WILA D&D Next (Non-combat Gaming)

Many people like many different things about Dungeons & Dragons – the storytelling, the fantasy action, the camaraderie, the layers of customisation. It’s safe to say that I like the philosophies behind D&D Next: understanding what the game means to everybody who plays it (or might play it given the chance) and reconciling those motivations.

However, I did enough talking about general goals in WIHILA D&D Next. Instead, let’s talk about something more specific which I’ve had some experience with during the playtest: non-combat rules in D&D Next (because rules for engaging with games which don’t involve combat don’t generally get enough love). More specifically, new rules for Exploration.

Exploring the Problem

Let me start by framing a pretty big (and relatively common) issue in fantasy RPGs with something from my own D&D experiences (DMing and playing). The problem I’ve seen is that the actual act of exploring or travelling, which felt to myself and the players like it should be a meaty section of gameplay in a game about fantasy adventure, in reality turned into ‘blah blah blah, some time passes and you get where you’re going’.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, and any number of events could crop up on a case-by-case basis. The DM can put in extra time and effort to interest their players during these sections of gameplay. However, the crucial point is that in the absence of an engaging default framework, exploration just falls into the background compared to other things (usually, combat). This is where the D&D Next rules for exploration serve as a solid example for non-combat gaming.

Exploring Exploration

Like combat, exploration in D&D Next is managed in turns. It starts when the players begin travelling and ends when they reach their destination or are interrupted (by combat, for example). Players individually choose exploration actions (such as keeping watch or navigating), and roll to decide how successful they are (applying whatever character bonuses are relevant). The team as a whole also chooses a pace of travel, which affects the speed of travel and the options available to the players (it is difficult to keep watch while rushing at a high pace).

Difficulty of tasks are defined for a range of representative circumstances (navigating through a jungle versus navigating open plains). Consequences for failure are clear and can have different implications depending on the situation. Failing to navigate causes the team to unknowingly make a turn off course, and failure to keep watch might cause the players to be caught by surprise if they bump into enemies.

As with most things in D&D, the players have room to be creative and use resources uniquely at their disposal, but there is plenty of choice to be had in the ‘standard’ options. Between managing pace, each character’s individual actions and the changing circumstances of travel, you can see the makings of a fun game that integrates well with something D&D adventurers do on a regular basis: getting around.

That’s all well and good, but what makes this a good system for exploration? Why is it even necessary at all if teams of adventurers have been exploring foreign lands in D&D since its conception? I’m glad you asked; this will require looking a little bit deeper at what the player does during a D&D session, and what makes it engaging.

The Core Mechanic

The core rule which governs pretty much everything in D&D is that you roll a 20-sided die, add some numbers to it which represent your skill at the given task, and try to get higher than a different number which represents the difficulty of the task. This mechanic is straightforward and flexible, and other games, like Fallen London and games constructed with the Story Nexus engine, use a similar setup to resolve actions in a semi-random fashion. It was even released by Wizards of the Coast under the Open Game License as an entity separate from D&D: the d20 System.

However, this mechanic only provides one action for the player: rolling a die. This is better than nothing, but not particularly exciting. Combat gives the mechanic a much richer context, where it is used to resolve attacks, defense and any number of other creative actions the player comes up with. This context is important in elevating the flexible mechanic to being part of a fun game and I’d like to break down what makes it tick.

In combat, the player has very clear success and failure conditions (beat the enemy or be defeated yourself) as well as consequences for failure (often character death, even if this can be waived by the DM depending on the circumstances). There is a prescribed progression to the action (you take a turn, they take a turn) a number of predefined choices the player can take (movement and types of attacks or actions) and a solid default option for the times when a player doesn’t want to get a headache thinking about it (just attack).

All of these elements create a system in which the player can get invested, make choices, and naturally progress towards a finish point (whether successful or not). This is all pre-built in, and any effort the DM puts in on top can then enrich the experience, which I think is pretty important.

D&D is often lauded for its open-endedness and the creativity which goes into it, especially by the DM. However, if the underlying defined interactions don’t provide the framework for a solid game experience, then the DM spends much of his or her time and effort building these in to engage players (or worse, never learns what engages the players and creates unsatisfying experiences all around).

Non-combat Context

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. In order for non-combat gaming to be as engaging as combat (if not more so), the design task is to create a similar kind of game context which makes natural sense outside of combat. On one hand, it would undermine the strengths of D&D to simply tack on arbitrary game rules. On the other, not providing any structure at all misses an opportunity for more engaging non-combat gaming.

4th Edition D&D began crossing this bridge with skill challenges. A skill challenge involved the players taking turns to gain a prescribed number of successes with non-combat skills before getting a number of failures. This provides success and failure conditions and a basic progression from beginning to end, but misses out a lot of context on its own. Due to this, the skill challenge rules were often at their best when integrated with a combat encounter or given a good deal of extra work by the DM to fill in things like default options, clear consequences, and multiple approach angles for the players.

I personally don’t think there’s a simple ‘solution’ to non-combat frameworks. It’s strange to even think about ‘combat vs. non-combat’, because non-combat covers such a large space of possibilities, even if combat is better represented in games. D&D Next is moving in this direction with two different sets of rules relevant to non-combat encounters: the exploration rules I mentioned above, and character interaction. As it stands, character interaction is still being tested and worked on, so I’ve focused on exploration (also under construction, but at least I’ve been able to try it out myself).

End of the Journey

The rules for exploration in D&D Next certainly have room for improvement, but even just from this we can see how it addresses some of the points that any game must consider when constructing a framework outside the familiar confines of combat. There is a progression from beginning to an inevitable end, there are clear options (allowing for a variety of approaches or straightforward ‘default option’ play), conditions for success and failure, and consequences.

In my mind, these will be important for any number of non-combat rules, from exploration in D&D Next to social interaction in Skyrim to stealth in something more like Metal Gear Solid. Each time the rules may look very different, but they should still provide at least some of these necessary elements to engage the player. I’m looking forward to trying out the upcoming interaction mechanics for D&D Next and using what I’ve learned to improve my own game designs.

Are you a fan of non-combat games? What do you think is necessary or sufficient for a non-combat framework? What games have done this well for you and how did they differ from what I’ve mentioned? Throw some of your thoughts into the comments.

Thanks for reading.

-Dustin

PS – Dyl and I are working on a Sunshine Blogger post, so look forward to that in the next day or so.

9 thoughts on “WILA D&D Next (Non-combat Gaming)

  1. JackOfHearts

    My first reaction to the concept of formalizing the structure of travel in that way is that it feels like a travel mini-game within the game of D&D, and that the mini-game is kind of condescending to both the GM and players.

    The more I think about it though, I think that something along those lines could work IF the travel mini-game was 1) Generic enough to allow lots of tactics; 2) Rich enough that there were variations in the mini-game for each travel that would flow from the fiction of the game; and 3) Not disassociated from the roleplaying of the game.

    Basically, what I think you’re saying is that if the “mini-game” of combat is exciting and tactical, you could bring that tactical and exciting set of mechanics to another aspect of the game that SHOULD feel interesting but often falls flat because of the shallow treatment it gets from the rules, and the lack of interaction it demands of the players.

    I don’t disagree. I have some skepticism that we’ll either get an intelligent implementation of a travel framework (a framework that isn’t extremely repetitive, simplistic, boring, or disassociated from the fiction) AND that players are going to enjoy jumping from one “intense” framework into another when the pace of the game naturally feels like it should be a breather between those kind of tactical encounters.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      Hey, and thanks for commenting – I thought this one might be up your alley =)

      Part of the reason I wrote about this system in particular is that it actually worked relatively well at the table (not just theoretically). I’ve found that if the DM (me in this case) gets lazy then it doesn’t magically fix everything though.

      As long as I know when it’s right to use it (not for all travel certainly, especially because of the pacing you mention), and I draw challenges from the surroundings (create risk/reward trade-offs by choosing to travel on the road or go off into wilds, for example), then the system itself is both grounded in the fiction so that it feels no more or less like a ‘mini-game’ than combat, and offers all the right flexibility and context for the players to be engaging.

      I personally look forward to further support for it once they’ve fleshed it out a bit more. You could just as easily see an exploration challenge as a combat one in a pre-made adventure. With further effort put into non-combat systems, like interaction, the game might even support entire adventures where combat takes a back seat, but not at the expense of the DM’s time or the player’s interest.

      -Dustin

      Reply
      1. JackOfHearts

        I get it, and I’d be interested to try it out at some point. I suppose the evolution of this is that you start categorizing encounters by their significance. Low significance encounters use the non-crunchy version of the rules for their type (interaction: you say hello to the barkeep, combat: you punch out a drunk at the bar, travel: you walk from the bar to the stables) whereas significant encounters use the crunchy rules (interaction: you try to lie your way into the castle proper, combat: you fight a duel with the assassin of sorrow, travel: you traverse the spine of the world). Instead of combat being the focus encounter ALL the time, you amp up the rules along with the drama of the situation so that any of the types can engage the players.

        I’m certainly interested in the execution of the concept!

      2. connorbros Post author

        Yeah, I would love to see that kind of significance measure applied to all sorts of encounters. I guess it’s a lot like how they use XP for building encounters (easy, medium, hard for a given level). The only time I’ve seen that implemented to non-combat, however, was the 4e skill challenges (which I don’t think were great) and specific traps/hazards which are difficult to deploy regularly as a DM (how many pitfalls do you stumble across in a single journey just to reach a high-significance exploration encounter – kinf of loses the impact).

        Anyways, plenty of places for it to grow, but I feel like it’s a good start.

        -Dustin

  2. wylliamjudd

    There’s something you say here, which I really love, and I want to make an analogy to another part of D&D. Spell components. Spell components are the kind of thing that add a tremendous amount of flavor to a game of D&D. The DM could just as easily create optional rules for requirements to cast each spell in D&D, but without spell components in the default rules, the chances of a DM putting that kind of energy into a system like that are very slim. The DM may even choose to ignore them entirely. But by having them in the system from teh start, you give your players more options about how they play the game, and get them thinking about what a P&P RPG is capable of (that video games never will be). The same is true for exploration – the core rules are a starting place in a paper and pencil RPG, and the more intricacies the game designers can include, without bogging the game down, the better.

    I didn’t think the exploration rules felt like a mini-game at all. They felt like an integral part of the system. Like the party was being asked “how do you want to go about this?” and we weighed the risks of speed vs. stealth, etc and made a decision. It very much felt in line with roleplaying.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experience of the exploration, as well as ‘spell components’ as another example of enriching the game.

      I would like to say ‘never say never’ to the comparison between P&P RPGs and video games, since I have some pretty interesting ideas that I’d love to flesh out and try in the future. Not that any replacing or obsoleting would be going on, of course, just better implementations of the strengths of P&P RPGs than may have been seen in the past. =)

      -Dustin

      Reply
      1. wylliamjudd

        I stand by what I said. There are some things your imagination is capable of that a video game never will be. I’m talking about the absolute free form nature of P&P RPGs which can tap into emotions, intelligence, and imagination that nothing short of a full blown human conscious intelligence could replicate. If we’re talking about a far future human consciousness artificial intelligence as a competent GM, then sure, but I don’t think that’s what anyone thinks of when they think of “videogame.”

  3. Cheimison

    So I can pay $70 for rules that are essentially free ina BECMI clone. I just don’t get the point of paying money for a system like this, unless 1) you don’t like houseruling and 2) you feel the need to have some ‘official’ book you can use with strangers. Otherwise it just sounds like a cheap hash of D&D 3/4. Pathfinder is already out and, with the SRD, effectively free. WotC has destroyed what made this game different from every other fantasy clone (and they started in the 1990s).

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      Well you certainly wouldn’t be the only one to think that about the various iterations of D&D, and there’s nothing really stopping you from making your own rules or using what you’ve used in the past as you see fit.

      All I can speak to is my personal experience. After playing around with Pathfinder, playing with 4th edition, and playing with D&D Next, I find that they’ve certainly cleaned up rules at the table in the latest iteration (for example, reducing the number of calculations per action), causing there to be less needless downtime, less confusion and more fun just playing.

      Some of this is less relevant to players at my table who relish the complexity of older systems and are already familiar with them, but even they have not disliked the changes in D&D Next (simply not been as affected by them). On the other hand, newer players, which are the majority of players at the table for me, simply chose to give up on other versions or never start, while some have been comfortable with D&D Next’s system (but not all – it’s far from perfectly accessible).

      Moreover, while some of these design choices could be implemented in a rough way individually by house-ruling, it requires a great deal more effort to create a baseline balanced system of numbers for things like monsters, attacks, and combat in general. Without the extensive playtesting and experience of WotC, it quickly becomes a timesink for the DM, or a handwaving exercise for the players.

      As it stands, I can draw upon many pre-made adventures, not spend much more than an afternoon preparing, and run a solid, reasonably detailed 3-4 hour session.

      Also, since D&D Next is still being tested, we don’t know what the price point is for the basic entry-level product. One can always hope for something more like $30. =)

      But again, disclaimers abound that this is simply my experiences with the system. I agree that it’s pretty derivative (by design), and if you and the people you play with are already comfortable with what you use, then by all means, stick to it. Maybe you can simply learn some of the better things that come out of new versions and figure out a way to incorporate them into your own chosen set of rules.

      -Dustin

      Reply

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