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View Full Version : How to add drama/suspense without resorting to combat (D&D)



Douche
2017-11-06, 10:56 AM
I have a feeling I'll be told to change systems - don't need to hear that. I have already considered it and spoken to my players - they're already too invested in D&D 5e at the moment. When the campaign ends and we move onto a new one, then we will consider changing to a more roleplay friendly system. I also don't need to hear "you don't need a system to tell you how to roleplay" because I'm in agreement with you (and we'd just be beating a dead horse) - but I need some advice to make D&D more focused on the roleplay rather than combat.

My issue is that, as I'm sure you've all heard dozens of times, I feel like the only way to raise the stakes; introduce conflict; create drama, etc is to resort to combat. And further, the players are conditioned to solve all their problems with violence (TV probably has some effect on this as well).

I want to treat my games more like political thriller type stuff, but I'm having trouble. With all the machinations and master plans I conceive, it seems like they all ultimately boil down to "Kill the person we disagree with"

So, what tips have you guys got to make D&D focus less on killing things?

Garimeth
2017-11-06, 12:22 PM
I have a feeling I'll be told to change systems - don't need to hear that. I have already considered it and spoken to my players - they're already too invested in D&D 5e at the moment. When the campaign ends and we move onto a new one, then we will consider changing to a more roleplay friendly system. I also don't need to hear "you don't need a system to tell you how to roleplay" because I'm in agreement with you (and we'd just be beating a dead horse) - but I need some advice to make D&D more focused on the roleplay rather than combat.

My issue is that, as I'm sure you've all heard dozens of times, I feel like the only way to raise the stakes; introduce conflict; create drama, etc is to resort to combat. And further, the players are conditioned to solve all their problems with violence (TV probably has some effect on this as well).

I want to treat my games more like political thriller type stuff, but I'm having trouble. With all the machinations and master plans I conceive, it seems like they all ultimately boil down to "Kill the person we disagree with"

So, what tips have you guys got to make D&D focus less on killing things?

For specific help, it'd help to know the level and composition of the party, and maybe some rough details on the campaign.

In general, I use the following:

1. I incentivize peaceful resolution. The outcome will be more favorable if a peaceful resolution is involved, the person will share some information, loot, do them a favor or some other thing that ultimately helps their goals more.

2. I disincentivize killing the person in question. Maybe they have powerful friends. Maybe they themselves, or their protectors, are beyond the capabilities of the party. Maybe the party resorting to violence will make them criminals or have political repurcussions. Maybe killing the NPC in question will remove other options from them due to the general ill-will they will create. Perhaps the person is incredibly popular and nobody will want to trade or deal with them if they kill them. Whatever the reason, I communicate that a peaceful solution will be better.

3. I don't make a peaceful resolution so difficult to achieve that violence seems like the only real option.

Slipperychicken
2017-11-06, 01:41 PM
The setting and assumptions have an impact which cannot be exaggerated. My group recently played a game about superpowered American high-schoolers investigating supernatural happenings, and we understood that lethal violence against other people was not only a terrible idea (exposing our superpowers and attracting the long arm of the law would both swiftly destroy any chance our PCs had at a normal peaceful life, even if the police's weapons can't stop us), but also completely unwarranted given the scale of problems that we faced. At the same time, we related to our characters' struggles closely enough that we could appreciate the drama of teenagers struggling to keep secrets and accomplish their goals while navigating a complex and unforgiving social environment.

RazorChain
2017-11-06, 02:39 PM
The problem lies within the system, or rather the system encourages this kind of behavior.

First you should have a set number of encounters during an adventure day to deplete the groups resources. Here the system isn't talking about tete a tete with your paramour, but something that encourages action and makes you spend your resources

Second the alignment system kinda encourages you to just kill the bad guys and it's all right because their evil.

Third when you get superhuman capabilities it's very hard to hold you accountable especially when the system doesn't acknowledge it has become a superhero game. Who's going to stop you? The citywatch? LOL! So either it becomes everybody and their mother are superpowered or nobody can hold the PC's accountable.

So how are you going to have a villain use social power to do things when the PC's just teleport into his home and disintegrate him? No he has to become super villain just to survive.

In comparison I'm runninhg a game where the bad guy had one of the PC's ranch burnt down and bought his debts so now the PC owes the bad guy a whole lot of money. What can the PC's do? In D&D the answer would be to kill him dead dead dead and how can you have debt when you can bathe in gold? But in my game the bad guy has influence and the PC's don't have proof and they can't just kill all problems, which forces them to think, plot and plan.

Tinkerer
2017-11-06, 03:04 PM
The same way you put drama and suspense in any form of fiction without using combat?

Really it all boils down to one point, one word, one concept: stakes. Your players need to have something that they want to gain or something that they don't want to lose. However, and this is where it gets tricky, IT NEEDS TO MATTER TO THEM.

How you get it to matter to them varies so much from player to player that it is essentially pointless to try to write it down. For some players it could be a matter of family, for others concepts, and for others maybe defeat at the hands of something which they can't fight against such as an un-stated monster like the Lady of Pain.

Combat has the benefit of having a defined beginning and end where you can easily tell how your performance was. If I were trying to wean characters from one type of roleplaying game to another I would try to emulate that feeling. Maybe make your non-combat encounter try to emulate the flow of a combat session.

Aliquid
2017-11-06, 04:24 PM
Combat has the benefit of having a defined beginning and end where you can easily tell how your performance was. If I were trying to wean characters from one type of roleplaying game to another I would try to emulate that feeling. Maybe make your non-combat encounter try to emulate the flow of a combat session.
A challenge with D&D is that there are lots of low level spells that make non-combat encounters trivially easy. So... putting a restriction on magic would make this a lot easier.

You could have a tense non-combat encounter where you are trying to catch someone or escape from someone. Making die rolls to avoid tripping, to knock over a table to make an obstacle, to jump over that railing, to throw something with the intention of tripping or knocking them out.

More die rolls or strategic use of skills and resources during important social interactions...

Gathering dirt on someone to get them in trouble without being caught. What do you do if they notice? Contingency plan?

Garimeth
2017-11-06, 05:02 PM
A challenge with D&D is that there are lots of low level spells that make non-combat encounters trivially easy. So... putting a restriction on magic would make this a lot easier.

Nail on the head. I severely restrict enchantment based magic and long range teleportation. I also run 13th Age more than 5e, though. Its a lot harder to restrict in 5e, especially if your campaign is already ongoing with those things allowed.

Mark Hall
2017-11-06, 06:22 PM
IMO, one of the best ways is simply put things on a clock.

You want drama? Give them 30 seconds to disarm the bomb, and note that each skill check takes 6 seconds. 3 checks disarms the bomb. So, a failed skill check isn't just "Well, you didn't advance", it's "You have wasted valuable time and everything will die." It's not a patch you can put on every situation, of course, but if time is a factor, you don't need swords to make conflict, just a ticking clock.

A related story, though it led to combat (several times). A party comes out of a dungeon. They're tired, low on HP, and a bit laden with loot. My younger brother, who was visiting, has his PC come running pell-mell out of the forest, shouting at them to "Go, run, they're coming!" The party hears hunting horns (I had a mp3 on my computer) and the barbarian, quickly, explains that he's been hunted by the priests of Malar for the past three days, and that they're starting to catch up to him, and don't care who they kill so long as it's a hunt. The party gets swept up into this hunt, attacked in the night to prevent rest (i.e. "You cannot get back your spells"), and chased for miles. Players start getting distracted? They hear hunting horns. They wind up in a random encounter, and start realizing that this time spent fighting is time lost to the chasing Malarites.

It resulted in fights, but the tension came from the time pressures they were under.

Aliquid
2017-11-06, 07:33 PM
Factions, guilds, houses, societies, secret societies... etc.

The players are affiliated with one of them, and do what is necessary to advance the interests of their society. Killing the rival society members is unacceptable, illegal and immoral. There can be good, and evil NPCs in each group... although some societies might tend more towards one way than the other.

"This new opportunity is coming forward, and it is imperative that we influence the Duke in a way that he awards the opportunity to our society rather than our rival's"
- If the characters have questionable morals, they do something underhanded to sabotage the rival society
- If they are more upstanding citizens, then the adventure is finding ways to stop the rival from being the saboteurs

Lots of espionage, and making sure you leave no evidence of your actions. (a dead body is serious evidence)

Anymage
2017-11-07, 01:23 AM
Cribbing from 3.5's complex skill checks/4e's skill challenges is a decent way to create a noncombat encounter that still has mounting tension. It's not perfect, given how D&D spells can solve a wide range of problems easily, but it's pretty good considering the nature of the system.

(Because, avoiding spell and ability interactions here for a moment, D&D combat is about trying to stack the deck in your favor and respond to circumstances, in a situation where each roll affects the momentum of the scene instead of being a binary pass/fail. Nothing prevents you from trying to apply that philosophy to situations other than trying to beat the other guy up.)

Thrudd
2017-11-07, 01:56 PM
Ignoring the inherent discordance in what you're asking - (both wanting and not wanting to play D&D at the same time) - it has been pointed out that suspense requires stakes. What you need to determine is what the stakes will be and how you will enforce them. Normally in D&D, the stakes are the character's life. There is suspense for the players because their characters could die, which normally happens through combat and sometimes other mortal hazards. Along with this, you have mechanical incentives to engage with the game - experience points and levels - that reward the players for succeeding. This creates a non-binary state of success/failure - death is the ultimate failure, but you can also survive without gaining much or any experience, making activities which give that result less desirable than those which have greater rewards. Taking it safe and earning less XP and treasure may be weighed against greater risk for greater reward.

So if you want political thriller, you need to figure out how the players will be incentivized to engage in the game the way you want, and what will be the "fail" state that provides the stakes. If you don't want combat to be an option in every scenario, you need to invent game mechanics which enforce this - since by its design, D&D revolves around combat. Maybe you introduce reputation, or corruption, or influence points, something like that. IE, In lieu of HP, a character's standing in the game is determined by points they earn or lose through different sorts of social encounters. Lose all your reputation points, and your character is humiliated and banished from the court, no longer able to participate in intrigues (meaning you lose the character, since the hypothetical game in this example is all about court intrigue and maneuvering to become the most influential).
Or a game where players are supposed to be heroes or paragons and you need to make important moral decisions, gain too many "dark side" points and the character falls to evil and is lost to the player (becomes a villain NPC). Get too many "corruption points", or lose all your "resolve points", and the character disappears into the night with everyone else's gold (character lost to the player). These are incentives to play in a certain way, and provide real tension when players need to make tough decisions - do I take a dark side point in order to gain some advantage, or do I allow an enemy to get into a better position? Maybe killing is an option, but it gives you so many dark side points that it is a super risky thing, being found out will get you banished (fail, character lost), or it corrupts you enough that the character becomes a villain (fail, character lost). But killing that one enemy would make things so much easier, your position in court would immediately be advanced if you can get away with it...

Remove from D&D all those abilities which will be irrelevant to the game you want to run - either ban certain classes, or better yet design your own custom classes and abilities that interact with the new mechanics you've invented for the political drama game. More subtle magics, more realistic combat, more fine-tuned social abilities. Design a setting which reflects the economic and social landscape that will provide the appropriate type of conflict.

Of course, you can say that some players don't need mechanics to tell them how to role play (you already pointed that out), but I'm guessing that's not the case for your players, or you wouldn't be asking this. So simply providing them with a setting and a background for your political thriller and telling them what the theme of the game is isn't going to result in them ignoring the game mechanics and all their character abilities and just going along with the drama the way you want. D&D still revolves around characters gaining levels which gives them more combat ability and little else, and the mechanical stakes still revolve around avoiding the physical death of the characters, no matter what sort of narrative you introduce, so as you point out, no matter what you say the narrative situation is, they always have the option of resorting to force, and there is little you can do to de-incentivize this. Even if the whole world narratively turns against them, they are enemies of every kingdom and every guard is after them - the game goes on until they die - and they only get stronger the more people they kill.

In essence, what you need to do is design a whole new game - that you want to do so using the bones of 5e D&D is a choice you're making because it is most familiar to you. It's not wrong, though it is far more effort than necessary when other games, or even the bones of other games, would be much less work for your goals than adapting D&D to something it is pointedly not suited for.

Fri
2017-11-07, 10:11 PM
Have a setting where death isn't a stake at all. For example, people can be easily raised. Or it's hard to kill people, you can beat people to knock out, but guards will always come and rescue them. Or if you're proven to kill someone, you'll be jailed for life (so maybe they kill someone, the campaign will turn into a whole campaign of trying to hide a murder.)

Basically, make it clear that the stake isn't death, it's something else. Their house's name, their family, their honor, whatever. If they die or proven to kill someone, their immediate family and all of their cousins will be exiled to salt mine. Whatever.

Also, this is important. Make all of those clear from the beginning. Your party must agree on the premise. But the important thing is, just make sure everyone understand that death is not the stake here.

Mark Hall
2017-11-08, 12:19 AM
Have a setting where death isn't a stake at all. For example, people can be easily raised. Or it's hard to kill people, you can beat people to knock out, but guards will always come and rescue them. Or if you're proven to kill someone, you'll be jailed for life (so maybe they kill someone, the campaign will turn into a whole campaign of trying to hide a murder.)


In Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels, there are three levels of assassination:

1) Kill them. If they have someone who likes them enough to spend/loan about 5000 gold, they get to go on living, knowing someone spent a lot of money to send a message
2) Unrevivifiable. Damage the brain or spinal cord. Dead and can't be brought back.
3) Morganti. A special kind of magical weapon that destroys the soul. Not just dead, but never reincarnating (the eventual default for most people).

Darth Ultron
2017-11-08, 08:57 AM
A Couple Ideas:


1)Less Combat Focus. If the players encounter a foe that is all armed and hostile and a threat...they will most likely attack. So what you want to do is make your foes things other then that. A seven foot tall half orc barbarian with a great sword screams ''attack me'', but a Halfling Expert with a pointy hat not so much.

Along with this is not making the death of a foe ''help'' the characters at all. They won't get anything or get closer to any goal.

2)Harder Encounters. If your above 1st level this is not so hard, though you might need to ''push'' the encounter rules to their upper limits. The idea is to have foes, like the gnome expert with glasses have lots of body guards and protection. Generally, you want them to have ''a bit too much'' for the characters to handle. Like there would be ten guys with crossbows, aimed at the characters with ready actions to fire or a spellcaster ready with a hold spell or a giant with a net or such. You want the idea that the characters can not all ways ''just fight''.


3)Justice. Well, if you add in Law and Order and have less of a ''Wild, Wild West'' type game this will do it. When the foe is a 9th level commoner City Councilman the characters can't just walk into the city and slaughter him on the street. And if they do they will be arrested and charged with murder.

4)A powerful Foe-This might ''break'' the rules, but you might be able to do it with some crazy optimization. This is where the foe is something like a lich or a ghost or a dragon...something the characters just ''can't kill''. A thing like a ghost is nice as Ghost D'rk can possess anyone, and do D'rk's evil plans...and the characters can only ''just'' kill the body.

5)No Foe....the characters do have an enemy...Lord Dark....and they know he is a noble of Winterhaven.....but there are 207 nobles and they don't know who to attack.

JellyPooga
2017-11-08, 12:22 PM
Confiscate their means of causing destruction. Literally. Set the game in a city where weapons, armour and arcane foci are illegal or restricted. Make Clerics and their respective church responsible for their actions. Make magic illegal or restricted. Give the authorities the means to apprehend unarmed adventurers; i.e. weapons. See how the players fare when they're swinging for 1hp of damage each time and have AC:10. Even a high level adventurer should be thinking twice when he's outnumbered, outgunned and out of places to run.

jimmywarlokk
2017-11-08, 12:32 PM
Running games for kids at local hobby store on open game day this is #1 complaint i hear from parents. So i stock dungeons with mostly constructs, undead to be turned, and giant bugs. The latter gets real old real quick.

One of my favorite side quests is if PCs want to pass thru land on goblin tribe, just retrieve goblin leaders missing boot that was carried off by a crow. It is currently in its nest at top of high mountain. Map out face of mountain where just reaching next ledge requires skill checks and the usual hazards of mountain climbing. Rockslides, rain/fog, pitons working loose and ropes fraying. Old National Geographic issues provide great ideas on stuff like this.

Or read about Special Forces in early Viet Nam. Go into a very primative village and try to teach them some more modern luxuries like running water and growing crops. Be sure PCs get a taste of the current food villagers eat n perhaps some Fort saves to prevent becoming nauseated.