Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Negotiating with the dragon

Yesterday I wrote "Nobody needs a rules system to negotiate with a dragon, but you certainly need one to slay him.". This being the internet, somebody disagreed, saying: "To negotiate with a dragon some rules would be helpful.". So let's have a look at how pen & paper roleplaying games handle non-combat actions like negotiations.

I think it is helpful to first start with video games: How would negotiating with a dragon play out in a video game? If you are as ancient as I am, you might remember text adventures, where players entered phrases into the computer, and a parser interpreted what they wanted and reacted accordingly. In some alternate universe one could have imagined this developing into modern games in which parsers get better and better until you could actually have a negotiation with a virtual dragon. In our universe that wasn't what happened. Parsers often had problems understanding anything more complex than "Go west", "Enter house", "Take Sword", and then got replaced by point-and-click adventures. So if you meet a dragon (or anybody else) in a modern video game where you are supposed to negotiate, you'll just get a list of canned options from which you can choose one. They might even be helpfully labeled as being the "good" or "evil" option, with your choice then giving some sort of alignment points. And if you think of something more clever to say than the option you have, you're out of luck. The whole experience is often somewhat unsatisfying.

In a pen & paper game you basically have two extreme options on how to handle negotiations with a dragon: Role-playing or Roll-playing. Either you let the players roleplay the actual dialogue, and then decide on the outcome based on how good the players arguments were, and what you know about the character and motivation of the dragon. Or you let the players roll dice, using a skill-check or series of skill-checks. 4th edition actually has rules for that, the so-called skill-challenge, but those aren't very popular. Rolling dice has the advantage of being better at handling the situation where a player who isn't very eloquent himself plays a character who is supposed to be. But then it doesn't give the players much opportunity for freedom of expression. And if you handle both combat and out-of-combat situations by dice rolls, the whole game becomes rather mechanical, losing the advantages that pen & paper has over video games.

So why not, as suggested, make negotiation with the dragon based on dice rolls and rules, and making slaying the dragon based on role-playing? The reason is rather simple: It is a lot more evident to role-play a conversation, where the player's dialogue can be directly taken as representing his character's dialogue, than to role-play combat. If a player says "I swing from the chandelier, jump on the dragon's back, and slit his throat", then either you say "Okay" and the fight is over in seconds and not very epic. Or you say "No, you don't" and start bickering with the players about why you can't slit a dragon's throat that easily. A fight that takes some time, with a series of attacks, defensive moves, and tactics is a lot easier to handle with rules and dice rolls. Otherwise you get the old problem from children "role-playing" cowboys and indians or similar scenes: "Bang, bang, you're dead!", "No, I'm not, you missed!".

As your players are sitting around a table, and are probably not very proficient at wielding actual swords, pen & paper roleplaying consists of players stating their intentions and the DM deciding on the success of those actions. If you base the decision on every action of the player solely on how eloquently he stated his intentions and described his actions, you will get some players who never succeed at anything, because they just aren't great talkers. And thus it is a good idea to have a part of the game based on dice rolls, so that success depends on the stats of the character instead of on the descriptive skills of the player. You could theoretically do diplomacy by dice rolls and combat by description, but that frankly would seem a bit weird to most people. You can't practically do "in character swordplay", but you can much more easily talk in character. So the version where you do combat by dice rolls and negotiations by roleplay tends to be the more natural fit.

So I might modify "Nobody needs a rules system to negotiate with a dragon, but you certainly need one to slay him." into "Nobody needs a rules system to roleplay, but you certainly need a rules system to determine the outcome of an action by rolling dice". But for all practical purposes in all pen & paper systems I played, that is basically the same statement. I do not think that anybody can write a valid rules system on how to determine the outcome of a negotiation with a dragon that was done without rolling dice, just based on what the players said. The options of what players can say are so many, and the situations the players can handle through roleplaying are so numerous and different, that I can't imagine a rules system covering every option and telling a DM exactly how to respond to everything the players say. In my opinion that part is very much the art of being a dungeon master. The fact that video games failed to emulate that art very much supports my opinion that this can't easily be handled by rules and algorithms.

You should read the FATE rules. I believe they deliver exactly what you said: rules for judging actions with dice, and the rules are the same for combat and role-play.
Speaking of old:

"With what? Your bare hands?"

(When trying to kill a dragon, and answering "yes" to the above reply:) "Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! (Unbelievable, isn't it?)"

But why then have stats for non-combat actions?

If I put skill points into Diplomacy, and attribute points into Charisma, shouldn't there be a reasonable expectation that I am better at negotiating with a dragon than someone who puts all their points into combat?

Then the game needs non-combat rules in order to translate those mechanical advantages into results.
Re: the negotiating with a dragon - there's plenty of tabletop RPGs that utilize a rules system for non-combat resolution or story development, as well as combat.

A better statement might be "You certainly need a rules system to determine the outcome of an action via an impartial mechanic, if you're playing a game rather than writing a story."

That impartial mechanic is often dice, but some diceless RPGs use cards or point-spending and resource management.

Dread RPG even uses a Jenga tower. Want to do anything significant? Make a successful pull. Declining to pull equals failure at the action. A collapsing tower means a dead character. It's meant to be short form horror, so the lethality works to its favor. That dragon might just eat you when you try to ask it nicely to leave.

Fiasco, on the other hand, uses dice in its pre-setup, but during play, it's the other players who collectively determine via a vote whether the outcome of a particular developing scene is good or bad for your character. It is then up to you to finish the scene and roleplay your interpretation of that positive or negative outcome.

I think the basic idea in any action/conflict resolution system is to give up full protective control over what happens to the character you're playing, so that you can be surprised by something unanticipated.
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