This pdf is 23 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial & SRD, leaving 21 pages of content for the new debate rules presented herein.
Debate rules? Yep. I know you're thinking: Do we really need them? Essentially, I tend to agree and rather enjoy soft rules, i.e. roleplaying the argument. However, there ARE instances, where conflicting opinions of players and foes make for encounters where consensus is not an option and two great speakers vie for an audience - be it a city's council, a state's senate, a trial with a jury - there are instances where you need something crunchy to determine how well the PCs fare against another argumentation. While I would not substitute (as the file recommends) die-rolls for RP, I'd have the players rp their strategy and then add die-rolls, but that's just me.
How does this system work, then, and does it manage to capture the excitement of a heated debate that could determine the course of nations?
Essentially, the system used takes the mechanics of combat and applies them to debates via some simple steps: Debates are broken up into rounds and said rounds consist of 1 action, which may be divided into 2 half-actions. Initiative is rolled as usual (though personally, I'd house-rule Int instead of Dex as the modifier - after all, physical flexibility is not that important in a debate...) and "social combat" is resolved. All participants have debate-points, which essentially are a combination of Con and Cha-modifiers. A Character with Con 14 and Cha 18 would hence have 6 Debate Points, which correspond to HP. Debate Defense corresponds to armor class and is determined by adding 10 to the average of the character's social skills (Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Perform (oratory)), making sure that social skill-focused characters are tough nuts to crack.
Each skill has several assigned debate attack maneuvers and can add their modifiers to their skill-checks when attempting to attack the foe. The recipient of such a verbal attack then has to will-save vs. the attacker's skill-modifier plus any maneuver damage bonus. If successful, he takes no damage, but should he fail, he takes one debate point of damage. Should the recipient of such an attack fail his will-save by more than 10, he loses 2 points instead of one. Critical hits are also covered, as are limited debates like a trial.
35 maneuvers are presented herein and many of them offer additional risks and rewards in a given discussion/debate, making for a wide variety of potential strategies to deplete the foes debate points and shore up/temporarily gain your own. Given the relative scarcity of debate points when compared to HP, strategy is king here and even the most stubborn of bards will be hard-pressed to stand their own vs. people with the barrister-feat, which opens up a whole plethora of otherwise unavailable maneuvers. It should be noted, though, that as written nothing keeps your PCs from using inappropriate maneuvers, but as rules for all eventualities are impossible to conceive, this responsibility upon the DM's shoulders can easily be born.
Next, we get new uses for both the appraise and diplomacy skills as well as 22 new feats that deal with trials, debates and even escape plans and cover information networks etc. While several of the feats provide social skill bonuses in certain situations, others deal with cool ideas like said information networks or the ability, to assess a room of people via conversation and focus on e.g. internal disputes or agendas or the ability to weasel, politician-style, into a position the audience agrees with.
Following up is the obligatory magic and magic items section of the book: 17 new spells that enable you to force subjects to write confessions, place cryptic, invisible marks to convey hidden messages, forget specific facts, conjure huge images from bonfires to programmed instructions, the subtlety and elegance of most of these spells might make for very compelling strategies and intrigues, indeed. One of the spells, though, is definitely going to my banned-list: Absorb Knowledge lets you absorb knowledge from books etc. and keep it indefinitely in your brain. While you can only absorb 10 pages per caster level, this spell makes it far too easy to learn information and, in spite of some restrictions with regards to magic writing, poses some potentially huge consequences for how wizards e.g. study. Apart from this one spell, though, I liked all of them, as most of them are what I like to call "smart" spells, i.e. spells that are not used to bash one's head in, but rather could be used to spread rumors, tarnish reputations or use magic in creative ways.
Surprisingly, the items keep up this excellent quality: From gems used to record words, clockwork-bird alarm-constructs and the literal fly on the wall, which is essentially a magical miniature espionage-drone, to courier's pouches and invisible blades to pens that only write for owners and gold coins that can only be seen by loyal servants of a given ruler, these items provide for very cool twists on espionage/infiltration/courtly intrigue settings.
The pdf also comes with a 42-page pdf, 2 pages front cover, 4 pages SRD & credits, providing spell-deck-style cards for all the debate maneuvers - nice bonus!
Editing and formatting are ok, I did notice some minor formatting glitches like bold words that should just be printed regularly, missing "Prerequisite: None"-lines and minor editing glitches like a superfluous "that". Layout adheres to a simple 2-column standard and artwork is public domain. All in all, I was positively surprised by this pdf - the rules are smart, easy to implement (the only part being a bit of a hassle is averaging the skill-modifiers) and provide for exciting, interesting and tactic-driven debates. The spells and magic items, while not directly tied to the new rules, are also very neat and offer some truly imaginative, cool items and spells that would e.g. in "A Song of Ice & Fire"-style environments see a LOT of use. Even in other settings, any group with emphasis on roleplaying would definitely find something to scavenge, even when they don't use the debate system. I do have some minor gripes: The minor formal glitches are not enough to truly detract from the overall quality, but I do think the pdf fell a bit short of its potential: There is only one feat (Barrister) that opens up new combat maneuvers, ignoring the potential there - a general, a disreputable sleazeball, a politician, a jester; a diplomat; there are many cool types of great speakers who would make for neat maneuver-trees. As written the barrister-feat makes the maneuvers a two-class hierarchy that has the barrister in the clear advantage over e.g. politicians sans the feat. Barrister vs. politician or war-hero would have been awesome and I'd love to see the rules expanded. Some of the feats that could have been used for that are rather filler and only provide minor skill-bonuses, offering not a lot of incentives to take them. If said additional career-paths would have been used instead of providing some filler and if the glitches were not there, I'd immediately say that this is a contender for my top 10 of 2011-list, but due to these minor blemishes, the pdf remains a good file instead of an excellent one. My final verdict for the pdf will be 4 stars.
[4 of 5 Stars!]