On the Monster Conversation

This post was originally published on 6/2016. It is linked on the Links to Wisdom wiki

I read an excellent post on Dungeon Fantastic by Peter V. Dell'Orto about players negotiating with monsters. 
GURPS uses an objective mechanical interface for social encounters. This isn't too common in the old school world. It was really refreshing to hear from someone else using objective social mechanics in play. What's interesting is the wildly different experiences he has.

It, ostensibly, is about errors players make during negotiations with monsters. This is a whole knot of complexity, but I don't think anything players choose to do in play is an error because I don't have an outcome in mind.

Errors players make during negotiations:
  • Not negotiating
  • Negotiating from imagined strength
  • Negotiating from weakness
  • Demanding one-way trust
These points are expanded on in his post. Not negotiating is always fighting to the death. Negotiating from imagined strength is acting as if the monsters can't challenge the party. The original article is worth reading.

This doesn't match my experience of play at all. And it's not just with the groups that know me. My players are constantly aware of dangers. They know they can't do the above things. Well, they can, but it probably ends up with someone in the party dying.

Critical hits did this also this week with their piece "Realism vs. Genre Conventions" by guest poster Jon Lemich. He says:

"There’s an illusion of threat, but how often does the party really lose a fight? Even if the GM doesn’t fudge any die rolls, they’re still building encounters that are designed for your party to win. That’s illusionism, too; and so is fudging die rolls: The decision not to flee from combat against the wandering monster has no consequences if the GM fudges the dice to prevent a TPK from a pointless random encounter, but rolling behind the screen, the players don’t know you’re fudging the dice, so you preserve the tension if you do it we."

I feel like an alien on an alien planet.

Let's start at the top. How often does the party really lose a fight? I've been part of two total party kills since spring. Once as the Dungeon Master and once as a player. So, like, frequently?

Who is still building encounters designed for the party to win? I mean, pathfinder players, sure. Anyone who wants to run a combat gauntlet. But what part of "the party should win this encounter" is part of the design? The introductory adventure for 5th edition contains multiple deadly encounters. No one was expected to win the Venomfang fight.

Have we not exhaustively covered the territory of why random encounters aren't pointless? Haven't we exhaustively covered the topic of how players can tell that you're fudging dice, because you're not a trained actor/liar?


My experiences with the players and monster negotiations have been different. First, players talk with anything that isn't immediately attacking them, because talking is safer and more productive than fighting. They don't have to be encouraged to negotiate. It's usually the first thing they try to do. (In more than one instance, players have said, "It's attacking us? Are you sure we can't talk to it?". Once they even used their turn in combat, just to make sure that it wouldn't converse.)

Even when vastly outnumbering the opponents they choose to parley because of the risk that reinforcements could be called. They know they have a reputation and that even if an enemy is weak, there's always more enemies than party members.

Players are nervous around monsters because they never know what they can do. When you randomize abilities and have creatures like undead and dragons that can have unknown abilities players become very cautious.

Second, they never feel like they are so much stronger than the monsters that they can 'not negotiate'. I give them the target number of whatever they are trying to negotiate for; they don't choose to negotiate from imagined strength. And because of the way relationships work, I've seen them build trust with factions and individuals.

I'm not putting the blame on Peter here. Clearly the baseline expectation of most gamers is different and somewhat shocking when exposed to this different playstyle. Someone out there is creating encounters that the players are designed to win.

Even in my set encounters, there's a high variability in encounter numbers. It's possible they might run into only a few creatures, or maybe a lot of them. This isn't even counting wandering encounters from creatures nearby that might be attracted to the sounds of a fight or people talking, nor random encounters from creatures indigenous to the area.

I don't know about other people, but specifically what and how many are encountered is unknown to me. I decide the creatures, yes. But generally the range of the encounter goes from completely trivial to unwinnable fight.

What I am saying is that these aren't mistakes. They are natural outgrowths of behavior in the players due to their environment. I'm assuming Peter talks about these being mistakes because they aren't successful tactics for the players. But as a Dungeon Master, that's not my problem. My problem is running a responsive and living game world, which very quickly visits negative consequences on people who do such stupid things when talking to monsters.

I'm not talking about punishing anyone or playing "mother may I" or any of the other quick accusations. The incorrect assumption under the basis of the entire argument is that the dungeon master is the opponent they are negotiating with, rather than an impartial arbiter, and that bad things that happen to the characters are a reflection of the esteem and worth of the player. Neither of these are true. We are playing to find out what happens. 

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