I’ve been thinking a lot about how murder is such a default activity in RPGs.
Combat’s really fun in most games! We’ve gotten really good at building systems that take a fight and cram it full of strategic choices to make, give it compelling (if not especially interesting, usually) stakes, and smooth it out with excellent pacing. In fact, it’s so fun that killing has become this kind of super hard to escape gravity well within game design (both tabletop and digital). People pining for a RPG that makes talking to people or exploring as mechanically robust and interesting as combat is basically a cliche in RPG spaces.
So recently I’ve been trying to think of how to bring that pacing, strategy, and stakes over to things that aren't committing war crimes on goblins. I’ve seen a bunch of takes on ‘social combat’ over the years, and something about them has just never fully worked for me*, despite the idea being super compelling on its face. I’ve been mulling over what about them just hasn’t clicked for me, and it’s resulted in a rough draft of a negotiation system.
Note that this system is wholly untested or balanced, and just one stage more refined at the moment than notes taken on the back of a napkin. Hopefully I’ll have an iterated-on, playtested, more mathematically solid version to post in the future.
*There are lots of RPGs that don’t involve combat that are super fun and work super well for me. They just tend to either keep the mechanics away from softer topics like negotiations, or they give people abilities that can give them an upper hand in discussions (say, the ability to detect lies), but don’t get too involved when it comes to larger flow of the discussions.
This subsystem is meant to be used when the players get involved in a back-and-forth negotiation with a NPC, and is basically just a framework for letting the GM adjudicate how much convincing the NPC needs before they give in or the negotiation falls apart. It’s fairly abstract and open to on the spot tweaking, which is important because conversations and arguments can get weird and are hard to put in a box sometimes. As always with subsystems I make, the fiction takes precedence over the mechanics--this is a metric for making rulings much more than it is a set of hard rules.
Negotiation Begins: When the players request something from an NPC (and the NPC’s response is uncertain/interesting to resolve in depth) it kickstarts this subsystem.
Roll Reluctance: The NPC rolls their Reluctance--the stat that represents how much convincing they’d need to give into the request. The more the request goes against their interests the more dice you roll.
1d6 if they have no good reason not to give in
2d6 if giving in would cost them something
3d6 if giving in puts their life or livelihood in danger/would go against their core beliefs/motivations
Roll Patience: The players roll the NPC’s Patience--the stat that represents how willing the NPC is to continue the negotiation. The roll is based off their opinion of the PCs
2d6, take the lower if they dislike or distrust the PCs
1d6 if they have no opinion of the PCs
2d6, take the higher if they like the PCs
Negotiation Rounds: The negotiation takes place over several rounds, in which both parties are making cases for their sides and negotiating prices. These repeat until the NPC runs out of either Reluctance or Patience.
NPC Action: At the start of each round, the NPC gets to say something. If they have anxieties or desires in relation to the request they can make a request/express a worry, which the players can address in their response.
If their ask relates to one of their core beliefs or motivations the players must address the ask or automatically fail the negotiation
Player Argument: The players then get to make an argument as to why the NPC should do what they want. They then roll a die based on how convincing the argument was and subtract that much from the NPC’s Reluctance.
1d4 if the argument was empty
1d6 if the argument makes a point
1d8 or more if the argument was genuinely convincing
The argument could be an offer of payment, a promise to do something for the NPC, an appeal to the NPC’s morality, an attempt to convince the NPC that it’s in their own best interest, or pretty much whatever.
Note that offering payment/promising a service tends to be a strong argument. If the PCs are giving something up as payment (and it’s something the NPC wants) you should be generous with the die size given
NPC Concession: If the players rolled a 5+ on their argument die the NPC makes a Concession to them.
This is often a compromise version of the player request--either only giving a portion of what the players wanted or offering an alternate way they could help the players achieve their goals.
The players can just accept the Concession if they want. They’ll be on the hook for any payments or favors they’ve promised so far, but the NPC will attempt to live up to their end of the Concession version of the agreement.
Are They Convinced?: If the NPC’s Reluctance is at 0 or less they give in--as long as the players honor whatever payments and favors they’ve promised the NPC will do what the players requested. The negotiation ends.
If the players want to push their luck they can make a further request. If they do so, roll 1d6 for the NPC’s new Reluctance.
If the new request is more dangerous/inconvenient than what the NPC has already agreed to, add additional d6 to their Reluctance as appropriate.
Player Payments: If the players offered to give or do something concrete for the NPC as payment for their request they get to add a die roll to the NPC’s Patience
1d4 if NPC isn’t excited about the payment
1d6 for a reasonable payment
1d8 or more if the payment is especially valuable/is something the NPC especially wants
Lose Patience as appropriate if the player’s argument was insulting in some way
Threats and intimidation can be treated like a sort of bizarro-payment, and add to the NPC’s Patience (if the threats are credible). This comes as a big cost, however--if the negotiation falls apart due to hitting zero Patience, the NPC will typically respond badly in the appropriate manner (attack, call the guards, etc).
Loss of Patience: At the end of each round the NPC loses a die’s worth of Patience with the negotiation. The die size is based on how well the players addressed their requests/worries from step 5.
1d4 if the NPC made a request/expressed a worry and the players addressed it satisfactorily
1d6 if the NPC didn’t have a request/worry, or the players only half-addressed it
1d8 if the NPC had a request/worry and the players ignored it
The negotiation fails if the NPC had a request/worry tied to their deeply held beliefs/motivations and the players insufficiently addressed it
Are They Done?: If the NPC has 0 or less Patience left the negotiation is over. Any agreements made so far stand, but the players are not bound to make any payments for agreements that were not finalized (unless they choose to take the NPC up on a standing Concession).
Repeat: If the NPC has both Patience and Resistance left, go back to step 5 and repeat..
This should only be used for negotiations big and interesting enough to be worth shining a spotlight on. For smaller negotiations a single roll is probably fine (or just saying yes/no, if the outcome is obvious).
If the NPC has deeply held beliefs that conflict with the player request, I typically would have their request auto-fail unless the players could invoke another equally important belief of the NPC as an argument for why the NPC should give in.
A king’s loyal advisor would not normally be willing to enter into a negotiation where the players try to convince him to betray the king, but might be willing if the players convinced him it was for the king’s own good/blackmailed the advisor with a disgraceful secret/etc.
What die sizes to use for which arguments/requests/payments/etc are all up to the GM’s judgement. The measures I’ve given are default yardsticks, but feel free to mess with them however seems appropriate.
A patriotic veteran might only have 1d6 of Reluctance when asked to join the war effort, even though the request is dangerous, since it aligns with their values
Orcs that hates the players might start the negotiation with high Patience if the players have the drop on them/are clearly stronger than them
A poor adventurer offering to pay someone ten thousand gold might count as a 1d4 argument/payment, since it comes off as a lie.
The fiction also comes first. If the players do something wild feel free to end the negotiation mid-way
If a player stabs the merchant they’re buying rations from as a negotiation tactic, maybe the negotiation automatically fails and combat breaks out
If a player offers a beggar 1000gp in exchange for information, maybe the negotiation automatically succeeds without a need for further rolls
If a Wandering Monster Check goes off mid-negotiation, maybe combat and the negotiation end up running in parallel. Saving the NPC’s life seems like a strong argument to me.
Concessions are a chance to throw some real fun twists into the negotiation. Get creative with them!
A boring but totally adequate concession would be “instead of giving you 100 swords, I can give you 10”
Creative solutions can be real fun here--”I don’t have any men at arms to loan you, but how about a pack of hounds?”
Or you can even use this to throw them out of the frying pan and into the fire--”I was going to kill you for trespassing on our sacred lands, but you’ve convinced me to take you back to the village to stand trial instead”
Hell, you can even potentially offer something more valuable than what the players were asking for, if that’s more in line with the interests of the NPC--”100 gold is nice, but instead of working as your torchbearer and risking being torn apart by monsters, why don’t I just tell you where The Immortal Lich’s secret tomb is?”
If the players fail to live up to their side of an agreement, handle that however feels appropriate. The consequences could easily be anything from getting shit-talked at the tavern, to being thrown in debtors’ prison, to being cursed, to getting away scot-free, depending on who you screwed over and how.
I’d go light on having NPCs screw the players over, though. Like, if the situation drastically changes maybe the NPC rolls to see if they bail on the agreement, but by default you should have NPCs stand by what they agree to
This is significantly less true of negotiations made under duress. If the PCs said “act as our guide or we kill you” to the goblin and the goblin agreed, it’s totally reasonable for the goblin to turn on the players the moment reinforcements arrive.
You might notice this whole system doesn’t use skills or stats at all. That’s for a few reasons
First off, it makes this system-agnostic
But also, I really want to center the offers being made. You win a negotiation by offering the other side what they want in exchange for what you want much more than you win it by just being real good at talking
That said, there are all sorts of ways you could integrate skills/etc into this system. Maybe a successful Persuade check can turn a 1d4 argument into a 1d6 one, or a successful Deception check can convince the NPC that you’re good for gold that you don’t technically have access to yet.
Hell, maybe a successful athletics check lets a player crush an apple with their bare hand and turns a d6 argument that the players are strong enough to keep them safe into a d8 argument. Be flexible
This whole system is asymmetrical. Why don’t the players have their own Resolve score?
This whole system is meant to be guidance, helping a GM adjudicate a NPC’s actions fairly. It’s not meant to be the physics of the game world. The players are perfectly capable of roleplaying out their characters’ own convictions.
Also, I’m big on the “rules light for players, lots of modular subsystems for GMs” style of play. You could probably hide all dice and numbers information from the players and it wouldn’t affect their ability to negotiate all that much
The goal of this system is to improve the pacing of intense negotiations, let good ideas made by the players have big impacts on how the negotiation goes down, and create a structure for generating twists come from the NPCs getting to make their own requests/compromises. The fact that it has to use mechanics to pull that off is nothing but a downside, and if I can spare the players from that then that’s all the better.
I also have ideas for a combat system loosely built around this model, where most violence is less about trying to kill your enemies and more about trying to intimidate them into giving into your demands. Isn’t most violence just a different mode of negotiation, anyway? If I can whip that into something half-legible I’ll post it here as well