A culmination of sorts happened in my last D&D session. The players finally met their enemies… at a negotiating table.
The characters had to convince four executives from a trade union to abandon a very expensive fishing vessel to allow peace negotiations between the nation of Ilea and a local sahuagin tribe. The characters had been finding out weaknesses and counterarguments to be used in the talks, and now it was on.
I wanted the encounter to feel like a boss battle, so I put together a mechanic to handle the talks themselves. In the end, it paid out, and at least two players enjoyed it. Every opposing negotiator had one argument to present, and a couple of skills they are good at. For example, a very cold and calculative consultant presented hard facts about the loss of money for the negotiators, should they agree with the players. Due to his methodological approach, he was resistant to empty wordplay and veiled threats, meaning Intimidation failed automatically.
The encounter proceeded in normal initiative order. At their turn, the characters could attempt to find weaknesses in the opposition’s argument. This meant a relevant skill check. Due to wanting the encounter work somewhat like D&D combat (if the players did not want to provide descriptions of their actions, I would handle them), I let the players use the common social skills freely, without having to speak in-game. This was a major relief with two of our newer players, who interestingly used the most varied skills. If the skill check succeeded, I would turn the card representing the main argument 90 degrees clockwise. If it would end upside down, the players would have successfully invalidated the argument (or confused the opposition with rethoric).
The card system was, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. At all times there was one main argument under consideration. This kept the conversation focused on one point. At every turn the character in question would either throw a new point in the air, present a counterpoint to it, or strenghten it, depending on the initiative order. If someone did not want to answer to the counterpoint, they could delay as per the initiative rules to let someone else take a shot. The system worked, and the conversation flowed naturally.
That was it. The players succesfully argued their point (with the aid of one very cool natural 20), and were off to make diplomacy. But after witnessing how the system worked, I think I could improve it still.