Sunday, April 2, 2017

Discussions & Dragons

Discussions & Dragons

Roleplaying games have always had a strong relationship with violence. Some of its earliest roots were in wargaming, and the intervening decades have only refined and deepened the various ways of putting the hurt on the something. Depending on the game combat can be an exciting and visceral experience with lots of moment-to-moment tactical assessments and decisions that spring out from the status, position and abilities of yourself, your allies, and your opponents, all hard-coded in the game's rules to give you a solid framework to fight with.

By comparison, the rules for non-violent options can be a little looser. In D&D's earliest stages, social interaction was a lot more player- and DM-dependent (much like many other aspects of the game). The party would encounter some people, the DM would ask how they wished to proceed, the party would say what they wished and the DM would decide if that was fitting enough or maybe require them to roll some Charisma checks. As the editions progressed, they introduced more options such as nonweapon proficiencies and skills that governed all sorts of non-swording abilities your character might possess such as tracking, medicine, lore or deception and persuasion, allowing players to denote the various areas of expertise that their characters possess.

Of course, just because a character is skilled at a particular subject, it doesn't always mean that they're effective at it, especially when it comes to social skills. In a game like D&D the effectiveness of social skills tends to place a far higher burden on the skill of the player rather than the skill of the character when compared to other forms of character action- if you wanted to say "my fighter attacks the orc with a sword" or "my mage blasts the orc with a fireball" you can probably do so with a minimum of explanation, but if you want to say "my bard talks the orc down" you're far more likely to get the question of "...how?"

I'm still not really sure why we do this. Part of it might be that the vast majority of people playing RPGs have been in far more conversations than swordfights in their lives and thus already come in with an existing sense of what sounds reasonable and what sounds like absolute bullshit in a conversation. Another part might be that unlike the other forms of interacting with the world conversations place far more importance on the internal motivators of the NPC to determine the effect of the approach. If the orc was devoutly loyal to the warboss then maybe the orc couldn't be easily bribed or scared away with a show of force, but might require the player to focus on exposing how the warboss is breaking with the orcs' beliefs or by convincing the orc to stand down so negotiations can take place and they can avoid murdering both the orc and the boss and bringing ruin to everyone... meanwhile, fireball only really cares if the orc is flammable or not (and maybe if the orc is nimble or behind cover).

If you think this is complicated, check out the work in social interactions in video games. In their earliest forms, noncombat options in RPGs and other video games could be close to non-existent, with social options being especially dire. While tabletop games have the advantage of human minds able to evaluate the situation and come up with innovative new ideas which can be evaluated and responded to in turn, most video games tend to be stuck with whatever options the developers had the foresight to code in. So if they remembered to put in some noncombat dialogue options then you might get the scenario (that shows up in a surprising amount of RPGs from the 90s and early 2000s) where you put all your points into the Talk Good skill, walk up to the last boss and say "Have you considered that you might be wrong?" Then if your Talk Good was high enough you can watch some minds get blown (usually figuratively, occasionally literally shortly after the conversation).

I'm not saying that can't be incredibly satisfying after a long campaign, but you're still basically following the tracks that have been laid out for you, with your largest contribution to the outcome being making sure you invested your skills appropriately to claim your ticket for the ride. This isn't really a condemnation of the developers either- writing complicated and engaging dialogues is hard work (and expensive if you have to record audio for all of it) and tends to be limited to particular characters in the game world rather than being easily reusable. Creating games where the conversation mechanics require more engagement and interaction from the player can often require adding on additional layers of abstraction in the form of a conversation minigame (which can still be fun, but may grow tiring after an entire campaign) while creating a conversation system that can function with random NPCs requires either wrangling some form of list of random lines large enough to avoid repetition or a random text generator skilled enough to remain coherent, or taking a page from the Sims and simply abstracting the conversation to the point where the characters say nothing of substance at all.

Conversations are hard and fake conversations can be harder.

So how does it stack up in Pathfinder? We've already examined how difficult it is to notkill something, but what if you wanted to notfight something? Pathfinder inherited 3e's skill system, including the stock standard social skills of Bluff (for lying), Diplomacy (for making friends, finding info and negotiating), Intimidate (for making threats) and Sense Motive (for figuring out what makes people tick). The system remained basically the same as 3e, where you put ranks into your social skills, roll a d20, add your bonus and hope you got a high enough result, where the target number either depends on the target's abilities (for Diplomacy and Intimidate) or skills (the opposed roll for Bluff vs. Sense Motive). Focus enough on your social skills and you could probably do a number on opposing NPCs... provided the DM agreed with your approach and course of action relative to the NPCs' motivations of course.

When Ultimate Intrigue was released, it presented a variety of information making a more interaction-focused game, including how to establish and run social conflicts. Among these rules were a more extended system of clashing social interactions between parties in pursuit of their own particular goals compared to the one-and-done roll system that the game had earlier. In other words... SOCIAL COMBAT!

Verbal Duels were Paizo's attempt to do for social interactions what their Relationship rules did for social bonding. They'd provide a high-stakes strategic game of conflict resolution where there was more to winning than just picking your highest talking skill and bludgeoning your opponent into submission.

Of course, like most conflicts, verbal duels take a bit of scene-setting, requiring a few simple ingredients:
1) A conflict with something at stake
2) Two (or more) parties who actively oppose each other

It could range from something like a trial or diplomatic negotiation or something more high-stakes like a debate over the merits of a gaming system. If it has a back-and-forth element between two or more parties and can't be solved with a one-and-done roll then it's Time To Duel! We cross words at dawn!

The stage is set and the players are ready, and shall soon engage in a high-stakes clash of ideals and beliefs, fighting through valiant skill and spirit. The thought fills you wilth Determination... seriously. Determination serves as your character's social hit point equivalent, with each participant having a Determination pool equal to their number of hit dice plus the average of their three mental ability score modifiers (Intelligence/Wisdom/Charisma), so for example this level 7 bard would have 7 from being level 7 and then another 2 from average ability score modifier ([2+0+5]/3=7/3, rounded down to 2) for a total of 9 Determination.

At its core, every exchange in a verbal duel is basically an opposed skill roll for a set ante, which starts at 1 at the start of the exchange and increases as the exchange drags on. The person who loses the exchange takes the ante in damage to their Determination, and anyone who hits 0 Determination is out. Right off the bat, we learn something interesting about Pathfinder- discussions aren't about learning about one another and reaching a mutually agreeable compromise, they're winner-take-all affairs where you grind your opponent into submission.

Now, at this point you might be thinking "if this is all about the opposed rolls, doesn't that favor whoever can stack their bonus the highest?" and you'd be absolutely right! That's why the system makes a few modifications to the normal skill system.

The biggest is that Verbal Duelists don't use their skills as-is, but rather assign them to different tactics in order to engage in a duel. A duelist's tactics are divided into one of ten different categories: Allegory, Baiting, Emotional Appeal, Flattery, Logic, Mockery, Presence, Red Herring, Rhetoric, and Wit. Different skills are associated with different tactics- your skill with Perform (Comedy) for instance could be used for Baiting, Mockery or Wit, but you could only assign it to one particular tactic for the entire verbal duel, forcing you to have multiple skills if you want to be good at multiple tactics. Having multiple tactics is important because some are weaker or stronger against other tactics and some serve different purposes- you can't open an exchange by calling your opponent a poisonous bunch-backed toad, for instance (it's really more of a counter-argument).

The skill bonuses themselves have been severely gutted- your skill modifier is now equal to your ranks in the skill (with the normal +3 bonus if it's a class skill) added to your Charisma modifier (even if it's not a Charisma-based skill, such as Sense Motive normally using Wisdom) and that's it. Everything else that would normally provide a bonus to your skill check instead provides a number of edges equal to 1 per 3 points of the normal bonus. Edges are spent to reroll a check you make with the skill or tactic they're associated with and can be gained from things like circumstance and skill use in addition to having what would normally be a high bonus from feats, items and other bonuses. This means that the skill range is a lot narrower in a Verbal Duel and a character who heavily invests in a skill will have a statistical advantage compared a similarly skilled character who doesn't invest, but won't be able to push the other character into the "don't bother rolling" range so long as both have similar levels of skill ranks and Charisma.

There may also be an audience component. Audiences may have particular biases towards or against a particular tactic, providing anywhere between a +5 and -5 bonus or penalty to a particular tactic, like a court who prefers reasoned arguments vs. a crowd who'd rather people skip the chatty stuff and just dunk on each other. A character may attempt to discern an audience's biases with a Sense Motive check, and if successful seed the audience, making a roll in order to gain an edge with a particular tactic the audience is biased in favor of (or an edge to use to counter a tactic an audience is biased against). The situation may be modified further if one party has a particular advantage or disadvantage that multiplies determination and adds or removes edges, such as by being a monarch in their own court and thus possessing a far more entrenched position than some upstart petitioner.

With the duelists ready and determined, tactics chosen, and audience in place the duel can finally take form.

One duelist (Duelist A) goes first (determined by the particulars of the scene- the prosecution might go first in trial, or the petitioner when speaking to the monarch) and starts with an opening, picking a tactic and rolling a 1d20 plus their skill bonus with that tactic, setting the ante from 0 to 1.

That roll then determines the DC and the other duelist (Duelist B) must decide to either make an attempt to increase the ante and counter the roll with a tactic of their own or back down and end the exchange, reducing their determination by a value equal to the ante and granting their opponent a free edge.

Should Duelist B's counter tactic's roll exceed the DC of Duelist A's opener then that roll becomes the new DC and Duelist A must decide to either counter that counter with a tactic (increasing the ante again) or end the exchange. Should Duelist B's counter tactic roll fail to exceed that of Duelist A's opener, then Duelist B is considered to have lost the exchange and reduces their determination by the current ante (which was increased when Duelist B chose to counter).

Once a duelist has lost an exchange by failing to counter or voluntarily ending the exchange, the duelist may choose to open a new exchange or concede the duel entirely so long as the duelist has determination remaining. Should the duelist have no determination remaining then the duelist has decisively lost the match. At the end of any exchange either duelist can also offer terms to end the match in a draw if the other duelist agrees to them, so feel free to throw your opponent a patronizing lifeline every turn.

In order to keep duelist from spamming the same tactics there are a few rules to complicate it. The first is that countering a tactic with the same tactic gives a -2 penalty so things don't degenerate into repetitive name-calling. The second (and more important) rule is that whenever you win an exchange with a particular tactic (with your opponent either failing to counter or choosing to end the exchange) you take a cumulative -2 penalty to all further checks with that particular tactic. So you can't take your best skill and spam it until victory without it rapidly deteriorating.

But hey, with all these tactics, checks and locks placed on degenerate strategies, surely this is a fine triumph as Paizo successfully created an exciting and engaging way of navigating social conflicts with character skill and player planning, right?

...right?

Well...

Solving Social Conflict

Verbal Duels may have rules, but at the end of the day they're still games of numbers and that means there's always a way to win.

Step 1: Be Attractive

The biggest edge you can have in a verbal duel is your Charisma modifier because that applies no matter what else you have. The Ironclad Logic feat lets you use your Intelligence modifier when assigning intelligence-based skills as a tactic, but that's still a feat you have to spend, and it normally only means it works when you're assigning Knowledge or Linguistics skills as tactics. This limits you to Allegory, Flattery, Presence, Rhetoric and Wit as possible tactics, and due to the fact that you can only assign one skill to one tactic it means you're bringing all of three tactics at best- Knowledge (history) and (religion) only work with Allegory, Knowledge (nobility) requires you to choose between Flattery and Presence, and Linguistics requires you to choose between Rhetoric and Wit.

You'd need to take things like the Diabolical Negotiator feat, Empiricist investigator archetype or Student of Philosophy trait if you wanted to turn other debate skills into Intelligence-based skills that you could use your Intelligence modifier with during a duel... except that Ironclad Logic also provides a bonus to your normal Diplomacy checks if you have a high Intelligence and are using Charisma on your Diplomacy checks. So you're effectively spending a feat and then taking another feat or trait or class ability to disable half of your first feat just so you can use the remaining half of your feat in a verbal duel to pick up one more tactic with an Intelligence-based Diplomacy skill (or possibly two if you're an Empiricist with an Intelligence-based Sense Motive as well).

This is the only way to use something other than Charisma in a verbal duel and it barely covers half the field. Better make yourself pretty or make yourself scarce.

Step 2: Be Skillful

If you have a good Charisma modifier, the next thing you need is a bunch of skills to go with it. There are ten different tactics, so it's a question of figuring out what skills you'll need to cover ground and how you want to arrange them. Keeping on top of all ten tactics means you need ranks in ten different skills, preferably full ranks in all of them if you want to do your best in a debate, which is admittedly a lot of skill points. So you'd need to figure out how to balance yourself between skills that help you avoid your enemies' words and skills that help you avoid your enemies' swords.


"How do you plan on spending your weekend?" "Oh, I'm going to sit in my basement and solve social conflict."

Except I lied. While there may be ten tactics in a verbal duel, if you want to be a master you're only going to need nine. Logic is a special case in that Logic's associated skill is... whatever skill happens to be most appropriate to the topic of the debate (usually Knowledge, occasionally Profession or Appraise or something else). So you might be able to conduct a logical thesis defense using your deep knowledge of plant life and animal habitats but you're going to be utterly sunk if you get into a civil rights or urban planning debate. Meanwhile, calling someone a poisonous bunch-backed toad is an evergreen tactic. Which leads us to our next step...

Step 2.1: Kick Logic to the Curb

Knowing stuff about stuff is a fool's errand. All the effort you could spend learning to accurately craft honest, reasonable and insightful answers about a well-understood topic is effort you could better spend learning to master the art of spewing all-purpose white noise at any challenger you face.

Nine skills aren't much easier to max ranks in than ten though, but there is one way to bypass this.

Step 2.2: Be a Bard

You might remember a little bit about the horrifying force multiplier that is the bard. Specifically, you might remember the Sheylnator, bardic master of romance. The big thing about the Shelynator was that by stacking bonuses you could boost your social skills to the stratosphere and steamroll any opposition, and while bonus stacking in a verbal duel just means you're going to get edgy rather than godlike, one core component remains intact- versatile performance, the bard's ability to use one Perform skill to substitute for two different associated skills. The rules for a verbal duel state that "The bard’s versatile performance ability allows two skills to use the bonus from a Perform skill, and a character with that ability can assign all three of those skills to different tactics, even though he technically might only have ranks in the Perform skill." This means you can get up to three max-rank tactics for the price of one max-rank Perform skill, if the Perform skill is also a Verbal Duel skill.

There are three Perform skills can be used as Verbal Duel skills- Act, Comedy and Oratory. Of the three, Act counts as Bluff but also Disguise (which isn't a skill used in your usual duels)... but Comedy counts as Bluff and Intimidate while Oratory counts as Diplomacy and Sense Motive, meaning that with just two skills a bard can cover six out of the ten (well, nine) tactics, provided the bard is level 6 or higher and has access to two or more versatile performance skills.


And with five skills they can cover all nine tactics with equally valid options offered for Allegory and Baiting/Mockery. Other variations are possible, but you want a core of Comedy and Oratory

Bards are already Charisma-focused and all of the skills in a verbal duel are already class skills for that +3 bonus in a scenario where any other bonuses have largely been washed away. There are a few archetypes that boost their effectiveness in verbal duels even further... unfortunately these two archetypes both replace versatile performance, the thing that makes bards the most cost-effective horror shows in a verbal duel.

Step 3: Use Effective Tactics

Effective Openers:
-Allegory: Allegory's special feature is that if you use it as an opener and your opponent concedes rather than counter, it increases the ante by 2 before reducing determination, which means you can do 3 points of damage in your first round. Not bad.

-Wit: Logic's big thing was that it gave +2 to your roll when used as an opener, but required you to have some sort of actual knowledge of the subject like a chump. Wit's big thing is that you can elect to get a +2 bonus to your roll, but if you fail you lose a point of determination (and take a -2 penalty to Wit checks if you fail by 5 or more). If you use Wit as an opener, you cannot possibly lose. Bonus: One of Wit's associated skills is Linguistics, because a universal truth of Pathfinder is that everyone appreciates puns.

Conditional Counters:
-Flattery: Gets a bonus when countering Presence, and if you win the exchange reduces the ante by 2 (so your opponent takes less damage) but gives you a free Edge

-Mockery: Grants a +2 bonus when countering a tactic with negative bias, and increases the ante by 1 if you win the exchange. Pretty circumstantial.

-Presence: Presence gets a +2 bonus when used as a counter to baiting or mockery, and also restores a point of determination if you win an exchange with it. This makes it garbage as your first move, but has potential later in the duel.

-Red Herring: Flattery, but even bigger. Use it as a counter and you get +4 to your roll, succeed at beating the roll and you automatically win the exchange but your opponent takes 0 damage and you get to start with an opener. It's a verbal reset button, provided you don't fail the roll.

It Exists:
-Rhetoric: No real bonuses, no real penalties, no real biases either. The Mario of debate tactics, and the most expendable one after logic.

Effective Counters:
-Baiting: Your opponent takes a -2 to counter it with anything other than presence. Most importantly, if your opponent ends the exchange rather than attempt to counter it you don't suffer the normal cumulative -2 penalty on future skill checks. Other skills may decay as the duel stretches on, but as long as your opponent never sinks to your level you can call someone a poisonous bunch-backed toad forever.

-Emotional Appeal: +2 vs. logic, presence and rhetoric, but more importantly, if you successfully counter (even if they try to counter back) it raises the ante by an additional one point, so things get hairy faster.

A versatile bard with a full arsenal of tactics can be quite the threat. But while versatility can be a form of power, pure power has a charm all of its own.

Tactics bonuses have been reduced to three components, your ranks, class skill bonus and Charisma modifier. Class skills are a binary thing, either they're your class skills or they aren't. Charisma bonuses can be increased, but only so far, requiring increasingly convoluted things like magic items, levels, bonuses from old age, wishes, or gifts from a succubi. But skill ranks are even harder, since they're hard capped at the number of hit dice you have, which for most humanoid adventures translates to their level.

But there are creatures out there with lots more hit dice than an adventurer of that level would have, and with it comes a far higher skill cap. If any of those creatures also have a solid Charisma modifier then you're going to find out what it means to face the most skilled verbal duelist in the cosmos...

Step 4: Be a Dragon

This is a Great Wyrm Gold Dragon. At CR 23, it's a formidable foe for a level 20 party. But at 30 Hit Dice and 26 Charisma (a +8 modifier) with identical Intelligence and Wisdom modifiers it's rocking 38 Determination and a +41 to any given tactic (of which it will have at least four).

For comparison, a level 20 character would have +23 from ranks, and thus require a +18 bonus to Charisma (meaning a Charisma score of 46 or higher, requiring either mythic tiers or every other Charisma bonus in the game) just to break even, and due to averaging out mental scores will probably have a Determination in the low-to-mid-20s meaning that even if their offense is even the dragon has a serious defensive advantage. And should the DM also decide that the dragon has an advantageous set-up and multiplies the dragon's determination by 1.5x to 2x... might as well just throw yourself into its mouth right now.

The most dangerous place to encounter a dragon isn't in its lair, but in the courtroom.


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No one can stop it.


Not even this guy, because 20 hit dice just won't cut it

And even if you somehow manage to build yourself up to match Smaug, J.D. you're going to run into one final problem...

1. Tactics bonuses scale with skill points (which scales with level) and with Charisma modifiers (which don't exactly directly scale with level, but high-end creatures generally can have higher Charisma scores and modifiers). High-end foes have high-end offense.
2. Determination pools scale with hit dice (and thus level) and with your ability score average (which again, doesn't directly scale with level but does generally get a bit larger as things go on). High-end foes have high-end defense.
3. Every exchange starts with the ante at 1.

You want to engage in a thrilling high-stakes debate with a dragon? You're going to take off those 38 points of determination one by one. Sure, upping the ante increases the amount of determination that gets knocked off, but in order to up the ante someone has to roll a die. Unless you're going absolutely all-in on emotional appeals, you're looking at 38 d20 rolls one-by-one- or more because you're probably not going to win every exchange if your skills are equal. And even if you do go all-in on emotional appeals, you probably can't control the dice enough to ensure that you don't win any exchanges with emotional appeal, because as soon as you do you're going to say hello to that cumulative -2 penalty and watch your tool get placed back in the box. By the time one of you has been ground to dust after 40 or more die rolls it's almost guaranteed that you'll have worn your tactics threadbare by rhetorically beating a dead horse... unless of course you somehow managed to get the dragon to back down every time you call him a poisonous bunch-backed toad.

There are also rules for Multi-party Duels and Team Duels if you want to add even more die rolls to this thing.

Which brings us to the final step for mastering Verbal Duels...

Step 5: Just Don't

With the Verbal Duel mechanics, Paizo developers sought to create an engaging system of tactical decision-making and social role-playing whose framework would bolster interactions and avoid degenerate strategies of boring repetition.

What they got was a system wherein arts majors start by discarding logic and rhetoric in favor of jokes and puns that cascade into emotional outbursts and meaningless chatter until all are ground down by endless repetition of stale arguments and nothing is left but insults on the howling winds. And there's some dude in the corner claiming to be a dragon that absolutely no one wants to deal with.

Basically, it's the LARP version of the Internet.

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