Axioms Of Ethical Diplomacy

or: Use a sharp knife.

“War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

“Diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”
Zhou Enlai

There are as many philosophies of diplomacy in this game as there are Planets players, and it takes a wise man indeed to know which is right. In the end, no one can decide for you; you must choose your own path.

Woe betide the player who fails to choose! For they will be without a rudder, tossed about by whim and caprice — forever tempted to backstab, perpetually afraid of betrayal, and worse. Some players, out of fear they’ll fail to measure up, refuse to even talk to their neighbors — which itself shows the worst sort of weakness. Others will fall in with a stronger player, trusting them with the tough decisions; and this too is a valid path, one with much to recommend it if their ally be honest.

For those interested in the philosophy of diplomacy, there are several guides here on the Mag that may be of use; they can be accessed from the main menu bar. In addition, I recommend my own “On Honor In Warfare” and ECV’s well-written “Dissent” to the same.

But for those among you with neither the time nor perhaps the inclination to formulate a complete philosophy of gameplay derived as it were from first principles, the following are a few axioms that may serve you well, combined with a narrative explanation. Perhaps they will provide some new insights; at the least, I do hope they will be entertaining.

“Second place is just first loser.”
Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

In a standard game of Planets, nine or ten players out of the starting eleven will inevitably not win. Sometimes, this will be you. Acknowledge the truth of this; feel it sink deep inside you. Let it settle into your bones. And then never ever consider it again.

You are playing to win. That’s your job in this game. Sure, it’s just a pastime, an entertainment, but you’ve got to remember: Everyone here is committing themselves to hour-long turns for a year and more; you owe it to them to do your best. They deserve no less.

So use every weapon at your disposal, including diplomacy — and use your weapons well.

Diplomats! The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank.”
Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott

Admittedly, there are times when your best approach is a genteel silence. When your Resolute squadron is creeping up on the enemy homeworld, it’s not the proper moment to begin a friendly chat; the target might get suspicious, and then where would you be? Or, worse, you might find that you actually like them, and your hand may twitch at just the wrong moment. The only place worse than the receiving end of a headshot is the giving end of a botched one.

“I’d rather talk than fight.”
Ben Thompson
“I’ll get you either way.”
Wyatt Earp

Most of the time, though, it pays to know all the players in the game. Simply by talking — and, more importantly, by listening — you can determine who’s strongest, who’s weakest, and who’s guaranteed to fall. You can learn which will make the best friends and which ones will never ever trust you.

Plus, if someone refuses to talk to you, there’s a chance they’ve got a fleet of Ressies heading for your homeworld. So there’s that too.

“But they start off knowing they’re not going to win.”
“So do I.”
“Oh, no, you surely—“
“I meant that I start off knowing they’re not going to win too,” said Granny witheringly.  “And they ought to start off knowing I’m not going to win.  No wonder they lose, if they ain’t getting their minds right.”
Granny Weatherwax, “The Sea and Little Fishes”

The game, when all is said and done, is between players; ships and planets and such are almost incidental. If a player loses heart, they’ve lost; on the other hand, giving someone hope or inspiration is as powerful as a squadron of carriers — and far less costly.

Technical ability is extremely useful, but it can be overrated. Morale is what decides the game, not tactics and stratagems; tactics, in a sense, are most useful for their impact on a player’s morale.

“A trusted man doesn’t flip-flop on where he stands. He says what he means and stands where he stands. He’s not easily influenced by fear. He’s influenced by destiny and will not be taken advantage of.”
Henry Johnson Jr.

Rep. “Hank” Johnson is well-known as one of the worst speakers in Congress. What he’s not known as is unprincipled, uncommitted, or wishy-washy. He’s built a reputation for soundness, even if at the expense of the perception of his mental abilities. With this statement, he neatly encapsulates what it takes to be a trustworthy person: reliable, truthful, and perhaps even a bit dim. And yet it’s true that you won’t get far in public life if people start off disbelieving every word you say.

It is of vital importance, therefore, to always tell the truth (when you can), to keep your bargains (whenever possible), and to pay close attention to your reputation.

“How did you come by those plans? Steal them?”
“They were copied,” Delos answered with narrow truth. “But they aren’t important. The important thing is…”
D. D. Harriman, “The Man Who Sold The Moon”

Getting caught out in a direct lie is something that will sink your reputation. On the other hand, it’s always important to make sure your friends know enough so they aren’t surprised, your rivals know what you want them to in order to get them to move in the desired direction, and your enemies know a great deal but doubt everything. The best way to accomplish this is, first, to speak freely with everyone; and second, to always tell the truth, and nothing but.

“The whole truth?” you ask; to which I reply, Certainly not! All else aside, you’d be there all day.

Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin

The other thing to remember about a lie is that it tells the observant listener exactly what it is that the speaker wishes to hide. “I’ve got a dozen battleships on your border” from a player with a low Military Score is a pretty obvious sign of weakness. “I’ve got only your best interests at heart” may be true, but it might also mean “It’s in my best interest that you don’t die, but if you realize that you’ll hold out for better terms.”

(Don’t push this too far. It’s only true so long as ‘you alive’ isn’t too expensive — or too annoying.)

“As they say, if you would seek war, prepare for war.”
“I believe, my lord, the saying is – if you would seek peace, prepare for war.”
Vetinari put his head on one side and his lips moved as he repeated the phrase to himself. Finally he said, “No, no. I just don’t see that one at all.”
Lord Vetinari to Leonard of Quirm, “Jingo”

Speaking of the Military Score: That, plus the rest of the game’s Scoreboard, are excellent indications of your bona fides. It’s important, when making threats — even, or perhaps especially, when making veiled threats — to present the appearance of being able to follow through. Owning twice as many warships as any other player is a nice start, as is having a higher Military Score than the next two players combined. Of course, if you can’t manage this, all is not lost; indeed, that’s rather the reason the art of diplomacy was first invented.

Sergeant Colon was lost in admiration. He’d seen people bluff on a bad hand, but he’d never seen anyone bluff with no cards.
— from “Men At Arms”, by Terry Pratchett

Indeed, even weakness can be used as a weapon, and in two or three ways. The most obvious is to point out to your neighbor that, if you have to fight him, you’ll get destroyed from behind, and soon he’ll have a serious threat on his hands (but fewer ships, because you’re going down swinging). It’s also quite possible to plant yourself squarely between two major powers and parlay their mutual mistrust into a solid future for your own empire. It pays to be cautious, however; when in harm’s way, it’s easy to get snapped up, and then all you will have left to choose is the manner of your passing.

In war, truth is the first casualty.

All warfare is based on deception.
Sun Tzu, The Art Of War

It’s precisely because these maxims are so famous that it’s often a wise move to play the “honesty” card. When you’ve got a reputation as the sort of corkscrew-minded slimy double-dealer who can think his way through a chain link fence, one of the most deceptive gambits available is to explain to your rivals exactly what you intend to do, and then to do it. Of course, if you don’t have that sort of reputation, you may need to resort to ambiguous ship movements, deceptive tactics, feints, and flank attacks.

(Sometimes they’re useful even if you do have a reputation.)

“Hmmm. It is axiomatic that no one but a Yendi can unravel a Yendi’s scheme.”
“Maybe. But to paraphrase Lord Lairon e’N’vaar, maybe I use different axioms.”
Morrolan and Vlad Taltos, “Yendi”

Then too, much depends on one’s opponent; had Meade at Gettysburg been an active, confident risk-taker, Lee’s final charge would have been the ultimate sneaky move, effectively striking both flanks at once instead of marching slowly across a mile-wide field to make a suicidal frontal assault under both direct and enfilading fire.

Which players say this to me? “By the way, Gnerphk has been telling me that you can’t be trusted and are likely to attack me at any moment.”
A) Colonies
B) Lizards
C) Crystals
D) All of them
Tom Graves to Gnerphk, Cevius Sector

The key, then, is to manage information in precisely the sort of way that makes your rivals react as you want them to, your targeted prey spread his defenses widely apart, and your friends and trusted allies busy enough that they couldn’t possibly backstab you even if they wanted.

DIPLOMACY, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.
Henry Wotton

Because you have to rely on your allies, and they need to rely on you in turn. This means you will be wise to acquire a well-deserved reputation for keeping every deal, for paying for every trade, and for never agreeing to something that you have no intention of following through with. The caveat to this last, of course, is that it’s often wisest to leave your contracts a bit vague, particularly with respect to things like duration and time to delivery. Not that you intend to cheat anyone, but rather because accidents happen — and breaking a deal in a small way is sometimes just as bad as breaking it completely.

“I’m reminded of something the elder Vanderbilt’s lawyer said to the old man under similar circumstances: ‘It’s beautiful the way it is; why spoil it by making it legal?'”
Saul Kamens, “The Man Who Sold The Moon”

In fact, it’s sometimes even best to avoid making any commitment at all. Just smile and nod through all the mutual planning sessions, raise reasonable objections from time to time, and even be helpful if it doesn’t cost too much — but don’t actually commit to an agreement unless and until it’s clearly to your advantage. If your would-be ally wants you to do something that’s not to your advantage, they’re clearly not much of a friend.

“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening: Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless…”
Alan Moore

And this is the final truth, the one which rules all the rest: If you have a reputation as a skilled diplomat, one with a talent for treachery and backstabbing, your rivals will be rightly terrified of you. It’s only necessary to remind them on occasion that you’ve always dealt honestly with them, and they’ve got nothing to worry about, and perhaps particularly that you trust them completely, in order to induce mild paranoia. Soon, they’re actively anticipating your betrayal. After this point they’re busily doubting their own decisions and hedging all their bets at the very moment when they should be applying all their military force to a fine point and driving it through the enemy’s defenses.

Be careful not to make your friends too paranoid accidentally. Feel free to drive your enemies just as mad as you like.

“Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power — for identity. You were made to be ruled.
In the end, you will always kneel.”
Loki of Asgard

Well, someone will always kneel — or die, for that matter. Next time it might be you, but this time it isn’t. So be courteous about it.

It’s actually far better to accept someone’s loyal servitude than crush them under your heel in some cases. And, if you happen to be on the losing side, it’s usually better to surrender than to die. Surrender means survival, and it also means you keep your fleet — and so does your would-be conqueror. (Here’s a guide for further reference.)

“Trash talking is part of the game, but always follow up with an apology note.”
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions

But yes, next time it may well be you who ends up surrendering or dying. Your enemy this game may be your natural ally in the next. And so on. The game may last a year or more, but Planets is a lifestyle. So don’t burn your bridges, or you’ll regret it.

Always be courteous, especially to your bitter rivals — at least out-of-game. If you want to trash-talk in-game… well, that’s your call, and I wouldn’t dream of making it for you.

“What’s that?”
Death, to his apprentice

And, on those rare occasions where circumstance absolutely demands a backstab (or a frontstab, sidestab, or any other sort of cutting response), the very least you can do is make it instantly fatal.

Obviously, a one-turn insta-kill is probably beyond your means. But it’s entirely possible to entirely remove a player’s heart, soul, and ability to resist in a single coordinated strike. The benefits in-game are obvious; when they can’t fight back, your losses are minimized. If done properly, the target no longer has the ability to gift their vessels to your rivals out of spite, and they cannot scorch the earth along your path of advance. Allocate enough resources and you can almost entirely absorb your target in a very short time.

But there is another benefit that cannot be overlooked: Courtesy. If your fellow player dies quickly and painlessly, they will have plenty of time freed up to sulk for a while, and then find their next game. They may not thank you — that level of courtesy is rare indeed — but it is, nevertheless, a kindness. While it may not erase the dishonor of a true backstab, it is as close as one can readily manage.

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1 thought on “Axioms Of Ethical Diplomacy

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