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Background

My players accepted a quest to basically be drug mules, delivering illicit goods to a faraway town. While alone with the NPC giving the assignment, they decided to kill him and take the shipment of illicit goods for themselves. The NPC they killed was part of a large tribe of ruthless orcs, and they knew this when they decided to kill him. They had encountered the tribe before, and were on speaking terms with them.

They buried the body, but what they don't know is that the orc had told his friends that he was making a deal and that if anything happened to him, the PCs would be to blame.

The problem

I want the players to realize that killing random people without precedent has repercussions. If they see the group of orcs again, the orcs will want their blood.

What I want to avoid: getting out of this with no consequences.

I don't think that any persuasion roll, or deception roll, would be good enough to dissuade a large group of orcs from wanting to tear them limb from limb. But I also don't want the players to feel like they're being railroaded.

I'm not trying to avoid a battle with the orcs. I'd rather that had to battle with the orcs than be able to lie about having killed one of their tribesmen unprovoked.

What I need help with

I am unsure of how to deal with the orcs not being open to reason with the players without it feeling "cheap," in that they can't use deception or persuasion (ability checks) against the orcs to avoid the angry orcs who want their vengeance.

What a good answer will help me do

It seems fair to have the orcs be too angry to reason with next time they see them. How do I use the game to reflect that?

How can I prevent the party from being able to bluff or persuade the orcs without the loss of player agency?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "It seems fair to have the orcs be too angry to reason with next time they see them." Then do that. What are the rules in the game for using deception or persuasion to make an aggressive enemy stop attacking you? \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Sep 18 '17 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I hear the "I don't want to railroad..." fear a lot, but when your PCs do something with inescapable consequences, it's not railroading, it's reality. \$\endgroup\$ – WannabeCoder Sep 19 '17 at 13:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember that on RPG.SE we expect answers to questions like this to be backed up with either rules/book citations or direct/indirect experience doing the thing discussed. If you have a random opinion on "how this should be done" but have not done it, do not answer, as such answers will get downvoted and potentially deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Sep 21 '17 at 3:00

15 Answers 15

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Treat the Orcs as though they are an organized crime family.

If you murder a member of the Mafia, or one of the nefarious narco gangs of the modern age, do you think you'll get away with it? Will there be a bounty out on your head?

Make the party an offer they can't refuse (Movie ref: The Godfather)

A simple way to get your point across is an ambush/encounter with a large enough group of orcs from that tribe that this party can't defeat. The party is to return the contraband, pay a weregild for the death of that orc, and then they owe the current orc chief a favor. The offer they can't refuse is made by the orc tribe chief: Go get me {this Macguffin} and I call off my other bounty hunters! (Let's say he wants a prize bull owned by a lord not far away, as he wants to improve the stock of his cattle herd since his daughter needs a bigger dowry for the marriage to that other orc clan he's been dealing with...)

If they see the group of Orcs again, they'll all want their blood.

Yes, they will. You are not railroading your players if their in-game actions have consequences. As a consequence of their actions, they are now marked for vengeance or death by an orc tribe.

I don't think any persuasion roll would be good enough to dissuade a large group of Orcs from wanting to tear them limb from limb.
Is it fair to have the orcs be too angry to reason with next time they see them?
How can I prevent them from being able to bluff or persuade without the loss of player agency?

Deception/Persuasion checks with disadvantage

Yes, it's fair for the orcs to (at least at first) not be inclined to parley or listen. Attempts at persuasion/deception can, based on these circumstances, certainly be ruled to have disadvantage. You don't need to prevent the party from trying, but they are not guaranteed to succeed simply by trying to persuade or deceive a given group of orcs. You can either

  1. Set the DC for making a successful check very high (20+)
  2. and/or apply disadvantage
  3. During the next encounter where they try to parley with the orcs, provide the party with clues and descriptions that explicitly signal to them that "a negotiation is not currently an option."

The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result. (PHB, Chapter 7, "Using Ability Checks")

But you don't need to roll for this. A roll is only called for when a result or an outcome is uncertain. The orcs are certainly upset.

The orcs might want to capture the party to bring them to justice before the orc tribe (Which might be fatal). Or, a band of orcs (calculate the encounter difficulty to hard or deadly) becomes the posse who chases the party down to capture or kill them: wanted, dead or alive! The party are now fugitives.

This isn't a railroad

This response by the orcs is the game world reacting in a rational fashion to the actions of the characters. But maybe a given orc posse can't take them out. (Back to the "offer you can't refuse" idea). The party is in no position to negotiate with the vengeful orcs (to get the tribe to stop sending hit squads out after them) without leverage of some sort. What does the party have as leverage?

  1. The contraband?
  2. Some of the orcs (captured) from the posse?
  3. Something else? (A unique ability the chief wants them to use on his behalf? A paladin who can, for example, cure the disease of his aunt?)

For the party to make a deal, role play the negotiations after they've had at least one group of orcs try to take them out. Put the orc chief in the role of crime/gangster boss who wants what's his, and a little bit more.

A TPK is also a valid response, but use these with great care

If luck is not with them and the orc posse defeats the party or the battle results in a TPK, that's the luck of the dice ... but you can always choose to rule that the orcs stabilize and capture/revive one of the players (or more) to be taken to the tribe and then imprisoned, enslaved, what have you.

Or the whole party gets enslaved. Now the adventure hook is: escape!

Make their mistake part of the adventure.


Ability checks aren't magic

@Ben made a comment about ability checks that is worth capturing here.

Persuasion isn't mind control. The party, or the party face, can succeed at a persuasion check without the orcs doing exactly what the party wants. For example, a success at persuasion calms the orcs down enough or muddies the waters enough that they're willing to entertain the party making amends, rather than the orcs only pursuing bloody revenge! There are still consequences, the party face gets to feel like they saved everyone's bacon, and you get a story hook out of it in how the amends are made.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So many possibilities here. "You killed one of ours, so we demand that one of you die. Choose who." or "He had something we need. You killed him, you bring him back. Resurrection quest!". Or the tribe shaman places a death curse on the entire party ("In three days...") unless they do something. Much hook! Very story! \$\endgroup\$ – Gustav Bertram Sep 19 '17 at 6:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Great answer! Players doing stuff like this is a gift to a GM. They are building stories and providing themselves with obstacles without the GM having to do anything. The Orc Leader is now their unwanted boss; do they go along, do they try and hash out a deal with another rival gang afterwards to weasel out of it and start an orc-mob war? Fun fun fun :) \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Sep 19 '17 at 8:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ The first time they encounter these orcs again, it's a group they can defeat. Now the orc boss is mad at them for killing 4 of his guys, not just 1. \$\endgroup\$ – The Photon Sep 22 '17 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic answer! I know D&D is not Fate, but one of the tenets of that game I've really come to embrace is the idea that characters should be allowed to do just about anything, and possibly even succeed at anything, but that success can frequently come at a cost. The success or failure matters less than the interesting story you get to tell about what they had to do in order to succeed. This answer is a perfect example of that thinking. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Sep 24 '17 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Paul thank you, but it's also informed by a very old D&D DM idea called "give 'em enough rope." I was raised on that by a number of DM's, and IMO it's a fantastic approach to the RPG form of fun. Glad to hear that FATE subscribes to that principle, if I ever get to play in an IRL FATE group I'll be looking forward to that. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 24 '17 at 21:24
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The Rules deal with this

PHB p.171

The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

The outcome is not uncertain - the orcs know the party is guilty and nothing the party says will change their minds.

By the way, the Persuasion is off the table: anything the party says will be a lie and that means Deception. You cannot persuade with a lie, you can only deceive.

Notwithstanding, in the circumstances the orcs aren't listening anyway.

Agency

Agency is allowing the players to reap the consequences of their decisions. Having your head ripped off by the Orc buddy of a guy you chose to kill is a consequence of your decision. I love enabling player agency.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the answer. Players don't "use skills." They narrate their actions and the DM decides what skills/rolls apply, if any. If there's nothing that will sway the orcs, there's nothing to roll for. \$\endgroup\$ – Angew Sep 19 '17 at 7:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wish I could give a second +1 for the last paragraph. So many people seem to treat "player agency" as meaning "the players can always reliably get what they want" without also having to shoulder the consequences of their bad decisions. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Sep 19 '17 at 10:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nicely put on both the "roll when the outcome is uncertain" and your take on agency. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 19 '17 at 11:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if the DM allows a roll, the DMG's own social interaction rules limit what the PCs can do. The orcs are hostile; the best possible outcome (DC 20) is "The creature does as asked as long as no risks or sacrifices are involved." But letting the PCs walk away without cost is either a risk or a sacrifice for the orcs; killing them is safer, and pressing them into labor is more lucrative. Rolling a 30, a 40, or even a 50 won't change that. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Sep 21 '17 at 15:23
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It's reasonable to declare that the party can't use social rolls to avoid a fight. When I do this, I usually say: "well, it's DC30 to avoid a battle here, but go ahead and roll if you want to".

Remember that D&D games are supposed to be fun. If you notice that you're planning something for your D&D game that isn't going to be fun, that's usually a sign you should do something differently. In this case, it sounds like you've noticed you're planning a party wipe, so it's good that you're looking for alternatives.

Here are some ways you could handle this that would be fun:

  • The player characters see some of the orc's tribesmen, who immediately attack! But this is not a "guaranteed party wipe" battle; this is a "level-appropriate number of enemies" battle, and the party wins. Then they have to decide what to do about the rest of the tribe. Hopefully if they fight, they'll fight a few at a time, not all at once!

  • The player characters are drinking in an inn, and someone bursts in: "that orc's entire tribe are heading for the inn, and they look really angry!" The player characters get to do a "running away" scene, and then, as above, they have to decide what to do about the rest of the tribe.

There's a separate problem you have, which is that your player characters are killing friendly NPCs and you don't want them to do that. We have some answers to that problem collected in How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins?. My preferred answer is that you handle it out-of-game: tell the group that this isn't the sort of game where killing friendly NPCs is a viable strategy. Then tell them you're assigning an experience penalty for every friendly NPC they kill. I've done this before and it worked very well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with the bit about not allowing them to use social rolls to get out of a fight. There is such a thing as Impossible. (It doesn't matter how well the Barbarian rolls, he can't pick the castle up off the ground.) In this case, it is very possible that the Orcs would simply attack before you had a chance to try to talk them down. The Orcs see you, draw weapons, howl, and charge. They simply don't stand there and patiently wait for your 3-point speech on why they shouldn't attack you. You can try to talk to them, but you have about 6 seconds before they introduce their axe to your skull \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Sep 18 '17 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused. I said it's reasonable to declare that social rolls can be impossible. You said you disagree because some rolls can be impossible. It sounds like you're agreeing with me. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Sep 18 '17 at 19:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's because you say "it's DC 30, but you can roll". DC 30 isn't impossible to a specialist (although VERY unlikely). If you mean impossible, it's easier to just say "no roll, not going to work". \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Sep 18 '17 at 19:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ As Erik said... DC 30 is 'Nearly Impossible' not 'Impossible.' For example...a Social Tank Bard can, by level 15, give himself a FLOOR of '30' on a Persuasion check. (+5 Cha, +5 Prof, +5 Expertise, Glibness for minimum 15 roll). \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Sep 18 '17 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a ranger rogue I have a ceiling of 43 on certain checks, and I am not a level wo character, getting a dc 30 check is bit impossible, just really really hard. \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Sep 20 '17 at 17:09
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I think it's generally a good idea not to treat persuasion like a magical spell that makes people do what you say. There are actual spells for that.

Personally I would probably allow a roll to convince the orcs that you are worth more to them alive, that they were set up, or something to that effect. You would certainly not be on their good side, and it might still end up in a fight if restitution is not made. There should be consequences, but simply killing the players to teach them a lesson probably isn't the best idea.

Granted, some players only learn that there are consequences to their actions after re-rolling a few times... The important thing to note here is that your players needs to be on-board with this as well, or you will quickly find yourself a GM without players to torment play with.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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Nothing you've described is "Railroading"

Railroading is where you have a preconceived idea of how the story should go and the PCs' choices are thwarting that, but you hold them to the rails anyway.

That's not what's happening here. You're responding to their choices naturally.

How to best handle this is subjective

It really is. It depends on you, and your players, and what kind of table you're running. The stack can only guess to that. Personally, I run a much more realistic and consequence-driven game-world for my setting, so my expertise lies along those lines. However, my advice wouldn't work in a game where there was a greater expectation on the table of PCs having some sort of "hero immunity" to "boring deaths".

My Advice:

Roll with this, exactly as you described. The Orcs are too angry to be persuaded. But let the PCs have a fighting chance. Either this Tribe isn't local enough to mount a horde to get these PCs(and keep showing up as a common random encounter), OR this is a side-quest arc that the players are now stuck playing out or dying in. Either way.

Side Note:

If you, as the DM, are not ok with running a story where PCs are this evil, that is an OoC problem, and one you need to pause the game and talk to your players about until the group comes to a consensus or loses the enough members to come to one. Do NOT handle your OoC standards using IC devices, it never goes well.

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I think the underlying problem you are trying to fix is that dice rolls, no matter how hard and unlikely you make it to succeed, always have the potential to unravel the story you prepared.

The solution is to apply a concept of gradual success. In this case, the orcs already have specific information and reasons for acting. No reasonable talking can convince them to just let the characters walk away (i.e. what you call "no consequences"). However, give the characters the opportunity to use their social skills to reduce the hostility they face. Prepare this before so that your story has two arcs it can take. If they fail their persuasion rolls, the orcs attack. If they succeed in their persuasion rolls, the orcs are still out for revenge, but they will settle for a hefty sum of blood gold and a public lashing. You can even turn the tables on the PCs and say "your fast thinking and persuasive talking has convinced the orc war leader. He says that he will let you walk after taking all your gold as blood money, and one of you will get 100 lashes, which you realize will leave him seriously wounded for weeks. He gives you five minutes to decide amongst yourself who it will be. If you don't decide, he will pick, but he will pick two of you and not one."

In short: Let them have their rolls and allow for success. Make the success a meaningful change, but don't allow it to be a free pass.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please describe experience you've had using this approach, or places where you've seen it work; these sorts of details differentiate expertise-based answers from "an idea I had" answers. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 23 '17 at 19:48
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This isn't about how to let the preventing player action, it's about using their actions to have a realistic and fun world for everyone.

The Case

In your specific case, the players have unknowingly entered a trap. Now, D&D has traps, so the idea of an action triggering an event isn't new. While killing a bad guy Orc (even if they were also engaging in questionnable behavior) doesn't necessarily seem like it would have consequences, but if they knew the Orc was connected to those that hired them, then it's not unreasonable for them to expect repercussions for killing him.

The Response

As I mentioned eralier, it's not about limiting player action. It's about having fun and letting their actions impact the story.

Let them try and bluff their way out of it. It can be a Deception roll against Insight, but as you said, these are Orcs. You can set up either a range of DCs or just have it in your head that barring some really clever explanation, the Deception is going to fail (Note: Be open to clever! If they are, give them some reward for cleverness)

In the worst case of failure, they have made an enemy of these Orcs. It doesn't have to be a fight now (and there can be Deus Ex Machina to avoid that if necessary), but establishing an enemy in your world can lead to a lot of fun for everyone. The players ignominy could even spread through the underworld if they don't improve their themselves.

In the case of a successful Deception, maybe it's a quest to get back on good graces.

Or maybe it's working for a rival gang that liked their gumption to take on the Orcs.

Give your players an opportunity to create a world with consequences that are enjoyable. You don't need to kill them, or fight them - just allow them to play their characters and interact with your world. Your world can adjust, and do so in a lot of interesting ways that allows everyone to enjoy the table.

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A good way to make something not feel cheap, is to foreshadow it.

If the Ork they killed said something along the lines of: "Don't kill me, it will not end well for you. You won't be able to reason with my tribe when they find out about this! I made them swear to kill you if I don't show up in 2 hours!"

After you have foreshadowed it, it will not feel cheap.

Another example of more subtle foreshadowing could be, to somehow hint at the fact that the NPC has made contigency plans. For example: "You notice that the Ork is uneasy around you, he keeps looking at the other orks to make sure they are still there and have his back in case you betray him". For the next meeting: "The NPC comes alone, and doesn't seem to care that he is outnumbered."

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please describe experience you've had using this approach, or places where you've seen it work; these sorts of details differentiate expertise-based answers from "an idea I had" answers. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 23 '17 at 19:48
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I agree with everyone else — the party might be able to persuade the orcs that they can better make amends alive than dead, but it's not going to be easy, and certainly the game doesn't support the idea of rolling away all consequences.

That said, when you say

... what they don't know is that the orc had told his friends that he was making a deal and that if anything happened to him, the PCs would be to blame.

I think you have something that should be straightened out. The PCs should definitely have known this. Probably the orc should have told them: "You can't get away with just killing me. My tribe will be after you forever if you do!" This is, after all, the main point of having such an "insurance policy" in the first place.

If you didn't think to do this in the middle of the session — or, indeed, if the "oh yeah, now his tribe is mad" idea came to you later — it's not a permanent mistake. Your next steps should be to make sure the players know what the orcs know, and to some degree how and why they know it.

Then, maybe the players can come up with a scheme were they try to lay the blame on someone else, and maybe that would even work — at least for a time. But they should be prepared for this — or for a fight. Don't just spring the orc vengeance crew on them. Send a warning first, either directly (bloody horse head in the bed, with a note?) or through a friendly NPC who heard or saw something. This gives them a target for any plans to dodge trouble without a fight.

But to do that, they need more than "I have +7 to persuasion. I roll to make them go away." They need "We're going to try to convince the orc chief that the one we made the deal with mistook us for someone else", or "we're going to convince him that the orc is still alive and double-crossed us all", or something specific. Then, weigh that against how much the chief trusts his information, and go from there.

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I want the players to realize that killing random people without precedent has repercussions.

[...]

I am unsure of how to deal with the orcs not being open to reason with the players without it feeling "cheap," in that they can't use deception or persuasion

[...]

How can I prevent the party from being able to bluff or persuade the orcs without the loss of player agency?

Let players be creative

If all you're looking for is a rulebook justification for not allowing a Deception or Persuasion check when the angry orcs next encounter the PCs, you have it in several of the other answers. However, as you acknowledge above, you do risk negative player reaction by doing that. In particular, this could be a problem if a player has an idea that even you agree is brilliant. If you ignore that idea not because you think it shouldn't reasonably work, but instead because it is the only direction you're prepared to take things, then yes, in that case you would be railroading / restricting player agency, and your players will probably react poorly.

To be clear, if all your players do is say "I yell 'it wasn't us!'; I roll Deception", then you're perfectly justified in refusing to allow the roll, explaining it with a statement like "The orcs hear your words, but are clearly too angry to listen." However, in my experience of 20+ years running and playing RPGs, if there's one thing you can count on, it's that players are quite creative, and will frequently do the unexpected and come up with ideas you didn't. If your players DO manage to come up with a brilliant and unexpected lie or other way of responding to the vengeful orcs, you shouldn't refuse to allow it to have some sort of impact without at least granting them a roll.

This is in no way in conflict with your stated goal, however. A great lie paired with a high Deception roll don't have to result in the orcs 100% believing the PCs and simply walking away, and it certainly doesn't have to mean there will be no other consequences. There are many other possible outcomes, depending on what the PCs do or say, and many of them can be as bad or worse for the PCs than fighting a bunch of orcs. This is where, as a DM, you really have the opportunity to shine; in my experience, the more far-reaching, indirect, and/or delayed you can make the consequences, the more the PCs will enjoy realizing the impact their actions have had on the world.

Examples to help you brainstorm

Of course, thinking up something like that is easier said than done, and it's impossible for someone who isn't familiar with the campaign to know what would work and what wouldn't. However, to help you get started brainstorming, here are some examples of ways you could allow the PCs to use a great idea or deception to avoid battle, without managing to avoid consequences altogether:

  • Zone of Truth: The orcs want proof! Someone in the tribe can cast Zone of Truth, and demands the PCs submit to questioning. Or, the orcs demand the PCs follow them to a trusted 3rd party who can cast the spell. If the PCs don't voluntarily submit to questioning, the orcs take that as proof of guilt despite the successful Deception. Keep in mind that the caster of Zone of Truth knows if the targets succeed on their saving throws, so unless the PCs voluntarily fail their throws, the orcs can treat that as refusal.
  • Trial By Combat: There is an orc who still doesn't believe the PCs even though it appears the rest of the tribe is convinced; perhaps a mate, child, or sibling of the slain orc. In accordance with the laws of the tribe, they demand trial by combat. The challenging orc will fight one of the PCs in single combat. If the challenger loses, the PCs are allowed to go free, but if the challenger succeeds, the PCs owe some sort of payment. If you want to make it really intimidating, make the duel to the death, and very difficult/intimidating. Even if the challenger is slain, there's a good chance the PCs will need to use up some expendable resources (potions, scrolls, etc) to ensure victory, and will thus have paid a cost. If the PCs won't agree to the duel, they are forever outcast from the orcs' lands on pain of death.
  • Vigilante Orc: Most of the orcs may be fooled, but there is one who is not. This orc knows they cannot defeat the PCs alone in open combat, but isn't against using more underhanded methods. This orc follows the PCs, and begins taking any opportunity available to hinder or oppose them. The PCs soon discover there are rumors circulating that they are untrustworthy and/or murderers, and they start having a harder time dealing with others. They find themselves the frequent target of skilled thieves and pickpockets; if they ever capture one, they find out there are rumors in criminal circles that the PCs possess an item of incredible value. If they attempt to do something illegal, they find the authorities have been tipped off. If the opportunity presents itself, maybe this orc arranges for their food to be poisoned at a tavern. If the PCs find themselves in a dangerous predicament, the orc shows up to make things even worse. Eventually the PCs would be able to deal with this orc, but in the meantime it could be a real pain, and interfere with the PCs' plans.
  • Marauding Orcs: The orcs no longer have any idea who is responsible, but they're still angry. They decide they're no longer going to have such peaceful dealings with the "softer races". They let the PCs go, but might demand "tribute" in the form of something of value from each PC. Perhaps they then begin raiding and destroying nearby villages, possibly murdering other NPCs that the PCs wanted alive. The government in the area could wind up drafting the PCs (along with other adventurers and combat-ready folks) to eliminate the orc threat, forcing the PCs to put their plans on hold while they help fight the orcs, or to dodge the draft and risk being outcast by the government. There are lots of things you could do with this, where the PCs feel the consequences indirectly.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I've edited my answer, though not in the way you requested. Please let me know if you think it is now sufficiently differentiated from an "idea I had" answer. \$\endgroup\$ – zacronos Sep 25 '17 at 1:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I think it's better, though, as always, the voters will ultimately decide =) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 25 '17 at 2:25
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I am going to differ with the established consensus and say allow the rolls. Be careful how you interpret them, though.

I think the key is that your players are allowed to roll for persuasion but they are not allowed to dictate what the outcome of successful persuasion is, just what they're trying to say. Are they trying to say "we're not that party that murdered the NPC!" -- and if so have they researched any scapegoats? Make a whole plot out of this, then have the orcs brutally murder that scapegoat, then have the PCs meet someone who is really sad that this scapegoat is gone because they were secretly the nicest person ever. Get as morally ambiguous as you can and chronicle the descent of the PCs into chaotic evil villains, Breaking Bad-style, if you can. It'll be a very rich story.

Or are they trying to argue that they indeed killed the orc, but it was in self-defense or so? Let them roll. Up the DC or apply disadvantage if that NPC orc acted tough but secretly had a generous heart that all his/her friends knew about. But maybe orc society does not have quite the same room for "self-defense", they talked their way out of a most horrid and humiliating death but their lives still belong to the orc chief, they have to persuade him that they're worth more alive than dead. Second persuasion roll. If they ace it then they are now the personal task force of this orc chieftain, who will only discharge them from service when twenty times the amount of contraband is delivered. Bam, you have a new campaign setting. After one similar job they find out that actually the orc chieftan is very upset that they didn't kill the second person and steal the drugs for themselves. "Maybe I wasn't clear with you. I have many political opponents. Orc society is on a knife's edge. You are not being contracted for 20 deliveries, you are being contracted for 20 assassinations." Maybe some other orc wants to stage a coup and overthrow the chieftan, and asks the PCs for help overthrowing the chieftain in exchange for their freedom or something. Their key role in the Orc Civil War of 975 comes to mean that afterwards whenever meeting orcs there is a 50% chance that they are immediately hostile or a 50% chance that they are immediately best friends.

One of the Chronicles of Amber books describes the art of being a good salesman as "give them a choice, make them think it's their own." You also see this repeated in the plot of the books themselves; a character finds an object which happens to give them all the power they need to resolve their current drama, but has no idea of the price tag they accepted in the course of accepting that object. It just seemed like a no-brainer, "yeah of course I want the power to crush my enemies," while their new masters giggled in glee. There is something about being a game master that is about selling plots to the characters, and there is something very important about those characters choosing those plots for themselves. You are thinking that the frustrating thing about the characters is that they are too flexible and find ways out of your constructed plots that bend rules that you didn't even expect them to bend; but what you are missing is that the frustrating thing about game-masters is that they are also extremely flexible and find ways to shape new plots that entangle with the old ones and produce new constraints -- ones that their players chose with a smile -- that are suddenly incumbent upon them. The very act of trying to persuade rather than attack the horde head-on becomes an opportunity to say "okay, what predicament are you rolling yourself into this time and how can I maximize the drama of that?"

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There are some solid answers already on how best to approach this in a linear fashion, but I'm seeing a lot more depth to the mess they've created:

Maybe these orcs were being paid by another actor to transport these goods, and when this happens the orcs tell the supplier who has their drugs, who then spoke with the local guard about the band of drug smugglers masquerading as adventurers.

Maybe the intended recipient of the shipment hires an investigator to find out what happened and then drops a lead to the local guards.

Whats the consequence of their actions?

  • An orc tribe wants to avenge their kin
  • A drug kingpin/dealer wants his drugs back
  • The authorities in the area know the players are involved
  • Their local reputation is now tarnished

Plenty of options for further intrigue as now every side of this equation is pitched against the PCs and they have to figure out how to get out of their own mess.

It's now not such a big deal if they parlay their way out of fighting the orcs, as they still have a drug kingpin to deal with and their reputation with the locals has been shot. Is the Duke going to meet with a band of drug smugglers to entrust with his important mission? Not likely.

It just depends how far off the tracks you're willing to take it. If they were supposed to meet the Duke for a mission, it could be quite awhile before they prove themselves trustworthy.


The intent is not to push this specific scenario, but to do something to add depth: npcs/factions/etc should all act in their best interests outside interactions with the PCs. If the PCs wrong some group, it's totally reasonable that they might seek revenge and become a minor or major antagonist, and that doesn't just mean "attack the players occasionally."

In our campaigns, we've seen:

  • a family member (their significant other, brother, daughter, etc)
  • their boss
  • the authorities
  • other bandits (who wanted to steal what we stole)
  • our employers (who didn't want us to be murder hobos)

And we've had them:

  • report us for murder
  • report us as smugglers
  • refuse to work with us
  • strong arm towns into denying us entry
  • raise towns which harbored us
  • kill friends & family in vengeance
  • attack us (the 'normal' response)
  • eavesdrop on our mission and then inform on us
  • "offer help" only to back-stab us

Basically do all the things a villain might do. So, if your players want to be evil: evil begets evil. Let them create some new villains for themselves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please describe experience you've had using this approach, or places where you've seen it work; these sorts of details differentiate expertise-based answers from "an idea I had" answers. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 23 '17 at 19:49
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I would say that it's entirely valid to state that using only words to turn a close-knit group of orcs from "wants to kill you because you murdered one of their members" to "doesn't want to kill you at all" would require persuasion/deception at a DC of, say 100. I would not call that a situation someone can talk their way out of freely.

However, just because they can't say "I roll persuasion, and if it succeeds we automatically win" doesn't mean persuasion is useless. A much more reasonable Persuasion attempt might be along the lines of "Hey, I know you're upset right now, but we're on your side here. Look, we'll do XYZ for you, no charge, just to show we're serious", or a deception attempt might be "We were right there when he was killed by your rival gang! With his dying breath he told us to XYZ and we won't rest until we do!" The point is that persuasion and deception can't always completely solve a problem especially in a single check, but it could be used to turn one difficult situation into a different or easier one.

At the end of the day, persuasion and deception are not brainwashing, nor are they flawless reproductions of magical effects like Suggestion; you can't always just make literally anyone do literally anything no matter how fast you talk, so sometimes you need to delay or deflect or find smaller pieces to handle.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is about 5E, but the first paragraph of the answer shows a basic misunderstanding of the rules: a DC of 100 is absolutely absurd in 5E, and there is no auto-success on skill checks, only attack rolls. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Sep 18 '17 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. The point of DC 100 WAS to be absolutely absurd. I'll take out the part about automatic success on 20, but I was intentionally trying to say "There is literally no way anybody could ever succeed on that check". \$\endgroup\$ – Kamil Drakari Sep 18 '17 at 20:35
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This is great! An NPC organisation has a grudge against the players. That gives you an excuse for any amount of ambushes, plot hooks, etc.

  • They stole from an organised crime group, made of ogres who are presumably cope badly with challenges to their authority.
  • They get jumped by a bunch of ogres demanding where the stuff is.
  • Whenever you want to spice things up or move the conversation along, in the middle of some other plot, they get jumped.
  • If you want to turn up the tension, wait till they get separated, THEN they get jumped.
  • If they like talking their way out of stuff, plan several ambushes, and allow them to talk their way out of one or two, but get hammered by the other ones.
  • Imagine it from the orcs PoV. "So, you went to kill them, and then... they persuaded you not to? Tell me more about how you decided to turn against the tribe. Oh, would you like one more chance to redeem yourself?"
  • Don't play "talk out of it" as a single roll, unless they have a really good story, require several follow-up rolls as the assassins pick at the story.
  • Play it up with other NPCs. "Oh, you pissed off the greenskin boys? Uh, yeah, props, you got cojones. Please don't stay at my inn though, I don't want to die."
  • And after a little while, "Ah, you're the people who tangled with the greenskin boys and lived? The boss has a job for you. Tell me more about this word 'no' you used, the boss has never heard of it before."
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No amount of Persuasion, Intimidation, or Deception checks will make the target become dumb. This is not a compulsion spell!

If the target knows the PC are enemies (in that example they have been told the PCs were alone with the murdered orc), the best outcome - and that is if they roll a very high DC success - would be that they can convince the orc to not kill them, but the orcs will likely take all their belongings in payment. And this would be the best success they can get if they make the DC.

A successful ability check does not mean the PCs get what they want; it means they can get a better outcome out of a difficult situation.

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