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What I Learned Playing Pacifist D&D

D&D doesn't have to be all hack and slash. There are ways to play pacifist, even if the setting isn't ready to play along.

The city of Betz is known for the beauty of its people, the quality of goods for sale in its many bazaars, and The Temple- a complex of gambling tables and gaming dens. Elsewhere in the world, there is war. Betz is an international safe zone, free from the tethers of allegiances.

This does not mean it is without violence. Between crime factions, the loosely webbed network of thieves, and the easily bribed city guards, there are plenty of fights to get into.

The world of Dungeons & Dragons is often a brutal one. Many games involve massive amounts of violence meted out indiscriminately and in creative ways against nondescript monsters. What would a player do without their trusty sword or stable of spells to protect them? A few weeks ago, I found out during a 5th Edition D&D adventure with pacifism as one of the rules.

For this adventure, I did not think removing the threat of violence would serve our purpose. I wanted to see how players solved typical D&D problems nonviolently, not pick daisies for several hours. The city I created, is as violent as one can expect from a seaside city of sin with a multi tiered power struggle in the city government and underworld.

The first thing I realized when creating a Pacifist adventure was that players must have a well developed background, morals, and ethical reasoning. I left this largely up to them, and a good chunk of the beginning of our session was spent fleshing out the level 5 characters before dropping them into the scenario.

Developing the Characters

Engaging your party in a setting that appears low-action can be difficult. This requires utilizing unexpected skills, and encouraging players to solve problems in creative ways. I also kept interactions with characters’ backstories more than incidental.

Our adventure began in an empty jail cell. The window was too tiny to let anyone out. However, the party soon discovered the door was unlocked!

The point of this was to get players thinking about their characters and their relationship to non violence. They will never be immersed if they are not faced with hard decisions. In this case, players knew they had been arrested. Are they law-abiding? Was it unfair? Would they wait out their sentence, or try to escape?

In this session, some of the players immediately attracted the interest of the guards by exiting the room and making a lot of noise. Another quandary: do they fight or return to their cell? This situation called for some pretty immediate morality decisions that could define the character for the rest of the game.

Keep the action rolling

In prep, I had built up a pretty intense political drama. However, my characters (some of them with very low intelligence and wisdom scores) did not ask too many questions. They wanted to do things and make rolls. At one point, one of the players began chanting “Please let’s roll initiative” under their breath.

Which is something to keep in mind: even without axes smashing through heads, your players crave action. In this case, it was goofy action like rolling a monster up in a rug, but the adventure could easily have turned into a macabre exploration of the underbelly of a gambling town by a few principled thugs.

Some players love hearing your narrative description of the ins and outs of a city’s history, but others just want to kick down some doors! This means focus on rolling when characters have to talk their way out of a situation, or figure out a problem, even when outside of Initiative.

Challenges

5th Edition’s simplified skills turned out to be a hindrance to the play style of my group. The groupings are very broad, which makes non violent skill use difficult to specialize within a roll. You have to be creative in how skills are presented, getting specific about what is covered by each skill set.

Ask your players to describe how they are using a roll. For instance, “investigate” in the Dark Bazaar becomes “questioning shopkeepers while pretending to look for a love potion,” while another character “rifles through unattended wares for clues.”

Being specific about the physicality of their actions is important, too. “Searching” a room should mean rifling through the objects on a table, or feeling the wall for hidden doors, but not both. Doing both will take time and must be done each in its turn. This ensures the action keeps rolling and remains engaging.

Graph it Out

I am a confident storyteller, but collaborating at the table can be another game entirely. The biggest thing I learned was to have lots of objects and detailed Non Player Characters available for players to interact with. This means a lot of prep on behalf of the GM, or a lot of tables at hand to quickly come up with random set pieces. The most rewarding thing about this adventure was having a player pick up on a random detail I had placed and run with it in an unexpected way.


Josephine Maria is the founder of PanopLit and has been playing tabletop RPGs for 22 years.

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