Most of us love a good combat session. Even if you’re the sort of player who puts drama over dire flails, there’s a great deal of opportunity for dramatic moments in combat with repercussions far outside the initiative order.
Plus, I don’t care who you are, it’s occasionally fun to hit things in the face with a +1 mace.
But combat can also become tedious or repetitive depending on how often it’s used. Depending on your group, you may host a fight every week interspersed with the fiddly bits in between. At that pace, your players are liable to feel burnt out on combat in no time – even the ones who generally like rolling dice to smack a few bad guys around.
There are ways to make the combat itself more interesting (waves of enemies, interesting terrain, etc.), but that’s a separate rant. I’m talking about replacing the combat altogether.
‘Combat’ is just filling a need within your players for action, for danger and a chance to use the numbers on their sheet to move things forward. So if your players start to groan when you ask for initiative, or have their sequence of combat actions down to a scripted science, it might be time to spice things up with a non-combat session that still provides ample opportunity for adrenaline, danger and dice-rolling galore.
Option 1: The Chase
Easily my favorite: the chase makes for similar time-sensitive, round-based actions as combat without allowing the PCs to settle into any one plan of attack.
That said, chases are a lot like monologues: fragile, and easily interrupted. It’s important to have a few ground rules in place to ensure your players get as much out of the chase as they can (and have fun while they’re doing it).
1) Use terrain to bar line of sight. Guns, arrows and spells often rely on seeing what you’re aiming at. In some systems, this may only be a penalty to hit, so be sure your PCs can’t just simply ignore the numerical difference.
In an urban environment, buildings, pedestrians, traffic and rooftop equipment all make great blockers. Outside the city, natural terrain is almost always littered with opportunities behind boulders, over hills, inside caves or through thick forested areas.
2) Make sure the PCs need the target alive. If the PCs can simply kill their quarry from a distance, every system made has a myriad of ways to do so that could easily cut a chase short at the first round. Give the PCs reason to take the runner alive, either because they need information or access that only the target can give over.
That said, just because they need the target alive doesn’t mean PCs won’t go for the legs or otherwise hobble the runner in an effort to catch them. Be prepared for “called shot” rulings, and use the terrain to slow down shooters trying to line them up.
3) Bar or negate PCs trying to circumvent the labyrinth. Players think sideways, they’ll want to teleport ahead of the runner or go airborne and target them from above, negating all cover. Putting the chase indoors or having your runner be equally capable of teleporting away should help resolve that problem. Luckily, a forest canopy or the simple physics of a cave system make getting that birds-eye-view moot to begin with.
4) Litter the field with creative challenges. “I keep chasing him,” is fairly boring for a player, even if there’s a roll involved in trying to gain ground on the target. Create more engaging obstacles that keep their brains working.
Consider chasms between rooftops, factory floors with massive machinery, or kitchens full of staff wielding dangerous weaponry that the PCs have to dart through to keep up with the target. In a fantasy dungeon, having to traverse trap-filled rooms without time enough to search and disable creates a whole new kind of panic that will keep players on their mental toes.
5) Pass the baton. Have the PCs chase a thing, not a person. If the PCs are chasing a person, they can hobble them, catch them, and the chase is over. If instead they’re chasing a handbag with a precious item, the first runner can hand the item off to a co-conspirator the moment he or she is immobilized.
Several NPCs all carrying similar handbags creates a whole new problem, as PCs must split up to track each one down to determine who the real runner is. Alternatively, if it’s easy to get your PCs to care about people, a kidnapping with an unconscious victim who is passed like a baton from runner to runner can also keep things moving if your PCs get a lucky shot on their initial target a little too soon.
Option 2: The Disaster
If you ever played SimCity, you probably recall how fun it was to trigger the disasters to see what havoc they can lay on an otherwise peaceful city full of citizens whining about traffic and pollution.
They’re almost as much fun to trigger on top of PCs to make an inventive alternative to combat.
Disasters again offer the adrenaline rush players get from combat, as well as a chance to use their skills to survive. Unlike a chase, a disaster doesn’t end until it’s good and ready, or the PCs have entirely cleared the area (and brought anyone and anything they like to safety with them).
Disasters also have something of a positive spin on them. Good-natured PCs will have a chance to be heroes by rescuing bystanders from falling buildings, rather than just smashing goblins’ heads in. Less good-natured PCs will have a chance to either loot the newly unstable turf or otherwise use the chaos to get away with crimes they couldn’t commit in broad daylight.
Here are a few example disasters that work wonders in a gaming environment:
1) Localized earthquakes. Be sure to put someone or something the PCs care about in the area to heighten the suspense and complicate their escape.
Falling buildings and sudden fissures create all sorts of opportunity for PCs with athletic skills and creative utility spells to shine. Using attack rolls for things like grappling hooks or to tackle a friendly NPC out of harm’s way also lets your traditional builds have an easy way to pitch in.
The other cool thing about earthquakes is that the causes can be myriad: plate tectonics, nearby volcanoes or even massive subterranean explosions, which can be entirely man-made. The immediate enemy becomes gravity and falling architecture, but that doesn’t mean the real bad guy didn’t start the dominoes falling.
Flash floods work very similarly to earthquakes, with balance and athleticism being key to survival. The main difference is that in an earthquake, one wants to be outdoors and at ground level, whereas during a floor, getting inside and up to a roof is your general aim. Floods can also be caused by entirely man-made events, like a dam being sabotaged, leaving PCs with one more reason to hate the villain.
2) Fires. Like an earthquake, fire is fairly unpredictable, and it can spread in a heartbeat under the right conditions. It also works equally well indoors as out, making it a very versatile disaster.
Problem: most systems minimize the damage natural fire can do, so many PCs ignore it as a genuine in-character threat. Don’t be afraid to modify the fire itself – either have the bad guys have conjured up some unholy flame that can’t be extinguished, or have perfectly natural fire consume perfectly natural volatile chemicals in the area that aerosolize and become an entirely bigger threat on their own.
It’s also important to remember that the danger with fire is generally not the flames themselves, but the after-effects. In any wooden structure, fire can lead to general instability, falling ceilings and changing paths, forcing the PCs to improvise.
In any enclosed space, like a building or a cave, fire also creates lethal volumes of smoke, which can impose all manner of useful penalties on your PCs to truly send home the genuine threat the fire poses to their eyes and lungs.
3) Vehicular crashes. In any urban setting, vehicles tend to be the most dangerous thing available. All the better, then, when one gets out of control. A run-away train or carriage can create a gentle melding of the “chase” scenarios listed above with the threat of genuine disaster whenever the vehicle find something capable of stopping it.
Ground vehicles can trample innocent NPCs, damage buildings, or carry precious artifacts rapidly to the edge of cliffs over deep chasms, all giving the PCs reason to fly into action to stop or divert them.
Air vehicles are twice as fun: while it’s less likely that an airplane will run anyone over in the air, a falling airplane is all manner of terrifying both for those aboard and for those where it’s set to land.
Crashing or failing aircraft can also fail gradually, giving the PCs time to get aboard and assist with regaining altitude or landing safely. Whether it’s zeppelins or 747s, nearly every setting has some sort of traditional flying machine which can fall slowly but dangerously, and which is quite likely to erupt into a ball of fire wherever it makes impact.
In the end, there are easily half a dozen types of alternatives to combat that still feed the need for action and dice-rolling, but I’ve found chases and disasters to be the most reliable and easiest to conjure in nearly any setting. It may also give PCs who may not be optimized just for combat an unusual opportunity to shine and make use of abilities that go completely untested in your average, non-earthquake-having campaign.