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So originally I was going to ask, How can I represent hardships for players in game?, however that seemed to broad. Even now, I'm not sure if my current question is too broad, if it is please let me know and I'll adjust it. But as it stands I am currently running a kingmaker campaign, we're just about to start the third book, Varnhold Vanishing, but so far most of the challenges seem to have been fights.

It's not that we don't like fighting, fighting is good fun, but it shouldn't be the only threat / challenge to the PCs. There have been a couple of diplomatic opportunities but these aren't really challenges as such, more just moving the story on and a break from the fighting.

So it would be nice to add in some other challenges that aren't all about rolling dice and killing things. What other experiences do GMs have in challenging their players through means other than combat? I'm after suggestions on what I can do to mix things up and give them something to do other than the hit stuff. Whilst tagged with Pathfinder because this is for a Pathfinder game, generic, non system specific advice is also welcome.

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This video I just watched seems particularly relevant. It's not an answer, but provides some tools/terminology/framework for considering the problem of unwanted combat-heavy gameplay. It might help you refine the question. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 24 at 0:19

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

You're right, combat only challenges get pretty boring. So in a long term campaign, it's good to have a bunch of other kinds of things that PCs can spend their time on.

These tend to break down into three different kinds of things.

  1. Action scenes other than combat
  2. Non-action skill-driven challenges
  3. Strategy and Diplomacy

Action Scenes Other Than Combat

I'm running a pirate game and we've had entire sessions that were "man vs nature" scenes where they were trying to keep their ship intact and on course during a storm, for example. Chases, competitions, jousts, sports... Instead of killing the boggard tribe, how about participating in their weird frog sports to win them over? The first RPG I ever owned was Star Frontiers, and in the initial set of modules the PCs crash-land on a planet (Volturnus) and can win over a weird tentacly indigenous alien race, the Ul-Mor, by participating in their version of Buzkashi. Some of these will have similar-to-combat elements, just are more subtle than pure carnage.

Somewhat related are challenges that are still combat, but have a goal other than "kill the other side" - like trying to repair the dam before it floods the village, but there's some agitated bee swarms attacking them. It's a combat, but since the goal isn't the combat per se but to accomplish something (and all the usual options are here - defend a place, take something somewhere, defend a person, or the reverse) then it feels a lot different and can be accomplished in non-straightforward ways by the PCs. Like if a scrag washes up on deck during the storm at sea above; it's not a "CR appropriate encounter" and the goal isn't to fight it, it's more of a combat complication to a non-combat scene (and they'd be happy enough to just push it overboard rather than fight it to the death). Also, just keep in mind that Pathfinder isn't a computer game where all these kinds of challenges have to be separate - you can mix/match/meld them at will (e.g. a duel with a noble where your main goal, besides not dying, is to use the opportunity to lay some charm down on the princess who is attending - a skill challenge amidst a combat).

Non-Action Skill Challenges

Exploration is the most typical example, and there's loads of opportunity for that in Kingmaker. Dungeon exploration is more about obstacles and traps and tricks and puzzles, but outdoor exploration has its own charms as well. Use the weather, make it realistic - getting lost, avoiding encounters, learning about the land. Travel isn't simple without monsters! How do you get your mounts across that crevice? See also What can I do to give the players the same feel their characters would have about wilderness travel? for more on making travel interesting. I like rewarding skill use, so Survival etc. can be used to detect/avoid random encounters, for example. You can make this as crunchy or non-crunchy as you want - there's loads of discussion on this site and others of "old school vs new school" approach to exploration and whether you do it narratively and make them verbally fondle the puzzlebox or whether you just let them roll Disable Device and be done with it. One of the benefits of the former approach is that it gives it more 'screen time' and cuts down on combat's share of your hours.

Strategy and Diplomacy

General planning and creating things is a great challenge for players. In Kingmaker, in fact, the entire kingdom-building part of the system is designed as a huge non-combat type challenge. Can you make a kingdom that makes money? Can it weather the travails of life in the River Kingdoms? Expand on this; if you just use the bare bones provided in the AP then it can be a bit of a flat minigame, but if you have the characters engage in-character with the rounds of building and economics and all, then it is actually the most meaningful challenge of the AP.

Similarly, a lot of Kingmaker can and should be about making friends, enemies, trade partners, etc. Though poor GMs can certainly "turn this into one or two rolls," as @BESW warns, I strongly disagree that this is a necessary path in d20/Pathfinder.

For example, my PCs' pirate crew is always looking for new pirates. Sometimes they impress prisoners, but they also have open calls when they hit a pirate city. They'll spend hours interviewing pirates, checking up on their history, giving them a tryout (sometimes escalating to combat :-)... Sure, I could just have them "roll Diplomacy to see how many recruits you get, they are all indistinguishable level 2 warriors, done" but they really get into the details, so it turns into an hour-long scene instead.

In Kingmaker and other APs you'll find a lot of support for this; they often have whole chapters about choosing who to try to get on your side (often there's some specific quest involved with it, of course...).

But This Is Up To You (and Them)

The AP itself won't have lots of this. Now, it does have hexcrawling and kingdom building rules, but it's easy to treat them as a minigame. They fill page count with big stat blocks and NPC backgrounds. It's up to you to flesh out the actual campaign with the kinds of things your group enjoys.

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Note on the getting lost front, by the rules a single point in survival turns you into an automatic infallible compass under all situations. Be prepared to either house-rule that stupidity out of existence or have a counter measure in place if you want people to get lost. –  Tim B Aug 12 at 8:17

Pathfinder provides an overwhelming focus on combat, and what non-combat options exist aren’t very complex or interesting.

When I look at a character sheet or a manual, the vast majority of it is about combat options. Even skills are frequently geared toward combat applications, like feinting or demanding surrender. If I've spent most of my time in character creation and advancement picking combat features, and the paper listing my choices for action is dominated by combat options, non-combat action is naturally going to feel lackluster and tacked on.

This is one reason you've found that non-combat encounters feel more like taking a break from the mechanics rather than a different kind of mechanical challenge: when we remove the combat features from our spread of options, what’s left is a handful of simplified mechanics that generally rely on the roll of a single wildly-unpredictable die. (d20s are great for combat because individual failures aren’t catastrophic and successes accumulate; skill checks don’t really follow the same pattern.)

I see two major ways to address this:

1) The simple hack: We can make skills a bit more interesting and reliable by creating resolution mechanics involving multiple die rolls. It doesn’t change the limited number of non-combat options available compared to the amazing diversity of "stab it with a pointy thing or set it on fire" options, but it draws out their use into more compelling encounters that last longer than a roll or two.

2) The agressive hack: We can find a system which is actually designed to support interesting, dynamic social and mental conflict, and we can switch to its mechanics for these kinds of encounters. This adds a level of complexity which might be good or bad depending on your particular group’s needs.

Hacking d20s for non-combat applications

This is the obvious solution: make non-combat challenges more combat-like by rolling more d20s per situation to be resolved.

D&D 4e uses "skill challenges" where everyone goes around and rolls skill checks, trying to accumulate a certain number of successes before they get a certain smaller number of failures. It incorporates sliding level-based difficulty ratings and expects the group to role-play each check as part of the scene. If you want to use skill checks to determine important outcomes, I suggest you use something like skill challenges. [1]

(4e also uses "utility powers" which are somewhat similar to Pathfinder's spells which seem designed for non-combat use. However, both of these ideas run into the problem that the features are also available in combat, which creates awkward balance issues.)

Pasting in a new system for non-combat encounters

This takes more work: finding a system which is specifically designed for interesting, dynamic social and mental conflict and switching to that for these kinds of encounters. This means ignoring Pathfinder skills for the duration, replacing them with the other system's mechanics entirely.

Fate Core/Accelerated is the current industry darling (and it's free!), but you could also look into systems like The Princes' Kingdom (a simplified version of Dogs in the Vineyard) or even Roll For Shoes.

Tacking a new set of rules onto Pathfinder for non-combat conflicts may seem excessive, but Pathfinder and its ilk already have a tradition of adding subsystems for every little thing. If this helps shift the focus of my game in the direction I want to go, it's definitely worth the extra complexity.

You still need player buy-in, though!

If I were invited to play a Pathfinder game, I'd expect it to be combat-heavy with minimal social encounters because that's the nature of the system. I'd build my character and design his personality accordingly. Were the GM to then run a social campaign, I'd feel tricked and cheated because I prepared for something different and my character is probably going to be kinda useless. And maybe I didn't want to play a social game at all anyway.

I've had this happen with me on both "sides of the screen," and I've learned that it's very important to talk with my players about gameplay expectations so that we can figure out what kind of game everyone will be happy playing. Lacking that I get sullen players who sabotage the campaign or just leave.


[1] The original 4e math is a little funky though, and if you go this route I suggest finding an online homebrew version that's got a bit more thought (and testing) put into it. I liked Stalker0's Alternate Core Skill Challenge System.

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There is an option that I used once, but requires some work, is similar to something I've seen on Song of Ice and Fire RPG from Green Ronin, make non-combat situation like a combat. Let's explain this:

A discussion or a political debate is the use of "force" so it is, in some way, similar to combat. So you have to identify these "social combat" elements, like:

  • Attack: Your attack bonus can be a skill like Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate
  • Defense: Your defense can be a similar skill and something like 10+bonus, if you want a single attack roll, or attacker a defender rolling his skill and comparing results.
  • Arguments Proficiency: An Insult is a "Simple Argument", everyone can use it, a Barbed comment or a pun are "Martial Arguments", not everyone knows how to use it properly, a scientific/arcane reasoning could be a "Exotic argument"
  • Damage: The "damage" you do is higher as you use stronger or heavier arguments so in combat you use a Two handed sword supported by your STR, in a social situation you use an Insult or an accusation supported by your INT (or WIS/CHA) as a "damage" modifier.

    You have to work out an "arguments table" which reflects the "damage" of the attack, there should be also some advantage/disadvantage related like "+2 vs Insult/-2 vs Intimidate"

  • Hit(Social) Points: This could be resolved in this way, your Social Point dice is related in reverse of your hit point dice, so a Wizard (D4 Hit Points) should have the highest /Social Dice (D12), we can stand that the sum of the values of the dice should be 16, so:

    Hit Point/Social Point:

    • D4/D12
    • D6/D10
    • D8/D8
    • D10/D6
    • D12/D4

You can add multiple effects to some attacks, like a "poisoned argument" maybe that deals low damage, but it keeps in your mind doing "damage".

The result of being defeated on such "combats" should reflect, like injuries, negative modifiers to make another combat, especially versus the person who defeated you, and the social points should "heal" like Hit Points and that makes the idea of "social healing" another aspect we could think, the bards here, with his songs could provide some aid to troubled minds, or clerics with religion arguments.

That needs more roleplay than regular combat, but as you can "leap forward yelling at the goblins swinging your sword" you can also, "raise your voice in the meeting with a betrayal accussation at the Baron".

Whoah... wall of text, I hope this helps, if you refine the idea to adapt it to your needs you can add more "combat" in a different way, where some characters like wizards, sorcerers, bards and rogues have the upper hand.

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This is a pretty elegant concept, but it treats social conflict as the inverse of physical conflict, which just doesn't seem right. Maybe if it was about mental conflict it'd make a little more sense, but I'm not sure the guy who spent his life locked up in libraries and laboratories pouring over books and beakers is going to have more social staying power than the man who makes his living entertaining strangers for food. It's an interesting starting point, but to be sensible this system will need an aggressive overhaul. –  BESW Mar 24 at 7:36
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You say you've used this system? Focusing on your experience with it, rather than speculation on other ways it might be implemented, would be valuable. –  BESW Mar 24 at 8:05
    
Used it once, but on a different setting (CP 2020) on a corporate setting play, and used the concept of arguments <-> weapons, Social "damage boxes", was much simpler, and I wonder about this system for D20 since I saw it on Sonf of Ice and Fire, but never developed it fully for D20, but it will be something like the ideas I posted. –  Corven Dallas Mar 25 at 8:09
    
Again with the social conflict as the inverse of physical conflict, well... maybe wizards have more "social points"(D12) so they withstand the "puns" and "critics" better, but maybe they dont have the highest "social profiency", that should be the bard (D10), like a barbarian is not the best fighter, but has more hit points than the fighter (D12 vs D10 too). –  Corven Dallas Mar 25 at 8:17
    
That could make sense, but it's inventing fluff to justify a mechanical construct which is the way it is only because it seems mathematically elegant to invert an unrelated conflict system's endurance mechanic. Seems like a lot of work to invent and impose fictional positioning restrictions that otherwise wouldn't exist. At any rate, if you feel any of this is worth preserving as part of your answer you should put them in the body text, since comments are ephemeral. –  BESW Mar 25 at 10:53

If you're doing a standard dungeon-delving campaign, there's one tried and true obstacle that is sure to add a little interesting complication to the campaign:

Traps

Regardless of whether you're running a campaign with rogues who can disarm them, or mages who can dispel them, constructing complicated traps can ensure that your party doesn't just go rampaging through the halls of your enemy's fortress.

Finding and disarming the traps is the usual manner by which parties get by such obstacles, but that alone can get tedious, which is why I recommend complex traps, with deactivation triggers on the other side of the trap, pressure plates hidden across a wide expanse of hallway requiring balance to cross, really, the limit to the challenge these traps can impose is your own imagination.

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So you're playing Kingmaker, the campaign whose name is built on the premise of building a kingdom. They even created a kingdom-building system and a large scale combat system explicitly for this campaign.

At the least, characters can be challenged with the Kingdom component. How are they dealing with the Fae, with the bordering Kingdoms. What people do they know from those Kingdoms? What are they trading? What politics are they playing? Are they grooming successors? Do they have followers? How many of those followers are actually planning to usurp them?

This is a whole world of things that involve "not combat". The Kingmaker rules have the possibility for monthly events and all kinds of challenges that are more complex than simply killing the enemy.

This is the important part of the universe in a world based on Kingdom-building. Most wars are won or lost long before the bloodshed actually happens. If you want to make challenges for the players, throw in some diplomacy, talk about things they can do to make their Kingdom better, let them talk about how they outfit their spies, train their soldiers or protect their kingdom or mine their resources.

If you don't want them to simply resort to rolling dice, have them make kingdom trade-offs by dealing with the outside world. Simple ones:

  • There's a tree fungus spreading and it's wrecking wood production. The party needs a Druid, but they don't have one and they're not sure where to find one. Other kingdoms? Search the words? Talk to the Fae (if they can)?
  • The mines have reached a giant chasm that's too big for the Dwarves to cross. Maybe the neighbors have gear for rent/sale? Maybe the PCs have access to Fly and can be useful? Maybe one of the crew has a great Knowledge (engineering) and rigs up a solution.
  • Two different groups want access to some shared resource. Maybe the want to set up private warehouses in the new fishing / shipping district. You can have the PCs as a party do negotiations on who/what gets access, what type of deal they get. You get to deal with spying and economy and security and all kinds of fun stuff without necessarily running around rolling dice.
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