Hereâ€™s a quick TLDR version for anyone in a rush! There is always a way for a Dungeon Master to add in non-combat resolutions to an encounter through minimal effort. Whether this is planned out, or off the top of their heads:
- The Power of Suggestion through world-building – a ballad of a terrible battle
- The more direct approach via explicit instruction – do not kill target
- NPCs! Use them to divulge information to players either directly or indirectly – the rival band of heroes was slaughtered because they did not think!
- No matter if an encounter is resolved via combat, or non-combat means the Dungeon Master and PCs must be prepared to live with the consequences of their actions.
Finally, do not be afraid to take the situation as it comes. Allow room for your players to drive the story towards their desired outcome regardless of what you have planned out. You may be surprised at the number of players who seek to resolve a potentially fatal combat situation through non-violent means. This will allow for a more fluid experience for everyone involved, and a much more believable scenario for the players as they feel they are directly influencing the outcome of not only this encounter but the overall game world itself.
To Combat or Non-Combat, That is the Question.
Monster Brew DM here with some thoughts on Combat Encounters with non-combat resolutions. This is a light guide on how to create non-combat resolutions to the various combat encounters your players will find their characters mixed up in, with minimal effort on the part of the Dungeon Master. This will enrich the experience, allowing everyone to take a break from the generic hackâ€™nâ€™slash narrative that can bog down so many DnD sessions.
In this article we’ll be discussing:
- Why non-combat resolutions are great
- How you can use suggestion to prompt your players to seek non-combat resolutions
- How you can use non-violence as a requirement of a quest, as an added difficulty
- How to use fear to prompt social resolutions to powerful foes
- And some examples from the WotC Starter Set of non-combat resolutions to encounters
Without further ado, letâ€™s dig in!
So youâ€™ve set up these amazing combat encounters, youâ€™ve run a few skirmishes leading up to the big finale, and youâ€™re expecting a long-drawn-out bloody battle between your party of daring adventurers and the big olâ€™ nasty at the end of the dungeon. The party enters the final room, misses their investigation checks, and falls straight into a trap! Hah! Time for the meat grinder to start churning out adventurer-flavored meat popsicles!
One of the group asks if they can barter or reason with the big olâ€™ nasty. You laugh internally. What could these measly soon-to-be meat popsicles have to offer the great dungeon nasty that it does not already have? They produce a necklace, glistening in the torchlight. The big olâ€™ nasty stops and squints at the necklace. Can it be?! The necklace of providence, the one that belonged to their long-lost love of old!
Suddenly you rush through your notes, realizing there could be another way out of this whole mess after all! Perhaps that random roll table at the beginning of the adventure or the random item creation bag you gave the party as a reward four sessions ago wasnâ€™t such a waste of time to create after all! Good idea or bad, it opens up some great role-play opportunities for you and your table. This opens the door to several more possible storylines that may never have been if it all ended with a simple combat encounter.
This is only one scenario that could happen during a game of DnD, but it is one that Iâ€™ve found myself in before, and despite my hard work on setting up the fight, what the party came up with was a far better session than another combat encounter.
Disregarding the fact that a DM spends a lot of time on combat encounters, they can get very repetitive and samey for your players, no matter how ingenious the combat elements may be. In my experience, my players enjoy combat, but they enjoy the role-play that leads up to the combat and the role-play possibilities they create during these battles a lot more. Sometimes, my players even wish to avoid combat entirely and try to find other ways to deal with an adversary. Sometimes, what they come up with is so incredibly smart that I allow it to happen and give them extra experience or Inspiration.
How Do I Create Non-Combat Resolutions To Combat Encounters?
Good question! It can be hard to think of a fun and interesting way to resolve combat through non-combat means. In all honesty, you never really know what your players are going to do in the moment.
For example, I have two players in my own group who often try to avoid combat where possible. This is ingrained into their characters as much as it is in them as players. One of them plays a Barbarian who is often at odds with his hope of living up to what his character believes to be his grandfather’s honorable memory and his fiery nature and lust for battle. The other player has an obsession with knowledge, and will often barter items and worldly wealth for scrolls and books they believe would further increase their knowledge and potential power as a character. This creates an interesting dynamic in many encounters at our table.
As a Dungeon Master, I always try to think of several scenarios that could occur by attempting to predict how my players and their characters will react to a given situation by reading into past behavior during similar scenarios. But as many seasoned DMs will attest, this is often a fruitless endeavor; the players will more than likely choose a course of action you have yet to think of. This means that you then have to virtually fly by the seat of your pants and improv the entire encounter.
Improvising? Flex Those Creative Muscles DM!
When such a situation arises, this is a great opportunity for you to flex those creative muscles and develop a great non-combat resolution to what would normally be a typical combat encounter.
For myself, Iâ€™m most creative during the heat of the moment, bouncing the creativity off of what my players are doing in the moment, making the whole process a collaborative effort. When the roleplaying gets going you will be able to create fun, engaging encounters that do not have to end in bloodshed.
Donâ€™t get me wrong, writing down ideas and potential outcomes is always a great idea. Regardless of how a session goes, whether itâ€™s combat or non-combat, I always have a vague outline of what could happen in a given scenario. I then adapt my notes to help give a meaningful resolution to the situation, something I advocate all Dungeon Masters should do.
For all the fun during an improv or well-planned scene, you do not want to leave your characters feeling unsatisfied or unduly rewarded for their efforts regardless of how the encounter turns out. This means you should never seek to punish your players for taking a course of action and finding a resolution to a given encounter that did not exactly play out how you as the Dungeon Master had originally planned.
Encouraging Players to Think of Non-Combat Solutions.
There are ways that you can ingrain into the story a non-combat solution to a given task. The power of suggestion can be a handy tool for any Dungeon Master to keep in their arsenal, and feeding it directly into a given adventure outline for the party can allow you to subtly push your players in the direction of a non-combat solution.
Do not mistake this for railroading. Thatâ€™s forcefully directing your players towards a desired outcome or encounter that you want to happen.
The power of suggestion allows you to give the players the knowledge that they can solve an encounter by other means than pure combat.
â€œGive us some examples,â€ I hear you cry!
Well certainly! Outlined below are a few ways the Dungeon Master can give subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions to the players on how to solve an encounter through non-combat means. These suggestions will also give the player the agency to think of these solutions on their own, creating the most fun experience for everyone.
A Simple Ballad
We could foreshadow an encounter with a powerful foe using a ballad that is sung by tavern bards as the party traverses the world. This ballad could outline the events of prior great battles with a creature that always ended in the slaughter and utter demise of any given adventurer that took up arms against them. The ballad could then allude to heroes who managed to end the creature’s reign of terror through wit and cunning or some other means that never called for the raising of arms against the creature.
This simple suggestion outlines that there are creatures in this world that are so powerful they cannot be defeated in combat and that it took heroes of cunning and wit to take down the creature without raising their weapons in aggression. It does not give the players the direct answer of what that was, but it prompts them to come to a conclusion on their own in regards to how to handle the encounter.
The Foolhardy Rivals
The Dungeon Master could also suggest a non-combat solution in a slightly less subtle way by introducing a slightly more seasoned band of heroes who are clearly stronger than the player party and are made up of more aggressive characters who make their living by smashing first and talking later.
They can even become a rival band of heroes to the player characters, and as both parties head closer to the encounter with the creatures from the ballad, the player characters could at some point come across survivors of this rival group of heroes who took on the might of the creatures in combat, ignoring the balladâ€™s warning, and were ultimately decimated. This would further influence the players into finding a non-combat solution to this given combat encounter.
Direct Instructions Outlined In The Contract
Another way of suggesting a non-combat solution for an encounter is to directly outline within the contract that the characters must take their target alive and preferably unharmed. This would immediately tell the players that they must find a non-violent means of dealing with the coming encounter or they will fail the contract, receive no reward, and perhaps incur even more far-reaching negative effects than are immediately apparent.
Starter Set Somewhat Did It First (SPOILERS FOR LOST MINES OF PHANDELVER)
A perfect example of a non-combat resolution to a combat encounter would be that of the ultimate confrontation in the Redbrand Hideout in the Town of Phandalin from the Starter Set of DnD 5e. Sildar Hallwinter tasks the heroes with bringing Iarno, his fellow Lordsâ€™ Alliance member, back alive and well whilst investigating the Redbrand menace and their leader, the so-called Glasstaff.
Unbeknownst to Sildar and the players at the time, Glasstaff and Iarno are one and the same! This is a perfect example of a quest outline clearly stating the target is preferably brought in alive and well, prompting the players to find a non-combat solution. Luckily for the heroes, Iarno is a coward at heart, and will readily give himself up to the mercy of the adventurers if he sees no means of escape.
An encounter within the same hideout that can lead to combat but is more geared towards a non-combat solution with a moral dilemma is with the resident Nothic, who isnâ€™t above betraying the Redbrands for food. The moral conundrum for the players is that the Nothic hungers for flesh, the fresher the better. The Redbrands had no qualms about feeding the Nothic to keep it on their side, as evidenced by the gnawed bones and half-eaten corpse within its lair.
There are also two encounters within the abandoned town of Thundertree that allow for non-combat resolutions. These encounters are related to each other; in the first, the Cult of the Dragon is seeking an alliance with the Young Green Dragon, Venomfang, that has taken residence within the old wizardâ€™s tower. The characters could assist in brokering this alliance. The second encounter is with this very same Green Dragon, too powerful a foe to take on at the given level. Players can, however, opt to fight Venomfang, who will flee from combat if depleted to half health. This encounter is designed to give the players their first real taste of battle with a powerful foe that could very possibly kill their characters, while also adding an interesting outcome to this combat encounter.
Taking a leaf from the encounter with the Nothic from earlier in the adventure, the Dungeon Master could portray Venomfang as being willing to bargain with the party for the right price. The wizardâ€™s tower is a promising lair for the Young Green Dragon. However, it is surrounded by a variety of creatures that may become a nuisance to the dragon over time. If the party were somehow able to locate a more suitable domain for Venomfang, such as Cragmaw Castle, for example, they may convince the dragon to move on to this more idyllic lair along with its hoard of valuables.
This encounter also provides another moral conundrum, as Venomfang clearly has no qualms about killing innocents who get in its way. This means the players are risking destruction in the lands surrounding Cragmaw Castle. However, they may gain a powerful ally in Venomfang. The adventurers may suffer or gain reputation through these acts.
It wouldnâ€™t be Dungeons and Dragons without consequences, now would it? And, of course, non-combat resolutions can carry just as many consequences as combat can. It may even be more dire or advantageous than a violent resolution.
- Whoâ€™s to say the enemy you let live wonâ€™t decide to double-cross the heroes at a later date when it is most advantageous to them to do so?
- What if the creature you let live follows its natural instincts to hunt weaker prey and finds some children strolling through the forest near its lair?
- What if the decision to interfere in a characterâ€™s execution ultimately leads to the death and destruction of towns or even cities at the hands of this very character that was just spared the gallows?
- What if the consequences are not so apparent until much, much later down the line?
These are things both Dungeon Masters and players must consider. All actions great and small have consequences.