Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Memory: Some World Building Notes



Okay, so this may or may not be game-related, though I've tried to provide a few suggestions, but it's what I've been thinking about recently, and it's definitely game adjacent if nothing else. I figure smart folks can use interesting stuff in all kinds of ways for games that I can't even think of.

So, I've had a long fascination with memory and learning. As part of that, I've more-or-less idly poked around at methods of improving my performance in both, but other than a few abortive experiments, I've never gotten anywhere spectacular. A while back, though, I had an idea for some world building, and since then I've been researching it with a (very) little more rigor.

The basic idea for the world in question is a post-literate world. Something bad happened that made this society not trust writing anymore - I'm thinking something along the lines of the burning of the Library of Alexandria times 1000. External memory is great for how much it allows us to extend and fix our knowledge, but it's fragile - reproducing written knowledge is a long, expensive process, and it's stored on stuff that can burn, disintegrate, or rot.

So in this world, an order of monks (maybe wizards? I haven't decided yet) has arisen to safeguard and preserve world knowledge without writing. They're like an anti-library. Where libraries are fixed, they wander, where centralized, they're dispersed, where external, they're all about internal. So, naturally, I've wanted to look for real world examples of cultures that have preserved and transmitted large amounts of information with pretty good fidelity over time, as well as how individuals have increased their ability to store and recall information individually.

At any rate, here are some highlights from my research, some of which has been generously shared by Google + folks. I think a lot of this stuff could add some real flavor to either magic users or clerics in your games, and heck, you might be able to make use of some of this stuff yourself.

Oral Traditions

By "oral traditions", I mean the larger cultural contexts in which stories, law, religion, et cetera are transmitted, as distinct from the techniques practiced by individuals. Clearly those members of a culture tasked with retaining and transmitting the important stuff will make use of various mnemonic techniques, and some of those are covered later. As for gameability, any one of these could make for an interesting cultural feature, or might inspire you to think up even weirder ones.

Basically the original gangster

Epic Poetry - In cultures that haven't written their epics down yet, the way they seem to work is that the tellers know some general story frameworks or themes, and also know specific sequences of actions that go together (like, if you're describing a duel, you start with the hero getting kitted up, then they talk trash, then they throw spears, then they close to fight, for example). The poets flesh out these skeletons with poetic language that fits a specific meter and/or rhyme. The combination of basic framework, rhythm, and sound apparently allows for on-the-fly production of compelling poetry that tells an exciting story. In other words, rhapsodes and their ilk didn't actually memorize most of their poetry, they memorized a procedure for creating poetry. Pretty rad.

Ballads and Counting Out Rhymes - For "Counting Out Rhymes" think "Eenie Meenie Miney Moe". I haven't gotten to these sections in the book I'm reading yet, but apparently there are certain phonetic qualities that are especially "sticky" to memory. These probably vary by language, but also have something to to do with physiology (like what part of the throat/mouth you use to produce the sounds, and in what order). What's really wacky is that even where precise wording isn't remembered, recall of the semantic content is improved by it being heard and recalled as verse. In other words, a balladeer might hear a poem, and then later on think he's telling/singing the "same" poem, but he actually changes some of the words - while still telling the same basic story and still keeping to the same general poetic form.


Hula - Though originally for religious purposes, it looks like Hula had become primarily an entertainment thing by the time white folks showed up, and they promptly forbade it (presumably because the ladies were topless). I haven't done a ton of research here yet, but specific hand and foot positions were/are associated with different parts of the stories/myths/worship being performed, and I suspect that they performed a similar role to the poetic structures above, by associating movement and rhythm with specific semantic content.


Kathak - is a form of Indian dance that means "storytell(er/ing)" that originated as Vedic temple worship and then was influenced by Persian styles when it became court entertainment to the Mughals. What I found intriguing about it is that like Hula, it has specific hand and foot motions associated with certain representational elements. Also, dancers make use of syllables called bol that act as memory cues as to what move to do. Finally, like other artists in India, some Kathak dancers make use of Abhinaya, which is the art of conveying emotions and internal states to the audience, and includes stock body positions, facial expressions, tones of voice and that kind of thing. I have to imagine that being good at that would help to remember the semantic content of a story that involved emotions.

Songlines - this one was one of the coolest to me, for being the least familiar. Australian Aboriginal people have a pretty complex (to whitey, anyway) way of looking at the world and its relation to the spiritual. I won't try to summarize, because I don't totally understand it, and if anyone knows better, please correct me on whatever I get wrong. But one aspect is that it's highly spatial - different gods/spirits belong to a place, and the people who live in a place have a special relationship with the stories about those beings - particular people "own" particular stories, and that ownership comes with responsibilities to tell the stories when appropriate and not to mess them up. One specific instance of this spatial-ness coming through is in songlines. Different tribes of people will have paths across the land - sometimes very long paths - and certain places along that path are associated with different stories, and someone setting out on the path needs to sing the right song at the right place. I realized that it's like the method of loci (see below) in real life, and that's pretty cool. 

Vedic Chanting - Apparently recitations of the Vedas of the Hindu religion are pretty hardcore. A number of complex mnemonic devices that you might call poetic are used to make sure that not only the meanings but also the pronunciations of words are remembered, since the qualities of the sound are believed to be part of the spiritual power in the mantras. Apparently it has resulted in remarkable fidelity, so far as the oldest written records of the Vedas can say. My one question is to what degree this oral tradition is dependent on/symbiotic with the written record. In other oral traditions that lack any writing, there's no evidence of such a thing as "an authoritative correct version" - what matters is that the semantic content is right and the poetic forms are right, not specific word choice or order. Still, a remarkable example of what individuals and a tradition can do. 

Story Bones - An acquaintance who wished to remain anonymous told me about a relative of Northwest American Indian descent who conceptualized stories as made up of "bones", and then related those to her own bones as a method of following the different connections and associations of different stories. Very cool and totally gameable - maybe actual bones can be imbued with stories, or each bone could hold a different spell or some such. 

OH HELL NO

Anthropomorphization - If you've ever read Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, this will sound familiar. Basically, people are wired to devote a lot of mental horsepower to other people - thinking about them, figuring out what they want, how to sleep with them, whether they want to kill you, et cetera. Mythology does some cool stuff with this deep and intuitive understanding by embodying abstract concepts as people, and then having those people interact in very human ways. Consider Hephaestus and Athena. Hephaestus was the god of the forge - making stuff out of metal, a kind of technology. Athena was the goddess of generalship, the citystate as a political institution, and techne (craft, but we got the word "technology" from it for a reason). All examples of applied smarts. Well, one day Hephaestus sees the virgin goddess and gets randy, so he starts chasing her. After keeping away for awhile, he catches Athena, but since he is continuously cuckolded by his wife Aphrodite, he gets prematurely excited, and he blows his load all over Athena's thigh (I know, yuck). Well, she goes "gross" and wipes it off with a rag and throws it in the dirt outside of what is to be Athens. Being god-semen, it impregnates even the dirt, and a weird snaky baby named Erichthonius is born. Among other things, as the first king of Athens, he invents coined money. What's the point? When you put together the god of making stuff with metal and the goddess of how to run a society by law and applied smarts you get money. This very sophisticated conclusion involving pretty abstract concepts is conveyed with remarkable clarity and nuance in the form of a concrete, even crude, story about (super) people acting badly. Neat, huh?

Spoken/Aural Methods

Song - if you've ever had a jingle stuck in your head, then you know the power of song to cement words into memory. It's not entirely clear why this is, but research seems to indicate that it has something to do with it being multi-modal - you get pitch, rhythm, emotive content, and semantic content all at the same time, so you form a rich web of associations that your brain can store easily. Songs are not only easy for individuals to remember, they show remarkable stability over time as well, provided they continue to be performed and enjoyed.

Poetry - Pretty much all the same reasons that song works except for accompanying music, poetry is apparently a little easier to produce on the fly if you're trained in certain meters and have an arsenal of stock phrases. This makes it fantastically useful for long-form performance art like Epics. For games, I could see this having a cool application to magic: different metrical units modify the spell in different ways (stronger, weaker, bigger, smaller, etc), and the word content determines the actual effect. For added fun, make players actually compose spells in dactylic hexameter or the like (and don't let them prewrite any!)

Bol - As mentioned under kathak above, certain Indian performing arts make use of bol, which are single syllables with specific associations. Drummers use them in conjunction with certain strikes, and dancers use them for different steps. The movement and the spoken syllables reinforce each other, and remembering the rhythm of the spoken syllables helps to remember the proper movements.

Spatial/Visual Methods

Method of Loci - This is the granddaddy of formal memory techniques in Western civlization. It's the source of the rhetorical conceit "in the first place, in the second place. . ." Basically, a practitioner visualizes a location (whether real, like his house, or imagined, like a fabulous palace) as he memorizes something. Each chunk of whatever her's memorizing gets associated with a particular place in his "mind palace". When he needs to recall it, he simply imagines walking through the place in the same order. This takes advantage of the fact that human brains are rather good at processing spatial relationships, along with the earlier mentioned multi-modality. This may be the most practical and trainable technique here for use in real life. As a side note, the tradition of songlines made me realize there's nothing stopping you from using this technique in the flesh, rather than your imagination, if you can repetitively travel a particular path. This would be excellent for rituals in a game, or in real life you could consciously associate the things you need to remember in the morning with different places along your route through your place (say, dresser = remember watch and wallet, kitchen door = remember to pack lunch, front door = remember keys and sunglasses, or what have you).


Mandala - I haven't looked into this one as much, and I'm not sure to what degree mandalas serve as memory aids rather than being the visual equivalent of the spontaneous production of Epic through combined framework and procedure. In any case, it's not too big a stretch to imagine that following a procedure to lay down colored sand could trigger the associations trying to be recalled, or even to allow them to be interpreted in a different way than purely verbal memory. 

Pegs - This technique is somewhat closely related to the method of loci, in that it involves associating vivid visualization with what is to be remembered. These vary in complexity from the relatively simple to the very complex. The basic idea is that you come up with some set of 'pegs' which are vivid mental images - preferably incorporating other senses too. Stuff that is funny or shocking is more vivid, so that's even better. In the simple case, you just make a set of images, say images of words that rhyme with the numbers one through ten (e.g. gun, shoe, tree, etc), and then you associate a list you want to remember with those images, preferably by visualizing something about what you want to remember interacting with the peg. When you need to recall, you just go through the peg images and they should remind you of the stuff to remember. It works well with lists, but you sometimes have to "rest" pegs to get rid of associations you don't need to remember any more (like if you used it for a grocery list, you'd have a hard time using the same pegs for a list of people to invite to a party immediately after). A more complicated form involves a matrix. You make pegs for a string of numbers, and another set for a string of letters (you can pick a famous person with that letter starting their name). Then you assign things you want to memorize to a "spot" in the matrix, say A3. If your peg for A was "Adam" and your peg for 3 is a bicycle, you would imagine a dude with a fig leaf riding a bicycle, grimacing from the discomfort of the seat on his naked butt (remember, funny/shocking is easier to recall). Whatever you're trying to memorize, you associate with that image, with as many senses as possible. Memory competitors (yes, they exist) use methods like this to memorize whole decks of cards really fast. It's crazy.

Kinesthetic Methods


Specific Gestures - Multiple traditions make use of this technique, including Hula, Kathak, Buddhist mudras, and Christian iconography (who inherited it from Greek and Roman orators). Considering how closely hands and language are linked (everybody "talks with their hands", and hand sign language is the universal method of communication among people who can't use voice, developed independently and organically in multiple places) it's not a huge surprise that you could make the connection go the other way - associate certain words with certain gestures, and performing both reinforces each. A more common example is when kids learn songs (Richard Grenville mentioned his kids learning The 12 Days of Christmas) with associated hand gestures or dance moves (hokey pokey, anybody?). The virtues of song and of associating gestures once again reinforce each other. In a game, you could have characters that could navigate via gestures keyed to certain directions or wizards who know more spells, but have to use somatic components for all of them.


In Angika Abhinaya, the hand talks to you

Stock Expressions and Poses - In India, there's a whole tradition about this: it's called Angika Abhinaya and it associates very specific facial expression or body poses with certain emotional or story elements. I figure you see a much less developed version in the kinds of faces parents make when reading scary stories to their kids. Doing the expression helps to encode the semantic content of the story. I imagine a sophisticated version of this could take advantage of the fact that it's easier to remember things when you're in the same emotional state as when it happened. A skilled practitioner could maybe learn to associate the feeling of making a particular face with the emotion that caused it, and then make the face on purpose to remember things that happened in that emotional state. 

Body Part Association - Stuff like the story bones above comes to mind here. Another example is from my own experience. In 9th grade, I had to memorize all the bones in the human body, and I kept getting the radius and ulna (forearm bones) mixed up. So when testing my recall, I started wiggling my thumb for radius and my pinkie for ulna. Now I have trouble telling them apart, unless i wiggle my thumb and pinkie, then I know instantly. That's actually the thing that got me started wanting to investigate kinesthetic memory techniques. Another method that's pretty cool is a Korean way to do simple arithmetic with your fingers called Chisanbop. It'd take too long to go into it here, but check out the Wikipedia entry on it to see how it works. When you get good at it, your fingers don't just help you through the calculation in your head, instead you just move them and then you know the answer. It's really wild the first time it works like that.

Smell/Taste Methods

Smell and taste are powerful cues to memory and emotion both, and I have to assume that's why incense, food, and drink have long played important roles in ritual. I've heard of people doing experiments where they purposely match a flavor or smell to particular information (Matthew Aaron over on G+ said he used candy while studying, and when he got to the relevant part of the test, he popped in the same candy he had when he was studying that part). The only issue with smell is that it can be hard to filter out unwanted smells or to control what smells get associated with what. For example, post offices powerfully remind me of the Friendly Local Game Store I spent most of my young adolescence in. Not because they're fun or full of games, but because both were full of things made of paper and glue (comics, games, and boxes in one, and letters, envelopes, and boxes in the other). So, without knowing what I was smelling at the time, the smell of paper and glue created a really strong memory and emotional response in me. For a game, maybe a villain could condition the characters to associate a certain subtle smell with fear or anger or compliance, and then release a magically enhanced version when the time is right to strike. 

Other Sources

A couple of books that got me started on all this stuff:

Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans

This book has the self-described goal of helping  people "develop the mental arts" and "become real life mentats". It's builds on another O'Reilly book called Mind Hacks, but takes the interesting cognitive quirks revealed there and uses them to focus on practical methods. This has "how tos" on everything from constructing a memory palace to mindfulness meditation. If you don't find at least one thing immediately useful and relevant to your life, I'd be surprised.

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epics, Ballads, and Counting Out Rhymes by David C. Rubin

Patrick Stuart over at False machine talked about this book and my ears immediately perked up. I've now (like a year or two later) finally started reading it, and it's simply delicious to someone with my particular proclivities (Homeric epic? Check. Memory and Cognitive Psychology? Check. Cultural concepts and institutions behaving in an evolutionary manner? Check). My reading is going somewhat slow because I am underlying and taking notes in the margin for future reference, but it's not dense at all for an academic work, and I suspect it will be enormously valuable with respect to the stuff covered in this post. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

How to Business Part IV: Strategery

Carl von Clausewitz: Crazy Smart on Strategy

Why Strategy
“Strategy” is one of those words that gets used so much that it becomes almost meaningless, especially in the business world. It gets used in completely different contexts and means different things depending (as in Magic: the Gathering versus business school versus Clausewitz). In a past life, though, I was a classicist, so I’m going to go with the literal Greek meaning of “Stuff that a General Does”.
So, what does a General do? He coordinates the efforts of disparate units to achieve a higher-level unified goal. Where the lieutenant only sees his platoon, the general sees the entire battlefield. To be successful, he needs the strengths of all of his units, and he needs to put them together just right. Now, chances are, you’re probably not going to be running a huge gaming empire anytime soon (hey, if so, congratulations!) but since you are likely deciding the fate of your own gaming business independently, I felt like some thoughts on how to put together everything we’ve covered in this series might come in handy.
Growing
Probably where strategy will be most useful to the hobby entrepreneur is in growing thoughtfully. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has gone from being a label Jim Raggi put on his own adventures into a bona fide game publisher. Goodman Games has gone from a few adventures with an old school feel for official D&D to a complete game line with boxed campaign settings and rabidly enthusiastic fans. These people and others have only been able to do what they’ve done by making sure all the elements we’ve discussed previously worked together, whether they thought of it in the terms we’ve discussed or not.
Being Thoughtful About Where You Fit In
So, as we’ve talked about before, this is a niche market (and if you’re talking OSR, a niche of a niche), so it’s extremely important to think about where you fit in. Your success will be limited if you are hard to distinguish, if you bring nothing new to the table, or if you aren’t fulfilling some unmet need in the hobby space. Now, I want to re-emphasize that I’m talking from a business standpoint here.  If making stuff really similar to what other people put out makes you happy, and that’s all you want out of it, go nuts, my friend! But if you want other people to pay you for it, you need to think about what your strengths are, and how you can apply them towards underserved areas of the hobby.
Moving from “Hobby Business” to “Business in Hobbies”
These strategic concerns become more important the bigger emphasis you put on the “business” side of things. If I put out my super-vanilla megadungeon with an uninspiring format and completely derivative rules, maybe my friends will buy a copy, but it isn’t likely to make me commercially successful, no matter how carefully I price or track my sales or negotiate my art deals. Which might be fine if all I really want is a nice-looking product and a few dollars for my trouble. But if I want to make enough money that my hobby is self-funding, or to supplement my day job, or even for it to become my day job, I’ll need to think about things a little more rigorously.
Strategy Diamond
This brings us to the Strategy Diamond. This is just a model, not a required way of doing things (business school professors loves them some models). You can use it to assess the effectiveness of your strategy, or to help you in your thinking when coming up with a new strategy. Here are the elements and an illustration:
Arenas
This is effectively “What business am I in?”  This is where you can really hone in on where your business fits into the gaming hobby – do you write adventures? Sell game rules/supplements? Make maps? Create art for others? Provide tools to other people to make content? You want to get a clear idea of what you do and for whom here.
Vehicles
This one is a little less relevant in the one-man shop approach, as it usually involves whether you’re going to internally develop capabilities or acquire other companies or the like. But basically it’s about what business structure you’re going to use to do what you said you’d do in the arenas section. On an individual scale, this might be questions like:  Do you want to go it totally alone? Have a full partner or two? Buy contributors’ work or profit share? Find a publisher or self-publish? Fulfill your own orders?
Differentiation
Given the arena(s) you’re competing in, how will you do better than other people? Higher production value? Lower price? More imaginative content? Notorious online presence? Whatever you choose to do, you want to do it somehow differently from everyone else so that people have a reason to give you business over others doing more or less the same thing. Look back to the marketing section for more on differentiation.
Staging
This is how fast you act and in what order. Do you start writing a blog for free for a few months, then put out some pay what you want .pdfs, then start publishing physical books? Or do you work quietly on a magnum opus behind the scenes and release it into the wild with a big splash? There’s a variety of right answers, but you want to be thoughtful about it and not just do stuff whenever and in whatever order.
Economic Logic
After you’ve defined those four areas, if you’ve made good choices, then a certain apparent logic should just “fall out” of the combination that speaks to why your plan makes sense and will make money. If there is no economic logic behind your combination (“I’m going to compete in the heavy metal scene by hiring a mediocre Beatles cover band, and we’ll book a show just as soon as I can figure out where heavy metal bands play”) then it is a bad strategy. At least it’s a bad business strategy. It might be a good art or community strategy, depending, but it won’t make you money.

Tying it All Together
Earlier I mentioned the fact that strategy is all about putting together the different pieces you’ve learned, and I wanted to take a moment here at the end to explicitly do that, more so than the strategy diamond above.
All of These Things Fit Together
So, of the major topics we’ve covered (cash accounting, marketing and pricing, and negotiations) everything informs everything else. Strategy is the art of making sure those interdependencies reinforce and strengthen each other rather than undermine and weaken each other. Carefully tracking your sales information allows you to make better economic decisions about your pricing, your success at building a brand makes negotiations easier, and negotiating well can get you top talent that lets you charge higher prices, and so forth.
An Extended Example of Interdependence
So, you’ve decided that you’re going to publish a campaign setting compatible with any OSR rules set. That’s your arena.
You’re going to do the writing on your own, hire a friend at a discount to do layout, and hire one freelance artist to give the whole thing a unified look. That’s your vehicle.
With professional layout and art, and the fact that you’re familiar with a cultural tradition rarely seen in gaming materials, or at least not done justice, you’re confident you’ll have a stand-out product with really high production values. There’s your differentiation.
As for staging, you’re going to develop the setting piece by piece on your blog over the course of a year. Since you’ve already got an outline, you’re commissioning the art now to make sure there are no delays there. Over the year you’ll be engaging in Google+ conversations and making connections in the community. Once the year is up and the material is written and art is in, you’ll do a kickstarter with only layout left to do, so you can have the money to professionally publish. There’s your staging.
So, with the outlines of your strategy figured out, you can start thinking about how everything we’ve gone over interacts. You’re going to want to keep track of the money you’re spending on art since you’ve decided to get it before bringing in any money, and you’re going to want to think about how many copies of your setting you’ll likely sell when you think about price and what art and layout costs you can cover. You’ll be able to use that information to set contribution levels in the kickstarter and retail prices after.
But while you’re setting prices, you also want to think about their interaction with your brand. You’ve chosen to spend this money on high production value, and you want your setting to come off as a professional product, so bargain basement pricing might work against that. Since you’re getting the artwork before the content is finished with lots of lead time, you’re taking a risk. You’ll want to mitigate that risk by taking the time to negotiate with a few different artists to see which one can work on your schedule at a price you can accept, but still does work that matches the professional image you’re shooting for. In order to convince the artists that you’re serious, and to start building your brand in public, you’ll want to make sure your blog is pretty sharp looking, and you’ll want the content you put up to be pretty close to polished, and in your interactions online, you’ll want to emphasize the unique viewpoint you can bring.
With all these elements working together (tracking your money, building a brand, negotiating good deals that form solid working relationships, and making thoughtful, strategic decisions about how to proceed) you’ve ended up with an economic logic that makes sense – by the time anything goes on sale, you’ll have a built in customer base, a kickstarter will help you better judge final interest, and you’ll be able to make money by charging a reasonably high price for your top quality work. People will be interested in buying it because you’ve picked an underserved area and made something different that plays to your strengths.
Conclusion
Even though I’ve put strategy last, so that you can see how the other pieces fit into it, it’s really something that you should be thinking about from the get go. Ideally, any major business related decisions you make should fit into a coherent strategic picture that produces a compelling economic logic. “Strategy” in business is less about outfoxing your competitors (though in big industries that can sometimes be the case) and more about maintaining a clear vision of what you do that is worth money to your customers, and responding to a changing environment by being flexible in order to keep it that way.
Finally, as I stressed at the beginning, this is ultimately a hobby that we participate in because we love it. If following any of this advice seems cold, or calculating, or in any way sucks the joy out of something you love, then forget that noise. Apply this stuff somewhere else (like your day job) where it won’t have that effect. I personally don’t feel like there’s anything inherently wrong with this business stuff, or combining it with the silly elfgames I love, but you may feel differently, and that’s cool. If you have made it this far, though, I hope that you feel better equipped to turn your gaming content into products and more comfortable letting people compensate you for your cool stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How to Business Part III: Negotiations

An Example of a Strong Opening Position
A lot of people tend to view negotiations as something antagonistic, a matter of “winning” or getting one over your opponent. Sometimes these attitudes can be helpful, but much more often, a mutually beneficial deal is the very worst you should be able to get out of a negotiation, and if you’re willing to be flexible and creative,  all parties might actually end up better off than anyone expected.
Terminology
Leverage – Anything that strengthens your negotiating position or weakens undesirable parts of your counterpart’s position
Best Alternative – The next best option if you do not come to an agreement in a negotiation
Walk Away (Reservation) Point – The very least favorable terms you are willing to accept
Goal – The terms you hope to achieve through negotiation
Distributive vs Integrative Negotiating
Okay, I’ve got some fancy terminology to drop on you, but I thought it was a bit technical to put in the key terminology section: Distributive Negotiation and Integrative Negotiation.
First off, Distributive Negotiation is stereotypical haggling, slicing up the pie, trying-to-get-the-most-for-yourself negotiation that you’ve seen in TV shows and maybe used at the car dealership. It’s not bad, and most negotiations are at least partially distributive. The name comes from the fact that there’s some amount of value (usually expressed in dollars) on the table, and you are negotiating how to distribute it (more for you is usually better).
Integrative Negotiation on the other hand, is about trying to find solutions that create more value than you started with. You’re making the pie bigger. Often there are opportunities for this where the parties involved can make something happen that will benefit all of them more than any one of them could do by themselves. I’m a big fan of recommending you almost always start with an integrative approach to make sure all options for helping everyone involved out have been found, and only then worrying about how to divvy them up.
Factors to Consider in Negotiations
Your approach to any given negotiation is going to be colored by a number of factors, and you should consider them before actually starting the negotiation.
Value of this Deal
Obviously, you need to consider how much this particular deal is worth to you. If it’s worth a lot, you should prepare more and consider if it is worth relatively as much to your counterpart. What might be the chance of your life could be routine business to the other guy. Having some idea of how important this deal is to you and to any other parties is one of the most important steps in adequate preparation.
Relationships
Is this deal a one-time thing with a stranger, or is it an ongoing situation with a close friend? You’ll probably prepare and act differently in those situations (as well you should!). Negotiations can be a great way to build relationships, but they can also sour them. If you have, or want to have, an ongoing relationship with your counterparts, it helps to be more conciliatory and to offer more concessions. If you’re never going to see the other person again , and you know that they’re trying to take you for as much as they can (see car salesmen referenced above) then maybe you adopt a harder stance and fight tooth and nail for every concession you can drag out of them.
Reputation
Particular fields of business tend to be small worlds, and that is especially so of the gaming world (especially especially so of the professional gaming world). So, the way you treat people in deals is gonna get around. Maybe you got a book full of top notch artwork for what you knew to be a steal out of a newcomer, but when that gal finds out and starts telling everyone how you hosed her, good luck ever hiring a quality artist again. Likewise, word will get around in a good way if you occasionally make some concessions that are fair and reasonable, but maybe not the best for your bottom line in the short term – “hey, this guy cut me a sweet deal so I could focus on his project more, you should work for him.”
Personal Style
Different people are better at different kinds of negotiations by their nature. Some folks thrive on combative, head-to-head, high stakes distributive negotiations. That stuff gives other folks hives just to think about. It’s good to know different techniques and tactics, and it’s good to develop skills in areas where you’re less comfortable, but for the most part, you’re going to be best in negotiations that play to your style. If you have a really important negotiation that doesn’t fit your style (maybe a publisher is welching on paying you for delivered artwork, but you don’t like confrontation) then do your prep work and have a friend help you. I bet everyone reading this has at least one conciliatory “let’s all work together” friend and at least one “hard-charging, loves confrontation” friend.
Medium of Communication
How is this negotiation going to be conducted? In person? Over the phone? Via email? All of these have strengths and weaknesses, but generally, face to face is preferred for all the same reasons gaming in person beats the hell out of a hangouts game. Email or other asynchronous methods allow you to take the time not to get caught up in emotions and to do spot research on specific offers or terms, but it also makes the deal slower and makes it almost impossible to pick up on possibly important cues from body language or tone. With the highly distributed nature of hobby gaming, you’re probably going to have to conduct many of your negotiations remotely, but for any negotiations that are seriously important, consider if it’s feasible to do them in person.
What to Do
Prepare
Preparing before a negotiation is the single most important thing you can do to maximize your chances of success. Many people assume either that there’s too much to prepare for, so it’s best to just wing it, or that they understand their own position well enough that there’s no need to prepare. Preparation isn’t about clarifying your own position (though you should do some of that too) – it’s primarily about learning as much as you can about your counterpart’s position. Ideally, you want to walk into a negotiation knowing exactly what your counterpart wants. You want to understand their position better than they do, so you can figure out how your position can fit with theirs in a way that gets you (or hopefully you both) what you want.
The sorts of things to research are basic facts on your counterpart, industry averages for the type of deal you’re discussing, recent activity around the sort of deal you’re discussing, that kind of thing. Anything you’ll be asking for or making an offer based on? Research that really well, so that you have facts to back up your moves.
Your Opening Move
There are various pros and cons to being the first person to put something on the table, but a safe place to begin with for just about any negotiation is to get clarification on what you’re there to discuss and what everyone hopes to get out of it. So, you could start a negotiation with a freelance artist with something like “Thanks for meeting me today, I really like your stuff. I’d like to talk to you about how much art you can do for my book and what your rates will be. Is there anything else you want to make sure we cover?”
That gives them an opportunity to add anything they especially care about to the agenda, and might give you more information. If the artist responds “Yeah, that sounds good, but I also want to make sure we hammer out when payment will be made for work” then that tells you that the timing of payment is also important, not just the amount.
Now, if you find yourself needing to lay down a number (or a bundle of terms or whatever), a good rule of thumb is this: start as optimistic as you can possibly justify. It doesn’t have to be a rock solid justification, just a good one. If you were in a job interview, and they ask you what you expect salary-wise, you might go “Well, based on my research, people in this field make $80,000 a year plus bonus, so I think that would be fair”. What’s that based off of? Maybe that’s the very top of the starting range of salary for people in that position, or maybe one guy put that amount on Glassdoor.com. The reasons other people got those values may or may not apply to you, but you have a fact-based justification as a starting place to determine whether they do or not, and you don’t cede possible bargaining space before you even start.
Shoot for your Goal
While you’re engaged in the negotiation, you want to always focus on your goal. While doing your research before beginning the negotiation, you should come up with a somewhat audacious “best case” result, and start thinking of that as your target. Research has shown that negotiators with ambitious goals do better than negotiators with moderate or “reasonable” goals. Obviously you don’t want to come up with something totally ridiculous, nor should you get too attached to your goal if you need to be flexible to get to a mutually agreeable deal, but having a well-researched and optimistic goal will give you more confidence and start you from a better position than coming in with a worst-case mindset.
But Don’t Forget your Walkaway Point
Speaking of which, your “worst case” is your walkaway point, or as some formal negotiations books will call it, your reservation point. This is the position (be it a dollar value, a bundle of benefits, or whatever) that is the absolute worst you will accept - crucially, though, you will still accept it. So, how do you figure out your walkaway point? You look at your best alternative (some fancy negotiations books go so far as to call it a “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement” or BATNA).
Your best alternative is the thing that you fall back on if you can’t come to a mutually agreeable deal with your counterpart in the current negotiation. The simplest example is this: you have a job that is just fine, but someone offers you a new job. Without any other job hunting, your best alternative is probably your current job. If some element of negotiation with the new job offer doesn’t go well - it turns out the people at the new place suck, or the pay is less, or the chance for advancement isn’t what you want, for example - then it’s in your best interest to sit tight at your current job.
It’s super important to keep your walkaway point handy because people get caught up in “deal fever”.  My professor even recommended that you write it down, put it in your pocket, and check it before you finalize a deal. After all, haggling and negotiating can be exciting! And after you put all this time and work into the negotiation, you totally want something to happen, right? Remember that sunk cost fallacy, though? So, if you’ve been wrangling over something and you feel relieved that you and your counterparts finally seem to see eye to eye, before you shake hands or sign anything, pull out that walkaway point that you made in the cold light of rationality and make sure the deal on the table beats it. If not, then you walk away.
Some Specific Tools and Tactics
Leverage
Leverage is a topic that most people have at least some grasp of, but the key piece that many people forget is that it is anything that strengthens your position as perceived by your counterpart. Say you’re going to your boss asking for a raise. You know that you have a job offer for more money at a new company, but you like the people here and would rather stay if you can. If you never tell your boss that you have an offer for more money, you have no leverage from that job offer. Say you do tell her, but she was planning to fire you anyway – no leverage there either. So while you’re best alternative is often your basis for leverage, your counterpart has to know about it for it to work as leverage, and deciding what to share with your counterpart brings us to our next topic of openness.
Openness
Even though I’m a pretty open guy, and I’m all about sharing information and coming to mutually beneficial deals and all that integrative stuff, I still have problems with not defaulting to “cagey” in negotiations. There’s this natural tendency to think that your secret information is power, and that anything you reveal to your counterpart will give them an advantage over you. Honestly, though, most of the time the opposite is true. Usually, the more you tell your counterpart, the more opportunity he or she will have to find opportunities for mutual benefit and compromise. The one exception to this general rule of openness is your walkaway point – the only time you should reveal that is when you are literally ready to walk away unless your counterpart will budge off of something seemingly intractable.  The reason you don’t want to reveal your walkaway point unless you have to is that as soon as your counterpart knows the bare minimum you’re willing to accept, he or she has very little reason to offer you anything more favorable than that.
Ask
Much of the time in life we just accept how things are “supposed to go” and take what is presented to us. Sometimes, though, if you just ask for more, you’d be surprised what you can get. Now, of course, don’t be rude, don’t be ridiculous, but just ask. The worst they can say is no, or “maybe, but what can you give me in return?”. For example, when I go to Chipotle, if I’m not happy with the amount of steak they scoop into my bowl, I go “could I get a little more steak, please?” and sometimes they just give it to me, and other times they go “it’ll be extra for double meat, is that okay?” Either way, I’m no worse off than I was with my stingy scoop of meat. Obviously, this can apply to bigger stuff too, like asking for a higher salary, a bonus, royalties from a final product, or whatever. Practice doing it with the little stuff (like Chipotle) and you’ll feel more comfortable doing it with the big stuff (like your salary).
Anchoring
Anchoring is a technique that all of us have experienced, but most of us don’t ever bother to put a name to. It is quite simply the practice of throwing out a point (usually a dollar value) as the “starting point” from which all other negotiating will happen. The exaggerated haggling of many a dungeon-town merchant is an example: “How much for the rope?” “This is amazing rope – 50 gold” “Bah, it’s rat chewed and made of who knows what, I’ll give you 5 coppers for it”. Both people in that negotiation are trying to establish the bounds within which fine tuning will happen.
A more subtle example is in real estate. The list price of a house serves to anchor all offers that will be made on it. Sellers and buyers alike will evaluate how well they did by how much above or below asking price they got. Real estate agents will estimate prices within a range above or below the list price (studies confirm this – groups of realtors asked to provide a “fair price” for a house showed way less variation in values when given the list price than those who didn’t have one).
But be careful! You could fall into a trap here in your zeal to anchor the debate. Say you throw out a number and it secretly delights your counterpart because you grossly under or overvalued something. They’re not going to correct you. Heck, they may still haggle with you to get an even better deal, and leave you feeling pretty proud of your acumen. Research is the best antidote to this - know what the reasonable range is for your negotiation based on the most comparable deals you can find. If someone tries to aggressively anchor you, go back to the stereotypical hawker and counter anchor just as aggressively.
Log-rolling
Log-rolling is a technique you can use in negotiations that involve multiple issues where you trade concessions quid pro quo. For example: “Okay, sure, I can work weekends, but I’m going to need 5 more vacation days a year” or whatever. Ideally, you want to find the issues that don’t matter that much to you but matter a lot to your counterpart, and trade those for the issues that do matter a lot to you. Say you’re an artist, and you do illustrations for a living. Your counterpart is trying to publish a book on a short schedule and has money to burn to make it happen. Since getting illustrations done on a short schedule is not that big a deal to you, you could offer a shorter deadline in exchange for something that is important to you, like more money, a headline spot as the featured artist, or whatever else is valuable to you and not a big deal for your counterpart to give you.
Packages
When dealing with multiple issue negotiations, it is almost always better to present complete packages than it is to deal with issues one by one. The reason is that each party may place different values on each issue, and if you nail one down, you lose flexibility in reaching accord elsewhere.
Let’s take the example from above, where you’re an illustrator working with an author. The author places a high priority on timeliness (he’s promised dates to his adoring fans), but not that high a priority on price (it’s a vanity project and he’s independently wealthy). You place a low priority on timeliness (you’ll be painting for hours every night regardless, it’s just a matter of what topic), and a high priority on pay (this is your job).
If you and your counterpart sat down and worked out the timeline first, then pay separately, you both would end up satisfied but not totally happy with the agreement.  But if you instead discuss both issues as a package and say something like “I can give you all the illustrations you need for cheap in a long time, or I can get them to you fast for more money”, there’s a much better chance you’ll both maximize the benefits of the overall deal to each of you. The author can go “I’m happy to pay for faster pictures!” and both of you end up happier than if you had haggled down price and then based how fast you were willing to do it based on that.
There’s a few cases where “point by point” can be useful, but that’s really only in very large, complex deals that are very transactional in nature (not building a relationship for later deals) where it becomes more important to make sure each item is adequately addressed than it is to find opportunities for varying preferences to complement one another.
Playing Hardball
Honestly this sections is more here to help you identify other people trying to use these techniques against you. It is almost never a good idea to use hardass tactics in negotiations, and pretty much the only time is when your counterpart is already dead set on being a pain in the ass. That being said, lots of people equate playing hardball with being good at negotiating, so you need to be able to recognize the techniques, what’s wrong with them, and know how to counter them.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
Pretty much anyone who’s seen a police procedural knows this one. It comes up in group negotations, and one party acts like a friend that understands you, and another acts like the bad guy that questions everything you say and can’t budge on their positions. This tactic is usually pretty transparent, and honestly, the best counter to it is to just call it out, like so: “Really? Are you guys pulling ‘good cop, bad cop’ on me? I was hoping we could all negotiate in good faith about our interests, here.”
A more subtle variation is for the person negotiating with you to say they have to check any real concessions with their superior, and to talk about how much they are on your side and want to make things work. If you find your counterpart constantly seeking approval for any and all concessions, you’re well within your rights to ask to resume negotiations when they clarify their side’s requirements, or to negotiate with someone who has the power to make decisions directly.
“Tactical Misinformation”
More commonly known as “lying”. Different people have different views on this in the context of negotiations – some see minor fibs as exactly the same as bluffing in poker, an expected part of the “game”. Others see it as craven deception of the worst sort. You’re going to have to figure out where you come down on this one, but I’d caution against it.
Without even going into the damage getting caught in a lie can cause to your relationships and reputation, there’s the practical side to consider. You might accidentally miss out on an opportunity the truth would have got you. Did you tell that recruiter you won’t be available for months because you thought it would help to get a better offer? Well, maybe if you had been honest and told her that you’re available within 2 weeks, you could have started your dream job, but she’s not looking for someone who can only start months later. I really do think honesty is usually the best policy.
That being said, there are definitely times where selective honesty is more useful than full disclosure. Maybe you stress that you’ve done art for hire before but you don’t mention that it was for a friend for crap rates unless they really press you. Or maybe you tell a potential employer that you could accept today if they make a little better offer, and you don’t mention that you have no other pending offers, and the only reason you wouldn’t accept today is because you want to see how much better you can do.  In the long run it pays to be ethical, but it also pays not to be completely naïve.