View Full Version : Making non-combat encounters work

2013-10-15, 07:05 PM
I find myself seriously preparing a campaign for the first time in a very long time, as I think I've finally found a group of local players. And one of the things I'd like to do is incorporate some non-combat challenges, whether those be traps, obstacles, environmental hazards, exploration challenges, or social encounters. But I'm not sure how to make those work as well as combat works.

This will almost certainly be D&D, probably 3.5, but I suppose I'm open to systems (especially free systems) that do what I need. And I'm primarily looking at this from a Gamist perspective; I realize out-of-combat situations can be fun in other ways.

Obviously, D&D supports combat with a lot more rules than it provides for other situations, but I think my issue goes deeper than that. In my mind, what makes combat work is that it, out of necessity, engages the entire group in what amounts to a problem-solving exercise. Every player has to engage in this decision/action/feedback cycle that generally lasts several rounds. During however much real-world time that equates to, every player is (in theory) thinking about how they can contribute to overcoming a challenge. When combat stops being fun, it's usually because it's not accomplishing that goal, whether that's because the players have mastered their options and "solved" combat by developing optimal tactics, the options are too limited to begin with, or because the players' personalities don't lend themselves towards engaging in that type of problem solving.

So, in my mind, the challenge is to recreate that decision/action/feedback loop in a meaningful way outside of combat. I see a few obstacles to this:

First, non-combat challenges don't necessarily engage every player, particularly when they're outside somebody's area of expertise. Trapfinding is only fun for the rogue. Diplomacy primarily involves the party face; other players might choose to chip in, but they can also choose to leave it to the characters that are built for it. A wilderness exploration sequence might engage the Ranger, and a player who hikes a lot (if they're not the same person), but not the other players. This is compounded by 3.5's skill system, where a challenge can be impossible for one character and trivial for another.

Second, non-combat challenges are generally shorter than combat. As I said, one of the things that makes combat fun is that it involves a decision/action/feedback loop that repeats several times. Non-combat challenges generally involve fewer choices and take fewer rolls to resolve. Thus, even if they're engaging, they're over quickly.

Third, non-combat challenges can often be "solved." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it means players are engaged enough to look for a solution, but clever players can often reduce a challenge to something they can take 10 on, which removes any chance of failure and makes future similar challenges pointless.

Not all non-combat challenges share all of these problems (and some have other problems). Some of these can be fixed with careful adventure design. Some aren't a problem in every group. And I'm not saying that no non-combat challenge can ever be fun. But generally speaking, combat has a fun, engaging decision/action/feedback loop that seems to be hard to replicate in non-combat situations.

So, does the Playground think I'm on the right track as far as identifying the challenge here? Any thoughts on addressing these issues? Any systems that handle this better than D&D (within the pseudo-medieval fantasy genre)?

2013-10-15, 09:03 PM
Here are two things I've found helpful.

For social encounters, give the players distinct contacts. The party shouldn't send the bard to do all the talking because that's his job. Nor should the party speak to an NPC as a group. The person who knows an NPC and has a relationship with that NPC should be the one to make contact. Now the trick is making sure the NPCs all have information to distribute in such a way that the PCs get equal face time.

For physical obstacles and terrain based encounters I like to give the players stuff they haven't seen before. If there's a spiked pit in the dungeon, everybody has seen it and the wizard has three different spells that address this problem. You want to give them challenges that don't have predefined solutions. Often the solution will be found in a combination of abilities, and the odds are that those abilities won't all come from the same person.

-- edit to add --

If that's too vague, here's my thought process for building up something like what I describe. Have a normal situation set up. Now put enemies there. There aren't enough of them to defend the situation through combat, but they have the resources to fortify the hell out of it. Let them.

Mr Beer
2013-10-15, 09:26 PM
Re. the Face having to do all the talking because diplomacy skill, the other players can (and often should) chip in and discuss what needs to be said. I've played sessions where the Face does more relaying the info than actually deciding what needs to be said.

2013-10-15, 09:34 PM
Wait until the players come up with a plan of action that involves doing a whole lot of different tasks in one place (probably, a town) - then put time pressure on them so that these tasks have to be completed concurrently, not sequentially, so everyone has to get involved and "we sit around the tavern while the rogue goes shopping" isn't an option.

A variant on that is the "party" scenario, where the party meets with a whole bunch of NPCs and each gets engaged in conversation separately. They can't all hide behind the bard.

An extreme version is to give the party multiple objectives that require them to work concurrently. Think of it as your favourite heist movie: one character creates a distraction, another swipes the loot, a third diverts the reinforcements, a fourth covers the getaway, and meanwhile #5 uses the cover to break into the jail and get #6 out. (Of course, that could easily devolve into combat if it's mishandled, but it should be easy to make the players see the sense in not letting that happen. Just make it obvious that a direct confrontation would be suicide.)

2013-10-15, 09:40 PM
I actually made a Dungeon that except for the final room was all non combat challenges. I made a climbing challenge and set the DC's at varying degrees of difficulty and let the players figure out how to get to the top and gave xp as per an combat encouter. Another was an invisible bridge (legend of zelda style) that they had to cross. They came up with a great idea and was rewarded with good xp even though they trivialized the encounter with great thinking.

So it can be done and it can be engaging and rewarding but the whole group has to sorta want it to be that way.

2013-10-15, 09:51 PM
I've found the best way to start is to tell your players to put their dice away and preferably out of sight, at least for that section of play. That little thing changes a lot of people's mindsets.

After that run whatever social interaction, trap, etc you like. Should a need to roll the dice arise then make sure there needs to be more than one roll to determine success and end the encounter. Preferably more than one player can roll to contribute, or else the player with that specialty will have to roll more than once to complete the non-combat encounter. Both of which is fine in my eyes, YMMV.

Edit: Timed events are also great. They can be used to add time pressure or make lackluster situations more interesting.


2013-10-15, 10:06 PM
The dungeon itself is an extended non-combat encounter, and traversing it should draw on the abilities of all of the players.

2013-10-16, 12:00 AM
You described the problem pretty well in your post. There are really only two and a half solutions to making noncombat as interesting and engaging as combat.

Solution one: Turn combat into a skill. For combat challenges, allow the person with the highest combat skill to roll and others to roll to aid another. Remove all other combat rules. This solution is the easiest, as it requires the least amount of work, but is also less satisfying because it guts 1/3 of the game.

Solution two: Turn noncombat into a system, not a skill. Basically, remove skills from 3.5e except for skills that rarely come up. Create a social system, a wilderness system, an engineering system, a knowledge/expertise system, etc. Remove all spells that solve one of these systems and rewrite those that give bonuses to skills to give bonuses to stats related to the system. This would give a more complete game experience, but would also be more complex and take more time to create, test, and learn.

Solution two and a half: Determine which components of the game you want to expand on to make more engaging and leave the rest as-is. This is doing the same as solution two, but is picking a single or couple of additional systems to add.

2013-10-16, 01:21 AM
1.) How much are you willing to ignore the rules relating to skill rolls (assuming D&D3e/4e) and instead allow a player to ab-lib their way through an encounter with a character?

2.) How willing are you to change the rules/mechanics of the system?

3.) How much work are you willing to put into these non-combat encounters?

One thing that I frequently notice is that combat encounters are frequently between the player and the GM. The character is frequently interacting with a hostile NPC, not other characters, and it's the player telling the GM something or the GM telling the player something. Most social encounters tend to have the players talking to each other, before making a decision on what to do. You can have both styles of non-combat encounters: a trapped room will challenge characters separately and independently, while tracking down a murderer will have players talking amongst themselves as they follow the clues.

The Three Clue Rule (http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule) is something you probably want to read. It applied to more than simply mysteries, as well. In something like a trap, you'd probably want to apply it to allow three different ways to bypass the trap - that way, the party has methods of doing so that don't involve one PC using one particular skill to do so.

For most traps and other things that would engage the party, I would recommend something that actually engages the whole party. Not a "closed room water trap" because that just involved the rogue with disable device, but more a rockslide-type encounter or something interesting during a fight. Make in active (players will just choose the most optimal party member for a passive trap) and make a "solution" be one that anybody in the party could accomplish. If the rogue can do exceptionally well in the situation due to tumble, or the fighter due to climb, then that just gives them additional methods of "solving" it. (And makes them feel awesome.)

Most social situations will probably be something that either engages everyone in the group, such as an interview or argument, or something that allows the group to huddle-up and discuss amongst themselves. Make sure it is something more than simply "I use diplomancy" as a resolution; again, like with the trap, try to give solutions to the problem that anybody could make use of. Perhaps the party needs to convince the king to provide them backup for attacking kobolds, and while he views them favorably, they still need to find proof that the kobolds are a thread. Checking the library may have records of dangerous kobold attacks or them destroying towns with their mine-holes. Exploration of damaged towns might reveal the kobolds encamping there.

2013-10-16, 07:18 AM
Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits system is a way to make a social encounter more like a combat encounter. You could read up on how that works and do something similar for D&D. Basically Tinker's solution 2.

When solving a social interaction, give both sides some form of "hit points" that represent how strong willed they are and have a few maneuvers that either decrease the opponent's points or increases your own or give other bonuses. Some of these might use diplomacy, others sense motive, others intmidation and so on (even knowledge skills and descipher script could be used to deconstruct the opposing sides arguments). Let each involved "combatant" take one action per turn and the side that drops to 0 points first looses.

The same could be used for other encounters like traps or wilderness travel. All you need to do is figure out various things that can be done and which skill they're tied to.

2013-10-16, 08:13 AM
The suggestions raised so far are good ones. I think examining what makes combat "engaging" for the whole party is crucial to your goal, so that's the right place to start.

"Challenges" are always going to be players-vs-something. Even if the NPCs in a social encounter are not hostile, getting what you want from them is a challenge. They have their own goals and desires; the challenge may lie in figuring out what they want and maximizing what you get for it or minimizing what you have to give them to get it, or it could lie in finding a way to obtain what they want so you can trade it to them, or it could simply involve finding the right person who HAS what you want.

The classic example is "Gather Information." This is a skill in D&D 3.5, and it has rules that are not conducive to this approach because it's designed to abstract the effort. Player rolls the skill, and it's assumed his PC has gone out and had a montage of talking to people in taverns and around town and comes back with the distilled information necessary to get on with the primary focus of D&D: the "dungeon."

I am not denigrating this, either. However, to achieve the goal of a "non-combat encounter" in which players act to gather information, you want to make it something more.

Start, I think, by determining what information you want the players to be able to gather. This is perhaps obvious, but you're going to need to spell it out clearly to yourself because you're going to be using it as the objective chunks. Next, distribute that information to the NPCs you want to serve as participants in this encounter. These are akin to the monsters that would be in a dungeon room for a combat: they're the important, fleshed-out people that serve as opponents (even if they're not really "enemies") in a mechanical sense. Do not be afraid to have redundant information snippets between them! Not all will likely be talked to, and not all will likely "give up" every useful thing they have.

Use the Gather Information roll to start things off, and provide people who hit certain DCs with "leads" as to who to talk to. Rank your contacts by DCs according to how hard it would be to find out they're the right person, and give rumors and background on each according to how well the PC rolled. Encourage the party to split up and talk to the various people individually or in smaller groups. Have some skills - particularly Professions, but anything that can signify "interests" - which give special-case synergy bonuses to efforts by PCs with those skills who deal with certain NPCs. The peasant hero with Profession: Farmer will likely do better with villains than will the mysterious sorcerer who grew up as a street rat and is pretending he was always a mysterious power to be feared. That latter might have an unexpected advantage in dealing with street urchins, if he drops the act...which he might only do when the other PCs aren't around to see him slip into "street slang."

For each of your major contacts, have a few motivating drives and one or two major personality quirks, and then give them at least one thing they "want" from the encounter that the PCs can discover. Have some hooks for the "kind" of NPC you want them to encounter, and be flexible about applying it. If you need "a scoundrel who will try to swindle them into doing his dirty work," apply that to one of the NPCs as a major facet the PCs can uncover, and just keep track of which one has it after you assign it. That way, you don't have to steer them to a SPECIFIC NPC on your list, but can make sure that trait is amongst those encountered. Meanwhile, they need never know it could have been anybody.

The players should be using Diplomacy, Bluff, Gather Info, Sense Motive, and other skills as appropriate to represent their efforts to learn things about the NPC with whom they're dealing, and thus to find the hooks into learning what they want and what they know and what they'll trade for what, in terms of information, services, and goods. Actually use Gather Info as a sort of "initiative check," and run through all the encounters which are narratively concurrent while the PCs are out and about.

Some of your NPCs may be "hostile" in that they'll manipulate for effects that the players may not desire. Bluff and Sense Motive will be useful skills to these NPCs, too. A scoundrel may feed false information to the PC; skill rolls and "combat maneuvers" in this social encounter can reveal whether the target is what he presents himself as, whether he's truthful, and can also reveal nuggets about him which might help the player be suspicious in his own right if things seem not to add up.

The rounds should be a skill roll per participant. The NPCs who are not "hostile" should probably be rolling to politely disengage (if they're not interested) or to find out more about the PCs to figure out what they can get out of it and/or whether they can trust said PCs. Earning trust can be a matter of hitting several "doubts" that the NPC has and winning skill checks over them; intimidation is an alternative, as is not relying on trust but instead bribery or mutual interest (which might also take its own convincing). These things can be played organically, but knowing the hooks and points and DCs means it can still play out like a "combat" in that there's give and take.

Victory or defeat happen when the PCs either get brushed off or get what they sought or give up. Usually, one of the latter two is going to be the case; they may even get a partial "what they want" in the form of a side quest they must complete for the NPC before he'll give them what they want, depending on the NPC and the deal reached.

The primary thing about this is that you have to build the encounter to have rich enough hooks distributed in multiple targets. Combat does this by having stat blocks for each enemy and letting the PCs attack them in crunchy mechanically-simulated physical activity. Non-combat encounters require a bit more work, because less is done for you by the system's pre-written material. However, keep the principle of rotating through actions and treat the encounter as a narratively contiguous event (even if the PCs are scattered about), and you can probably capture the "feel" of mechanical involvement and personal engagement.

2013-10-16, 10:16 AM
Change how you think about non-combat encounters. No, really. :smallsmile:

Trapfinding isn't a non-combat encounter. Neither is bribing a guard. Those are elements of a non-combat encounter, but not the whole picture.

In a nutshell, I define a non-combat encounter as this: "A single-scene collection of skill-based actions that advance the characters towards one or more stated goals."

Breaking that down some...

A single scene. It shouldn't be one roll's worth of action. It should be something far too complex or involved to fall under the scope of a single roll. A chase scene is a non-combat encounter. Chasing someone down an alley is a skill roll. (That being said, you shouldn't always throw them into a full-on encounter. Sometimes, they just need a skill roll to get a bit of information or other aid.)

Skill-based actions. There's a big bundle of things that go into a non-combat encounter, and all of them have a chance of failure and require players to properly leverage their best skills. Think of the scene in a heist movie where they're planning all of the different elements of their approach--someone to steal ID badges, someone to forge fake IDs, someone to wire up the suitcase bomb, someone to split off from the group and carry the bomb to the vault, etc.

One or more stated goals. You should have the big picture in mind; ask the players what they want to accomplish, and explain the basics of the types of actions they'll need to take (and the skills they'll need to roll). You should also employ some means of "keeping score" that they can use to track the progress of the scene. Advance it when they succeed or come up with clever ways to circumvent problems.

The final bits of advice I'd add: mix it up and failures cause problems. Most chase scenes stagnate because they turn into "I roll Athletics to run after them. <roll>" "You failed; they put distance between them and you." over and over and over. That's wrong. You should be rolling Athletics to close distance, rolling Streetwise to predict where they'll go (or to get information from people on the street), drawing on Religion to invoke a small smidgen of divine intervention. Whatever the problem is, there should always be 3-4 distinct skills that the players can use in the situation.

Then, when players fail a roll, don't have them "lose progress". Throw a spanner into the works instead. "My barbarian tries to find the books with the right titles for the wizard to look through. <rolls>" "You failed. You can't figure out what books the wizard wants, so in frustration, you throw a bunch of them on the floor! Some of them might be damaged."

2013-10-16, 10:35 AM

Thanks, that's the sort of advice I was looking for. (Thanks to all who replied, too - lots of good ideas).

Have you successfully used these ideas in a game? Most of my group is new players, so I'm concerned about whether they'll be able to figure out how to progress through a "scene." Which is another potential problem with non-combat challenges - the players have to define their own win condition. I don't want to railroad my players, but I also don't want them to get frustrated because they don't know what they should be doing. Is the "stated goals" section of your post enough to keep things moving along without solving the problem for the players?

2013-10-16, 10:45 AM
I haven't really tried it out in the full form, mainly because a lot of the games I run aren't focused around the "overcoming specific challenges" paradigm. Elements certainly have worked, though. Especially in the "set specific goals" area.

When it comes to goals--I would ask the players what they want to accomplish, and then write it down. Keep the goals in mind somewhere physical.

Ah--another bit that might be very helpful. The Angry DM has a fantastic series of articles (http://angrydm.com/category/features/for-dungeon-masters/getting-the-most-out-of-your-skill-system/) about using skill checks, especially this article (http://angrydm.com/2013/05/four-things-youve-never-heard-of-that-make-encounters-not-suck/) and this article (http://angrydm.com/2013/07/how-to-build-awesome-encounters/), which zero in on encounter prep. A long read, but worth it. It's an incredibly thorough examination from the topic from a seasoned DM in a hilariously ranty style. (No, really--it's incredibly fun to read. He's a great author.)

2013-10-16, 02:35 PM
Those articles were exactly what I was looking for, thanks.

2013-10-16, 03:39 PM
So, here's my general guidance.

1) Understand what your non-combat encounter is. Generally, encounters function as one of two things - a challenge, or a branch.

Challenge encounters are essentially obstacles in the way of the characters. The point of them is determining whether or not the players can overcome the challenge or not. Realistically, most challenges are designed to be defeated, but to put the players through the challenge of doing so - in many ways, they're puzzles. The real question a challenge encounter asks is "how do you overcome this?"

A branch encounter occurs when it's not clear what happens next. The point of them is determining this - thinking in terms of "defeating the encounter" isn't really the point, and the GM shouldn't know what actually does happen, though they may have a few ideas. If you know what happens next, it's really a challenge encounter.

Any given encounter can be set up as either a challenge or a branch - it's a matter of how you look at that encounter.

In general, challenges work best if actions aren't 'atomic' - that is, if a given action has side effects beyond what the intent is. A simple series of rolls against a set of DCs isn't engaging. This kind of side-effect is a lot of why combat is interesting - the side effects are built into the system.

Branch encounters inherently have side-effects - the direction that the game takes.

2) Know what's at stake.

One of the biggest issues I see with non-combat encounters is the lack of stakes/conflict. Given a particular obstacle, given sufficient time, players *will* overcome it. The key here is figuring out what the actual stakes are - in a kind of "will they do x, or will y happen" way.

This is often a skill that's underdeveloped in GMs, as the implicit stakes of a combat ("or will they die") are generally sufficient to create tension.

"Will they climb the cliff" isn't particularly interesting. Turning it into "will they climb the cliff, or will they die" is more interesting. But how do you handle this with negotiations? "Will they get the king to loan them horses" is one thing. But, what's the "or" clause? Not getting horses... just probably means they have to find them elsewhere. So, the stakes could be being in debt to the king, or having to pawn their stuff, or having to owe a service to the underworld types in the area, or having to steal horses and be outlaws.

All of those can add to the tension of the negotiations.

3) Focus on decisions and questions, not mechanics.

This is the big one. The questions thing is kind of implicit in the previous points, but I'll call it out again - what questions are you trying to answer?

The second part is figuring out what decisions the players make. Mechanics... don't matter. What matters is decisions. A non-combat encounter that boils down to "the best player rolls his Diplomacy score" isn't very interesting, as there's no effective decision-making by the players. Since a lot of non-combat mechanics aren't very robust, many times the decisions will have to come from the environment and the game world. Do you go to the king directly? Do you try to curry favor with a friend of the king?

4) Present problems, not solutions.

The other part of this is to make sure you present problems and not solutions. Don't actually phrase the problem as "you need to convince the king to loan you horses." Present the problem as "you need horses," or better yet, "you need to get to location x within y period of time." Let the players figure out how they'll do that. Make sure that you allow a chance for any reasonable plan to work, but make sure that the choices they make have consequences - whether it's being in debt, not getting there in time, having a price on their head, or owing a favor to powerful people.

In many ways, a dilemma is a good way to do this - present a number of possible solutions, each with their own drawbacks. The players' choice then really turns into "which problem do I want to deal with?" or "what cost am I willing to pay for this?" This obviously works better with "branch" encounters, which I believe non-combat encounters generally work better as (combat encounters can, too).

2013-10-16, 04:25 PM
Have you successfully used these ideas in a game?

Our group usually splits our sessions into half combat, half RP. One session our RP half was to take up a job for the local bank collecting some gold owed by 4 individuals in town. The challenge was to first find them, second get the gold out of them and third get back without stirring up a fuss. To add to this, two of the people were in sections of the city we couldn't just walk into, so we had to solve the problem of how to get to them (or them to us).

I'd say that is a non-combat encounter equivalent to say a one-session dungeon crawl.