sbodmann
 member, 134 posts
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 06:19
Challenges in a low combat game
Has anyone run or played in a successful low combat game? If so, I'm wondering how the non-combat challenges were handled.

Combat is so baked into so many systems, and it's so inherently dramatic, it's the most common type of conflict even in other media. Plus, in RPGs, where the whole thing is about making decisions and having those decisions matter, combat really sings because characters often have lots of different options and lots of variety of opponents and defenses. There just isn't that inherent variety (and therefore choices-wth-consequences) when you're climbing a wall or opening a lock, or even when you're verbally sparring with someone.

D&D's skill challenge system is weak. Making multiple rolls is boring. It's not about rolling a lot of times, it's about making decisions and having them matter. Do I shoot my crossbow, cast magic missile, or summon a creature (or flee, or fight defensively, or aid another... so many options)? Those choices matter because they will each have different consequences. That's dramatic.

Roll your climb check, ok, now roll it again, ok, now roll it again is lame. There's no real decision there.

In RL, climbing is a great mental and physical challenge. You could probably simulate a bit of that. First, you'd need some kind of time limit built in, otherwise, there's no reason to take any risk or do anything other than slow and steady. There are any number of ways to do that, but absent some kind of external threat, you probably need some kind of fatigue system (hit points for skills). Then you could build some of the decision-making in: "Ok, you passed your first check, you made it a little ways up the wall. It's not easy. Take 1 fatigue. You see a really good hold up ahead, but you're going to have to lunge for it. You can make a check at -5 to get it, and if you make it, you advance two levels. If you miss it, you fall back 1 level. Otherwise, you'll have to go slowly and it'll take you 2 fatigue points to make it as high."

But (a) I'm not really sure what else you can do to spice up that climb. You could do different reasons for a bonus/penalty to the roll, but that's really about it. You're still just rolling the one thing and deciding if you want to take the risk or not. And (b) even if you could spice it up more, doing that for every challenge is like making a custom monster for every encounter. Maybe you only reserve it for the really important skill challenges, but do you need a certain minimum number of THOSE to keep it interesting? A game made up of a bunch of one-die-throw skill challenges seems like it would get old pretty fast.

"Use a different system" is a legitimate answer, and if that's what you're going to say, please name a system that does it better, and if you can give a brief description of how it handles it, that would be nice.

Thanks!
liblarva
 member, 661 posts
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 07:08
Challenges in a low combat game
For social interactions with mechanical support, the DMG has you covered. For trying to parley with monsters, Tasha’s has you covered.

For other, general skill challenges have a look back at 4E. The specific rules on successes vs time were kinda bad, but skill challenges were used really well in that edition...once they got the idea sorted. There were a ton of great skill challenges. We even ran several fights as skill challenges when we tired of the slog of combat.

Something like climbing shouldn’t really be a skill challenge. Anything that doesn’t have an interesting outcome, success or failure, shouldn’t be a roll, much less several. If you set it up as succeed or die, then it’s going to be dull. Instead give failure a cost in resources. Time lost, exhaustion, lost or broken equipment, hit dice, spell slots, etc. Anything that makes sense really. You could even skip the rolls and say the players purchase successes by spending resources. But those resources have to matter. If there’s no time restriction on getting up the cliff, losing time doesn’t matter. If you can easily take a short rest, then resources that return after a short rest don’t matter. Etc.

One trick is to not allow multiple rolls of the same skill. Keeps things fresh snd prevents them from being boring. Like climbing. Rolling athletics over and over sucks. If you ran them like 4E you’d need 3 successes before 3 failures. So first round you throw athletics. Great, now describe how awesome or terrible you are at climbing say 1/3 of the way up the cliff face. Now you can’t throw athletics again. And that’s part of what makes it interesting. Deciding how another skill makes sense and throwing the dice.

With both of the above, meaningful resource cost and non-repeating skills, you make it about dramatic choices. It’s not really about if you’ll reach the top, of course you will...you’re a hero, it’s about what it costs you, what you give up, or what you lose to get there.

But skill challenges are meant for bigger stuff, I think. Like mass combat, city defense, surviving a zombie invasion, or stopping a world-ending ritual without blowing yourself up.
steelsmiter
 member, 2111 posts
 BESM, Fate, Indies, PBTA
 NO FREEFORM! NO d20!
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 07:24
Challenges in a low combat game
quote:
Has anyone run or played in a successful low combat game?

I've ran a couple, but I don't know if the advice I can offer is constructive, because they were visual novel based, using a system I wrote explicitly for slice of life games where combat is secondary at best.

quote:
If so, I'm wondering how the non-combat challenges were handled.

Many games that are Powered by the Apocalypse have a great mechanism for handling non-combat. In fact, the major ones that do have combat don't often reward XP or system equivalent for killing things. You'll still get loot and stuff, but the XP comes from 6- rolls completing specified objectives, fulfilling alignment/drive conditions, and so on.

quote:
There just isn't that inherent variety (and therefore choices-wth-consequences) when you're climbing a wall or opening a lock, or even when you're verbally sparring with someone.

Ho boy have I got some news for you! There... basically is, really. Granted, a lot of the systems that can claim there's options for climbing walls, opening locks, and verbally sparring with someone usually have broad notions about success. In PBTA for example, there's success and failure (10+ or 6- respectively) which are fairly static, and then there's compromise (7-9) which vary with just about every move, and also allow some broad strokes re: freedom of choice.

quote:
D&D's

That's your problem right there.

quote:
skill challenge system is weak. Making multiple rolls is boring. It's not about rolling a lot of times, it's about making decisions and having them matter.

why yes, yes it is. In some of the games in the system I'm referring to they don't even bother making multiple rolls. like at all. Where d20 games do multiple rolls say for climbing every so many feet and have to deal with falling damage or something, Dungeon World, for example, makes 1 roll, and lets you win on 10+ all day long, possibly lose some climbing equipment and/or take damage on 7-9, and outright fail on 6-... Even then, the system very strongly discourages outright killing players. They don't even have a specified amount of damage a fall will do.

quote:
In RL, climbing is a great mental and physical challenge. You could probably simulate a bit of that. First, you'd need some kind of time limit built in, otherwise, there's no reason to take any risk or do anything other than slow and steady. There are any number of ways to do that, but absent some kind of external threat, you probably need some kind of fatigue system (hit points for skills).

Oh, you're looking for more crunch? yeah, that's a failure of PBTA games. There are only a few iterations with some approximation of a fatigue system--and often just abstracted to a condition. Anyway, if you want a Fatigue system, go with GURPS. That'll also get you XP for things besides killing, and all the level of simulation that PBTA games won't give you.

quote:
Then you could build some of the decision-making in: "Ok, you passed your first check, you made it a little ways up the wall. It's not easy. Take 1 fatigue. You see a really good hold up ahead, but you're going to have to lunge for it. You can make a check at -5 to get it, and if you make it, you advance two levels. If you miss it, you fall back 1 level. Otherwise, you'll have to go slowly and it'll take you 2 fatigue points to make it as high."

In PBTA games, you might see something like...

Roll +Sports On a 10+, pick 3, on 7-9 pick 2
* You don't consume any equipment
* You aren't winded or injured
* You make it
On a 6-, you're winded or injured. If you were already winded, you're now injured.

This may be more narrativist than you want, but I've found it works. Different systems will also say something about how injured you are. For the ones that operate on a 6 harm system, you would only take 1 per result that omits fatigue or injury. For something like Dungeon World it'd be a dice roll.

This message was last edited by the user at 07:25, Sun 06 Dec 2020.

Zag24
 supporter, 658 posts
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 07:28
Challenges in a low combat game
You're thinking of non-combat challenges too video-gamish, IMO.  That is, it shouldn't be "unlock this lock" but much broader:  They should be larger goals where the players have to solve a bigger problem, where some of the solution might be combat, but only a part.  Of course, my word here might be crap, since I just shut down such a game because I was not successful running just such a game.  (However, since I HAVE run such games successfully in the past, I think that I don't deserve all the blame for the game failing.)

The challenge was to rescue this man who had been falsely accused by the corrupt government and was scheduled to be hanged in 4 days.  (As this scenario started, the trial was still a day away, but the hanging had already been scheduled.  This was intended to tell a little bit about the integrity of the justice system.)  The game was run in Pathfinder, but I had made it clear when people joined that it wasn't an all-combat game.

I started with the NPC laying out the problem, including maps of the jail, which is inside the castle, and the gallows, which is just outside the castle, plus dossiers of the jail guards and castle guards, including which could be bribed or otherwise pressured.  One gimmick was that the jail itself was an anti-magic zone, so sneaking in to Dimension Door out was not an option.  They would at least have to get him out of the building.  I would have been quite happy with a variety of approaches, but it was like pulling teeth just to get them to come up with any sort of plan.

Finally one person suggested that they should have the mage invisibly cast rope trick to make sure the hanging didn't kill him quickly, then wait under the gallows and Dimension Door out of there.  But we were three weeks or so of dithering before we even got this far.  My NPC agreed that this plan could work, but suggested (1) a diversion to make sure that the mage is not noticed; (2) a plan to get away from the inevitable cordon, since Dimension Door is only 500ish feet max; and (3) a plan to be able to unlock the prisoner's shackles, since they would inhibit any getaway.

I finally had the NPC start to lead the discussion, because the players were too busy talking about whether this plan would work, and maybe they need some other plan (without proposing one), and do they really have the right to interfere with the justice system of the legal government, and how do we know he not really guilty, and on and on (even though, in OOC, I asked them just to forebear on this bit of role-playing because this was the scenario and please just accept the evidence he had).

Finally I had the NPC suggest that a diversion was pretty easy since all you need at a hanging is easily accessed rotten fruit and some drunken rabble rousers.  He also had to suggest bribing one of the guards to just drop the keys out the jail house window for a few minutes to take an impression that they could use to have a key made.  This made for a social encounter to arrange the drop and a stealth encounter to get into the castle and do the exchange.  Finally, he had to suggest that they scout the area within Dimension Door range of the gallows, choose the best target for the spell and a getaway path, because none of them thought to do it.  Gaaaah!

So what's my point with all this rant, other than me expressing my frustration over my game that died?  Well, that non-combat or lower-combat games take a lot more creativity and input from the players.  The system is less important than the players' willingness to create, engage, and participate.  Therefore, the choice of system might be one that will self-select such players, such as Fate.  I've actually run this exact scenario before, with some great players who jumped right in with first strategy and then tactical approaches and finally real plans.  (That was over a decade ago and that game died after several successful years for other reasons.)  So it IS possible to have such a game in a system built primarily for combat, such as Pathfinder, as long as the system supports other activities -- social skills, etc.  It is more about the players and the GM being willing to create a story, to build conflict and obstacles and then work within the system ways to overcome them.
spectre
 member, 884 posts
 Myriad paths fell
 away from that moment....
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 07:49
Challenges in a low combat game
I agree with a lot of the previous posters on this. There are a lot of things which are codified in other games that aren't D&D that make this more fun. They are also things you can choose to incorporate into your D&D game if you like. Failure at a cost is an idea, if the player would make a deal, you can make let him have a partial success, ie. Your purse breaks open and you can either hang onto the ledge or lose your half your gold. You can control the choices as GM, I always reward creative thinking, but you can put a hard line on how much of that they get, say, per turn. Giving people a set number of choices can also help, say you get three choices in this amount of time before X starts to happen. No you can't have a long rest in the middle of a still active dungeon, etc.

 I think lack of fun derived from challenges not related to combat a contrived issue, because as noted tabletop RPG isn't a Video Game, it's a simulation. So you control the weather and everything else on the way up that cliff. If it's too boring make your player roll athletics to jump to the next rock as his hand holds are beginning to crack or maybe the villain is trying to cause an avalanche on the hero, etc. Give them as many chances as you want, they goes splat or the safety harness holds. Wait, didn't bring a safety harness? Maybe there's an outside chance they can grab a root? Roll Dex.
tibiotarsus
 member, 212 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 10:58
Challenges in a low combat game
Everything the others said, with the addition that if you want to encourage PCs to invest their energy in a less combat-focused approach, one way to do that is to make the cost of violence higher - I tend to house rule the chance for a couple extra HP per healing in my historical Call of Cthulhu games (a decidedly non-combat-focused system) because natural healing takes a realistic amount of time and it's baked in that a doctor with whiskey and a saw can only do so much. I know there are "gritty" mods for D&D to put it on the same level.

Discouraged from combat, you want to give your players more investigative/explorative quests, preferably with in-game time limits that don't permit the milling described above (e.g. "The questgiver will be hanged tonight because the executioner's daughter got sick so the schedule has been bumped up a bit - the crowd will be huge & give cover because they're killing some renowned public enemies then, too - go go go") and a lot of attention to the scenery. I recommend those Cinematic Environs books you can get on...line? I don't remember if I can mention websites here. Anyway, they give ideas for structured non-combat challenges involving trying not to die in, say, the desert, or the snow, made primarily for d20 games.

Tangentially, if you want a high-stakes horror game where players are actively encouraged to think their way out of problems as a group, I worked out a way to play Dread on RPoL that I'm happy to share...whilst you can engage in combat in Dread (the ability to try and fight in a brutal system is important, if just to underline that the threat is more powerful than anything you can hurl at it) it can take multiple draws and carries a defined risk of death, plus lowering the general odds of survival even if the fighting character survives. The new Alien RPG does this, too, with contagious/severe Panic Effects, but that kind of thing works best with a 'trapped in a box' plot...which can be a good driver of very urgent non-combat thinking in any system, actually: provide a pressing reason to team up with potentially hostile NPCs to increase slim odds of survival and PCs' roleplay-fu and creativity becomes a lot more important than their killing power.
evileeyore
 member, 420 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
 Joined August 2015
Sun 6 Dec 2020
at 14:41
Re: Challenges in a low combat game
sbodmann:
Has anyone run or played in a successful low combat game? If so, I'm wondering how the non-combat challenges were handled.

Yes.  By not playing D&D.  I use systems that have non-combat mechanics firmly baked into the system* and allow for non-combat resolutions to most encounters.


* By which I mean:  Look at how much space combat takes up in the rules of the system and how much space noncombat rules take up.  If they aren't at least equal, the system is geared to overwhelmingly support combat.  Keep this in mind when deciding which systems to use and chose the system that supports the game you want to run.
Waxahachie
 member, 171 posts
 The horn that wakes
 the sleepers
Mon 7 Dec 2020
at 03:06
Re: Challenges in a low combat game
Combat is effectively a solvable puzzle. Given any reasonably balanced combat encounter and enough time, you could look at it, all the options, and there would be a best solution. It becomes dramatic only because you don't have enough time and can't perfectly coordinate the response to the situation - not because of some amazing mechanical system.

If non-combat encounters in a game are boring, it's because the story behind them is boring, not because the system doesn't support it. It doesn't matter how fancy the mechanic are if the underlying story isn't interesting. Dramatic choices come from a dramatic scenario, not a system of rules.
engine
 member, 809 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Mon 7 Dec 2020
at 03:39
Re: Challenges in a low combat game
The amount of space something takes up in a book is a poor measure of what a game supports. Combat is fairly easy to write fixed rules for, and because the loss of a character is so contentious, the rules have to be fair.

Non-combat situations are far more varied than combat situations (usually) are. One could write a detailed system for dealing various kinds of celebratory gatherings, but that leaves out a wide range of other situations. And many of those situations won't threaten one's character, so players are less likely to demand rigid rules.

The skill challenge system is fine, people just use it wrong.

For one thing, if climbing a wall, for example, is just about climbing that wall, then that's not a skill challenge. At best, it's part of a skill challenge, maybe a couple of rolls.

Also, climbing doesn't just involve climbing. It involves, observation, knowledge, stamina, etc. A variety of skills can come into play, and the players should not necessarily have control over which skills those are.

Another kind of situation that isn't a skill challenge is a situation in which the character best at at given skill can alway be the one to roll that skill. If negotiations are called for, the main negotiator might reasonably step up, but there should also be something else going on to which his skills might be ideal for. This means that the party has to divide up, having to decide who deals with what.

Of course, the key is to come up with interesting stakes. Victory and defeat should both move things forward, and both should have some irrevocable effect on the situation.