Introduction

The purpose of this article is to propose how to address a gap that has arguably existed in the DnD rules from the beginning, due to its roots in war gaming.

In DnD, physical combat is governed by rules, tactics, ability scores and resources.  Other skills are covered more by rulings in earlier versions and simple rules in later versions.  Persuading some could involve describing your character’s approach and the DM making a decision on whether it worked, or asking the player to roll a Persuasion check, comparing that to a Difficulty Check number, decided by the DM.

The gap then is that, due to its formula, combat tends in some games, to see less role play and be more by the numbers and role play is sometimes less true to character ability scores.  This can cover up such things as the Charisma score being used as a dumping ground for bad rolls if it isn’t required to power spells or other class abilities.

I will also note that I have a lot of experience with mental health issues so the use of this language is meant in a positive way and aims to add an option to DnD where encounters can be resolved through non-violent means where the aim is to shift attitudes to the positive, rather than simply drawing steel.

Fight

The word ‘fight’ conjures up images of physical combat. The origin of the word though serves to illustrate the difficulties with the old professions of farming and cloth making.

Fight’ comes to us through the Proto-Germanic, ‘fehtaną’, meaning to ‘comb, detangle’, ‘struggle, fight’, ‘to shear’. It arrives there from the Proto-Indo-European, ‘peḱ-’, meaning ‘to pluck (wool, hair)’, relating to the energetic activity of combing or carding wool to detangle it into threads. Perhaps those who have had to wrestle with tangles in their own hair will see how we get the word ‘fight’ from there.

Flemish girl carding wool. Painting by Maria Wilk, 1883

Altercation

The word ‘altercation’ is sometimes used to suggest a physical confrontation. It is, however, a dispute or debate. Its root Is the Latin word ‘altercor’, from ‘alter’, meaning ‘the other, another’ and the suffix ‘-ico’, perhaps adjusting the word to mean ‘pertaining to another’.

Next, let us consider physical combat where the results of the dice rolls combined with character scores are role played out.

DM: You see the farmer’s sheep, painted with his symbol, at the back of the cave.  In between you and them stand five goblins.  The biggest, clad in wolf hides, brandishes a rusty short blade, a bent metal plate strapped to his arm as a buckler.  He bares his teeth at you and hisses.

Player: I charge forward and attack.

Player: I roll 17 total, 5 damage.

DM: The goblin has AC 15, it’s a hit.

DM: The goblin tries to block your attack by raising his buckler and turning the flat of his short sword to meet yours.

Player: I side step to the right, past his waiting buckler and swing against his torso.

DM: Your blade finds a gap below his rank hides, where there is only rough spun cloth.  You cut through cloth and flesh, felling the goblin.  His kin eye you wearily.

By the player rolling their hit and damage together, and the DM being open (after the first strike) as to the opponent’s armour class, they can work together to narratively describe how skilful and deadly the hit was.

The challenge then in this article is to re-run this combat, but through persuasion, deception and perhaps intimidation. Mental combat.

Abelard and Heloise in the manuscript Roman de la Rose (14th century)

A quick recap of what, in DnD, physical combat entails:

Hit

Strength or Dexterity bonus + Proficiency + Item bonus + Circumstance bonus + 20 sided die

Damage

Strength or Dexterity bonus + Item bonus + Weapon damage die (e.g. d4/d6/d8/d10/d12)

Difficulty Check

In combat this is referred to as the Armour Class (AC)

Armour rating + Dexterity bonus (up to the armour’s Dexterity cap) + Item bonus + Circumstance bonus

I have used Item bonus as anything boosting the armour resiliency, including magic.  Circumstance bonus refers to flanking, aid from an ally, terrain (‘I have the high ground’) and similar.

Progress

This is tracked through the Hit Points (or hp) of those taking part.  Damage is deducted from the Hit Points.

Now to convert this to Mental Combat.

Hit

Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma bonus + Proficiency (if at least trained in Persuasion/Deception/Intimidation) + Item bonus + Circumstance bonus + 20 sided die

Only applying the bonus from one ability, rather than add them all together, replicates the character making either an intelligent argument, a wise reflection, or charismatic pronouncement.  For an ‘all in’ option, see further below.

Damage

Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma bonus + Item bonus + Weapon damage die

Damage dice would start at a d4, equivalent to an unarmed strike.  There would be class options and feats that could be taken to improve this.  Perhaps becoming an expert in one of the mental weapons of Persuasion, Deception or Intimidation could unlock a more effective mental strike with d6 mental damage.  This would be like the monk’s increased unarmed strike.  Perhaps a class built around persuading could offer damage dice increases similar to the monk build.

Difficulty Check

We will refer to this as the Mental Armour Class (MAC)

Mental Armour rating + Item bonus + Circumstance bonus

Mental Armour = 10 + Intelligence bonus + Wisdom bonus + Charisma bonus

Adding all three mental ability score bonuses together shows the character using a balance of abilities to reflect on, stand up to and confidently push back on the argument made to them.  It also has similarities to the barbarian’s and monk’s Unarmoured Defence abilities, which add Wisdom and either Constitution or Dexterity.

I am adding all three because the monk and barbarian have other balancing abilities, such as the barbarian’s damage resistance while raging.

For a character with Int: 18 (+4), Wis: 16 (+3), Cha: 14 (+2) this would give a Mental Armour of 19 (10 + 4 + 3 + 2), which is comparable to a decent low level fighter’s physical AC.

Progress

This is tracked through Mental Health Points (mhp).  The player rolls for mhp each level, just as with hp.  As each class has a particular size of physical Hit Die (HD), they also have a Mental Health Die (MHD). 

To keep in step with the classes’ Wisdom saves, I suggest we reverse the dice sizes so a barbarian who has an HD of d12 and a wizard has an HD of d6 will switch.  The barbarian has an MHD of d6 and the Wizard an MHD of d12.

The character’s Wisdom bonus is added to their MHD each level, just as the Constitution bonus is added to the HD.

Let us return to the goblin and the player character.

A goblin (as per the Monster Manual) has the following ability scores:

  • Str: 8 (-1) Dex: 14 (+2) Con: 10 (0) Int: 10 (0) Wis: 8 (-1) Cha: 8 (-1)

The goblin’s Mental Combat scores are as follows:

  • Mental to Hit score is 2 (2 + Int 0)
  • Damage is d6. Their best mental bonus is Intelligence as + 0, so no change
  • Mental Armour rating is 8 (10 + Int 0 – Wis 1 – Cha 1)
  • MAC is also 8 as there are no other adjustments.
  • The goblin has 6 mhp (2d6 – 1)

Let us say our player’s character has the following ability scores:

  • Str: 8 (-1) Dex: 10 (0) Con: 10 (0) Int: 18 (+4) Wis: 14 (+2) Cha: 14 (+2)

The player character’s Mental Combat scores are as follows:

  • Mental to Hit score is 6 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 4)
  • Damage is d6 + 4. Their best mental bonus is Intelligence at + 4
  • Mental Armour rating is 18 (10 + Int 4 + Wis 2 + Cha 2)
  • MAC is also 18 as there are no other adjustments.
  • The player character, a 1st level bard, has 10 mhp (they rolled 8 on their d12 at character creation + 2 from their Wisdom bonus)
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1920

Now we re-run the combat.

DM: You see the farmer’s sheep, painted with his symbol, at the back of the cave.  In between you and them stand five goblins.  The biggest, clad in wolf hides, brandishes a rusty short blade, a bent metal plate strapped to his arm as a buckler.  He bares his teeth at you and hisses.

Player: I try and persuade him.  I know the goblin language so I speak in that.

Player: I roll a 12, plus my Mental to Hit of 5, so 17 total.  I roll 4 on my d6, plus my bonus of 4, so 8 total damage.

DM: The goblin has a MAC of 8, so that’s a solid hit.

DM: The goblin is surprised by you speaking in their language.  His snarling jaw slackens for a moment.

Player: I hold myself confidently and say, ‘I presume you have taken these sheep because of your kin’s need, yet you have left the farmer and their family with no food and no wool.  I am here to try and appeal to you to return the sheep.  Otherwise the farmer and his neighbours are gathering to take them back by force and they outnumber you greatly’.

DM: The large goblin blusters for a moment, finally countering with an unconvincing, ‘I don’t care’.  His kin eye you wearily then mutter something to him.  Roll perception.

Player: I roll 14 + 2 so 16.

DM: You can make out one goblin saying that their chief has gone to far and endangered the clan.  She steps forward and pushes him aside.  You suspect it is his mother.  ‘Maybe we can reach an agreement’, she says.  What do you do?

The goblin being reduced to 0 mhp takes him out of the combat, both mentally and physically.

Options

We can now add in a variety of other options to duplicate the cut and thrust of physical combat with the cut and thrust of debate.

Attitude

A factor in combat that is not often used in modern versions of DnD is that ‘monsters’ may not always be hostile to the adventuring party, even if they are in a dungeon, or its equivalent.  At the start of an encounter the DM rolls for the NPC’s starting attitude towards the player characters.  By default this might be friendly, indifferent or hostile.

In Mental Combat, this could add a Circumstance adjustment to the MAC.

Taking indifferent as offering no bonus or penalty, friendly would lower the NPC’s MAC by 2 (it is perhaps easier to hurt friends than enemies) and hostile would increase the NPC’s MAC by 2.

Our goblin, starting at hostile, would instead of 8, have a MAC of 10 (their Mental Armour rating of 8 + the Cicumstance bonus from hostile of 2)

Morale

Another older DnD style factor in combat is NPC morale.  This could be ‘when the orc reaches 25% of their total hit points, roll morale’.  The DM would roll a d20 and compare it to a score to determine if the orc keeps fighting, or either drops their weapon and surrenders, or tries to get away.

This can be included in physical and mental combat.  Not every encounter must be a fight to zero.

Making Friends, or Mental Grappling

The dreaded grapple rule, one of much complexity, depending on which edition of DnD you play.  We can replicate it without causing problems.

To adjust the NPC’s attitude, the player can try and emotionally move it.  Making friends must be either through Persuasion or Deception.

Smiling AI generated photo through AI painting filter

This cannot be archived with Intimidation.  You cannot threaten someone to like you more.  A bully perhaps would achieve the same by regularly mentally beating their victim to keep them at or near zero mhp.

If the NPC is being physically attacked by the player character, or their allies, then shifting their attitude to a more positive status cannot be attempted.  Any physical attack against the NPC will move their attitude regarding the attacker immediately to hostile and may well move the NPC’s attitude to all other party members to at least indifferent, unless the other player characters take action and intervene to stop the attack.

The player must declare that they are going to try and improve the NPC’s attitude towards their character.  They make a Mental to Hit as normal. 

On a success, instead of damage they move the NPC from hostile to indifferent.  This has the effect of removing the NPC’s Circumstance bonus to their MAC, lowering the MAC and potentially opening them up for a subtle jibe next round.

This bonus only benefits the player character who shifted their attitude, not his allies.  Likewise, if he moves the NPC’s attitude from indifferent to friendly, the NPC’s MAC decreases by 2 from its base score and the combat may cease.

The fun of this is that an NPC can begin by being hostile to the party but the character who is the face of the party can move the NPC’s attitude to them to friendly, even though the NPC is still hostile to the rest of the party.  The fighter with the Charisma dump stat, does not get to automatically ride the coat tails of his more charming and persuasive companions.

Roleplaying this out as they go along, the DM can show how the NPC has a more nuanced opinion of the party members.  The NPC may like one but be at best indifferent to the others and potentially bearing a scathing hatred towards the dump stat fighter.  ‘A discount?  For you?  Of course’, the shop keeper replies with a smile.  ‘You want to buy this greatsword?  That’s a display model.  We don’t have any in stock at the moment.  I bid you adieu’.

Other Manoeuvres

Other debating or argumentative actions that could replicate the style and balance of combat tactics could include a mental trip attack.

The mental trip attack, could be an attack with no damage, but would leave the target bewildered, with a -2 to their MAC until the end of their next turn.

All In

Above I have noted that the Mental to Hit bonus uses Intelligence OR Wisdom OR Charisma. This replicates physical combat, choosing only one of Strength or Dexterity.  In physical combat this allows a character to cover their low Strength by using a Dexterity-based (finesse) weapon instead.  Other checks, like climbing or swimming do not allow this.

In a similar way to Mental Armour, I suggest using all the mental abilities together for a reason I will get on to in a moment.

The Mental to Hit bonus would therefore change to use Intelligence PLUS Wisdom PLUS Charisma

In the above example, this change would weaken the goblin’s attack, from a Mental to Hit of 2 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 0), which would reduce to 0 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 0 – Wis 1 – Cha 1).

It would increase the wizard player character’s Mental to Hit from 6 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 4) to 10 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 4 + Wis 2 + Cha 2).

The reason for this is twofold.  First to replicate the combination of logic, empathy and confidence involved in Persuasion and Deception.  Second to add in flaws instead of just the character’s best score.  If a character is highly Intelligent but with a low Charisma, perhaps lacking confidence, to enable the player to portray their character correctly, bonuses and flaws must all be involved in the roll.

MMA

Whether Mental or Martial Arts, there will be times when the two happen together. The goblin is not obliged to respond with a verbal attack though. If their mental prowess is too low, they may resort to physical violence.

It would then be down to the player to decide whether to switch to a physical attack themselves, targeting the goblin’s hit points, or, while defending themselves, continuing to verbally strike at the goblin’s mental health points, wearing him down with charm, lies or taunts.

Michael Palin and John Cleese perform the Argument Clinic sketch live in 2014

Maybe the wizard tries next round to shift the goblin’s attitude from hostile to indifferent and the round later to friendly, at which point the goblin may stop attacking, for now.

It adds a wider range of tactics to the encounter.  The wizard’s allies could join in, trying to persuade the chief or maybe ‘targeting’ one of the other goblins.  If they succeed in shifting one of the others to friendly, the party could encourage them to help stop the physical fight.

Language

If the wizard did not know the Goblin language and the goblin did not speak Common, there should be a minimum of a -4 Circumstance penalty to both opponents’ Mental to Hit scores. The argument would rely much more on gestures and tone of voice. Perhaps the wizard points at the sheep and back to the valley, making signs of an angry mob on their way, which could be acted out by the player.

To help facilitate verbal altercations, I would allow bonus languages for higher Intelligence scores. This existed in earlier versions of DnD. An Intelligence of 12 with a bonus of + 1 would give you an extra language. An 18 with a bonus of + 4 would give you four extra languages. A diverse party could cover perhaps ten or more languages.

Intimidation

The angry elephant in the room.  DnD5e has the option to use Strength, instead of Charisma for the Intimidation skill.  One of the reasons for mental combat is to offer an alternative to the Strength based builds.  We could allow Strength to play a role in mental combat though.

In the original suggestion of picking your best mental score for your Mental to Hit bonus, allowing Strength alone would skew mental combat back to the Strength build.  Using the ‘All In’ method above, of adding all mental bonuses together (the positives and the negatives), an Intimidation Mental to Hit score boosted by including the Strength bonus, could be reduced by a poor score in Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma.  It is unlikely the fighter has medium to high ability scores across the board.

Let us consider a 1st level fighter, using the same rolls as the wizard but rearranged for physical combat.  Str: 18 (+4) Dex: 14 (+2) Con:14 (+2) Int: 8 (-1) Wis:10 (0) Cha: 10 (0).  Their Intimidation Mental to Hit bonus would be 5 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Str 4 – Int 1 + Wis 0 + Cha 0).  This is 5 lower than the wizard’s general Mental to Hit score of 10, using the All In method.

Also, it only applies to Intimidation and cannot be used to try and change the NPC’s attitude, which may change to hostile, if the NPC is threatened, boosting the NPC’s MAC by 2.

The fighter’s Persuasion and Deception Mental to Hit Scores will still only use Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.  If the fighter is proficient in those skills, their Mental to Hit score with them would be 3 (Proficiency Bonus 2 + Int 1 + Wis 0 + Cha 0).

As the wizard levels up, they will improve their Intelligence score and therefore their Mental to Hit and their MAC, whereas the fighter will likely focus on improving physical skills, so they will only gain with improvements to their proficiency bonus.

Does it Replace Skill Checks?

What happens to the current Persuade check, or Deception, or Intimidation? Do these remain where encounters were never likely to turn violent, such as the shop keeper, or inn keeper? Maybe. Or maybe this system replaces them. You try and persuade the inn keeper to give you some more information on the burglaries. He resists. You sense he is holding back so you decide to push a little more. The combat, in the midst of the tap room, begins. If you can keep him friendly or indifferent, then the mental combat can play out as you banter back and forth. If he gets annoyed, perhaps you rolled a 1, then maybe his attitude turns hostile and he signals for the bouncers to escort you out.

Existing Mental Attacks

Spells, such as Vicious Mockery, Charm Person and Domination already deal with attack or subsuming an opponent. These could be adapted to work with the new system, targeting someone’s Mental Health Points instead of Hit Points. I won’t go further on this area here.

Mercury, Roman god of healing and a psychopomp, an escort to souls in the Underworld, which in Jungian psychology is representative of mediation between the unconscious and conscious minds

Healing

It would be fair to presume that healing magic would soothe mental health damage as well as the physical.  To not overpower the spell, I suggest the player decides how to split any healing they receive.  A heal spell giving them 7 points of healing, for example, could be split by the player so they are healed 2 hit points and 5 mental health points.  The next time they receive healing, it could be split in other ways.

The healer feat emphasis bandages and salves.  It could be expanded to provide mental health healing too though, with healing being split by the player as above and potentially role played out by the two players.

Short Rests can help with mental health, so the player could spend their Mental Health Dice in the same way they can with Hit Dice, renewing them with a Long Rest.

Summary

The aim of this article was to work through what a non-violent encounter could look like if some DnD flavour rules were built for it.

As above, I am highly experienced in Mental Health issues so this is all meant to be taken in a positive way, which hopefully, if you have read this far, is how you have received it.

Any thoughts on the system, please let me know. I would be happy to receive comments on it.

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