Well, now I’m running A Song of Ice and Fire by Green Ronin (Game of Thrones, for those who have only seen the show). I made sure to let the players know how deadly combat is, because I didn’t want them diving into combat thinking they were invincible. This isn’t D&D.
So, the players are playing as a noble family on the coast of the Narrow Sea, heading to a great tournament at Harrenhall. They encountered their rival family at an inn in Maidenpool. The secondborn of the family, Lysander Rand, goaded the players, mocking their family and attempting a bar-fight. The players, knowing how dangerous combat was, ended up forcing a duel of wits, where they argued with the other house, and eventually diffusing the situation with humor. No longer in danger, they headed on their way.
Now, they’re about to enter the tourney, so combat’s going to happen. Someone may die. But I was impressed by how my players could wiggle out of combat.
This is only the second time in my 16 years of running RPGs where the players squeezed their way out of combat. So, what do you do?
First, plan more for the session than you think you’ll play. If the players manage to avoid combat, they’ll be moving deeper into the plot quicker. I failed to do that, so we ended just a little early, as the characters crested the hill over Harrenhall.
Second, make sure you know the rules for non-combat options very well. If you’re playing D&D, this isn’t an issue, but games like Torchbearer or ASoIaF have rules for debating and other mental duels. Make sure you know them so that the players can finagle their way through those rules instead. ASoIaF’s rules for this are a simplified version of the combat rules.
Third, and most importantly: Roll with the punches. Don’t try to force combat. I continued to amp up the stakes before they began their duel of wits, by having the other house half-drawing their swords, and continuing to be antagonistic, but I wasn’t going to force a combat. I wanted the players to start it if it was going to happen at all.
I really encourage you to try out some RPGs which make combat an undesirable outcome, to see if your players will rise to the challenge, or find themselves in early graves.