Alternatives to combat

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The Vulture
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Alternatives to combat

#1 Postby The Vulture » Thu Dec 04, 2008 3:35 pm

Something I've frequently heard beginning GMs complain about is that their sessions tend to have too much combat, and their players' other skills are going to waste. There's nothing wrong with combat in and of itself, but it can get repeitive if not handled well. It becomes more of a Micheal Bay movie than anything else, and doesn't feel like roleplaying so much as hacking and slashing.

Therefore, I thought it'd be a good idea to get together a few ideas for creating tension and dangerous situations that don't involve combat. Just to mix it up a little, y'know?

Here's couple of my favorite things to do as a GM when I want to shake things up a little and take a break from shootouts and chases:

Strand the party -Have their plane crash in the Kalahari Desert or Siberian tundra with minimal supplies, or something like that. They'll be glad they took things like Survival or Climbing when equipped only with a knife and their wits. Also, gives you a chance to fight wild animals for more varied combat.

Put the party in an inherently dangerous situation -What happens when they get trapped in a burning skyscraper or sinking ship? Movies like The Towering Inferno come to mind. They're incredibly tense, yet the primary source of conflict is not human in nature.

Anyone else have any suggestions?
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#2 Postby ogbendog » Thu Dec 04, 2008 3:40 pm

Look at the skills they have&*. heck, look at the skill list, and try to combine them

boating - need to cross a river, shoot the rapids, do a vehicle chase.
climbing - need to go up. pit trap, expedition to the mountains, excaping from prison, etc.

* both those that are high, so a PC can shine, and those that are low, to make them sweat
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#3 Postby DustDevil » Thu Dec 04, 2008 6:20 pm

Have the PC's attend a noble's ball or other social gathering.. A few things could be done here. Eavesdropping to hear important gossip, trying to get important information out of people more directly, using the character's charm and/or influence to bump themselves up the social ladder (or defend themselves from being knocked down a few pegs). Of course, there's also gambling, drinking contests, or other games that parties would include.
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#4 Postby Jordan Peacock » Thu Dec 04, 2008 6:29 pm

This reminds me of my early days of roleplaying - the GM that I consider as my "mentor" was running a Champions campaign warned us that he'd be reading our character sheets, and everything was likely to get used. (Mostly, this was to let us know that there wouldn't be any "free" Disad points - but he also made it a personal goal to see to it that any skills invested in by a character came in potentially handy at least once during a campaign of any duration.)

I've tried to take that to heart, and every once in a while I comb through the character sheets. On the one hand, it helps me to discover useful stuff (e.g., why the group leader is able to buy so much gear for himself while the rest of the group is dirt poor, and that I should keep a closer eye on how the PC group distributes loot. Or, that Mr. Armed to the Teeth is grossly ignoring encumbrance rules by a magnitude or two).

On the other hand, it helps me to keep up with what skills players are investing in - and particularly what skills they're finding to be valuable once the game started vs. what things they thought valuable when designing their characters. (For instance, if I see a spike in purchases of "Notice" increases across the board, then perhaps I'm relying TOO MUCH on Notice rolls to hand out clues.)

It especially helps for me to see what sort of things the players thought to invest in regarding Knowledge skills. (Although, in that area, sometimes I've refunded the PC his points spent on a Knowledge skill I think is only going to receive tangential use, or which I think ought to be covered by his choice of background, under Common Knowledge rolls.)

Another thing to consider - when I have the luxury - is to take the opportunity to actually play games once in a while. That generally only happens at conventions, anymore. What sort of experiences did I find compelling when I got to be a player? I consider the same things when playing board games (especially board games that have roleplaying-like elements, such as Doom or Betrayal at House on the Hill).

Quizzing players on what they like in a game might yield results in theory ... but in practice, I've not really accomplished much. Most of the time, I only get vague answers, or else I suspect that the answers just might be tainted by what they think I want to hear. ;)

As for myself, I have a particular enjoyment for exploration, in two forms. First, would be the unraveling of a mystery - collecting pieces of the puzzle that can be fit together to reveal a narrative going on behind the adventure. (As in, piecing together events that are happening off camera, concurrently, or else piecing together a story that predates the adventure.) The "story" may already be figured out, and collecting all the "pieces" may not be essential to completion of the adventure, but it can be quite rewarding to the player who is interested in that sort of thing.

The other sort of exploration would be of the "fill in the map" variety: I enjoy exploring a "traditional" dungeon (or a ruined office building, or a museum, or whatnot) and discovering the "story" of how it fits together.

(I'm not so much a fan of the "random dungeon." I'm more intrigued by things such as finding tracks in one room, as foreshadowing to what MADE those tracks in another. Or, finding a trap that has already been sprung by a previous unlucky adventurer - and thus getting a warning that it's time to start looking for more traps, and that there might be some REASON someone put a trap there. Or, figuring out the original purpose of various rooms that have been claimed for monster lairs, and discovering that this underground complex used to be a temple, and the individual chambers served some purpose. Or, finding a room with a big puddle on the floor and a dripping ceiling, and discovering, once we get upstairs, that this is because of an overflowing bathtub. And so forth.)

Some players just like interrogating minor NPCs and finding out their backstories. I'm sad to say that the GM who inspired me was FAR better at doing that sort of thing on the fly (and actually remembering - or at least surreptitiously keeping track of - made-up names as he went), and without missing a beat. (Insta-generated names at the ready; he was very well-read, and I figure a lot of his names were pulled from stories he was familiar with.)

On some occasions, I've had players who are real puzzle fanatics. I was particularly blessed in one campaign to have three players who were adept at solving letter-substitution codes - and fairly quickly. I exploited this at times - sometimes hit, sometimes miss. That is, to "abstractly represent" the fact that some character was a linguist, I looked up a book of Mayan hieroglyphs in the library, and assigned a bunch of them to letters of the alphabet, and made a sheet with a hidden message using the glyphs. The character got a skill roll (I forget the exact stat name) to represent his ability, and the higher the roll, the more clues he got (starting with E, of course). Any characters who weren't playing "bricks" (subjective judgement on GM's part based on their dump stats) could help out.

Downside: If solving the puzzle is necessary to proceed, it means everything grinds to a halt until it's solved. In such a case, it's best to make the puzzle easier than what you'd find in a book of puzzles - it's something you want the PCs to solve in minutes, tops, NOT hours, and it's bad form if the GM has to keep coming back and giving them hints. (And by all means, don't say anything to make it seem like you're going easy on them. "Easy" is relative, especially in a "game" where RANDOM DIE ROLLS impact success.)

In my ideal world, I've modified this to come up with "portable" puzzles - things that a player can take along with him and work on during times when he's being left out of the action, during slow times (combat rounds), etc. (In the latter, he's obviously not solving it in the middle of combat; storywise, the solving happens at some other, more dramatically appropriate time.) I've also found that it works better if the puzzle is an optional thing. (E.g., solve this puzzle box for a minor magic item in a fantasy campaign, or solve this telegram for some interesting backstory not necessarily crucial to PC success ... and maybe an extra benny or Adventure Card for the trouble.)

The "puzzle box" can still backfire, though, especially at conventions and other pick-up games where I don't know my players that well - It's hard to set things up perfectly so that the players KNOW it's not plot-crucial to get this thing solved before they can proceed. Sometimes what I intended to be a side-entertainment ends up bringing things to a grinding halt (and getting the combat-monsters anxious) despite my best intentions. I'm still working on the best formula.

Anyway, those aren't necessarily threatening situations, but they can represent ways to reward and engage players - at least, those who are interested in such things. (It really depends on the play group. I've had some PCs perfectly eager to start a fight so they can be engaged in fights at every opportunity - and then start getting disruptive if some other PC spends "too much" time actually talking to the NPCs, investigating, asking questions, etc.)

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