Alright, so we’re just gonna go over a couple different scenarios my players went through recently. Unfortunately, my notes aren’t very good and actually got deleted in some cases, so I won’t go into too much detail, but hopefully a good framework will still be there.
First of all, though, I can’t really stress enough that non-combat encounters work best when there is some mystery involved – when the goal of the challenge is to gain some piece of information that is necessary to moving forward. At it’s most basic, you have your next story combat encounter at location X, but how the players figure out they need to go to X is the best use of a non-combat encounter. Sure, an NPC could just walk up and tell them, but if you’re able to turn it into a mystery, where players have to visit various locations around town, gathering bits of information that they can put together to get the location of X, they will have a lot more fun…unless they’re just there to kill monsters and don’t care at all about role-playing.
Anyway, so after my players solved the kidnappings described in the first of these posts, they ended up in the middle of a power struggle between two churches and ended up traveling to a remote village in search of a vampire whose death would supply them with some necessary ritual components. They weren’t exactly sure there would be a vampire in the town, but they had their suspicions. A request for aid against some undead had been sent to one of the churches a couple weeks prior, but was quickly followed by another letter saying, “JK, we got it under control.” This had aroused the suspicions of the head priest, and so there the players were, entering this town in the middle of nowhere, getting icy stares from the few villagers milling about as the sun went down.
Of course there was a vampire in town, and he had pretty much taken over the mayor’s mansion up on the hill (where else would he go?). He made vicious examples of the few people that tried to oppose him and then easily convinced everyone else that it was in their best interests to just go about their daily lives and let him rule over the town in peace, feasting on the slaves he had made of the dissenters. To top it all off, he had promised the townsfolk that he would protect them from any other evil from the surrounding area that might do them harm, and so the townsfolk were actually quite content with the arrangement and not at all pleased when outsiders showed up asking about vampires. The vampire had made it very clear what would happen if anyone talked to any outsiders about the situation in town.
So the first stop was to the local church – the source of the two messages received. After some insight checks, it was clear the local priest was hiding something, but when they couldn’t get anything substantial out of him through diplomacy, they decided against going Abu Ghraib on his ass and went down to check out the bar instead.
In the bar was a few drunks, a few groups of suspicious-looking men, some guards and a very jovial bartender keen on getting these outsiders drunk and into their rented rooms for the night without any trouble or any mention of vampires. The group singled out one of the drunks as the best target for inquiry. Mostly through diplomacy, bluff and other social skills, they got the nosy bartender away from the drunk long enough to get him to confirm that there was a secret and that he’s not supposed to talk about the undead. The drunk was sent home with a contingent of guards to make sure he didn’t say anything else. And the players waited for the bar to empty out before they cornered the bartender and intimidated the crap out of him. They had to work for it, but eventually he reluctantly told them there was a vampire up on the hill who would kill anybody who divulged the town’s secret. The players told the bartender to lock up his place and hide in his basement with his wife while they took care of the problem.
They really wanted to sneak up on the vampire and take him by surprise, but unfortunately they are not a very stealthy group, and there was a magically locked gate between them and the mansion. The went off to a secluded section of the fence and tried to climb over it, but their athletics and acrobatics left much to be desired, as well. It was rather hilarious watching them get completely and utterly foiled by a simple fence, and after they were all muddy and exhausted, I had mercy on them and had one of the vampire’s servants come out to inform them their presence was well-known and that they were invited inside to talk with his master.
And that was the end of the skill checks, but I guess I’ll share the end of the story in case anyone is interested. The vampire was actually very cordial and wanted nothing more than for everyone to walk away happy, so he offered the players what I thought was a morally-charged decision. Yes, they could attack him, but he would have to punish the town for leading them to his doorstep. He had an army of undead waiting in the wings to storm the town and murder everyone should they lay a finger on him. On the other hand, if they agreed to leave peacefully, since all they needed was to kill a vampire and not specifically him, he would give them the location of another of his kin that they could go murder in his stead. The town would remain safe.
Unfortunately, I was dealing with an avenger and an invoker who really just didn’t like undead and certainly did not want to make any sort of deals with the undead. So what followed was an interesting fight where they had to split up, some staying to fight the vampire and some animated flesh creatures, while a couple of them went down to save the town from marauding ghouls with torches and the propensity for burning houses. The vampire eventually died, but he took about half the town with him.
And the other half didn’t survive the next morning when some cultists showed up to claim souls for their “Flame” god. They finished the job of burning down the town and murdering the townsfolk, and this would have been prevented by the vampire if he had still been alive. If they had taken the deal, the town would have remained safe and the players off on another vampire-killing quest. But now the town has been destroyed and the repercussions of that have yet to fully be realized by the party.
So there we have a decent example of a non-combat situation where the players had to gather information and get to the location of the next encounter. But I also incorporated the idea I had mentioned earlier where you allow the players to shape the story. Their choices end up having an affect on the world and how their adventures will resolve down the road. I mean, if the players don’t have a dynamic interaction with the story, they might as well be playing a video game.
I think the most important thing about presenting players with social situations and non-combat encounters is having a fully fleshed out story to back it up. Knowing the situation and the motivations of the NPCs involved allows you to get under their skin and give players a more immersive experience.
I meant to talk about more, but of course my typing got away from me, so we’ll pick this topic up a little later. I was also really happy with how a boss encounter I ran last weekend turned out, so I want to talk about that some time soon, as well.