Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Poll Result: Combat and Diplomacy

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.


KoalaBro2 said...

You know, if you’d wanted to know “what’s everyone’s favorite part of 4e excluding combat” you could have asked that. Might have been interesting results. Anyway, I will note, for what it’s worth, that a number of classes do get daily utility powers that provide bonuses to skill checks once per day. And the much-maligned, still-being-revised Skill Challenge system does encourage the players to come at the interaction from multiple directions (usually something like history might be a valid skill for a primarily diplomacy-based skill challenge).

But no, I’ve never run across any fully-depleting diplomacy system like you’re talking about.

Malcuy said...

In general, the best method I've seen is to listen to what the player says, then have the NPC be affected by it to an extent defined by the character's abilities. So a muttered "um, er, well... these are not the drones you're, like, looking for?" from a character with high bluff (hehe, a cliff) would get a response of "Hmm, well now you mention it you don't look much like the wanted poster... after all, just from the side there you really... heh. weird. Anyway, move along!"

bone_naga said...

While I think 4e could have done a little more, the skill challenge (if in concept more than mechanics) is one of the best ideas I've seen for handling noncombat challenges. And some skill challenges (typically not diplomacy-based though) do incorporate resource consumption, by taking healing surges. Granted, its a shared resource with combat, but that probably makes it even more valuable. The only real problem with that is that while its easy to incorporate that into physical skill challenges, its much harder to justify consuming healing surges for failed diplomacy.

Brian said...

Malcuy's description about matches what our group does. You can say whatever you want, but it's pretty much the character's die roll that measures its effectiveness. We're mostly hack 'n slashers in it for the tactical combat, so I guess that figures.

Sometimes we eschew the die rolling and go with free-form conversational RP, but none of us are particularly good at it and we don't enjoy it as much. Nothing brings humor to the table like a wonderful speech brought to its knees by a dreaded 1 or a sorry excuse boosted by a 20.

But you're probably looking for opinions from people who are actually looking for a more significant diplomatic experience...

Oscar said...

I'm curious where all these revised rules are. I'm guessing I need to stomp around the Wizards DnD page for a while to find them, but I visit every now and then and have looked for errata without success in the past.

As for Diplomacy, I allow my characters' speeches define the DC's they have to hit with their static scores, unless it is otherwise noted in a module or somesuch. If a character presents me, as a DM, with a convincing argument or a moving speech, I'll set a lower DC. If they're full of it and it's obvious, then it'll be almost too high to reach with moderate scores. And of course the NPC's level or experience range will be the primary factor of what an unmodified DC would have been.

Greg Tannahill said...

KoalaBro2 - I probably should have asked that, you're right.

Malcuy / Brian - That's the way a lot of people run, often myself included, but in as much as it's so much subject to the DM's subjective opinion it's not really a strong mechanic. I mean, you can't define in words how much more someone is affected by Diplomacy 9 than they are by Diplomacy 8.

Bone Naga - I'll eventually write about Skill Challenges but I still can't possibly see how "rolling skill checks a bunch of times in a row" is any inherently better than the skill check mechanic underlying it - which is so shallow and unexciting next to the combat system as to appear to come from an entirely different game.

Oscar - The errata are at the official errata page. I think it's the DMG one that has the updated skill challenges.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points as usual, including a neat summation of the "role vs. roll" debate. I've always been a hack-and-slasher with pitiful social skills, so I view combat as my chance to contribute to the group (as a player. For the record, I voted for "puzzle solving," where combat is defined as a subset of puzzle solving). Diplomacy has never really interested me, owing to the lack of mechanisms to discourage GM arbitrariness. A comprehensive system of rules governing social situations might make it more fun, but I feel it will never happen in 4E, for two reasons:

1) Extended diplomacy doesn't fit the heroic fantasy vibe of 4E; every minute the players are bargaining or debating is one where they're not kicking in doors, slaying foes, and accumulating loot. Looking at the amount of the PHB devoted to combat powers, rules, and items, it's clear that every 4E character should be at least competent in battle, while skill at diplomacy will range widely. More "talk encounters" and fewer combats in any given adventure, though it might make the game more interesting, will likely leave at least one player bored more of the time (as in roleplay-heavy groups with less-talkative or eloquent players), especially if the encounter becomes a long, drawn-out affair with much cross-referencing of rules.

2) Many groups who prefer a more freeform, player skill-based style of diplomacy will criticize any such system for "taking the roleplay out of RPG" and ignore it entirely, just as some DMs ignore skill challenges or make up their own rules. RPGs are already, at the very least, 50% talking; the reasoning goes, if talking is what's to be done in this situation, why are dice even needed? There's no reason WotC should invest time and money into exploring the nuances of rhetoric when they could profit more by selling "X Power" books.

The most I've seen of a "diplomacy depletion" mechanic comes from some RPGs where NPCs will look less favorably upon the PC after repeated failures.

Alex said...

The second edition of Exalted tried a complicated version of diplomacy. For those unfamiliar with the system, there are social "attacks" and other abilities that key to "social defenses." When you successfully "socially attack" someone, you begin to convince them of your point of view. Using the charms in the system (roughly equivalent to powers) you can ramp up your attacks and achieve superhuman levels of persuasiveness.

In my opinion, the system is a failure, and does not lend depth to social encounters. It uses an all or nothing system (either you're persuasive, or not at all, there are no "social hit points") and there is always an option to spend a willpower point (kind of like action points) to make a social attack automatically fail. Like so many things, a GM who always has his NPCs spend a willpower point effectively makes PCs designed to do social combat useless. Also, it has a perverse effect of encouraging physical confrontation, as there is a risk that if you listen to someone talk instead of beating their face in, they will drain your resources.

I agree with you Greg, in that for a detailed social system to be effective, it has to use up a non-negligible amount of finite resources. Otherwise players (or NPCs) will game the system. I have yet to see anyone design an effective model for this.

GregT said...

16lettersonly - Heroic fantasy has a great tradition of inspiring speeches, wise sages and witty banter - I think there's room for mechanic based diplomacy in D&D. I think you're right though that there would be huge resistance to introducing it at this stage, which is why I was hoping that some other system had already done the trial work and come up with something I could point to.

Alex - Thanks for drawing my attention to (and intelligently critiquing) the Exalted system, which I wasn't familiar with. I'm very tempted to go away and come back with some sample rules for a finite-resources conversation system.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post. I think you've vividly highlighted the tension inherent in D&D and most other RPGs. Is it a tabletop game? Or a collaborative story-telling experience?

It definitely depends on who you ask.

I've always found the whole idea of rolling for diplomacy a bit lame. It seems to me that the players' skills matter in combat, so why shouldn't they matter in the rest of the game?

That said I probably fall into the category of players who is actually GOOD at diplomacy, so maybe I'm biased.

The system you suggest is interesting and I would like to see it more fully fleshed out.

-I can see forever

nowiwantmydmg said...

An interesting topic to be sure.

Typically when I'm the DM I ignore the social skills entirely, I'm not a fan of the "roll-playing" so much as actual roleplaying. To me skills should exist for something tha cannot be replicated by the player either due to lack of ability or impracticallity (picking a lock for example) and should be relevant when used. Social skills are something a player can certainly develop over time and improve at in real life, so I think they should be actually used as they are in real life. Hell roleplaying in D&D certainly helped draw me out of my shell of shyness and poor confidence when I was a younger lad.

The opportunity for Player input in 4e(and all editions really) into roleplaying systems is a tad lacking however and We've come up with a narrative point system (non-combat stuff) that tacks on easily and allows for some more interesting interactions. I could post it or link to my post on the wizards forums if there is interest.

That is probably one of 4e's greatest strengths though, it's very easy to tack on subsystems to fix issues like this as long as you don't play with the combat maths.

Alex said...

I have been thinking about how to go about making a good diplomacy system, and there are significant barriers.

The first is, there needs to be real consequences for failure. If not, the first option would always be "lets chat them up" that way you win with no risk. [E.g. You persuade the dragon to give up his treasure, you persuade the villain to give up the princess, you persuade the cultist of Orcus to stop his evil scheme and worship Bahamut. If failure carried no penalties, why not try it before you fight?]

The easiest way of making real consequences is to make the system work on the PCs the same way it works on NPCs (E.g.; combat). This is hard to do in a social setting without dictating the actions of the PCs to them. [E.g. PC: "I'm tired of Iago's lies, I attack him!" DM: "Sorry, he has convinced you that he is your friend and has only your best interests at heart." *Rolls some dice* "Furthermore, he convinces you that your wife is being unfaithful, and your only option is to kill her for her infidelity."] In my experience, losing control of his or her character's actions is extremely frustrating for a player.

The system also needs to be limited; it shouldn't apply to all social events, only ones of importance. [Well, we've negotiated with the merchant over the price of 6 different goods, we'd better take an extended rest before we start bargaining again tomorrow.]

What we're left with is a system that has to use finite and meaningful resources, have a penalty for failure that is significant but does not take away player control of their characters, not always be the default choice for conflict resolution but frequently be a viable option, and only be applicable to real challenges. That is a tall order, and I can't really fault D&D for failing when I know of no system that has delivered.

Quill said...

I draw your guy's attentions to the world of indie roleplaying games. The social conflict issue is one that has been approached in many ways since Sorceror's debut in the 90s.

There are more ways that conflicts have been considered than I can count on all of my digits, but I would like to focus on the method of conflict which is most applicable to D&D 4e.

A very popular (by indie standards) game called Burning Wheel is very similar in concept to D&D. Both are (or were at one point) based heavily on Tolkien fantasy. BW, however, focuses much more heavily on character goals, story, and social interaction than 4e. To put it simply, in the game of BW I ran, we never used the detailed combat rules once, but used the detailed debate rules almost every session.

In BW, the social conflict system is called the Duel of Wits. When a character wants to convince a person to do something, they state their intent. If the DM decides that it's important and worth playing out in detail, he agrees to a Duel of Wits. When the system starts, each player gets a pool of Disposition (like social hit points). Next, each participant scripts three actions (general things they will do, from a list of 7). For example, I might Make a Point, Rebut, then Dismiss. We then reveal our scripts and play out each round, one at a time, roleplaying how we use the particular maneuver. Different maneuvers work better against others (Rebuttal only works well against a Point, for example), so there is strategy involved. Also, you can only use a given maneuver once in a set of three, so there is a depleting resource. Resources generally are depleted over the course of the day, but that fits with the concept of social versus physical conflicts. If one character reduces the other's Disposition to 0, they win and convince the opponent to do what they stated.

There are a few other things that make the DoW work so well. First, participants must agree to the Duel of Wits; you cannot be forced. Second, it outright says that the system is only for important conflicts--a simple skill check or narrative roleplay covers the small stuff. Third, depending on how much Disposition the winner lost, a certain number of concessions must be made, leading to unexpected results. Last, and most importantly, the players set the Stakes of the Duel at the outset. This is critical. The players, not the system, decide what each party wants to have happen if they win. When they win, that happens, no more. It could be less, if concessions occur, but the limits of the Duel are set by the players involved.

So, this system meets all of your specifications. It uses a character's stats to generate "social hit points" which allow strategy to be used to determine how one is going to argue (a finite and meaningful resource). Allow this does not deplete over the course of the day, it depletes in conflict to provide the effect you want. It has a penalty for failure in that the characters must behave in the way decided at the outset of the conflict. This is done in a way which does not remove player control, as they agreed to the Stakes when they entered the conflict. If they weren't okay with the outcome, they could have backed out. Lastly, it's only used when it matters.

The Duel of Wits chapter from BW can be downloaded here:

An implementation of the rules for a D&D game has been made by Sean Nittner from the Narrative Control Podcast here:

Quill said...

For another point, when I run 4e (or any other version of D&D) as written, I make players roll their skills before they speak, but after saying a general intention. In this way, the outcome is known, and thus informs how they roleplay. This eliminates the brilliant speech followed by a 1 (or the joke followed by a 20). Players act in a manner consistent with the rules, rather than trying to shoehorn the rules into fitting the roleplay.

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks Quill - I'm checking out Burning Wheel as we speak.

Lord Welkerfan said...

Glad to introduce another potential player.

The system is very dense, and it might take a few reads to get how it all works together, just so you are aware if you come out confused at first.

Todd said...

@Quill That's how I do it as well. Either that or treat skill rolls as rolls for narration rights. If you win, you tell me what you say, and if I win I'll tell you what you say. Either way, the social skill mechanics work much better with narration after the roll, rather than before. That way, you don't have the issue of determining the difference between an 8 and a 9, just between a success and a failure.

Anonymous said...

If you want to encourage people to roleplay more in a combat heavy game like 4E, how about giving a mechanical advantage to doing so?

For example, if the party is about to roll initiative and engage in battle with a villain they might be given the opportunity to demoralize the opponent with an intimidate or bluff check. Success means that the villain is taken aback, incurring some sort of penalty (such as a penalty to their initiative roll).

Dark Shikari said...

My thought here is that immersion should trump all else, and players should be responsible for roleplaying. This means a low-intelligence orc shouldn't give eloquent speeches--that would be out of character. If they do, the DM should penalize them accordingly.

Of course, this leaves the problem of the reverse situation. My take on this would be simply that people should restrict their roleplay choices to those which they can convincingly play within the game rules. Much like the old adage that authors cannot convincingly write characters significantly more intelligent than themselves, players should not try to play significantly speakers more eloquent than themselves. It simply doesn't work and breaks immersion.

Lord Welkerfan said...

I disagree that any roleplaying should be penalized by the DM. If a character is breaking immersion by "playing too smart," that is the fault of the system for not restricting his character's ability properly.

To give an anecdotal example, in my group, I can easily win all arguments. I know just what kinds of points to make to convince the other players that my course of action is right. None of us are breaking character; we are all making points and responding to each other as our characters would. It's just that I am more persuasive than they are. So, in any system that doesn't have mechanics to resolve social exchanges beyond mere roleplaying, I'm going to win. And I find that very boring. I'd rather have a system to determine the outcome and inform the roleplaying.

A well-designed system can be very immersive. For example, the Duel of Wits from Burning Wheel is well-structured and has distinct mechanical consequences for different ways of arguing. I feel like the way I make my points has an effect on the outcome of the conversation. The system is also structured so that it gets out of the way while roleplaying happens.

Dogs in the Vineyard has the best system for social conflicts I've ever seen. In it, the players roll a giant pool of dice and make points back and forth, "bidding" the dice in doing so ("I raise you 7: You were a horrible father who abandoned us. You were the cause of Mother's death."). The number of dice you need to block attacks like the above one determines how much they end up hurting you in the long run later on. When you run out of dice or decide to give, you lose and the conflict is over. Everything is very fluid, and I find that the kind of intensity of arguments and creativity of points doesn't really ever come out in a less-involved system.