How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters
by 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 here 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
Reach Before Enemy
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.