Saturday, July 16, 2016

Editorial: Dungeon Fantasy Negotiations With Neutral Parties

Intimidating at first blush, but quite
friendly indeed.
This is a slightly weird niche that I don't see addressed specifically by a lot of Dungeon Fantasy negotiation posts, and that is how to handle a confrontation with... a non-confrontational subject. I feel like negotiation skills are something that I am a bit swingy on, either a) turning players into deities because it is too effective, or b) turning them useless because I make everyone invulnerable to negotiation because I'm afraid of turning them into deities. So I says to myself, maybe if I do a little brainstorm of all the things that might be important to consider in a negotiation with a creature who's sole raison d'etre is to eat guys that get close enough, it might help me also consider the more dangerous and nervous situations.

Discerning Motive

You have just encountered a pixie/giant/very intelligent tortoise/denizen of hell not loaded down for bear. Probably, the first step in a GURPS game of determining whether even talking is even worth it is to figure out what the thing might want. Let's see what we can do to derive that information
  • Area Knowledge - if it is for the correct area, Area Knowledge might impart some light into what you have just encountered. This might have no penalty for anything the locals obviously know, "everyone in the village of Windgigas Shire knows that a Windgigas is [x], [y], and [z]," To steeply penalized for something that might be long forgotten, almost "hidden-lore" like or just laughed off as superstition. "The old lady at the nursery in the village told me about the one legged stork with the fiery eyes. In the nursery rhyme, she is friendly if you [x], but you must never [y.]"
  • Observation - observing a target might tell you what they are doing with their day. If you can get close enough, can you see if it has weapons? And if it has weapons, does it look like it is hunting? And if it is hunting, does it look like it is hunting for dungeon delvers? Is it doing chores, rituals, or just meandering about?
  • Psychology - Can you discern from the way it is acting what it's wants and needs are? Does it look like it is in combat mode? Defensive mode? Absent-Minded? Desperation?
  • Body Language - Similar to Psychology, the two might be used as complementary skills.
  • Heraldry - Is this character wearing any insignia associated with your enemy?
After gathering enough information, probably the three most obvious tactical responses to the situation are:
  • Avoid: If you don't want to deal with something that looks dangerous or harm something that might be innocent, circumnavigating the scene might be to your benefit
  • Prepare for Battle: Being Dungeon Fantasy it is often prudent to simply kill things that appear in front of you.
  • Prepare for civil engagement: For some reason, you believe there is a benefit in talking to this character. For better or for worse, next follows what thos preparations might consider.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Now, before going to engage in mortal diplomacy with someone you have never met before, we should make sure we know what we hope to come away with from this situation, right? I've had players before that butter up a mark... and then don't even know what they wanted out of it. A few reasons you might want to negotiate include:
  • You need a place to rest: the party is weak, and you don't know a safe place to stay until your constitution can be restored. Consider what you need to talk about to put the encounter's mind at ease that you aren't bringing trouble with you.
  • You need guidance - The area is too difficult to navigate, and regrettably, you neglected to prepare enough beforehand.... or maybe you did, and you are discovering you are the unwitting recipient of several critical failures in secret. Think about how you can scratch his back while the encounter scratches yours.
  • You need assistance - More than just directions to the nearest gas station you need a helping hand. You are short staffed, or you don't have the right tools for the job, and this particular encounter looks like it has the skills and tools for the job. This is probably among the largest requests you can ask of someone, so think about how you will make this worth the encounter's time.
So what are some ways we can leverage GURPS mechanics for improving the odds of successfully coming away from this encounter better than when we started. Let's take a look.
Starting off, a few typical motives of a random stranger in a dungeon.
  • I am looking for staples - An encounter that is hunting might appreciate a gift of rations or help in locating a quarry. If they are looking for herbs, perhaps you can help them if you have Naturalist, This can put you on high ground when it comes to asking for a favor.
  • I too am in need of assistance - perhaps any of the above apply. Maybe you need to fight off a wild beast encroaching on the encounter's stead, or he or she needs medical aide immediately (and if it is immediately, you might need to be ready to fight off some kinda beast again.)
  • I'm bored - Perhaps you meet a playful spirit that wants to see something amusing, likes to spar friendly like, or needs a 3rd player for the board game she bought a year ago. An activity like this might allow you to engage in carousing to schmooze up a mark before asking a more outstanding request.

Setting Yourself Up for Failure

Knowing ways to improve our odds of negotiation, what could we potentially do wrong that could lead to disastrous consequences?
  • Accidentally (or purposefully) robbing, wounding, or killing another friend that you didn't consider talking to. They might be disgusted at your sight, or even immediately engage in combat to avenge a fallen friend. Conversely, they might not have any clue, but now we have a weird little pile of misdirection and deceit (potentially) that will build up as we try to keep such a secret.
  • Coming to the meeting in bad faith - Whoever you meet in a dungeon is acclimated to surviving on the edge, so if you have any common decency, you will holster your weapons and sheathe your swords. Not doing so might inspire the encounter to engage in some self-defense
  • Cultural Taboo - Talking to someone that may be secluded in a dungeon might get off on the wrong note simply because the encounter's tribe or unit has developed an alien form of etiquette and society. Maybe too much eye contact is overwhelming or not allowing an important member of the group address you first before talking to them. Things like this might be handled as rolling against Body Language or Heraldry secretly with Cultural Familiarity penalties to discern "the goblinoid is looking past me, not at me" or, "that particular mudman has a different insignia on his shoulder."
  • Not meeting in the middle - You are going up to a complete stranger and asking them for help, but they don't have any particular reason to help you, and you aren't willing to make it any easier for them. At least in this situation, the result of failure won't be as intense.... probably, being toll to b*zz off or the like if they aren't in the mood for jokers.

Choosing The Skill

  • Carousing - This might work if you encounter a type of spirit that enjoy joviality: Satyrs, childlike spirits, old lady hobbits looking for another mahjong player, etc.
  • Diplomacy - This is the neutral best go-to, but only when mutually beneficial results are conceivable
  • Fast-Talk - This is is the best skill if you need help in the meanwhile and for whatever reasons, can't (or don't want to) reciprocate. This skill comes with the warning that invoking it leads to an annoyed person in a position of power with the means to take their frustrations out on you... usually. 
  • Intimidation - Usually useful when you can find yourself in a situation of clear superiority, size, strength, intelligence, manpower, etc. Be careful though with this because anything strong enough to survive in a dungeon by itself that you are asking for help in a place you can't survive by yourself, might have the faculties to make you pay for the shame of being subjugated.
  • Leadership - Using a skill like this, one can turn a community's frustration and impotence into something powerful that can be useful. This will probably take some elbow grease and getting down into the dirt to allow some long lost tribe of backbroken, heartbroken coleopteran slaves to rise up against the lich that created a miasma in their sacred hive in the first place.
  • Merchant - The skill can allow boiling a negotiation down to a transaction. This can be beneficial if you don't want to quibble over details, and want to say, "I'll give you 30 lbs of this dire grasshopper carcass if you can hold a torch for me and follow me into that tomb and read the writings on the wall."
  • Sex Appeal - Get someone to do you a favor, and want to simply because they are compelled. "It's nothing like that guys, I'm serious. So what if he has a rockin' six-pack and I have a thing for Cat-Folk? I'm just being a good neighbor."

Other Thoughts

That came out a bit system agnostic; very little in terms of mechanics besides some skill names, but if you want details on how to handle the execution, you can look up Social Engineering. I also don't really know who I'm aiming this post to at all. I think I need another party with a dedicated diplomat again to get some practice GMing Social Engineering. I don't want to disable it, because that is horse p*les, but I don't want it to be a short circuit, nigh mind control, "press button to win" either. I hope just thinking about it out loud is helpful.


  1. I'm curious about the "diety" versus "useless" split. What do you mean by it, more precisely, and is it an artifact of the system or the way you adjudicate the results? Is it pretty much "make the roll, get everything you want" or "fail the roll, get nothing" or something of that sort?

    I've read Social Engineering but I haven't implemented any of it in my games - the basic system is enough for my games. We haven't needed extra detail so far, and I haven't found such an overpowering approach - maybe because my players don't bet the farm on "roll well and we're gods!" Well, except that one time they claimed to be sent from the heavens. That didn't work out well, rolls or no rolls.

    1. It is probably the way I handle things. I mean there are margins of success and reaction roll tiers and the like, but it still feels kinda binary (This guy will do a thing or he won't do a thing because there is no especially meaningful way to break it down in degrees of partially complying or not complying) or the players ask for the moon and are surprised when the only way that can go is the encounter being offended that a stranger demands everything but the clothes on their back.

      So it is either a) I don't have enough practice and don't have the sense of what is appropriate to achieve through negotiations yet or b) my players have really unrealistic expectations and are trying to get blood from a stone or c) some combination of the two.


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