DnD is not all fighting monsters, but a great deal of the rules for the game are combat focused. While DnD is a role playing game, very few campaigns exist without combat encounters. It’s certainly possible to do, but there are a number of challenges presented when you look for rules for DnD without combat. Other systems might be more convenient for this, but we play DnD, so let’s see how we can tackle this with what we’ve got.
Improving Non-Combat DnD Game Play
If you’re not going to be creating combat encounters, or want to diminish combat, you’ll need to buff up the non-combat parts of the game. There are different ways to approach this, but we think a more holistic approach gives the best results. The main areas to focus your improvements are role play and NPC dialog, world building, and non-combat mechanics improvements.
Role Play and NPC Dialog
If you’re not going to have combat, you’ll be spending a lot more time on NPC communications. No matter what type of game you run, your NPCs are going to have to pull more weight. It’s a good idea to spend more time fleshing out the characters you plan on using in this case. Give them voices, mannerisms, and goals. Each character doesn’t have to be over the top, but each one should be memorable in some way so that your players can see the NPCs personality come through.
With these kinds of games, the responsibility of moving the game along does not fall only to you and the NPCs you use. It also falls on your players. Player to player role playing needs to fill in some gaps where combat otherwise would be. This can be tricky since you don’t have a lot of control over how your players interact.
Instead of trying to direct the players’ actions, you should instead try to facilitate conversation between them. Combat is only one type of conflict and your player characters will have tensions of their own that you can work to increase or alleviate with your story.
Pushing players towards opposing goals or helping them find opportunities to resolve differences can build a strong developmental arc for your players to work with. Try thinking of what your players want to do and why when designing these interactions. You can usually find good ideas by answering the question “What opportunities is this player looking for?” By appealing to a hero’s goals, you have a perfect setup for a cost or drawback. This works especially well if you can take two player’s objectives and set them in opposite directions.
If player interactions are difficult to manage with story alone, you can also throw in an old standby: the party NPC. This is someone who is there for some important reason, but always able to shed light on a topic, add fuel to a fire, or diffuse untenable situations. It gives you as the DM a voice in an otherwise difficult to control scenarios.
World Building and Non-Combat Descriptions
If you’re not fighting things, you need to fill the world in other ways. A lot of Dungeons and Dragons is combat encounter-focused. So much so that a lot of the world’s lore is tied up in deadly monsters and dangerous scenarios that involve heavy combat. To distance yourself from this means losing a lot of the monster lore you would normally use. This gives you plenty of opportunities to craft lore of your own.
When building less combat focused lore, you can think of the descriptions you craft as curios. What would the players find interesting? Why would they care? The same way combat provides players with fascinating creatures to slay, a non-combat focused game should give the same attention to other encounters.
A lot of good world building comes in the form of set dressing. Set dressing would be the descriptions for your locations, the inhabitants, and any specific scenes you craft. This is where you would work in details about a tavern, talk about how its patrons are dressed, and describe the full range of your players senses.
This information isn’t just flavor anymore, it’s a large part of a non-combat game. The descriptions should tip your players off to anomalous behaviors, bizarre happenings, and potential stories they can discover. The more you describe, the more the players have to work with.
Most of the skills and abilities players get in DnD are combat-based. This is something that has been streamlined over the years and in 5e the non-combat mechanics are all but stripped from the games rules. This left a lot of the role play rules up to the DM and allows you to make judgement calls on non-standard things that crop up in game.
The downside is if something complex comes up, there are not many complex or fun game mechanics to help you. You often need to make your own rules or pull up someone else’s homebrew rules to deal with some of these scenarios.
Most rules in The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide are designed for combat, but doesn’t mean your campaign has to be used that way. Players with healing spells may be needed to help ailing villagers. Rangers may be very useful in tracking lost children. Rouges can put their skills to use opening mysterious safes or booby-trapping someone’s vault at their behest.
Taking mechanics and strengths that your players would normally use in combat and re-purposing them is not always easy, but the stories you can make from them can be extremely interesting. It’s also an excellent way to let less combat-focused Classes shine.
Non-Combat Campaign Arcs
Not all combat scenarios are about slaying monsters or toppling despots. If you want to try your hand at a non-combat campaign or even just a collection of non-combat activities, we’ve got a handful of ideas for you to start with.
DnD Without Combat Story Ideas
- Traveling Merchants – They use their skills to gather rare items, haggle, and turn a profit on their travels.
- Clerics Only – The Party is a group of healers and shamans who is following and curing a mysterious plague.
- CSI Neverwinter – Your players solve mysteries using necromancy to speak to the dead and track their killers.
- It’s Bards All The Way Down – The group are famous musicians collecting stories and music to play far and wide.
- Diplomatic Envoy – The group act as intermediaries in large debates and disputes between kingdoms.
- Herbalists and Cooks – The party travels to exotic locations to collect rare plants and animals for medicine, potions, or cooking.
- Spell Hunters – Your heroes are looking for rare magic throughout the world and are assembling a magic tome.
- Protracted Quest – The players are searching for one particular item or person and each location points them further along the journey.
- Tourists or Anthropologists – The team is exploring and making notes of the weird places they go.
These are just a few ideas for campaigns that don’t need to focus on combat. They range from heavy role play with serious tones to lighthearted exploration. Each one could be completely unique and played in multiple ways. While none of these are combat-centric, all of them can have as little or as much combat as you want and this can fluctuate between session as needed.
Getting Your Players On Board for DnD Without Combat
While it might be a cool campaign idea, running a game with little to no combat is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s important to make sure your players are on board before you do this. This is not a hard conversation. Just ask them. If they say they’re not interested, then that’s that.
Most of the time you will have to make adjustments to make everyone in your group happy, but cutting combat down significantly is one of the things you need to be up front about. Not only does this change a lot of the game mechanics that people will be using, it significantly impacts how people will build their characters.
A good game does not have to get rid of combat altogether to have more role play opportunities. But you also shouldn’t have to rely on combat in every session. Try a combat-less session today and give your group a taste of life without combat.