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As part of session 0, I discovered my group wanted a campaign with a heavier amount of intrigue, exploration, investigation, etc. Well, I did it. And I think the general perception is that it's going well. But I'm observing the following things that are growing into a larger concern:

  • For sessions that are focused on investigation, exploration, NPC interaction, etc., it feels like the majority of a character sheet becomes useless, with the exception of skills. It almost doesn't even matter that one character is a monk or another is fighter.
  • As characters level up, it feels like the problem continues to magnify. Characters just keep getting more and more combat mechanics that don't get used. But when they do use them -- let's say there's a single combat in a session -- they hardly scratch their resources (particularly spell casters). This becomes fairly problematic from a combat balancing standpoint.

Are there other GMs who are running story-focused campaigns with 5e (I'm assuming "yes")? Are you observing the same things and/or how are you navigating the situation?

I understand there are many other role-playing systems out there (I own many of them), but we're kind of immersed in this existing 5e campaign and my players aren't really interested in trying other systems.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, the issue you are having is DM-facing only? You are having issues designing encounters when the players' combat resources are topped off all the time? And the players are perfectly okay with the balance between combat and non-combat play? \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jul 21 at 12:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, more simply, are either you or your players not having fun? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 21 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great question! It's a growing concern that's only in my own head at the moment. So far, we seem to be having fun. No complaints. But I'm questioning if it's sustainable and I'm trying to keep ahead of it (in case it does prove to be a problem). \$\endgroup\$ – Gadianton Jul 21 at 15:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent question! This lays out a concern I've had but never really been able to pin down. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Jul 22 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you correctly using "adventuring days" or are you trying to map those on day-night cycles in game? If not enough encounters (these don't have to be combat, but preferably do have to drain resources) have passed, an adventuring day hasn't passed and a rest (both long and short) is not appropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Jul 22 at 10:38
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This isn't an uncommon problem, and there are techniques for dealing with it.

I could've written this post, a couple years ago. I learned at session 0 that everyone wanted less combat and more intrigue, and had to make that style fit for 5e D&D. As such, everything I suggest below are techniques that I've discovered through long-term play of a combat-light D&D5e campaign (about 3 years running, at this point, with characters at 11th level).

"My character sheet is mostly useless!"

Remember that a class is more than the set of bonuses you get. Every class comes imbued with some flavor that gives the character hooks and knowledge outside of combat.

A fighter is a martial expert - someone with a deep understanding of tactics and strategy, and maybe one who the fellow party members look to when violence has already happened or may happen, to avoid a solution. A monk is usually part of an order - their path isn't necessarily something they've discovered on their own. Tie them into an NPC group, especially a powerful or resourceful one. Warlocks create their own story hooks, via the existence of their patron, and most spellcasters have enough out-of-combat utility that they get to use a lot of their abilities on the regular. Give the rogue advantage to notice someone has a concealed knife, even if there's no hard mechanic for it. If this isn't enough, find reasons for the party to use their "abilities" outside of the rules. This will often require homebrew, but find something the characters are interested in, and tie it in to the game mechanically.

In short, bring out the flavor part of their classes and abilities, and make them matter.

Combats aren't draining resources in a meaningful way

This is an easy trap to fall into. Once you realize you are only going to have one combat per adventuring day at best, you have to start changing the way you build fights. Throw out CR and the combat deadliness charts from the DMG (almost) entirely while using this advice.

Note that all of these solutions can cause a session or two to be very combat heavy. As long as this isn't all the time, you're still fulfilling your promise of lower combat, but verifying that the party is happy with the occasional extended bit of combat is a good idea.

The two major solutions I've used to great effect are the gauntlet, and the extended combat. Both solutions hinge on time pressure to some extent. A third option provides an alternative for when you cannot provide pressure the same way. You can have all kinds of hooks for the time pressure, including ones that might make the out-of-combat intrigue easier or more interesting if the party beats a deadline. Tiered rewards based on completion time might cause the party to expend more resources faster in order to get the better "reward". For example, the party discovers that Tim is going to destroy some evidence then perform a ritual that does "bad stuff". If they go in guns blazing, they might be able to preserve the evidence while burning a bunch of resources, but if they go in a little safer, they might come out a bit safer, but at the cost of the evidence.

1: The Gauntlet

This is a whole adventuring day compressed down to a small period of time. The time pressure keeps the party from backing down and taking a rest. Tim the Enchanter will finish his ritual in 2 hours if the party doesn't get through his dungeon and encounter him in his lair, and the party must fight through a small number of linked encounters in a mini-dungeon crawl to get to him, for example.

2: The Extended Combat

This is, in a sense, the same solution as the Gauntlet, but even more compressed. This could be something like a phased fight, with Tim the Enchanter standing behind a wall of force while his minions attempt to kill the party. After the party grinds through the minions, Tim summons more minions and joins the fray. After Tim takes serious damage, he transforms into his true demonic form, and fights the party one last time at "full power", only after this is he defeated.

Do not build your combats with higher CR monsters, expecting the party's resources to keep up. The higher tier monsters will just crush the party before they can expend enough resources to win. Instead, you want a slow release of monsters of a reasonable combat equivalence to the party. Draw out the resources over time during a longer combat.

3: The Inescapable Dungeon

My campaign world includes dungeons that the party can optionally enter that provide a reward at the end that hinges on the party completing the task in one go. These can be somewhat meta, if you aren't careful, but the ancient magical ruins that can tell when someone has left and lock them out of rewards can provide a more traditional session or two that lets the combat-focused characters shine. These are something that got added to my world specifically to help solve the one encounter adventuring day problem, but they do require a spot in your world and a reason to exist.

Use Milestone Experience

This isn't something you asked about, but I found it very important. Milestone experience helps you abstract advancement away from combat. With you running less combat, advancement will be unbearably slow, unless you stop tying combat to XP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "In short, bring out the flavor part of their classes and abilities, and make them matter." - I've been playing a lot of RPGs and this is the one thing that stands out the most to me. If I'm a shaman and encounter a situation which requires a shaman, don't make me call a shaman to solve the situation - I'm already there. This happened in Shadowrun (PC version) in the first mission and it made me nearly quit the game. Same with Anarchy Online - I'm an expert at hacking, why don't I have the ability to hack someones vehicle? Things like that make it really hard to enjoy the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Arsenal Jul 22 at 11:50
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Tal's answer has lots of great advice, but specifically addressing your hardly scratching resources + combat balancing issue...

Rest Variant: Gritty Realism

The DMG specifically recommends using the "Gritty Realism" variant resting rule (p. 267) in adventures focusing on "intrigue, politics, and interactions":

This variant uses a short rest of 8 hours and a long rest of 7 days. This puts the brakes on the campaign, requiring the players to carefully judge the benefits and drawbacks of combat. Characters can't afford to engage in too many battles in a row, and all adventuring requires careful planning.

This approach encourages the characters to spend time out of the dungeon. It's a good option for campaigns that emphasize intrigue, politics, and interactions among other PCs, and in which combat is rare or something to be avoided rather than rushed into.

Granted, I've only used this once, but it did work well for my players, and combat was just as dangerous as ever, while we moved from doing 80% of the time in combat to doing about 25%.

Incorporating injuries from combat also becomes more obvious and flowed a lot easier for my players. In standard D&D, we usually forget that characters look bloodied, tired, raggedy. Here, missing 10 HP was enough to comment about bruised eyes, or scraped hands. Quite a fun experience!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great addition. It's not something I've used, so I didn't bring it up in my answer, but changing the way resources are spent and regained could definitely help some of the issues that the asker is feeling. It can be difficult to get player buy-in for this, however, because it feels like such a nerf. \$\endgroup\$ – Tal Jul 21 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it would be useful to expand upon slowing down the adventuring day, and maybe also talking about non-combat encounters that drain resources (upvoted anyway). \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jul 21 at 15:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Speaking from experience, provided everyone is on-board with it, this is an ecellent way to balance out combat in a low-combat campaign. The down side is that it also inherently leads to a low-magic campaign because most spellcasters need to spend a week to recover spell slots (which in turn cuts down significantly on how frequently they can cast spells). \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 22 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ One similar variant my group stumbled upon early in our 5e days by taking the rules too literally: When resting have them get back half their current hit dice rather than half their HD max (minimum 1 of course). It lends a sense of strategy to how hard you push since minor exertions will recover in one or maybe two days, but if you drain a character dry trying to accomplish something it can easily take a week or more to be back to full power for a mid-level character. Could do something similar with spell slots, etc pretty easily. \$\endgroup\$ – Perkins Jul 22 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've used this variant on two multi-year campaigns. It works great. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Jul 22 at 16:33
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This is intended as a compliment to the other answers, to address avenues they don't explore at all...

My background: I was part of the ~7 people co-running a college level club with a coordinated-across-tables campaign of oneshots. Different DMs had different styles, but had to be ready for characters with any stat setup (for the group level) to be present. I also, alongside this, have DM'd a LOT of pickup games, and am part of a long-running narrative campaign primarily focused on fantasy-PIs.

Class distinctions are arbitrary

In campaigns like the one you're describing, the primary distinction between characters is the player's characterization, NOT the mechanical distinctions. Restatting a character as a different class (which happened a number of times across the ~40 person college club!) has surprisingly little impact on how they play, because the mechanical traits that really matter in a narrative game (ability checks) are flexible enough with respect to class that players usually choose the same set.

We've established that the classes of these characters matter to you. But do they matter to your players? If your players seem to be happy, I'd bet hard cash the answer is "no." You're correct: the vast majority of the character sheet is useless. However, you have all the meat and potatoes you need to run a story game effectively already; choosing to stay in 5e rather than switching to a system that has grittier rules for noncombat situations just means you have a simple ruleset for combat when it does come up!

Skip levelups: use a different advancement mechanism

In a story campaign, noncombat magical artifacts are a substantially more interesting and player-engaging reward than primarily-combat levels. There are other meaningful progression tools too - diplomatic relationships with NPCs, important pieces of information, quest hooks - these are all forms of metacurrency that perform the same task as leveling up: keeping your players engaged, and giving the story direction.

If you go this route, it's worth considering granting feats(/stat improvements) occasionally; this is the one sector of play where not leveling up WILL impact skill-based games.

Additionally, caster classes...

Make combat a terrible place to waste a casting

If your players have accidentally picked mostly combat spells for their roster, I strongly suggest having them restat for utility spells. 'Truth', 'Speak to the dead', 'Mending', etc. - if you have caster characters in a story campaign, and they're not using utility spells at all, take a look both at how you approach GMing and how your players are approaching their characters; you may find a spot to push!

...and finally....

Must combat be balanced?

If combat isn't a major focus of the campaign, consider simply letting what combat does happen be a place for characters who are already good at it to shine. Every character needs to get their turn in the spotlight.

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5e if very combat centric and attrition centric. A less intense social or investigation game tend to just not be what 5e is focussed on. While I'd personally suggest you switch system, I can describe what I did in my game for dealing with those kind of situation.

For context, in my latest game, I've switched to using the standard 5e rules for "dungeons" (really any high pressure, dangerous area or situation) and massively stripped down the rules outside of those situations. The city in my game is basically freeform roleplay. ​I'm doing this to make my job easier as GM and make the game flow better. You probably won't have the same dungeon/overworld seperation I have. But you can still make it easier for everyone.

Modifying 5e to fit your playstyle

First of all, take into account that you will not be able to attrition your party. The game of 5e is built around combat and traps and you probably have neither of those. So instead of trying to make your situation fit the mechanics of 5e, I suggest you just ignore them.

As a GM, you will focus on making interesting situations and puzzles and making the world feel alive. Not killing players, not managing combat. The game doesn't really help you with this, so you're left on your own.

Removing ressources : God mode

Your players are in social situations where death is essentially impossible and rest is plentyful? Ignore HP, ignore spell slots, ignore limited-uses abilities. If a character has the spell on his prepared spell list, he can cast it. You now have less things to keep track of and can focus on giving more interesting challenges.

This come with a few twist in the way I structure my games compares to "usual" D&D. A lot of it is my GMing style, but I'll try to highlight a few techniques I use. I also suggest you read the Quick Primer to Old School Gaming. It's a document meant to help players and GM get in the mindset. The first 4 poinst are the most relevant (the Zen Moments as the document calls them). Especially In a situation like yours where you are left without real structure (as opposed to 5e combat that has strict procedures for attack/damage/initiative/death).

Challenging invincible characters

I say invincibles characters because a social game is not one where you expect characters to die. As mentionned, your game will be about presenting interesting challenges to the players. I say players because if your challenge can be defeated by rolling a 10 on a die to unmask the great enemy, it's not much of a game. Usually, 5e gets away with not challenging the players because the "real" challenge is combat. You don't have that luxury in a social game and so you have to change the way you manage those situations.

Combat and violence

Since we're not using HP and ressources, combat has to change a bit. You can feel free to whip out the real combat system at anytime, but in my experience, combat usually takes a disproportionate amount of time for a foregone conclusion : the PC will not die, the random NPC will go down fast and you spend more time laying the map and rolling initiative then actually adding to the game.

So I also combat as simple skill checks. But because checks are usually pass/fail, you run the risk of either every task being either really easy (if the DC is too low) or the characters ending up beaten with nothing to show in return (if the DC is too high).

For this reason, I used the roll structure taken from the Powered by the Apocalypse game. Similar to rolls with multiple degree of success,the character can : succeed at what he were trying to do; fail at what they were doing and get beaten up; or succeed but still get beaten up. This allows a single roll to act like multiple checks in combat where you do win the fight but you still got hit.

My structure for 5e is this :

  • 11+ : the character succeeds at what ever he was trying to do.
  • 15- : the character suffers a consequence. This is left vague because this is your cue to do anything you feel like is appropriate.

Also notice that my success threshold are 11(for success and 16(for not getting hurt). That's because I like the fact those numbers have 50% and 25% chances to happen when using 5e's check rules. If using the more traditionnal 5e rule of using the passive perception/insight rules. I would let Passive+5 being the high DC and Passive being the low DC. But note that I do not play that way and am merely theorizing.

Here's an example for a small combat where a single character tries to catch a thief:

Player: I want to catch that thief

GM : ok roll a weapon attack

Player : roll 14?

GM : You caught him, but he threw a serious kick. Note that you have a sprained ankle for a few days.

In an alternate timeline :

Player: roll 18?

GM : You catch the thief

Or :

Player: roll 7? Ouch

GM : Not only does he get away, but you sprained your ankle. You'll have trouble walking for a while.

Notice that in this example, I give out a stat-less condition to the player. I can't really damage his HP because that would be healed instantly, so I add a detail to the world that I can recall later to attack the player's plan. For example :

GM: You now know in what building the thief's accomplices are hiding in the city.
But as far as getting there before he warns his colleagues, did you get that sprained ankle healed since last time? If not, I'll ask for a Constitution check to see if you can make it.

This has the advantage of being both a complication and a hook for later events.

The King : That is quite a bruise you have there! I thought I had hired better adventurers.

Player1 : This is actually coming from an orc compagny we fought while coming back with your crown.

Player2: That's not how...

Player1 : Shhh, the king doesn't know. Let me save face.

Other systems

You say your table is not quite willing to change system, but that is still my recommendation to you. So I'll make suggestions that are mostly compatible with what you are doing now while wasting less of the players' sheet. Here's a few I know that I would use when running such a game. Most of them I actually ran games with, other I have merely borrowed aspects of them.

Most of those games are part of the OSR (Old School Renaissance) movement, they are much close to the very first version of original-D&D than to modern gaming, but that makes them much better fits for a light-combat game.

My advice to you is to check some of them out, they make a combat-light game like yours much easier to manage. For one, characters are more fragile so smaller combat become more tense. Also, characters are less complex with less abilities so the feeling of wasting half of your character sheet is less strong. Finally, they are lighter in term of rules so you spend less time wondering whether you should use an Insight, Perception or Investigation check or if the game wants you to manage the situation in some other way.

  • Dungeon World (and by extension the OSR-style side-game World of Dungeons)

    • ​A game Powered by the Apocalypse whose theme is close enough to D&D that your can probably mostly translate their current characters to it. Like all PbtA, it is loose enough that you can safely just roleplay and use the system to throw some chaos in the player's plans.
    • The best thing with it is the general roll mechanic. Where achieving what you want is easy, but doing it without other negative side-effects is harder. That style of rolling is helps you to fairly improvise complications to otherwise random social scenes.
    • I actually think PbtA games don't work as written, but if you don't stress it and "just play", it works pretty well.​
  • Five Torches Deep
    ​This is a clone of 5e made in the OSR style meant as a bridge for 5e players into the OSR. But that means your players can easily translate their characters, while you get a lighter and simpler system.

    • Characters also get a lot fewer abilities while getting more customization (this may sound absurd, but characters in 5TD get less stuff for free so what they choose to get makes more different from one another)
    • Note that the game is oriented toward dungeon-crawling, so you will probably remove some of the rules. But you can play it like you would 5e and it goes pretty well.​
  • Knave This is a very basic and barebone OSR style game. meant to be a mostly-genre-agnostic, classless system compatible with most OSR adventures and spellbooks. The characters are a lot smaller and casters can be both more versatile (if you give them access to spells) while getting very few spells per day.

    • I've personally started running a game of this where I translated most of the lvl 1-3 features from 5e classes. My players had some hard times getting out of the 5e mechanics mindset, but once they did that it was a decent compromise between familiar abilities for them and not having to deal with super-heroic characters for me.
    • The system literally costs less than $5.00.

​ ​

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jul 23 at 12:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ In summary, you're saying that if the players won't change systems, you recommend the DM changes D&D 5e until it looks like a different system? \$\endgroup\$ – DM_with_secrets Jul 24 at 11:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DM_with_secrets yeha basically. I'm challenging the frame of the question saying that, while they can play with 5e, the better idea is to change system. No caster above lvl3 is going to run out of spells in an exploration day (not in my games at least) and hp is going to be ignored pretty quickly between spells and hit dices. In a combat some characters may drop to 0, but not die. My proposition helps the game run faster by removing the stuff that won't come up. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jul 24 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Everything I say is within the possibilities of 5e I think. It's more of a change of GMing style than system if you ask me. Violence can be resolved by skill checks, there's a precedent for intimate. The GM is not forbidden to apply "narrative" status effects like that. HP and spell slots could be counted, but I assume they will never run out if the party does not get into a major fight (what I called dungeon mode). So they'd just save time by not tracking them. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jul 24 at 13:44
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Pull from Their Backgrounds

There's already some great answers here but there's one section of the character sheet I don't see mentioned: the background.

A Character's Class Is Not Their Background

Fifth edition is written where class doesn't tell you much about the character. Is the monk inspired by a Japanese samurai or an Irish dragon slayer? Is the fighter a military general or a lone-wolf mercenary? Is the rogue a master thief or a deadly assassin? Actually, any of the three classes can be statted out as any of the six archetypes. In a story heavy campaign (what I normally run), the background (and proficient skills) is significantly more important than the class in determining what a character knows. Set class aside when you determine what unique information each character should receive from a social encounter and play off their individual backgrounds instead.

Background Features Are Great

Background features are often ignored by both DM's and players, but you can build a whole campaign just based on those abilities. This is especially powerful if you work with the players to customize the features to fit your setting and the factions/guilds/politics you want to center. If you didn't do this in session 0, don't despair, you can do so retroactively by playing off the narrative backstories the players have already introduced.

  • Alice has the guild artisan background and talks about her blacksmith's apprenticeship. Tell her more about the condition of whatever metal items should catch her eye. (Obviously, tailor this to the correct guild for the character.)
    • My blacksmith apprentice would often learn how used a weapon or suit of armor appeared, setting the stage for how much practical experience an NPC had. The town baker built relationships around her baking skills and identified key ingredients in a particularly plot-important pastry.
  • Bob was an acolyte. Give him insight on the politics of the local religious orders--not just their beliefs as religion proficiency would.
    • My acolyte got the inside scoop on how the leaders of the two main religious factions of the town interacted and the not-public but not-secret goals of their order. It also connected them to local politics when they traveled to new cities and found churches of either order, even though the leaders of these new locales often had tangential or completely different goals for their congregations.
  • Cindy was a criminal in her pre-adventuring days. Lean into her Criminal Contact feature.
    • My players love to leverage their contacts. And I love the opportunity for the players to ask me for quests and lore instead of me just randomly throwing things at them. Sure, the tavern owner is friendly to your thieves' guild, but he requires a favor in return for that information on the mayor's wife. Why yes, your parole officer is happy to help you get into the Upper City, but you'll need to help her catch an escaped prisoner first.

Ultimately, if you're playing a narrative game, use narrative mechanics, not combat mechanics to shape it. Fifth edition offers more of these than people realize, backgrounds being one of the most flexible yet well-defined.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you talk about your experience doing this? Love the idea, but need to see the experience before I can upvote. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 22 at 12:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alice, Bob, and Cindy are all three player's I GMed for. (Names changed, obviously.) I can add more details to how pulling on those threads played out. \$\endgroup\$ – raithyn Jul 22 at 12:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes please! And details on how the players felt about this and your impressions (both pros and cons) would make this an outstanding answer! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 22 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have a DM who does this as a matter of preference. My 13th level lore bard, sailor background, with a tweak of 'thieves tools' rather than 'navigation tools' (deck hand, not ship's officer) has had numerous plot hooks based on her background, and we appear to be getting another one in the next few sessions. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 22 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast This is probably a whole separate discussion, but that's a great way to let the player's drive the narrative in subtle ways. Sometimes I create plot beats based on the game I want to run and sometimes I just lean in to the things they've told me are important to them with just enough intentional shaping to make sure their decisions will lead to more interesting opportunities to make decisions or follow through on their arcs. \$\endgroup\$ – raithyn Jul 22 at 16:46
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Adjust your perceptions

For sessions that are focused on investigation, exploration, NPC interaction, etc., it feels like the majority of a character sheet becomes useless, with the exception of skills. It almost doesn't even matter that one character is a monk or another is fighter.

While this will heavily depend on what class and subclass choices the players made, it is just as true that you and you players may both need to take another look at their class skills and how they can be used.

Take, for example, a Beast Totem Barbarian with the Eagle Totem. At third level, while raging, they can Dash as a Bonus action. At sixth level, they have the visual acuity of an eagle. Those two abilities together sound great for spotting someone trying to drug the king and then rushing through the party to stop said king from drinking the mickey. One could in this case almost say that the Barbarian's Rage is like the Sherlock Holmes scan.

Spellcaster all have a variety of spells to acquire information and influence social situations. A Sorcerer could use prestidigitation as a cleaning spell to make someone more favorably inclined (cleaning up a merchant fresh off the road, saving them time and money, removing wine spilled on a foreign dignitary to diffuse the situation). The same with mending. dancing lights to amuse or frighten. hold person to catch a fleeing pickpocket.

A Way of the Shadow Monk can sneak around as well as most rogues, hiding and getting into places they shouldn't to take things, be they material and information.

A Ranger might not seem as social, but going into a bar and impressing the locals with their skill at darts (bonus to hit with archery focus or letting them throw two darts at once with two weapon style) might help them pry both coin and information out of the other patrons.

This works better for some classes and class abilities than others, but if your players are flexible in their thinking and you are willing to bend a little and reward them for their creativity, you just might find they have more interesting and varied social options than it first appears. And using their abilities in that way will also eat into their resources, at least somewhat.

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Make combat harder when it happens; XPs for social success

My brother does this. This experience-based answer is from an RP-heavy campaign that's been going on for over two years. We spend a lot more time traveling, exploring, and interacting with his NPCs than we do in combat.

We do a lot of role playing, not a great deal of dice rolling, as we go about meeting people, trying to find (and generally support) the true heir to the kingdom (there's a usurper who is I guess the Big Bad, and he's still in power at the capital) and along the way helping, for example, a village take back control of their brewery since the beer was going bad under current management.

  • One of my favorite encounters was when our cleric, using the tongues spell, got into a conversation with two hill giants and convinced them to let us pass rather than throw boulders at us: it cost us two of the kegs of beer that were on the wagon and one of the oxen.

A couple of the PCs complained about that resource drain; I mean, we are talking two kegs of beer, darnit! ☹

  • Our most recent session saw us neutralize an entire settlement of wereboars without an initiative roll, DM awarded full XP for the lot of them.

If you have chosen high social, low combat, don't sweat resources

You are not being graded on how well you test your party's resource management skills. (Quite a few parties I have played with don't like that aspect of the game). That's how my brother handles it. Unless you choose to structure the game, explicitly, as the subgame of resource management don't worry about them. If your players don't worry about them, and you don't worry about them, that ceases to be a problem.

If your players, however, want more resources management play, then cater to that. (A couple of the other answers go into some detail on that).

IRL combat is dangerous to get into; reflect that "in universe"

Accept that PCs can die.
Don't pull your punches.
Yes, this may take another session zero to see if all of the players have buy in. (Some may not, our whole table is good with that).

I don't think we've had an encounter that was less than 2x Deadly or more in quite a while. Yes, that can lead to the complaint "15 minute adventure day" from an observer but the players at our table have responded to his approach well.
Focus on what your players respond to.

When combat does come, what I see at the table is that the players feel the tension immediately once initiative is rolled. I certainly put on my A-game each time we roll initiative. Lots of death saves, plenty of PCs at 0 HP over the course of the last few years, only two PCs lost.

Reward XP for social success

Here's a place that the 5e DMG falls down, IMO, and does not offer enough 'meat' for a new DM to nourish their DMing skills with. Assess social encounters as easy, medium or hard. (Deadly seems to not fit so far for us) and allocate XP according to that assessment commensurate with the PCs level.

After seeing him do this, what I do as DM when I have to sub in for him (RL is a thing) is I look at a typical adventuring day budget and create that many XP. Regardless of whether we have encounters that are social, or combat, or both that whole XP budget gets allocated to the players for the adventuring period. Sometimes, that may be a week depending on how much travel is involved, or it may be a day spent with the local noble and his entourage. Or, it may be a "15 minute adventure day" life or death fight with assassins coming out of the woodwork. 😮

His other technique is to have a lot of deadly stuff happen at night. Which makes sense; most assassins (and other nefarious sorts) like the cover of darkness. We, the party, seem to attract them!

It's not much trouble, I have found, to assign "easy, medium or hard" to a social encounter based on the encounter builder guidance. Most social encounters and role playing take a while, and dice rolls aren't that frequent.

Leveling by session count - another alternate that I'll mention

In a different campaign where I play, the DM does leveling by session count. Regardless of how much social, exploring, or combat we do, after three sessions "ding!" we level up. He hates the XP grind, and has a pretty open world. Some days we are grinding away investigating "what is the real problem here?" (intrigue is present in most areas we have been) and sometimes we end up in a battle once we figure out that is the solution to our problem, or we get ambushed/attacked/confronted.

This model may work for you. The current rhythm is PCs at level 1 for one session, at level 2 for two sessions, and from level 3 onward three sessions at each level. Did the PCs survive? Ding! If that is too fast for your story/world, he shared with me last week, when I asked him why he picked that rhythm, that his first campaign went 1, 2 at two, three at 3, four at 4 and all remaining levels. Campaign wrapped up at 12. He has been moving us faster on purpose to see if he likes the feel. So far, he's satisfied.

Our last session ended up with what was basically a prank pulled on an audience of thousands (not a combat encounter) at the end of my bard's performance -this after an entire session of social maneuvering and planning. Long story short: the queen is now a fan. 😁

Will this work for your table?

That depends on your players. They seem to like the social encounters you have presented so far. Do they like the prospect of maybe dying if they do have a combat encounter? If they don't, this may not work as well for you as it does for our group - feeling that quiver of uncertainty - "Oh, man, this just got violent" - adds spice to the game. Tastes will differ on how much spice a given table likes.

I'd also invite you to consider 3C273's approach, if you accept the frame challenge, even though

my players aren't really interested in trying other systems.

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Each class has useful non combat applications to their abilities that can come up if you add in time pressure and difficult situations.

Fighter

Second wind lets you disarm traps and heal, leap from high places and heal, and generally do lots of cool things that taking more damage lets you do.

You can enable this with situations that value being able to tank damage. Have enemies run away into hostile terrain. Only the fighter will be able to tank enough damage to reach them.

Action surge is great for investigations. If you take a dash action with action surge you can cover a huge amount of distance in a chase scene. If you have injured people you can give multiple people healing potions quickly.

Battle master has lots of useful maneuvers for investigation. Trip attack lets you capture people for questioning. Tactical assessment lets you improve skill rolls. Rally lets you heal injured people. Commanding presence lets you intimidate people better. Bait and switch lets you pull off street cons and do lots of things where movement helps.

Monk

Monks have their own bonuses. They have unarmored defense, which means they can stay tough even in places that force people to disarm and martial arts which lets them fight when disarmed. Great for meeting criminals in clubs where weapons and banned.

Ki makes them even tougher without weapons, and also helps them jump or dash huge distances, letting them join in on the parkour.

They have greater movement, helping them chase down people.

At third level they gain the ability to deflect missiles, making them very valuable for body guarding missions.

They also gain the open hand tradition, which is great for capturing people and disabling those you want to manipulate.

How to use this in play.

Imagine any cop show. Perps regularly run from the cops, and put barriers in their path. Criminals need to be taken down, often several times an episode. People need to be interrogated. There's often time pressure to reach a criminal before they do something bad.

Put those situations in your games. Have them enter places where they can't bring weapons and the monk can shine. Have chase scenes. Have people toss fires behind them that only the fighter can push through. Have injured people and not enough time for players without action surges to save them all. Have people they need to capture and interrogate, and then have their use of resources in non combat scenes grant them improved story impact and influence.

From personal experience, a lot of players love this. It's fun to pummel people much weaker than you with special abilities. Often as a monk you're competing with people with swords in a normal game. Beating up unarmed people is great fun. Chasing down and beating up people who can't fight back is fun. Being physically dominant over inferior people is a fantasy of many.

You can do this several times in a session. If you find they're not expending enough resources you can just up the barriers so they need to use more abilities, more spell slots, and more ki.

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