Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Never trust a dungeon-dweller

Do your players even bother to try and talk to folks they meet in dungeons?

In my game the players have met a lot of people in dungeons. It started out well, but I think they've come to the conclusion that you need to just kill what you meet.

- they met two men-at-arms in the hobgoblin caves. They turned out okay (and Korric and Orrie might make a comeback, who knows)

- they rescued Raggi Ragnarsson the berserker from some gnolls.

So far, so good. But then, Felltower.

- They met the Choke brothers. Heheheh. Sorry, that's still funny. Five throttlers, who tried to kill them. They got one of the PCs.

- they met a crafty gnome, believed his lies, and they've been stumbling across his vicious traps ever since.

- they rescued a petrified hobgoblin, recruited him, and then beat the survivors of a hobgoblin tribe into working from them. They didn't last.

That's about it for meet-and-greet people in the dungeon. Not a lot, really. But couple that with the various creatures that try to kill them, they've started to think they need to just kill who they meet. They've made good on that, and killed at least two other monster-types that would have happily negotiated with them or made a deal with them without even making an attempt. When they do negotiate, they tend to work from a point of "you capitulate and we'll see if we're willing to give you anything after that. Otherwise you die." Not a real incentive to talk to the PCs, really.

They may have a point, though. Most people, most critters, and in the dungeon with bad intentions. Direct attack at least takes advantage of your constant wariness and positioning. You're ready to fight immediately, and trying to make a deal inevitably gives the other guys a chance to stab you in the back or re-start a fight on better terms. Starting from a totally lopsided negotiating platform might work, and if not, you wanted a fight anyway. It's a good assumption that violence will occur, and often both sides just skip right to the violence. Especially since I've made it clear that officially, what happens in the dungeon is flat-out legal. Fighting has a real cost in resources and potentially in lives (a bad roll in any fight can kill your guy), but getting jumped by "allies" has a potentially worse cost, and attacking everything puts it on a cost basis you are best prepared to pay. You're coming ready and able to inflict violence.

I'm sure they'll just attack the next guys to try to talk to them.

That tells me it's time to make sure there are a few more upright folks who'd honor their deals, just to make sure it's always a potential loss to fight everything you meet. If my ratio of backstabbers to frontstabbers to potential friends is off by too much, there really is no point to try and talk to anyone. There must be a cost to not talking.

And the players will be right: never trust a dungeon dweller.


  1. Your fourth to last paragraph hits the core issue, I think. In RL, negotiation is so often better than force because using force is usually both more costly and riskier than violence. (This is a massive oversimplification of RL, of course.) In DF, the opposite is true. In crawl RPGs, lost negotiations are often not fatal, while lost battles often are. Most crawl-type RPGs (including DF) compensate for the latter by making violence unrealistically survivable, but do not cook the odds in negotiation. So in many players' experience, negotiation is risky as hell, while violence is pretty reliable.
    Now this means that certain fun plots just don't work very well in crawl RPGs, unless you cook the books. Maybe even overcook the books. If you make it abundantly clear that the cost+risk of negotiating with someone is less than the cost of battling them, negotiation might occur. IME, this usually happens with stuff that can obviously smear the PCs, but your suggestion that certain groups might be KNOWN to be trustworthy works too. (They might not be nice, but if they honor the letter and spirit of agreements the PCs might trust them. If they just honor the letter the PCs will probably prefer violence to lawyering.) As long as this isn't abused (that is to say, the PCs tests/knowledge show the NPCs to be trustworthy and they aren't), you might be able to convince players to deal with those.
    One other thing I have considered is “magical honor.” Essentially there is some moderately expensive item or spell that magically enforces contract terms if both parties willingly agree. This will somewhat mess up worldbuilding (if you care about that in DF), but it makes negotiation a “safe” option again. This doesn’t allow for much backstabbing (or if it does, it leads right back to paranoia), but it can allow for negotiation to take a role in the crawl again.

    1. I wouldn't want to magically enforce agreements. The players have been pretty scrupulous about honoring the letter (if not the actual intent) of what they agree to. It's just that they're rightly suspicious of the folks they meet.

      The really should have seen the Choke brothers as a joke about them being backstabbing stranglers though. The gnome actually had a plausible story.

  2. I try to have all the intelligent monsters who are at all willing to negotiate have some information they are willing to put on the table. That way, the PCs can benefit from talking, even if they are back-stabbed later. I make notes of what conditions they might exploit and what form their betrayals might take.

    For example, some kobolds who had been mostly slaughtered were willing to give up treasure, even helping to load it into a wagon, and give information about the area, so long as the party promised not to return to their lair. They would also provide a guide to help find specific other lairs. They did not, however, provide complete information about other potential enemies, and warned some of these enemies about the party. They know they can't go toe to toe with the PCs, but they will send them in over their head. Some gnolls are willing to rescue the PCs if they are in a fight with a particular enemy of the gnoll band, but will attack otherwise. Whether they appear as allies or enemies is mostly geographic.

    I try to keep the balance by giving the carrot first, then hiding the stick as much as possible, so that the party is asking themselves, "who just hit me?" I have my monsters grow increasingly respectful of the party after each encounter.

    1. The information trade is a good idea, and if it happens once, they'll be willing to try it again even if they expect to fight after.

      They're pretty good about going for prisoners for information, so why not negotiation? I need to make for more knowledgeable encounters as much as anything else.

  3. Isn't it the function of the Oath spell to be "magical honor"? Being clerical, PI3, and 4 FP should make it easily accessible.

    1. Sure, but it's got a lot of downsides:

      - willing subject, who is bound permanently to the oath, barring another high PI- spell or a critical success trying to break it.

      - a cleric with PI3

      - a cleric with PI3 who wants to take this spell

      So it's not likely to be a common use spell. Plus a dungeon dweller would have to trust the PCs to let them cast a spell on them, speak the oath, and then trust them to take the oath, too. And it's foolproof only if all the PCs and all the NPCs take it. It's not as simple as it seems, but it is indeed available if they really want it.


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