Serious Skills: Diplomacy

Serious Skills: Diplomacy

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Continuing on with our Serious Skills series, we turn our attention to the Diplomacy skill. ::shudder:: I hate Diplomacy.

Diplomacy as Mechanics.

The Compendium has this to say about Diplomacy:

“You can influence others with your tact, subtlety, and social grace. Make a Diplomacy check to change opinions, to inspire good will, to haggle with a patron, to demonstrate proper etiquette and decorum, or to negotiate a deal in good faith. A Diplomacy check is made against a DC set by the DM. The target’s general attitude toward you (friendly or unfriendly, peaceful or hostile) and other conditional modifiers (such as what you might be seeking to accomplish or what you’re asking for) might apply to the DC. Diplomacy is usually used in a skill challenge that requires a number of successes, but the DM might call for a Diplomacy check in other situations.”

So.. yeah. It’s a skill roll with no clear result. This is the first reason I hate the Diplomacy skill. (I actually have a neat fix for this, but it requires a whole article unto itself. Stay tuned…)

Bluff as Social Skill

I realize my post is going out of order, but you need to know this for any of the rest of it to make sense. Plus, this is the rant I’ve waited years to make online to a sizeable enough audience.

Look through the list of trainable class skills for a moment. I ran some numbers on this a while back, and found that the 17 skills arrange themselves fairly neatly into three bands or tiers of probability for any given character based on which and how many skills the class can train in at character creation (between 4 and 6, usually). The High tier skills each have a 32-38% chance of being trained for any given character based on class alone. These skills are Athletics, Arcana, Endurance, Heal, Insight and Intimidate. The Mid tier skills, at 24-28% chance of training are Diplomacy, History, Nature, Perception and Religion and the Low tier skills at a 12-18% probability are Acrobatics, Bluff, Dungeoneering, Theivery, Stealth and Streetwise. Now admittedly, the standard deviation here is 8.5% but for our purposes I think the tier system is a reasonable approach.

It seems like anytime a character says something that is both true and non-threatening, we ask for a Diplomacy check! (Second reason I hate Diplomacy.) This weights the usefulness of the skill entirely too heavily as 4E puts Diplomacy on the same level with useful knowledge-type skills (sans Arcana) in Tier 2, not the ‘everybody should have at least one of these’-type skills of the 1st Tier. Any given party of five PCs probably has one Diplomacy person, maybe 2. Thus, if everyone needs to contribute in a talking situation, Diplomacy is not the way to do it! Other skills need to be available for PCs to use in social encounters – unless of course the group wants to have the one guy who does all the talking in which case ::sigh:: alright fine, but don’t ask me to DM for you. Furthermore, your characters got along just fine in society growing up, right? You didn’t spend your whole life bullying and lying (well MOST of you didn’t anyway), but you’re not trained in Diplomacy. Surely there must be another way to mechanize that.

Diplomacy should be reserved for actions that ‘spin’ the facts, not just deliver them and usually it’s about something or someone besides you. Diplomacy is the art of context, not content. Talking up how great your buddy is to some girl in a bar, making bad news sound simply ‘less good’, or trying to create an anrgy mob out of a group of peasants in the town square are good uses for Diplomacy. Diplomacy can also be used in its classic sense – negotiations. Treaties, cease-fires, land contracts, haggling over the price of something, etc; these are all good uses of Diplomacy as they have a manipulative intent behind them. In this use, it also represents knowledge of culture’s customs and law (shared with History). My rule of thumb is that if you can think of any other skill applicable to what you’re saying, use it. If you can’t think of one, ask the person sitting next to you. If he or she can’t, ask the DM. If the DM can’t, then use Diplomacy. You really want to avoid falling back on Diplomacy as much as possible because of the natural instinct to do so. Let’s review with a quiz:

Your warlord is in council. The others are not listening to your sound tactical theory. You should use:
A) Diplomacy B) History C) Stealth D) Intimidate
Answer: B – History. Tactics and strategy are primaily the purview of knowing what’s happened before, which is History (though I have heard good arguments for small-arms tactics being Dungeoneering). Intimidate might not be a bad choice depending on your relative position in the council either. Only use Diplomacy if you’re willing to concede on some part of your plan.

Your Wizard just got caught by the dragon. You want to try to talk it into letting you go alive. You should use:
A) Diplomacy B) Nature C) Insight D) Bluff
Answer: D – Bluff. Only use Diplomacy if you’re going to offer some future favor or treasure in return for your safe passage. However, the dragon is a natural beast, so your ability to know what it likes could be put under Nature, like a monster knowledge check. It’s also very smart, so Insight is a viable alternative as well.

Your Paladin wants to give a sermon to a group of new initiates. You should use:
A)Diplomacy B) Intimidate C) Religion D) Endurance
Answer: any of the above. Trick question! I would default to Religion if the sermon was primarily theological, Intimidate if meant to instill discipline, Endurance if longer than half an hour. Only use Diplomacy if your message is primarily evangelical in nature and even then I might still ask for Religion.

Your Barbarian has been falsely accused of a crime based on shady evidence. You are brought before the magistrate. You should use:
A)Diplomacy B) Streetwise C) History D) Theivery
Answer: A – Diplomacy. There had to be one, right? The believability of your alibi is based primarily on how you present yourself – the perfect opportunity for Diplomacy. Only after you make a good impression do the facts you offer carry weight. Incidentally, I like any of the other three as supporting skills.

Diplomacy as Platform

Who are the people trained in Diplomacy? Why are they trained in Diplomacy?

Media – Depending on the civilization level of your game world, exactly what constitutes the media is variable. In tribal societies, the media are Elders and Chieftains. As society advances, the duty of carrying the news falls more to Scouts or Messengers. More complex societies might use Scribes or rely on Traders for bringing the outside world home. These folks need to be able to not just relate stories, but bring them to life and possibly filter them for culture-appropriate content or propaganda purposes.

Authority Figures – Once again, this varies wildly by civilization. Elders, Royalty, Senators, Councilmen or any other number of people in leadership positions need Diplomacy to rally their subjects or charges. They also use Diplomacy to negotiate agreements between themselves.

Merchantfolk – Haggling costs with suppliers and customers demands a good Diplomacy. To a lesser extent, Diplomacy covers the knowledge of culture’s customs and law so a wide-ranging merchant better know what words and gestures will get him in trouble in the next town over.

Performers – Some Bardic rituals key off of Diplomacy, but even beyond that Diplomacy gives any type of performance heart. It’s what conveys whatever feeling the artist wants to get across.

Diplomacy as Sense

How is Diplomacy used as a sense? How do those trained in Diplomacy see/process information?

Bluff and Intimidate both have uses that don’t require words and work on ‘unintelligent’ beings (undead, animals, etc). However, Diplomacy does not – it functions in the realm of intelligent entities communicating in a primarily verbal fashion. This puts the Diplomacy master in a state of mind that is primarily social or political. (S)He is always looking for the ‘human(oid) angle,’ that x-factor of emotion, perceived value and beliefs that can make even the simplest of decisions so overly complicated and yet so interesting.

The ways this manifests with the character are varied. There’s the classic ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ type, which admittedly doesn’t work well (Third reason I hate Diplomacy). D&D, and 4th Edition in particular is combat-centric, so if your character is trying to avoid combat you’ve thrown out a core assumption of the game. The in-game rules lawyer – the character who always adheres perfectly to the letter of the law or contract but completely throws out the spirit – is a much more fun and engaging personality piece. A strong Diplomacy might also make for a good Puppetmaster; never wanting to get his hands dirty, the Puppetmaster finds ways to get other people to do the work for him. This is especially fun for Leader characters who have that built into their powers to a decent extent. Characters leaning more toward the Good end of things might act primarily as emissaries of their chosen patron or cause, always on the lookout for ways improve their master’s influence.

Hope you enjoyed that breakdown of Diplomacy! (Did I mention I hate Diplomacy?) Next week: Endurance.

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About the Author

Ryven Cedrylle was introduced to 2nd edition D&D by his father at age 8 and has been hooked ever since. When not out somewhere with his nerd-loving wife, he spends an inordinate amount of time staring at small objects - primarily beakers, stars, books about religion and virtual gaming miniatures. Follow him on Twitter for previews of upcoming material and random nuggets of wit! There's also a guy Ryven knows who's trying to adopt a baby. Take a look at the site, see if you can help him out.