Why don’t you run each encounter like a combat encounter? Combat is a Dungeons & Dragons staple. Most of the rules are based around it. The formula for combat has evolved through five editions and countless erratum. Each change made it faster and more efficient. Why then, aren’t you applying this finely tuned formula to your explorations and roleplay encounters?
Your party stands before the king. He demands they explain their warlike action on his country’s border. The players stare at each other, like deer caught headlights. Finally the barbarian chimes in with something that is likely to get everyone killed.
If this were a combat encounter the Dungeon Master would ask the party to roll initiative. Well, why not do the same thing for a noncombat encounter? The only thing that needs to change is the ability modifier. After all, the character that is best for the situation should act first. It shouldn’t be difficult. Modifiers are just arbitrary numbers before we give them meaning. In our example, for instance, we swap Dexterity for Charisma in our initiative roll.
Now that initiative order has been established so has the idea that everyone should be involved. Not every action a character takes needs to interact with the NPCs or environment. Simple acts, like sheathing your sword, cracking your knuckles or reaching a hand out can show willingness to aid others. Everyone acts, no matter how small their actions may seem.
Using noncombat initiative is a great way for new DMs to keep track of what is happening around the table. Those players who are unsure what to do with themselves in social situations have a prompt to action, as well as time to decide how their character is going to act. The player who has the solution for every situation is going to have to take a back seat for a moment and let someone else have the spotlight.
Initiative will ease the group dynamic and ensure that everyone is involved in the encounter.
The king narrows his eyes at you. He flutters his hand in a dismissive gesture. Rough hands grasp you and your companions, pulling your weapons away and forcing you from the throne room. Clearly your bluff only enraged the king. The party is thrown into the dungeons. A voice calls you name from a nearby cell. You see a dirty face regarding you through the bars. “This is an interesting rescue tactic,” he says. You intended to sneak in and out of the castle unnoticed by anyone, but clearly that plan went to the Hells.
In this example a covert rescue mission turned into a prison break because of a few poor rolls. Skills are the bread and butter of noncombat encounters. They are our weapons when your swords are useless. We make a skill check when we want something to happen, much like we make an attack roll when we want to kill something. So rolling and asking your DM “What happens?” is like stabbing the air and saying “What do I hit?”
Once a course of action had been decided and a roll made the DM has the knowledge they need to move the encounter forward. A failure should not be answered with “nothing happens.” Instead the story should progress in a way that is not ideal for the player. Take our example for instance, the deception roll failed and, instead of the encounter stalling, the players were thrown in prison. The person they came to save just to happened to be there too. They have another way of achieving their goal, even though it wasn’t what they originally planned.
Both players and DMs should utilize skills. That is why monsters have skill modifiers in their stat block after all. Making skill “attacks” with monster and NPCs allows you to use passive skills as a form of defense. The king extends his hand, a toothy grin spreads across his face. Does your Passive Insight interpret the malice in his sneer properly or do you go on believing he is a harmless old man. To read more about passive skills and how to use them in your game check out the article Passive Stealth and Other D&D Skills – Making a Case.
Your feet patter against the cold stone as you sprint down the hall. Your companions sling arrows and spells at the guards on your heels. They fall easily enough, but you can hear the bell tolls. More will be alone soon. You come to room with massive windows overlooking the ocean. The moon reflects off of its angry waves. The man you just broke from prison turns to you, panic stretched across his face. “We need to get out of here, quickly.”
The clock is ticking, and the clock is the encounter’s health. In combat a monster has hit points which is the tool used to decide when that encounter is over. Every noncombat encounter should have the same thing. In our example the players could stick around and fight, but they will face overwhelming odds and probably die. Ideally, they should look for a way to escape. They have a certain amount of time before the guards overwhelm them.
Every action they take will increase or decrease that time line. This encounter runs on a round-based clock, but that isn’t the only way to give an encounter HP. Fourth edition D&D had an encounter system that introduced a success to failure ratio. It would look like, four successes before two failures; this means if the party rolls four skill checks that exceed the DC set for them before they rolled to failures. If two skill checks fail the encounter ends in a way that will make life more difficult for them.
Matthew Colville made a great video on this very subject. Check it out on YouTube – Skill Challenges! Running the Game #21.
There are many ways to give your encounter HP. Regardless of what method you use one thing is certain, each encounter needs to have an end. If you don’t have one in mind you run the risk of bogging your game down with unnecessary dice rolls and encounters that last way too long.
You shimmy down the makeshift rope your party threw together with curtains and bedsheets. Your party stands on the rocks below, their shouts fill you with encouragement, but they also bring the attention of an unwanted threat. “They are escaping” a voice calls from above you. You look up in time to see the soldier slice clean through the soft cloth. Your heart races as you plummet to your certain death.
Actions are the centerpiece of combat encounters, but they can be just as influential in non-combat encounters. Consider the king, with his high intuition, or the city’s watchful eyes. Make one wrong move and you will elicit a response from the world around you. Reactions work effectively in non-combat encounters as much of the excitement comes in response to the player’s choices. However, a good number of events will happen regardless of what the players do. A good rule is to establish a few moves that you will make if the story hits a low point. Also consider what your players are most likely to do and have something prepared to counteract them.
Much like skill checks, actions should be used to move the encounter forward. They work well at accelerating an encounters timeline. Most reactions will be in response to for failure, although there should be some rewards for success or out of the box thinking as well. Initiative is always spurred by action. Whenever a player is required to respond they should be left with the questions “What do you do?”
Combat is build on the pillars of initiative, action, health and skills. Non-combat encounter usually utilize only skill. If you bring the other three aspects of combat into all of your encounters you will create a rich environment that will move itself forward. Players will know when to engage. Each encounter will have it’s own stakes. Failure will only open to more possibility. Your game will feel more dynamic and alive. Try a few of my suggestions, or all of them. See what happens. If you have a good story to tell leave it in the comments below. Also, let me know if you agree or disagree with my suggestions, and why.
I want to give a special thanks to Joshua Brickley of nerdarchy.com, and Matthew Colville on YouTube. Each of you influenced this article with your own work. Thank you for sharing your love and passion for this hobby.[amazon_link asins=’0615512151,0692203214,1936781565′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’nerdarchy-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’6ab08110-6f6d-11e7-9f69-e5605511df0c’]