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Avoiding Conflict

By Shamus
on Monday Jan 9, 2006
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


A major struggle we have out our D&D campaigns is the issue of avoiding conflict. If players are correctly playing their characters, then they should not allow themselves to get sidetracked by random fights. As in, “We need to save the princess, so we don’t have time to screw around with this ettin. Just use some magic to slow it down and we can run away. ” But this isn’t a very satisfying way to play. It feels lame running away all the time, and combat is supposed to be a big part of the game.

So what do you do? Play your character or have fun? This isn’t a great choice to have to make. I can aleviate this by forcing them into combat, but then it just feels like they are on rails, and battles feel contrived. We have had several sessions with no combat, and I can feel the players getting itchy for a fight. But then a chance for combat comes along and they route around it, because even though they want to fight, their characters are more or less sensible guys who are focused on the job at hand. The only time they fight is when they encounter a challenge that blocks their main goals, and even then they usually try to negotiate or reason before resorting to bloodshed.

This is a flaw in the nature of the game itself, really, and I’ve never found the right balance of forced combat and player choice that still keeps the action lively.

Comments (24)

  1. mark says:

    In my experience (which is to say, not much, but I’m going to give you my opinion anyway), the secret to getting people to fight in D&D is to appeal to their greedy nature. Everyone wants more gold and everyone wants more experience. Perhaps it was just the group of people I was playing with, but all of our characters were greedy bastards, with the exception of a Ranger (mine) and a Paladin (a friend). There were several Chaotic Evil theives, and their basic desire was more gold, more experience. They’d stir everyone else up about the riches of battle, and we’d end up fighting whatever came our way (and then they’d steal the riches of the good people).

    Naturally, this became problematic when everyone got to be too powerful, but that’s a different issue:P

  2. Shamus says:

    I suppose motivation for wealth is one way to justfy combat even when it could be avoided. Interesting. Thanks!

  3. Frank xxxxing Rizzo jerky says:

    so………… i thought this was a website dedicated to telling the amaxing takes of the illustrius and magnificent Skeeve,and those other guys. all I’m seeing here is the mindless babbling of a man who can’t seem to stuff enough c**k in his mouth.

  4. Shamus says:

    Honestly. I can’t take you guys anywhere. Notice how total strangers post witty or insightful comments and you, my gaming friends, fling your comments in here like so much monkey excrement.

    Also, I’m glad to see you’re making progress in the brave war on literacy.

    And finally, the game starts at 5pm this week, but if the Steelers lose the session will be replaced by a memorial service. Dress appropriately.

  5. Lon says:

    And here I was admiring how you’d managed to avoid the cycle of pointless “they aren’t worth XP unless they’re dead” combat D&D is so prone to.

    Are your players missing combat itself, or are they missing the moderately-paced simulation of fast-paced, life-or-death action that D&D is? If it’s the latter, wouldn’t some other situation where the PCs lives are at risk, requiring quick thinking and creative action, do just as well?

    Of course, I’m posting this reply before reading the rest of the posts on this topic. It may well be that you’ve already figured something out.

    I am enjoying this a lot, by the way. Reading this log reminds me of the things that were fun about all the D&D I played back in the day, before moving on to other games.

  6. norm says:

    You can always ambush the characters with some bandits, hungry wolfs, etc. That have a good plan to keep the players from simply running away. Or better yet a NPC the pc’s must talk to/survive is ambushed so the players must defend/rescue them from immeadiate harm.

    But in general I think you answered the problem when you said “when they encounter a challenge that blocks their main goals” if you/they want combat they should believe their best/only chance for success is to fight!

  7. Ricky says:

    The current group I’m with is pure hack and slash, with a few who don’t mind role playing and some who are pure min-maxers. So, if the Gm provides a monster, that’s to break up the monotony of getting to the next fight or throw the group a bone till the story catches up with the next big fight. The problem is getting roleplaying into the game. Hmmm…. considering this group grew up on computer RPGs and Diablo…. it looks like I’m in Diablo 2 or something.

  8. onepointbless says:

    My PCs are constantly avoiding conflict.

    Apart from the usual wandering monsters they also run from random encounters with enemies they have gained in game.

    Basicaly, if they can’t ambush it, bringing to bare extreme pre-meditated force – they just aren’t interested.

    What a gyp

  9. CyberGorth says:

    You know, this is why my characters tend to be either savage, machissmo driven types, or just guys too dumb to know anything other than combat. Just so I ALWAYS have an excuse to rumble.

  10. Tsetut says:

    My players won’t flee even if its in their best interest. You would think that by now they would understand that the term “you hold them off while we escape” coming from an elite warrior with several troops referring to one guy would give them the idea. But no, they still have to run up and try to hold it off. This is after the warrior sent in their friend as a kamikaze with a barrel of explosives for a raid. Clearly he didn’t care if they survived, and clearly they should have run. But no, they attacked, and only got the idea to escape when half of them were killed almost instantly.

  11. Matt says:

    Something I’ve come up with for the campaign I’m about to start is tournament minigames. Whenever it seems logical, and maybe when the players are spoiling for a bit of combat, I plan to have the rulers of towns hold tournaments. The PCs can enter contests that challenge their class (i.e. jousts and melees for fighter types, archery contests for rogues and rangers, bardic singing competitions, etc.) and try to beat the NPCs. I figure it’ll be a good way to get some action in, it’s low risk for lower levels, and it’s a good way to introduce NPCs and start relationships between them and the players (rivalries, friendships, etc.)

    Of course, the PCs are free to avoid these as well if that’s what they want…

  12. Anonymous Bosch says:

    I recommend giving players additional long-range goals or far-reaching responsibilities, so they have to earn enough money to buy someone’s freedom, or get strong enough to fight the evil Wizard King, or the ranger swore an oath to kill all the monsters in the Great forest, or what have you.

    I usually try to make it so that the players are basically privateers or soldiers of fortune: someone may authorize them to perform a specific task, but their only payment is what they can loot from their enemies. If the reward from the Prince is going to be meager or symbolic, then they have a greater incentive to try and get a little something extra out of the deal.

  13. Julian says:

    I know this post is ANCIENT, but I thought I’d let you know how I’d go about it.
    At my table, most characters have some sort of motivation for fighting. I can’t remember any, except mine: My ranger is a generally sensible guy, but he LOVES to put on a great show of skill and mastery of the bow and arrow. So, even when the party decides not to fight, he’s still itchy and wants to get an arrow off when no one’s looking.

  14. Dm Dave says:

    I wish I would have run across this topic a few years ago, to get in on the excitement and stuff. Oh well. I’ve gamed since I was a kid, most of that as a player, with several more recent years as a GM, about 17 years in total.

    Typically, when I feel a group of players is getting itchy for a fight, and the story and in-character actions are skirting around them, I pull out a page of my book of DM tricks that everyone seems to love.

    Usually, I have one, if not more, players with a character background. And usually, one of those players has a character background that involves some form of childhood or recent enemy that was added for character flavor, and nothing more.

    When the party starts itching for a fight, and can’t seem to get it done in-game logically, I throw out a villian or group of monsters from one of their character backgrounds. It really surprises the player who wrote it, and it gives a sense of reward for writing the character background, which seems to be for naught in most other games I’ve played.

    I do try to make the appearance make sense, and usually, I just give a simple, easily solved explination as to why he/she/it/them showed up when they did so that the group doesn’t feel like it’s part of the campaign plot, and can move on with the story.

    It’s gets everyone’s pent up rage out, makes the player who wrote the background feel like they just got their 15 minutes of fame, and tends to make everyone feel like writing up a character background just to see if I will use it.

    I’m actually excited about an upcoming campaign that I know one of my group’s GMs is going to use this trick. I started the game with a character that was mentally unbalanced (everything bad was a chicken, because he would be locked in the chicken coop as a small child when he was being punished). He was a rogue that I had focused on throwing daggers.

    At first, the group thought it was annoying, but didn’t really mind. As the game progressed, the group learned they had to regularly deal with high ranking political powers, and my character was forbidden to speak during these sessions, for fear of embarassing the party.

    After the main plot was revealed, and we all started talking about the impact our actions would have on the war between two factions, my character suggested an excursion into enemy territory to recruit disgruntled demonologists to aid us in the coming battles. The paladin of the group actually struck my character to silence him, refusing any help from people who consort with demons.

    This led to me deciding that the group of players was soon going to retaliate on me physically for player the character if I didn’t change the annoying tendancies. Of course, the only one on my side was the GM, who absolutely loved my character from the start. I arranged with the GM for my character to sneak off in the night to “follow his own path” and do what he felt was best. But the note that my character left for them didn’t really say which side he was going to be on in the coming battles, but that he would at least “see them there”.

    The GM is now in control of that character, and I rolled up a new one. Since no one was really paying attention to my character, they don’t realize that he could have probably taken the whole group single-handedly, and that he knows all about their tactics, fears, motivations, and weaknesses.

    I know our GM will do that character proud when the time comes for the party to decide a course of action after they see him on the field. I just hope he doesn’t kill us all, though the irony would be very sweet indeed.

  15. Be glad you have THIS problem, Shamus, rather than the DM of the Rings problem of gamers so blood-thirsty that they’ll kill children if you say they’ll give experience.

    A related issue I’m having is that my group is trying to get to the bad guys, but part of the fun is exploration. It’s the Oblivion issue: Why, in character, would you run off to talk to the Thieves Guild when your world is being invaded by demons?

  16. Trae says:

    I happen to rather like the idea of roleplaying, but the problem is I’m not too terribly creative and my character’s not really the talky type. He mostly shines during combat, which is fine and all, but I have no idea what to do during periods between monsters.

  17. DMGalesburg says:

    For this reason, I always encourage one evil character or one reckless half-wit.

    Of course, once I expected all the characters to be sensible, but then the halfling bard (who had loads of CHA and INT) shocked me by being the most reckless character EVER. There he was with all his points in Diplomacy, and he couldn’t stop telling people what he thought of their mothers.

  18. mazer says:

    One reason my group rarely has this problem is that avoiding a fight usualy takes way longer than just killing whats in front of you. If killing an ettin takes more than 4 rounds(24 seconds) its usualy time to flee anyway, wheras the wizard spending an hour to memorize invisibility, or the party backtracking miles upstream to the OTHER ford, or even the bard spending 15 minutes convincing the ettin we are its freinds, takes exponentialy longer.

    On the other hand two minutes of fighting can easily take hours of play time, and we tend to start fast-forwarding.

  19. Sean says:

    It seems like the ideal solution would be to avoid throwing random fights at the PCs during the periods where they have important or time sensitive goals. That is, I wouldn’t throw completely arbitrary monsters or random bandits at them while they’re rushing to save the kingdom – but maybe they meet agents of the villain who cannot be allowed to report their presence. The first encounter just distracts from the conflict, where the second actually raises the tension, because not only do the players have an excuse to roll initiative, there are potential consequences for botching or ignoring the situation.

    I guess I see truly random encounters as something that should happen when players are just exploring or looking for trouble. If they’re just thrown in willy-nilly, it starts to feel more like Final Fantasy than DnD. (“Stop everything! It’s another Flan. Should we fight or run away?”)

  20. Dimitris says:

    IMHO you could play D&D giving no XP for rnd encounters. It may be not “D&D game” in terms of official rules but it is perfectly ok to set this kind of home rules.

  21. Sydney says:

    I tend to give side-quests which relate tangentially to the main goal.

    “You could just charge to the goal, but you’re wearing stock gear, the enemy is surrounded by minions, his lieutenants could pick up where he left off even if you killed him, and the peasants are getting ravaged by his hordes even as I speak.”

    Instead of displacer meese and bandits, why not drop a plot hook that will lead to a non-threatening, but entertaining, encounter? See BioWare, especially the first Mass Effect. You can do good, legitimate good, that has something to do with your ultimate goal even though it’s functionally just a bag of EXP by the side of the road.

  22. Lachlan the Mad says:

    When I’m a player character, I generally run with a guy called Big Rakuran. He’s a Goliath Warden (yes I play 4e, don’t laugh), and he takes the “Big Dumb Fighter” cliche well past the most extreme case. His basic motivation is the utter conviction that anyone smaller or weaker than him (which, since he’s 8 feet tall with str and con of 17, is everybody) is a “squishy,” and that it is his solemn duty to protect all squishies. This leads to him doing quite ridiculous things in combat; at one point, when the rest of the party was discussing how to open a locked door when we knew there were goblins on the other side, I demonstrated the best method for bashing it off its hinges. Which immediately led to him getting ganked by goblins. But the important thing was that he lived, because despite my best efforts the bastard never dies.

    When I’m DMing a game, to stop the whole “it’s only worth XP if it’s dead” problem, I write a list of conditions that the party might encounter and how much XP the party will gain if they’re met. This also allows for much more realistic NPC behaviours. For example:

    – In one encounter, an enemy that ran away counted as a kill. But in the encounter after that it only counted for half XP owing to different circumstances too complicated to get into right now.

    – In the third encounter, the characters were facing various traps and homonculi, placed to guard the inside of a warehouse; the encounter ended when they disabled the master control panel, which also opened the exit. Since this would disable all the guards and traps, they were worth full XP regardless of whether or not the party killed them.

    – In the fourth encounter, getting past the traps counted as a disable, because the traps were arranged in lines. But the following encounter had an obvious trap (a big rolling boulder) which the party would only earn XP for if they stopped it.

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