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I'm a new GM (the system is DND 4.0 but that's not relevant here). I've quickly found that I perform very poorly when I'm portraying a negotiation between the PCs and one or more NPCs. Even when they have common ground and could easily find something to agree on that would benefit both sides, the negotiations end up with no agreement reached and both parties annoyed at each other. (Of course, when they're "negotiating" with the BBEG, this is the desired result, so this is really only about friendly or potentially friendly NPCs.)

After a recent negotiation failed, I talked to the players out-of-character and said "This is where I wanted to be going with this" and they very graciously hopped back on the railroad, so it's not at risk of derailing the adventure, but how can I learn to portray the negotiation in a realistic and meaningful manner that's compatible with how I want to move the story forward?

To expand: the recent negotiation was between the town sage, who wanted to know everything about the PCs (the meta-reason for this is I wanted them to develop their backstories further, so I can tailor the adventure to them). The PCs wanted the sage to examine an artifact they found and give them some history of the area, hoping they can get him to reveal location that might be the BBEG's headquarters. The result was the PCs got suspicious of the sage interrogating them, and resented his air of superiority, and utterly refused to divulge any details. At that point I explained what I was trying to do; two of the PCs consented to stick around and answer questions.

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5 Answers

I've been on the receiving end of a bunch of bad negotiations in RPGs. Real life negotiation training helps, but there's also some RPG specific aspects to keep in mind.

Often, the problem is that there's some adventure hook that requires the PCs to do something that's totally stupid. "Hi, you're level 10, would you like to go on a fetch quest for 100 gp?" Or the classic module Against the Giants, where the locals decide your high level party is guilty of unspecified crimes (vagrancy?) and must go kill 100 giants to atone. Even LG parties respond to that with "You're going to look mighty funny with that longsword sticking out of your ass." Your non-derogatory use of the term "railroad" (generally considered bad) leads me to believe this may be the case - if you expect the PCs to "take the adventure hook" you present them regardless of its desirability and they are trying to live in character and not go for some awful deal their characters at their current wealth and power level would never contemplate, you'll be disappointed.

Now assuming there's at least the makings of a deal, meaning each side has something the other person reasonably wants and might indeed exchange (goods, services, money, etc.) you need to remember that people want to make deals and that they can be win-win.

Allow me to use the framework presented in Getting to Yes, a book on negotiation everyone should read.

  1. Separate the people from the problem. Put yourself in the PCs' shoes. Listen more than you talk. Get them involved. Help them save face at giving in on things. They should ideally be doing the same to the NPC.

  2. Focus on interests behind positions. Ask "Why" and "Why not?" Be hard on the problem, soft on the people. How can everyone's goals be achieved? Don't attack the other person's position, look behind it. When they attack your ideas, ask for advice. Ask questions and pause. "How can we make this deal happen?"

  3. Invent options for mutual gain. Generate a range of options, Use imaginative procedures. What other things does someone have that they'd be willing to do or give away that the other person might value more? It doesn't have to be a flea market "Five dollars! One! Four! Two! Three! Deal!". That's a one-dimensional negotiation. Timing, loot, favors, future goods are all possible. "What else can I throw in?"

  4. Use independent standards. What is this really worth? If someone's being unreasonable, you can show what the item or job is "worth" to others. "These guys will do it for half the rate, but I want you to have the first crack at the loot..."

  5. Develop a best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If one side has to have the deal or they're completely screwed, they are in a bad position. As a result most people have a plan B. As a DM, you need one too, besides "tell them out of character to take the bait." Maybe it's some kind of setup or extortion (e.g. the PCs' rooms get ransacked and a convenient clue is left behind pointing at the people the adventure hook is trying to sic them on. Of course the other negotiating party did it, but PCs are usually dumb and easily pointed in a direction.)

Of course, you can just let events transpire. In your example, the PCs got suspicious of the sage. So? Can they not get the information any other way? Are there no other people they can go to? Do they not plan to just stage a home invasion and interrogate him (normal PC response to something like this)? Your problem is less about negotiation and more about poor adventure design and railroading. Should there really only be one way to proceed in the plot? It's best if not; but if it is then the PCs will eventually have to give in or beat it out of him... I find you always get the best results from handling things in game, not with metagaming and railroading. It may seem expedient now but it's a long term poison for your game.

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Don't forget history and setting in the negotiations; players are always worried about giving private information to villains. That's a given, but a person's backstory mostly relates to their family and land of origin, something the wizard (or anyone for that matter) would need in order to verify their true identity.

Officially notarized heraldry or birth documentation is the medieval and fantasy equivalent of Social Security numbers and birth certificates. If the players are seeking favors from a wealthy old man, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to verify that he's not giving the information to a bunch of thugs.

Color it with a dash of common sense. Maybe the players could look up the mage's house name and land of origin just to make sure and put their minds at ease. Once they agree, the players can come up with a suitable back story.

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The first thing I would suggest is: don't be afraid to ask your PCs for exactly what you want ahead of time. If your intention (especially early on in a campaign) is to have the PCs flesh out their back-story, it's fine to tell them that up-front. It sets the expectation early-on.

A few tips for this:

1) Be specific. Rather than saying "Give me a backstory!" take a few minutes one-on-one to ask them specific questions.

"Did your character grow up in a big city or a small town? How did your parents make their money? Were they wealthy or poor? Why did you leave home?"

Most players (esp. those used to D&D) don't tend to think about these kinds of things - but can easily come up with answers when asked explicitly.

2) Give examples.

"My character is the first-born son of a middle-class merchant. I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters, and it's really clear that 'inheriting the family business' is going to mean taking care of them for the rest of my life - so I set off last year to find something better on my own. Since then, I've been working odd-jobs, mostly guarding caravans and that sort of thing - and I've become pretty handy with a bow."

Notice that the example demonstrates giving a bit of history for where the character comes from, as well as their current motivation in life. It also gives you, the GM, a set of ready-made NPCs to tie the character to (former wagon-owners they've worked for, fellow guards, a handful of siblings - and a merchant-class family inheritance they might come back to caring about later).

All of that said - I want to answer your specific question about negotiation, as well.

The most important thing, up-front, is to know what you want to get out of it. Negotiation usually provides one of three things: Goods, Services or Information. But - it's also important to know how you want your PCs to interpret the NPC they're talking to.

If you want them to like the NPC - the NPC has to be endearing in some way. A good natured NPC with a warm attitude and friendly smile works, of course, but so does the elderly chap who doesn't seem like he's got all his marbles, the shop-keeper who comes across like your grandma and offers you cookies and milk every time you come in, or the flirtatious cocktail waitress who serves you when you go into your favorite bar.

Just like in real life negotiations - it's 1 part what you've got to negotiate with and 2 parts charm.

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In your particular example, I think you triggered an Ackbar-Alert by having a powerful NPC guy want to know a whole bunch of details about them. If the players get the idea that they're setting themselves up to be at a disadvantage vs a foe, they're never really going to volunteer for things. If you want them to deal with dudes, you need to bend over backwards sometimes making them seem either benevolent or at least below a certain level of potential danger. Old wizard-type people are pretty much always at least a little threatening because there's no realistic way for the party to gauge the danger they might be in. Maybe next time give the sage a bunch of adorable grandchildren or something? Maybe make her a follower of some good deity in your setting?

In general though, RPG negotiations and bartering are going to be terrible. In real life, I can haggle over prices or negotiate my salary because I actually know something about the market and the market itself is (mostly) rational. In most RPGs (especially D&D-style dungeon crawlers), the economic model runs on rainbows, unicorn farts and GM fiat. In games where players are expected to have X wealth at Y experience level, it's extra silly. If the players know that the system is based around getting 2k gold before they level up, it really doesn't matter if that comes from the mayor paying them to rescue somebody from the goblins or from looting the next 2d4 trolls they randomly encounter. In this case, I think they probably thought that they were endangering themselves in excess for the gain of getting their toy identified.

What works much better in practice is dangling their goals in front of them and negotiating around the idea of 'If you go and accomplish plot activity B for me, I will enable you to pursue Steve's back story objective'. It's a bit railroady, but by since you're tying in the goals your players directly told you they want to follow, it generally works out pretty well. Story motivation stuff also gives one or more of the players an in-game reason to convince the other players to go along with whatever it is that you wanted them to do anyway.

Basically, your bargains should be about plot points and emotional payoffs instead of having your NPCs try to slip the PCs a fiver. Entice them with chances to be Big Damn Heroes or Wipe the Smile Off of Count Von Badguy's Ugly Mug.

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Read up on real life negotiation and persuasion. Besides Getting to Yes, the book suggested by @mxyzplk in his answer, check out online resources too: They may not be as thorough and deep as a whole book - but they're available for free, which may prove a plus while you're just testing the waters.

To recommend something specific, Bakadesuyo's artcile / link collection titled "The last damn thing you'll ever need to read about influence, persuasion and negotiation" is an excellent starting point, imo.

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