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When you play D&D, you are not supposed to chat with the enemy during encounters. The system is made for fighting. However, in some circumstances, it would be nice to make the players conscious that an encounter can be solved also by diplomacy (actual roleplaying, not a throw) either before starting the combat, in the middle of it, or at the end, just before dying.

Of course you can, as a master, impose the "narrow black bars" screen effect to force them into a "cut scene", but in some cases their decision to either fight or parlay can be decisive in the outcome. If I say to my players, "my encounters can be solved also through diplomacy," the risk is that they will try to use it no matter what because they will think there's a "special place" where diplomacy, as opposed to brute force, must be used. I don't want this. I want players to act naturally.

What is a good technique to make them aware of this possibility with equilibrium?

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Put them into an encounter they can't possibly win where diplomacy is the only option. Once they figure out it works, they may try using it in other encounters –  briddums Mar 18 '12 at 2:55
@briddums That's a really bad idea. As a player, there is very little that's more infuriating than a situation where we "cannot win" by DM fiat. Maybe a better idea would be to see an NPC party talk their way out of a jam. –  Discord Apr 19 '13 at 14:18
@Discord It's not GM fiat when the PCs are faced with foes that are just flatly beyond them, that's verisimilitude, which is good! Moreover it's a known trope in adventure stories that sometimes the hero is outmatched, and they know it, and so they negotiate, surrender, win with trickery rather than violence, and so on. Think of the climax of Disney's Aladdin for a really great example. –  tex Apr 19 '13 at 14:42
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13 Answers

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I grapple with this question all the time. I'm not sure this is the best answer, but I try to start by having the enemy negotiate with them.

Early in a campaign, I'll have the enemy surrender on reasonable terms. The trick is to implant the idea that negotiating doesn't lead to a worse outcome, and that the "bad guys" may want something the PCs are comfortable with. You can keep expanding on that seed by moving the negotiation earlier and earlier. If the enemy gets a temporary advantage, they can offer the PCs an opportunity to surrender -- or better yet, they can offer to back off and accept a draw.

It's also very important, throughout this, to keep your negotiating enemies honorable. If you do a lot of backstabbing early on, you're training your players to expect backstabs. There's no point in negotiating with traitors.

If you happen to overwhelm the party in a fight, that's a great excuse to introduce negotiations, although I wouldn't set up an overwhelming encounter just to make a point.

Over time, you can establish that there are honorable enemies and dishonorable enemies. Contrast is always going to be important, because -- as you note -- you don't want monotony. Maybe gnolls always betray them. Get your players used to your themes by playing through them, and by having other NPCs refer to them. "Oh, and be careful when you're negotiating with gnolls, they'll try and trick you." But get the basic idea of negotiation established first; don't get too complex too early.

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Personally, I think setting up overwhelming encounters is just fine, as long as there aren't overwhelming consequences no matter what the players do. "If you don't talk your way out of it, you're going to jail and you'll lose all your stuff" might be alright, but "they'll kill you unless you give them all your stuff and convince them to let you walk home naked" is going to suck. But there's no reason every enemy the players encounter needs to be vanquishable. –  kodi Sep 9 '10 at 22:01
Oh, definitely. I meant more that I think it's a bit risky to do it in order to make a point -- you're coming close to scripting then. "Dude, you just set them up to win in order to force us to negotiate more." But it'll depend on the campaign. –  Bryant Sep 9 '10 at 22:04
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Honestly, in spite of your misgivings, I'm in favor of just telling them. Explain that violence and diplomacy are both options, and trust your players not to decide this is code for "fighting is a choice, but it's always the wrong one".

If you really find that they're treating diplomacy as the only real option, it shouldn't be hard to make them wish they'd killed a character they previously avoided fighting.

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I have been known, in certain games, to use signs denoting what type of scene this is. "Combat" or "Diplomacy", "Roleplaying" or "Skill Challenge" might be relevant in a D&D game for example. Theres nothing wrong with telling players outright what your expectations were when you planned this. And signs are nice because they are visal, help divide scenes and don't encessarily break the flow. –  anon186 Sep 16 '10 at 15:39
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I think that an open out-of-character discussion can be useful, especially if you explicitly communicate that part of the game is making good judgments about when diplomacy is appropriate.

Apart from that, though, you can start by training them with some aversion therapy - put them in situations where the consequences of starting a fight are obvious, immediate, and overwhelming, and drop hints if necessary that they can't possibly survive a fight. Force them to talk their way out of a few situations, and they'll likely start to see it as a useful tool.

You can also demonstrate the power of diplomacy through NPCs, either very bluntly (having a helpful NPC do the talking for the party) or more subtly (having an opposing NPC try to talk its way out of a losing fight, and involving negative consequences if the players ignore it.)

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Old post, but very valuable. I'd like to throw in an example of a scenario where fighting is going to be very risky: daytime in a city. Even if the players don't care about collateral damage, the town watch does! The risk of having their gear confiscated and spending months in jail should get their attention. –  Jon of All Trades Jul 12 '11 at 13:13
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Lead by showing. Have the enemies talk during fights, shouting threats or bantering. Make sure that this is relevant to what's going on (or about to happen) and not just throw-away one-liners: have the enemies snarl angrily and promise painful death to the PC who wounded them, declare revenge for their fallen comrades, shout quick instructions or encouragement to each other, shout for mercy as they flee, and so on.

Occasionally have them speak to more substantial ends, such as tring to bargain during a fight, asking for mercy, or calling for the PCs' surrender.

The players will pick up that the enemy can be dealt with verbally as well as physically and, when they think there is an opportunity to take advantage of, they'll start talking to the enemy. Once they're used to talking to the enemy at all, they will eventually come to the conclusion that talking before fighting can be used to their advantage.

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You can also have an NPC join the party for a while, and after a few encounters, he can become disgusted with the party's behavior. "Why is your first reaction to draw your blade?" This is pretty direct, but can help if your players are still having trouble grasping the concept. And, worst case scenario, you can just say, "Guys... You CAN try talking once in a while." –  user19 Sep 10 '10 at 2:37
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I think laying the groundwork from the beginning is most important. Just about every intelligent monster thats not trying to eat you is going to be willing to take a surrender as opposed to mindlessly attacking. Make sure that every monster that might reasonably try to parley does, even when you fully intend to have the party attack them. If they get used to talking before and during fights, they are going to be more likely to try and solve things with diplomacy when you want them to.

Also, humanizing monstrous races can help out a lot. If you want the players to use diplomacy instead of fighting drop subtle details that help the players see the world from the enemies point of view. Perhaps the orc raiders look malnutritioned or half starved. Maybe their are young just outside of the battlefield that the monsters are protecting. Don't do this too often as players usually like fighting in a world of black and whites, but once in a while can go a long way.

I know when I don't want my players to kill an intelligent monster, I just give it a baby. It could be a frickin beholder but as soon as my players see it has a baby, all of a sudden it's a mommy and not a ball of teeth and laserbeams.

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Lead by showing. Have the enemies talk during fights, shouting threats or bantering. Make sure that this is relevant to what's going on (or about to happen) and not just throw-away one-liners: have the enemies snarl angrily and promise painful death to the PC who wounded them, declare revenge for their fallen comrades, shout quick instructions or encouragement to each other, shout for mercy as they flee, and so on.

I'd totally agree with SevenSidedDie but also add that you shouldn't forget to reward your players with XP and whatever else they would hope to gain from the encounter. If you want to encourage diplomacy, the reward should be at least as good as they would get if they vanquished the enemy in combat, and possibly even more.

Or you could make the consequences of joining combat so heavy that they would be willing to try other options. Make sure their prized posessions (like that +4 Sword of slaying) are broken/stolen/lost during combat. That will make them think twice before unsheathing anything again. Combat is an expensive affair. Make them feel it.

Better yet, do both :)

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At least one version of the D&D rules (3.5) explicitly states that XP should be awarded for overcoming encounters through diplomacy/trickery, not just for combat. –  Discord Apr 19 '13 at 14:21
Game theory at it's best. We do what gets the best results. Write a good answer/question here? You get rep. Kill bad guy in-game, get XP. Accomplish a task through pure RP, get XP/gold. –  Pulsehead Apr 19 '13 at 18:12
Agreed that XP rewards are important, but some players prefer a straight fight. Even when an NPC leaves a big hint like, "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting." –  E L Nov 2 '13 at 19:17
They may even win by their sword, but it sure is costlier than talking it out. Just make sure that cost is quite significant, whatever that may mean. –  edgerunner Nov 2 '13 at 22:22
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when you play D&D, you are not supposed to chat with the enemy during encounters. The system is made for fighting.

That's your problem, right there.

I do not believe this to be true, and it's not the way I run my D&D games. As a result, I don't have this problem. If that's how you run the game, then that'll be the players' expectations, and to subvert them you'll have to resort to NPCs that need to be diplomacized being designated via overt means (like in CRPGs, having a yellow ? over their head or being "non-clickable").

But you don't have to have those expectations, or set them. D&D isn't more all about the combat than most other game systems. At least not necessarily - sure, 4e focuses almost exclusively on combat in the ruleset, but you don't have to divide up your in-game activity in the same percentages as it's codified in the rules.

Many of the other people's answers here are variations on a theme, which is "make your world and NPCs more realistic." That creates immersion which in turn makes players act like real people and not killbots.

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In particular, Atlas Games' Dynasties & Demagogues is a D&D3e supplement built entirely around talking and politicking: atlas-games.com/product_tables/AG3220.php –  Frank Shearar Dec 6 '11 at 9:43
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An essential point is being missed here. You don't need mechanics to roleplay. There is no rule that say you are limited to the allowed actions in combat as far as roleplaying. The fact that the game revolves around players playing individual characters is sufficient to start interacting with the NPCs of the setting whether they are monsters or not. Whether it is combat or not. Remember that original 1974 rules of D&D were little more than character generation and combat. D&D 4e is nothing new in that regard.

The key is how the encounter is presented. My best suggestion is don't metagame. Don't think of it as a game and treat it like the players were really there with those creatures/NPCs. As a referee think of how the situation looked if you walked up the path or corridor and saw this. Would you talk to them? Or would you just draw the sword and fight? The same advice for players. Pretend that you are there as your character facing the situation.

Now the big difference between something that would be live-action versus tabletop is ambiance and body language. This is where it important that the referee verbally (and perhaps visually in some case) need to communication well to play.

Personally I do the funny voices, speak in first person, sometimes standing up, gesturing with body language. I realize some are not comfortable doing this so you will have to find out what works for you. At the minimum speak in-game first person when the NPCs are talking and require the players to do the same.

Now how all this comes together to solve your problem. Doing this will allow to players to respond more naturally. Folks will react different when you smile talk in a friendly tone, then if you speak cautiously, with body a little tense, vs speaking aggressively with a hostile posture. People are people and this is how we figure out how to deal with somebody we just met. The more you can do this at the table more natural the game will become.

I am not sure what your current referee style but if you follow up with additional comments I can help with more specifics.

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In my city-based campaign, I specifically give out a victory bonus to Diplomacy and Intimidation rolls vs. targets that the PC has previously defeated. They get a +5 victory bonus if they bloodied the opponent and a +10 victory bonus if the reduced the opponent to 0 or fewer hit points and chose not to kill them.

So maybe they beat the snot out of enemies the first time, but later on they know they get a big bonus to woo or frighten these people without having to fight.

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Consequences, consequences. After the PCs slaughter yet another band of enemies, despite the enemies trying to surrender, they gain a reputation. People start shunning them as murderers, rather than heroes. "Killing's one thing, but slaying a surrendered foe is plain murder! We don't want your kind round these parts!"

Or, when they do accept a surrender in good grace, they're rewarded in some way. They gain a reputation for being honourable, their defeated foe is so impressed by them that he switches sides and becomes an ally.

At any rate, you can ramp up these consequences gradually: warn the players, and if they don't listen, then punish them with the logical consequences of their deeds.

Alternatively, throw them up against an opponent they know they cannot overcome, where the only way to survive is to talk.

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Make it uncertain to the players that any given encounter is beatable, so they have an incentive to pursue other options. Ways to achieve this:

Construct encounters based on dungeon level/wilderness EL level/etc, and make sure to give the players clear flags when they are not in Kansas anymore. Show them a blasted landscape as soon as they enter dragon territory. Claw marks from owlbears on trees marking their forest. Once they realize they can run into powerful bad guys if they aren't careful, they'll be less likely to attack everything on sight.

Remember the limits of their information. In the dark, in a dungeon, they may hear several creatures moving up ahead, but that doesn't mean they can reliably know it's just 5 orcs and a pie. The unknown is scary. The unknown that wants to talk to you is likely to get a conversation, at the very least to give the party scout time to suss them out.

Present them with enemy factions that are easier to beat if they aren't unified. If the whole dungeon is made up of guardians dedicated to driving off adventurers, there's not much to talk about. If it's made up of several rival factions, eager to use the well-armed and aggressive adventurers to kill their rivals, suddenly there's room for deal-making. Make sure that each faction has information that can help the adventurers deal with the rivals, or there's less incentive than just killing everyone and taking whatever treasure they could offer as payment.

Use a system with a reaction table. Classic and Old D&D have a reaction table that makes it very unlikely that a monster will blindly attack. If the players know they won't be penalized for trying to talk first, it'll be easier for them to try it out.

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What is the perceived "Threat level" of the encounter? Say, in a town, GM's and dear readers?


If any of you answered using any math of player or monster levels, or even neutral or hostile - my question failed totaly, Pre-diplomatically and negotiationaly and logically disposition wise.

Expectation is the first key & tale-tail sign, then Perception of both sides, then Motive (displayed, told/spoken by or bias-ness, implied by race or skill/social class, or prior experiences. NEXT THE most important step Starts/Becomes the NEGOTIATION BY "perceived x2 + all parties and NPC's reactions and PRIME ( Authoritative ) speakers" Intention (almost Never the same group to group unified expectation and intent even amongst agreeing and well known friendlies)

GM's need to Decide, then show what kind of "BALL" is being up-for grabs.

  1. The Power Ball = Authority/Command Rights? . Mil = Submit or aggressive fight. CP = Assertive statement or demand of Rights/Authorities. Civ = First Initiating Speaker sets the innital disposition standards (I Have to tell you about X or This person Said XYZ Does this mean you're going to X and XY ?) & I'm a Noble, I Command you to stand aside! Now!

    • The First Word concept Disposition Ball Why Human here? (looks at weapons) So what Can I *do* for you?, my job is X. & Naw, kind sir i wasn't harassing your lovely maiden, ta'was a'miring how her fashion sense's match your style, your sword gems even match her rings colors (fast talk). Dare you call ME a thug pretty boy! when you're packing such a Fine set of jingling ... (Gulp) . u'am . Wands?!

    • The Idiot Ball Who Ever is 'socially' made to look bad or Fails to Maintain Respects (perceived as "of proper order" diplomatic situation understanding words/actions or To Tuff to Mess With)

Places one whole side or 1 or more members on both sides as either examples (good or BAD) In the Wrong. ALL Other Balls TRY to hand this off and divided as Big and many parts as wide as thought by their Reasonable standards, at-the-time as their Authority Can place it DOWN. Down Fast, Soft, Hard or even Hot IS What Diplomacy, positional negation and Command authority is mostly about.

My experience puts all encounters into three basic pre-conceived assessments at first sound, hearing of or first word spoken. Military mindset, Civil Power mindset, average 'safe' Citizen in relative comfort mindset

  1. Military specturm = ALL unknowns are lethal, all perceived threats START off as lethal and deescalate to harmfull even if Neutrialized. Most players and character classes START here even in a "safe and equality social status" Inn. Almost all players character types Start AT this concept or are based on it, once armed or after a few Encounters.

  2. Police spectrum = All disorder perceived ( civil / social ) or display of threat capability treated By Attitude as is hostile unless in agreeably "face/image" and Submission_to_Obeying. Lethality is considered, suspected & randomly possible. Attitudes, Self Confidence's and social pre-expectation looks, clothing & status showings are Important to Vital. Rouges, Thives and Socailites Live, breath and Act most of these standards of social command. Humaniods semi-social or intelligent have those Bones, scares and "jewelry" and furs&skulls on for a REASON.

    3.5 Civil & Civilians All fights are pre-expected to be non lethal and most non Serious Wounding i.e. no brake-neck strikes and Near Mandatory pleading once their at 60% health. Gaining respect , Braking their will to fight By Longer consequence (Duration After the fight) Threat Imply'ed, submissive show-stopper moves ( Even whao!'-man, party- we'll yield to you, Just Stop! ) and Negotiation of their weakness's. Diplomacy works if they're fighting for something NOT of their PERSONAL "I'm a bad ass, fear me" ego's.

    Verbal fights THAT "Must HAVE semi to clear CAUSES (or at least later somehow decipherable. = Gossip and comfort and safety of knowing) Liers, fast talkers, and quick thinking diplomats and clamer down negotiators Rule, stomp or outright Hold this turf. ?Ever try to calm down a frantic random lady who somehow is one of the on-lookers or combatants girlfriends and accidentally start or nearly so Another or Worse Fight? ya, a pure RL Example.

Fights OF intimidation's By yelling's & cussings ect With Physical "waving a stick" or contact, grappling to bare-fists, thrown physical objects that: Risk or Move into -or could if wall/people pinned- their 10 foot sense of safety are almost to possibly conceived as a all fault risk level 1-3 "girls/women/pasty-faced gentlemen ECT. Contrast - barmaids, farm girls, exotic "wild" princesses and some wildflower noble-women are more practical or hardened exceptions.

My Suggestion once you get a good talk, motive, reason and "objectives" flow for NPC's. Reactions role played or Innital NPC's Reactions told of before the any speakers "turn" help players out more by giving them normal social steps stages to react, decide from and platform Rational Decisions.

Example, your Leader HP8-16 is Grabbed from behind in the town streets Broad Daylight by a lone Intimidating looking magic user with a shocking-grasp bringing a party member onto his knees And now Faces him Staring him down Pointing at them (or something on or around him)

First Thought? (left out, In-Combat Sub-Lethal negotiations is Clearly "Mercenary classic" turf)

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Welcome to the site... fascinating discussion... –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '12 at 20:58
@Drace88 As written, your answer is a little hard to follow. Perhaps you could highlight the main points of your argument? –  GMJoe Apr 23 '13 at 4:28
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This is what I do during my encounters, and sorry if it sounds too obvious - I basically try to "invoke" a dialog with the players.

At the beginning of the battle, if I assume that the enemy is willing to "negotiate", I tell the players that, for example, the Goblin king looks at them and asks them:

"What are you doing here? I will not let some pesky humans spoil my nap!"

It is important that the statement is somewhat a question, but nothing that requires an answer. The players then naturally either start talking back (in which case I tell them to roll a diplomacy check) or ignore what the goblin said and say they're drawing their weapons and wanting to attack (and I therefore ask them to roll an initiative roll). It always works - I don't even ask the players what they do, they either start responding or just ready their weapons. It seems natural for them.

During the battle, I sometimes tell the players that the enemies shout something at them after dealing damage or getting hit, for instance:

"I don't have time for this!"
"What are you trying to achieve?"
"Do you really want to loose your life over this? Fools!" (if the players are loosing)

Again, it is important that the players don't feel forced to interact with the enemies, it must seem "casual", something that the players don't necessarily have to reply to, as opposed to: "I give up! Please, let's figure this out somehow! What do you want?".

Towards the end of the battle I also try to invoke another conversation. If the player characters seem to be loosing, you could tell them that their enemy says something like:

"Hah! You fools. You really thought you could win this battle? Why are you wasting my time?"

I try to make it sound like the enemy is simply boasting, so that, again, the players don't feel obliged to answer him. Another example, if the players are winning, the dying character can say something like:

"Uh... What was the point of this? Uhhh... Why..."
"Why are you so mean?" (if the enemy is childish)
"Go on, finish me off! I know you want to!" (if the enemy is tough and brave)

TL;DR: To put it simply, interweave the battle with pieces of dialog to delicately encourage the players to interact with the enemy, without making them feel like they are forced to answer. I can guarantee you that the players will eventually "catch the bait" and solve certain encounters diplomatically, without feeling forced to do so.

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