the latter case) for the diplomat’s Diplomacy skill bonus to not affect the difficulty of resisting their attempt. (The shortcomings of the former can be seen in my “Thoughts on Tumbling” essay, which you can read here.)

This Will save mechanic solves the most significant problem of the Diplomacy skill: It allows the target to defend themselves. It’s no longer likely that a 1st level diplomat will turn Zeus into a helpful ally in less than six seconds, because Zeus will almost certainly succeed at his saving throw.

There are still a few problems, however:

First, this essentially turns Diplomacy into a save-or-die effect. I’ll discuss save-or-die effects in a later essay, but for now let it suffice to say that the growing consensus among game designers is that save-or-die effects are one of the major flaws in the D20 system. They are less pernicious than the unmodified Diplomacy mechanics, but they are one of the fracture points which cause the game to fall apart at higher levels.

Second, while the Will save eliminates one of the most severe problems with the Diplomacy skill, other problems still remain: The effect is permanent. It takes no account for the PCs’ history with the target of the check. Shifting a person’s fundamental opinion of you still seems to take a shockingly small amount of time.

But, on the other hand, the Will save is a quick and efficient fix. It builds naturally on the existing mechanics and only takes up a short paragraph in your house rules. Those are all strong reasons to consider it.

TOMORROW:
THE BURLEW SOLUTION

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