Non-Lethal Combat


The Final Battle

In the last session of my year-long arc as GM, the players went up against a crime boss who seemed to be the link to a key figure in a vast conspiracy. Their efforts had been going on for several months and they were starting to get close. They had names and locations, and had caused a lot of problems while getting this information. But the boss started lashing out with assassination attempts on the character pushing hardest for answers.

The final days of the arc were spent checking out then invading the boss's headquarters building. Nearly two dozen opponents waited for them throughout his stronghold. Some were sentries at the door; others clustered in dining halls, or in the final room by the boss. Some were even sleeping during their downtime. The battles was fierce and dangerous--and the party claimed victory at the end of the day with only one opponent dead. For everybody else, they had used non-lethal tactics, allowing some to run, and leaving others unconscious on the floor. Non-participants, such as servants and escorts were given safe passage.

This ended a year-long effort by the party to not slay any sentient creatures that they ran up against.

A Non-Lethal Choice

This story is probably very strange for many players. If opponents are using lethal force, why would characters respond with non-lethal force in return? Why make a choice to be non-lethal in the first place, since RPGs are a great place to act without serious consequences?

The fact is that no choice was actively made by the was an evolution over time. It also wasn't anything I asked for or encouraged, but I fully supported it as they went along. Instead, the decision was a natural response to an element of this campaign and some interesting choices they made.

My current campaign is set in the oldest and largest city in the world, and an early decision my co-creator and I made was that due to the size of the city, the need to maintain order, and the number of people from other countries, weapons were not allowed in the city. We created the idea of a "right to carry" permit, which was only granted to very specific people. And as we created origin story "packages" that they could select--we figured they'd take the origins that gave them the right to carry weapons.

Instead, they took other origins, even eschewing the right to carry weapons or wear armor when their origin offered those as an option. Citizens are allowed to carry knives, staffs, clubs, hunting bows, and can wear leathers--as that's common enough for fending off animals and such, and the characters took those instead.

In choosing this direction, they had a comparatively low armor class and low damage output. And as they ran into situations, they took an "if we're non-lethal, they'll be non-lethal" which generally worked, especially earlier on. As they went through the campaign not killing creatures, they liked the vibe and continued it. Against wolves, automatons, etc, they did what they had to, but against sentient humanoids, they liked maintaining a no-kill streak.

Supporting the Choice

The players began the campaign by agreeing to my request not to take power classes. I framed it as "Tier 3 or lower" and while they hated the tiering model, understood what I was asking for and agreed. This meant that encounters could be toned down significantly from what we were all used to, including the fact that opponents didn't have to go all-out for the kill, just to keep the stakes interesting in a given combat.

The non-lethal choice meant that encounters could be toned down further, without reducing the tension, When some opponents started going for lethal attacks, it upped the tension, and the party was able to take the high road, staying non-lethal when their opponents weren't.

A side effect of this is that the characters remained on the good side of the law at all times, and also let some realtime world-building occur. In one situation there was an active assassination attempt. The party defeated the assassins, leaving several of them unconscious in the street. They were deciding if they should call one of the guards, which were generally not very helpful or understanding. One of the players said, "The streets clean themselves." That became a canon concept of the game, as they left the unconscious assassins to be robbed, beaten, stripped, or whatever else opportunistic passersby decided to do.

I also changed the attitudes of their opponents. If someone is attacking non-lethally, and their opponent attacks lethally, it's escalating things that can result in real losses. Opponents tended to get this and stayed non-lethal themselves. Also, since the city's rules are clear, there are reasons for them to not have weapons or be lethal either. This meant that assassins and lethal combats were the exception.

Rule Tweaks

In D&D 3.x, making a non-lethal attack with regular weapons comes at a disadvantage. I threw that out. If players are making a commitment to play a certain way, I'm not going to enforce rules that discourage it.

I also allowed non-lethal variants of all weapons--arrows with blunted/padded ends, hitting with the back-side or flat of a handaxe, all for normal but non-lethal damage. And I allowed conversion to lethal damage when needed; padded arrows? I'm sure you had some real ones to use against the dwarven defense automatons.

I allowed players to start buying contraband weapons and armor. There are specialists who can "decorate" leather armor to make it studded leather without being obvious. Others sell sword canes, for those who might need something better in an emergency. Such craftsmen became something that could be found if you could get someone to do you a favor.

I introduced morale mechanics. If enough people went down, non-lethally, others might decide it was time to surrender or flee. This has always been a concept in D&D, but I made it core to each combat, so the party could depend on it to keep them safe, if they did enough damage quickly.

Perhaps most important, XP was based on milestones, not kills or defeats. This means that the scaled-down combats and creatures who were allowed to flee didn't affect the players' leveling rates.

General Considerations

If you've made it this far, your reaction might be "this is interesting, but I don't want to play this way." That's fine. The lesson here is not that players should play non-lethal games. Rather, it's that if the players want to play a certain way, which doesn't go against the theme of the world, or take away from GM agency, then the GM should try to encourage it.

The examples above point out some ways within the game (and some small adaptations I made to the rules) to encourage a style of play the characters wanted to pursue. My campaign is a sandbox game, so after "everybody including me should have fun", player goals are first among my priorities. Had the game tended towards a stealth and skill game, I'd have adapted the challenges, world's reactions and possibly game rules to encourage that. 

Ultimately, after over 40 years of running games, and 15 years running games just for this group, if there's something new or innovative they want to try, I'm all for giving them the opportunity to do so.

About the Art

Today's header art is "Non-lethal yellow girl" by Jasmine Collins, whose other art can be found on her Facebook Page, Jasmine's Creature Art

As I often do, I was looking through Deviant Art for something to both illustrate and inspire and came across this picture which was perfectly aligned with my thinking. The mouse at the center of the picture is completely adorable as it sits curious and content on the hand. This is a mouse who is happy to be around people, and while it might nip if it feels threatened, it wouldn't try to seriously hurt anyone.

On the other hand, I recently had my car's wiring harness chewed through by a nest of what were probably similarly adorable little rodents. While nobody would deny that these mice are cute and wouldn't hurt anyone, they still caused epic amounts of trouble--much like characters tend to do, which makes the image doubly appropriate to my own circumstances.


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