Friday, March 19, 2010

DnD: Diplomacy Discourse

First, some quotes:

Diplomat: A person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip. - Caskie Stinett, Out of the Red, 1960

Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest thing in the nicest way. - Bisaac Goldberg

Diplomacy: The business of handling a porcupine without disturbing the quills. - Author Unknown

In my limited experience as a DM, I have come to the conclusion that while most players, particularly those new to Dungeons & Dragons, feel that they have a decent conceptual understanding of the Diplomacy skill, it is rarely applied correctly during the course of a game.

The Concept

When asked to explain what the Diplomacy skill does, I would wager that the vast majority of roleplayers - on both sides of the screen - would offer up something along the lines of "A character's ability to speak in a convincing manner." And that certainly sounds reasonable. In-game, use of the Diplomacy skill in such a manner probably runs something like this:

DM: The guard moves to block you. (determines a DC of 15)
PC: I use my Diplomacy skill to convince him to let us pass - got a 17.
DM: Okay, you convince him to let you in.

How boring! I would like to suggest that both the understanding and the application of the Diplomacy skill in this example are incorrect. Let's take a closer look at what the Player's Handbook says 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. - PHB I (4th ed.) pg. 183

Did you catch it? It's easy to miss right there at the beginning. The third word: influence. The Diplomacy skill doesn't determine what your character says or does, Diplomacy determines how others react to what your character has said or done. The higher the roll for Diplomacy, the better the reaction.

But something is missing. Let's apply this new understanding of the skill to our example:

DM: The guard moves to block you. (determines a DC of 15)
PC: I use my Diplomacy skill to convince him to let us pass - got a 17.
DM: Okay . . . (in guard's voice) What do you lot want?
PC: Uh . . . aren't you going to let us pass?
DM: (as guard) Is that why yer starin' at me like a lost puppy?
PC: We want to enter the city.
DM: (as guard) Why didn't you just say so?
PC: So . . . is it okay if we enter the city?
DM: (as guard) Well, under normal circumstances, no - it's past sun down. But . . . seein' as how my shift is over in a coupla minutes and you don't look like trouble-makers . . . sure, what the heck. (OOC) He lets you pass.

A little awkward, but certainly not as boring as before - there was an actual exchange between a player and a NPC!

The player's Diplomacy check exceeded the DC set by the DM, so why wouldn't he just let them into the city? This brings up the second important point about the Diplomacy skill: Diplomacy does not (and should not) automatically perform the actions for the PC. The PCs must still say and do things to which NPC's can react.

Let's try it one more time, with our newly enlightened PC:

DM: The guard won't let you pass. (determines a DC of 15)
PC: (IC) Good evening, sir! We're hoping to find some hot food and soft beds for the night (OOC) I rolled a 17 on Diplomacy.
DM: (as guard) We don't usually allow people through the gates past sun-down. But . . . seein' as how my shift is over in a coupla minutes and you don't look like trouble-makers . . . sure, what the heck. (OOC) He lets you pass.

Short, engaging and, most importantly, the flow of the game was not disrupted.

It is important to note that Diplomacy, no matter how high a PC might roll, does NOT offer carte blanche for threatening, anti-social behavior. An NPC who gets stabbed is not going to like it, no matter how convincing your argument for doing it might have been. This is where common sense must step in and override that infuriating tendency some people have to play according to the letter of the law, and not the spirit in which it was written. This might also be where a DM needs to back down and possibly get a little creative in allowing an individual or group to be influenced by the Diplomacy roll and not the specific words or actions made by the PC.

Applying Diplomacy

Cataloging the specific instances and uses for the Diplomacy skill would be impossible. However, I believe there to be two broad categories of interaction that I believe situations benefiting from the use of Diplomacy fall under. For lack of better terminology, they are: Manipulation and Avoidance


At its core, manipulation is all about changing, for good or ill, the way an individual or group thinks and acts. This is probably the most common use players have for the Diplomacy skill. PC's might seek to change an NPC's mind in order to: lower a price, provide assistance, allow entry, prohibit behavior, stand up to an oppressor, emancipate the oppressed, draft or abolish a law, offer information, confess guilt - basically anytime the PC's want someone to act a certain way, they will need to manipulate them (via Diplomacy) into the desired behavior.

This category can be further divided by the amount of time the manipulation needs to be accomplished. There are those manipulations, usually removing some sort of obstacle, which need to happen immediately (give me discount, let us in) and those of a more subtle, political nature which occur over the course of time (the neighboring kingdom is ripe for invasion, the humans have overstayed their welcome).


This may seem a little odd at first, especially because Diplomacy requires interaction to work. But the avoidance referenced here is not avoidance of the interaction itself, rather, of the potentially negative consequences of delicate social interactions. Adventuring takes characters from a variety of races and cultures and puts them in awkward situations - some they are prepared for and some that fall well beyond their realm of expertise and zone of comfort.

Where Perception and History and possibly even Insight might help prepare a PC for a social interaction, Diplomacy can be used to fill in the gaps and gloss over what might normally be a serious breach of etiquette or an obvious lack of decorum on the fly. A NPC might find that they just like the PC's smile or can't help liking her despite herself. NPC's who might normally be dismissive or even outraged at an uneducated PC's behavior find themselves simply shrugging it off, eager to preserve or improve the relationship.

One of these guys is using Diplomacy while the other uses Insight.
The horse just wants to take a huge dump.


To summarize, Diplomacy is not an action that PC performs as a substitute for roleplaying. It is their ability to influence how those around them react to the things they do and say. This, of course, requires that your PC's do and say things. For those players who are self-conscious about acting and doing voices (I include myself in this group, though I've gotten a little less uptight about it), having NPC's react based on the Diplomacy roll - and not the manner in which the lines are delivered - can help ease them into the idea of playing 'in-character,' as well as provide the opportunity for some really memorable - and humorous - interactions.

Give this approach a try and let me know what effect it has on your game!


  1. I always had the worst problems dealing with Diplomacy. Not marginalizing the use of the skill while at the same time not letting the group walk over everyone with it.

    I'm going to keep this in mind next time I run a game.

  2. I'd love to hear how this approach goes over with your gaming group.