How can we provide non-violent means of resolving conflicts with monsters and NPCs in RPGs?
Recently I noticed a discussion online about the percentage of time spent in combat in RPGs. Many felt that in D&D, most of playing time is spent in combat. With war wracking the world, the great ugliness of civilian (and military) deaths may have reinforced the inclination of many people to want to avoid combat even in a game that’s normally about adventuring and conflict.
An ExampleMy friend in a D&D game encountered a werewolf with a slave. I expected the normal reaction of an adventuring party: attack the werewolf both to save the slave and to despoil the werewolf of any treasure it may have. Or they would decide to walk away rather than fight. Instead, his character made disparaging remarks about the slave to drive down the price, then finally bought the slave and freed him. My friend has been a wargamer for more than 45 years, so doesn’t shy away from conflict in games. But he thought it was more interesting (and safer for the characters) to resolve the confrontation in a peaceful way.
So I asked myself, what tends to encourage nonviolent resolution of problems?
The RulesThe rules themselves can have a lot to do with perceptions of how to resolve disagreements without violence. If there are lots of rules for nonviolent interaction then you’d expect players to be more likely to use nonviolent interaction. If there aren’t many rules for that, then naturally players are going to resort to violence. Conversely, if the rules are all about combat, how are the players going to solve problems?
I think of Fourth edition D&D, which emphasized co-operative combat. Removing a lot of the non-combat related rules in an attempt to balance the classes against each other stripped away a lot of strategic parts of early versions of D&D, removing a principal method of peaceful resolution (see below).
The GMThe GM has a lot to do with the amount of violence in a game, whatever may or may not be in the ruleset. If the GM thinks that the game is all more like a competitive sport, he or she will probably be happy to have lots of combat as if it was some kind of football game. If the GM sees the whole thing as closer to war, he or she will let players resort to stratagems and other ways to “not fight fair”, or not fight at all.
The setting may also promote non-violent (or violent) methods of resolving disagreements. Say the player characters live in a city governed by rigid imperials who just do not tolerate violence.
The obvious idea from a game design point of view is to make combat so dangerous (debilitating or even lethal) that it’s much smarter to find other paths to success. There have been RPGs of that sort, just as there have been RPGs that are about combat and little else.
My guess is that the less precise the rules are, the more they leave to the negotiation between the players and the GM, then the more often the players will try to find nonviolent ways to resolve disagreement. I’ve not played FATE, for example, but it appears on reading to be the kind of game that encourages players to figure out clever, nonviolent ways to succeed.
Strategy vs. TacticsStrategic as opposed to tactical methods of finding success can also make a big difference. Keep in mind that tactics refers to what you do during a battle, while strategy is what you do aside from the actual battles. By strategic methods I mean actions like negotiation, politics, influencing the authorities, making money via business, finding allies, devising ways to intimidate on a large-scale, etc.
I’d speculate that the strategic methods are going to be more prevalent in a campaign that is primarily active in a city than one that is primarily about dungeon crawling and exploration. The former offers lots of opportunities for strategy. Dungeons and exploring are where violence is more likely to occur.
Some people might suggest that removing occasions for “useless” combat will help – useless in the sense of not achieving some mission or story goal. Because I think pacing is important, I am not bothered by such “useless” combats, as they provide a contrast with the really important combats, and even help players practice their tactics. You need both lows and highs, unimportant and important. If every combat is important (“not useless”) then they all become mediocre. Moreover, I like to see good players decide when a combat might be pointless, and (try to) avoid it.
Your Turn: What percentage of playing time is spent in combat in your RPGs (and which ruleset are you using?)
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