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As a sister question to How can combat be de-escalated once started by a player?

In a D&D 5e game, a player rushed into combat with an NPC that wasn't particularly hostile. As a player, I wouldn't have started that combat immediately and the character didn't seem too hostile, so I might try to talk the PC/NPC down rather than get stuck into the fray.

As a DM, how should I adjudicate if players try to calm hostile but reasonable NPCs in the middle of combat? Mechanically, how does the combat stop, or how do I make it stop? Is it as simple as everyone dropping out of initiative and going back to RPing?

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It's all about objectives...

When designing (or interpreting, in the case of published adventures) encounters, you must identify the objectives of all parties involved. Truth be told, one's objective is rarely hold my ground until death.

(There's a nice example of this, though, in DDEX3-10:

"A goblin boss, believing himself to be a 'Knight of Graz'zt' remains diligently on guard.... The goblins consider themselves to be the most important sentinels in Graz'zt's service. The goblin boss and his mounts are spoiling for a fight and do not retreat from intruders.

)

Much more often an objective might be hold my ground until help arrives, or even do my job, which is standing watch, but really they don't pay me enough to put my neck on the line, so I'm just going to shout and run for help if I'm seriously threatened.

(See DMG p.81 on "Character Objectives" for more discussion of the topic.)

On the NPC side, it sounds like the NPC was put in a position to defend their life or die. Well, removing the threat to the NPC's life should go a long way to de-escalating the NPC. The NPC should be furious, scared witless, or overtly hostile, but likely not combative.

...and risks.

If the PC is unnecessarily (in your view) choosing lethal violence as a means to achieve their objectives, then they do not fear the repercussions of those actions enough (in my view). This is larger than a one-encounter issue, but you may want to talk to players about the repercussions of entering into combat.

Is it dangerous to their bodily health? I.e. do they actually fear taking harm? If not, consider whether that's an attitude you, as DM, like fostering. See also Dealing with "fearless" players.

Is it dangerous to their immediate objectives? Looping back to what I said about objectives earlier, older versions of D&D routinely had tables for "encounter reactions." If an encounter with an NPC starts on your sheet as "neutral" and shoots over to "overtly hostile" in the span of seconds, think about using a finer scale. 2e used the categories Friendly, Indifferent, Cautious, Threatened, Flight, Threatening, Hostile.

If you chose to adopt that scheme I'd recommend you tell your players you'll be thinking in those categories, you enter each encounter with a starting attitude, you track changes borne of players' actions, and you practice communicating them. I just keep an index card with those words on it and leave my pen pointing at the appropriate one. Moving the pen is a physical reminder to me to change my presentation: furrowing brows, tightening lips, shorter answers, "move along"ing the PCs, &c. The point is, when your PCs start to see identifiable responses to their actions, they'll start to think prospectively about how those actions will be received.

(See DMG p.245 on "Social Interactions," but I think earlier editions actually do this one a little better.)

Is it dangerous to their long-term objectives? 5e has this nice renown system you can use to track how the players will be received. It's a little coarse to use on the individual encounter level, but at the one-per-session level or on the mission-level it can be good to award or penalize one renown point. This can shift encounter reactions or even how you structure your adventures. ("Sorry, we decided to hire the other band of ne'er-do-wells--they leave a tidier wake.")

Alternatively, Adventurer's League modules often have "Story Rewards" built in, which is a nice system to adopt, too. For instance, in DDEX3-5...

A party that chooses to sell the captives to the Duergar slavers gets the Oh What a Slaver You'll Make reward: any Charisma (Persuasion) checks made with commoners in the Hillsfar region are made with disadvantage, any Charisma (Intimidation) checks made with commoners in the Hillsfar region are made with advantage.

If you intend to turn any of these dials, I believe it's incumbent upon you to discuss with players first. I think these are big changes in play- and story-style and should be adopted as a group, not unilaterally.

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The DM's Call

This is one of the cases where there isn't a simple rule like, "After 3 rounds of evassive manuvers... etc..." This really does require the DM to make some calls. Those calls should be based on a few things:

  • How much real damage is done?
  • What is the NPC's motivations?
  • What did the players say, and how persuasive would it be to the NPC?
  • Players and DM must roll play the situation out.
  • Dice must be used, as the character's abilities at personal interaction are different from the player's.

How do Decide to Stand Down in Real Life

Put yourself in the NPC's shoes. Guy runs at you with a sword. Battle starts, but quickly the attacker says something like player says, "Oh, uh, cool it.. I'm sorry. We really shouldn't be fighting. Don't want to the get the guards in involved..." What would you do?

Roll Persuasion/Intimidation Checks Through the Interaction.

If the player makes statements that are meant to persuade the NPC to back down, the player should make a persuasion roll. You'd set the DC of that roll to easier or harder based on how upset the NPC is and how convincing you thought the argument was. Consider a "10" as equally likely.

For example, if the guy swings his weapon and immediately says "sorry" It's likely a very high DC. Passing that check might prevent the NPC from striking back immediately, but he'd still pretty understandably upset.

After a little interaction and a few successful check rolls, maybe they completely win him over with one last attempt to persuade him -- say a player suggests: "We'll buy you a drink. Have a laugh about all this. Talk things out, what do you say?" If you have done a few checks before, and now they are offering to buy a drink, you're likely at low DC.

The number of checks and difficulty of each check affect what the NPC does. A series of failed checks doesn't necessarily mean the NPC attacks, maybe he calls the guards, or just leaves the party empty handed of whatever they were looking for.

Likewise, it is conceivable a scary looking party of heavily armed adventures could also get the NPC of not continuing to attack by scaring the living daylights out him. "Either you stop fighting or we will kill you." In that situation, the checks would intimidation instead of charisma. Though, that will also have impact on the feelings the NPC has toward the character(s) involved.

Actions might have Consequences

Even if the situation is defused, the attack should have some effect on the world. Maybe the NPC will always be distrustful of the player who attacked. Maybe the NPC respects strength and now there is odd friendly rivalry between the two. Maybe the NPC is really forgiving and just forgives the transaction once it is over -- but what about the people who saw the immediate response out of context.

I'm not saying you strictly HAVE to use the event, but the more player action shape the world the more important players feel, and the more considered their choices will be in the future.

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Here is how I would handle it - which as far as I can see it not written anywhere under RAW. So my premise is to not break any existing rules, and not take any liberties/assumptions. Please note that "combat" is defined for D&D simply to make it easier, flowing from RP'ing to Combat happens in an instant, and moving back should happen in the same manner.

Here are my notes for how to handle it.

  1. Wait for something to trigger non-hostile action. This could be a dramatic event (hard to keep fighting if suddenly the area gets flooded with water and you need to escape) or someone simply yells out they want to stop.
  2. Depending on situation, do a diplomacy check. Typically I would modify this based on the monsters/NPC's traits (e.g. an overly passive NPC is more susceptible to stopping diplomacy, so I might put the DC at 5).
  3. Keep the combat going for a couple extra rounds after everyone stops fighting. Track things like movement and actions during this time (thanks to @Meta4ic for this). This helps for situations where it might be a trap/ploy, its good to know how everyone starts out the next combat and keep the same initiative.
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