Wednesday, August 8, 2018

When D&D Isn't About Fighting

You can't even have an innocent debate about keys without a gosh darn ooze trying to eat your face off
Recently, I've been running fairly combat-heavy games. But that's because the players are venturing forth into the deep wilderness and fighting the wildlife and lowlifes they find there. But can you run a D&D game without combat? D&D, after all, is a system that hinges on its combat engine.

Well, of course you can. But the question becomes: how do you make it interesting? How do you raise the stakes? How do you keep it consistent with the rest of the campaign? You don't want to switch from playing D&D to playing Risk for a session just because the PCs are commanding armies.

Well, it becomes a lot easier when you think of your game in terms of conflicts, not combats.

But before we dig into that, let's talk about how we can use D&D's primary strategic mechanic to ensure our non-combat game is consistent with the rules of the system. I'm not talking about the d20 mechanic, I'm talking about resource management.

New Management

D&D is a game of resource management. You keep track of your hit points, spell slots, hit dice, gold, how many times you've used your Wild Shape, how many Lay On Hands points you have, your Ki points, your Sorcery points, etc. When they run out, there are consequences: you might die, or you lose access to more powerful features or abilities. Thus, a good D&D player uses as little of their resources as possible in a particular combat.

This might smack of meta-gaming, but think about a real adventurer climbing through a desolate dungeon. You don't want to take a grievous wound from a goblin, because the treasure is still at the end of the dungeon. You'd use your wits and abilities to avoid taking damage and using too much of your limited supplies and abilities.

Also, as many DMs have figured out, the stakes are raised when those resources begin to dwindle. A character at low HP begins to panic, with the consequences of death saving throws looming. A wizard or cleric that is low on spell slots will do their best to save them for an epic moment. These are the moments that make D&D feel triumphant, since the system is providing a challenge, a consequence for failure, and reward (experience points or victory) for overcoming it.

So, what are some resources we manage in D&D, and how does the game utilize them?

The most obvious is Hit Points. This is an encounter-level resource, meaning it should only really be managed within the confines of a specific encounter. Thanks to hit dice, healing potions, and healing magic, most characters will enter an encounter with a full complement of hit points. Due to the exponential growth of damage over level in D&D 5e, if a character is lacking hit points at the start of  a combat encounter they are making themselves fairly vulnerable, especially at low levels.

The next obvious thing that characters manage is Spell Slots. Any spellcaster knows they only have so many of these in a single adventuring day, and they must carefully decide which spells will be used at which times. Because these carry from encounter to encounter, these are considered session-level resources. Normally, a session takes place over the course of a single adventuring day, meaning a character must except their spell slots to last 3-5 encounters. This makes it a more long-term resource, and the DM can expect their players to have already expended a few slots by the time a final day's encounter is reached.

Class Features can be considered encounter-level or session-level resources depending on how often they are regained. A Fighter's Action Surge can easily be used every other encounter, but their Indomitable feature can only be used once a day. It's important to know how often your abilities refresh, as some of them (such as a Barbarian's Rage or a Sorcerer's Sorcery Points) can be quickly depleted and leave a character helpless in later battles.

Another session-level resource is Hit Dice, but it's noteworthy that hit dice are dependent on hit point management. A character who is wise with their hit points will find they have plenty of hit points, whereas those who rush in blindly will end up using all of their hit dice on their first short rest.

These are all the primary resources directly related to combat, but there are other, less used resources that can be affected. Supplies that can't be regained until the party returns to a shop can be an session-level resource. Some monsters can drain Ability Scores or add Levels of Exhaustion, which for the most part can only be healed on a long rest. Some Oozes can target a Weapon or Armor, degrading or destroying it and forcing a character to use a different one. These are all considered session-level resources, and impose a longer penalty on a party.

Dividing magic items among a party, however, is a manufactured scarcity
Finally, the game has one primary campaign-level resource. Gold is collected and carried over between sessions, and can be saved to purchase items, magic items, or other expensive things. Taking gold from a party does nothing to lessen their combat potential, but it does penalize their progress towards purchasing an item they might desire.

You can tell D&D is a combat-oriented game, as only two of these resources (gold and supplies) have no combat effect if they are used up. And even that isn't entirely true: fighter that can buy magic weapons or wizards that cast costly spells still need gold to ensure their combat output remains up to speed with their allies. The system is set up to ensure combat is a central part of the game.

So, if we're going to build a non-combat encounter, we can't use these resources in a traditional sense. But if we stray from these resources, we risk decoupling D&D from the things that make it D&D.

The solution, of course, is to think differently about each of these resources!

  • Instead of thinking about HP, focus on the HP maximum. A rotting effect might reduce HP maximum by a certain amount, with 0 being the point of death.
  • Spells that aren't used in combat often have a ritual component that allows a spellcaster to avoid using up a precious slot outside of battle. So challenges that deplete spell slots have to focus on spells like Knock, Charm Person, or Protection from Evil and Good, which will drain the spellcaster's slots.
  • Hit Dice can be used as "Session HP" when you want each character to start with the same amount of hit points. Losing a duel in a noble court might cost 3 hit dice, without requiring a full combat to be played out.
  • Exhaustion and Ability Scores are great if you want to simulate a slowly degrading situation like a curse or starvation. Ability scores are good if you want those who are smarter or hardier to have an advantage, exhaustion is great if everyone has the same chances of survival.

The other resources, like supplies, rations, and gold, can easily be adapted to non-combat situations. 

The most important thing to remember in a non-combat scenario is this: there must be a scarcity. If you have a druid casting Goodberry, there's no way you could run a starvation game. If Ability Scores heal with a long rest, you must ensure that your conflict needs to be resolved within a single day. This will allow the players to manage their resources, just like in combat. By making smart decisions and managing risk, the players can make it to the end of your challenge with their characters intact.

Now that we have this baseline for presenting non-combat challenges, let's look at different types of conflicts and how they could be used without fighting!

Non-Combat Conflicts

"I roll to seduce"
As I mentioned earlier, to build a good combat-less game, you need to stop thinking of combats and start thinking of conflicts. This means dealing in conflict resolution and goal-setting.

First, you need to know what your PCs want. This should be baked into character creation, or informed by the story. Most groups perk up at the promise of gold or magic items (both campaign-level resources). However, you might have a paladin who wants to be righteous, a wizard jumping at the chance to explore an ancient ruin, or a barbarian who will do anything for a swig of rum. It's up to you to know what your characters are seeking, both individually and as a group.

Once you know what they are looking for, start asking why. You can do this while the characters are being created, or in-game through a curious bartender or patron. What are they saving up gold for? Do they want a specific magic item? Is the paladin seeking someone's approval? Is the wizard writing a book they hope to sell? Is the barbarian drinking away some past pain?

Once you know these reasons, you can start to see their end goals: buying that orphanage, obtaining a sacred tome in the name of their God, etc. And you can create conflicts by putting something in the way of that goal. The bigger the thing in the way, the more game time you can generate from it.

Obviously, a lot of these conflicts can be resolved by killing the thing in the way of their goal. But when you create conflicts, it's very easy to see how you can create things that combat just won't solve.You're not limited to whatever's in the monster manual. The world is suddenly at your disposal, and you're truly thinking like a storyteller.

So, let's go over some classic conflicts and how we can make them into non-combat encounters. These represent what "thing" is standing between a character and their goal. And remember: a non-combat session is just a session made up of non-combat encounters, strung together.

Man vs Self

This is where a character's flaws or personality gets in the way of their goal. If you have a particularly theatrical player, they will likely have worked something like this into their character. But, you can use this even with more mechanically-minded players. Just make sure you work out a way for them to manage it strategically, and it becomes a fun challenge instead of a penalty.

  • A barbarian drinks to forget the slaughter of his tribe. On any given day, he gains one level of exhaustion until he becomes drunk, after which he functions normally. How much alcohol is needed is based on his constitution score, and purchasing the drink can be an expensive endeavor.
  • A tiefling must cast Disguise Self on herself each day while moving about a particular city. With a good disguise kit roll, she can get around this, but otherwise she suffers a spell slot penalty.
  • A bloodthirsty rogue needs to sate his lust for murder or he might lose control of himself. Any time he spares an enemy, he loses 1d4 points from his hit point maximum from stabbing himself. If his hit point maximum reaches 0, instead of dying, he enters a mindless killing spree. The reduction heals on a long rest, and "enemies" include those who oppose his goals socially.

It's difficult to build a full-party encounter with Man vs Self conflicts. Instead, this might be something that affects a single character over the course of the game.

Man vs Man

When most people think of non-combat games, they think of social encounters like these. You meet with nobles, talk to them, and you don't fight. But there are a couple problems with this. The first is how to keep the players from initiating combat themselves. The second is how to tie this into resource management.

To prevent combat from breaking out, you need one of two things: distance or power. If the mob boss is behind a Wall of Force or in another city, you can't just kill them. And if the queen is surrounded by guards or is a great warrior herself, you probably don't want to pick a fight. Some groups might need a thrashing in order to get their murderous urges under control, but for the most part you can appeal to the players themselves to avoid combat. Telling the fighter that his combat instincts are screaming not to fight is at least a step in the right direction.

The second problem is more interesting. How do you tie resources to social encounters? Here are some examples:

  • The nobility is naturally opposed to dirty adventurers. You'll need to spend gold to even gain an audience, and spend more if you want to meet with them again. Money talks.
  • A mob boss won't be persuaded by normal means. Spending spell slots on enchantment magic is necessary to win her favor.
  • A kind noble has lent the characters some magic weapons from his treasury. If he is talked down to or disrespected, he can easily take them back.
  • An adventurer isn't used to the life of the courts. Certain encounters "cost" a certain amount of Charisma, and once you've spent an amount equal to your charisma score, you need to break off and drink for the night.

This type of conflict is fairly easy to write, and there are a lot of resources online that can help you out. But make sure to tie the party's resources to the outcome, or there isn't really a point to having an encounter about it. If the party has nothing to lose, they will simply keep trying until they succeed.

Man vs Society

Discrimination: uncool in any reality
This conflict comes from placing laws, norms, or institutions between a character and their goals. You're not just fighting a person - you're battling the rules of a society. This isn't just something that happens in cities, as tribal societies often have rules in place to restrict of prohibit certain behaviors.

These types of conflicts can help define a session or campaign that takes place in one of these societies. For example, a city where civilians aren't allowed to carry weapons will make any session in that city less combat-driven. The real meat of the conflict, however, occurs when the characters have a goal that is directly opposed by the society.

  • The characters find a valuable drug that is illegal in the city they are in. They want to sell it, but if they are caught with it on them they will certainly go to jail.
  • A cleric has been cursed, and must consume human flesh to survive. Cannibalism is forbidden in polite society, so they must undertake a quest to obtain their meal before they starve.
  • Tribal law dictates that if a rule is to be challenged, the shaman must hear a case for and against it. The PCs wish to alter the tribe's rules, and must abide by the debate if they wish to do so.

This conflict is great for hampering the entire party with a condition for a session, which sets up more interesting smaller conflicts at the encounter level. In particular, it's a good way to establish a precedent for lack of combat, as any city might have a "no fighting" rule. It's an excellent way to set up a stealth mission.

Man vs Nature

This is likely the second-most common non-combat scenario DMs think of. Nature offers plenty of obstacles between a character and their goal: distance, temperature, storms, lack of food and water, and exhaustion, not to mention the wild beasts that might also get in their way. This also covers some conflicts that might be mistaken for Man vs Self. Starvation is fighting against your natural need for food, not a flaw or personality trait that prevents you from reaching your goals.

Thus, anything that might qualify as a "survival game" falls into this category. There's some rules in the DMG and Player's Handbook about this, and you'll notice they focus on gaining levels of exhaustion as a resource. It's kind of a "negative resource" because you get more of it and you don't want it, but that's semantics. The real goal here is to directly connect that resource to the character's actions.

Most of these challenges end up being passive. You stayed out in the hot sun too long, roll for heatstroke. It's much better to set up a system where the players are making a strategic choice and not simply dying bit by bit.

  • Parties can go thin on their rations but become more susceptible to heatstroke while in a desert. The choice has pros and cons, and each character might need to take a different option.
  • The group can map between different routes, some more treacherous but shorter, others longer and safer. A path might also have an increased chance to become lost.
  • A group might need to spend spell slots on Control Weather or other protective spells to venture through treacherous terrain.

Another good method (which I use) is to "simulate" combat via loss of hit dice or hit points. Assuming a dangerous combat happened can allow the players to recognize the danger of an area without slogging through battle after battle. D&D combat tends to slow down the game, and non-combat sessions can pack more in by hand-waving it.

Man vs Technology/Magic

Man vs. Technology isn't really about fighting robots. Most sci-fi robots are just metaphors for particularities of human existence, anyway. Man vs. Technology is about being opposed by the march of progress, the limits of things like medicine or science, or even a character's own understanding of technology.

Obviously, Magic acts as a surrogate for technology in many D&D settings. You can have a character struggle against the limits of their spells, try to fight the rules of magic in your setting, and oppose magical disasters or social movements. Of course, it's easy to see how to translate real-world conflicts into magical settings. A tribe's shamanistic magic could run into the cosmopolitan wizardry of the big city. A hospital that uses life-saving magic could be threatened by an Antimagic Field. A low-level cleric could strive to earn enough favor with their God to bring back a lost love.

But don't forget that technology still exists in Medieval settings. An army with siege weapons will destroy one without them. In the real world, the transition from copper to iron weapons was such a big deal that it lead to the Greeks and Romans conquering most of the known world. You can use these conflicts for a single character, though it might be better to make these campaign-level conflicts.

Because of the overarching nature of this conflict, and the natural progression of power and gold in D&D, it's relatively easy to build a character that fits this conflict and strives to reach their goal. Just pick a spell or class feature and make it the goal.

  • A druid must face a medusa in combat. But first, she must train her powers so she can transform into a giant scorpion and fight using blindsight.
  • The barbarians of the Eagle Totem Tribe must attain the gift of flight via training and meditation before they can reach the sacred altar of their Gods.
  • A wizard seeks enough knowledge of magic to live forever. Surely a Wish spell would grant such a gift.
  • A monk who has only ever used her fists to fight arrives in the big city. She needs to find work and save gold up to purchase daggers and swords, to improve her fighting style.

D&D is naturally suited to growing more powerful. This can directly relate to growth in magical power, or correlate to an increase in gold and therefore better weaponry and armor.

Man vs Fate/Supernatural

"... I roll to seduce"
In the real world, it's difficult to verify the existence of "fate" or the supernatural. But in D&D, the Gods can directly interfere with the mortal world, and can choose a mortal for a specific purpose. And much like the robots from above, most Gods are simply metaphors for certain aspects of humanity. So, really a conflict about the Gods can go anywhere. If a God causes a storm, treat it like Man vs. Nature. If a God causes a War, it's basically Man vs. Man.

This conflict is specifically about fighting against forces of the multiverse that don't talk back, that don't come down out of the sky and explain themselves. And some Gods do prefer to work in more secretive ways. Corellon Larethian from the latest Wizards of the Coast book is a great example: elves aren't sure if they've earned enough favor to be reborn in their outer plane paradise until it happens. They simply must try to live in a way they think is consistent with Corellon's teachings. If things go poorly, they have to assume it's punishment. If things go well, they assume they are doing well by their God.

Gods in D&D can be played as mysterious and impartial, or very active. There's a lot of variation between DMs and campaigns and the Gods themselves. However, Gods aren't the best place to put a Supernatural conflict.

Man vs Fate/Supernatural can essentially be boiled down to a motivated mystery. A character doesn't know what their future might be exactly, but they are fighting against the fate that is expected of them. Or, a character isn't sure of the source of a supernatural phenomena and must explain it to move forward. Here are some good character-conflict examples.

  • A character has visions of a future calamity and must try to stop them.
  • A warlock has an imp familiar that is constantly pushing them towards evil acts
  • A cleric must discover the source of spirits haunting a house and put them to rest

This conflict is tough to fit into a single encounter, but it's great for session or campaign-level conflicts.

Bringing it All Together

Man vs. His terrible sense of direction
So, how can we use these types of conflicts to make a non-combat encounter? Here's my process.
  1. What is the character's motivation?
  2. What is the character's goal?
  3. What is in the character's way?
  4. How does the character remove the obstacle?

This process can work for any type of conflict, not just non-combat ones. And the process is exactly the same at the encounter, session, and campaign level. You'll just have slightly different answers at each stage. 

Let's walk through a scenario for building an adventure. At a campaign level:
  1. Joe the Fighter is adventuring for gold
  2. Joe wants to raise enough money to build an orphanage in his hometown
  3. Joe grew up an orphan himself and doesn't have much money
  4. Joe was hired by an adventuring guild, which promised to pay him for his skills

Classic example of Man vs. Society. Why can't Joe just have the gold he needs? Because the rules of society are in the way. Now, we can break it down to the session level.
  1. Joe the Fighter is adventuring for gold
  2. Joe can get gold by killing the bandit leader at Stabbing Pass, at the request of the adventuring guild
  3. The bandit leader is pretty strong, and he has a bunch of bandits working for him
  4. Joe is a skilled fighter and can kill bandits to get to the bandit leader

So now we have Man vs. Man at the session level. Then, within that session, we can string together a series of encounters:
  1. Joe the Fighter is adventuring for gold
  2. Joe can get gold by killing the bandit leader at Stabbing Pass, at the request of the adventuring guild
  3. A pack of wolves has begun to hunt Joe, preventing him from making it to Stabbing Pass safely
  4. Joe is a skilled fighter and can kill the wolves before he is eaten

And voila. We have an encounter. Joe has motivation, we have a good conflict (Man vs. Nature), and Joe has a way to resolve it. But what if we wanted to run a non-combat session? Well, we can't change the campaign motivation. If you want to run an entire non-combat campaign, there are systems with much better resources (such as reputation and honor) built into the system and not tacked on in the DMG. This is D&D, so most of your games are going to be combat-oriented. But for a single session, we can mix things up and provide a non-combat challenge.
  1. Joe the Fighter is adventuring for gold
  2. Joe can get more gold by getting a promotion in the adventuring guild
  3. The leader's council in the guild says Joe is too unrefined to take a higher position and become a representative of the guild.
  4. Joe must gain a better reputation among the townsfolk to get the promotion

Here we have a Man vs. Society conflict. Joe's social standing as a dirty adventuring fighter is working against him. Using this as our basic outline, we can build a series of non-combat encounters.

  1. Joe the Fighter is adventuring for gold
  2. Joe can get more gold by getting a promotion in the adventuring guild
  3. Joe must earn a good reputation among the townsfolk to gain the promotion
  4. Joe is strong and can help Mrs. Wilson carry her produce to market

Now, you can use the Man vs. Man conflicts to make this interesting. Will Mrs. Wilson accept Joe's help? Is Joe strong enough to carry the produce? Will Joe survive the old ladies flirting with him in the market? Remember, we need to deplete a resource to make this interesting, so perhaps too much social interaction causes Joe to be exhausted, limiting what he can do that day. And with the promotion ceremony only three days away, Joe has to hurry and become popular or he'll have to wait until next year to get a promotion.

And that's how I think about all conflicts, not just non-combat ones. Thinking about the character's motivations and the source of the conflict allows you to create rich encounters. Don't just place Goblins in the PCs' path. Why are the PCs there? Why are the Goblins there? If they are warlike and hate humans, that's Man vs. Man - their prejudice drives their actions. If they are animalistic and hungry, that's Man vs. Nature. If they are being driven by a mysterious curse or disease, that's Man vs. the Supernatural.

Now, go forth and make quality encounters!

An entire non-combat article and no mention of traps. That's gotta be a record. 
Thanks for reading!

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