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I'm a very new DM running a homebrew DnD 5e campaign for a couple of friends.

One of my players, who is by far the most experienced, plays a bard who is definitely optimised for roleplay, and that seems to be the part of the game she enjoys the most.

This is fine, of course, but lately I think it's been derailing the rest of the party's experience. The rest of the party is made up of players who either struggle with roleplay or have optimised their character for combat. They get tired or disengaged when the session is too roleplay-heavy, so I've been trying to reward any plot-progression they achieve with big, exciting combat encounters.

Then last session, as I was very clearly building up to a big encounter, I asked the Bard to roll initiative. She got upset, asking if she couldn't try to talk her way out of things. I didn't want her to feel strongarmed, so I let her try. A couple of lucky persuasion rolls later, and she effectively stopped the entire encounter. I understand that players messing up planned events is a natural part of being a DM, but I'm bothered by the fact that she didn't give the other players a chance to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight.

I don't want this one player to feel like she's being railroaded into certain outcomes, but I also want to give the rest of the party a chance to do what they love best --beating up some bad guys. I really want to avoid this situation in future, since it doesn't feel fair to the rest of my players. How can I make encounters that can serve this player's freedom to roleplay while also allowing the rest of my players to just bash some heads in?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related and possible duplicate on the spotlight problem: How do you deal with a player who always wants to be in the spotlight?, \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 30 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ From the wording, this seems to be D&D. Is it 5e? I believe the system is considerably important for this question. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 30 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ For clarification: did any of the other players complain, or are you assuming they are unhappy with that outcome? Did you ask them if they were okay? \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 30 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to know more about the context of the encounter before offering advice. I feel like it's possible that part of the issue isn't a desire to avoid combat per se but feeling unjustified in resorting to violence in the situation presented. Were the opposing forces an immediate danger to people the party cared about and/or had they already caused harm to others that the party was aware of? And were they open to negotiation regarding their goals, if those goals required doing harm to others? \$\endgroup\$ – sptrashcan Jun 30 at 18:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Natasha Enemies that are incapable of understanding or responding to persuasion are one way to guarantee conflict, but that's not what I was asking. An intelligent creature that has already done harm and/or fully intends to do harm in the immediate future also demands an immediate forceful response, even if given time they could be persuaded. I can elaborate on this in an answer if you think it would be helpful for your situation. \$\endgroup\$ – sptrashcan Jul 1 at 4:59
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Well, I have asked such clarifications in the comments, but lacking them, I realized it may actually be part of an answer.

Find out whether you actually have a problem

It is not clear that the other players are annoyed or bothered at all. Ask the other players if that is really how they are feeling. If that is how they are feeling, it may be a case for the players to talk between themselves, no need for you to even step in.

If it is you who is bothered, then, why did you make an encounter that was solvable through diplomacy if you wanted a combat? Put fanatic cultists or beasts that don't even understand languages next time.

If you do have a problem and your players are unable to solve it by talking to each other, then...

Align the expectations

If some members of the party want combat, and others want to persuade, this is a problem of expectations not aligned. Either you will need to find a solution that works for everyone or the players with each mentality should separate and play different games with different styles. It is a completely acceptable outcome: it happens when some want to play one type of game and others a type that is completely contrary to that.

A comment on the system

So, from your wording, it looks like you are playing D&D or a D&D-based game. D&D is combat-focused. It is usually ill-advised that you make a character that is actually useless in combat, or play this system if you do not like combats (as may be the case for the player). You mentioned she is the most experienced one, so she should really be aware of this. But again, this is guessing the system and I will exclude this section if it is not D&D that you are playing.

To be clear: While you certainly can play a combat-light D&D, it is not the default expectation of the system. So, it is worth discussing with your players about their expectations about the campaign and about the system. You may find that other systems fit better for your group.

Find a middle ground

So, how to find a solution that might be good to everyone? Find a middle ground. Maybe, instead of completely defeating all enemies through persuasion, your talkative Bard was able to convince some of the enemies that they should not fight. These will get away, but others are strongly convinced on their own believes and will fight. The Bard was able to be useful in combat through a non-combative manner, and the remaining players will be able to actually have a fight - the Bard included, obviously, but without much spotlight since it's clearly suboptimal for combat.

Another possible middle ground is simply balancing how many encounters can be solved through persuasion and how many can be solved through combat. Eventually the Bard will single handedly finish an encounter through persuasion, sometimes she will not. If she can't accept that some combats will happen, and the other players really want combats, then she's surely in the wrong group and most likely in the wrong system.

If violence is not the answer, you are asking the wrong question

I used this phrase as a joke in a comment in other answer, but this actually fits here: An encounter is a clash of goals, a clash of motivations, and ultimately it is about answering some dramatic question. "Will the player characters survive?", "Will the villain succeed in sacrificing the souls of the whole village?", etc.

If you want an encounter that leads to combat, you need to make the right dramatic question, one that can only be answered through violence, i.e., through combat. Maybe the villain is unreasonable, and the only thing that would convince him to change his mind is something that the characters are not willing to give, because it goes strongly against their believes. Or maybe the encounter is just a bunch of T-rexes that don't understand "human" language.

The other players can be proactive

Ultimately, if the other players wanted a combat, they could have gotten one. In a recent D&D session of mine, the Bard was trying very hard to persuade the villains, and slowly he was managing to do it, but it was taking minutes. The Rogue of the party simply drew his bow and declared "I attack". Combat ensued. Nothing the Bard can do about it. Surely, it may lead to a frustrated Bard, but the Bard spending minutes trying to convince the villains also was leading to a frustrated everyone else.

The point is: the other players don't need to sit down and watch someone have the spotlight for the entire session. They can be proactive and take it. They can, later, explain that they were feeling bored and wanted to play too, so he decided to do that. It actually led to the first point I made: the players ended up talking about their actions and expectations and the Bard realized he was being annoying sometimes.

If you want to reward the Bard player for their attempts, you can even give surprise or some other mechanism in your system to the party, as the Bard was distracting the enemies and they didn't notice the Rogue drawing the bow and attacking.

This is a very specific example in my own group, and should be used very carefully in order to not just make the Bard player extremely unhappy, but if it is a recurring problem, it may lead to a good solution. If nothing else, it shows to the Bard player how upsetting it is to have the choice of how they wanted to handle the problem taken away.

PS: This is quite passive-aggressive. I strongly recommend sitting down and talking about it. I am just providing this as an example of things solving themselves without the DM even needing to intervene.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the advice -- the dramatic question concept was especially helpful, I'll be sure to be more intentional about that in the future. I've spoken to some of my players and while they're not entirely irritated exactly, the way their faces check out in moments like this can leave a DM discouraged. This Bard player can be a bit of a spotlight hog and rules lawyer as well, which I find difficult to navigate as a very inexperienced DM. I think it might be time to sit down with my players & help manage their expectations a little. \$\endgroup\$ – RatMan Jul 1 at 2:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Natasha There are no rules for Persuading someone to do whatever thing they want. At worst, just remind them (or her, specifically) that you are the DM and you are the one that decides the rules, she likes it or not. See Rule 0. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 1 at 2:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Natasha The thing about dramatic encounter is from this article: theangrygm.com/… - proceed with caution: The Angry GM uses strong/offensive wording quite frequently. Nonetheless, his advices are usually very valuable. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 1 at 2:21
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Some encounters can't be solved by words

When an encounter occurs, and this can be either roleplay or combat, it is up to you as the DM to determine what is possible and what is not.

Players can, of course, ask to do something. But if you don't believe that talking their way out of something is possible, then don't ask for the roll. You can let them know (maybe through an Insight or Perception check...or just 'cause) that it's clear that words are not going to solve this problem.

This goes the other way, too. Combat isn't always the answer and there can be situations where you make it clear that fighting through this is not going to end well.

But in the end, it's all about the story. If you feel that the characters wouldn't do something, no matter how 'good' the roll was, then don't allow them to be influenced to begin with. There may be times when it's appropriate, and let the bard shine in those opportunities. But not everything can be solved that way and I'd be surprised if the players don't agree with that.

Party cohesion

It also seems like there may be some issues the party needs to figure out. This can be done both in-character or out via something like a Session Zero to help make sure everyone (including you!) is aligned with doing things they want to do at the table and what's fun.

But at the end, if everyone is having fun, then you're doing it right :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Headline can be changed to: "If violence is not the answer, you are asking the wrong question." \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 30 at 20:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint I see us making some money with that t-shirt ... when shall we start production. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 30 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint that wasn't what I was trying to say:( does it come across like that? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 30 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Nah I get what you meant haha. I was mostly joking. Although I think my phrase does apply to this question: you can easily make an encounter where combat is the only solution, if that is what the asker wants to do. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 30 at 22:32
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What are the other's doing while the bard talks?

The bard steps forward and begins to speak. The dragon seems intrigued and doesn't attack immediately.

What are the rest of you doing?

The most important question in this situation is the one that keeps the group engaged. Are the others happy and engaged in what the bard is doing? Or are they switching off and becoming bored while waiting for the combat to start? What you don't want is the rest of the group disengaging while the bard does all the work.

Before the bard starts talking, establish what the other players are doing in scene. Are they passively waiting at the back of the room, or are they using the opportunity to move to a move advantageous position?

Let the bard talk for a bit, maybe make a check or two and then ask the other again what they are doing. Maybe they want to intercede in the conversation, or can see that the conversation isn't going anywhere and want to use the opportunity to launch a surprise attack.

Rolling Initiative doesn't mean the talking stops

You can ask players to roll initiative without requiring that the encounter is solved through violence. Initiative just means that the situation is tense and exact sequencing of actions matter. If they choose to, your bard player can continue to attempt to talk their way out as their action on their turn, if they succeed, combat ends.

By allowing your bard to use their turn in combat to attempt to talk their way out of it, you enable them to use their best skills to resolve the encounter without sidelining the other players while doing so. Players shouldn't get upset when asked to roll initiative, it should simply indicate that the tension has gone up and they can't keep talking forever.

When to roll initiative

So if the bard can keep talking once initiative starts, how do we know when to roll initiative? We don't want to roll as soon as the bard starts talking, but we also don't want to wait until the end of the conversation and bore the other players. Finding the right point is an art rather than a science. It is a balancing act between giving the bard their agency and managing the tension of the scene.

As a rule of thumb, I ask my players to roll initiative once I believe the current conversation will lead to combat unless something changes. Let the bard try one tact of conversation, if it fails and the enemy is more likely to attack, then it's time for initiative. Alternatively if the actions of the bards allies are leading to combat, roll initiative.

How do the others actions impact the conversation?

During initiative other character can even use their skills to aid the bards attempts. How much stronger is intimidation when their axe-wielding ally just murdered your friend? If the thief is searching the room for evidence what kind of bonus does the bard get to convince the bad guy to cooperate?

Alternative, if the enemy sees the actions of the others as a threat, how does that impact their responses to the bard? Let the other players impact the scene even if they don't want to talk to the enemy directly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While rolling initiative doesn't mean the talking stops, it does mean that the talking now comes in six-second bursts. I usually give some leeway when DMing; however, concise intimidation is likely the way to go once people start dying, as you point out. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jul 1 at 16:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca True, but if the bard is spending their action to talk I usually give them a little bit more time. Often I will give the player the choice of what action they want to spend on talking. The bigger the action the more they can say. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jul 2 at 0:04
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Use randomness, don't get used by it.

I realize that the entire reason you're reaching for a randomizer in the first place is that someone has proposed a dramatic course of action and you want to have a tense moment of wondering whether or not it happens. But while a randomizer is a very useful tool in these circumstances, you can also find that it takes more control away from you than you'd want.

So, here are a couple of guidelines for working with randomizers. (I'm using a generic term rather than saying specifically "dice" or "cards" because I don't know what you're using exactly, but when you e.g. ask a player to roll a persuasion check to obtain a specific result to get what they want, you're using a randomizer.)

1: Never bring in a randomizer unless you're okay with every outcome.

You may have expected that at some point diplomacy would fail and your bard would be okay with having given it a try, but that didn't happen. You put "talking everyone into not fighting" on the table, which meant it was possible, and the thing about a randomizer is that by its nature you can never say that anything it might produce won't happen.

When you're using a randomizer in the course of play, always remember this: you're using the randomizer to pick from a range of acceptable outcomes. You're not using it to force everyone (including yourself, the GM!) to deal with an unacceptable outcome. Otherwise, you're playing a game that you can't control and it will disappoint people despite your best efforts.

And I do mean "force everyone, including yourself". None of your players want an ogre to run up and land a critical hit on their PCs... probably. But if you, as the GM, don't want the ogre to land a critical hit on some PC because it would kill them outright and you don't want to do that, you shouldn't use a randomizer where that outcome is an option.

(If it happens that the randomizer is so complex that you don't even know what the possible outcomes are, you are definitely playing a game you do not control.)

2: Curate the outcomes going into the randomizer so you know you're okay with all of them.

Really this is just point 1 restated a little - it's the "positive" side of it. If you're using a randomizer for, say, combat, but you don't want your players to die in the combat, then before the combat starts you need to think about what happens if things go badly and what you'll do when your players get close to death.

Or, if you want to let your bard talk to the bandits but you don't want them to talk all of the bandits down, then don't make that possible. Make the best thing that could happen as a result of the talking is that one or two bandits lose their nerve and run when the bandit leader screams to attack. Or that one bandit loses their nerve and the bandit leader takes that as a sign of betrayal, so now the party has an ally (if only of convenience) instead of an enemy. It respects your bard's intent to talk someone down, and lets your other players have (most of) the fight you were expecting to give them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice, but remember that part of the point of a randomizer (as well as rule systems, for that matter) is to ensure that otherwise unacceptable outcomes can thereby be made palatable. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Jul 1 at 1:52
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Some encounters can't be solved by words. Unfortunately if you just tell your player: "the people you're talking to are too angry and words won't dissuade them", the player might be unhappy. When I want an encounter that can't be solved by words, the approach I use is to build an encounter with something that doesn't speak a language (animals, monsters, et cetera). That makes it clear that talking to them won't help.

It sounds like you have a deeper problem, which is that one of your players wants different things out of your game. Even if you can prevent her from using persuasion to stop your combats, she might be unhappy in your game, because her character isn't optimized for combat.

It might be necessary to talk to your player out-of-game about this. You might need her to retire her character and create a new character that will enjoy doing the things that the rest of the group is doing.

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Partial solutions

A party of raiders are attacking the PC's campsite. The bard decides to try and talk them out of it, some of them are swayed by the bard's argument. Now fewer raiders are attacking, or they half-heatedly steal some supplies and encourage their compatriots to take the goods and retreat instead of fighting. The rest of the party fights in defense.

The bard has contributed to the situation with RP, and so has the party with combat.

Rolls do not have to be "all or nothing", there is a huge sliding scale. Just like every attack in combat contributes to victory, the bards efforts should contribute too.

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Tell the bard the requirement

that way, it will be fair if they can fulfill the requirement and get what they want: skip the encounter.

The bard asked to talk her way out, and of course she can!

  1. Look around the other players to make sure they are okay if they bypass this encounter.
  2. Tell the requirement.
    This can be a simple skill check, with arbitrarily decided DC based on "how impossible" to accomplish, or narrative requirement, such as "a reason for them the guards to let you have the stolen diamond, instead of arresting you right now".
  3. Narrate the result.
    This could be a success, partial success, or a failure. If you are dead set to do this encounter, be sure to narrate the effect of the bard's success on the encounter, even if it is made up (still your original encounter plan).

Partial success is the best, because everyone feel the result is fair because everyone get something.

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There are a lot of good ideas here already. My take would be: Playing a role playing game should mean you are at least somewhat interested in roleplay. If some players are struggling with roleplay, getting into this sort of situation is an ideal way to encourage them to get them roleplaying too.

There are many ways, e.g. ask what everyone is choosing to do. So the bard has elected to talk. What are the rest of them doing? Maybe one of the players will want to join the negotiations, or they tend to like mischief and deliberately try to derail the talks, or one of the PCs with low intelligence, wisdom & charisma says something offensive, thereby derailing the negotiating process. Unless the bard is party leader or elected spokesperson, the rest of the party is likely to get involved if you prod them a bit.

Maybe one of your PCs is supposed to be short tempered or overly proud? Then you as the DM can make one the opposing side say or do something to povoke the PC into attacking, let them roll a wisdom check to see if they keep their temper or lose their head and attack.

There are always ways to force combat if you want to, but in the long term it will be more fun and less of a mission for you if you can get your players to drive the action they want through their PCs actions/decisions i.e. roleplay.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Gwyn, welcome to rpg.se! Take our tour for the usual badge and check out our help center for site-specific guidance. This is a pretty nice first answer. Thanks for contributing and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jul 2 at 4:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I've found that even players that start out min/maxing and creating unlikely characters with skillsets that that don't match their backstory just to optimise your them for combat eventually relax and learn to enjoy the PC interplay if the DM and more experienced players help out a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – Gwyn Jul 2 at 10:06
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This is a long range solution and requires both careful selection of opponents and action from the other players but,

Have the bard produce a few disasters

If the bard talks her way out of the situation, that means the opponents are still free and still capable of causing serious issues. Talking your way out of the fight with the bandits may result in the only human habitation -- and source of supplies -- within a week's journey being attacked.

Give the other players ammunition to argue that her refusal to fight is causing problems.

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