Saturday, February 27, 2016

Negotiating with Monsters: Common PC Errors

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.

Not Negotiating

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.


  1. These are great! I think this one might be the best to help people realize that it's valid to pursue:

    "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."

    Of course THEN you gotta fix all the other things, but can't fix what you don't try.

  2. A lot of excellent points. I think that in my own games (as player or GM) negotiation gets ignored or falls into the "excessive demands" category. It's something I probably need to work on a bit (again as both player and GM).

    1. It takes some skill to ask for enough to make you satisfied but not so much that you can't get it with negotiation. Honestly asking for too much happens, but it's just not so useful when you're routinely doing it and expecting it to succeed.

      And yeah, I too need to work on that. In real life, too! Negotiation is a skill that needs developing if you want to be good at it.

  3. 1. Get a high chararisma
    2. Go to dragon and tell it you need a 'patron' and borrow starting funds to buy best armour for party.
    3. Give all gems to dragon patron.
    4. Give gold to church to build gold dome on temple and giant gold statue of god/goddess.
    5. Give silver to blacksmith to make silver arrows/crossbow bolts/daggers.
    6. Spend copper pieces on beer.
    7. Spend platinum on stone paved highway from big city to home village.

  4. This is an aspect of gaming that often gets overlooked. I am probably guilty, but I do like to find other ways to get extra coins in my pocket with needing healing.

  5. You make some really good points here, but I you sort of assume the viewpoint of an 'economist' dungeon delver - one who's goal is to maximize ROI for delves.

    I'd like to throw out two two important negotiating issues for folks with different delving viewpoints.

    I. For lots of folks RPGs are less about ROI and more about power fantasy - dominating the bad guys and getting your way. This means that compromising at all is not fun, and that being tricked or disrespected without immediate retaliation is counter to the entire point. In my experience many folks won't negotiate with "bad guys" just because the DM had a bad guy trick them once and their pride will not risk it again.

    II. For other folks, RPGs include an aspect of assuming an intrinsically cool persona, and that often (but certainly not always) means a persona that is not a complete D-bag. For those folks, negotiation is valuable to solve problems without violence. These kinds of players can be a lot of fun, as long as you are careful about the plots you throw at them.

    1. That definitely true. For Type I folks, though, they need to read this post. It's aimed mainly at them - the ones who don't offer or accept anything less than "surrender or die" as a negotiating gambit. They're Inevitably pushing a game towards either being scaled so they can always do that, or towards more PC lethality. It may not be as fun to compromise as to win or dominate, but if it's only fun to win or dominate, I think it's possible to find the game skews to "you only either win or dominate."

      Type II folks are generally fine with negotiation are are less likely to make the errors I listed.

    2. I think the thing with type I folks is that they DO prefer games where they win or dominate. The part of the OSR I grok the most is it's rejection of the gradual "skew it in the PCs' favor" mindset of more recent gaming, but that mindset is so influential for a reason.

    3. And that's fine, but it's not really the audience I write for - not games, not rules, and not posts. Like I said, you're right about the basic assumption. That's really okay - if someone who'd be Type I comes along, reads my post, and says, this guy is a moron, that's okay. We're self-sorting. :)

    4. This looks like as good a place as any to mention that it's important to know, before you start a campaign, what your players both want and expect, and how you feel about that. And to be aware of any changes in those things, and respond well to those changes.