Wednesday, June 22, 2016

GM Mistakes Negotiating as Monsters

Courtney over at Hack & Slash linked to my post about player mistakes negotiating with monsters. That reminded me, I never did get around to GM Mistakes Negotiating as Monsters. So here is that post.

Negotiating as a player can be tricky, and it's not hard to take the wrong tack and end up failing.

As a GM, though, it can also be tough, especially if you aren't used to negotiating on behalf of NPCs. Here are some errors I've seen, and I've committed, over the years.

Taking it Personally.

In a word, don't. It's not a negotiation between you and the players. It's between your NPCs and the player's PCs. There isn't a win or lose, it's just you determining the results of their actions.

That's pretty basic GMing stuff - GMing 101, day one, right after, "You run the game, the rule book doesn't run the game." But sometimes you have to remind yourself. Unlike a combat, where dice are determining so much of success or failure between NPCs and PCs, negotiations involves roleplaying between the GM and the players. Especially when you're first starting out, it can feel competitive since it's being resolved with a strong element of out-talking each other.

You can get this subtly, too, where you feel annoyed that the players tricked your clever NPC or thought they'd fall for some crazy proposal.

In really old-school games, there aren't any mechanics (or only reaction roll mechanics, like the one in OD&D) for determining how well the PCs negotiate. That makes sense given the sheer amount of games of Diplomacy the early players played (at least according to Jon Peterson) - negotiating by actually doing so fit their skillset and mode of play. In games with mechanics to resolve negotiations, like GURPS, it's a little easier to disassociated yourself from the sheer obnoxiousness of PC demands - if you stack up a -10 to their roll because they demand both of their partner's legs and then demand he dance and then roll a 3, well, that's a story to tell whenever the game comes up reminiscing. It's like when someone rolls a series of crits and takes out the big bad guy with a lucky shot - story time. Plus you all get to be surprised, which is always a bonus.

Like I said, GMing 101, but it's worth starting out with this one. It's not you and your friend, it's a monster and a PC negotiating. Use whatever mechanisms and distancing you need to just be able to sit back and let it happen.

Not knowing the NPC's interests.

Like I said in a post on the subject, factions have interests.

If you don't know, you can't really effectively negotiate.

Omniscient NPCs.

Basically, negotiating as if they know everything. Unless monsters really do have access to unlimited knowledge, it's bad form to negotiate as if they do. Some might actually have a lot of information - and either conceal this to their advantage or reveal it to their advantage. Or to their disadvantage, for either case.

But it's tempting (and probably was my standard when I started GMing as a kid) to have the monsters know everything and recognize everything. Don't. It discourages negotiating at all (the PCs are always at a knowledge disadvantage) and shows the PCs that even if they try they're playing on a slanted playing field.

Know-Nothing NPCs.

Basically, negotiating as if the NPCs know nothing. This may hold true for some, but not all of them. Just like playing them all too smart or too knowledgeable is bad, so is treating them all like they existed in a vacuum until the players showed up.

Omniscient/Know-Nothing Resolution - One way you can resolve this is with an IQ, INT, Wisdom, etc. check for the monsters. You can quickly determine if they understand what's being negotiated, recognize the long and short term consequences on decisions, know the party's reputation, etc. You can basically let the dice take the decision out of your hands and avoid needing to track who knows what about whom.

Also, you know the PCs because you're referring their actions. But how do they appear? Are they grubby and suspicious looking and drenched in blood? Do they wear the signs of their religious affiliations openly (great in some situations, bad in others)? Do they have a reputation, and does this NPC know of it? Use that to determine what NPCs know or don't know. Perception checks are a good way to see what they can see, and IQ and IQ-based skill rolls (or Int and Wis in D&D games) to see what they understand.

Not initiating.

Really simple - if you never have monsters initiate negotiations, the players learn that it's only their side that uses negotiations. They determine if it's in play or not. By using it as the GM, you tell them two things: negotiating is a valid tactic, and negotiating is an expected part of the game.

Over-using Pre-determined Results.

It's okay to have some negotiations doomed to failure. It's okay that sometimes monsters negotiate in bad faith, aiming just to buy some time. Especially moderately clever evil ones, who show just how evil they are by doing so. But don't over do it. Too much "fixed" results in negotiates tells the players they have to guess which monsters they can negotiate with, not assume that basically they can negotiate with most.

This probably rings hollow coming from a guy who has filled two monster books half-way up with monsters that say, "Will not negotiate," "Can't usefully negotiate," and/or "too stupid to negotiate." But those critters should be the labeled exceptions, not the norm. They should be flagged as, "Hey, special feature - these guys don't negotiate, unlike everything else without this label."

Disclaimer: I don't do all of those. I have done all of those in the past. I probably do some of them sometimes, even without knowing it. I should do more of them, and I've initiated some automatic reaction rolls to keep myself on track. You probably don't do all of these - but reading them can't hurt, and articulating them sure helped me clean up my thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!


  1. Good thoughts! I wish there was more negotiation in my games but it is like me and my players are never on the same wavelength. When they want to negotiate, I'm caught off guard so I half-butt it, and when I plan for negotiation being a possibility, they slaughter the things without a second thought... I think I need to make a more obvious hint for when negotiation is in the player's best, or at least somewhat optimal interests.

    1. I've been caught off-guard by attempts to talk, too. And I'm eternally surprised by who my players want to negotiate with vs. the ones they just want to slaughter. You just have to learn to be ready for everything from "We kill the holy pilgrims!" and "Let's negotiate with the phase serpents!" at all times.


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