How to run D&D with no combat

The next official 5e adventure, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, is set for release in two months’ time. It has been promoted as a ‘wickedly whimsical’ trip to the Feywild aimed at characters of levels 1–8.

As part of this year’s D&D Live, Mica Burton chatted about the adventure with Chris Perkins, who said this:

One of things I’m most proud of is that a clever party can get through the adventure without ever having to resort to combat if they don’t want to. That’s the first time we’ve tried that in a 5th edition adventure.

Chris Perkins

This caught my attention.

There are three pillars in D&D – combat, exploration, and social interaction – and combat is easily the most codified of the three. For some players, it’s also the most fun. As a DM, I know I am guilty of throwing in a combat encounter when I want to liven up a session. It’s lazy, but it does the job.

And yet, combat is not for everyone. It’s something I often notice with new players, particularly those with no background in video games or war gaming. ‘Why so much combat?’

In this article, I’m going to look at ways of toning down the combat in your D&D game. 

What monsters want

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In many D&D games, adventurers attack monsters on sight, or vice versa. But it doesn’t have to be like this! Combat is dangerous, after all, and often isn’t the players’ interests, or the monsters’.

Consider what the enemy wants. Sure, some creatures are simple. Many beasts and monstrosities have animal-level intelligence and just want to eat, and killing adventurers is one route to a good meal. But there are plenty of other motivations. For example:

  • Territory. The monster only attacks if its space is being threatened. It’s otherwise happy to live and let live.
  • Treasure. Dragons have a craving for beautiful, shiny things.
  • Social goals. Think about what people are motivated by in real life. Political ideology? Faith? Sex?

If you are unfamiliar with Keith Ammann’s wonderful blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, I highly recommend it. In fact, he has a post entirely on the topic of what monsters want, and I would read it in its entirety.

Staying alive

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Think about survival instincts. In the same way that an intelligent adventuring party will pause before picking a fight with a monster that’s clearly beyond them, so too will intelligent monsters know when to size up an experienced adventuring party and hold back from confrontation. If an encounter is less than deadly, then the characters are probably going to win, and an intelligent enemy will know this.

To that end: vary the difficulty of your encounters. If players begin to realize that every encounter is perfectly balanced for their characters, they are never going to fear rolling initiative. Every now and then, include an adversary who is beyond their abilities, and make this clear to them. As well as making the world seem more ‘real’, it will teach them that a sword blade is not the only way to deal with a problem.

Follow the lore

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The Monster Manual is fantastic book to read through in your spare time. The monsters’ back stories give you a sense of what they are about and what drives them. The Monsters Know is again a great resource here.

Have a look at these prep notes for my last session of Dungeon of the Mad Mage:

  • Doppelganger: wants to avoid fighting. Inclined to bluff and seduce. Greatest threat is someone who seems through its disguise.
  • Nothic: furtive, curious, only fights if cornered. Driven by secret knowledge.
  • Rust monster: wants to eat metal. Only uses its bite if cornered. Can be placated with ‘food’ but will follow those who have it like a raccoon.

It is entirely possible for the party to bypass these creatures without any fighting at all! And there are many other monsters in the Monster Manual for whom fighting is a last resort.

The wonder of magic

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In a world where even low-level characters can cast spells all day long, it’s easy to forget how ‘magical’ magic is supposed to be. And in a game where combat is common, it’s easy to forget how many spells are non-violent. Of the 361 spells in the Player’s Handbook, around 250 inflict no damage at all. Sure, some of these are still obviously harmful, like power word kill and flesh to stone, but many are not.

Consider the schools of magic and how you and the players can use them to circumvent combat:

  • Abjuration spells are protective in nature. Pass without trace can help a party sneak past enemies, and arcane lock can bar an enemy from leaving a room.
  • Conjuration spells can transport objects and creatures from one location to another. Mage hand has all kinds of clever uses, and teleportation spells are great for getting out of tight spots.
  • Divination spells reveal information. Commune, detect thoughts, divination, scrying . . . all sorts of creative opportunities.
  • Enchantment spells affect the minds of others, influencing or controlling their behaviour. Enchantment is the school for social interaction: charm person, dominate person, and suggestion can all be used to avoid combat.
  • Evocation spells manipulate magical energy to produce a desired effect. This is obviously the most combat-oriented of the eight schools, but consider how spells like darkness and telepathy might be used to avoid combat.
  • Illusion spells deceive the senses or minds of others. Few schools of magic lend themselves as naturally to clever ways of avoiding combat. Minor image, major image, invisibility, disguise self . . . lots of fun to be had.
  • Necromancy spells manipulate the energies of life and death. This one, I’ll admit, had me scratching my head. Still, speak with dead can work as a kind of divination, and blindness/deafness can be used to sneak past sentries.  
  • Transmutation spells change the properties of a creature, object, or environment. An excellent school of magic for avoiding combat. Consider passwall and polymorph, for example.

Prep situations, not plots

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Justin Alexander’s articles on this topic should be required reading for all DMs. It’s easy for us to assume that the players will want to start a combat with an enemy – but players sometimes want to do something different. Let them. Try to say yes. Reward their creativity.

Make the other two pillars meaningful

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Ultimately, if you want to tone down the combat in your game, look to the other two pillars: exploration and social interaction. Exploration is all about discovering new things and rewarding curiosity. Social interaction is all about motivations and personal goals. Use factions. Add secrets.

In summary

If you want to reduce the combat in your games, here is a summary of what you can do:

  • Think about what monsters want.
  • Vary encounter difficulties.
  • Follow the lore.
  • Make magic wonderful.
  • Reward creativity and say yes.
  • Prep situations, not plots.
  • Use factions and secrets.

How much combat do you like in your games?

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