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I've noticed that my players tend to lean heavily into combat as their go-to solution for just about every problem. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good battle as much as the next person, but I've been thinking about how to shake things up a bit.

I'd really like to encourage my players to explore other approaches like diplomacy, negotiation etc.

How can I make these non-combat options feel just as appealing and rewarding as a good old-fashioned brawl? Do you have any fun scenario ideas or incentives I could use to nudge the players in this direction? Or any tips on how to show them that these choices can be just as, if not more, engaging?

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    \$\begingroup\$ what system do you use? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Jul 21, 2023 at 5:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see a close vote of "Needs more focus". While it's not mine, it might help you get a bit more constructive answers if you could describe the specific situations where the players chose violence, even though you think diplomacy was available. I also second @Vylix question, since every system emphasizes different aspects of play differently and it may be the case of that most of the rules are for combat, i.e. when all you have is a hammer… \$\endgroup\$
    – J.E
    Jul 21, 2023 at 11:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless you have a sophisticated, veteran group of players, the general reaction is to mightily resist any tactic that lets a single PC "have all the fun". It's a rare moment when the PC with amazing stealth-ninja-thief skills is allowed to prowl the enemy's castle alone. So very often, every PC (no matter how fumble-footed and ham-handed) insists on clanking along in this "stealth" recon. In a similar vein, any PC with the best "Face" skills is elbowed aside as every PC shouts at the same time. Diplomacy goes pop. And if not the whole table, there is always one Player who has to horn in. \$\endgroup\$
    – Blaze
    Jul 23, 2023 at 21:15

3 Answers 3

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Make sure your players are on board.

Before even going down this path, you may wish to make sure your players are on board with it. If your players are showing up expecting to solve most problems through combat, they may not even look at other options. They may well suspect that you don't want them to look at other options, and indeed many role playing games deliberately center tactical combat and exploration with just enough social interaction to provide a reason for the combat and exploration. Many players and many gms want that.

And along those lines, you need to make sure that your players are at least willing to try a more diplomatically focused game and preferably that they want it. If you try to force diplomacy and negotiation on a group that wants combat, you may wind up with unhappy players.

Use a system that encourages such things.

Role playing games are versatile. You can make just about any role playing system do just about anything you want. But, different systems support different subsets of rules to differing degrees and your choice of system may make some types of games easier or harder.

D&D stereotypically focuses mostly on combat. Its combat system is superbly developed. Historically, it grew out of and was influenced by pure war games such as chainmail. Due to things like Stranger Things, the popular conception of it centers on fighting. While you certainly can do diplomacy in D&D (and I have), it is in my opinion not the best system for it and unless expressly told otherwise I think most players showing up to a D&D game expect exploration and combat.

On the other hand, there are other games that are much more suited to intrigue. Vampire The Masquerade for instance has more developed rules and systems around intrigue, negotiation, and diplomacy. I have gone for entire sessions without even the threat of combat. Other systems like Exalted have both deep developed social influence systems and deep combat systems.

To be clear, you can play a game with diplomacy and negotiation in just about any mainstream system, but if you want to highlight those things, you may find it easier to do it in some systems than others.

Provide situations where diplomacy is clearly the superior option.

Finally, and this is related to Dale M's answer, if you want to encourage diplomacy and negotiation, provide situations where that is clearly superior.

One of the obvious ways is to provide situations where someone that is normally an ally is an obstacle, preferably in a way that is reasonable. Imagine that the ally has a MacGuffin that the players want or even need. The players should be reluctant to take it by force because doing so would require attacking an ally. The ally likely has a legitimate reason to be reluctant to give up the MacGuffin. But the players may be able to negotiate to get it, providing something else the ally wants more or at least persuading the ally that it is imperative to give it up.

Also, and this is somewhat system dependent, but as Dale M suggests make sure there are clear rewards for succeeding in the negotiation. In D&D and similar systems, make sure the players remember that experience is issued for overcoming obstacles even if, and sometimes especially if its done non-violently.

While its older, the Planescape Torment CRPG provides examples of a game that I think handles it well. The vast majority of combat can be avoided if you want, and often the best results (including experience points and levels) come from socially resolving problems rather than fighting.

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People respond to incentives

Economists aren’t right about much but they are right about that. 99.9% of all people surveyed would rather have sex than have red hot needles inserted under their fingernails.

In most RPGs the incentives for combat are clear and unambiguous - you get to take out the personal frustrations of your life on imaginary NPCs and get to reap cool rewards like imaginary loot and imaginary XP.

So what does your “diplomacy and negotiation” offer that’s better?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have seen the same players, same characters group transform their behavior depending on whether we were using milestone or traditional XP for that section of the story. In the first, they treated combat as a waste of time - either avoiding or talking through encounters so that they could progress more efficiently to completing the next goal. As soon as it was the latter, they wanted to defeat any NPC they crossed paths with, whether related to the plot or not, for the XP. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jul 22, 2023 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KirtnoQA4mewhilemodsstrike I’ve similarly found that making it clear that the party will get full XP for an encounter regardless of how it’s resolved (but only the first time that it’s resolved, no talking your way out of a fight only to go back a day later and ambush the foes for extra XP) has a similar effect most of the time. Some players truly do prefer to just fight regardless, but most want to keep the story moving and will usually choose the fastest approach as long as there’s no penalty for doing so. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 22, 2023 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Believe it or not, when people play a Role-Playing game, some of them actually enjoy Playing A Role, and not just the Role of "guy with big sword who stabs other guy". That being said - the advice to make diplomacy and negotiation engaging is still on point - though more difficult by far. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Jul 25, 2023 at 15:31
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Some practical ways to incentivize negotiation

I'll answer for D&D, as I think your problem is quite dependent on the game system1. So, that you even have this problem suggests you are playing D&D, or one of its clones. Especially 5e with its encounter guidance geared to make encounters both winnable and survivable, the default mode of operation can be to simply fight to solve the encounter.

I agree with the other two answers, especially Dale's point on incentives, and thought it might be useful to provide a few practical ways to incentivize not fighting in clearly adversarial encounters, ways that have worked for me:

  • Don't let monsters fight to the death. Let them run away or surrender if the fight goes against them, and they are intelligent enough to realize this. The players can then capture and interrogate them, to learn more about their bosses in the background, about the layout and defenses of their keep, etc. This not only humanizes the game and helps avoid the players being homicidal cretins, it also helps teach players that you can talk with monsters instead of just slaughtering them, and that it can give you an advantage.

  • Proactively let the monsters offer negotiation. Players that are not used to it may not think of it all the time, so have the monsters shout for parley early in the fight, if they have no interest in fighting. They may offer information that the players will not otherwise get, and that sounds attractive to the players.

  • Use factions. If all of the opponents are part of the same, homogenous team with goals directly opposed to the players, they have less motivation to engage in diplomacy to begin with. However, if there are multiple, different groups of opponents that have different goals, and may be enemies of each other, then negotiating with the PCs instead of fighting them may help them with their goals, and they may be interested to do so. In a scenario with factions, the PCs can divide and conquer, or even gain allies in one group to support in their fight against the others.

  • Use encounters that are not winnable by force. This goes against standard encounter guidance, and you must take care to clearly telegraph this when you do it, if you don't want to turn the fight into a total party kill. You need sufficient and clear advance warning, especially if your players so far have been operating under the assumption the can win all fights. The easiest might be to tell the players outright, outside of the game, that you are doing this, and then telegraph it in game, by others talking about how terrible the monster is, and so on. For example, if a low level party has an encounter with an adult dragon, there is little chance they could win a straight up fight. So, they will need to negotiate their way out of it. (Coincidentally, I find it makes the world more believable if it just is, and is not warped entirely around what the players can encounter and win against, but that may vary by DM).

  • Use dynamic environments. This is a variant of the last one, and like it is dangerous, as again, it can lead to a TPK if you are not careful. In effect, you are again overloading the player capacity to win by brute force, this time not from a single strong monster or deadly encounter, but because fighting is noisy, and will lead to more and more monsters joining in from nearby areas, until the fight becomes unwinnable. Again, it is important that the players have a way to understand this, before starting the fight, or have a way to disengage and retreat, and then in their next outing change tactics.

  • Play scenarios where fighting is not a solution. For example, a heist into a heavily guarded castle where fighting will raise the alarm and lead to mission failure, while bribing guards, stealth, and observing the place to learn guard rotations and such may be successful. Or, a city adventure where bloodshed or violence against citizens will be prosecuted by the authorities -- you cannot just kill the shopkeeper that you know is part of an evil cult, if you have no proof, because you will be prosecuted for murder. Or, a detective plot where the players have to figure out something by talking to witnesses, following clues, investigating, and negotiating in a social context, as it is not clear how attacking or killing the people they talk to would do anything to help them solve the case.

Lastly, don't go overboard with it. In my experience it is most fun, if not all encounters need to be solved by negotiation or diplomacy but if there is a healthy mix of fighting, exploration, and talk.


1 For example, in early editions of Call of Cthulhu, combat is easily lethal, and it typically is a dangerous mistake to engage in it. Even a normal goon can kill you with a firearm with a single critical hit, and many of the mythos monsters are so terrifying, that trying to kill them in combat is a surefire way to lead to a TPK. In that game, instead on relying on combat, you need to focus a lot more on investigation, negotiation, and figuring things out. Or, just going starkly insane, and ending the adventure as a babbling lunatic -- that can be a fun outcome, too.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A game world based on verisimilitude will often have encounters based on logic, not level-specific challenges. When your game is known for this, players are always more cautious. When they know you design adventures, etc, based on logic more than level-specificity…. Yeah, they look at other ways around Ian issue. Especially if they can still gain exp, etc, for using other means to solve the issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    Oct 28, 2023 at 22:08

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