A young diplomat plays a worn card: "Don't take it personally," he advises, "it's only a game." If he embraces that position, I've won. Diplomacy is only a game, but no game could be more personal. His denial of that aspect will give me an edge, as I strive to make the game as personal as I can.
Playing skilled Diplomacy lies in the evaluation of the ability, intentions, and motivations of opponents. Using this knowledge, trust is created, strained, and manipulated to achieve strategic goals. The trust involved is not the naïve trust of a child for the mother, but instead a trust of affection and respect based on estimations of the predictability and reasonable self-interest of people placed in a situation with opposing goals -- listening with swords drawn and with no particular reason to believe.
To claim this process is at all impersonal suggests that you may as well begin each correspondence with the greeting, "Dear Enemy." However, a diplomat does not win by reminding foes that the ultimate goal is to destroy them, but by persuading opponents that there is a common vision of the future, and that perhaps this diplomat could let affection cloud strategic decisions -- to produce that same error in the opponent. As ugly as it may seem to an outsider, the diplomat creates friendships so that they may be taken advantage of.
"I wish I had some friends so I could take advantage of them."
-- Boris Badenov
A diplomat is attempting to create a personal rapport with foes, who come in all shapes and sizes. For one opponent, a personal relationship comes from knowing that a curly-headed young man with three kids and a cat is sitting at his computer after eating a good leg-of-lamb. Another opponent is drawn into personal relations by the common fiction of nineteenth century personas speaking regally and passionately of European politics. Part of the skill of the diplomat is making that quick assessment, and using each foe's quirks as a tool of persuasion.
Diplomacy must be conducted on a personal level because there is no definitive strategy defined by the map which compels any choice of alliances. When England chooses Germany over France, it probably isn't because of geography, but because the PM "believes" that the Kaiser will make a "better" ally. If there were a quanititative method for making those evaluations, the game would be different -- as it is, diplomats choose an ally because they like that ally better than another. One may like another because he shows more skill in forming tactical plans, or because he is simply more eloquent. But, when one is betrayed, there is no recourse to some rule which demands that an ally be chosen for one skill over another -- a diplomat must, essentially, be well liked.
"He was never really well liked."
-- Willy Lohman
PB(E)M Diplomacy is conducted by letters, each of which consists of a greeting, a body and a signature. Since the first shall be last, I'll begin with an analysis of the final word.
Many Latin languages have two forms of the word "You" -- a formal impersonal form and a a familiar form. It can be offensive to call a person by the wrong one, depending on their concept of the relationship. It can, furthermore, be meaningful to choose one over the other, particularly when intended to effect a change in the relationship; for example, "I have decided I like you and will therefore become familiar," or "You have offended me, and I consider you no longer a friend."
A signature involves the same type of decision, except that instead of only two forms, there are dozens which are possible. With each signature the diplomat expresses an indication of the perceived relationship to either convey or intimate the desired state of affairs.
By way of example, when I play Diplomacy, I invariably choose a persona. For France, my favorite is Cardinal Richelieu+ - Dumas' Musketeers being a favorite of mine (an excellent novel of diplomacy, by the way). As Richelieu+ I will speak for France, Louis, and God in my attempts to persuade the Kings and Empresses of my vision of Europe's Destiny.
With initial correspondence to unknown opponents, I will sign my letters "Cardinal Richelieu+" gently hinting that familiarity will at least require a response, and setting a level of respect that comes from titles. This signature becomes my formal signature, and is used to express distance or offense. I rarely use it after the first letter, unless I am challenging, threatening or condemning.
Some players will respond with personas, making references to the fiction of Diplomacy. For them, I sign my letters "Richelieu+" and play the game in full costume.
Other players will reply by signing their letters with their real name. It is always dangerous to speak to someone of that nature with the cover of a persona always overriding the flavor of letters. A mask is a mask and gives reason to doubt the sincerity of the writer, especially when set in the circumstance of dubious moves and other players who are not wearing masks.
On the other hand, I am wary of attaching my own name, which I cannot drop so easily, from the sometimes inevitable nastiness of Diplomacy. When a player shows no taste for the persona, I maintain a strong modern discourse in the body of my letters, while allowing myself the tiny indulgence of signing "Richelieu+". I am careful to call no attention to the signature under normal circumstances. When the stab comes, I'll hope they will only remember that it was that cruel churchman whose real name has been lost in the transom of time.
There comes a time in every Diplomacy game, however, when all the cards are on the table and a diplomat has no choice but to call in every favor, every sympathy, and every trick in their book. One way of showing sincerity under these conditions is to sign a passionate, modern, personal communication with an unthinking "David" - showing that I have forgotten that this is only a game, and that the results of the turn really matter to me. It is a small thing, but the sudden contrast created by abandoning a carefully maintained persona may be enough to let the personal air cloud the opposition's judgement.
It is true that aside from persuading, a signature can also reveal the attitude of the diplomat, and for this reason some would advocate choosing a signature and never changing a letter -- a diplomatic poker face.
For instance, if a diplomat signs every letter to an ally with his own name and suddenly adopts a formal signature, the ally might suspect that a stab is coming, and the diplomat is trying to create distance before the betrayal comes down. That would be an imprudent use of signature.
But persuasion often depends on the risk of revelation. A carefully manipulated signature, used conscious of the effect it has, may work subtle differences into an opponents attitude.
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author,
click on the letter above. If that does not work, feel free to use the
"Dear DP..." mail interface.