May 2007

"Warrior needs sex badly!"
"Wizard shot the prostitute!"

 - Gauntlet Theft Auto, Something Positive

May 4th, 2007

I talked about my frustration with the DMG II a couple of days ago: It's a book that has rules for a lot of situations that I find it useful to have rules for, but most of those rules are either needlessly complicated, unbalanced, incomplete, or some combination of three. One example of this, in my opinion, are the rules for burning buildings, which I've already discussed.

Another example are the rules for handling crowds, mobs, and traffic.

The most glaring problem is that there are different rules for handling crowds, mobs, and traffic. These are all obviously different facets of the same phenomenon (large groups of people), so it would make sense for them all to be based on the same mechanic. Instead they're all based on different mechanics, which makes the rules more difficult to use and more difficult to master.

For example, traffic is supposed to be a "specific type of crowd". But the rules for traffic alter the standard rules for crowds in about a half dozen different ways until they have fewer things in common with crowds than they have things not in common with crowds. (And even though traffic is a "specific type of crowd", there are some forms of traffic which aren't crowds. Yeah, that's not confusing in the slightest.)

Meanwhile mobs are handled with a completely different mechanic which can basically be summed up like this: Apply a template to the base creature making up the mob in order to make the base creature more powerful than an an ancient red dragon.

Mobs are ridiculously overpowered. This not only makes it difficult for the DM to use the rules to construct interesting scenarios, it becomes completely untenable if the players decide to use the rules to their own advantage: There are a wide variety of ways for characters to accumulate a couple dozen people under their control or influence. 

Mobs are also unnecessarily complicated. The description of the template alone takes up a page and a half of text -- and applying it requires you to essentially create an entirely new stat block from scratch. This means that the rules can never be effectively used on-the-fly.

In the end, I decided to simply scrap the DMG II rules entirely. The rules I've devised for handling crowds can be found below. They're designed to use existing abilities and conditions as much as possible, and to keep the rules simple enough that you can use them quickly and efficiently use them during play even if you've never looked at them before. They have only been playtested once -- resulting in a very memorable experience -- so I'd love to get feedback from anyone who uses them. The rules are also being released under the OGL.



Crowds are treated as difficult terrain (movement is at half speed). Characters in a crowd benefit from soft cover (+4 bonus to AC).

A character in a crowd may also become entangled by the crowd. When moving through a crowd, a character must make a Reflex save (DC 12) or become entangled. A character can take a move action on their turn to attempt a new Reflex saving throw or Escape Artist check at the same DC. If they are successful, they are no longer considered entangled.

(An entangled creature suffers a -2 penalty to attack rolls and a -4 penalty to effective Dexterity. An entangled character’s speed is halved again, resulting in movement at one-quarter speed within the crowd, and they cannot run or charge. An entangled character who attempts to cast a spell must make a Concentration check (DC 15) or lose the spell.)

MOVING CROWDS: Crowds can move on initiative count 0 at the base speed of the creatures making up the crowd. When a crowd moves, characters in the crowd must make a Reflex save (DC 12) or become entangled by the crowd (see above).

In addition, moving crowds create a flow of traffic within the crowd which lasts until the crowd’s next turn. Moving perpendicular to the flow of traffic inflicts a -2 penalty on the character’s Reflex save to avoid becoming entangled. Moving directly against the flow of traffic inflicts a -4 penalty on the character’s Reflex save to avoid becoming entangled by the crowd.

Characters entangled in a moving crowd are carried along by the crowd’s movement. At the end of the crowd’s turn, they are moved in the direction of the flow of traffic one-half the distance traveled by the crowd. Entangled characters can attempt to resist this movement by making a Fortitude save (DC 12) as a free action, but on a failure they are knocked prone.

PANICKED CROWDS: When presented with an obvious danger, a crowd will move away from that danger with a base speed of 30 feet. If someone is actually injured or attacked, however, a crowd will generally panic. A panicked crowd will run away from the danger at four times their base speed.

If a panicked crowd cannot flee, characters within the crowd must make a Reflex save (DC 12) each round to avoid being crushed in the panic. On a failure, the character is knocked prone.

Characters who are knocked prone in a panicked or running crowd risk being trampled: On its turn, the crowd makes an attack roll against each prone character inside of it. Crowds are considered to have an attack bonus of +0, modified by the size of the creatures making up the crowd. If the attack is successful, the prone character suffers bludgeoning damage based on the size of the creatures making up the crowd (2d6 for medium creatures, see table).

Characters in a running or panicked crowd suffer a -4 penalty on checks to avoid becoming entangled or knocked prone by the crowd.



Creature Size

Diminutive 1
Fine 1d2
Tiny 1d3
Small 1d4
Medium 1d6
Large 1d8
Huge 2d6
Garguantuan 3d6
Colossal 4d6



CROWDS AND SIZE: Characters larger or smaller than Medium size should add their special size modifier for grapple checks to any check made to avoid becoming entangled or knocked prone by a crowd. The special size modifier for grapple checks of the creatures making up the crowd should be added as a modifier to the DC of those checks.

The special size modifier for a grapple check is as follows: Colossal +16, Gargantuan +12, Huge +8, Large +4, Medium +0, Small –4, Tiny –8, Diminutive –12, Fine –16.

HEAVY CROWDS: As a general rule of thumb, a crowd is considered a heavy crowd when there is an average of more than one creature per 5 feet. Characters in a heavy crowd benefit from cover (instead of soft cover), but suffer a -2 penalty when making checks to avoid being entangled or knocked prone by a crowd.



You can attempt to direct a crowd’s movement by making a Diplomacy check (DC 15) as a full action or an Intimidate check (DC 20) as a free action. These checks are modified by the crowd’s general relationship with the character attempting the check (see the Diplomacy skill). If the crowd is panicked, the check is made at a -10 penalty.

OPPOSED ATTEMPTS: If two or more characters are trying to direct a crowd in different directions, they make opposed Diplomacy or Intimidate checks to determine who the crowd listens to. The crowd ignores everyone if none of the characters’ check results beat the minimum DCs given above.



Unlike a generic crowd, a mob takes action (usually violent action). You can create a mob by applying a template to a base creature representing the typical member of the mob (see below). A mob is made up of approximately 12 creatures of the base type. Larger mobs are made up of many smaller mobs.


A mob uses all of the base creature’s statistics and special abilities, except as noted here:

Size: A mob takes up a space four times larger than the base creature and is considered a creature of the resulting size. (For example, a mob of Medium-size creatures would take up four 5-foot squares and would be considered a Large creature. A mob of Large creatures would take up sixteen 5-foot squares and would be considered a Gargantuan creature.)

Unlike other creatures, a mob’s space is shapeable. It can occupy any contiguous space and it can squeeze through any space large enough to contain one of its component creatures.

A mob has the same reach as the base creature.

Type: A mob gains the Mob subtype with the following qualities.

  • A mob can move through squares occupied by enemies and vice versa without impediment, although a mob provokes an attack opportunity if it does so.

  • A mob has no clear front or back and no discernible anatomy, so it is not subject to critical hits or flanking.

  • A mob’s hit points represent its cohesion. Reducing a mob to 0 hit points or lower causes it to break up, though damage taken until that point does not degrade its ability to attack or resist attack. Mobs are never staggered or reduced to a dying state by damage.

  • Mobs cannot be tripped or grappled.

  • A mob takes half damage from all attacks and effects, except for spells and effects which affect an area (such as splash weapons and many evocation spells).

  • A mob is immune to any spell or effect that targets a specific number of creatures (including single-target spells such as hold person) unless the spell causes damage (in which case it deals half the damage it would deal to a single target) or is a mind-affecting effect (charms, compulsions, phantasms, patterns, and morale effects).

Attack: A mob retains all the attacks of the base creature and also gains a slam attack if it didn’t already have one. This slam attack uses the base creature’s melee attack bonus and causes bludgeoning damage based on the size of the base creature (see the Crowd Damage table) plus the Strength modifier of the base creature.

Special Attacks: A mob retains all the special attacks of the base creature and gains those described below.

Improved Grab (Ex): When a mob hits with its slam attack, it can attempt to start a grapple as a free action without provoking an attack of opportunity.

Trample (Ex): A mob’s trample attack deals bludgeoning damage equal to the mob’s slam attack + 1 ½ times its Strength modifier. Targets may attempt a Reflex save with a DC equal to 10 +  ½ the base creature’s HD  + the base creature’s Strength modifier.

Special Qualities: A mob retains all the special qualities of the base creature and gains those described below.

Heavy Crowd (Ex): A mob is considered to be a heavy crowd except that they take action on their own initiative count (and not initiative count 0). Characters in a mob are affected as if they were in a heavy crowd in all ways. Characters attempting to manipulate a mob suffer a -4 penalty to their check.

Mob Members (Ex): Although a mob is immune to any spell or effect that targets a specific number of creatures, a character can use such an effect while targeting a specific creature within the mob. If the effect causes the target to die, fall unconscious, become paralyzed, or suffer similar incapacitation, the mob suffers 1d6 points of damage. Otherwise it has no effect on the mob.

Mob Qualities: See above.

Abilities: Str +4

Challenge Rating: +1

FATE OF A MOB: When a mob breaks up, each member must make a Fortitude save (DC 10). If the mob was broken up using nonlethal means, a failure on this saving throw indicates the member is unconscious (as a result of nonlethal damage). If the mob was broken up using lethal means, a failure on this saving throw indicates the member is unconscious and reduced to 1d4-2 hit points.

  | | Link

May 10th. 2007

Diplomacy Design Notes, Part I

Today I want to talk about the single most-broken rule in all of D&D: The Diplomacy skill.

Oh, there are almost certainly abusive combinations of rules which can achieve a similar or even greater level of power (Pun-Pun comes to mind), but I know of no rule so inordinately broken when it is used precisely as the designers intended and exactly as it is written.

In short, the Diplomacy skill is the win button for D&D. It is the equivalent of punching UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT A B SELECT START into a Konami cartridge. It is the unmitigated silver tongue of victory. Consider:

1. Hostile is the absolute most negative opinion someone can have of you. Helpful means that the person is willing to "protect, back up, heal, and aid" you -- it is literally a person willing to put themselves in harm's way for you.

2. To turn a Hostile character into a Helpful character requires a DC 50 Diplomacy check.

3. This takes 1 minute. But by accepting a -10 penalty on the check you can perform it as a standard action. And this is explicitly allowed even if you are engaged in active combat with the character in question.

So, effectively, if Frodo were to sit down for a chat with Sauron and make a DC 50 Diplomacy check, Sauron would give him a tour guide and a detailed map showing him the best hiking paths to Mount Doom.

A PC could be facing an ancient red wyrm, it's mouth gaping to release a fiery blast of death, and in less than six seconds they could turn the ancient red wyrm into a helpful friend with a DC 60 Diplomacy check. And the ancient red wyrm would be helpful forever after because there is absolutely no provision given for the effects of a successful Diplomacy check to ever come to an end.

"Well, sure, that's true," you may be thinking. "But we're talking about a DC 50 or a DC 60 check. That's a pretty tough check to make."

That's true. But once you can make a DC 60 check, you never need to fight a round of combat ever again. (You may be thinking that mindless opponents might still pose a challenge. But consider: You can now turn Zeus himself into a helpful ally willing to back you up in less than six seconds. Even if he doesn't bring the rest of the Greek pantheon with him, you can spend another couple of minutes to get them all onboard. Invest in some magical communication devices -- and by invest I mean "ask that 20th level wizard who became your new best friend in the last six seconds to make them for you" -- and all those gods are now effectively on-call for you. "Zeus old buddy, old pal, could you lend a friend a lightning bolt?")

And how difficult is it to achieve that DC 60 check? Not very. Consider an 8th level character with Diplomacy as a class skill:

  • +6 Charisma (18 starting, +2 ability increases, +2 ability boost item)
  • +11 skill ranks
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • +2 Negotiator feat
  • +2 synergy bonus from Bluff
  • +2 synergy bonus from Knowledge (nobility and royalty)
  • +2 synergy bonus from Sense Motive
  • +15 skill boost item

That's a total +43 bonus to Diplomacy checks. The DC 50 check is now achieved 65% of the time and the DC 60 check is achieved 15% of the time.

By 13th level the game is over. The wealth-by-level guidelines now allow you to pick up a +30 skill boost item and you are automatically succeeding on the DC 60 check. No matter what the DM throws at you, six seconds later it's your best friend. Unless it's mindless. And if it's mindless, you shouldn't have any difficulty finding someone to kill it or you, since everyone in the world who has a mind loves you at almost the instant that they see you.

And, it should be noted, that the DC 60 check is only the most abusive use of the Diplomacy skill. Remember our scenario involving winning Zeus over as a helpful ally willing to put himself in harm's way for you? Well, unless you've done something to piss Zeus off at you, Zeus isn't likely to be hostile towards you. He's probably Indifferent at worst.

To move Zeus from Indifferent to Helpful is only DC 30. A 1st level human can make that check every single time:

  • +4 Charisma (18 starting)
  • +4 skill ranks
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • +2 Negotiator feat
  • +2 synergy bonus from Bluff
  • +2 synergy bonus from Knowledge (nobility and royalty)
  • +2 synergy bonus from Sense Motive 

That's a total bonus of +19 for the win. By 4th level you can automatically make the DC 40 check necessary to do it in less than six seconds.

When I point this out to people who have not previously considered it, I am often met with one of two rejoinders:

REJOINDER 1: "No DM in his right mind would allow that."

This is true. But this is also an example of what I refer to as the Rule 0 Fallacy. To whit: "The rule isn't broken because I can fix it." In the very act of admitting that no DM would allow it, you have admitted that it is a broken rule which needs to be fixed. (Whenever someone invokes this fallacy I often wonder if they try to use the same logic in real life: "Those brakes aren't broken, any decent mechanic could fix them." "There isn't a hole in that bucket because I could patch it whenever I wanted to.")

REJOINDER 2: "Holy shit!"



  | | Link

May 11th, 2007

Diplomacy Design Notes, Part II

The Five Flaws of Diplomacy

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.



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.




  | | Link

May 12th, 2007

Diplomacy Design Notes, Part III

The Burlew Solution

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.



  | | Link

May 14th, 2007


We get our internet through Comcast Cable. It's been intermittently out of service all weekend. (You may have noticed how late the May 12th entry was posted.) At the moment I am completely unable to get a stable FTP connection to this site in order to upload the next installment of the Diplomacy rules. (I'm posting this through a bit of a hack.)

As soon as I can browbeat Comcast into admitting that there's something seriously wrong with their service (and, then, get the problem fixed), the site will be on a brief hiatus. I don't anticipate this lasting more than another day or so. (And even if it does, I'll figure out some other way of getting the next installment.)

Thank you for your patience.

  | | Link

May 16th, 2007



CHECK: With a Diplomacy check a diplomat can persuade someone to accept a deal or, at the very least, convince them to listen to them. The difficulty of the check depends on the relationship between the diplomat and the other character and the quality of the deal being offered.

Convince: A diplomat can make a Diplomacy check (DC 15) to convince someone of something that they believe. (If they're trying to convince them of a lie, it's a Bluff check.) This DC is adjusted by the relationship between the diplomat and the person they're trying to convince (see table). If the check succeeds, the other character believes what the diplomat is telling them. (Or, at least, believes that the diplomat believes it to be true.) Of course, what they choose to do with that information depends on the character.

The character the diplomat is trying to convince makes a Sense Motive check (DC 10) as an automatic reaction. If the check succeeds, the diplomat gains a +2 circumstance bonus to their Diplomacy check (the other character has sensed the diplomat's honesty). This works just like an Aid Another check.

Overcome Intransigence: Some characters simply won’t listen to any attempts at negotiation or deal-making. To overcome their intransigence, you can make a Diplomacy check with a DC of 15 + the subject’s HD + the subject’s Wisdom modifier + the subject’s relationship modifier. If the check succeeds, you can then make a Diplomacy check as normal.

Persuasion: A diplomat can propose a trade or agreement to another creature with their words; a Diplomacy check can then persuade them that accepting it is a good idea. Either side of the deal may involve physical goods, money, services, promises, or abstract concepts like "satisfaction". The base DC for a persuasion check is 15, modified by the diplomat's relationship with the character they're trying to convince and the risk vs. reward factor of the deal being proposed (see table).

When the deal is proposed the character the diplomat is trying to convince makes a Sense Motive check (DC 20) as a reaction. If the check succeeds, the bonus or penalty provided by the risk vs. reward factor of the deal is doubled. (A failure on this check has no effect.)

If the Diplomacy check beats the DC, the subject accepts the proposal, with no changes or with minor (mostly idiosyncratic) changes. If the check fails by 5 or less, the subject does not accept the deal but may, at the DM's option, present a counter-offer that would push the deal up one place on the risk-vs.-reward list. For example, a counter-offer might make an Even deal Favorable for the subject. The character who made the Diplomacy check can simply accept the counter-offer, if they choose; no further check will be required. If the check fails by 10 or more, the Diplomacy is over; the subject will entertain no further deals, and may become hostile or take other steps to end the conversation.

Just because a deal has been accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other character is happy about it. If you use your relationship to take advantage of someone, it may affect their future relationship with you (at the DM’s discretion).


Quick Diplomacy: You can make a Diplomacy check as a standard action by accepting a -10 penalty to the check.

TRY AGAIN: No, unless you can significantly change the circumstances of the check. For example, if you fail to convince a caravan owner that there is an orc ambush on the road ahead, presenting the caravan owner with the body of a dead orc might justify a new check. When making a persuasion check you can attempt to alter the parameters of the deal to make it more appealing to the target -- if you do so, you use the same check result but compare it to the DC set by the new deal.


  • A character with 5 or more ranks in Bluff gains a synergy bonus on Diplomacy checks.

  • A character with 5 or more ranks in Sense Motive gains a synergy bonus on Diplomacy checks.


Convince 15* 1 minute
Overcome Intransigence 15 + target's HD + target's Wisdom modifier* 1 minute
Persuasion 15** 1 minute
* Modified by relationship.
** Modified by relationship and risk vs. reward.
Quick Diplomacy -10


DC Relationship (Example)
-15 Intimate (someone with whom you have an implicit trust; a lover or spouse)
-10 Friend (someone with whom you have a regularly positive personal relationship; a long-time buddy or sibling)
-5 Ally (someone on the same team, but with whom you have no personal relationship; a cleric of the same religion or a knight serving the same king)
-2 Acquaintance -- Positive (someone you've met several times with no particularly negative experiences; the blacksmith that buys your looted equipment regularly)
0 Just Met (no relationship whatsoever)
+2 Acquaintance -- Negative (someone you've met several times with no particularly positive experience; the town guard that has arrested you for drunkenness once or twice)
+5 Enemy (someone on an opposed team with whom you have no personal relationship; a cleric of an opposed religion or the orc bandit robbing you)
+10 Personal Foe (someone with whom you have a regularly antagonistic personal relationship; an evil overlord you're trying to thwart or a bounty hunter sworn to track you down)
+15 Nemesis (someone who has sworn to do you, personally, harm; the brother of a man you murdered in cold blood)


DC Risk vs. Reward Judgment (Example)
-15 Fantastic (The reward for accepting the deal is very worthwhile; the risk is either acceptable or extremely unlikely. The best-case scenario is a virtual guarantee. Example: An offer to pay a lot of gold for information that isn't important to the character.)
-10 Good (The reward is good and the risk is minimal. The subject is very likely to proift from the deal. Example: An offer to pay someone twice their normal daily wage to spend their evening in a seedy tavern with a reputation for vicious brawls and later report on everyone they saw there.)
-5 Favorable (The reward is appealing, but there's risk involved. If all goes according to plan, though, the deal will end up benefiting the subject. Example: A request for a mercenary to aid the party in battle against a weak goblin tribe in return for a cut of the money and first pick of the magic items.)
0 Even (The reward and risk more of less even out; or the deal involves neither reward nor risk. Example: A request for directions to a place that isn't a secret.)
+5 Unfavorable (The reward is not enough compared to the risk involved. Even if all goes according to plan, chances are it will end badly for the subject. Example: A request to free a prisoner the target is guarding for a small amount of money.)
+10 Bad (The reward is poor and the risk is high. The subject is very likely to get the raw end of the deal. Example: A request for a mercenary to aid the party in battle against an ancient red dragon for a small cut of any non-magical treasure.)
+15 Horrible (There is no conceivable way that the proposed plan could end up with the subject ahead or the worst-case scenario is guaranteed to occur. Example: An offer to trade a rusty kitchen knife for a shiny new longsword.)



Charm Spells: A charmed creature is treated as having a Friendly relationship to the caster (-10 to Diplomacy DC ), which replaces any previous relationship modifier (unless the target already had an Intimate relationship with the character). Thus, by charming an enemy, the DC drops from +5 to -10, a decrease of 15. The caster can now talk the creature into anything this improved relationship allows. Because the effect is based on the spell, the caster can make a Spellcraft check in place of a Diplomacy check when dealing with charmed creatures.

Cons: In order to pull a con a character simply makes a Bluff check to convince the target that a deal is better than it actually is. The Bluff check is opposed by a Sense Motive check, just like any other Bluff check, but this Sense Motive check result replaces the normal Sense Motive check made as part of an honest persuasion check. If the Bluff check is successful, the DC of the Diplomacy check is set using whatever the target believes the deal to be. If the Bluff check fails, the DC of the Diplomacy check is set using the actual quality of the deal and the check itself suffers an additional -20 penalty (it is practically impossible to work a deal with someone who has caught you trying to con them).



(including haggling and a return of influencing attitudes)

  | | Link

May 17th, 2007

Well, it looks like Comcast is behaving itself now. My internet service is still intermittently disappearing, but it appears to be limited to only a few minutes at a time now. And I'm able to make FTP connections again.

However, I'm leaving town this weekend and there will be a brief break from the Diplomacy essays for awhile. When they resume (probably sometime next week) there should be two more installments: The optional rules mentioned in yesterday's post and then a fourth set of design notes where I talk about the design decisions I made and why I made them.

In other news: My mother is the award-winning historical mystery author Margaret Frazer. I have just finished designing her brand new website. You should check it out.

  | | Link

May 18th, 2007


Imagine for a moment that you have been made aware of a novel with a reputation which places it on the same lofty plateau as the Foundation Trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, or Dune. Its author has carefully crafted an entire culture and society, complete with a language so detailed that many have learned to speak it fluently. Its plot is epic in its scope. Its quality is attested to by a legion of dedicated fans, multimedia adaptations, and widespread acclaim.

In short, it is reputed to be a masterpiece. And you have never read it.

So you go looking for it, but are frustrated to discover that it cannot be had. You are literally unable to discover a single copy of it. But the more you learn about it, the more it sounds exactly like the type of book you want to read.

And then you get some wonderful news: It's being reprinted! You'll finally be able to get a copy! Frabjuous day!

So the day finally comes when you hold a copy of the newly reprinted masterpiece in your hands. You crack the cover...

... and discover that the new publishers have decided to not only abridge the book, they've also decided to rewrite it as a juvenile.

Imagine, if you will, that you had spent several years searching and hoping to find a copy of the Lord of the Rings or Dune or the Foundation Trilogy. And then, when you thought you finally had a copy, it turned out to be a novelization of the movie which was based on the book.

The emotion you'd be feeling at that moment is roughly akin to the emotion I felt when I finally managed to get my hands on the Crest of the Stars, a space opera masterpiece by Hiroyuki Morioka.

The original novel was written in Japanese. For many years it has been known in English only through the anime and manga adaptations. Starting last year, however, Tokyopop began releasing translated versions of the novel. As is typical for the Japanese market, the book was serialized into three volumes. Tokyopop kept the same format and released it as a trilogy: Princess of the Empire, A Modest War, and Return to a Strange World.

The novel was translated by Sue Shambaugh. And, unfortunately, the decision was made to release the novel as part of Tokyopop's juvenile line. The work was minorly abridged, but this was almost a minor sin compared to a translation which fundamentally kiddified the work and stripped out its complexities. The glimmering remannts of Hiroyuki Morioka's brilliant world-building which shine through in these botched translations is utterly eclipsed by the incessant need to make the characters sound "hip" and "current" (in that utterly artificial way which only a thoroughly dreary adult can achieve when trying to copy "the way kids speak these days").

Imagine, if you will, an edition of the Lord of the Rings in which Theoden would say things like: "Fine, spoilsport! Oh jeez! I really don't want to go fight Saruman's orcs!"

Perhaps you'd prefer it if Frodo's hair was described using an analogy to a chocolate pudding pop?

Do you feel the pain?

Then you can imagine my pain.

I'd really love to encourage people to go out and experience this wonderful story. But, realistically, you have to be willing to squint your eyes and try to read between the lines to recreate Hiroyuki Morioka's masterpiece from the wreckage of Tokyopop's hamfisted translation.


(1) The first words of Crest of the Stars consist of a quote from a fictional text. This quote begins: "This crest depicts the Gaftonash. The grotesque eight-headed dragon was long lost to the ages -- forgotten, alive only in myth. Resurrected on an Imperial crest, the Gaftonash became infamous..."

When you flip open the book to the very first page you'll discover a large rendition of the Imperial crest described. Count the heads: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7...

Yup. That's right. The eight-headed Imperial crest has been rendered with only seven heads. This same image is then reused in miniature throughout the volume to break up the text.

You can literally say that Tokyopop screwed it up starting right on page one.

(2) One of the unique things about the original Japanese publication of Crest of the Stars was the way in which Hiroyuki Morioka worked the fictional language of Baronh into the story. As Tokyopop describes it: "In the original Japanese version, all the text is in kanji, and then above those Japanese characters are the Abh language words (called Baronh) in rubi (a smaller, phonetic alphabet)."

Fascinating. How could you duplicate this experience in an English-language edition?

Well, you could duplicate it precisely: Print the book in double-space print and insert the Baronh words on the interleaving lines. This would be awkward, but I've got an edition of Caesar's Gallic Wars that does essentially this (printing a line of Latin and then the matching line in English and using two different colors to make them easily distinguishable).

You could also use footnotes. Or you could put the notes on the facing page (like the Folger's Library editions of Shakespeare). Or you could consistently put the Baronh words in parantheses.

Or you could do what Tokyopop did: The first time a Baronh term is referenced the English version is written with the Baronh term appearing in parentheses immediately afterwards. So far so good... But then the English term is never used again. Only the Baronh term is used.

This might have worked if only a few select terms had been selected. For example, if the book refers to the "Imperial Emperor (Spunej)", I'd have a pretty good chance of remembering that Spunej is the Abh title for Emperor.

But it becomes ridiculous when someone talks about taking a shower (guzas), and forever after the word "shower" is never used again. To the extent where you feel like you're learning key phrases in a foreign tongue, its fun. But when the latter half of the book becomes an increasingly frustrating exercise in referring to the glossary at the back of the book to parse simple sentences, something has gone wrong.

(3) Making the ubiquitous use of Baronh terms even more painful is that, for reasons beyond comprehending, Tokyopop decided to Capitalize Every Single Baronh Word. It makes Everything look like a Proper Noun, and it makes Parsing sentences difficult even When You understand the Baronh Words to begin with.

What makes this even more absurd is that Tokyopop got it right when they used Japanese terms like "kanji" and "rubi" in their foreward: See how I italicized them in the bit I quoted up above? That's because they're italicized in the book.

It would have made sense to capitalize titles and ranks (like Spunej) while italicizing common Baronh words (like guzas). It makes no sense to capitalize everything.

Final analysis? I'm glad I finally got a chance to read Crest of the Stars. I've been waiting a long time for it.

But I'll never buy another Tokyopop novel translation.

| | Link 

May 30th, 2007

I'm going to finish up the Diplomacy articles in the very near future. Unfortunately, once the series was delayed, it ended up running into other projects that have placed more urgent demands on my time and attention. One of those efforts was the design of Margaret Frazer's webpage (which I mentioned two weeks ago, but on which work continues apace). But there are also other projects.

One of these is the launch of Dream Machine Productions. The Dream Machine has been something I've wanted to create for awhile now, and the pieces are finally coming together. Dream Machine Productions will serve as both a publishing house for many of my roleplaying project and as a theatrical production company. As such it will serve as a foundation for two of the four great passions in my life.

As far as the roleplaying projects are concerned, I'll be making more announcements regarding those in the near future. For the moment, however, I can proudly announce another major project:


A 75-Minute Play in One Act

Adapted from the Letters of John and Abigail Adams


Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater

810 West Lake Street

Minneapolis, MN


Friday, August 3rd - 6 pm

Sunday, August 5th - 10 pm

Wednesday, August 8th - 6 pm

Saturday, August 11th - 4 pm

Sunday, August 12th - 2 pm

Through war and peace, tragedy and joy, the friendship and love of John Adams and Abigail Smith formed a passionate and enduring marriage which helped shape the future of a newborn America .

Through long years of separation – brought about by John’s work in Boston and Philadelphia during the American Revolution – their twin souls were joined only by the ink and parchment of their countless letters. This is the story of a timeless love at the dawn of a nation, of a legendary love that will live forever through its own words...

Uptown Tix - 651-209-6799

Poster - Postcard - Production Photos

Cast - Crew

(Coming Soon!)


You'll also be seeing some changes here at the Alexandrian to make navigation to and from the Dream Machine easier. You may see some rough edges around the place while we're under construction, but I think you'll find some very exciting times are ahead of us.

| | Link

May 31st, 2007

Minor site news: I just got done fixing up the What I'm Reading review pages. There have been some broken links on those pages for awhile now. Those have now been cleaned up and I've also taken the opportunity to add blatant commercialization, as well.

That's right, ads are coming to the Alexandrian. (Try to contain your horror.) I promise to keep them integrated tastefully into the lay-out. There will be no pop-ups, pop-overs, or pop-tarts mucking up your computers.

  | | Link