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There's a lot of discussion around how/ whether casters outpace martial classes in combat, but in my game I've actually noticed the gap more in investigation, social, and stealth encounters. Some bullet points to support this:

  • Investigation, Perception, Insight, History, Knowledge, Religion, and Arcana are all Int or Wisdom based skills. Monks may be good at the wisdom skills, but aside from that no martial class has any reason to invest in these skills. The same applies to Cha-based skills. I try to let players roll others skills as knowledge skills in the proper context (rolling Athletics to tell if someone is bluffing about his combat ability, for example) but mental stats are still overrepresented.

  • Most class abilities (for all classes, but especially martial classes) only come into play in combat. Those that don't ( like tongue of the sun and moon) are highly situational. However, there are many spells that offer massive benefits outside of combat. Martial classes only have access to class abilities and feats, not spells, limiting their specific non-combat utility.

An example from my game: My 6th-level party wanted to rescue some captive children from a hobgoblin camp. The Wizard cast Feign Death on herself so the party could exchange her corpse for some captives. The Cleric used Pass Without Trace, Blessing of the Trickster, and Disguise Self to get herself and the Open Hand Monk inside the camp. This left the Battle master Fighter with 9 Charisma to negotiate the exchange of the Wizard's body. Thus the Monk and the Fighter contributed significantly less to the success of the plan, and the Fighter was actively doing something she wasn't good at.

Now, my players are all having fun, and they're pretty good about trying to pass the spotlight around. But I can't help but wonder if there's a way to either:

  • Allow the Fighter and Monk to use their unique abilities more actively in non-combat encounters (like maybe there are skill or ability uses I'm missing?)

  • Better design non-combat encounters to offer clear roles for these characters to excel in

  • Encourage my players to make different plans that rely less on casters and more on the martial party members.

If you've encountered similar issues in your games, how have you addressed them? I'd prefer solutions that don't involve encouraging the martials to pursue a certain build, since I think they're already playing the characters they want to play. Giving them magic items is on the table, but not ideal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’ve got the same problem. One solution I’ve found is NPCs who relate to the big muscly guy best, but there’s only so many orc-based social encounters you can run… \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Feb 12 at 23:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ "aside from [monk] no martial class has any reason to invest in these skills", but isn't your entire premise that not having these skills is bad? :-D \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 10:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir Yeah, it is. To unpack that: investing in those skills is higher cost for martials because it introduces some level of multi-ability dependence. Thus, most martials don't bother to spend one of their limited proficiencies on these skills, creating the problem I'm trying to solve. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Feb 15 at 14:07

6 Answers 6

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Make non combat encounters rely on combat rolls.

This is my normal method to make visiting combat monsters interesting. Players have mostly enjoyed it. When a combat character arrives to meet other characters I have them admire the combat character's weapon, want to duel them, challenge them to a contest of a weapon, or challenge them to some great feat of strength.

I normally make it so that their combat abilities grant them increased presence in negotiations. For example, the hobgoblins might be very impressed with how the fighter killed a giant in the previous adventure, and an arrogant young master who is a level 1 power monster wants to duel them. They'll give them some of what they want if they do it, and more if the fighter can use their combat abilities to sway them.

Don't require charisma unless the fighter asks for something beyond normal negotiation.

A lot of DMs require charisma based rolls whenever something social happens. This tends to punish non charisma people. I personally only require them when someone pushes beyond normal negotiation.

For example, suppose the hobgoblins offer them 2 children for the practice duel. If the fighter promises to channel the spirit of the giant and give a really impressive showing (using action surge to look badass), that might get them more without any rolls. They only need to roll if they ask for more children without offering more rewards.

For monks, leverage their ability to fight unarmed a lot.

Most people need weapons to be useful in a fight. For infiltration and stealth, monks are great as they don't need weapons.

The cleric used disguise self, so presumably other hobgoblins saw them and thought they were hobgoblins?

What about their weapons? If someone chances upon them and harasses them, perhaps to extract some easy coin from these newcomers they can't really draw their clearly not hobgoblin made weapons and use them, or people will spot them. They'll need to go unarmed, or not draw weapons. The monk can handle this hobgoblin harassing them and prevent their disguise from being broken.

Include physical situations in non combat roleplays.

I often include athletics or other things in non combat scenarios. For example, suppose there is a wall around the hobgoblin camp. The monk can get them over easily with athletics. The wizard is likely weak, and would fail to climb it. The hobgoblins might close their door to the fighter, and only someone strong can shove it open.

This lets them use their abilities in such scenarios to get an advantage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your first two ideas, though the second two are also situations where casters excel. A component pouch isn't exactly conspicuous, but even without it the wizard can use spells like fire bolt, magic missile, and blindness/deafness. Martials are usually better at repeated physical situations, but casters can often unfailingly bypass them (misty step, fly, etc.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Feb 13 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 For not automatically requiring charisma for negotiations. That's not something that occurred to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Feb 13 at 2:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Casting spells is something that could easily disrupt a disguise or effort at stealth. Punching someone is less flashy and can be done fairly quietly. And yes Tack. You should only need to roll when there's a reasonable chance of failure. Offering a fair price for a fair service isn't normally gonna have a chance of failure. You yourself likely go to shops and buy things, and successfully persuade people reliably to sell them. Even very uncharismatic people can do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Feb 13 at 10:01
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Are you good at everything you're asked to do?

Anyone can contribute to the success of the plan. Some people will have the education and background to succeed more often than others.

Every character (player) will attack a goal in a different way; some better than others. The bard may try sweet talking, while the barbarian bluffs their way through.

At work, I occasionally have to give presentations. Am I good at public speaking? No, but it's part of of the position I'm in. So I have to find a way to play to my strengths. So I make the presentation interactive (I talk less, they talk more), lighthearted (comedy can cover up a number of issues), and graphical (sometimes it's easier to explain with a picture). Your party is in the same boat. Sometimes, the only person for the job is the "wrong" person.

In a campaign I played, I was a Lizardfolk Cleric with a 10 Charisma. But because he was the only one that spoke Draconic, I was made the ambassador to barter a deal with an ancient dragon (he refused to speak in the Common tongue as it was beneath him). This was made even more awkward as my character always talked in third-person.

Was he good at talking? Nope. Was he good with trade? Nope. He wasn't even good at telling good from evil. If he missed three attacks in a row then his lizard brain figured his deity didn't want him hurting that person so obviously they weren't bad.

It made for a great number of encounters!

If everyone is having fun, where is the problem?

Now, my players are all having fun, and they're pretty good about trying to pass the spotlight around.

Sounds like you have a great group of people that solved the problem for you.

No one is great at everything, but everyone is great at something

There will be times people are good, and sometimes someone else can/should take over. But if there comes a time where they don't/can't, there are ways to bring people forward by introducing aspects unique to a character.

  • Bring in an NPC from the character's past.
    • Anyone can talk to them, but by having a history, it creates a bond that might be more important than a proficiency.
  • Create a situation where the skill of a certain character is required.
    • Maybe in order to gain favor with a tribe, someone needs to pass physical trials. Someone with a high Athletics proficiency perhaps?

Let the players play the game how they want to play it

They made the plan; let them sink or swim with it. Maybe the Fighter is seen as a fellow warrior to the Hobgoblins and will have a better reaction than a puny Monk or Wizard. Or a Cleric that believes in a false god.

Only your group can decide.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is good general advice, but I'm specifically looking for advice on how to allow martial classes to bring their strengths to bear in non-combat situations. Yes, everyone sometimes has to do things they're bad at, and that's fun. I just don't want every nonviolent encounter to be a thing the Fighter is bad at. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Feb 13 at 2:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tack, as I suggested, dealing with hobgoblins may be just the perfect fit for a warrior instead of a "thinker". There are plenty of other opportunities that can work the same way. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Feb 13 at 2:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer, I think this is the right frame challenge. You simply don't need everyone to be equal all the time. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14 at 5:51
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Social Encounters

The characters can be much more than their attributes and abilities. If you focus on character backgrounds and personality You can put different characters in spotlight. For example followers of competing deity may start suspicious if not outright hostile to the party cleric but neutral to the fighter who may have it easier to talk to them despite lower charisma.

Some characters may not even want to talk to commoners, others be suspicious of those of noble birth. The character background may give them contacts among sailors or craftsmen or academics or some other group important for specific scenario. Going further personal contacts, allies and rivals may put specific character in the front of given social interaction.

Stealth Encounters

First, everybody who is not specifically good at stealth is bad at stealth, even with invisibility spell one still make noise when moving around.

Second, a group of characters is even worse at stealth than least stealthy character in the group.

Third, total cover makes you not visible (physically impossible to see) regardless of skills or equipment and it would take superb perception to hear immobile character at a distance.

So a stealth encounter would be either solo affair of specialized character, or quickly turn into another kind of encounter - fighting, fast talking, running away.

Exploration Encounters

I prefer to run them with players interacting with environment through their characters rather than rolling. I give them everything that they characters can reprieve and specific interactions may reveal more. It is because the roll is either meaningless because you allow repeat it until it succeed or you risk locking out parts of prepared scenario or even progress altogether behind failed roll.

Investigation Encounters

They are mic of interaction and exploration encounters. So I would have one character best person to interrogate the Butler, another one to interrogate the Lady of the House, and would run the examination of crime scene mostly without rolls.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you sure about that group stealth issue. Using Group Ability Checks means that only 1/2 the group needs to succeed for the whole group to, which seems to me that it would be fairly reliable actually. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 12:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. from my understanding it is the DM decision where to call for a group check "When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t." and for sneaking around where to fail it is enough for one enemy to spot one character I would not use it - i do not see any way for sneakier characters to help other avoid exposing themselves. For setting up ambush with static camouflage - maybe - but not for sneaking on the move. \$\endgroup\$
    – AGrzes
    Feb 15 at 13:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is a DM decision indeed; however I would use it for sneaking around for a variety of reasons: it speeds up play, it gives the sneaky character a chance to shine (helping others), it may avoid splitting the party (always annoying), and I would argue it has verisimilitude too => the sneaky character would be pointing out the branch on which NOT to walk, signalling when to move, where to stop, etc... and in general guiding the group. If the party is together, I would call for a group check. You're free to do as you wish, but please don't pass off the consequences as generally applicable. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 14:18
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Mix it up

Variant: Skills with Different Abilities

Normally, your proficiency in a skill applies only to a specific kind of ability check. Proficiency in Athletics, for example, usually applies to Strength checks. In some situations, though, your proficiency might reasonably apply to a different kind of check. In such cases, the GM might ask for a check using an unusual combination of ability and skill, or you might ask your GM if you can apply a proficiency to a different check. For example, if you have to swim from an offshore island to the mainland, your GM might call for a Constitution check to see if you have the stamina to make it that far. In this case, your GM might allow you to apply your proficiency in Athletics and ask for a Constitution (Athletics) check. So if you're proficient in Athletics, you apply your proficiency bonus to the Constitution check just as you would normally do for a Strength (Athletics) check. Similarly, when your half-­‐‑orc barbarian uses a display of raw strength to intimidate an enemy, your GM might ask for a Strength (Intimidation) check, even though Intimidation is normally associated with Charisma.

Directly from the PHB.

Maybe your Fighter's negotiating technique doesn't involve being nice, friendly, personable. Maybe it involves glaring, scowling, flexing (Strength bonus). Maybe it involves reading the other person's reactions and realizing what they are hoping for and afraid of (Wisdom bonus).

The point being, you can let the players use a different ability score for the skill check, if they can provide a good reason for it. It might not be as good as having the actual skill proficiency, but it can help.

Let them fail

Not everyone is good at everything. And not everything the players try needs to be successful. Sometimes the most fun and the best story may come from failing. The fighter may try to negotiate, and fail. Instead of breaking off negotiations, the hobgoblins demand the fighter's sword instead. The fighter has to decide to give their weapon up, or not get the wizard's 'corpse' back. Either way, that leads to a new scene; trying to get the fighter's sword back, or the wizard gets found out, and the hobs are upset that they were tricked/betrayed.

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In my games it is common for martial abilities, especially Athletics and Stealth, to see a lot of use in non-combat encounters.

In the encounter you described, perhaps the monk might have used Stealth to sneak in to the camp, or the fighter might have used Athletics to climb over a wall. If your encounter design would have allowed this, then perhaps your martial characters are simply not as good at thinking of ways to use their skills, and they might benefit from a brief reminder. If your encounter design would not have allowed this, you might try to design future encounters in ways that will allow opportunities for these things.

Sometimes, when a DM wants to allow a DEX-based character more flexibility, I've seen DMs accept Acrobatics checks in place of Athletics checks for climbing and jumping. Likewise, there's an optional rule to allow Intimidate to use STR instead of CHA. I don't necessarily endorse this but it's something you could consider if you wanted to give your martial characters more opportunities to use their skills.

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If you had an entire party that built characters that couldn't fight, how would they deal with combat encounters? They wouldn't, or you'd have to scale back combat until it was easy enough for them to fight effectively.

I'd say it was the same for non combat encounters. If they are focused on combat, they should probably be a hot mess outside of combat, screwing up encounters and annoying NPCs.

The problem is optimizing your character. If you build an optimized awesome fighting character, the only thing you are really doing is making the game harder for the other players and the DM. What I mean by this is that the DM will scale the difficulty of encounters to match the party, problems only occur when one character is significantly better than the others so that in order to hurt the Awesome Character, an enemy has to be built that would one-hit anyone else.

The same is true of social encounters. If one character is fantastic and the others are lousy, the encounters are harder to build and more likely to be disasters.

If you want a system that treats social encounters with the same import as martial encounters, I'd expect a few one-hit "Failures" if there is a significant imbalance in social ability.

Also note that failing a social encounter should not be a dead-end route. You should have alternate ways to move forward (They may not be as rewarding or straight-forward).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue is not that the martial characters chose optimized combat builds at the expense of being social. It's that by following more or less the "average" build for each class, the casters ended up with tools for solving non-combat situations, and the martials didn't. I'm looking for ways to involve them, not to "punish" them for "optimizing" \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Feb 15 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's kind of my point, it's a lot of work for a DM not to "Punish" a poorly built combat character without nerfing the combat so much that it's impossible to hit a well-built character (Or straight-out cheating by not attacking the weak character). In the same way, it's tough to create a "Fair" social situation when a character is practically built to fail them. In either case, I suppose it's mostly up to the party to protect the weaker character and keep them out of harm's way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bill K
    Feb 15 at 16:53

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