Hi there. I’m KnightTrain — long time casual player who has taken up DMing as a quarantine hobby. IRL, I am a hobbyist game designer with an MA in Conflict Resolution, and I wanted to share some tips/ideas/ramblings about how to give DMs more ideas for setting up encounters that are designed to be worked through without rolling dice until something dies.
Now to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with hacking and slashing — 5e is basically a war game and a lot of the time players come to the table because they want to blow off steam by hacking and slashing their way through their problems. But it doesn’t have to be all hack and slash, and I wanted to give you some ideas for how to incorporate non-violent resolution into your games — whether its because you want a change of pace, or you want a more "pacifist" character a chance to shine, or you're just not sure how to keep an encounter engaging when you bard rolls a cool 19+12 persuasion against your BBEG.
So the first thing I thought I'd look at is the bread-and-butter of conflict resolution: the negotiation. And keeping in mind that “negotiation” often feels equivalent to “people in suits sitting around a table talking”, I wanted to look at a great example of “negotiation” as a high-stakes, interesting, and dramatic event in a fantasy setting:
Doctor Strange finds himself facing a being from another dimension that literally devours planets, and rather than the plot giving him some weapon or macguffin to beat Dormammu into submission, Strange does the research and shows up in Dormamu’s realm and says the iconic words, “Dormammu, I’m here to bargain”. To force Dormammu to the table, Strange exploits Dormammu’s inability to comprehend or experience time, eventually pressuring Dormammu to agree to leave the Earth alone.
Now this isn’t exactly a textbook “negotiation”… and considering how many times Strange dies horribly it isn’t exactly “non-violent”, either. But at the end of the day, it has a lot of what makes up a classic negotiation: Strange explicitly states what he wants and what he is doing (he doesn't lie or trick his way through it), Dormammu is pissed but otherwise unharmed, and eventually the two come to an agreement that benefits both sides. Our hero gets to save the Earth and the CGI budget gets to be spent on Inception-izing New York rather than shots of Benedict Cumberbatch punching a 200 ft tall interdimensional demon. But most importantly in terms of an RPG, it lets a character who has a troubled relationship with violence (he is a doctor, after all) to "win" without compromising their predication towards non-violence.
We will look at how to “run” a negotiation like this in a later post, but for now I want to look at foundations you will need to build in order to run a negotiation encounter. For simplicity I’m just going to refer to a single “antagonist” here but the same rules apply for multi-party negotiations or negotiations with someone/something that isn’t necessarily opposed to the party.
- Most importantly, your antagonist needs concrete interests, cares, and desires — not just plot-defining goals. I want to avoid the term “weakness” here because that tends to imply something game-y and along the lines of “takes extra fire damage”. Your antagonist should want and care about things that aren't involved with their evil plot to destroy the world (see point #2 for more). Thanos wants all powerful magical stones, sure, but he still also cares for Gamora, his adopted daughter (both as a means to complete his goals but also as a father figure)… which is a totally normal, relatable thing to care about — this gives him depth and presents options for the protagonists to try and deal with him outside of just punching him in the face.
Keep in mind that not all interests should be material. Interests can be rooted in systems, relationships, and values, not just resources or “stuff”. A classic example here is The Dark Knight’s Joker, who
. A local bandit leader might be more interested in getting to be in a tight-nit community rather than just plundering the countryside. A prince might really need to placate a powerful family that wants revenge against one of his best knights. An archfey might harbor a 2000-year old grudge and will do just about anything to see their rival look foolish or get knocked down a peg. An interdimensional planet-eating demon might really care about being able to lord its power over lesser beings.
There’s an ironic demonstration of this paradigm in the classic
. According to the characters themselves, the Romans have done a lot to materially improve their lives and their standard of living — but they ultimately don’t care because their ideological/political interests supersede their material interests. This is played for laughs but politics especially is filled to brim with people who vote, organize, and act on their values rather than their material interests.
- Your PCs need to be able to discover at least some of the interests of their antagonist before they all sit down in a room/cave/feywild together. Doctor Strange learns a lot about Dormammu, including that he exists in a dimension outside of time, well before they ever meet. Think of it like a heist — half of the fun is being able to craft a well-informed plan before you ever set foot in the bank. If you want players to learn about these interests "first hand", just make sure they have some kind of out — otherwise they're liable to start throwing fireballs and/or end up in an ugly "unwinnable fight".
In addition, these interests need to be actionable or leverageable. An ogre, an empress, and an archfey all probably have wildly different interests, but all of them probably have interests that they PCs can actually work with. Sauron is a good example of what happens when the antagonist’s interests aren’t leverageable: he only really wants one thing and giving him that thing would mean certain doom for the heroes, so there’s a reason no one is standing up in Elrond’s council being like “Maybe we could sit down and bargain?”.
- Your PCs need a clear understanding of their own goals, interests, and objectives, as well as what they have to “bargain” with. If the players and antagonist want the same thing, that’s a great recipe for drama; if the players and antagonist both want different things from one another, that’s a great recipe for a negotiation — and these recipes are not mutually exclusive! And remember — don't just think in terms of "stuff in your inventory" — get your PCs to think in terms of systems, relationships, and values.
It is also vital that the PC’s objectives/goals accommodate a non-violent or negotiated solution: the objective “get Dormammu to not destroy Earth” gives Strange a ton of leeway to find a way to get Dormammu to back off… the objective “destroy Dormammu”, on the other hand, pretty much relegates us to a fist fight or magical macguffin.
- Outside of just railroading them into it, your PCs will probably need a fairly organic reason why they can’t just charge in and hack and slash their way out of this problem, though this definitely depends on the group and the players. Of the 4 points listed here, this might be the hardest to do without coming up with something that feels clunky and arbitrary… especially if your PCs are high level.
, particularly his point about giving players problems that can’t be solved by their character sheets, has some great advice on this point.
Power dynamics are the classic go-to here: Dormammu is vastly more powerful than Doctor Strange, so Strange has no choice but to come up with a creative solution. Another way to think about this is thinking about it like a heist: the premise of a heist is that the objective is vastly more achievable (or maybe only achievable) if things don’t resolve to an all-out brawl. In addition, "mutually assured destruction" can, ironically, help bring people to the negotiating table as well. Think of an classic mobster movie scene: both sides show up for a deal in an alley flanked by a dozen men who are armed to the teeth — not so much as a threat of force but as a means of saying “if we start a fight then we’re both going down, so out of self-interest, we won’t fight” (not that this always works!).
To see how this plays out in D&D itself, there’s a great example of a negotiation in Critical Role Season 2, when the party encounters a hag (Spoilers for Episode 93!).
Mercer gives the antagonist a well-defined, non-material interest, lays it out explicitly for the party, and then gives the PCs basically all the time in the world to sit outside the hag's hut and discuss their plan of attack. Since the Hag is looking for suffering and misery, it forces the PCs to think creatively about their non-material interests and not just what junk they have at the bottom of their inventory list. And because the hag has cursed one of their PCs, that gives them a reason not to just start slashing: not only do they not know if they'll win, but there's no guarantee killing the hag breaks the curse.
Regardless of whether CR is your thing or not, it’s a wonderful encounter — it’s so tense you could hear a pin drop, the stakes are high, the PCs have to get really creative… and Mercer gets his players to sweat buckets for like an hour despite the fact that no weapons are drawn nor are the characters' lives ever directly threatened.
I think that is enough wall of text for today — I hope people find this helpful when thinking about how to set up negotiation-style encounters. In my next post I’ll talk about how to actually “run” the negotiation, including how to make them dynamic and interesting and how to account for “gamey” stuff like insight checks, spells, and that 19+12 persuasion role. Happy negotiating!
- “Do you not understand that while we bicker amongst ourselves, Sauron’s power grows?!” – Running a Negotiation Encounter in D&D
- Has anyone tried this campaign start idea?
- Nobody gives a shit about quest givers
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "“Dormammu, I’ve Come to Bargain”: High Stakes, Exciting Negotiations in D&D" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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