See P. XX: How to Negotiate with the Game Master’s Characters

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

You’ve found your way to Carcosa, and the bleak shores of Hali. A boatman, his visage concealed by a cloak, poles his way up to you. You ask for passage across the black lake. He leans forward, his caul falling partly away to reveal a mask-like visage.

“And what do you have to offer in return, my friends?”

Of the interpersonal investigative abilities, the ones you use to get information from people you talk to, Negotiation is a GUMSHOE staple.

Pretty much any mystery you read features a scene in which the detective makes a deal to get information. She might offer to intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of an arrested crook. Or promise a reporter that he’ll get the scoop when she closes the case. Most commonly, the offer comes in the form of just plain cash.

That last choice, the carefully folded, era-appropriate denomination of paper money, requires no creativity on the part of the player.

Once you get to more complicated tit-for-tats, however, you may struggle to come up with the roleplaying side of a negotiation. What offer do you make, and how do you make it?

This becomes more difficult still when you’re trying to wring something worth more than words from the character. Maybe you want the GMC to lay off your group while you enter her territory. Or to make peace with the clan across the river. Or to pretend she don’t know it was you who blew up the abandoned warehouse with all the vampires in it.

Start by giving some thought to your offer before you commence the scene. Players most often get stuck when the enter into a negotiation without an offer in mind. The GM might expect you to learn more about a character you’re talking to, so that you can figure out what they want. Mostly though he’ll be glad to see you take the initiative and show that you understand that you have to give something to get something.

Consider the scale of the request you’re making. A big ask calls for a big payout. When preparing to approach a character, ask not only what they want but how much they might want it. A favor that costs your negotiating partner little is easier than one requiring a major sacrifice of property, status, or ambition.

Players most often fail at negotiation when they realize, to their shock and horror, that the other party expects a concession of roughly equal value. “Wait, I want unfiltered access to the Necronomicon from Henry Armitage, and he wants me to go all the way to Machu Picchu and drop this amulet in a well? How dare he?”

A GM who portrays negotiations realistically may start out with a bigger request than the character hopes to receive. You may be tempted to break off talks when you hear the scope of an initial demand. Instead, try offering less and see where the point of resistance really lies. Professor Armitage might accept a lesser favor than the Machu Picchu trip, but isn’t going to loan you that book for nothing. Every time it leaves the library, the university’s liability insurance goes up!

In general, your GM wants you to move the story forward by succeeding at a negotiation. Make the offer credibly tempting and you’ll likely get what you want. That might entail a side quest that leads you into another fun scene of challenge and trouble, but that after all is what you came to the table for.

This doesn’t mean that the GM will let you negotiate successfully with every GMC you encounter. Negotiation will overcome small or intermediate obstacles, not the central scheme of the primary villain. Expect to be shut down when trying to bypass all of a scenario’s conflict and danger. When you get stonewalled, indulge in a bit of metagaming and ask yourself how anticlimactic it would be to actually get what you’re asking for. If the answer is “very much so,” you know that there’s no way your GM is going to let you away with that. Look for other, more thrilling and hazardous ways to resolve the central dilemma. As with any fruitless path you choose, the GM is probably signaling you to try a different approach. Your main enemy may refuse to talk altogether, send an emissary to insult you, or waste your time while setting up an ambush, or to quickly dismiss your offer. Any of these choices give you a chance to push the story forward, even if you don’t get everything you want exactly as you want it. The GM is using a “yes, but” technique, making something fun happen, even if it isn’t the successful bargaining session you were hoping for.

To sum up, the following list of questions may help you to formulate your position as you go in to negotiate for information, a favor, or other benefit.

“What does this person want?”

“Is that at all compatible with what we want?”

“If not, what do I have, or what can I do, to get them closer to what they want?”

When the answer to question 1, is “beats me,” you might consider doing some more investigation before opening talks. A third party could supply a more straightforward and revealing account of the character’s position than she will express directly.

When the answer to question 2 is no, you can shift footing to some other approach. In GUMSHOE, that might mean Intimidation or some other aggressive means.

Questions 1 and 3 prime you to expect to give a quo to get your quid. In most RPG situations, the readiness to yield a bit is most of the battle.

Don’t let pride sink you. Be ready to occasionally lose a bit to eventually win a lot.

You can tell Negotiation is a crucial part of roleplaying because we made a shirt about it at the Ken and Robin merch store. Unlike much in life, wearing it is a win-win proposition.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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