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I'm thinking of starting my own campaign with a few of my friends with me as DM, primarily because I wasn't extremely impressed with the campaign my friend was DMing. When I started thinking about the things I really didn't like, one of the biggest ones ended up being combat.

It's possible that our DM just wasn't creating very interesting encounters, but it seemed like combat always took way too long, was just a bunch of us sitting around rolling dice, and every single one was the same.

How can I keep a campaign interesting and engaging with minimal combat encounters? Instead, the game could be based around diplomacy, exploration, puzzle solving, gathering intelligence, stealth, etc.; but I'm having trouble thinking of non-combat quests and fleshing them out to the point where they are actually playable. Some combat is okay, but I don't want the quest to revolve around it.

Has anyone here run games like this? What do you usually base the quests around? How can I keep things interesting and still allow the players to advance their skills? Can you outline or link to any sample quests that have a minimal amount of combat encounters?

Do note: although fixing the issues I stated with combat could help this situation, that's not what I'm looking for here. I will probably ask a different question about making combat encounters more bearable so this one can be focused on running campaigns without combat.

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You should consider accepting answers on your questions: Pick the one that worked best for you. –  wraith808 Dec 15 '11 at 4:12
    
@GordonGustafson it would be quite interesting to know how this developed. –  Lohoris Apr 19 at 15:24
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7 Answers

Part of running a campaign without combat is having characters that are not all about combat but still interesting. The player characters are central to the story, so unsurprisingly their core competencies shape how they solve problems and what problems are important to them. How about a guild of thieves trying to make their way? A cabal of secretive wizards seeking the key to immortality? Nobles jockeying for position and favour at the royal court while war stirs on the border?

There are many possible stories about things other than combat, but you do need to have protagonists who are themselves about things other than combat. Change the characters, change the core campaign challenge and focus accordingly, and you'll change the importance of steel blades. If you stick with "y'all are a bunch of mismatched adventurers doing death-defying things for treasure", combat will always be central.

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There are several types of mission archetypes that are common to P'n'P games in my experience (and this is not an exhaustive list but it's pretty close to it):

  • Extermination
    A simple kill-job that has the player characters violently eliminate a particular group of enemies or as many enemies as they can until the mission parameters are satisfied with the amount and/or style of bloodshed.

  • Assassination
    A comparatively more complex kill-job than Extermination missions that see the PCs hunting down and eliminating a particular target or a particular set of targets for some end. Stealth tends to be a major factor in these missions and sometimes a particular method of killing is required for the mission to be successful.

  • Escort
    Protect a non-player character or other important entity from being harmed, captured or killed and ensure they reach a particular destination.

  • Explore
    Scout a particular area or location for a given purpose determined by the mission parameters.

  • Courier
    Deliver an item to a given recipient.

  • Rescue
    Locate a particular individual or other important entity and free them from bondage, whatever form that might take.

  • Insertion
    Place an item, person or other entity as defined by the mission parameters into a particular location which is usually hostile to the PCs.

  • Infiltration
    Sneak into a particular location and hide or blend in amongst the environment and creatures and, upon successfully doing so, continue as the mission parameters require. This mission archetype can also take the form of breaking into a computer system virtually via hacking.

  • Envoy
    Meet with a particular individual, group or other entity and discuss a given subject of importance with the objective of obtaining some type of concession, decision or payoff.

  • Exchange
    Meet a particular individual or group at a given location and hand over a particular item, person or other entity in exchange for something else.

  • Research
    Investigate a particular subject, person or other important matter and form an informed conclusion based on what is found that satisfies the mission parameters. This archetype can also take the form of self-discovery.

  • Acquisition
    Search for and obtain a particular item through whatever methods are necessary and that satisfy the mission parameters.

  • Investigation
    Acquire clues, interrogate and interview persons, deduce events, build a timeline and solve a given mystery or occurrence in a manner that satisfies the mission parameters.

  • Tail
    Follow a particular individual, group or other entity in a manner appropriate to the nature of the mission until the mission parameters are satisfied

Now that's a pretty generic list but since the core of your question seems to focus on how to build and design quests that are decidedly non-combat focused, feel free to reference that list. In fact, that's good for every GM: look at that list and think about whether your own quest comes under one of those archetypes—if your mission doesn't come under one of those archetypes it's probably not developed well enough yet or it's just a mess. You should always have at least one of these archetypes running core to the mission—it maintains the mission focus and ensures both the GM and players have an idea about what they're trying to achieve.

In the context of D&D (due to the tag), take the members of the party and take a look at their Class and Alignment. Use these as inspiration for missions that utilize the skills and abilities that these characters have and that would likely interest them on some level, whether simple curiosity or something more personal and deeper. Also, consider the tone and setting of your campaign as to the content and premise of the missions.

Some examples using the Class as a basis (your mind should start working just listening to the premise of the missions):

  • Fighter

    • Clear out the hive of ratbeasts underneath the streets of Ridgeport (Extermination)
    • Escort the merchant safely to the village (Escort)
    • Find Eli the Heretic and kill him (Assassination)
    • Search for the bandit enclave in the plains and report your findings to the Seneschal. (Explore)
  • Rogue

    • Set up the deal between Bailor's gang and the Thieves Guild (Envoy)
    • Sneak into the baron's estate and signal to the raiders when to attack (Infiltration)
    • Steal the priceless work of art (Acquisition)
    • Hand over the gold to the kidnappers in exchange for the prisoner (Exchange)
  • Monk

    • Meditate on what you have learned and seek greater insight from your soul (Research)
    • Find and stop the prison train and rescue the apprentices (Rescue)
    • Find Master Zheng and stop him (Assassination)
    • Deliver the ancient scrolls to the grandmaster (Courier)
  • Sorcerer

    • Kill everyone who hurt you as a child and burn down the orphanage where it happened (Extermination)
    • Discover the source of the Power (Research)
    • Meet with the merchant and obtain the runes from him (Acquisition)
    • Find out what really happened to your friend that night (Investigate)
  • Ranger

    • Track the fearsome beast and slay it (Assassination)
    • Follow the druid elder through the mysterious forest and stay hidden (Tail)
    • Scout the outlying lands and find the Boroi stronghold (Explore)
    • Infiltrate the hunter's lodge and surveil the occupants (Infiltration)
  • Cleric

    • Deliver the healing herbs to Father Erban (Courier)
    • Plant the holy relic in the demon's nest (Insertion)
    • Meet with the priests of Aliyiah and force them to convert to the ways of the Death God (Envoy)
    • Investigate the scene of carnage and find out where the demon escaped to (Investigate)

Again, your mind is probably already working on missions fitting the archetypes exemplified by these examples, but it is surprisingly easy to form an idea of a mission and then fill it out with content once you have the base idea down. The trick is to keep the mission content broad at first and then increase its specificity the closer to the end the PCs are.

Alignment-wise, they have more to do with the context of the mission and/or the possible solutions of the mission. Examples follow:

  • Evil Cult

    • Apprehend and arrest the leader of the demon worshiping cult and round up the cultists (Lawful Good)
    • Kill the leader of demon worshiping cult and raze the temple to prevent others succumbing to its evil (Chaotic Good)
    • Overthrow the leader of the demon worshiping cult and instate yourself as its leader (Lawful Evil)
    • Murder the leader of the demon worshiping cult and brutally sacrifice the cultists to the patron demon in exchange for receiving its dark blessing (Chaotic Evil)
  • Gang War

    • Establish an alliance with Gail's gang to help protect the workers from the corrupt governor and end the violence for good (Neutral Good)
    • Eliminate Gail's gang and give up the workers to the corrupt governor in exchange for protection from her forces ensuring your dominance of the city's underworld (Neutral Evil)

This is what adds up to an intriguing, tense and exciting game that rewards roleplay from players and validates their choices for their character build. It also gives your game world believability and enables you to really develop the game world your campaign is set in.

If you keep all these factors in mind when designing the quests that your PCs go on, you can very easily keep them entertained and immersed in your game world, as by implementing these simple design elements your quests will start to take on a life of their own. And most of those mission examples up top don't even have to involve combat! Excelsior!

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I've run and played in many games with minimal combat, even D&D games. In some campaigns we've had whole game sessions go by where no one touches a die, and have gone 2-3 sessions between a real fight. Here's the tricks.

  1. Give people something else fun to do! Often, this is fully realized NPCs to interact with; it can also be other exciting activities (for those who need to roll some dice). You already came up with the list, focus on what people like. You can run a Tomb of Horrors-like scenario where it's all exploration and puzzles and traps; you can run intrigue games where it's all talking and plotting and making Sir Bedivere look foolish at the ball. You can explore new lands or set up a merchant empire. But if you don't have anything else interesting to do, the PCs are going to end up cutting someone. Take some tips from How to design game elements other than combat?

  2. Don't have the stakes raised to where violence is the right solution. If you run a light-hearted game where the PCs are musketeers in the King's court, you can balance concerns enough to keep combat from erupting all the time. But if some guy suddenly declares that he's going to summon the Great Old Ones and lay the kingdom to waste, the PCs will do the utility calculation and immediately try to murder him no matter what noble he's the favorite cousin of. Take some tips from How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins?

In my current pirate campaign, there have been lengthy chase scenes, multi-hour scenes where they're trying to keep the ship afloat during a storm, attempts to sneak around and get into various shenanigans in the city, etc. We've also had all-session combats, but we've had no-combat sessions and it's not hard to do that more if that's your thing.

People make the mistake of thinking "you have to have combat to make things exciting." Combat is not exciting, conflict is exciting. Remember your high school English class categories of conflict. "Man vs man," "man vs nature," "man vs self". Even man vs. man doesn't have to be stabbing, it can be social, opposed skills, or the like. Characters can sail ships, get married, explore uncharted ruins or wildernesses, build cities or inns, participate in sports or drinking contests, and a wide variety of exciting activities where either there's no combat or combat is a sideline not the highlight (like if you get caught burgling and someone shoots at you with a crossbow...).

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@okeefe Mm, debatable. If being a game relies on the presence of rules, and if one accepts this definition of "rules", then it can still be a game without written rules. (Aside: yeah, freeform's fine, and more power to those who can pull it off!) –  SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '11 at 19:13
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We have sessions we roll plenty of dice, but we have some we don't and we roleplay, or we have some skill stuff come up that take 10/20 more than handles, or we use our brains to avoid a fight. And guess what, we've been doing it in D&D for near 20 years? Real experience >>> opinion. –  mxyzplk Sep 20 '11 at 21:51
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@Zachiel that's a ridiculous claim. If we have a fight and there's no spellcasting so we're not exercising the magic rules, are we "not using D&D?" So if we have a D&D game where we don't exercise the combat rules, it's also "not D&D?" That's farcical. Consider reading a D&D manual (not 4e, I guess); there's a bunch of other rules in there to use for exploration and interpersonal and everything else this question talks about. –  mxyzplk Jul 10 '13 at 19:41
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Nope, magic. 3.5e PHB, combat section is 25 pages, magic and spells section 127 pages. Can I play a session of D&D where no one casts a spell? Anyway, this isn't improving anything, take it to chat if you really want to discuss. –  mxyzplk Jul 10 '13 at 21:10
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If you spend a session role playing without using dice, are you still playing D&D (or other chosen system)? Of course... because the role-playing interactions are done under the accepted premise that any conflicts that arise from them will be settled using the game's conflict resolution mechanics (combat, skill roles, magic). Thats what the mechanics are for. Just because 50% of a game book is dedicated to combat doesnt mean you need to be fighting 50% of the time. It just means that when combat ensues, there's a lot of mechanics available to resolve its outcome. –  GrandmasterB Jul 11 '13 at 16:34
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D&D's setting contains some questionable morality where entire races are being declared evil and you are free to dole out capital punishment without consideration to the individuals actual misdeeds or the appropriateness of the response. Bad guys have an aura, detect evil, kill it.

Yet, an option for violence must exist. As the previous poster mentioned violence usually is the most costly solution, involving the possibility of your own loss of life or wealth. A well placed threat might do the trick. If the players don't get what alternatives there are, lure them there, for example disgruntled NPCs hinting at being open to bribes.

So make combat less attractive, but when it occurs, make it more interesting. Dice rolls can be sped up. Opponents can be defeated without playing out reducing each and every one of them to zero hit points.

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entire races are being declared evil you should check out the Book of Vile Darkness, as the objective evil approach isn't the only one mentioned. –  LitheOhm Nov 22 '12 at 7:37
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You can run a campaign based on, say, Diplomacy, by thinking about what situations in the real world require diplomacy: between individuals or between nations, it usually boils down to: a) promoting trade, b) gaining assistance (often financial), or c) teaming up against a common enemy. You simply need a substantial reason why two parties haven't already agreed to it, and you have a Diplomacy scenario.

For example: two merchants are vying for a better location in the market. One sells superior goods, but is not as established as another. The diplomatic solution might be to sell and buy each others goods wholesale and sell them at each location. Maybe this solution doesn't appeal to either of them because they've been lifelong rivals. Maybe there was a love triangle in the past, or perhaps their names are Montague and Capulet.

Espionage runs the same way: just figure out what situations call for it. Someone has a secret. Someone wants to get it, and not let it even be known that they have it. That's why you can't beat it out of the poor ambassador, because that will tip everyone off.

I'd go so far as to say that the best way to promote anything outside of combat is to somehow guarantee that fighting is going to be the most costly/least productive means of solving your problem, and then go from there. Overpowering enemy forces is the easiest way, but also conflicts with people who are also allies or friends will keep you from reaching for the sword.

As far as promoting something, it's usually a matter of making the players aware that it's there and hinting that there will be a reward for pursuing it. The reward doesn't have to be in-game; it could simply be the awareness that fun is going to happen if you go there.

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+1 for making combat less cost-effective –  Dakeyras Nov 22 '12 at 16:18
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I have a couple suggestions.

Run your plots in parallel. It will make them seem infinitely more complex and give the players more to do. Investigations seem trivial when you're given a premise, two clues, and a contact, all lined up in a row. Give the players a couple investigations at once and then throw a dead body into the mix. Now they have to figure out which plot the body belongs to.

This sort of parallelization works best in a city game. You can't send the players out to infiltrate the bad guy's secret underground lair and expect any other plots to touch them while they're doing this. The best instance of a parallel plots game I ever ran put the players in charge of a castle. Threats came to them and the PCs couldn't leave if they wanted to.

My other suggestion pertains to combat. You can have combat in a plotful game, but it needs to be deliberate. The game shouldn't stop for two hours of dice chucking just because the abomination on page 273 of the Monster Manual had the misfortune of wandering in front of the players.

So how does one make combat deliberate?

My rule of thumb is that one member of one side of the conflict needs to know the name of someone on the other side of the conflict. An intelligent person needs to have made the decision that someone else needs to die. Maybe the bad guy sent assassins to off those meddling PCs. Maybe the PCs decided that your NPC needed killin'. But that decision has to be there. If it isn't, and you're just slaughtering wildlife, skip the combat.

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The name-knowing rule of thumb is excellent all by itself. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '11 at 16:37
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Well, for starters, I'd say don't use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you're avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said "violent conflicts". No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I'm not also saying it's completely undoable with D&D, just mainly... a waste of its design and practical goals. Another way to put it, to use a metaphor, is: smartphones are great, you can do a lot with them, they're like handheld computers... But they can't really substitute a desktop computer in every way, maybe not even most ways.

Now, if you're willing to work outside of D&D, there are some good systems out there for that "action and adventure doesn't mean swinging swords all the time" vibe you're after, like, for example, Fate (The Dresden Files RPG, Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, etc), in which most of the mechanics about resolving conflicts are the same, regardless if it's a brawl, a wardrobe and style show off or even an economic dispute between Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne. It's worth a look, really, and there are SRDs available for some of those games (Spirit of the Century and Diaspora, iirc).

If you're stickingg to D&D, plotting the campaign isn't the difficult part; the difficult part is to design encounters (which is just a way of saying "conflict scene") that allow your PCs to shine doing their thing when most of their sheets are geared towards combat (yeah, players do that, it being the game it is).

For the wizard (most hocus-pocus folks, really) and rogue, that's easy. Most other types, though, will rely purely on RP, most of the time, which isn't bad per se, just kinda unfair, since some players get to look at their sheets and say "I can do this, this and that", while the fighter's player has to memorize lines from Gladiator and the ranger's player has to become a living Bear Grylls encyclopedia.

If your group can pull it off, that campaign'd be the stuff of legends, but it'll be hard, really.

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Depends what version of D&D you mean - I tend to agree for 4e, but for earlier editions there is a lot less of a rigid combat/conflict structure and they're as suitable for this purpose as any random trad game. –  mxyzplk Sep 19 '11 at 13:39
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@mxyzplk: Even in previous editions of the game, the majority of a character's class features are still combat-focused, but it's a lot more possible to at least do looser, gridless and more narrative combat in those editions. –  adamjford Sep 19 '11 at 18:23
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There's no 'requirement' for lots of (or any) combat in D&D. Its all about GM'ing style, not the rules used. –  GrandmasterB Sep 19 '11 at 18:33
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there are a number of things that make this a clear answer. Amongst the is D&D's main reinforcer, experience and levels. And earlier editions may have been less combat specific, but they were still built around the ideal of combat. Any game where one archetype is called 'Fighter' is going to have something of an issue. One might need to run a game of rogues, clerics, and magic-users to make it work. I play very social-heavy games, and we'll probably go 3-4 sessions before the next combat, since the group stays in town for a lot of time. I'd never bother using D&D for it. –  LordVreeg Sep 21 '11 at 18:30
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+1 for suggesting to use a system suited to their needs. Never use a system that spend 80% of the book dealing with situations that you try to avoid. Not that it can't be done, but why on earth do it? –  Undreren Nov 22 '12 at 12:03
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