All right, it’s time to talk about D&D 4th edition non-combat encounter rules – also known as skill encounters.

4th edition is just plain wacky. At it’s core, I understand the desire to make everything approachable and easy to understand. Simplified and antiseptic. Clearly that’s a good way to approach combat, as having clear rules makes the chaos of combat more controlled and easily executable.

But the funny thing is that the designers totally failed on both fronts of their quest to make things simple and approachable in two very different ways.

First of all, combat in 4th edition quickly became the most complex, unapproachable combat in all of D&D history. The amount of shit going on in combat and the amount of customization available for the combat aspects of a character quickly outpaced any previous edition. And when Wizards of the Coast adopted a sort of Magic: The Gathering mentality for making money off of their product (keep releasing more and more shit so that players have to keep buying the latest thing to stay competitive), making an optimized character was nearly out of reach without a monetary investment (a model many would call highly unapproachable). I’m not saying I’m upset about this. As I’ve said many times before, I love 4th edition combat and the infinite customization of characters available, but it is a clear departure from their original model of simplicity.

And then on the other side of things, the simplified model of non-combat encounters, which was largely ignored by designers over time in order to complexify combat, fundamentally does not work. When players are out of combat, they’re wandering around town doing whatever the crap they want. You can’t try to structure and restrict that without rendering the whole tabletop experience wooden and uninspired.

I dunno, it’s sort of hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it, but the descriptions of non-combat encounters in the 4E DMG just make me mad, like the designers were invading my head and killing all creativity they found.

Maybe the best way to describe just how fundamentally wrong the 4E mentality is is to just do a quick rundown of the creative process involved in making 2 separate non-combat encounters – one from my previous campaign where I didn’t give a flying crap about non-combat stuff, and one from my new campaign.

I’m not even sure why I started throwing in non-combat encounters into that last campaign. I think it was some mix of just giving my players extra experience so that they could level up faster, and storytelling aspect of my brain screaming vainly to be released from its shackles. But, anyway, there they were, official Non-Combat Encounters, which I would insert in between combat encounters in order to break up the pace a bit.

So one involved escaping from the snake people and their arena which I talked about in a previous post. (I think…hmm, looking back I never did. This was stuff that happened right before I rebooted the blog and it wasn’t very interesting anyway.) Either way, the basic idea was that they escaped an arena and then knocked out a pursuing troll who was in charge of the arena prisoners (kind of like the illithid subplot of Baldur’s Gate 2), then they found an exit to the city that led to an underground crypt.

ENTER NON-COMBAT ENCOUNTER! The goal: escape from the snake people down a tunnel and block any further pursuit by collapsing the tunnel behind them.

The DMG advises us to pick a handful of skills that would pertain to such a situation (let’s say acrobatics, athletics and dungeoneering) and decide what the complexity of the encounter is. The “complexity” is basically how many successful skill checks denote a successful encounter, but really what does success or failure even mean in the context of a non-combat encounter? “Oh, your random number generator didn’t generate high enough random numbers. The snake people catch you and eviscerate you. Time to reroll you characters.”

Anyway, deciding on a complexity before outlining the encounter seemed completely counter-intuitive to me. I want to paint a scenario with this encounter and however long it takes to do that is how long it takes.

So, anyway, let’s just outline the encounter, shall we? They’re running for their lives down this tunnel, when suddenly the troll warden reappears behind them and attempts to ensnare one of them with his whip – acrobatics check. And if they fail, then they or someone near them has to make an athletics check to free them. And maybe this whip thing happens a couple more times until they decide they need to knock out some tunnel supports to collapse the tunnel on the troll behind them to stop their pursuers and get away. So, dungeoneering check to select a proper support or two and athletics to knock them out. Depending on how much they were delayed by the troll and knocking out the right supports, some more acrobatics checks might be in order to dodge falling debris. If they fail those, they may lose some surges (oh no!).

So how it plays out is a short description of what’g going on, then a check, then the consequences of that check, and then another check. And this repeats until you finish the encounter as quickly as possible because no one is having any fun. Right? You’ve accomplished your goal, but the journey to get there was mundane, overly structured and no fun. The only excitement comes from the stakes of the encounter, but obviously I’m not going to kill my players over a couple bad dice rolls, so the worst thing that will happen is that players lose a couple surges. And I cannot stress enough how little players care about losing a couple surges. They have way too many as it is.

The better way to do this, obviously, is not care so much about the structure of encounter or the artificial stakes, but just focus on making the encounter itself enjoyable by allowing players the freedom to dick around and do whatever they can think of to work toward solving the problem. Obviously they’re going to succeed the challenge. Most of the time, it’s a necessary part of the story (though obviously having the flexibility in your campaign for multiple disparate outcomes would be better and is something I’m working towards), so they kind of have to. But you want to make it a challenge to succeed not by challenging their dice, but by challenging their brains.

One of the most aggravating things about the description of non-combat encounters in the DMG is when it tells DMs to subtly discourage players coming up with their own solutions to the highly structured problems DMs present them with. “If they can come up with a reasonable explanation for why a different skill check would work in the situation, sure, let them do it, but make the difficulty class of the check harder and only let them do it once.” What the crap? Encourage your players to think for themselves and play outside the box! Why would anybody want to play a tabletop game where they are discouraged from thinking freely?! I don’t understand this mentality at all!

All right, so how do we accomplish this? We set up a skill encounter that doesn’t feel like a skill encounter at all. In fact, even calling all the stuff that happens outside of combat a “skill encounter” makes me feel dirty. Basically drop your players into a non-combat situation. Give them goals to achieve (or, where possible, let them come up with their own goals). And then, when those goals are achieved, give them experience comparable to a combat encounter. Occasionally, a player will have to do something difficult for their character – something they may not be able succeed at automatically – and at this time you tell them to make a skill check against a difficulty class, depending on how hard it is. Really, if you’re great at improvising situations on the fly, as a DM all you really need is the range of difficulty classes appropriate for your players’ current level. For instance, level 5 skill checks should range from 18 (fairly easy) to 26 (very difficult). So you quickly think about how difficult doing what the player wants to do would be, and then assign a number on the fly and run with it. With that rule of thumb and a little planning, DMs can run out-of-combat stuff in a much more fluid, free, engaging and collaborative way.

For our second example, the better way to do things, the idea was that the players had to investigate a series of mysterious kidnappings in the town they all lived in. The campaign started with them all attending a town meeting called to discuss the disappearances and what to do about them. To start designing the situation, I had to start from the beginning and answer some basic establishing questions: Who was doing the kidnapping and where was their base of operations? Who was kidnapped, when were they kidnapped and where were they kidnapped?

Then it was important to establish how the players would actually solve the kidnappings. I gave them two main options, though I was always open to opening up new avenues of investigation if they were more clever in solving it than I was in designing it. Anyway, the two options were that: a) The kidnapper was shot by a city guard during the last abduction and left behind some very hard-to-find clothing fibers. Inspecting the fibers led players to believe that a blue dye had been spilled on the kidnapper’s otherwise black cloak, and some interviewing in the market district would eventually lead them to a dye stall in another part of town that sat adjacent to a secret door leading to the kidnapper’s lair. b) It was also possible to zero in on the kidnapper’s location by looking at the spread of abduction locations and assuming the base of operations was somewhere near the center of that. Streetwise checks to gather local rumors would also yield information about questionable activities in that specific area. Investigating those questionable activities could lead to an encounter with the maid of large estate neighboring the dye stall who has information from her boyfriend about some dark figures moving around that location at night.

Then it’s just a matter of filling in the details, mostly with the town meeting, where most of the information could be communicated to the players through various NPCs involved in the situation. So I wrote down some basic information about the victims and their families and friends (i.e. who would show up to the town meeting) and what the people who showed up would know and how willing they would be to share the information. Then I outlined a schedule for the meeting, who would arrive when and when they would get up to speak. It’s important to keep all this stuff rough, though, because players have the opportunity at any time to interrupt the flow of events and it’s important to allow that to happen and not get into a mentality of stifling that so that you can act out your plan.

I also threw in a couple of red herrings for good measure. The boss and wife of one of the victims were acting suspicious because they were having an affair. Two women came along claiming their husbands had disappeared in order to get handouts from sympathetic rich people. Also, there was some extra information to uncover during the investigation that didn’t directly help the players but would give insight into the motives of the culprits, which might be important later in the game when the culprits are actually confronted.

So, anyway, that’s what we spent most of the time doing in the first official D&D session of the new group last week. I think the “non-combat encounter” played out really well and it seemed like everyone was having a good time immersing themselves in their characters instead of just rolling dice. They did eventually find the hideout and get into the first combat encounter, which was a purposefully basic affair that I could use to sort of gauge how powerful the group was and how they worked together in combat. I don’t know, they seem a little light on hit points and healing, which can be kind of dangerous, but now I have a better idea of what exactly I can throw at them, so the next couple of combats should get a little more lively.

And I think that’s about all I have to say about non-combat encounters. Stay tuned for the big combat encounter I have planned for the end of the quest, which involves a pretty ridiculous setpiece that may work well or may not work at all. Yay!

Non-combat encounters part 2 and part 3.