Considering D20 Diplomacy

There’s an important note on Diplomacy (and, for that matter, on Intimidate), at least in 3.5;

Attitude is not everything.

How do I know this? Where are the official rules on that?

Lets take a look at the examples in the 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide to see what you can get when you change an NPC’s Attitude. It will take a little searching but the Dungeon Master’s Guide tells us…

Choose the attitude of an NPC or NPCs based on circumstances. Most people met in a neutral city are indifferent. Most guards are indifferent but suspicious, because that’s what’s expected of them.

It specifically mentions “suspicious”. So there are factors other than attitude which influence behavior. That seems reasonable. A cranky museum guide and a friendly one will both tend to do what museum guides are expected to do – but there will be notable differences in how helpful and informative they are.

If the thaumaturgist’s Diplomacy check adjusts the creature’s attitude to helpful (see Influencing NPC Attitudes, page 72 of the Player’s Handbook), the creature will work for 50% of the standard fee, as long as the task is one that is not against its nature.

So altering attitudes will not convince a creature to forgo it’s needs and desires, to act against its “nature”, or to do things for free – although it may give you a price break on helping you out if it likes you.

Floating in serene contemplation in the center of the cloud island is a noble djinn (see page 115 of the Monster Manual). If characters capture her (by defeating her without killing her or driving her away), she will grant three wishes collectively to the party. She is eager to talk to visitors from the Material Plane, where she spent more than a century trapped by an evil wizard. If characters can improve her attitude to friendly (it starts out indifferent), she’ll offer the characters a bargain. She will grant three wishes to the party if the characters will first avenge her imprisonment by capturing the evil Material Plane conjurer and returning him to this cloud island, where the djinn will arrange for “long-term detention.”

So, while it wouldn’t really cost the Djinn anything to grant those wishes for free, she won’t do so even if you render her “friendly”. She’ll use them to ransom herself or to accomplish her own goals. Evidently her goals are important to her – and being friendly doesn’t mean giving away valuable stuff for free no matter HOW helpful that would be to the party.

Some hirelings might require hazard pay (perhaps as high as double normal pay) if placed in particularly dangerous situations. In addition to demanding hazard pay, hirelings placed in great danger might be unfriendly (see Influencing NPC Attitudes, page 72 of the Player’s Handbook), but characters potentially can influence them to a better attitude and perhaps even talk them out of hazard pay.

So a good attitude doesn’t necessarily mean that your hirelings wont insist on price-gouging you, although “perhaps” you could talk them out of it.

And that’s about all the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives us. That’s really quite enough though. It tells us that duties, beliefs, obligations, past experiences, personal desires, and the personal costs of various behaviors have a major impact on behavior – and may override attitude when it comes to any significant request.

In other words, the Dungeon Master’s Guide says to play NPC’s as people with their own goals – and that a glib tongue will only get you so far.

That’s fair enough. I know plenty of people that I like, but whom I know perfectly well are totally untrustworthy and have no intention of keeping any deals they make or repaying any money that they borrow. They’re personable, and they’re fun – but they’re incorrigible scam artists. Some of them brag about it.

Did that idea continue, or was it superseded by later sources like so many other rules? Lets look at what a much later book – the Dungeon Master’s Guide II – has for examples of Diplomacy in action

Drow Raiders: When first encountered, the initial attitude of these slave traders is hostile. Only the most charismatic of player characters (someone who makes a DC 35 Diplomacy check) can convince the dark elves not to attack. Even then, they’re likely to betray the characters at the first opportunity.

So Nature still trumps Diplomacy. The Drow are treacherous and (chaotic) evil, and no amount of diplomacy will change that one little bit.

“Dwarf Warriors: These dwarves are within a mile of the stronghold they call home. Their initial attitude is unfriendly unless one of the characters is also a dwarf, in which case their attitude is indifferent. At the very least, they want to escort the characters to their home for interrogation. The dwarves are not hostile and do not attack unless provoked. The characters can convince the dwarves to let them go on their way with a successful DC 25 Diplomacy check. A DC 40 check convinces the dwarves to give the PCs directions or invite them back to their home for a free night of dwarven hospitality and the opportunity to replenish supplies (and possibly purchase items of fine dwarf craftsmanship).”

Note that no check DC is listed for “getting free stuff” beyond a meal and a place to stay (basic hospitality), or for “abandoning your duties and coming along to help out”, or anything similar. These Dwarves have duties and a job, and will be doing it even if you DO seem like nice folks.

In the case of unusual cohorts, mounts, familiars, or animal companions, the guards call upon their commander for assistance and make sure that the suspect creature is well behaved and under the responsibility of its group. A DC 15 Diplomacy check convinces the guards of this, at which point they charge a 1-gp exotic animal tax for each unusual creature granted entrance to the city. If the Diplomacy check succeeds by 15 or more (in other words, if the travelers make a DC 30 check), the guards agree to charge the standard entry tax of 5 cp per individual instead. Obviously evil or dangerous creatures, such as undead and creatures of size Huge or larger, are flatly refused entry. If things begin to turn confrontational, four guards gather reinforcements from the watchtowers and alert the garrison.

So no amount of Diplomacy will make the guards violate their orders or admit obvious threats to their town’s well-being. More importantly, the next paragraph tells us that the guards are standard first level human warriors.

There’s a pretty obvious pattern there. It’s very easy (DC 15) to talk people into exercising what discretion they have in doing their jobs – but no amount of “diplomacy” short of mind control will talk them into doing something stupid.

Sure, there are the epic level rules for diplomacy – but even that (somewhat problematic) source says to

Treat the fanatic attitude as a mind-affecting enchantment effect for purposes of immunity, save bonuses, or being detected by the Sense Motive skill. Since it is nonmagical, it can’t be dispelled; however, any effect that suppresses or counters mind-affecting effects will affect it normally. A fanatic NPC’s attitude can’t be further adjusted by the use of skills.

Er… it’s not magic, but if I have a bonus that only works against magic, it works against it and it will be blocked by antimagic? I detect a writer who can’t make up his or her mind. Oh well.

In any case, now we know. From the beginning of 3.5 until the end “Friendly” meant that NPC’s would try to accommodate you within the limits of their jobs, duties, oaths, and responsibilities. That friendly bureaucrat would help you get the right forms, and explain them, and help you fill them out, and even try to expedite them through the system. He won’t just ignore his responsibilities though.

The d20 rules are there to help you simulate a fantasy world. Just as in reality, duties, promises, and oaths, obligations, common sense, and beliefs all play at least as large a role as whether or not they’re feeling helpful or hostile in determining what actual actions people take. Plenty of people have killed people they loved, felt personal loyalty to, and desperately wanted to help, out of duty, or because it would spare them pain, or shame, or dishonor, or out of a twisted notion of the best way to help them, because their families, or personal honor, or liege lords required it, or because their faith told them that it was their gods will. Plenty of other people have done good and helpful things for people that they detest for the same list of reasons. (You can ask any public defender about THAT). An executioner who likes you may carefully arrange the wood around your stake so that the smoke smothers you before you burn in agony – but executioners who let their personal feelings get in the way of doing their jobs quit early on. Others specifically stay because it lets them make the inevitable less painful.

Changing a non-player characters attitude may ot may not influence what they do, and is fairly likely to influence how they do it – but it certainly does not control it. At work I and many other people regularly deal, or have dealt with, with both people that we don’t much like, and with people that we do like – and very few of them know which category they’re in. They all get treated the same way because that is a part of the job. Whether or not we like the people involved is irrelevant to what we were hired to do – and we agreed to do it when we took the job. If we were not willing to do it… we would have found another job. People will go a bit further beyond what they’re supposed to do for the ones they like – but most people will do some of that just to show off how good they are. Simple professionalism places very strict limits to that in either case though.

So why does Diplomacy target NPC’s attitudes instead of – say – trying to get them to make a deal like THIS revision tries? It’s because simple skill checks generally cannot do much of anything to change an NPC’s duties, promises, oaths, obligations, presence (or lack) of common sense, beliefs, or notions of “honor”. Their attitude is about all you CAN affect.

And that is why the “Diplomancer” doesn’t actually work and why Diplomacy is not nearly as overpowered as many authors have claimed. Diplomacy can get your targets to hear you out and consider your words. It can even get them to want to help you – but you the player are still going to have to figure out how to wedge what YOU want into the targeted NPC’s web of responsibilities and social obligations in an acceptable fashion. Until you start doing mind-controlling magical skill stunts, there is no diplomacy check that will let you talk the museum guard into helping you steal the Mona Lisa just because he likes you. Talk him into letting you sneak in a camera? Very possible. Talk him into helping you steal it in exchange for a colossal bribe (enough to provide for his children, care for his ailing mother, and set up a new identity?) Maybe – if he’s somewhat corruptible already (thus not going against his nature) and you can present a good case for him being able to get away with it.

So what produced the notion that changing people’s attitude would utterly change their behavior to begin with? Admittedly, the various examples that demonstrate otherwise are a bit of a pain to find without a searchable PDF, but they’re there.

The answer lies in the way that the game is played. Players run their characters, the game master runs the world. Virtually all of the actual social interaction that the game master is trying to fit the NPC’s into is between the players, rather than between the player characters and the NPC’s.

Gaming involves a LOT of escapism. Players tend to treat their characters as being entirely free-willed, unburdened by responsibilities, lacking friends and family ties, outside of all social conventions, usually loyal only to each other (if generally only out of convenience) and their own self-image, having religious beliefs only insofar as they offer statistical bonuses, ignoring the law when it suits them, and so on. Even death is no real restraint; if a character doesn’t get brought back new ones are easy to make. Being a part of the world is seen as giving the game master free hooks with which to manipulate your character!

And so, for Player-Characters (who are almost assured of profit because that’s built into the game for them), “attitude” tends to be EVERYTHING. If they decide that they like the opposition better than the royalists, the characters are likely to start a civil war, leave the realm in rubble, get tens of thousands killed, and install a new government – and why not? Even if they recognize the hideous suffering and immense human cost… they can just plaster it over with a some vague statement about how their actions were in accord with their alignments. THEY will still get their levels and treasure, and that’s all that really matters to most player characters.

There are a LOT of problems with that (and I may get to them in another article), but given that sort of behavior template to go on, it’s no wonder that game masters – who have almost no time at all on the average to devote to their NPC’s motives – tend to slip into the same model. Their NPC’s HAVE no motives or goals outside of their attitude towards the player characters, and so changing their “attitude” is sufficient to make them do anything the player characters want.

If it would be a big change for some NPC to tell the Diplomancer that “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you today; I have to go home and take care of a sick kid” then you, as a game master, REALLY need to put a little more thought into your NPC’s. It will give your game a lot more interest and depth – and you’ll be a lot closer to what the rulebooks are telling you to do.