Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Diplomacy, D&D and Roleplaying

If you've never read it, it's worth going through Mike Mornard's question & answer thread on the OD&D forum - Klytus, I'm bored. Not just because I asked a bunch of the questions, but generally because it gives a good feel for how D&D worked when Gary ran it.

When I asked Mike about Diplomacy, he responded with this:
I played a bit of Diplomacy. More importantly, though, Gary and some of the others played a LOT. It shows in the role playing system of OD&D. There are those who say "there was no role playing in OD&D because there are no rules for DIPLOMACY or BLUFF or INTIMIDATE," etc. But in fact it was full of role playing and negotiation, just like Diplomacy. And like Diplomacy, if you wanted to Bluff, you BLUFFED. If you wanted to make a deal, you MADE A DEAL. Et cetera.
Later in the thread, he describes Gygax's NPCs:
Pretty much everybody. If you search online you can find Gary's story "The Magician's Ring." "Lessnard" is me, and yeah, that happened. That was pretty typical... his NPCs were greedy and opportunisitc to a fault.

Then you had more mundane stuff like blacksmiths covering swords with luminous paint and selling them as magic swords, and "angry villagers" keeping you from getting your money back.

Truthfully, his NPCs went beyond "will screw you if it profits them" to "will screw you unless not doing so profits them a lot."
You can find "The Magician's Ring" at Greyhawk Grognard, and it's as Mike describes. Now, I want to posit that the two quotes above are intimately linked. Diplomacy is a game that is infamous for its maneuvering and treachery, where making deals and then stabbing a partner in the back are the best strategy to win.

When you consider that many of the pioneering roleplayers were Diplomacy players, their style of roleplaying becomes much clearer. As I said in my last post, negotiation is a key aspect of dungeoneering in early editions as written, but was all too often overlooked in favor of the expedient of simply fighting.

The best evidence of this is B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Here is a scenario right out of the many Diplomacy variants: each humanoid group has its forces, every group can pretty easily kill the PCs, but with careful negotiation they can play one against the other. You could run an interesting Diplomacy-type game where each player takes the role of one of the faction leaders and tries to take on the other groups. There's also the cleric and his followers, who go along with the "backstabbing hireling" motif that we saw in "The Magician's Ring."

There's a tendency, particularly in America, to see diplomacy as something "soft," something you resort to when you can't get your way by brute force. Gygax had a keen sense for it, though, and understood it much better. I'm reminded of a podcast where Dan Carlin talked about how the ancient Romans viewed diplomacy as an offensive weapon. Done properly, you can disorient or even eliminate enemies without fighting them yourself.

I think this view of roleplaying has a lot to offer. If you play old school D&D as written, with the reaction table and hireling loyalty and so on, elements of it will come out naturally. And it offers a fun, playable alternative to people who think of role-playing primarily in terms of melodramatic play-acting.


  1. Charisma, an attribute much maligned as a dump stat these days, provided the mechanic for roll playing in early D&D with bonuses to reaction and morale. While it was a simple system for resolving diplomacy I always gave bonuses or penalties to players who wanted to talk it out depending on how good, or bad their pitch was.

  2. The Mad Padre [ ] has been running a Diplomacy game online for a couple of months if anyone wants to get a sense of the game.

  3. Reading "Playing At The World" made it clear how much Diplomacy (the game) was being played at the time. That one of the unspoken assumptions of the game was that negotiations/bluff/diplomacy/etc. was just done between players isn't really surprising in retrospect. So much of D&D seems to be written with the assumption that you know a lot they didn't write down, or that you would just naturally play it like the local group played games in general.

  4. I enjoyed the article you've written as well as the entire thread you linked above, and the story about the Magician's Ring. Reading your post reminded me of a really interesting story I heard on the radio all about this game. Those interested in hearing this story should check out 'Got your Back, This American Life'. I really recommend it.
    I would like to ask a question or two of Michael myself, however registration is restricted. If you could ask how mazes were governed in play without driving the players or GM mad, I would greatly appreciate it. Perhaps players attempted to map their path as they went, and/or used the old ball of string trick, or a compass? I could see some players losing all interest or their wits if they entered a maze and had to navigate blindly without actually being able to see the maze or sense a heading as you may be able to do in real life with these highly visual puzzles.

    1. I'm neither Wayne Rossi nor Mike Mornard (unfortunately), but I know for a fact the players, unable to see the referee's map, would have to do their own mapping to avoid getting lost. The referee's map needn't conform to a simple graph paper maze, either, so even perfect mapping on the players' part might only produce a rough approximation of their environment. Not sure about the ball of string or compass, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn they used those. I believe chalk was a common tool as well

      During play, the referee would count out distances (10', 20', 30'... 60', ending at a 3-way junction) and provide dimensions for rooms, along with any features that could be immediately seen, such as doors. This was restricted to what the characters could see, so poor lighting might mean you don't see all of a given hallway in a single turn (God help you if your torches burn out). Anything hidden would have to be uncovered by the players

      A lot of early play was about confusing the mappers. A hallway might have a slight slope, eventually bringing them to a different level without their notice, or they might happen upon a teleporter. Walls could slide, a portcullis might prevent backtracking and force players to find another route, and of course, running from monsters could easily get you lost

  5. This is Mike's reply:

    1. Thank you Wayne for submitting that question for me. And thanks to Mike and ProfessorOats for their replies as well, all very helpful I'm much obliged. There's something to be appreciated of conceptions which are self commending of their own evidence.

  6. How about some evidence to support your "particularly I'm America" bullshit? Oh wait, you have none.

    1. I'm sorry, but no one who's lived through the years since 9/11, where diplomacy and weakness have been equated to the point where parties have completely opposed even having talks with some countries, should require a scrap of evidence.

      More importantly, who are you to come around and demand "evidence" for an offhand comment on a two-year-old blog post?


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