RPG Rants: Diplomacy and Sense Motive

An Angry White DragonI’m in a rare groove in which I’ve been gaming every weekend for more than a month now, so obviously my thoughts are trending more toward RPGs than other hobbies of mine.

Last weekend I continued my Pathfinder Jade Regent game, featuring an encounter with a white dragon. The adventure calls for the dragon to be completely hostile (and with a good reason as to why), but the PCs had just gone through a fairly long combat and the players seemed more interesting in talking than fighting. As a result, I ran the encounter as a parlay rather than a battle. It went fairly well, but it highlighted to me the fact that there are two skills in Pathfinder I don’t like: Diplomacy and Sense Motive.

RPGs have changed a lot over the years with regard to character skill versus player skill. Originally, the games focused mostly on simulating combat with little emphasis on problem-solving or social interaction. If you wanted to play somebody who was gregarious and charming, you had to role-play that. That isn’t an issue for people who are already gregarious and charming, but it becomes something of an issue if you’re a shy introvert who wants to play a ladies’ man or if you’re a C-average student who wants to play a genius.

Diplomacy, Sense Motive, and other social skills are designed to help bridge that gap. Just as you probably don’t know as much as you character about swordplay, there are now rules to help you role-play a character who has a photographic memory, whose silver tongue is legendary, or who has the insight to notice even the slightest of nervous ticks. Unfortunately, as I found out in the dragon encounter, that can also lead to an over-emphasis on dice rolls instead of role-playing.

Part of my issue with the dragon encounter was that I ran it according to the rules. The dragon was a hostile creature, so a very high Diplomacy check was needed to improve its attitude. Unfortunately, none of the PCs had a significantly high Diplomacy skill. The NPC bard did, and she managed to defuse the situation with the help of the PCs, but the encounter started to turn into both the players just using the aid another action to help the bard handle things. As a whole I found this unsatisfactory and decided to quietly stop asking for rolls partway through the encounter so it could be handled entirely through role-playing. This improved things somewhat – the dragon started to listen, demanded tribute, and the PCs hashed out exactly what tribute the nearby villagers would pay. Once the rolling stopped, I enjoyed running the encounter much more.

Similarly, I’ve had problems with Sense Motive in the past where I’m trying to set up a mystery and the players choose to use Sense Motive as a lie detector. Other RPGs have similar issues where there is a perception or intuition skill that effectively allows PCs to bypass this part of role-playing.

In a way, this stuff is necessary. I don’t fall all the way on the old-style D&D end of the spectrum where everything not involving combat should be based on player skill. If somebody wants to play a charismatic, wise, or brilliant character, they should be able to do so. After all, I don’t limit people’s martial capabilities based on how well they can handle a sword in real life.

The way I changed Sense Motive to fit my preferred style of play is to make it more of a clue-gathering skill rather than something that says, “yes, this guy’s lying.” A successful Sense Motive check leads a character to pick on subtle clues that others might have missed – somebody’s sweating, or maybe they’re a bit too eager to provide help. This might indicate a lie, but it also might give insight as to another facet of the character. Is the suspected murderer you’re interrogating sweating because he’s guilty or because he had a secret affair with the victim and is worried he might be next? The goal here is to give characters with a high skill investment an advantage over others but not to destroy the tension and pacing of a scene.

I think I might work Diplomacy in a similar manner – a high Diplomacy roll doesn’t necessarily “win” you the conversation, but it does give some insight as to what will get you the desired results. In the case of the white dragon, good Diplomacy rolls might have caused a character to notice that she’s paying an awful lot of attention to the gold and precious metals the group is carrying, thus giving a hint that treasure will help placate her.

This is definitely a work in progress, but it’s hopefully one that will help bridge the gap between player skill and character skill. If you’re naturally gregarious and want to role-play that, go right ahead. If you’re on the quieter side but want to role-play a leader of men, the skill rolls will hopefully provide tools to do that without reducing everything down to a single die roll.

I won’t know whether this works until I try it in game. Luckily, I’ve got two more games in two more weeks, and I’m sure the chance to take the revised Diplomacy system for a test drive will present itself.

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