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(and some of the other Powered by the Apocalypse games)

There's a basic move called Parley in DW:

When you have leverage on a GM Character and manipulate them, roll+Cha. Leverage is something they need or want. ✴On a 10+, they do what you ask if you first promise what they ask of you. ✴On a 7–9, they will do what you ask, but need some concrete assurance of your promise, right now.

It further elaborates:

Parley covers a lot of ground including old standbys like intimidation and diplomacy. You know you’re using parley when you’re trying to get someone to do something for you by holding a promise or threat over them. Your leverage can be nasty or nice, the tone doesn’t matter.

Merely asking someone politely isn’t parleying. That’s just talking. You say, “Can I have that magic sword?” and Sir Telric says, “Hell no, this is my blade, my father forged it and my mother enchanted it” and that’s that. To parley, you have to have leverage. Leverage is anything that could lure the target of your parley to do something for you. Maybe it’s something they want or something they don’t want you to do. Like a sack of gold. Or punching them in the face.

The prerequisites of the move are well defined. But what if my character is merely asking politely? The game seems to suggest that such interactions are entirely up to the GM, and sometimes it makes sense, like in the example provided. But often enough the GM doesn't have a strong opinion on what should happen. That's where dice come out in most other games, and skills like Diplomacy or Bluff.

Time and again this has tripped us up as we try to engage in some social interaction, reach a point where things could go either way, and then hum and haw over the move list. There is no leverage, there's just a glib tongue. And even if we do manage to frame something as leverage, such as "I'll chat with you for a few minutes if you let me through," it comes out forced and feels wrong.

It's worth noting that the original move in AW is worded as "When you try to seduce or manipulate someone, tell them what you want and roll+hot." But the rest of the move still talks about making promises.

Are we handling social encounters wrong? PbtA games play differently, so it's possible we're dragging the baggage of Diplomacy and Bluff into it. If so, how should we handle leverage-less interactions?

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The hemming and hawing should not happen, you're right.

The problem here isn't on the player side. The GM is cheating. Accidentally, but still cheating.

GM Cheating in Dungeon World

The GM cheats in Dungeon World when they speak without following their Agenda, Principles, and Moves.

There is no GM move called "make an arbitrary decision." There's also no GM move called "have a freeform social interaction." If the GM is following the rules, this kind of stall should not happen.

This is why the GM has rules, to prevent situations like this one, among other situations that qualify as failure modes to avoid.

Responding to a polite request, as the GM

The player's job is done: they've had their PC ask politely. There is no error on the player side of the equation and nothing to fix, no other moves to try to bend to fit the goal.

Since the “everyone looks to you to find out what happens” trigger matches, it's now the GM’s turn to make an appropriate move, instead of falling into “time for unstructured social exchange improvisation!” habits that they have brought with them from some other game.

(Recall too that moves aren't optional when triggered: when that trigger happens, a move must be made; this is equally true for GM moves as for player moves. The GM's turns has been triggered and making a GM move is now demanded by the rules.)

There are several moves that the GM could make. All of them, if executed with the Agenda and Principles in mind, should immediately add something new and interesting for the players to engage with, not just chit-chat.

The trick is to pick one, and then do a quick mental Mad Libs to fill in the blanks that the move demands. Let's assume the PC has politely asked for that magic sword:

  • Reveal an unwelcome truth:

    “Sure, you can have my sword! It's cursed. If you can take it from me, I'd be more than happy.”

  • Show signs of an approaching threat:

    “What kind of a person asks for a warrior's sword?” the bandit chief growls. She's obviously really insulted just by the question. It looks like she's thinking of giving it to you, point first, if you can't mend the situation. What do you do?

    or

    “This old thing? Uh, sure! Here!” he says breathlessly. He almost pushes it into your hands, and then runs off. It's a very fine sword, clearly magical and worth a lot. As you look up from admiring it, you notice a posse of civilians with torches and pitchforks lead by three members of the city watch running in your direction. They're shouting something that sounds awfully like “Thief!” What do you do?

  • Turn their move back on them

    Possibly the simplest and most straightforward move to make: ask them to tell you why in the world their polite request makes any sense! If they're asking in the first place, they might see a good reason that you're not seeing.

    — Hm, you're just asking? Okay, well why do you think they would just give it to you?
    — Because the village owes us their lives and souls, and we're heroes. He'll probably gift it to us.
    — Huh! Well at any other time I'd laugh and so would he, but yeah, considering what you just did? Yeah, they gift you the sword. They even make a big ceremony of it. You're big damn heroes!

  • Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities

    Have you got a thief in the party? Well...

    He laughs that off. “Just give you my sword?! You must be soft in the head.” He turns and walks off, shaking his head and laughing. But you get a good look at his sword belt from behind and notice it's worn... given the right chance, you could probably cut it quick. Want to tail him?

  • Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask

    This is a staple of responses to polite requests. This prompts the GM to set a price, and ask.

    She says sure, she'll give you the sword. But only if you defeat her in single combat. She seems pretty confident too. What do you do?

    or

    “Sure. What's it worth to you? How about... that emerald necklace and arranging an audience with the Unmasked Lord for me? No? Well... let me know if you reconsider.”

    or

    “Hm, alright. Do you have three hundred crowns?”

    or

    “I tire of the burden. It is yours if you want it. But beware: the sword has a way of making heroes out of its bearers, whether they mean to be or not. Take it only if you are willing to shoulder that burden.” He holds the sword out, hilt first. What do you do?

The point is that the PC “just” asking is just the beginning, and there is nothing that says “just asking” is suddenly set in stone as the price at stake. The GM's job is to play to find out what happens, and to do that you pick a GM move, fill out its details, and play out that response. The result will almost certainly establish that there is a price beyond politely asking, either of in-game goods to exchange or in narrative branches the players must tackle. Rather than deciding, you add something interesting to the situation and then see what the players do.

So clean up the GM's side of these meandering social improv interludes, and you won't see stalls anymore! The GM might even be surprised by the things they spontaneously add to the game, faced with such circumstances. This is where Dungeon World shines: turning mundane, boring bits of play into pivotal moments, because the rules demand never doing something boring and stale.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer! I've never played Dungeon World but this answer gets my interest, because it easily shows how it differs from most common P&P games! \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Aug 7 '15 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent description of how to use the GM moves here. You could point out that the book explicitly says it's the GM's turn to make a move "when everyone looks to you to find out what happens" or "when the players give you a golden opportunity", both clauses of which apply here. \$\endgroup\$ – Russell Borogove Aug 7 '15 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I will add this to my "list of reasons I really, really, REALLY want to play Apocalypse or Dungeon World" \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 7 '15 at 19:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow this has clarified so much that I didn't even realize needed clarification. I'm about to start MCing my first AW game and I'm so glad that I read this before we started. \$\endgroup\$ – Ghostship Aug 28 '15 at 2:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note, that "Give an opportunity that fits a class' ability" doesn't have to be a class that the players are actually playing. It can be a great way to highlight consequences of being without a class or push the players to innovating a new way around some obstacle. \$\endgroup\$ – Granger44 Oct 8 '15 at 15:52
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It may seem backwards, but the key to adjudicating Parley is knowing if your NPCs have something to ask of the PCs.

So, let's look at some play where that's true and I'll backmask the table talk into it later.

Stringfellow's party approaches the walled outpost. It's the dead of night and pouring down rain, and the buildings in the steading are the only cover for miles. A guard leans out a high window as they approach. "Shove off, you lot, gate's closed until sunup."

Everyone else looks at Stringfellow expectantly, and the bard steps forward, clearing his throat. "Sir, please. We've traveled a long way and this is our only hope of shelter. All we want right now is a dry place to spend the night."

The guard lets out an aggrieved sigh. "Fine, fine. Lay down your weapons and I'll open the wicket gate for you. You can come get them in the morning when we get you into the city proper. Maybe if you sleep light enough you can pretend you made it in early and the captain won't go spare."

This seems like a reasonable course of fiction, right? Stringfellow asks nicely and gets the party something they wanted. This is what it looks like as a Parley, featuring the GM and Stringfellow's player, Alex:

Stringfellow's party approaches the walled outpost. It's the dead of night and pouring down rain, and the buildings in the steading are the only cover for miles. A guard leans out a high window as they approach. "Shove off, you lot, gate's closed until sunup."

GM: So are you going to turn back and try to find a dry place, or...?

Everyone else looks at Stringfellow expectantly, and the bard steps forward, clearing his throat. "Sir, please. We've traveled a long way and this is our only hope of shelter. All we want right now is a dry place to spend the night."

Alex: I think that's a Parley, right? Our leverage is... we're not going to cause trouble? Does that work?

GM: Yeah, I think this guy might be willing to bend the rules. Roll for it.

Alex: :clatter: Phew. 7, barely.

GM: Right, so he wants you to account for yourselves properly in the morning, like a bunch of people who don't want to cause trouble would do. As far as assurance of that, hmm... ah!

The guard lets out an aggrieved sigh. "Fine, fine. Lay down your weapons and I'll open the wicket gate for you. You can come get them in the morning when we get you into the city proper. Maybe if you sleep light enough you can pretend you made it in early and the captain won't go spare."

GM: Take it or leave it, folks?

Parley Backwards: "What would they ask of you, and why?"

The key here is this bit of the Parley rules:

On a 7+ they ask you for something related to whatever leverage you have.

And you can see the GM talking it through in the example - if you know what somebody would ask and the reason why they'd ask it, you have enough to rule on Parley. The reason why they'd ask it is valid PC leverage.

Sometimes that reason is just "we live in a society, and I'm acting in a civilized way"! Though of course that's a more sensible reason for someone to ask something of you in the notionally more peaceable society of Dungeon World than it is in most places in Apocalypse World.

The Whole Breakdown

So, given that Parley covers the case where a) it makes sense in the fiction that a friendly face would be able to make progress and b) the GM can come up with a promise they'd expect the PC to keep, what happens when those aren't both true?

Not A and Not B: The Dead End

This is what your "I want your magic sword" example could potentially turn into - through the principle of address the characters, not the players, the GM can just straight up say that there isn't any simple promise Sir Telric would accept in return for handing the sword over, if it's something that in-fiction would be readily apparent to the characters.

But since it is a dead end and the GM end of the conversation is supposed to present the players with something to react to, as a GM you can't just stop there. Presumably either there's something more to interest the PCs in the scene than Sir Telric's sword, or if the PCs need Sir Telric's sword for a plot reason, the GM could ask the PCs what else they might do that isn't asking, or perhaps say that leverage to get Sir Telric to give up his sword sure would be useful or valuable to you, hint hint Discern Realities hint.

Whatever that way forward is that you offer as a GM, it's probably something in your prep and you can make a move exploiting it.

B but Not A: The Unfriendly Promise

You can see an example of that in the Parley commentary:

Pendrell: This is the place where One Eye plays cards, right? Okay, I walk up to the guard. "Hey there fellows, care to, you know, open the door and let me in?" and I'm being all suave and cool so they’ll do it. Parley is roll+CHA right?

GM: Not so fast, slick. All you've done is say what you want. The big smelly one on the right steps in front of you and says, "Sorry sir, private game," all bored-sounding. It's like he hates his job and wishes he were someplace else. If you want to parley, you’re going to need some leverage. Maybe a bribe?

This is also an example of address the characters, not the players, dropping a hint that Pendrell-the-character would certainly be considering at this point in the fiction. It might not even be a matter of "present cash and roll Parley" - if the guard is fine letting Pendrell in with 50 more coin in his pocket the GM can just say that, no roll required, or the Parley roll might determine how much surety the guard demands up front.

A but Not B: Charm and Social Grace

When you act with charm and social grace despite an imminent threat, roll +CHA.

You probably recognize that as Defy Danger, chopped up and paraphrased. Maybe you're having trouble coming up with a promise exactly, but you can see how a friendly face would make progress and how it might go wrong. Maybe this just seems like a scenario where the PCs wouldn't be trying to make a promise even on a clean success. In cases like those you probably want that application of Defy Danger, where the threat is... suspicion? A sleepless night in the rain? Come up with something that makes sense to you, and that you're alright with compromising on a 7-9, and you're good.

Here's an example from the Dungeon World Guide, a third-party supplement that you can download from the main Dungeon World site here:

Fast-talking her way past two guards, the Thief rolls a 9 to Defy Danger. It's not Parley; there's no leverage. So what happens? Well, it's fundamentally a success, that’s important, so they don't arrest her. But they're not fully convinced, that's for sure. Here's some quick ideas of how the situation could go down:

  • Use Up Resources: they ask for a bribe (of course they call it an "immediate payment of fine").
  • Offer an Opportunity With a Cost: One of them goes off to corroborate the story; she might be able to defeat the lone guard now that he's alone, but she has to act fast.
  • a Partial Success: they'll let her past, but not without a chaperone. She's where she wants to be, except there's a guard with her!
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