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Worlds of Design: Peaceful Solutions to Violent Problems

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

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


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Another option is to make your game lethal! If players fear death, they may fear combat. Then again, they may not like the game either.
In Traveller ship to ship combat is pretty frightening. If a ship gets scuttled its very likely nobody is coming to help.

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Kobolds are a good choice to pull off these pacts. A lair of kobolds in 1e is worth under 5,000 xp on average. That's for 255 kobolds, including leaders, so you have a lot of mindless combat to get those xp, without much treasure in that, only about 2,500 gp. You can use those kobolds to get more gp and xp than that.
my players have a huge love for all the small bullied races (I can't imagine why) I have to go out of my way to make them super evil to not be possible friends...kobolds goblins bullywugs are the most common...
but we also have a history of making friends with lawful evil liches and hobgodlins... we also have an unsettleing amount of sucubi/Incubi and hag allies...

you know what turning evil things into friends is pretty common.

edit: I do also give XP for makeing allies equal to beating them for combat...and then also for fun role playing later... so 1 monter could be worth MORE with rp


Have separate slots for "combat" and "non-combat" feats.

Combine some spells, so they can be used in combat and out of combat more or less equally.

Charm person is good out of combat spell and so-so combat spell, while hold person is opposite.
So why not have it as one spell?

Or make all "subtle" spells without verbal and somatic components so players can use them more effectively out of combat.
Sorcerers will still be happy with their Heighten, Twinned, Extended and other metamagic options.

Have separate slots for "combat" and "non-combat" feats.
I have pushed for a mix of starwars saga and 2e.

every class gets X # combat feats and Y# of non combat talents at 1st level... then as you level some levels you get combat feats and some levels you get noncombat talents...

my example:
wizards are 4 non combat talents and 2 combat feats. Every 2 levels (2,4,6,8 ect) they get a non combat talent, and every 3 levels they get a combat feat (3,6,9,ect)
fighters are 2 noncombat talent and 4 combat feats. every 2 levels they get a combat feat, and every 3 levels a noncombat talent

you will notice this doubles up level 6,12,and 18 and thats okay. but it also dead levels 5,7,11... so I would make racial abilities or choices or background choices there...

btw I would ALSO make spells into wizard/warlock/sorcerer/ect combat feats and noncombat talents


This is generally my biggest complaint with most of the published adventures. They don't go into detail about the why of the conflict. I have no trouble making one for my table but it would be nice to have a sentence or two about why the conflict exists.

Trust is always important. If every spared foe comes back to get them, or if captured enemies stab the party in the back at every chance, they're going to stop sparing them. If the DM goes into an encounter with the decision to fight already being made and sticks to it no matter what the PCs try, the players aren't going to bother trying.

Likewise, if every random goblin that surrenders needs a name and backstory, eventually a DM is probably going to get tired of having to come up with those details.

One thing that sometimes gets overlooked is the openness of the DM. If the players trust the DM, they will explore the other branches. This goes for a lot of things: RP interactions, resolving traps, etc. Open-mindedness, or even perceived open-mindedness (because of massive prep) goes a very long way in encouraging alternate interactions.

With larger tables, I frequently make use of that tactic. It helps keep the game moving and gives everyone a chance to participate (or not, if they don't want to).

Here is an idea. I'm not going to say it's a good idea, but it might work for certain groups, especially for younger players.

When a conversation breaks out, roll for initiative. Go around the group in initiative order asking each player what they want to say ("nothing" is fine).

I mostly give XP for defeating monsters or otherwise using class abilities (it breaks my immersion for characters to level up quickly and by doing things that don't involve actually using the features they are improving) and my players still find plenty of non-violent solutions. Part of it might be that we have very slow leveling in general, so losing out on some XP this week isn't going to be noticeable (whereas with default advancement it will be the difference between getting imediately awarded a level versus waiting until you kill something to get one).

But the bigger reason is just that my players role-play characters like realistic people, and we don't really do "stupid evil" alignment in our games (and very rarely evil at all). So my players simply don't think violence is always the best answer. I've had the same thing happen running with children as well as my adult players.

I don't know why my experiences differ than those groups with a lot of murder hobos, and I can't really take credit for it. I enjoy combat and provide plenty of unavoidable fights. I just don't stop them from preventing them whenever it makes sense, and role-play the reactions of foes based on what makes sense for them (and some are just evil monsters who will attack no matter what).

We mostly play D&D recently, so this is regardless of system.

Maybe it has more to do with the players than the DM?

DM: The clearly unarmed elderly man approaches you, a smile on his face. He holds his hands up in the air, and opens his mouth to talk...
PC 1: Wait a minute there DM. This looks suspicious. Its obviously a trap.
DM: Wait... wha..?
PC 2: Yep. Clearly clearly a trap. He's probably a lycanthrope or doppelganger. Maybe even both! Who the heck is walking around this neck of the woods unarmed anyway?
PC 3: Yeah. An 'unarmed' elderly man? Likely a Monk or a Wizard. Probably a high level one at that!
DM: He has his hands up and is trying to spea...
PC 4: Well, he is waving his hands about, and thus probably about to cast something. I knew it, quick before he gets the verbal components out KILL THE EVIL WIZARD!
PCs (in unison): We attack!

That's how my social encounters tend to go down far more often than not.


As a result of war in Europe, I don't just want to avoid encounters where things get killed, I want to avoid having things that get hurt.
Or at least provide an option.
That means
1. Give belligerents a motive. Something like "temple of elemental evil" where the players are crusaders won't work, but, bounty hunters, tribes looking for resources, wizards looking for components, you just stole their stuff- they can be reasoned with or not further annoyed/not annoyed in the first place
2. Make a good portion of combats with things that aren't "people" - animated objects, skeletal undead, elementals,
3. Have an alternative option to a standard fight- realistic retreat, feed it, sneak past, negotiate. As a GM I mentally prep the encounters to always have another option, a part from combat- And I assign milestones based on xp navigated, not necessarily defeated
and if that fails
4. Have combat options where decisions mean something- give the monsters weaknesses as well as powers.
5. Half the combats are medium, half are deadly. There should feel like murdering stuff has a risk. and encourage players to think twice before drawing a sword/spell

Recent Example
Huge icy nature spirit guards a mountain pass/ridge (reskinned large intelligent yeti as a wildheart)- it is a deadly encounter- and that is made obvious to the players by the dead (evil) mentor they find frozen nearby. The players communicate with it at range and establish that they can either "challenge the mountain" or "the pure may pass". It will probably reform from the natural nexus if defeated, and many wicked have been halted by it. So it is quite fearless and self-righteous. The players purified themselves- requiring knowledge and a little mysticism (success!) and left behind chaos warrior platemail and a shattered probably-once-magical blade, in case those were corrupted. some took cold damage but no fight happened as they passed.
That is an encounter where the players have agency- and if they went all in on combat- (fire vulnerable but CR9 vs a 3rd lv party is still deadly)- they might have won. They certainly would have had a different story to tell, but passing through the "path of enlightenment" as "pure" might also be worth kudos to the right audience.

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