I've been doing a lot of planning of a new campaign, and I'm very happy with the setting. I've made a large and satisfying list of themes, plot hooks, and potential stories. The problem -- if it really is a problem -- is that I have promised a 4E game and more and more my list of plot hooks and adventures are bound to be pretty combat-light, if not combat-free. Lots of sneaking around and trying to avoid combat, and if combat occurs, the PCs are probably going to want to avoid a big body count.

I'm sure there will be a number of opportunities for spilling blood and killing monsters, but I think it's less than half the time.

I really want to stick with 4E for this, and I'm wondering what techniques I can use to keep the game mechanically interesting. My experience makes me feel like most mechanical character differentiation is in powers, and I don't see how to easily use those for "sneak and steal" missions. I'm not sure whether feats or skills alone will be enough crunch. (Let's assume that I need "enough crunch" beyond just good stories and characters.)

I haven't used martial practices yet, but maybe focusing more on rituals and martial practices could help? I'm interested in any advice on this kind of play that can be offered.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey mate, try not to accept an answer for at least 24h. While Bael's answer is fantastic, marking as answered reduces the incentive for other contributions. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 13 '11 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ That sounds reasonable; no answer accepted until tomorrow night! (Sorry, Bael, I'm just following orders. ;) ) \$\endgroup\$ – rjbs Mar 13 '11 at 23:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered that, if you have such a mismatch in your campaign design and chosen system that you're wondering how to make it work, that players who have been promised a "4e game" might feel that the promise has been broken anyway? You might want to consider levelling with your players and asking them how to proceed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 14 '11 at 5:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I haven't tried running it yet. I am starting from the assumption that it's possible, as I've never tried. If you think it's just untenable, though, say so! \$\endgroup\$ – rjbs Mar 14 '11 at 11:33

1. Communicate

Clearly tell your players that you intend to run the game in a low-combat mode and that skills and out-of-combat abilities play a much more important role than in a "standard" game. This allows the players to create and advance their characters accordingly and not become stuck in a dead end (this is still possible even with the generous retraining rules).

But this is not a problem, you can still use combat pretty much as written. In contrast to other systems in 4e a player has to go a long way to create a really useless or unplayable character because a certain minimum of combat efficiency is hard-wired into all classes and powers - and even "bad" power choices (e.g. those marked red or worse in the class's handbook) can be useful in certain circumstances.

Just don't tell your players to make characters with a good background without telling them that combat will be a second-class citizen in your campaign. That's just mean because it definitively deviates from the usually expected style of play.

2. Combat is important

Don't use combat as a placeholder or filler. There's nothing that reduces the dramatic importance of combat like random encounters or senseless minion massacres. Make every single combat important and relevant to the plot. Make each combat have consequences and let the PCs face these consequences. For example, if they encounter a suspect or hostile entity while being inside a city they may have to put up with the guard if they simply slaughter the creature.

The latter thing happened to my group last week. I'm currently running the Scales of War adventure path and my group has started the Temple Between part of the AP. While investigating the Erathis shrine in Tradetown the party's dwarf shaman attacked Grovald (both with his axe and a magical effect) in front of several witnesses and was shortly after the incident convinced by the city guard to take a time out in prison. The adventure explicitly mentions (both to the DM and to the players via an NPC) that the PCs have no legislative or executive powers and should not "hero" their way into a temple or something. I'm still contemplating on a credible way to get the dwarf out of prison considering the background of the adventure.

3. Powers

When the players know beforehand what they can expect, they can create and plan their characters accordingly. With little combat in the campaign there's no point in optimizing your character for combat (e.g. spending feats to properly abuse cold or radiant damage). Instead, I'd encourage the players to select powers that have additional, "interesting" effects instead of the highest damage.

Also, remind them to select their utility powers not for combat usage. There is a lot of nice stuff hidden in utility powers that often doesn't get selected because it's not useful in combat.

Another thing to keep in mind are the skill powers from PHB3. Usually you can only swap your class utility powers for skill utility powers of the same or lower level, and you can take Skill Power[DDI] only once to gain an additional skill power. But you could change that limit: allowing to also swap attack at-will/encounter/daily powers for equivalent skill powers or allowing the feat to be taken multiple times. However, the first suggestion may drastically change the base-line combat abilities of the PCs so you should be careful with that option.

4. Mechanics

Skill challenges are a great way to provide challenges and dramatic events without breaking out into combat. Also, you can tinker around with the mechanics of skill challenges quite a lot as long as you follow the general guidelines of skill check difficulties and complexity without messing the system up too much.

For example, in the campaign I actively play this happened: we were following the trail of a hostile agent of an organization that steals eggs of dragons and dragonborn and corrupts them. We finally made it into the lair of an ancient silver dragon where we unveiled the agent's true intent. The dragon's reaction was not very kind - she bit off his legs and spat him at our feet to do as we wished. My sorcerer and the other player's wizard needed to run a skill challenge to keep the agent alive for long enough to interrogate him. The DM changed the mechanics so that we had a total limit of how much we could miss. Each time we failed a skill check, the difference of DC - total skill check result was deducted from a pool. Once the pool reached 0 the agent would die. This made it more dramatic since it wasn't just "hit or miss" (as with the normal rules), but instead every single roll was dramatic since two exceptionally bad rolls in a row would have killed the agent in a single round. The number of failed checks didn't matter in that case because the agent was meant to die in the end anyway, it was just a matter of how long we could keep him alive (and thus, ask questions).

In the same campaign in a different situation we had to achieve the opposite. The difference of total skill check result - DC was accumulated into a pool and the pool had to reach a certain level before hitting 3 failures in the skill challenge.

Rituals and [martial] practices are a good way to support skills, feats and utility powers. They also open up another way to diversify your character or make it more unique. If asked, I would certainly skip over some restrictions (e.g. allowing a character who gets Ritual Caster[DDI] as a bonus feat to swap it for Practiced Study[DDI] if it fits his character/background instead of having him spend a separate feat for it).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, these are all helpful suggestions. They also make my shake my fist at the sky that it's such a pain (or impossible) to house rule characters in the new character builder... \$\endgroup\$ – rjbs Mar 13 '11 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 and this has opened so many possibilities for me it's not even funny. Thank you! \$\endgroup\$ – Adriano Varoli Piazza Mar 13 '11 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Having gone back to the books to review some of this, the one thing I think worth noting here is that Skill Powers are still Powers. That is: they're almost entirely about combat encounters. I think they're great, and will encourage them, because it will be a reminder to think about Skills, but they're basically a combat tool. (Some, esp. in Thievery, seem like non-combat, until you realize that they exist only to move a normal action from standard to minor, or minor to free.) \$\endgroup\$ – rjbs Mar 13 '11 at 18:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @rjbs: True, but I meant skill powers that allowed you to use other skills in certain situations (like Arcane Mutterings or Try The Stick) or grant rerolls to skill checks (like Fast Talk or Haggle). These can really help a lot to compensate for lack of a specific skill (e.g. the fighter is on his own and needs to convince an NPC of something without beating him up ;) ) or bad dice luck. With the right set of [skill] utility powers among the party a character can attempt certain skill checks three or more times in an "encounter"! \$\endgroup\$ – user660 Mar 13 '11 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @rjbs: Additionally, there are powers like Shrouding Gloom that allow you to "break" the rules in combat as well as out of combat (in this case, try to become hidden when you only have cover or concealment). Powers like these are very useful for any sort of covert ops style situations like you describe in your question. \$\endgroup\$ – user660 Mar 13 '11 at 23:04

At Will published a series called Serious Skills that discusses each 4E skill in depth, including many ways each can be used, strengths, weaknesses, related backgrounds, and so on. It should be essential reading for almost anybody, but is especially useful in the context of low-combat play.


4e's focus on combat is also its strength outside of combat. You have a great deal of freedom to handle things however you like outside of a set encounter. A number of powers that are intended for combat applications can also be used in a non-combat fashion - and you can feel free to ignore the restrictions that are in place for game balance purposes. You could for example use mage hand to move small creatures and children, even though according to the wording it's only for inanimate objects.


Excellent summary from Baelnom - here are a few scenarios off the top of my head:

  • Murder mystery: the characters are going to need to find things out, so getting into fights and killing possible sources is going to be counterproductive. They'll also be working sort-of against the City Guard, since they'll be considered "amateurs" or interfering professionals out to get the glory, so political skills are going to be needed.

  • Spying: the characters have to sneak in somewhere, get information (or a person) and get out again without being caught.

  • Discovery: the characters need to explore somewhere - whether a newly-discovered island, a new section of a cave, or the pocket universe left behind by a now-vanished wizard. Emphasis on not ticking off the inhabitants.

  • Trade mission: The characters need to accompany a trading representative to a new (or old) trading partner to negotiate an agreement. Need to balance the protection of the representative with making a good impression on the locals and finding out anything they can about the trading partner's country. Similar to discovery plus spying.

  • Research support: the characters work for a high-level wizard who never leaves his castle/tower; instead, he sends them out to find out things and find things for him. Important that they not mess up his connections and that they don't cause him trouble as "everybody knows" they work for him and will hold him responsible for their actions.

Essentially you're looking for situations where thinking and talking (with a little action) will help more than just killing stuff.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This isn't really what I'm looking for. I've run low-combat games many times, over and over. I enjoy the heck out of. I don't have any lack of ideas for the games. In fat, as I said in my question, the problem is that I have too many ideas for low-combat games. This is basically a mechanics question: how do I keep the game mechanically interesting, when so much of 4E's diversification is in Powers, which are almost entirely a combat mechanism? \$\endgroup\$ – rjbs Mar 13 '11 at 18:15

I've been running a 4e game for the last year or so. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it low combat, but we've had many low combat and no combat sessions, and that hasn't bored the mechanically inclined players so far. Here are a few things I've noted.

Investigation is key. I don't mean social investigation necessarily. I mean you need the players to have to figure out what's going on. Give them clues, but don't interpret the clues for them. That's when they'll start using their skills and rituals to evaluate the clues. Hell, I don't even tell them what plot a clue applies to when I give it out.

(As a side note on rituals, yes I think you should encourage ritual use. They add a little more crunch to the non combat portion of the game. For a while my players own bought rituals they knew to be effective. It took a bit of effort to get them to include the other rituals. They weren't so into ritual books as loot, but what worked better was bulk discount rituals. I'll come up with a caster's used ritual book and sell it to them at 25-50% of what its base price would have been. I try to make sure there are a few good things in there that would be worth the actual cost. But the rest are all shenanigans or one time use rituals.)

In order to get them to investigate, you have to put them in situations they haven't seen before. As soon as they identify and label a plot, they'll apply familiar means to beating it. You want them to spend as long as possible thinking up new uses for their skills, poking and prodding at whatever unknown you've put into being.

Finally, skill challenges. I found SCs as written (or as I'd interpreted them) to be a little less freeform than I'd hoped. When I ran them, they felt like an obstacle course. When I left them open, they felt like the players would roll whatever was the highest skill they could justify for the challenge I'd laid out. What worked best for me is to retroactively build SCs. I let the players use whatever skills they like as they investigate. I note what rolls they make and the difficulties of those rolls. Afterward I go back and tally those up to figure out how much XP was earned.


You can't, because D&D 4e's primary strength is tactical combat.

The only non-fighting mechanics are skills and skill challenges, and while it's possible to run a game using them heavily, it will be a lot of work for a potentially unsatisfactory result.

I strongly suggest that you try using a different system. Consider asking a new question about suggested systems for the setting and plots you have in mind.

  • \$\begingroup\$ -1 because this is incorrect. Much as 4th edition's focus on combat may make it less suited to the kind of campaign that rjbs described, it does have some non-combat features that a canny GM could exploit as strengths. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 13 '12 at 16:21

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