Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Negotiation

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

N is for Negotiation…yet another fine art that shouldn’t be left out of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

I’ve written often enough of my disgust with the way the game has degenerated over the last 2-3 editions, gradually becoming more and more “combat focused.” I’m not going to rehash that here (i.e. I’m not going to spend time beating up WotC/Hasbro, etc.). Instead let me simply focus on the fine art of bargain, barter, haggle, and horse-trade. Specifically, two things:

1) What it can do for your game.
2) How to include it.

We’ll talk about #1 first, as I think that will be shorter and sweeter. Negotiation is the first part of role-playing. In some ways, negotiation IS role-playing. The dictionary definition of negotiate is:

To treat with another or others in order to come to turns or reach an agreement. To arrange or settle by conferring or discussing.

And isn’t that what we do at the game table? Assuming one is playing an RPG and not a board game, the DM and players are involved in discussion over what it occurring in the imaginary world, coming to terms over “what happens” using the rules of the game to facilitate resolution.

It ain’t Candy Land and you aren’t on a linear path (unless you’re playing The Forge of Fury adventure…). DMs provide some info. Players ask some questions, suggest some actions. DMs provide more information. Repeat for as long as you find this fun (i.e. so long as everyone is having a good time). Once leaving the table becomes more fun than staying at the table (when the CONS of ticking off your family outweighs the PROS of enjoying the game, for example), then the negotiation ends. Perhaps to be resumed at a later date.

Of course, that’s simplistic and not really what I’m talking about. What I AM talking about is interaction between player characters and non-player characters…or to be more specific, I am talking about resolving encounters and conflicts in a non-martial (i.e. non-combat) fashion.

This is one of those things that can only take place in a real RPG (as opposed to, say, a computer RPG). Conversation. Discourse. Negotiation. “Do we need to fight each other? Can we come to some terms so that bloodshed can be avoided?”

Seeing as how this IS D&D we’re discussing, bloodshed at some point is fairly unavoidable (except, perhaps, for the 15th level master thief…). And in latter editions of D&D (3rd edition and later) where character advancement is DIRECTLY LINKED to killing things, combat is pretty much an IMPERATIVE. At least if one intends to open “new content” within the game.

In older editions there is no such imperative, though there is INCENTIVE (XP awards for defeating monsters). However, more incentive is offered for the collection of treasure…and so:

Less bloodshed = less used resources = longer delves = MORE treasure/reward

Does that get your attention? MORE treasure equates to more EXPERIENCE POINTS, that Holy Grail every grubby player is looking for. The fictional grubby characters are looking for treasure (this is how they make their living, yo), but the players are looking to Level Up, opening newer and vaster horizons.

It’s a win-win for both players and characters.

Now for ME, a dude who’s interested in keeping a dying hobby alive, negotiation in game actually accomplishes some of MY goals, namely “showcasing what table-top RPGs can do.”

“Civilized” interaction (I use the term loosely when one enters “negotiation” with an orc raiding party) gives players (including the DM) a chance to engage with the imaginary circumstance at hand. Even if you’re not “talking in a funny voice” you are still having to STEP INSIDE THE MIND OF THE CHARACTER you’re playing. You have to think like an adventurer and the best way to deal with the pair of troll looking to eat you and your buddies for lunch. You get to play pretend in the most fundamental way possible…sure, you might have to roll some dice (Reaction rolls, for example) but even a brief moment of imagining you’re someone else, living vicariously through your character, is so much cooler than clicking your left mouse button to swing that sword over-and-over-and-over again.

I’ve played D&D with kids and teenagers and they LOVED this type of interaction. One 12 year old became a regular “Dr. Doolittle” as he stocked up on the speak with animals spells for his cleric character…he found it was a lot easier to TALK with a cave bear than trying to fight it. You can tell a lot about a player by whether or not their magic-user’s first level spell is sleep or charm person; the latter player? He may be a bit more experienced with the art of negotiation.

It sure can make your games more interesting.

All right now for getting negotiation into your game. I guess we can resort to a three step process to which we’ll give the acronym AID:

Do it

Awareness: your players need to know and understand that negotiation is an OPTION. If every time the characters encounter some monster in the dungeon they’re reaching for their initiative dice and (imaginary) swords, you’re going to have a hard time getting any role-playing interaction with NPCs. Maybe the PCs will negotiate with each other over who gets which treasure item, but that’s hardly role-playing.

Slow Things Down. Don’t simply yell “bree-yark!” and show up with charging goblins. Bring curious monsters to the table. Have monsters that surprise players give up their free attack (I know, it hurts!) to talk to the players. Make the monsters mysterious enough that players are unsure if they want to immediately engage. Add helpful, non-opponent NPCs into the adventure (even underground/dungeon settings)…keep players on their toes instead of just throwing wave after wave of enemies at them.

Incentivize: you’ve got to show players that they get something out of negotiation. There’s got to be a reward to it. Reward mechanics don’t just influence behavior…they DRIVE it. If the PCs can somehow get paid by negotiating with NPCs they will do so.

I’m not talking about haggling the sale price of gemstones at Ye Old Trade Shoppe…that’s retarded. I’m talking about NPC monsters offering Big Money for the PCs to aid them against other monsters. I’m talking about PCs being able to fast-talk their way into some easy (and bloodshed-free) loot. I’m talking about avoiding energy drain all together because the wight/wraith/vampire was lonely and just happy to talk to someone for a change…or how about the giant-ass spider that speaks Common? It’s D&D dammit…add some fantasy to your game!

DO IT: The final part of the equation…YOU, the DM, have to be open to negotiation yourself. When the PCs try to negotiate or converse or otherwise interact in a non-combat fashion with NPCs and monsters, you need to LET THEM TRY IT. If the handsome bard wants to sweet talk Eclavdra in the Halls of King Snurre, let him! Who’s to say she wouldn’t be up for a little dalliance after a long hard day of sacrificing people to the Evil Elemental God. Just because the monsters are super kick-ass and outfitted for bear doesn’t mean you ALWAYS have to go toe-to-toe with the adventurers!

Allowing PCs to negotiate doesn’t mean you’re turning the game all “touchy-feely.” Remember, negotiation is a two-way street: eventually, characters doing deals with evil monsters will be presented with unsavory choices as their new “friends” call in “favors” from them. At some point, lines are going to be crossed and all hell is going to break loose, sure, and you’ll still have plenty of opportunity to lay the smackdown on PCs with your favorite Drow attack pet (or whatever). But maybe by the time you DO, the characters will be better prepared to face the challenge (having picked up some useful intelligence in their negotiations).

And MAYBE the players will find themselves engaged with the game in the way they never will be by mouse-clicking on a dude wearing a golden question mark halo.
: )


  1. Love the idea of negotiation in D&D. It really is something that gets easily overlooked. On top of the easier loot grab to earn XP, I'll throw a small amount of XP to the successful negotiator. Say 100, more or less depending on the breaks. Thinking your way out of a situation can be just as much a learning experience as swinging a sword. I have included a few encounters in past games where negotiating got the players further along than killing everything.
    Negotiation is SERIOUSLY lacking in CRPGs, the one reason I hate playing them. Nice post.

  2. I am not too familiar with D&D but negotiation often has it's benefits :)

    The Madlab Post

  3. @ Nicole: Being "not too familiar with D&D" makes you a perfect candidate for these old school're more likely to think "outside the box."
    : )

    @ pavo: Thanks!

  4. This came up in our game -- Pathfinder -- yesterday. We were facing a cleric who we thought we might be able to talk down as we suspected that the chap he was protecting wasn't being too honest with him, but it flared up into a fight anyway. It became a running battle with the cleric retreating through the dungeon, slowing us up with spells and summoned creatures.

    We have a pretty tough party now, and it became clear that while we weren't at a stalemate with the cleric, eventually he would run out of spells and we'd crush him, so as he was lurking behind a blade barrier, we opened negotiations. My character is a lawful good monk, so he gave his word that he would not allow harm to fall upon the cleric if he stopped to talk to us, and that seemed to do the trick.

    I only hope he doesn't turn on us, as my monk won't be able to join in the fight!

  5. I could be mistaken but 1st ed was the last edition to offer gold/xp.

    In addition, 3rd and 4th offer XP for overcoming the obsticales, not necessarily killing the obsticales. This can be avoiding a battle through stealth or diplomacy. In some ways the skill set of 3e in terms of diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate got a lot of players into that aspect of the game as they were the quite ones that would never engage in that activity to begin with.

    Lastly, 4e has 'quest awards' built into the system so its not necessarily all about killing things. I know that as a player I've negotiated my way out of many fights and won many patrons in a Forgotten Realms/Ravenloft game I was playing in, although my last character was a dwarf war priest who wouldn't negotiate with any as it was up to his god to determine who was strong enough to walk away from the field of combat!

  6. I'm in a group playing Pathfinder and from time-to-time attempt diplomacy over fighting, but it always seems to come down to swords and spells in the end. Not sure if that's due to the nature of Pathfinder or the nature of our group.

    Pathfinder does have a lot of negotiation/diplomacy related spells, but they seem to be more of a player crutch (like Sense Motive) rather than facilitating role-playing. Maybe those skills are better suited for court intrigue type campaigns.

    Ed Green

  7. @ Ed: Despite Kelvin's example to the contrary, my experience has led me to believe that 3rd+ edition (and thus Pathfinder) is completely unsuitable for any kind of intrigue or negotiation style game.

    I mean, I SUPPOSE you could run an intrigue-style game, but it sure is a lot of complex rules for that type of thing.

    I could say more, but it would probably get "ranty." Bottom line: starting with D&D3, the designers made a choice, conscious or not, to make combat the centerpiece of the game. Period. Sense motive and bluff (from what I've seen) are used mainly in combat (can I make a feint and get my opponent to become flat-footed thus facilitating sneak attack damage?)...which is only to be expected where combat (and acquiring new combat feats/abilities) is the name of the game.