The Alexandrian

Rich Burlew is the creator of Order of the Stick, an extremely funny comic strip about a typical party of D&D adventurers who dungeon crawl with the best of them while regularly breaking the fourth wall. (You should check it out.)

Rich Burlew is also a game designer and one of the features on his website is a series of articles called “This Old Rule”, where he attempts to fix up broken rules. The first article in this series dealt with Diplomacy. After a short critique of the skill (similar to the one you’ve just been reading), Burlew offers up a potential solution.

Instead of trying to summarize it here, I’m simply going to point you at Burlew’s article: You should go read it.

Finished? Cool.

The key to Burlew’s solution lies in this quote:

In 3rd Edition, Diplomacy is defined as “Making people like you.” I want to change that definition, for I think it lacks depth and is poorly understood. In my new system, Diplomacy will be defined as, “Getting people to accept a deal you propose to them.” The idea is that anything you need to ask another person can be phrased in the form of a trade — even if you are offering “nothing” on one end of that trade, or something very abstract.

Burlew has nailed it. Every other skill is task-based: When you make a skill check you are specifically determining whether you succeed at a specific task. But Diplomacy is relationship-based: When you make a skill check you are determining your entire relationship with another person. Burlew simply makes Diplomacy work like every other skill, and defines the task you’re attempting to accomplish as “getting someone to accept a specific deal”.

Burlew then designs the Diplomacy skill around two sliding scales of modifiers: Your relationship with someone and the quality of the deal you’re offering them. The more someone likes you, the more likely they are to accept a bad deal to help you. The less someone likes you, the more likely it is that they’ll want nothing to do with you.

Burlew then turns his eyes to the first two problems we had with the skill: The fact that there is no defense against it and the fact that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to convince (because the DC remains the same whether you’re trying to convince, as Burlew puts it, an angry bean farmer or an evil overlord). He does this by setting the base DC of the Diplomacy check to:

15 + the HD of the target + the target’s Wisdom modifier

It’s now more difficult to convince the evil overlord because he has more HD (and, probably, a higher Wisdom score) than the local bean farmer.

It looks like a nice, simple solution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

To demonstrate the problem, let’s take an extreme example: A little kid asks his grandmother for a cookie. His grandmother is an 11th level cleric with a Wisdom of 20. The DC of the check?

15 (base) + 11 (HD) + 5 (Wisdom) – 10 (relationship) = 21

Good luck, kid. It looks like you’ve got the worst grandmother ever.

As another example, let’s say that I walk up to someone and offer to trade them my very nice castle for a piece of string they’re carrying. There are absolutely no strings attached to this deal (ho ho) — the castle isn’t haunted, I don’t know that the string is a magical artifact of incredible power, etc.

For some reason, the wiser and more powerful the character I’m talking to is, the less likely I am to convince them to take this stellar deal I’m offering.

Or, as another way of putting it: If Zeus were a pauper, he’d refuse all acts of charity.

In discussing this with various people I’ve heard a couple of defenses of this shortcoming:

DEFENSE 1: “No DM is going to bother rolling to see if a grandmother gives her grandkid a cookie.”

That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Yup. It’s the exact same defense we heard for the original Diplomacy rules. And it’s still an example of the Rule 0 Fallacy: “This rule isn’t broken because I can fix it (by ignoring it).”

DEFENSE 2: “The rule is designed so that you only need to make the check if they wouldn’t normally accept the offer.”

The problem with this defense is that Burlew doesn’t agree with it. To quote from his article: “I don’t decide whether I want someone to be persuadable, I want a rule system that lets me determine it randomly. […] In short, I want tools to use in the game, not a blank check to do what I want. I can already do what I want.”

And I agree with Burlew. One of the strengths of 3rd Edition is that the rules for skills make sense. It is a robust system that constantly feeds you valuable information. Yes, there are situations so simplistic that you don’t need to bother rolling the dice. And the system is so robust that it actually tells you when that’s true (by way of the take 10 mechanics).

(As a tangential note, this is a nifty bonus feature of the take 10 mechanics. Most RPGs tell you to “only roll the dice when it’s important”, by which they usually mean “don’t bother rolling the dice to see if someone can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time”. But what would someone with the power of a minor demigod, like a high level PC, consider to be as easy as walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time? The take 10 mechanics tell you that.)

In any case, if I just wanted to make a decision unilaterally, I would just make the decision unilaterally. I don’t need rules for that. What I do want is to be able to rely on the rules whenever I choose to rely on the rules. And, when I do that, I want  the rules to give me sensible feedback, not nonsense that I have to rule 0.

Now, all that being said, let me just say one thing:

Bravo, Mr. Burlew!

Seriously. He has not only given us a sensible alternative to the original Diplomacy rules, he has created one of the best dynamics for basic social skill resolution I’ve ever seen in a traditional RPG. Sure, he’s left a couple of minor flaws lying around, but I’ll take these minor flaws over the legion of problems that the original Diplomacy rules have any day of the week.

And, with that being said, let me go on to say that I think these minor problems can be very easily fixed.

Burlew has recovered the fumble of the core rulebooks and returned it to the one yard line. Now it’s time to drive it into the endzone.


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