This Old Rule: The Diplomacy Skill

Welcome to a new feature, which I call "This Old Rule." The idea here is to take a rule that isn't working the way I would like, and fix it up a bit. These aren't rules that are broken, necessarily; they just don't mesh with what I would like to see them do in my actual campaign. I might be adding more detail, or streamlining a complex system, or just creating something new altogether. Think of it as a home improvement show for rules: I'm not destroying them, just changing it to be more palatable.

Since this is the first article, I'll give rundown of the format. First, I discuss why I am tinkering with this system in the first place; I call it "Surveying the Rule." Once I know what I don't like, I set down what I would like my revision to accomplish. This includes any numerical baseline assumptions, such as desired success/failure rates, etc. I call this "Building the Foundation." Next, the actual rules I have come up with: "The Big Reveal." And finally, advice on integrating the rule into a campaign, including extensive examples when appropriate; "Living with the Rule," I've named it.

Enough introduction-on to the first rule!

Surveying the Rule:
I have never liked the D&D rules for the Diplomacy skill. Now, let's be clear, I'm not one of those people who says that any mechanic for social interaction is a Bad Idea That Limits Roleplaying. Quite the opposite; I want a clear and concise mechanic for determining how people react to specific requests and negotiations. Here are my problems with the current skill description:
  1. It has a flat DC that is too low; a 2nd level bard turning a hostile character to indifferent is DC 25; seems "tough, but doable". But it's actually child's play. With a 16 Charisma, 5 ranks in Diplomacy, 5 ranks in Bluff (which grants a +2 synergy bonus), and 5 ranks in Sense Motive (which also grants a +2 synergy bonus), and (new in 3.5!) 5 ranks of Knowledge (nobility) (which yes, ALSO grants a +2 synergy bonus), the 2nd level bard already has a +14 and only needs a 11 or better to succeed. And that's without spending a feat on Skill Focus (Diplomacy) or Persuasive. Now here's the real problem: at 11th level, that same bard will have 9 more ranks in Diplomacy and probably at least an extra +1 from Charisma; he can now succeed on a roll of 1, which means he doesn't have to roll. He can automatically turn all hostile people indifferent by talking to them. He has 9 more levels of adventuring before he goes epic, but he can already make every enemy he meets apathetic to his existence.
  2. Which leads to my second beef: there is no discrepancy between targets. Making nice-nice to the evil overlord and sweet-talking the bean farmer who wants you off his property have the same DC under the current system. There is no way to resist the effects of Diplomacy; no saving throw, no opposed skill check, no level check, nothing. An indifferent epic wizard is as vulnerable to persuasion as an indifferent 1st level commoner. There's no such thing as a stubborn NPC under the current system.
  3. The "patch" for the last two complaints is often the belief that the DM should apply circumstance penalties as he sees fit. My problem with this is without any guide as to what those penalties should be, it basically boils down to the DM thinking, "Do I want to give them such a huge penalty that they can't succeed, or not?" But I rarely have a preference. I don't decide whether I want someone to be persuadable, I want a rule system that lets me determine it randomly. It makes it very difficult to "wing" an adventure when there is no system for determining how to assess modifiers to this skill. Is that circumstance worth a -1? A -4? A -15? There's no guidelines given. 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.
  4. When the Diplomacy check succeeds (and it usually will, with those low flat DCs), the exact outcome is too vague. They have a new mood; great, what does that mean? In reality, it means whatever the DM says it means-which brings me right back to point #3.
  5. And how far does that "mood" go? What is its breaking point? What if the PCs ask a ludicrous and overly-expensive favor of a "friendly" person? What happens? I want Diplomacy to be able to answer questions like this when I don't have the answers predetermined, and it cannot do that as it stands. I want to be able to say, "Hmm, you asked the Duke to give you a 5000 gp advance on your next adventuring fee…roll Diplomacy to see if he goes for it." Right now, it doesn't really work that way. In short, D&D does not make me have to decide on the spot whether the PC's sword strikes the target; it provides rules for determining that. Why shouldn't there be rules for determining what happens when you ask an NPC to give too much?
  6. Oh, and it's too hard to really screw up. Anyone with the basic 4 ranks of Diplomacy one would take at 1st level and no penalty to Charisma is incapable of worsening anyone's attitude by accident. It should be a lot easier to blow it, I think, especially in delicate negotiations.

In my current game, I often find myself looking at the 4th level bard's Diplomacy roll of 27 and thinking, "What do I do with that information?" It just doesn't answer the questions I want it to answer.

Building the Foundation
OK, so, in my thinking I have come up with a few ground rules to guide my principle:
  1. I only worry about characters who invest in Diplomacy. Sure, fighters will occasionally be stuck having to talk their way out of something, but the system needs to work the right way for those who put max ranks in the skill and have a decent Charisma bonus. After all, combat values are derived from the best case scenario, the fighter, not the wizard. This is, in fact, one of the flaws with the current system; anyone who spends a modicum of effort being good at it, breaks it.
  2. 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.
  3. A diplomat PC asking a stranger of equal level and Wisdom of 10 to accept a deal with an even risk-vs.-reward ratio should need to roll a 10 on the die to succeed. This is my numerical starting point, and I will proceed in both directions from there.

The Big Reveal:

Diplomacy (Cha)
Use this skill to ask the local baron for assistance, to convince a band of thugs not to attack you, or to talk your way into someplace you aren't supposed to be.

Check: You can propose a trade or agreement to another creature with your 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 DC for the Diplomacy check is based on three factors: who the target is, the relationship between the target and the character making the check, and the risk vs. reward factor of the deal proposed.
  • The Target: The base DC for any Diplomacy check is equal to the 15 + level of the highest-level character in the group that you are trying to influence + the Wisdom modifier of the character in the group with the highest Wisdom. High-level characters are more committed to their views and are less likely to be swayed; high Wisdom characters are more likely to perceive the speaker's real motives and aims. By applying the highest modifiers in any group, a powerful king (for example) might gain benefit from a very wise advisor who listens in court and counsels him accordingly. For this purpose, a number of characters is only a "group" if they are committed to all following the same course of action. Either one NPC is in charge, or they agree to act by consensus. If each member is going to make up their mind on their own, roll separate Diplomacy checks against each.
  • The Relationship: Whether they love, hate, or have never met each other, the relationship between two people always influences any request.

  • -10 Intimate: Someone who with whom you have an implicit trust. Example: A lover or spouse.
  • -7 Friend: Someone with whom you have a regularly positive personal relationship. Example: A long-time buddy or a sibling.
  • -5 Ally: Someone on the same team, but with whom you have no personal relationship. Example: A cleric of the same religion or a knight serving the same king.
  • -2 Acquaintance (Positive): Someone you have met several times with no particularly negative experiences. Example: The blacksmith that buys your looted equipment regularly.
  • +0 Just Met: No relationship whatsoever. Example: A guard at a castle or a traveler on a road.
  • +2 Acquaintance (Negative): Someone you have met several times with no particularly positive experiences. Example: A 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. Example: A cleric of a philosophically-opposed religion or an orc bandit who is robbing you.
  • +7 Personal Foe: Someone with whom you have a regularly antagonistic personal relationship. Example: An evil warlord whom you are attempting to thwart, or a bounty hunter who is tracking you down for your crimes.
  • +10 Nemesis: Someone who has sworn to do you, personally, harm. Example: The brother of a man you murdered in cold blood.
  • Risk vs. Reward Judgement: The amount of personal benefit must always be weighed against the potential risks for any deal proposed. It is important to remember to consider this adjustment from the point of view of the NPC themselves and what they might value; while 10 gp might be chump change to an adventurer, it may represent several months' earnings for a poor farmer. Likewise, a heroic paladin is unlikely to be persuaded from his tenets for any amount of gold, though he might be convinced that a greater good is served by the proposed deal. When dealing with multiple people at once, always consider the benefits to the person who is in clear command, if any hierarchy exists within the group.

  • -10 Fantastic: The reward for accepting the deal is very worthwhile, and 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 something of no value to the subject, such as information that is not a secret.
  • -5 Favorable: The reward is good, and the risk is tolerable. If all goes according to plan, the deal will end up benefiting the subject. Example: A request 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 are more or less even, or the deal involves neither reward nor risk. Example: A request for directions to someplace that is not 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 up badly for the subject. Example: A request to free a prisoner the subject is guarding (for which he or she will probably be fired) in return for a small amount of money.
  • +10 Horrible: There is no conceivable way the proposed plan could end up with the subject ahead, or the worst-case scenario is guaranteed to occur. Example: A offer to trade a bit of dirty string for a castle.
Success or Failure: 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.

Action: Making a request or proposing a deal generally requires at least 1 full minute. In many situations, this time requirement may greatly increase.

Try Again: If you alter the parameters of the deal you are proposing, you may try to convince the subject that this new deal is even better than the last one. This is essentially how people haggle. As long as you never roll 10 or less than the DC on your Diplomacy check, you can continue to offer deals.

Synergy: If you have 5 or more ranks in Bluff, you get a +2 synergy bonus to Diplomacy. No other skill provides a synergy bonus to Diplomacy.

Living with the Rule
Extended Example:
A 5th level party is trying to get into an extravagant ball being thrown by a local baron (who is secretly an evil cultist). The party bard, with a Diplomacy of +13, tries to talk his way in. Three guards at the door are only letting in those who are on The List. Their captain is a 5th level fighter, and they are accompanied by a 1st level aristocrat with a Wisdom of 13, giving a base DC of 21 (the remaining guards are lower level and have Wisdoms of 10, so they don't add to the DC.) The guards have never met the adventurers before, so the Relationship modifier is +0. The final DC, however, depends on how the bard chooses to try to talk their way past the guards:
  • If the party approaches the guards and simply asks to be let in, they are offering a risk of "failing in your duty and probably getting fired or reprimanded" against a reward of "nothing". The guards might not get caught, but don't really get anything out of the deal either; it's an Unfavorable deal and gets a +5 increase to the DC, for a total of 26. The bard needs to roll a 13 or higher; not impossible, but risky.
  • If the party slips a pouch with 20 platinum pieces into the hand of the guard captain first, though, the deal becomes more favorable. Since even split four ways, the platinum is a decent amount of money compared to how much they get paid. Sure, they might get fired, but the platinum could keep them well-fed until they found another job anyway. The deal is now Favorable, and gets a -5 decrease to the DC, for a total of 16. The bard needs to roll a 3 or better-pretty easy.
  • If the party dresses up as aristocrats and successfully Bluffs the guards into believing they are nobles, the deal alters as well. The guard may get fired for letting in someone who is not on The List, but then, this noble before him may get him fired for keeping them out of the season's social event. Either way, the guard might lose his job, so the deal is Even, and the DC stays at 21. Our bard needs to now roll an 8 or better to succeed.
  • If, unbeknownst to the bard, the guard captain is fully aware of the evil baron's cult activities, things change again. First, the baron may have threatened the captain with a painful death if he fails his duty; thus, whatever method the bard uses to approach the guard will be one step less favorable, since the worst-case scenario is a brutal death rather than just job termination. The risk is much higher than the captain lets on, so if they offer him nothing in return the deal is Horrible for him, increasing the DC by +10 for a total of 31; the bard needs to roll an 18 or better-very unlikely. Further, if the captain is in on the baron's evil dealings and recognizes the adventurers as agents of Good, he might be considered an Enemy and qualify for an additional +5 increase to the DC based on relationship, for a total of 36! This is a recipe for disaster if the bard attempts it, but he doesn't know that.
  • But then again, if they discover that guard is Lawful Good, the bard can suggest that they are there to take expose the baron's dirty deeds. The bard is still offering no money, but now the "payment" is the action the adventurers will take that supports and exemplifies the guard's alignment. The deal is Favorable for him once again, since even if he is fired, he will have the satisfaction of knowing he helped thwart an evil plan. If the bard also slips the captain 20 platinum, it might push the deal up to Fantastic, for a grand total DC of 11. The bard then needs a -2: he will automatically succeed, though of course he doesn't know that either.
  • Finally, let's say the bard offers a bribe, but it is only 50 gold pieces. That's not enough to split 4 ways and live off if they get fired, but it is decent-an Even deal, DC 21, and the bard needs an 8 on the die. But whoops! He rolls a 5! That's within 5 of the DC, though, so the captain looks at the gold and replies that this is only enough for one of them, and that he needs another 50 gp for his three friends. He's giving the bard the parameters of what would make the deal Favorable to him-200 gp, as in the first example. The bard can either pony up the extra 150 and end the conversation now, or he can try a completely different tack and roll again.

Options and Ideas:
  • At first read, it may seem like a pain to remember the two modifiers. There are tow things that make it easier, though. First, in most games, 90% of all Diplomacy checks will be against total strangers, which is a +0 Relationship modifier. If there's no established relationship, there's no Relationship modifier. Second, notice that both modifiers have the same set-up: +10 to -10. That's intentional; even if you can't remember what modifier is appropriate, you can easily "wing it" by just remembering the upper and lower limit allowable, and judging accordingly.
  • The new Diplomacy skill offers a built-in definition for the sometimes-difficult-to-adjudicate charm person spell: a charmed creature is treated as having a Friendly relationship to the caster (-7 to Diplomacy DC), which replaces any previous relationship modifier. Thus, by charming an enemy, the DC drops from +5 to -7, a decrease of 12. The caster can now talk the creature into anything this improved relationship allows, without every NPC being wrapped around the caster's finger because of a 1st level spell. Note, however, that this will make the spell far more useful to a bard, who has Diplomacy as a class skill and has a high Charisma, than to a wizard. You might like that-maybe the bard should be better at charming people-but if not, I suggest allowing the caster of charm person to use his or her caster level in place of their Diplomacy skill check for that creature only. Thus, the DC is still affected by the Risk/Reward modifier and the (newly improved) Relationship modifier, but the check is either a Diplomacy check or a straight caster level check.
  • Sometimes, you may not have a good appreciation of what might be a good deal to offer. You can use Knowledge checks or even the Appraise skill to determine what a "fair trade" might be. Divination spells might play a part as well; a well-timed augury or even a detect good spell can give you a decent idea of what a particular NPC might find valuable.
  • Resist the urge to throw in lots of circumstance modifiers. The point of this system is to incorporate the NPC's overall evaluation of the situation into one number, so avoid giving modifiers like "+2 because they are wary." That should already be covered when they ponder the Risk vs. Reward factor and when their Wisdom modifier is applied to the DC. You might consider a modifier in a situation where the physical situation makes Diplomacy more difficult, such as shouting across a bridge, or having your words relayed through a third party, but try not to "double-dip" for situations for which the system already accounts.

Looking Back...
I used this rule change pretty extensively in a campaign after I developed it, with one player choosing to play a Diplomacy-focused rogue from 3rd level all the way up through 14th level. I found that it did exactly what I wanted it to: save me from situations where I was winging a social situation and my players asked for something for which I wasn't at all prepared. Other DMs have said that the modifiers are too difficult to remember, but that's true for all skill modifiers. Eventually, if you use them enough, you just start to remember them. I wrote a tiny chart for myself on a Post-It® note and stuck it to my gamemaster's screen. Problem solved.

The player in question told me he liked the rule because he felt like he had more control over Diplomacy outcomes. After he roleplayed his argument to the NPC, I could give him a DC and he could try to beat it; he knew immediately whether or not he had succeeded based on the die roll. Sometimes, I would hide the DC (such as if the risk vs. reward modifier was based on information the player didn't have), but most of the time, it was an open roll. He liked that certainty, and told me that his prior attempts to play a Diplomacy character had left him frustrated by the feeling that the DM was ultimately simply deciding by fiat whether to accede to his requests. He could make the Duke like him, but he couldn't get the Duke to agree to anything the DM decided not to allow.

He did suggest one idea that I eventually adopted in a later campaign: We renamed the skill Persuasion, rather than Diplomacy, to give a better sense of what it actually does.