Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Battle of Wits

There’s a lot to be said about the Skill Challenge system in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A good chunk of what’s to be said seems to be negative, if the attitude of the intertubes (or my co-worker Matt) are to be believed. Personally, I think it’s an interesting way to encapsulate multiple-phase skill endeavors, like putting together a complex magical machine, or staging an opera, or flying a bunch of airships into a legion of catastrophe dragons. It’s also an interesting way to abstract larger-scale events, much like a training montage; D&D Encounters: Undermountain used this idea to get across that the area in which the player characters were adventuring was as dangerous as stabbing yourself in the face. (Honestly, most of the time you’re better off just stabbing yourself in the face a bunch of times, as it’s the same general emotional effect as Undermountain, without the mind-numbing boredom in between knifings)

There are things at which skill challenges are horribly bad, though. They are not a good way to deal with social interactions, for instance. If I need the Duke of Asperger to ally with my buddy the Earl of Alzheimer, that probably shouldn’t be a skill challenge. That should be a role-playing bit. Or it should be an actual conflict, a battle of word and wit, to convince Asperger that he’s better off fighting with the Earl on this one. But skill challenges don’t abstract arguments well, because the quantities in a skill challenge are known. In a real argument, I can surprise you. I can bring evidence forward that you didn’t know I had. I can work your words against you and skin you with insults. I can provoke or bully or coddle or cosset. It’s a dynamic, shifting situation.

Like combat.

Mouse Guard did this incredibly, image ridiculously well. One of the things about the Burning Wheel system is that it only has one conflict resolution system, really. When you are fighting with someone else, be it with words or swords or magic or science, the rules are basically the same. You should really buy a copy of both Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard. (You can get both at Warp One, which is where I work. Just so you know. Plug plug.) They’re some of the best work out of the Indie scene in years.

Without going over Mouse Guard’s whole system, arguing went like this: you would decide whether your were going to attack, defend or maneuver, and then roll some dice when it was your turn; an attack took off some of your opponent’s hit points, defending made it harder for your opponent to get at you, and feinting made your opponent easier to hit next time. If your opponent ever hit zero hit points, he or she lost the argument. If you were down half your hit points at the time, your opponent could offer a compromise that would reflect that, though the argument was lost, it wasn’t lost by much.

Today, I’ve decided to put that theory to work with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

Diplomatic Encounters

Diplomatic Encounters have a lot in common with Skill Challenges, but are quite a bit more like combat in the way they are played. Players roll initiative, attack, defend, use various features (not unlike cover or combat advantage) to gain the upper hand, track hit points and can use Skill Utility Powers to deliver devastating blows to an opponent’s argument.

The Basics:

To deal with a Diplomatic Encounter, image the player characters make skill checks against the Passive Insight of their opponents. When their checks are successful, they deal damage to that opponent. When a character has zero hit points, he or she has lost the argument and no longer has the will to continue fighting their point. When all of the characters on one side of an argument are at zero hit points, the other side wins.

Roll Initiative!

Unlike Combat Encounters, which rely on speed and reflexes to determine the order of action, Diplomatic Encounters are entirely based on the charisma of the participants. Initiative is a simple Charisma check (one half level + Charisma modifier + other modifiers). Monsters will not have this initiative check modifier in their stat block, because this is a house rule, but every monster has its Charisma modifier at the bottom of the stat block.

Each player rolls initiative separately. Game Masters roll once for each type of NPC involved in the Encounter.

Running Diplomacy

On their turn, each player or monster involved in the encounter may choose an applicable skill: Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate. Any of these skills may be used to attack, defend, or feint.

The player must describe the action they are attempting in detail before rolling the check. If the GM determines that a different sort of check makes more sense, that skill is rolled instead. If the player speaks convincingly in-character, they gain a +2 bonus to the roll.

Attack: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the attack is successful, use the damage chart on page 42 of the DMG to determine damage. If the character is a Leader, they deal the amount of damage appropriate for a character of their level under the Normal Damage Expressions: High column. For instance, a 9th-level Cleric successfully attacking a Cultist would deal 2d8+5 damage. If the character is a Controller, Defender or Striker deal the amount of damage under Normal Damage Expression: Medium.

Defend: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the defense is successful, choose a character; that character may spend a healing surge.

Feint: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the feint is successful, the opponent takes a –2 skill penalty to Insight until the end of your next turn.

Additional Rules

Proof: When a character has proof of a claim, be it a scroll with the signature of the king on it, or the testimony of a nobleman who saw the whole thing happen, it’s a powerful force in an argument. On the turn you unveil proof of yoimageur claim, you deal damage based on the Limited Damage Expressions table, rather than the Normal.

Deception: If you have told out-and-out lies to sway support to your side (made a successful Bluff Attack), you gain a +2 bonus on your next Diplomacy Attack against a different target.

Promises: Promises are the currency of the Powerful. When you make promises while Defending an argument, the character who would receive the benefit of the healing surge gains your Charisma modifier in temporary hit points.

Repeating Yourself: Every time you repeat the same points, you’re weakening your argument. Your opponents gain a +2 bonus to Attacks when you repeat yourself.


Reputation: When you are well known, your arguments carry more weight. If you spend a Fame point, you can reroll a skill check.

Important People: When you are important, your arguments carry more weight. Once per encounter, you can add one half your Import points to a skill check.



So you win, but half of your team is shaken by the argument. Or you’re the last person standing, but you’re at half your bloodied value and you’re feeling a little worse for the fight. Obviously, you opponent has a point, and it’s a good one, or there wouldn’t be that long awkward silence now that the fight’s over.

If one half of the people on your team are at zero hit points or less, you have to accept a compromise. If you are going one-on-one against a powerful opponent and you are bloodied when the fight is over, you have to accept some compromise. Depending on how badly worn down you are, the compromise can be something as small as “You can borrow the crown jewels, but you must return them on Wednesday, and Feivel is coming with you as a chaperone,” to something major like “You want to fight? Go fight in the arena. That’s what it’s there for. But we won’t solve our trade problem with the Athesians with violence.”

A guideline.

Teams: When 1/4 of your team is down for the count, no compromise is needed. When 1/2 of your team is at zero hit points, a small compromise is needed. When 3/4 of your team is out of the fight, a pretty big compromise is needed. When there’s one guy standing on a tenth of his hit points and a migraine, you’re probably just going to have to find a different way to deal with this.

Singles: If 1/4 of your hit points are gone, no compromise is needed. When you’re bloodied, a small compromise is needed. If you’re at half your bloodied value, a large compromise is needed. If you’ve got one hit point left, find a different way.

Using Powers

You can use Skill Utility Powers to beef up your argument. It was originally my intention to write up a few specific Skill Utilities for use with these rules, and I may still do that in the future, but it’s three thirty in the morning and I should be asleep.

For now, we’ll say that when you spend a Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff Skill Utility Power, you automatically succeed on your skill check this turn. When I have some specific powers written up for Diplomatic Encounters, this rule will probably change, because all of those powers will be Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff Skill Utility powers. ^_^

A few examples, though:

Baffle them with Bullshit, Arcana Utility 2
Standard Action; Ranged 10
The next time you would make a Diplomatic Attack skill check, you may make an Arcana check instead of a Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate check. If the Attack is successful, you deal 1d10 + Intelligence modifier damage.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in Arcana.

Punctuated Threat, Intimidate Utility 2
Free Action; Melee 1

Target: One enemy you hit
Trigger: You hit an enemy with a Diplomatic Intimidate Attack
Effect: Make a second attack with a +2 bonus to strike. If it hits, the target grants you combat advantage until the end of your next turn.
Prerequisite: You must be trained in Intimidate.

Historical Prescedent, History Utility 2
Standard Action; Ranged 5
The next time you would make a Diplomatic Attack skill check, you may make an History check instead of a Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate check. If the attack is successful, the target grants you proof until the end of the encounter.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in History.

Promise of Power, Bard Encounter 3
Encounter * Arcane, Implement
Standard Action; Ranged 5
: One Creature
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: 2d6 + Charisma Modifier psychic damage, and the target takes a –2 penalty to Insight (save ends). In addition, an ally within 5 squares of you may spend a healing surge.


Mike Lawton said...

100% with you on this. I love the Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard social conflict system, and I think the way you've built it into D&D 4e makes a lot of sense!

At one of the home games I play, we're big fans of Burning Wheel and have tried to integrate what I think is the strongest concept in BW: the idea that there is no failure, only twists, complications, and compromise.

When we run a skill challenge, a failure (at either the overall challenge level or the individual roll level) doesn't simply mean a brick-wall, crash-and-burn. We (the players and the DM) brainstorm different ways to continue the story, allowing the players to achieve their objective, but introducing a twist (Tracking the goons that kidnapped the innkeeper's daughter, you collide with the local militia doing the same. Do they join your search, or do they think you are the kidnappers?), a complication (Travelling through the jungle, you come across a raging river. Do you turn back and look for another route, or attempt to cross?), or a compromise (Attempting to convince the tribal elders that you are not a threat, instead of being offered help and a place to rest, you must bribe them with supplies of your own or undertake a short quest/challenge.).

By allowing everyone at the table to come up with ideas, we all stay very invested in the story, as well as taking some of the immediate pressure off the DM. Of course, the DM still has the final say on where the story goes, and if it makes sense he will impose penalties and punishments (such as losing surges or taking negatives to certain rolls until next rest).

Aaron said...

I think it might need a little bit of tweaking here and there (Feint, for one, certainly looks like it could use some beefing up), but I think the concept is phenomenal :)

Have you gotten to playtest this at all?

Kristoffer said...

Not yet. Not this coming Monday, but the Monday after, if everything goes well. Test them for yourself, let me know how it goes.

Aaron said...

Heya, for another take on things, check out this thread on the BW boards. It's a Pathfinder/BW hack instead of a 4e/MG hack, but much of what it does can be hacked straight for D&D.

Also, you should try posting this version you have on the boards. They're pretty helpful, and most of them have played several versions of D&D, so could likely still be of service :).

Kyle said...

Hi there, I got linked to your post by Aaron. Pretty interesting stuff, you might like Justin Evan's solution for a Mouseguard-like mechanic in 4E. Here's over at

Hope you don't mind the link, not trying to be pluggy or anything.

Kyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.