When one action isn’t enough (part 2) – Negotiations

In the previous few posts, I looked at the history of Skills in BECMI, looked at the different 5e skills in detail, and explored what skills can (and equally importantly can’t) do.

The last post introduced more complex scenarios where one action isn’t enough to resolve the situation, and considered a complex task: crossing a river. This post looks at another situation where a single check or action is insufficient: a negotiation.

A reminder of the situation:

  • The party need a specific magic item (a potion of time travel) to open a portal to the next phase of the adventure.
  • This item is owned by Azedarc, a local priest, who has no reason to just hand it over and doesn’t know the adventurers.
  • A complication to the negotiation – magic is actually illegal here, so admitting to magic could backfire on either side.
  • Azedarc has several guards in the room and more within call, and the PCs suspect him of secretly being quite a powerful magic user in his own right, although using it could be dangerous to him.

This is a negotiation. Azedarc won’t be willing to just hand over his potion of time travel just because the PCs ask – they will need to persuade him.

When I ran this situation, I wasn’t familiar with The Angry GM’s model for interaction, but in retrospect it is a good model for describing how I approached it. Azedarc has objections which prevent him handing over the magic item, and it’s up to the PCs to counter those objections with incentives. Once the incentives balance the objections, he agrees. Score the objections from 1-5 and modify them in response to the PC actions.

So what might be Azedarc’s objections:

  1. I’ve invested in creating/obtaining this magic item – OBJECTION +1
  2. I can’t have my magic use exposed to the general populace – OBJECTION +2
  3. I don’t know these people or how trustworthy they are – OBJECTION +1
  4. I have a reputation to maintain – I can’t have people taking advantage of me – OBJECTION +1

How could the PCs proceed? Here’s how it worked in our group (this is from X2 Castle Amber).

First the PCs needed to gain an audience. They used a dual-pronged approach, mentioning their suspicions of magic use and an opportunity for Azedarc, and several of them excel in Persuasion (character skill), so they were led to an audience with Azedarc.

When the PCs gained an audience, Azedarc had several guards with him, and the party suspected him of being a pretty accomplished magic user – it was clear to them that fighting wasn’t going to be an option, and so Intimidation was out as well.

They led with saying they had heard he had a special potion which had interesting effects – not mentioning magic explicitly, but hinting at it – and they were willing to buy some.

This went part way to reassuring Azedarc about Objection 2 – they obviously are aware of the risk and willing to to be circumspect.

Azedarc countered that even if he had such a thing, it wouldn’t be for sale. What if it got into the wrong hands? They have made progress – he’s giving them information and openings.

One of them offered soup powder (running gag) … this did not go down well and bumped objection 4 up to +2. A closed response – it’s up to the party to restart things.

They had a quick discussion among themselves and then hinted they might have some items of “equivalent rarity” which Azedarc might be interested in in exchange. Creating an incentive.

Azedarc asks them to describe what they might offer. A slightly more open response.

They offer a ring which, when wearing it, you don’t feel the cold (it’s snowing here at the moment, and it never snows here).

Azedarc is interested, but wary. Objection 4 goes back down to +1. He asks to know more.

They show him their ring of warmth. He’s still interested but wary, and asks if they have any way they can prove it (objection 3).

They bring out scales of identification and place it on. It shows “ring of warmth”. (Addressing objections 3 and 4)

Azedarc goes for the potion and comes back with one which does match the description the party had been given. (He had been going to cheat them, but the scales of identification made him think, if they’re genuine, he would get caught out).

He puts it on the scales, and they indeed show “potion of time travel”. This addresses objection 3.

So objection 2 has been addressed by the fact the party are equally at risk and have been circumspect. Objection 3 has been addressed by scales of identification. Objection 4 has been addressed by the fact they’re offering an equivalent (or possibly better) in return. So we’re down to Objection 1 = +1, which is countered by the ring of warmth: incentive +1. Net score 0 – he’s persuaded.

Additional options you could bring in as mentioned by Angry:

  • Leverage or faux pas – reasons the other side might be more or less receptive. Maybe Azedarc prefers to deal with nobles and doesn’t like to deal with people he perceives as peasants – if the PCs can present themselves as noble then he might be more receptive; if they come across as uncouth it could make their job harder.
  • Flattery – if they had started by presenting him with “a small token of our esteem” – something he might value it might have made him more receptive.
  • Offense – a booby trap in the conversation. Maybe Azedarc has a rival, and any mention of her will cause Azedarc to completely close negotiations. Possibly allow an Insight check to realise before mentioning her. If the party can’t address this pretty quickly the negotiation is over.
  • Blocks/Deflections – the NPC comes up with objections which aren’t actually relevant. The PCs can waste time trying to address them, but it won’t get them any further forward. Azedarc’s ploy of “it’s not for sale – what if it got into the wrong hands” could be an example of this. Wisely, the party didn’t try to address this head-on, but instead worked on developing an incentive (the ring of warmth).
  • Deceptions – the NPC isn’t negotiating in good faith. Azedarc was considering fobbing them off with some coloured water. The PCs may appear to achieve their aim, but they haven’t done.
  • External forces, or as Angry puts it, the “Jafar” rule – an external force is working to counter the PCs. Maybe Azedarc has an advisor in the room who the PCs have insulted, so he keeps finding more objections and putting them to Azedarc. Maybe the advisor has charmed Azedarc in some way and is using the charm to influence Azedarc against the negotiation. Either way the negotiation will be easier if the advisor can be neutralised.

As I said, I wasn’t aware of Angry’s post when I ran the encounter. But it is a nice neat framework to guide such an interaction. I’ll definitely use to guide future negotiations.

In the next post I’ll look at the situation where the PCs are trying to counter a political rival.

Further reading

Systematic InterACTION! – The Angry GM

The Whatever Stat – The Angry GM

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