The latest Eleven Foot Poll is in and the numbers say that 47% of you like combat.
That's no surprise; it's like saying you enjoy shooting things in Halo or rolling dice in Snakes & Ladders. Mechanically speaking, combat is 4th Edition, and it's certainly the best designed and most intricately elaborated part of the 4th Edition package.
That being so, I talk about combat at least every other post, so I'm going to skip right past your love of bashing things and look at the runner up: diplomacy.
Diplomacy is the odd man out on the list of poll options. It's anomalous because it's not supported by rules. 4th Edition spends quite a bit of time detailing the mechanics of shopping, of looting, of levelling up, and of overcoming traps. It's got rules for skill challenges - in fact, it has a bunch, with the original skill challenge mechanic having been errataed, revised, updated, explained, apologised for, and then featured in an extended series of patronising and contradictory articles in Dungeon Magazine. The 4th Edition focus on battlemaps lends itself naturally to mapping, and in as much as Dungeons & Dragons is a game where players make choices that have consequences puzzle-solving is built right into the foundation.
So where's the diplomacy? We've got skills called Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate you can roll against, and when you roll against them a bunch of times in succession we call it a skill challenge. But is that really a rules system? Is that really a game? Or is diplomacy just an extended session of improv acting that gets inserted in between the things that 4th Edition actually cares about?
There is a dilemma that arises whenever your character enters a conversation. It is this. Is conversation intended as a challenge to your character - that is, a test of the accumulated words and numbers on your character sheet? Or is it a challenge to the player - a test of skills and abilities possessed by the human portraying the character?
Dungeons & Dragons - and indeed, most RPGs - have never resolved this duality. D&D tries to have it both ways. It's both, it says. And it suffers as a result.
It's not a problem we have with combat. Combat is clear - it's a challenge to the player to deploy the resources represented by their character to achieve the best tactical result. There's a division of skill (player) and resources (character).
In conversation, however, there's not that clarity. On whose side does the skill fall? Are resources a relevant issue?
One approach to take is that both skill and resources lie with the player. The words the player says are the words their character says, and the DM makes a decision as to how NPCs react. In the absence of strong mechanics for combat, this typically makes for the most exciting and interesting gameplay.
It has its problems, however. If the player is the mouth of their character, the character can only ever be as intelligent, as witty, as eloquent and as confident as the player. Naturally poor speakers - those with stutters, with weak English, who are overshadowed by their louder peers - are disproportionately penalised - especially given that the scrawny and obese have no problems leaping and smiting all hours of the clock.
How do statistics fit into this model? When a half-orc with an intelligence penalty delivers a stunning well-rendered argument through their player, which just makes sense, do we all ignore it because "it didn't sound that smart"? How smart is too smart? What debate can an Intelligence 9 character aspire to that an Intelligence 8 character can't?
On the other hand, we can treat the character's abilities as resources, and the player can apply them. Need to convince a guard to let you in? Roll Diplomacy. If you roll high, we'll assume you said something sensible-sounding. We never hear what's actually said, and the fact that characters' skills are accurately represented comes at a cost to immersion in the game world.
We also have the issue in 4th Edition that conversation resources are infinite. If you can Bluff one goblin, surely you can bluff every goblin? Can not one character with maximum Bluff swindle his way through an entire dungeon, leaving nothing for his allies to do? Combat uses an attrition model, where victory typically comes at a cost to healing surges and power availability, but a successful use of Diplomacy leaves the player in the same strong position that they started.
Many DMs opt for a hybrid model - get the player to say something, and depending on how good they sound, give them a modifier to their roll. I've been known to do it myself. But isn't this the worst of both worlds? We're averaging the skills of the character and the player out. The weak speaker knows that no amount of stats will fully compensate for their lack of eloquence, and the player with the gift of gab knows they can safely ignore the "talking skills" because they can use their own abilities to even it out.
As written, if 4th Edition had to choose a camp, it would seem to be a mechanical approach. All dice rolls, all the time. The shame of it is, if it had explicitly chosen to go down that path it probably could have come up with much better rules. It would be entirely possible to design a system that made a conversation as dynamic and interesting as combat, without overly abstracting talking into something artificial.
Imagine a system of conversation points - physical tokens assigned to you in proportion to your stats that you can spend to "get a word in edgeways", "make your opponent's argument look weak", "cite supporting facts or precedent", "call for support from onlookers" or "stir emotions". We could create a system where the resources to create a strong argument are finite (requiring important decisions from players on where to spend them) and derived solely from the character. Points might refresh during an extended rest, but in the short term they're a valuable, exhaustible resource that should be saved for when they're needed. It would work well with a hybrid system as even the eloquent player knows that he'll have to have points available in order to get a chance to be heard.
I'm actually surprised that in my travels through the RPG world I haven't, to my memory, come across any "finite resources" conversation mechanics. Have any of you readers seen any? Leave your experiences in the comments.