I’m a big fan of Emmy Allen’s Duels in OSR rules, so I made a small adaption for it to suit a game I’m running at the moment.
Image: Senat by Pascal Quidault
I also love OSR tendencies to just leave out any dialogue- or social stats & mechanics, leaving it to the actual players and DM to just… talk it out. However, some negotiations in-game are of such impact and severity, that I decided to try out this system.
Note that this assumes one player and one NPC – my current game involves a single player building alliances. Duels are also one-on-one, of course, but negotiations might not be, per se.
1. Set The Stakes
Define what success and failure would look like. This is where the whole context of the scene comes into play – negotiations with a king are unlikely to result in them just giving their whole kingdom to you if you beat them. Unless, of course, the king has been dragged to the table after his armies have been routed at a decisive battle, and the party wants to prevent a time-consuming siege on the king’s last fortress.
Lord Black has been approached by Hiram Fastfoot. Hiram wants Lord Black to pledge men to his cause. If Hiram wins, he will get 3 detachments worth of reinforcements. If he fails, Lord Black will laugh him out of the room and no future deal is possible.
2. Determine Composure
Composure is like your HP at the table. It’s equal to your WIL. Normally, reaching 0 WIL will leave you stunned and unable to act. Losing negotiations does not leave you stunned – so we set Composure equal to WIL at the start of the negotiations, and otherwise leave WIL alone.
Lord Black is a noble, but more acquainted wielding the sword instead of the pen. His 11 WIL gives him 11 Composure. Hiram Fastfoot is a renowned smartass, with a WIL of 14 - giving him 14 Composure.
3. Opening Arguments
Choose one of the following. Note that the participants don’t necessarily need to actually phrase their argument – this system is a bit more rules rather than fiction. The dice rolls inform the fiction.
Both sides choose their arguments in secret and reveal them at the same time.
You accuse, argue, intimidate or challenge – anything to drive your opponent back.
You use your best facts, logic, arguments, and rationale. You’re sticking to the core of the issue as best you can.
You charm, flirt, seduce or taunt in an attempt to break your opponent’s focus (and perhaps to lighten the mood, too).
The DM figures that Lord Black is a simple, brutish man, and would open with an Attack. Hiram Fastfoot generally considers himself the funniest, most charming person in any room - the player opens with a Flourish.
Having revealed their moves, the match-ups between moves are checked:
- Defend beats Attack. The other party is clearly trying to get under my skin, and it’s clear their arguments are weak.
- Flourish beats Defend. I know I have the facts on my si- did… did they just wink at me? Is it warm in here, or is it just me?
- Attack beats Flourish. You can flutter your eyes at me all you want, you’re still clearly a child pretending like they belong at the grown-up’s table.
If one argument beat another, the winning side deals 1d8 damage to the losing side’s Composure. The losing side still deals 1d4 damage – arguing always costs energy, concentration, and effort.
If both sides choose matching arguments, the resulting shouting match (of insults, facts or compliments) deals 1d6 damage on both ends.
Lord Black's Attack beats Hiram's Flourish. The DM rolls a d8 - 7! The player rolls a d4 and gets a 3. Lord Black is now at 8/11 Composure, Hiram at 7/14 Composure. "Honestly, Lord Black, with the way the war is going, I would think a man of your stature wouldn't want to be caught at the losing side, eh?" "You know nothing of war, boy. You barge in here with your ridiculous proposal - I don't see where you'd even get the nerve." "But Lars", you might say, "those two lines look like they could both be logical!" True! It's not about a full conversation simulator - it's just a system to give some prompts while gamifying a dialogue through luck, stats and some strategy.
5. Repeat (& Result)
Keep going until one side’s Composure has been reduced to 0.
If both sides’ Composure reaches 0 in the same round, you agree to disagree – and can return to the negotiation table when you’ve both cleared your heads.
The DM decides that Lord Black wouldn't be a very nimble or tactical debater. They have previously characterized him as a bull of a man, hard to stop once he gets going. Therefore, he's going to stay with an Attack in round two. The player has caught on to this, and has Hiram perform a Defense. Defend beats Attack - Hiram rolls a 4, Lord Black a 1. Lord Black is now at 4/11 Composure, Hiram at 6/14 Composure. "I think, Lord Black, that you know war well enough to know how the game your playing here. I think it's one you can't afford to lose." The stakes are set for what is likely to be the final clash!