We join this game already in progress. I am running The Lost Mine of Phandelver via Fantasy Grounds, and today our party of six just reached level 3. This post is a major observation from this last session.
Why is “Fight it!” the default solution?
I think the pull toward battle is a strong one in D&D because a fight is a fairly codified, dynamic environment. Most of your PC’s abilities are still killin’ abilities, and to put them to use requires an interesting thing to kill. I’m reminded a bit of the below video from Rock/Paper/Shotgun:
The takeaway here is that combat in D&D, like combat in Human Revolution offers a robust system that allows you to engage with and master the game at a mechanical level that is richer than other experiences. This problem is especially highlighted in 4e, but it’s clearly present in 5e, too, given my party’s “let’s murder it!” approach to a random encounter: there’s more options and more detail in the battle mechanics than anywhere else.
In this game, though, there is an incentive to talk. I’ve allowed the party to “beat” encounters by talking before (for full XP). Most notably a few encounters with wild creatures – wolves, mainly – that have been avoided by the party druid chatting with them. The party druid has a special ability to do that (Speak With Animals), but there’s little attempt to “speak with aggressive humanoids.” The adventure is also designed with a lot of opportunities for getting knowledge out of the captives the party might gain, and I’ve got a PC who prefers a “knock them out” approach to ending battles.
If we use the video as something of a cheat-sheet, we get that combat might be offering the players a more dramatic and more active engagement than other options. Even if social interaction lets the party bypass an encounter completely, it might not be as interesting or as varied as a combat encounter, or it might not offer as much possible change, which could lead to the feeling that you’re not “really” playing the game.
Some initial thoughts on ways we might fix that:
- Add Dramatic Options: Your combat abilities come from the role that you play – the class or race or whatever define your options, and so are a way to tell others what your character is like. There should be similar archetypal interaction and exploration abilities that help define what your character is like in that instance. These options should also face an opposition, so that success is an achievement over something, not just a roll against the chance for your own failure. The idea seed here: add something race/class/background-based that allows you to “tag” an enemy with an emotion, FATE-style (this may replace skills).
- Create Active Systems: The dramatic options your character has should play into a system where that contribution changes the layout. Within the context of D&D, the most obvious thing to loot here is the NPC’s attitude (helpful-friendly-indifferent-unfriendly-hostile), but perhaps what might be better is to expand this to the encounter’s attitude, rather than an individual’s. Each category of attitude would allow different NPC actions, and different PC actions.
- Enhance the Dynamics: A skill check carries little risk of loss – enhance that. Have the player put something at risk to use their abilities – not just a resource, but a true loss of some kind. What happens when a Speak with Animals fails, and how can it be as permanent and as scary as PC death? This might mean that we need other failure states for interaction – what does the party want to avoid aside from death? Some villain’s success? This would require an active villain plot…with notable ramifications for allowing it to succeed.