I've been thinking about how players negotiate with monsters. This post is about the errors players make - I'll get something up about GM errors with negotiations in the future.
Here are common approach errors I see when negotiations with monsters come up.
What is Negotiation?
Let's get this started with a definition. Negotiation for purposes of this post is when you're talking, trading, intimidating, and/or otherwise using non-force approaches to accomplish your goal. It's not a euphemism for killing everything or for Charm spells.
Quite simply, some PCs don't negotiate. Everything is a fight to the death. They win or they lose, win the field or flee. They might sneak and steal, instead, or go around a foe. But they don't really talk to them.
The error here is that you're leaving a lot of potential benefit on the table.
Negotiation is, ultimately, a trade. You're offering to give something for something. Combat is equally a trade - you're risking death, dismemberment, loss of resources, etc. and trading off time, consumables (ammunition, magic, potions, etc.) for whatever loot you can get, and the benefits of defeating those foes.
If you look at negotiations as "we give up stuff to get stuff" and combat as "we get stuff basically for free" then you're never going to see negotiations as an equally valid choice. It's a sub-optimal choice, but only because you're not seeing risk and loss as costs. Instead, see it as using means other than combat and total destruction of your foe to get things done.
There is also the meta-reality of game time. If combat is large, time consuming, or complex, it takes a lot of time. Negotiation is likely to take less time - so negotiating is potentially saving the players time to do other fighting, other negotiations, and get other things done.
Negotiating from Imagined Strength.
One more problem is the "excessive demands" approach. Many time I've seen PCs negotiate with demands that are basically this:
- unconditional surrender.
- some variation of "give us everything and maybe we'll spare you"
It's a demand pattern that works if the opposition's situation is totally and plainly hopeless, but surrender or bribing the PCs is a possible way to survive.
The problem is that it's often the basic negotiating strategy. The basis of the negotiation is that the NPCs have to accept that they are automatically defeated, with no chance of causing real losses to the PCs and no chance of escape or survival otherwise.
I call this "imagined strength" because it's not likely you're negotiating from a position of utter and complete dominance. You might be, but if not, it's going to fail. And if the cost you want to impose is higher than your foe is willing to pay without convincing (say, Intimidation rolls or combat), or higher than you could have gotten without winning the fight in the first place, it's likely to backfire. It can poison the well for future negotiations, too.
Negotiating from Weakness
PCs will often wait until things are bad to negotiate.
If you're fighting and losing, or the NPCs have reinforcements coming, or you've cornered yourselves and it's clear it's a tough fight but you'll only win or die . . . the NPCs have reason to ask for higher compensation.
Better to negotiate while you still have something to trade.
Sometimes you have to negotiate from weakness - you realize you can plead and bribe your way out of disaster and merely get away with loss. This is often when a secondary error comes in - unwillingness to pay up.
Sometimes this is a logical fallacy - if I pay them off, they'll ask for stuff I can't give up, so I won't consider paying them off. Better to die with my stuff than to surrender it all.
Of course, you can attempt to negotiate to keep things you can't part with. "I'll fork over my cash, and some other things, but I need to keep my sword or we'll keep fighting."
But if you have to negotiate from a position of weakness, realize that you still have room to make offers . . . and that "fight to the death" is probably worse than "make some painful concessions."
The demands only go up.
"Give us 100 and we'll let you go."
"How about 50?"
Okay, that's fun to do.
It's a bad faith negotiation, really, and ties into the "imagined strength" issue. You've basically said you aren't negotiating, you are demanding, and the demands only go up. If you're dealing with genuinely weak foes, they might have to accede to this.
If you ask for 100 and they don't have 100 and offer 50 (let's say they have 70), you literally can't get 100 right now. Or maybe ever. Raising the demand won't get you more. And if you raise the demand and then lower it, what was raising the demand about? If it's a negotiating strategy it's assuming the NPCs (and the GM) feeling intimidated by the growing demands and caving.
Raising the demands works if the situation changes. Offering surrender with terms that will become surrender without terms if you make us keep fighting? Sure, that makes sense. It's easy to understand - if I keep fighting, it'll only get worse for me. But as part of a basic negotiation, it says, don't talk or make counter-offers. Don't attempt to make it clear your position isn't as weak (or you don't perceive it to be) as the opposition thinks. Accept or reject, period. And that pushes you towards, "reject." That's especially true if the demand made is impossible or unlikely.
It's a variation of Vader Syndrome. "Pray I don't alter the deal any further." Also fun, but Vader got away with that because he was negotiating from overwhelming strength against someone cutting a deal to avoid total loss. You can't assume all negotiations have you as Vader and the Empire, and your foes as Lando and his dinky cloud city.
I can see a lot of arguments and "yeah, buts" coming back to this. But, as a player, imagine the tables were turned. Imagine kicking down a door and the orcs say, "Parley! Give us everything you carry and maybe we'll let some of you live!" You accept the offer, right? No, you fight to the death? Yeah. That's why the monsters do that too.
All Deals Are Final
Players sometimes assume a deal, once made, is final. Forever. Permanent.
In other words, if circumstances change, too bad, no re-negotiating.
A deal is a deal, but how long is it for? Was it specified? Was the specified term reasonable? Was it even understood? (Witness the gargoyles in my Felltower game agreeing to a deal "forever." Do gargoyles know what "forever" means to you? Were they just unreliable?)
Alter the deal in any way? You broke it. Want to re-negotiate? Too bad, now we're back to total war to the death.
In historical circumstances, tribute wasn't usually a one-time thing. It could be, but plenty of rulers had "tributaries" that pay them in gifts and money regularly. In the modern world costs go up and prices change. Terms of agreement come up. The lease details change a bit, for good or for ill.
If a deal works for a while, but it shows signs of breaking down (or just breaks), that doesn't automatically mean the other side is unfaithful and worthy of death. It might be the case that they are, but you just make it a little harder to negotiate if word gets around that people have one chance only to win concessions from you. It's as poisonous to deals as giving a pig in a poke (in other words, fake goods).
And it doesn't necessarily mean the deal was a bad one. If you make a deal with Group A to fight Group B, and later you break with Group A because the deal doesn't help you anymore, does that mean you never should have negotiated with Group A? Nope. Just that it's not a useful alliance anymore. Maybe it could be again, but you need to start back over talking.
A corollary to this is that only the NPCs have to hew to the deal. That is, if the PCs break the deal, tough noogies. The NPCs break it? Death to them all! That's also likely to get around.
Another is that "all NPCs are equally trustworthy." Or not. Not a good assumption.
Demanding One-Way Trust
The final error I see pretty often is the assumption that the PCs have a lot to lose, the NPCs don't. The PCs want hostages, concessions, proof of trustworthiness, safeguards, and so on. The NPCs get nothing in return. "You'll have to trust us." That works if you have a Reputation as being trustworthy. If you don't, well, if they agree you better deliver or over-deliver on your half.
If you legitimately can't trust the NPCs you're negotiating with, then you might want to reconsider negotiating at all. Just because negotiating is a useful tool doesn't mean you must use it. It's not more or less reasonable to avoid negotiating with the untrustworthy than to run away from those you can't beat in a fight.
The shorter version is this:
Recognize that negotiation is no more or less a tool in your toolbox than combat. Use it to get what you want. Accept that it's a tradeoff. Don't treat it as one-way demands from NPCs or a total either/or with combat. It's a tool - use it when appropriate and use it appropriately.