Welcome back to the Zurn blog! In today's post we're continuing the "Let's Play" series by looking at another advanced character type that can be easy or hard to fit into your next campaign: the pacifist. Now naturally there are some campaigns where it is just unwise to run this character: if your game master has told you that the party has been tasked with defending a town, or destroying an enemy fortress, or any other scenario where martial conflict is necessary to the campaign, don't run this character type. It will only give grief to the other players and your game master.
But there are many campaigns where a pacifist can be of great use to the party, and that is what we want to discuss today. We will start by looking at the advantages to the group (and yourself) in playing a pacifist, and then we will continue on with a look at how to use a pacifist effectively before getting into the mechanics of how to build the character.
I. Why Play a Pacifist?
To get us started, there are three reasons to play a pacifist. First, it prevents the party from becoming murder hobos. Pacifists can, from personal conviction, argue effectively for the party not to fight. A pacifist may believe that physical restraint and sometimes even violence may be necessary in rare scenarios, but when it is not they are adamant to stand against the use of violence. This is extremely useful in the combating of "murder hoboism" in the party, and thus is a net bonus for the party.
Second, pacifists round out the party. While most players think through the combat aspects of their character, it is very common that the non-combat/social elements of the character are passed over in favor of martial prowess. Result: the party can be swindled by a smooth talking salesman or outfoxed by a stealthy thief because no one thought to focus on a different element of the game.
Pacifists have opportunity and motive to do that. Instead of solving problems with force, pacifists tend to resort to negotiation, evasion, or cooperation with other persons or groups in the region to get their way. This opens doors that your typical adventuring group would not have.
And finally, pacifists make for a unique playstyle in a class-based system. 80% of clerics in D&D take the same spells for use in and out of combat, so even if you play a different domain for a cleric (the D&D class with the most subclasses), you are still going to have mostly the same play experience.
But that all disappears when you play a pacifist. Suddenly Spiritual Weapon is not the automatic go-to spell when you hit 3rd level. The detection and protection spells suddenly look more attractive. You'll still use a number of the staples (control spells like Hold Person, healing spells, and Bless), but your other choices will be radically different because of the kind of character you are playing.
And all of this adds to your gaming experience, both for you as a player and to the group at large. The trick is using this character in a way that will not cause friction (because no one likes a wet blanket in a campaign that is supposed to have combat), and that is where we turn next.
II. How would a Pacifist Act?
Pacifists can be tricky, as players that really love combat are going to hate it when a character says, "let's not resort to combat." This becomes even more upsetting if the pacifist is the only person built to do things out of combat. So to that end, I have four suggestions on how to play a pacifist so as not to honk off the rest of the group.
First, focus on persuasion. This doesn't just mean persuading the NPCs not to kill you or take your stuff (which is useful to the rest of the party), but it also means you need to focus on persuading the rest of the characters (and players) in the group. If you really don't want to fight these guards, you need to present a counterargument that will still get the job done, just without violence. And this is not as simple as, "I roll Persuade" and roll higher than the resistance roll of the target: you need to give an actual persuasive argument as to why the group shouldn't resort to violence.
And this is one of the reasons I consider this to be an advanced character concept: it demands a lot more from the player character, especially in crisis situations. But it is absolutely necessary to avoid friction within the gaming group.
Second, focus on exploration and social rolls when building your character. If you are not going to be contributing to the damage total in a fight, you need to be a stand out party member in non-combat situations. Perhaps you're the perceptive one who stands watch at night, insuring that the party does not get robbed. Maybe you are the party negotiator who talks with rulers about getting paid. Whatever the thing is that you do, do it with all of your might. But at the same time...
Third, have ways to contribute in combat. If your campaign is a typical roleplay adventure you will have lots of fighting (as most RPGs are combat simulator games at their core, with the overwhelming majority of the rules centered around combat). So have ways to contribute, but consistent with your creed. Perhaps you're the party healer, patching up the wounds of war. Perhaps you shield or preserve allies from danger, or restrain and hold back enemies so that they can "cool down and think about their life choices." Perhaps you are the distraction that takes a few of the enemies away from your allies to keep them from being overrun.
Whatever the situation is, have ways that you can meaningfully contribute in battle.
Finally, this is your personal code. If the rest of the party decides to fight things, you are not a failure - sometimes change comes slowly. So it is not a, "I'm a pacifist so there needs to be no fighting while I'm at the table," it's more of a, "as much as I can I need to make the argument for why people should resort to diplomacy over war." And that will go a long way to making you a more accepted member of the party.
So with this in mind, let's look at the mechanical considerations for your character.
III. Mechanics for Pacifists
I had a player once who wanted to play a pacifist as part of an escort campaign, where the party was hired to escort a princess from her father's castle which was coming under siege to her uncle's castle further inland. Five days, a nice road, what could happen, right? The player said he wanted to play a pacifist, so I walked him through some of the things he needed to figure out as he built the character, and that is the template I'll be using here to help you think through mechanics.
First, when it came to stats, he had to think through how his character came to be a pacifist. Was he a strong man who beat someone senseless (or maybe even to death) and that caused him to set out on his path of pacifism? If so, he needs a good Strength score (which will also help him with carrying injured party members, moving heavy objects that obstruct the path, carrying gear for the group, etc., so still a useful feature for the character even if he's not dealing damage with that stat).
Perhaps he had keen senses, always looking for potential threats so that he can work to assuage them or evade them as needed (a high Finesse/Wisdom score). Or maybe he is a magic user who was taught in a tradition of pacifism, using magic to help and protect but not harm (which is what he went for). Whatever the background is, that will help you determine which stats to value.
For the class virtually any class in a class-based game will work, though some are harder than others. Fighters, for example, are, well, fighters - you'd need a good reason for why your trained warrior is still a warrior but doesn't like war (instead of going the clerical or monk route and abandoning the trappings of war). Similarly the barbarian who rages might be hard to pass off as a pacifist. But so long as you have a good reason in your background, virtually any class can work for this.
For your equipment you have a lot of leeway here depending on what led you to adopt pacifism. Perhaps you are a healer who is binding up the wounds of war. Perhaps you wear a lot of armor to keep you safe as you triage damage on the battlefield or speak to angry crowds to assuage them. Perhaps you have a good sturdy cloak or spade for staying warm at night or burying corpses that you see in your travels. There's a host of options here, all determined by what kind of pacifist you want to play.
My one warning about equipment, though, is that it is very unlikely that you will carry a sword, as swords are the first weapons man specifically made for war in our world (all others around the same time had hunting or utility uses), and I imagine that it is the same story in your fantasy world. So if a weapon is specifically made for war, you may want to avoid taking it to remain consistent with the theme.
Your skills should be consistent with the theme of a pacifist, and reflect how you've grown over the years. Some of them may be vestigial from a former walk of life (like scars on an old grizzled veteran who is now tired of war), some may be developed after having embraced this life (a resilience to the cold as you travel or a wariness of danger around you). Whatever the situation may be, theme your adjectives or skill proficiency with your character concept, and reimagine how your character's skills would be shaped and honed based on their life choices.
And finally, if you are using magic, consider how the decision to be a pacifist affects your choice of spells. Heavy damage spells are likely anathema to you, so even if you are a wizard you may not want to take Fireball. I recommend focusing on one or more of the following types of spells: healing, shielding, summoning, control, and hexing. All of these are very thematic with a pacifist, allowing you to protect your allies or prevent your enemies from harming your allies. It also allows you to have the freedom to perform useful skill checks (like identifying weaknesses in an enemy, looking for danger, etc.) while in battle, as you are not using your action(s) to attack.
This is not an easy one to play, and your game master may ask you not to play it if they are not comfortable with this character concept, and that's okay. If this happens you should honor the wishes of your game master and choose a different concept. But if it will not derail the campaign or cause friction in the group and you want a new experience for your character, consider playing a pacifist.
In our next post in this series we will be looking at how to play a crazy wizard that is not cliché, but will likely return to some of our other series before that one is released.
Until next time,