D&D 5E De-emphasizing Combat (+)

Stormonu

Legend
Let’s face it, the D&D game has spilled a lot of ink on the combat system, it’s a very robust minigame within the system itself.

But with the likes of the attempt in Witchhaven to present a method to overcome challenges without resorting to combat, what about a system for still having combat, but greatly de-emphasizing it, so that is no more involved than say, a skill challenge where the characters were investigating a murder mystery?

How would you propose handling such a system?

Some of my own thoughts….
I think it would be clear in such a system counting hit points and damage points would be more abstracted - maybe reducing characters and monsters to states such as “Healthy”, “Wounded”, “Battered” and “Defeated”.

Weapons and attack cantrips would be more flavor than dealing precise, scaled damage with possible multiple attacks going away. Characters and monsters would be assumed to be skilled at presenting a threat; things like Sneak Attack, Smite, Cantrip damage increases and Extra Attacks wouldn’t have to be defined at a granular level - they would just be singluar “attack” roll that on success moves the enemy down a level. Weapon/Spell qualities would still have some uses - attacking a skeleton with a piercing weapon might impose disadvantage on your check, using non-silvered weapons would be problematic against lycanthropes, or your fire bolt might have no effect on an Efreet, for example.

Perhaps the most difficult would be spells and spell slots. If cantrips scale, then either the leveled spells like Magic Missile, Fireball and the like either need to be dropped or changed in some manner - say, focusing on the ability to hit multiple targets, deal more levels of damage at once or do something out of the ordinary (such as hold spells keeping the enemy from being able to counterattack or some such). In some cases, it might be appropriate to reduce the number of spell slots some of the classes get (most likely on NPCs, as we’ve seen with the likes of Kelek in Witchlight) since a number of spells would likely be less tied up for combat use.

Some thought, will of course, have to be put into monsters. Lesser monsters might be grouped together into a single target or pool - such as a band of goblins or kobolds. Combat abilities would, of course, be abstracted, and the question would be whether they get active actions or if they only trigger when players fail their checks. The player target DCs for their checks would be set by some of the attributes of the monster - for example, if a character attacks with a weapon, they’d use the monster’s AC as the DC, or if they threw a fireball spell the monster would check against the player’s spell DC (or somehow invert it so the player is making the roll). Conversely, the DM might call for the player’s to make some sort of a defensive check - if the they were facing a Dragon one of the skill checks would be to save against its breath weapon, losing perhaps two levels of health if they fail the check, one if they succeed (and the rogue retaining the ability to reduce the level by one…).

For example, going with the Dragon as a solo enemy, with four players & DM:

Player 1: chooses to attack with their Longsword. Makes an Attack (Strength) skill check with a +7 to hit against the Dragon’s 21 AC. On a roll of 14 or higher, the player reduces the Dragon’s health from Healthy to Wounded. If the PC fails the check, their own Health is reduced one level to represent the dragon attacking back.

Player 2: Similar, but this character decides to attack with the Shocking Grasp spell, making a Spell (Intelligenc) skill check with a +6 to hit against the Dragon’s 21 AC. As above, on a success they reduce the Dragon’s Health a level, possibly from Wounded to Battered. On a failure, the PC’s Health is reduced a level, again assumed from the dragon’s attacks.

DM: If the dragon was reduced to Battered, it triggers the Dragon’s breath reaction. Everyone has to make a Dexterity saving throw. Those that fail, lose two Health levels, on a success only one is lost (Again, if someone had an Evasion-like ability, they’d reduce the Health loss by one level).

Player 3: As above, using skills or abilities to overcome the challenge. Perhaps, with the Dragon so battered, this character attempts to use Persuasion (Charisma) to remove the dragon’s last Health level by convincing it to surrender or fly away. On a success, the Dragon moves to Defeated. On a failure, the Dragon fights on (and is perhaps immune to future attempts of Persuasion to make it surrender), and the PC loses a Health level, as things continue.

The primary change is that the game isn’t wrapped up in the blow-by-counterblow interplay of the normal game. In a single go-around or two, the fight is over with and the game moves on to the next activity of exploration or interaction.
 

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Retreater

Legend
There are other systems that have a separate mechanic for "quick combats" (Savage Worlds being one).

You could just describe it narratively when the outcome doesn't really matter, allowing the players to add their flourishes.

I don't think the skill challenge format would work well for combats because it would grow very redundant. The rogue would always use stealth and acrobatics. The fighter would always use athletics. Etc. Skill challenges only seemed to work if you'd have one every few sessions, and doing it regularly (especially with a very similar challenge) would grow old quickly.
 

Helpful NPC Thom

Adventurer
Mouseguard would be right up your alley, I think. Repurposing the exhaustion track in 5e might do as you desire.

I'm buying what you're selling, oft pondering this myself, but I've never settled on a satisfactory answer. You're ultimately rewriting the D&D system from scratch, and I think you're going to find the reduction in crunch dissatisfying. D&D went from "all HD are d6, all weapons do 1d6 damage" to "variable HD and weapon damage" very quickly.

You're going to run in another few issues: players like rolling damage, power escalation, and vertical advancement.

I think a better option would be to limit hit point bloat and thereby reduce the numeric escalation overall.
 


Stormonu

Legend
Well, when you get down to it, D&D combat as is can be very redundant (melee attack, ranged attack, spell attack, save), just drawn out over a longer time with faux descriptions.

Doesn’t have to be a skill challenge, it was simply a common term I thought would be easy to identify with. The main idea is how to scoop out the combat mini game and replace it with something quicker for those groups who aren’t interested in a combat-focused/combat-heavy version of D&D.
 

payn

Legend
Maybe some type of social system for saving/losing face? Plenty of westerns and other types of films show two people or groups facing off and eventually somebody steps down instead of reaching for their weapons.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Let’s face it, the D&D game has spilled a lot of ink on the combat system, it’s a very robust minigame within the system itself.

But with the likes of the attempt in Witchhaven to present a method to overcome challenges without resorting to combat, what about a system for still having combat, but greatly de-emphasizing it, so that is no more involved than say, a skill challenge where the characters were investigating a murder mystery?

How would you propose handling such a system?

Some of my own thoughts….
I think it would be clear in such a system counting hit points and damage points would be more abstracted - maybe reducing characters and monsters to states such as “Healthy”, “Wounded”, “Battered” and “Defeated”.

Weapons and attack cantrips would be more flavor than dealing precise, scaled damage with possible multiple attacks going away. Characters and monsters would be assumed to be skilled at presenting a threat; things like Sneak Attack, Smite, Cantrip damage increases and Extra Attacks wouldn’t have to be defined at a granular level - they would just be singluar “attack” roll that on success moves the enemy down a level. Weapon/Spell qualities would still have some uses - attacking a skeleton with a piercing weapon might impose disadvantage on your check, using non-silvered weapons would be problematic against lycanthropes, or your fire bolt might have no effect on an Efreet, for example.

Perhaps the most difficult would be spells and spell slots. If cantrips scale, then either the leveled spells like Magic Missile, Fireball and the like either need to be dropped or changed in some manner - say, focusing on the ability to hit multiple targets, deal more levels of damage at once or do something out of the ordinary (such as hold spells keeping the enemy from being able to counterattack or some such). In some cases, it might be appropriate to reduce the number of spell slots some of the classes get (most likely on NPCs, as we’ve seen with the likes of Kelek in Witchlight) since a number of spells would likely be less tied up for combat use.

Some thought, will of course, have to be put into monsters. Lesser monsters might be grouped together into a single target or pool - such as a band of goblins or kobolds. Combat abilities would, of course, be abstracted, and the question would be whether they get active actions or if they only trigger when players fail their checks. The player target DCs for their checks would be set by some of the attributes of the monster - for example, if a character attacks with a weapon, they’d use the monster’s AC as the DC, or if they threw a fireball spell the monster would check against the player’s spell DC (or somehow invert it so the player is making the roll). Conversely, the DM might call for the player’s to make some sort of a defensive check - if the they were facing a Dragon one of the skill checks would be to save against its breath weapon, losing perhaps two levels of health if they fail the check, one if they succeed (and the rogue retaining the ability to reduce the level by one…).

For example, going with the Dragon as a solo enemy, with four players & DM:

Player 1: chooses to attack with their Longsword. Makes an Attack (Strength) skill check with a +7 to hit against the Dragon’s 21 AC. On a roll of 14 or higher, the player reduces the Dragon’s health from Healthy to Wounded. If the PC fails the check, their own Health is reduced one level to represent the dragon attacking back.

Player 2: Similar, but this character decides to attack with the Shocking Grasp spell, making a Spell (Intelligenc) skill check with a +6 to hit against the Dragon’s 21 AC. As above, on a success they reduce the Dragon’s Health a level, possibly from Wounded to Battered. On a failure, the PC’s Health is reduced a level, again assumed from the dragon’s attacks.

DM: If the dragon was reduced to Battered, it triggers the Dragon’s breath reaction. Everyone has to make a Dexterity saving throw. Those that fail, lose two Health levels, on a success only one is lost (Again, if someone had an Evasion-like ability, they’d reduce the Health loss by one level).

Player 3: As above, using skills or abilities to overcome the challenge. Perhaps, with the Dragon so battered, this character attempts to use Persuasion (Charisma) to remove the dragon’s last Health level by convincing it to surrender or fly away. On a success, the Dragon moves to Defeated. On a failure, the Dragon fights on (and is perhaps immune to future attempts of Persuasion to make it surrender), and the PC loses a Health level, as things continue.

The primary change is that the game isn’t wrapped up in the blow-by-counterblow interplay of the normal game. In a single go-around or two, the fight is over with and the game moves on to the next activity of exploration or interaction.
You don’t really need a subsystem for this - indeed, it seems getting rid of systems is kind of the point. Just resolve violent conflict through the fundamental pattern of play, like you would any other action. The DM describes the environment, the players describe what they want to do and the DM narrates the results, calling for a roll if necessary to resolve any uncertainty in the action. So, for example, the DM might describe the battlefield and the enemies on it, a player might say that they want to try to kill an enemy with their weapon, and the DM might decide this action could succeed or fail and has meaningful stakes, so they ask the player to make a Strength (Longsword) check or a Dexterity (Longbow) check or whatever. On a success, they either succeed or make progress towards their goal, and on a failure there’s some sort of cost or consequence, such as getting hit by the target’s counter-attack. Very similar to Dungeon World.

Also, can someone like… summarize this post or something so @Stormonu can see it? They have me blocked.
 

Numidius

Adventurer
@Stormonu I like your system. The way I run at the moment is having a system like yours, but only in my mind as reference, while actual combat at the table is mostly freeform. Maybe at the end of an exchange a single check is rolled. Conversation during combat then, I've seen, eventually revolves around me asking players to make a choice between pushing and spending resources (being wounded, objects, weapons, companions, giving in to cursed items etc), or retreating in some way to avoid that. Expenditure is diegetic, freeform, not mechanized; of course if the knight's horse is dead, it is also deleted from the character's sheet, same as spells from slots, broken shields etc.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
If the system offers you 100 options to make your characters better in a fight, but only 10 options for doing things outside of combat, what do you think the system is focused on? In order to de-emphasize combat, you must offer alternative solutions to overcome the challenges and obstacles that combat always addresses with equally satisfying rewards and/or consequences. Take a look at Adventures in Middle Earth (and The One Ring) for some ideas to achieve this specifically in 5e (and in general).

And this is something else I love about the Star Wars RPG (and I'm sure other RPGs out there, as well). You don't win the day by just killing everything in sight. In fact, combat takes no more or less attention than a scene where characters are doing literally anything else. Unlike D&D where the game has to switch gears completely to go into combat mode, and resources are calibrated around an expected number of combat encounters in a standard game day.

If you get a copy, the Heroes of Battle (3.5e) introduced the idea of Victory Points (VP) to simulate large scale battles into a series of smaller skirmishes focused on the characters. Perhaps a similar idea could be instituted where characters make a single attack roll to accumulate VPs together. Using higher level or limited resources, like spell slots, gain additional points. Failure results in taking damage. Once they reach a set number of VP, the combat is concluded.
 

Numidius

Adventurer
You don’t really need a subsystem for this - indeed, it seems getting rid of systems is kind of the point. Just resolve violent conflict through the fundamental pattern of play, like you would any other action. The DM describes the environment, the players describe what they want to do and the DM narrates the results, calling for a roll if necessary to resolve any uncertainty in the action. So, for example, the DM might describe the battlefield and the enemies on it, a player might say that they want to try to kill an enemy with their weapon, and the DM might decide this action could succeed or fail and has meaningful stakes, so they ask the player to make a Strength (Longsword) check or a Dexterity (Longbow) check or whatever. On a success, they either succeed or make progress towards their goal, and on a failure there’s some sort of cost or consequence, such as getting hit by the target’s counter-attack. Very similar to Dungeon World.

Also, can someone like… summarize this post or something so @Stormonu can see it? They have me blocked.
Seems like we are on the same page about getting rid of a detailed system

Edit: hope @Stormonu can read it, now that I quoted you
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
How would you propose handling such a system?
The vast majority of combats in D&D are there simply to expend the PCs' resources before getting to the "big fights". The suggested 6-8 fights in a day with two short rests spread between them...yeah, maybe...maybe 1-2 of those fights are going to be important. The rest are filler.

I have two ideas for handling this.

First, you could borrow from The One Ring and Adventures in Middle Earth journey rules and have the filler combats work as a skill challenge that reduces the PCs' resources and dumps them into the first round of meaningful combat. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of actual combat you have to play through while also maintaining the resource depletion and management that's meant to go along with all that fighting...and still have the 1-2 meaningful fights. The longer the filler before the main event to more successes you’d need...and the more resources you'd expend getting there.

Second, run everything as skill challenges. Though you’d want a far looser and more free-flowing version than found in 4E.

Either way, combat as a skill challenge is fairly easy to do. Depending on how granular you want to go, you can either assign a number of successful checks it takes to remove a single combatant (this goblin takes 1 success, that orc takes 2, that gnoll takes 4, etc), or assign a number of successes for the whole fight (you're fighting 16 successes worth of orcs, go). Once that number has been reached, either the combatant is defeated or the combat is won (or lost).

Treat crits or near max damage rolls as 2 successes. And run it just like the 3-step play loop presented for the rest of the game. The DM describes the environment, the players announce intended actions, and the DM narrates the outcome.

Let the PCs burn resources for automatic successes, to succeed at cost, or to avoid the consequences of a failure. Examples. The wizard doesn't want to deal with the mass of goblins to burns 3rd-level slot to fireball a group to auto succeed, and eliminate several goblins. The rogue fails their pick locks check but wants to succeed so they burn the resource of their lock picks to succeed at cost. Avoiding the consequence of failure is the old notion of splintered shields. You would otherwise take a nasty hit so you destroy your shield to negate that hit. Consequences for failing rolls is resources (as above), hit points, hit dice, and increasing the number of successes required to beat the skill challenge, i.e. the situation gets worse, reinforcements come, the enemy leader casts a healing spell, whatever makes sense in the fiction.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
How would you propose handling such a system?

If you mean that in general, then this isn't really a D&D question. I'd handle it in the way that other systems that already do - by putting combat within the same mechanical framework as they do any other challenge, instead of making it a separate minigame. Cortex Prime and Fate are reasonable examples.

How would I hack 5e to do it? That's a much tougher question.

There is a very basic question I'd want answered first - do you want ALL combats to be no more than such skill challenges, or do you want to enable some combats to be handled this way, but retain the full tactical mode for when it is desired?
 

Silvercat Moonpaw

Adventurer
If I were doing it -- and using D&D5e -- I would utilize the proficiency system to create "descriptors" that encompass some aspect about the character and their skills: "smells like an ox", "master of the Run Away school of martial arts", etc. When I want to solve a situation, the player and GM would roll opposed d20s, adding their proficiency bonus if they have an applicable descriptor, and the loser takes a "token". After accumulating a certain number of tokens (perhaps decided by the type/severity of conflict), an individual is "out" of whatever kind of conflict it is. You can even run non-person situations as conflicts against groups of NPCs representing the different parts of the challenge.

Whether or not this would replace the existing skill/weapon/tool proficiency system, I don't care.
 

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