While the smash and grab approach to playing D&D certainly comes with its own benefits, as I discussed a couple weeks back, there’s more than one way to play this game. Which is a lot of what makes it hold such appeal. However you want to approach it is always going to be the right way.
Even when that means not having much in the way of combat encounters. Or any at all.
Believe it or not, that is a totally legit way to play D&D. Granted, combat is a big part of the game, and removing it entirely requires a good bit of forethought on the DM’s part. This starts with deciding just what kind of game it is you are going to play, and how to utilize things beyond combat abilities in new and interesting ways.
Below are three ways you can run a D&D campaign that is not just light on combat, but removes it entirely from the game.
A Family Affair
This one probably seems like the most obvious, but the depth and complexity of the actual story is what really sets it apart from a traditional D&D game. To say that it means the players will have to get invested would be an understatement.
First off, the characters are all related, be it by marriage or by blood. Their extended family are a renowned merchant family or possibly a noble one. The backdrop for the story can be a lot of things, so tailor it to fit what you want the setting to be.
The entire campaign revolves around the players constantly trying to maneuver themselves into a better position with in the family. What with it being so wealthy, the better their own standing, the more likely they are to get to enjoy that wealth. It means sealing back room deals, negotiating with NPC’s, and plotting against rival members of the family.
For the best outcome, have the characters be a group that has decided to band together against more power family members in order to increase their own standing. Not to say they won’t sell each other out, but for now, their interests have aligned and they are working together to consolidate their own position. Pit them against foes they can’t fight with swords or spells, but must out wit, while also protecting their own investments from being manipulated as well.
The more interesting way to play it is to have each player plotting against the other. This involves a lot of furious note passing between players and DM, as each player makes their move in secret, while pretending to be friendly with the other players. It also involves a fair amount of backstabbing, so be prepared for that.
Ultimately, the goal here is to get the players to rely on something other than their attack bonuses. It also brings spell casting classes into the game in new and often creative ways as they eschew the typical fireballs for illusion and charm spells. There probably won’t be as much need for Clerics or Druids in this kind of setting, and fighters will definitely have a much more interesting time of it, as they will need to rely more on intimidation than the strength of their sword arm.
One thing is for sure. Your players will see each other differently when all is said and done.
Buy Low, Sell High
Similar to the above setting, this one casts the party as what are typically NPC classes. I know the Third Edition had rules for such classes as Merchant and Nobleman, and while I’ve not had a chance to get into Fifth Edition as much as I’d like, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t covered in some sort of manner. At the very least, online resources should cover everything you’ll need.
Here, the characters are trying to attain wealth not by adventuring, but by being successful business professionals in their respective areas. Having teamed up to help each other out, how they choose to go about building their business is up to them, but should come with certain obstacles.
Corrupt tax collectors, rival merchant lords, aggressive guild houses, unreliable employees, and even contemptuous noble families all lay in wait for our erstwhile entrepreneurs. Since just murdering such folks is pretty much out of the question, they’ll have to get creative in how they approach dealing with not just these problems, but others as well.
Of course, hiring an assassin is always an option. Just be sure you can actually afford them, and their silence.
More fun is when they have to hire adventurers, the likes of which they are use to playing, to guard shipments, and deal with bandit gangs. Or perhaps as bodyguards after those same bandit gangs decide to make things more personal and go after not just the PC’s, but their families and loved ones in an effort to punish them for not playing the dutiful victim.
Nor is it just going to be people that play a role in obstructing them from becoming successful. Losing cargo to storms that sink ships can cost them dearly, as can losing shipments to any number of naturally occurring problems, from earthquakes to dragon attacks to Ogre tribes. A fantasy world is a rough place to start your own business, after all, and the bigger the investment, the more perilous the loss.
Heavy Is The Head
This one is my favorite.
Start by selecting the player who is going to play the Prince or Princess for the campaign. Everyone else gets the standard character classes, and serve as their entourage. Of the three, this is the one most likely to involve actual combat as the soon to be ruler of an entire nation finds themselves having to negotiate with all the problems that entails.
Treacherous noble families who look to the throne with a desiring eye, hiring assassins to remove the royal bloodline, but keeping their own name hidden creates a ton of opportunities for both the one playing the child of the king, and those who are tasked with keeping them alive.
These kinds of plots can take many forms beyond assassination attempts, as well. Plans to arrange marriage, leading to the party conducting covert investigations while the Prince or Princess entertains their suitor, who may or not be a bit handsy, create a whole new kind of difficulty. Especially if several noble families get into the mix, all vying to have a relative sitting next to the future ruler. Since these families all control resources the kingdom needs, they have to be handled with great care, and a single failed persuasion check can lead to disaster down the line.
Perhaps the King or Queen has decided to step back and allow their child to run the country in their place ahead of abdicating so they can truly be the new ruler. Now they not only have noble families to deal with, but also merchant guilds who want taxes lowered, bandits who routinely raid outlying farm lands, monster races who encroach too closely on civilization, foreign leaders with agendas of their own, and the most dreaded thing of all. The thing every ruler avoids at all cost.
Adventuring parties running around tearing things up.
Yes, those miscreants must be handled with great care.
Dealing with the constant threat of a revolt from the guilds and peasants, war with foreign nations, and monster attacks just rest with the future ruler. Their trusty advisors, the rest of the players, have to step just as carefully, since they speak and act in the name of the royal family, making their every move fraught with just as much danger as the one playing the soon to be ruler.
There’s no wrong way to play D&D, which is why you should always look for new and interesting ways to keep your players invested. Encounters are fun, but there’s more than one way to earn XP, and those social interactions can be just as rewarding as slaying a Beholder.
Well, mostly. Slaying a Beholder is pretty bad ass.
Point being, don’t be afraid to toss your players into unfamiliar waters, where dealing with fiends, demons, and extra-planer beings isn’t about defeating them in battle, but successfully negotiating a trade alliance that benefits them both.
Trust me, they’ll sweat it just as much, and maybe more, if all they are armed with when things go south is a well managed ledger.