How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters — RPT#657
From: Tony Medeiros
Struggling to create great non-combat scenes in your game? Non-combat encounters can be just as memorable and dramatic as a good, meaty fight. The best non-combat encounters are inspired by the bigger story of the adventure, and create excitement and dramatic tension in the scene.
One of the best ways to create great non-combat encounters is to start with campaign or story seeds, choose one or two types of classic non-combat encounter types, and connect them together. You’re about to learn how to do this and then practice your newfound storytelling talents.
Identify Story Seeds
Campaign Seeds by Robert Ferency-Viars and Johnn Four tells us there are four key ingredients to creating a memorable, immersive campaign. The same advice holds true for all the mini-stories – adventures and encounters – within the grand arc of a campaign.
To create a great non-combat encounter, let’s first identify the adventure components you will draw inspiration from. From Campaign Seeds, here are four of the best story elements to identify:
- Villain: Rat Bastard with a goal.
- Milieu: Interesting setting with a cool name, a great concept for adventure, and 2-3 notable NPCs who will stir the plot.
- Stakes: PC goals and what happens if they fail? Make it personal.
- Left Hook: Knock’em off their chairs.
First, identify and understand your adventure’s villain. What are his personality traits, goals, connections, strengths, and weaknesses?
Make a note of each characteristic in clear, one-sentence summaries.
For example, Rayne speaks plainly, if not sarcastically. Rayne’s goal is to become leader of the thieves’ guild. She knows almost every arms and magic dealer in the city, and is an especially talented burglar with a weakness for high-profile art.
Next, identify the adventure’s setting. What is the iconic theme, flavor, or feel of your adventure? Similar to last month’s Puzzles as Story feature, skim the adventure for clues. General or specific, one or multiple, pick as many as you’d like to work from to create non-combat encounters in the next section. Basic themes are easier to work with, as they’re usually just one word.
Or you might want to describe your adventure’s theme with slightly more layers from the start. As with villain qualities, stick to a one or two-sentence summary.
Focus on a Problem => Action => Factions.
For example, “Fighting crime and corruption in a lycan-infested port city.” Or, “Fighting back the undead plague while avoiding or preventing the Church’s extremist response.”
Next, what are the stakes of the adventure? What must they accomplish? What happens if they fail? If the party is killed or captured in the adventure, who is harmed most and who benefits most? How exactly? What specific tragedies, losses, wins, or advances do the key people of your adventure experience?
Think about the NPCs, places, and things the party cares about, and their connections. Think beyond death or destruction. Think change in quality of life. This makes it personal. Do the same for your adventure’s villain.
For example, a plague sickens the workers of the party’s benefactor, who can no longer safely keep his shelter for the poor open. The villain uses this distraction as an opportunity to send his best burglars to the benefactor’s home to steal his latest delivery of precious paintings.
Finally, in Faster Combat, we show you how twists are vital to great encounters. Think of the left hook as a surprise story punch. What secret knowledge or major event significantly changes how the party views the rest of the adventure – its villain, milieu and stakes? For example, the NPC helping the party fight the corrupt officials of the city is secretly the scorned child of the Lord Mayor, after vengeance and power far more than justice.
The best part of identifying the left hook of your adventure? Non-combat encounters are the perfect way to deliver epic story punches.
Choose Classic Non-combat Encounters Types
To create great non-combat encounters, focus on exploration and interaction sequences in your adventure. Consider this your go-to short list of memorable and engaging non-combat scenes:
- Exploration – Search for Information – Find Clues or Evidence
- Interaction – Influence NPCs – Interrogate, Negotiate, or Threaten
When exploring in an adventure, what is the best information to look for? The kind that solves an important story question or mystery. Whether the party searches for clues as to who constructed a solid gold sarcophagus hidden behind the Church’s smallest city temple, or is looking through a ledger to find inconsistencies to implicate a politician in a human trafficking ring, solving these questions or mysteries are game-changers. The party learns something critical, something important to key people or factions in the adventure. This leads to more burning questions and meaningful actions based on this new information.
For example, now that the party has determined the golden sarcophagus was crafted by the stone giants to the north, will the party question the clerics about the stone giants’ involvement in the sarcophagus’ creation? Or does the party decide they don’t trust the Church to speak the truth on this and head for the mountains to confront the giants themselves?
When socially interacting in an adventure, there are three major ways to deal with NPCs: interrogate, negotiate, threaten.
Think of interrogation or asking questions as a neutral approach, where the party still searches for information (see example above).
Negotiations and threats are best when the party already has a specific or damning goal in mind. They’ve learned enough or feel strongly enough to influence an NPC’s response. The party wants something and will make a reasonable deal with the NPC for it. Or, the party has learned a vulnerability of the NPC and threatens what the NPC values.
For example, the party questions the stone giants and manages to convince them to help the investigation. The party learns Astinus Cane, the Plaguebringer, cannot be killed due to some miracle – or curse – from the gods. But, centuries ago the last Plaguebringer was successfully sealed away in the Golden Tomb. The party also learns the current Plaguebringer is heading into the mountains to bring plague to the giants next. The party decides to make a deal with the giants. The giants agree to let the party borrow the sarcophagus’ keystone, which defeats its wards and releases it from its magical anchor. In exchange, the party agrees to distract and prevent the Plaguebringer from heading into the mountains to spread the plague to the giants.
Finally, a great way to get comfortable with your first search and influence non-combat encounters is to use if-then statements to summarize them. Create story branches, paths, twists, or turns – think Choose Your Own Adventure books.
For example, if the party questions the stone giants, then the party learns Astinus can’t be killed, but he can be sealed away in a golden sarcophagus hidden near one of the city’s temples.
Match Seeds to Scenes
With your story seeds identified and your non-combat encounter type selected, it’s time to match them up and create specific non-combat encounters. Much like Puzzles as Story, create logical, thematic associations. Your goal is to bake or reinforce story elements inside the framework of your non-combat encounter.
Here are example lists of seeds and non-combat encounter types and how they might connect, inspired by Dead Men Walking in the Campaign Seeds book.
- Villain: Astinus Cane the Plaguebringer.
- Milieu: A war-torn, plague-infested world of undead soldiers and the extremist Church.
- Stakes: The party must survive the plague, undead, and the Church’s attacks. They must get the cure from Astinus Cane’s Book of Dreams before the plague kills more crops, animals, and people, or worse, brings the fallen back as undead.
- Left Hook: The Church hires a special agent known as The Accountant to deal with Cane and the undead horde. The Accountant sometimes cooperates with the PCs, and unintentionally complicates their efforts at other times. Ultimately, he betrays the party and the Church, as he is secretly employed by Cane’s master, Golganth, arch necromancer and the original owner of the Book of Dreams.
Sample Story Seeds and Non-Combat Encounter Types
Interaction: If the party questions the acolytes of the most run-down Church temple in the city, they learn that years before he became the Plaguebringer, Cane used to visit a grave behind the temple.
Exploration: If the party explores the small graveyard behind Temple Dawn, they discover a gilded sarcophagus buried underneath the gravestones of the Cane family. If the giants directed the party to the sarcophagus, then the party can use the keystone to release it and search it. If the party doesn’t yet have the keystone, then by studying the gilded sarcophagus they identify it as stone giant crafted.
This is how you create and connected story seeds and non-combat encounter types. Also note how exploration and interaction sequences can flow smoothly in and out of the same encounter or lead to related encounters.
Activity: Rewrite 1 Seed, Create 2 Encounters
It’s time to practice this approach. Let’s continue to work with Dead Men Walking from Campaign Seeds.
Review the following two questions, read the full seed excerpt below them, and then post your responses below for comments and feedback.
1) Review the four classic story seed ingredients in the Match Seeds to Scenes section above. Choose one (villain, milieu, stakes or left hook) to rewrite. What changes did you make and why?
2) Create one new Exploration encounter and one new Interaction encounter. Refer to the information in the Match Seeds to Scenes section and the full Dead Man Walking seed below. If you get stuck, use more if-then statements.
Dead Men Walking
Astinus Cane, apprentice to the arch-necromancer Golganth, has stolen one of his master’s grimoires, The Book of Dreams. He intends to raise his own undead army and set up a power-base on the northern coast.
The PCs, serving in the military, have just engaged in a battle between two kingdoms. Having been incapacitated during the fray, they wake to see the field littered with thousands of dead. A black-robed figure moves among the dead, chanting, as corpses rise to serve their new master.
The PCs are infected with a deadly plague, a side effect of Cane’s dark magic playing over the battlefield. Those who succumb to it will rise as undead. The only cure lies within The Book of Dreams.
The Church activates a renowned witch-hunter, The Accountant, to deal with the mess. Golganth sends the Unholy Five to kill Cane and retrieve his book.
More Non-Combat Missions
There are many other opportunities to create exciting encounters with zero combat. Once you get comfortable with the classics, here’s a sample of non-combat-friendly mission options from Faster Combat you can experiment with.
Note the common threads of exploration and interaction throughout.
- Break or Destroy Item
- Commandeer a Vehicle
- Escape Destruction
- Establish Truce
- Force Surrender
- Reach Before Enemy
- Seal Away
- Seal Off
- Stop an Event
Need more encounter design help? Check out the 12 Design lessons in the Faster Combat course or ebook.
No Time for Fighting
You’re now ready to create story encounters in your game! You’ve learned how to identify and connect story elements and classic non-combat encounter types to create engaging encounters in your adventures.
What tips do you have for creating great non-combat encounters in your games? How do you keep them rich with the themes and story of your adventure or campaign? Add your tips in the comments below.
Brief Word From Johnn
Last Day For This Book Sale
How do you get holy water?
You boil the hell out of it.
Speaking of what’s holy and otherwise, today is your last chance to get the Mythic Gods & Monsters GM how-to guide as Pay What You Want before it goes on its regular price.
My book includes a Critical Fumble Guarantee and a couple of GM bonus Buffs for you. Plus:
- An integrated approach that connects your world from cosmos to encounters
- Tell interwoven stories fueled by meddling gods
- Four easy design recipes
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Get all the details at: Mythic Gods & Monsters
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Have a game-full week! I get to join in a new campaign being kicked off Friday by one of my players. I can’t wait to play.
P.S. Thanks to Heiko Müller for the holy water joke and a few others you’ll see in the future. 🙂
Johnn’s Picks: 2-Player Board Games
From: Johnn Four
I like strategy games and games that make me think. My wife likes casual games and social games, so she can relax. It’s a hard combo to please. Over the years, though, we’ve found a few games with the right mix of strategy and casual so we can each get what we like from two player board games while enjoying what we like most – each other’s company.
Here’s a picture of the games we take camping with us:
It’s a nice mix of chance, double solitaire, and strategy. You try to earn coloured cubes by laying cards down to get the lowest or highest total per balloon ride, depending on a certain card flip.
You can lay cards onto your opponent’s groups to worsen their score, or play them on your side to improve yours.
Games are fast, about twenty minutes. While deep thinking is not required, I like the dynamic of choosing what balloon rides to go after and whether to improve your scores or sabotage your opponent’s, all within a larger context of trying to amass a certain combination of cubes from multiple rounds of play.
Race For the Galaxy
A card game where you build out your solar system, enhance it with defenses and military might, and gather resources each turn and use them to perform various actions during the game’s phases.
As a typical card game, there are buffs and powers on cards you can use for temporary effects, to foil your foe, or enhance your empire long-term.
The mechanics are no more complex than, say, Catan, and the sci-fi setting is a nice change from the abstract or fantasy settings of our other games.
Based on what cards I draw during the game, I enjoy figuring out whether to be a resource builder (farmer), go military, or strike a balance.
Games take about 30 minutes, and we’ve found you can sometimes recover from a poor start, so luck is a factor but not the deciding one.
Unlike Race For the Galaxy, luck has a huge say in this game. It’s RPG comedy meets Uno.
You have a first level character. Cards from the decks build up your character, give you magic items or loot to sell for XP, or monsters to fight for XP. The first player to hit 10th level wins.
On the box it says 3+ players. However, my wife and I enjoy the game as-is with just us two. Though the PVP aspect of the game has no mystery – it’s going to be my wife pitting monsters and effects against my character or vice versa – we enjoy building up our PCs, seeing what mayhem the next card turned over causes, and reading the funny text on the cards.
Also a fast game, sometimes just five minutes if a PC dies early. But set up time is seconds, so we just gloat, re-deal, and play again.
Tigris & Euphrates
At first glance this game looks like Carcassonne, which hooked my wife. Draw tiles from a bag, build colour groupings on the board through tile placement, and get points each round based on how your colour groups fare.
However, there are aspects of Go with this game, plus a couple of interesting mechanics that allow you to go into full strategy mode if you want.
When two same-colour groups touch, war breaks out. The side with the most tiles of that colour wins and earns points. The loser takes their tiles off the board and must rebuild. So, you are always giving thought about what direction to build in and whether the time is right to touch groups and engage.
Another great mechanic is your final score is based on how many points you’ve accumulated for your weakest colour group. There are four colours you build points for. If your best colour has 10 points but your worst colour has 4, your final game score is 4. So it’s a game of balance. Nice.
This one takes us a couple hours to play. Casual players will enjoy drawing tiles and building their colour groups on the board. Wargamers will enjoy the deeper choices and decisions the game offers.
This is another tile placement game with an economic slant. You build your settlements around an oasis. There are five colour groups. You draw from a deck of numbered cards that act as currency. On your turn, you spend your coins of one type of colour to buy a tile on the oasis board. You then add the tile to your settlement.
The game has three rounds of scoring. The tiles themselves have five colours, and each tile has a value score on it. Players with the highest total of values for each colour get victory points. Points scale each round, so you are rewarded for focusing on just some of the colour groups, which offers interesting choices during the game.
Tiles also have walls on some or all of their four sides. You can only place open faces against open faces, and walls against walls. So your settlement must be built in a Tetris-like fashion, which is another consideration when choosing what tiles to buy from the market.
Finally, if you have the exact amount of coins when buying tiles, you get a free turn. So there’s often an interesting choice on whether to buy now and end your turn, or wait to see if you can get exact change and go for one or more free turns.
Games take about 45 minutes to play. With all the cards, settlements, and scoring markers, there’s some small pieces to take care of and you’ll need a larger space than your average small camping table.
San Juan & Agricola
These are new games we haven’t played yet. I just threw them in because they are highly rated and offer two-player options. I’ll let you know how we find the games once we’ve had a chance to play them a few times.
Double solitaire with a couple of minor twists. Your build caravans to explore the jungle and look for lost cities. You add cards numbering from 1-13 in order and matching colour on your side of the board from out of your hand. You must decide whether to start a new caravan or build an existing one. If building an existing one and you don’t have the next card in sequence, you must decide whether to hold off or break the sequence and risk getting the card you needed later in the game.
There are also three multiplier cards per suit or colour of cards. These must be played first, in front of your caravan. If you make caravans with a minimum of 20 points, your victory points get multiplied. But if you don’t reach that 20 point threshold by the end of the hand, you lose points and those get multiplied.
Each turn you discard or place a card, and then draw a card. Gameplay is fast, about 5 minutes per hand. After three hands the player with the most points wins. It’s a simple and fast game with the randomness giving some good, light entertainment. The fast-pace and quick choices are quite enjoyable.
Rivals of Catan
This is a 2-player version of Settlers of Catan. It’s card and token based. The game in the pic is actually the newest edition of the game, and we haven’t played it yet. We’ve been playing the first edition for years, and it’s great fun.
Instead of a board, you build Catan with cards. You each build your own Catan with territories, roads, towns, and cities. Territories have numbers on them. You roll a die every round and collect the usual Catan resources if you have territories with numbers that match the pips. An events die has you draw from an event deck or experience a special effect, such as getting a free resource or suffering a small setback.
You cash in cards from your hand to build out your Catan. You can buy effects cards that layer on top towns and cities for bonuses and special abilities that help you earn more resources, resist attacks from your opponent, or give you a small boon.
The game has a definite Catan feel to it, and we enjoy it a lot. Games can take an hour, as it is sometimes hard building up your resource engine from earning just one or two resources per turn (cities don’t double production in this game, they have other effects).
There are expansions for this game, and as mentioned, there’s a second edition out with some tweaks to the rules. We look forward to building Catan this summer while camping!
Lords of Waterdeep
I was skeptical of this game so I held off buying it for a long time after it came out. But after reading positive reviews, I gave it a shot and am glad I did.
The game involves placing workers, building resource pools or coloured cubes (the cubes represent D&D classes such as rogues and clerics), and completing quests that earn you end-game points.
There’s a ton of moving parts with this game, literally and figuratively. The game takes 10 minutes just to set up. And then on your turn you must decide whether to earn gold, gather more adventurers (the cubes), or pull off some effect that gives you advantage or your opponent disadvantage.
Each turn you place one of your agents within a location in the city of Waterdeep. Each location has a specific benefit, such as recruiting fighters, earning you a bit of coin, picking up a new quest, or using one of the special cards with magical effects you can acquire during the game.
While it plays great with a group, I was skeptical the game would scale down well to two-player. However, the plethora of choices for agent placement keeps you hopping. Watching your opponent’s decisions helps you figure out their victory conditions, which are determined at random at game start and kept secret. And each turn you decide whether to build or acquire. So there’s never a dull moment, regardless of player count.
Games take us about two hours to play. We have both expansions, so that adds a bit to the time but they are great enhancements.
Those are our favourite two player boards games these days. We play other games, like Mancala, standard cards, Scrabble, and some iPad games. But from the non-standard game category, the ones above are great for us, and maybe you too.