Worlds of Design: Peaceful Solutions to Violent Problems

How can we provide non-violent means of resolving conflicts with monsters and NPCs in RPGs?

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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 Example​

My 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 Rules​

The 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 GM​

The 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. Tactics​

Strategic 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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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ixal

Adventurer
Another thing that affects the players willingness to look for non combat solutions is the reward structure.
If you are rewarded for combat with, for example, XP and access to better and valuable loot like in D&D then players will seek out combat.
When on the other hand all or most rewards depends on another goal and you have nothing to gain from combat besides maybe making achiveing said goal more easy then players will try to avoid combat, based on how dangerous it is, and seek out other ways. Shadowrun would be such a system.

I don't think dungeons neccessarily promote combat. A facility you have to infiltrate in Shadowrun can be seen as a dungeon, but often players still try to avoid combat.
But to be fair, you have a lot more options to scout and plan in SR than in D&D.
 

over the years I have seen this a few times

I had players ask kobold bandits "How much money did you make last week robbing people" and when I said "50 gold" they just paid them 200 gold to take a month off.

I had a game hook where there was a town besieged by gobins that were attacking... but I made the mistake that when they asked "why?" I made up a story that they were thrown out of where they were by kobolds (orginally I was planing on them fighting the goblins but I figured I would switch to fight the kobolds... but oh boy) they ended up making a non aggression/ alliance pact between kobold/goblins/town...
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I'll never pass up an opportunity to sing the praises of DCC and its XP system.

In a nutshell, DCC awards experience for surviving encounters, not winning them. In my experience this slight difference means players are more likely to think strategically; is the reward of the battle worth the danger of the battle?

The best DCC modules play these expectations against each other. For example, there's a roomful of skeletons warriors. The characters don't need to engage with them, but if they do (and especially if they succeed in defeating the skeletons), it changes how other encounters play out on different levels of the dungeon.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
over the years I have seen this a few times

I had players ask kobold bandits "How much money did you make last week robbing people" and when I said "50 gold" they just paid them 200 gold to take a month off.

I had a game hook where there was a town besieged by gobins that were attacking... but I made the mistake that when they asked "why?" I made up a story that they were thrown out of where they were by kobolds (orginally I was planing on them fighting the goblins but I figured I would switch to fight the kobolds... but oh boy) they ended up making a non aggression/ alliance pact between kobold/goblins/town...

And here, you have the core of what enables non-violent resolution of conflict - have a reason for the conflict that could itself be dealt with separately, or have the parties in the conflict have other motivations of value that could be approached. Players cannot try for a non-violent resolution if the GM doesn't provide any handles.
 

And here, you have the core of what enables non-violent resolution of conflict - have a reason for the conflict that could itself be dealt with separately, or have the parties in the conflict have other motivations of value that could be approached. Players cannot try for a non-violent resolution if the GM doesn't provide any handles.
yeah... I don't always have a reason why everything is happening... but if I don't and a Player starts to show intrest I do my best to make one up. If they are showing they care about why and how, the least I can do is make up a why and how
 

Argyle King

Legend
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 Example​

My 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 Rules​

The 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 GM​

The 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. Tactics​

Strategic 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?)

Anecdotally, I've found that games which focus on linear (1-20 levels or N items followed by N+1 items) encourage violent solutions as the primary way to resolve conflict. The built-in assumptions are that stacking more numbers produces a better outcome than being clever or diplomatic.

The group with whom I game most often liked roleplay, so I'd say it's probably around 75/25 combat/non-combat when playing D&D.

The 25 tends to be bigger and the 75 smaller when playing other systems (such as Edge of the Empire, GURPS, or whatever we happen to be running).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
yeah... I don't always have a reason why everything is happening... but if I don't and a Player starts to show intrest I do my best to make one up. If they are showing they care about why and how, the least I can do is make up a why and how

Sure. Not a bad practice.

Overall, how much planning of these things one wants to do will depend on several things, including how much incentive the players need to engage (and every table is different in that regard) and how rich the GM wants a given part of the game experience to be.
 

bulletmeat

Adventurer
A while ago we were playing BECMI & we came across a maggot queen & her flies who thought we were very tasty looking. My halfling took out a guitar and started singing how beautiful she was while telling the rest of the party (under his breath) to run & get out of the area. Everyone loved it & the DM ran w/the idea since it was funny (I can't sing but it was hilarious making up lyrics... on the fly) and we got full XP for the encounter.
I think this was Castle Amber but I can't remember, too long ago.
 


JAMUMU

Justified & Ancient
Wasn't there a thread around here the other day about the "other pillar" in D&D: shenanigans? A lot of the non-violent outcomes players arrive at seem to fall into this category, and I've always found my games better and richer for it.
 

Oofta

Legend
I'm always open to PCs trying options. It may not work, it may only be a temporary solution, my player might be murder hobos. I always try to take the view of the opponents and try to determine what they're after, what their goals are and run it from there.

One of the reasons I stopped using XP was because I didn't want the PCs penalized for not killing everything in sight. Of course for every action there's a reaction; sometimes killing the enemy is the only way to permanently stop a threat. Other times killing the enemy just makes more enemies. I'll try to give hints and set up different types of scenarios but sometimes the PCs simply don't know what the best option is.
 

I've thought about changing the default of enemies going to zero HP to being unconscious, surrendering, or fleeing for a campaign, just to see how it handles.

Another key thing is giving the opponents clear goals and motivations beyond just murder and destruction for its own sake and making sure that information gets to the PCs. If there's something that they want, even if it's just as simple as being left alone or to eat, that opens the door to nonviolent solutions.
 


I think another aspect to consider is the time dilation that occurs. The average 5E combat takes no more than 5 rounds to resolve, meaning only 30 sections of in-world time. However, depending on the group that 30 seconds might take 60 minutes real-time. A tense RP social scene is going to be largely real-time, but an exploration could be hours in-world taking only a few minutes real time. Add in the fact that the entirety of the rules for social and exploration encounters combined can fit into less than a dozen pages, yet combat rules take more than twice that. Because of this, it tends to give a false sense of focus for the game towards combat.

Another thing that affects the players willingness to look for non combat solutions is the reward structure.
Absolutely, and the shift towards XP only for killing stuff radically altered the mentality of the players overall. In 1E, combat was avoided whenever possible, since the amount of xp for killing stuff was much less than getting treasure. The risk/reward ratio was terrible comparatively, so you only fought when you had to or when they had loot to take. In 2E they removed the simple gp=xp equation, but getting magic items still got you xp and each class had their own way of earning individual xp that weren't necessarily combat related. Once 3E came around, it was just a slaughter-fest to get xp unless the DM awarded it differently (such as xp/session).

I'm not a fan of milestone leveling; unless I'm trying to run a specific storyline, it runs counter to my desires within the game. Thus, I've added XP for both the social and exploration pillar, as well as overall xp for completing quests. This encourages the players to consider all aspects of play when building characters, since having a group weakness in one category can not only hamper you in play, but it can cost you potential xp. Defeating monsters becomes a dangerous way to get xp, when you could try diplomacy or exploring another route.
 

Oofta

Legend
I think another aspect to consider is the time dilation that occurs. The average 5E combat takes no more than 5 rounds to resolve, meaning only 30 sections of in-world time. However, depending on the group that 30 seconds might take 60 minutes real-time. A tense RP social scene is going to be largely real-time, but an exploration could be hours in-world taking only a few minutes real time. Add in the fact that the entirety of the rules for social and exploration encounters combined can fit into less than a dozen pages, yet combat rules take more than twice that. Because of this, it tends to give a false sense of focus for the game towards combat.


Absolutely, and the shift towards XP only for killing stuff radically altered the mentality of the players overall. In 1E, combat was avoided whenever possible, since the amount of xp for killing stuff was much less than getting treasure. The risk/reward ratio was terrible comparatively, so you only fought when you had to or when they had loot to take. In 2E they removed the simple gp=xp equation, but getting magic items still got you xp and each class had their own way of earning individual xp that weren't necessarily combat related. Once 3E came around, it was just a slaughter-fest to get xp unless the DM awarded it differently (such as xp/session).

I'm not a fan of milestone leveling; unless I'm trying to run a specific storyline, it runs counter to my desires within the game. Thus, I've added XP for both the social and exploration pillar, as well as overall xp for completing quests. This encourages the players to consider all aspects of play when building characters, since having a group weakness in one category can not only hamper you in play, but it can cost you potential xp. Defeating monsters becomes a dangerous way to get xp, when you could try diplomacy or exploring another route.

I tried assigning XP to non-combat activities or bypassing encounters but ultimately I just realized that what I really ended up doing was figuring out how to grant some amount XP for so many hours of game play. Once I realized that (and the fact that XP is generally a bit goofy anyway) I just l tell people they level up after so many sessions when it makes sense that there will be a short period of downtime in world.

I'm glad for you if you could come up with a system that makes sense, I never could. I don't really use milestone leveling, it's just that when we have our session 0 we discuss how quickly we want to level. That way people focus on what makes the game enjoyable for them.
 


J-H

Hero
I use milestone. I definitely like doing non-violent solutions as it's where a lot of creativity can happen, but it's very campaign-dependent and, at least for me, requires some upfront thought or prompts from module writers. Sometimes it's nice to just have a "beer and pretzels" game where you're killing Designated Monsters (bipedal or not) instead of trying to be the Model UN or whatever.

Sometimes there are lots of Evil Undead, bloodthirsty slavers, and rabid owlbears... and that's okay. Sometimes there are insulted orcs, persecuted kobolds, and lions with thorns in their paws...and that's okay.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
You have to work on rewards for outcomes, most games are setup giving a reward for slaying. IF, you create a reward system based on outcome the player focus would possibly shift to non-violent means. This can be done by defining the outcome, the players know that they are not going to get a reward from just killing things, they may start to find other ways.
 

In the past I would award XP for areas (e.g. a dungeon), with the same XP regardless whether these were solved peacefully or violently. And I rewarded extra XP for roleplay. But I got bored with all the admin related to XP, and despite the reward for roleplay the PCs still stabbed first and asked questions later, so I'm using milestones now.
 

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