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
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
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 with 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
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
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
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?
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
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
Step 3: Use Effective Tactics
-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.
-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.
-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.
-Rhetoric: No real bonuses, no real penalties, no real biases
either. The Mario of debate tactics, and the most expendable one after
-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
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.