Is It Possible to Play a Pacifist in D&D?
There's more than one way to play the game.
Slaying dragons, saving villages, and exploring dungeons are all unquestionably an important part of Dungeons and Dragons, and I doubt I’m the only player out there who loves hearing the words, “Roll initiative!” (Well, usually – there have definitely been some encounters filled with dread!)
The combat system in D&D is a huge part of its fun, and for some people it’s the main focus of their gameplay. But does that mean it has to be a violent game? Is there no room in roleplay for pacifism or, similarly, would any attempt at creating a pacifist player become purely lip service the second the DM calls for initiative?
I don’t think that’s an easy call to make, in part because D&D is such a broad game that can be played a number of different ways, depending on the interests of your party and the style of campaign you want to play. But if you want to play a pacifist, here are a few ideas for how to go about doing it.
The Right Class
An obvious but crucial part of this effort is picking the right class for your character. If it’s hard, in general, to wrap your head around the idea of a pacifist adventurer, that task becomes nigh impossible if the person in question is, say, a barbarian.
There are a lot of options here, though. Clerics, as a class with a huge swath of healing and buffing spells at their disposal, are a great choice and could certainly be built up to have a backstory connecting them to a pacifist doctrine at their particular temple or place of worship. While clerics are certainly capable of doling out huge damage and their offensive capabilities should not be understated, they’re also designed in a way that enables you to use them as a support class, which is likely what you’ll be doing as a pacifist.
Another spiritual class this could fit is the monk, though it may be harder to affectively use this class in a way that fits pacifist roleplay given that their skills lean heavily into martial arts. They aren’t exactly a buffing or healing class, and trying to land a Stunning Strike on someone requires you to hit them quite a lot. Even subclasses like Way of the Four Elements, which have a lot more defensive or terrain-altering abilities, wouldn’t be very helpful to the party if you weren’t willing to actually fight – it would just make you, personally, harder to kill.
Bards are an interesting possibility, since a lot of their abilities lean toward support, plus they can get a handful of spells from any other class. So you can be cheering on your allies, giving them inspiration dice to add on to the their rolls, and casting any variety of buffs and debuffs to turn the fight in your friends’ favour – all without any need for bloodshed on your part.
However, anyone who has played 5e probably won’t be surprised to hear that I think paladin is one of the best choices for this, mechanically and thematically, particularly Oath of Redemption paladins. I mean, the first tenet listed for this oath is “Peace” – a central concept to this subclass is that violence is a last resort. And paladins in general are designed around skills like healing, buffing allies, and generally providing support to the party (though, like clerics, they can still definitely pack a punch). Being a pacifist wouldn’t completely take you out of the fight – it would just shift your focus during combat encounters.
A Different Approach to Combat
I’ve kind of already said it, but a pacifist character in combat encounters would need to have access to some amount of healing, buffing, and support abilities in order to still be a team player. The aforementioned Oath of Redemption paladin would be very effective at this, especially if you give them the protective fighting style, allowing them to use their reaction to impose disadvantage on attacks against an ally within five feet of them. Between the healing power of Lay on Hands, Cure Wounds, and Revivify; the defensive qualities of protective fighting style, Shield of Faith, and Protection from Evil and Good; and other utility spells like Detect Magic, Locate Object, and Purify Food and Drink, you can still offer a hell of a lot to the party while rarely raising your sword against enemies.
Another significant part of this approach could be trying to limit how often you actually go into combat by using diplomacy or stealth skills where appropriate. Don’t want to get into a fight with the local thieves’ guild? Talk your way out of it. Worried that a camp of bandits might see your party on the road and attack? Move as slowly and quietly as possible to avoid being seen. Obviously, this tactic is something the other players at the table will have to be on board with, but… well, so is playing an extremely pacifist character in a game that typically involves a lot of combat.
Jumping off that point, certain types of campaigns will be more geared toward this kind of character than others. A meatgrinder game is definitely not the place to try out Non-Violent Nancy, nor is the game where everyone else wants to be assassins and murder hobos. But if you’re playing a campaign focused on political intrigue, a pacifist could slot in very well and offer some very useful diplomacy skills to the party, helping them talk their way through confrontations and avoid large-scale conflicts.
Of course, there might come a point where it doesn’t make sense for your character to cling to strict moral principals and refuse to turn their blade on someone. Allies could be in mortal danger, the safety or well-being of an entire community may be at stake, or you may simply be faced with a creature that is an abomination of everything your faith stands for. Whatever the case, there’s a very real possibility that you could find yourself rolling attack damage instead of healing dice. But if that happens, can you still call your character a pacifist?
This is where you can really dig into some roleplay, if that’s your thing. A character who has trained and studied under the ideal of peace, diplomacy, and patience will likely be deeply shaken by an encounter that forces them to draw blood – or even kill. Your character might seek out an old mentor and have a deep discussion with them about their morals and how to proceed. Your character might go through a dark streak where they aren’t sure how to balance their recent actions with their beliefs, so they don’t even try. Or they might quietly grapple with grief and guilt, becoming more reluctant to participate in combat in even the passive ways they have previously. Again, this is something you should run by your DM and other players to make sure they’re okay with it, but with the right party in the right campaign, these moral quandaries open up the possibility for a lot of really fun and fascinating RP.
Bottom line: There isn’t any one right way to play D&D. If you want to be a murder hobo, go for it. If you want to be a brilliant strategist who lays perfect traps and ambushes, all the power to you. And if you want to figure out how navigate a world full of violence and monsters in the mindset of a pacifist, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Play the game you want to play.