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By Justin Alexander

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 2nd level human can make that check every single time:

  • +4 Charisma (18 starting)
  • +5 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 +20 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!"


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.

(Note: As of May 2008, this slightly-less-than-intelligent fellow demands that he be credited by name. Since I don't know his real name, I'll simply identify him by his handle: "tussock".)


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.


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.


The Alexandrian has been upgraded.

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