The Possibly Accidentally Nonviolent DM

As you may have guessed from my past few weeks’ worth of columns, I’ve been pretty anxious about getting back behind the DM screen. That finally happened this past Thursday, and it was a relief on about 78 different levels, including some exclusive levels you only got if you pre-ordered. This campaign is at its best when everyone’s in-character, and everyone was very thoroughly so throughout the night. We had a great deal of fun. The story progressed and grew in ways that were cooler than I initially envisioned (I freaking love that!) and the players were emotionally engaged in what was happening.

And the roleplay. The amount of roleplay was staggering. In fact, there were only two rounds of combat during the entire session. Even that was because one of our rogues, split from the party in an attempt to evade a tail, decided she wanted to turn and fight, which quickly ended in the pursuer fleeing.)

This, of course, is setting off ten million little red flags in my head that I’m doing something terribly wrong. It’s D&D! You’re supposed to have some combat, right?

I Didn’t Mean To Not Kill Them, I Swear

Let me start by saying that I actually did have three combat encounters ready. The format of the campaign is sort of “monster of the week”, so I usually give my players a direction in the form of a rogue magic item they need to go take care of. As I wrote about last week, I decided to accelerate the main plot, and the way I decided to do it revolved around events happening in some of the locations the PCs frequent (like their home base) instead of a location I had herded them off to. I’ve gotten to know my players by now, and I know that if I don’t railroad them, they tend to do things I don’t expect — so I planned out combat encounters that would loosely fit the story of the session.

As it happened, I had someone they’re pretty sure is the main villain take over the City Guard (which they work for). I set up plans to have the Guard make them do things they didn’t want to do, with their jobs (and freedom and possibly lives) on the line if they didn’t comply. I had hired rogues harassing them throughout the night by poking around in their business and monitoring their activities. They had all sorts of potential to get into hot water in a variety of colorful and deadly ways — and, being my players, they managed to sidestep them all with clever planning (with one two-round exception). I deliberately set up the adventure where I’d put the NPC pieces in place and they’d simply react accordingly to the PCs’ actions, and I was really glad. Forcing the things I’d planned to happen wouldn’t have been anywhere near as cool as what actually happened.

In My Game, We Only Fight Using Sarcasm And Stick Drawings

The more observant of you may notice, at this point, a distinct lack of remorse for having run effectively no combat during an entire session. It was a great session. It was exciting,  there was dramatic tension, and the players all seemed really into it. I felt very good about that.

After we wrapped up for the night, one of the players made a comment that caught me off guard a little. I don’t remember exactly what got said, but the gist was that I tend to run things so light on rules that we could really be playing anything. I’ll own that. A lot of the time, we’ll have a skill challenge and if an appropriate ability doesn’t just jump right off the character sheet, I’ll tell the player to roll a check against an appropriate stat. I reskin monsters of appropriate level to try to at least maintain a semblance of balance during combat, but the PCs have faced far more threats they can tackle via roleplay than with steel.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I think it’s good, but I still have visions of masked gamers driving by and abducting me, eventually beating me to death with a Rules Compendium. (It’s paperback, I’m assuming it would hurt more in the long run.)

A strange side-effect to this: we’ve been playtesting D&D Next this whole time. My players have done plenty to explore the options available to them using each iteration of the rules, but I don’t really know if I have been doing a very good job with it. I mean, I’ve read the rules. I just feel like they burn me get in the way, and that goes for EVERY edition of D&D I’ve run. Of course, they keep telling us that D&D Next lets you run the game you want to play, and in that sense it does a pretty great job of getting the hell out of my way so I can do just that.

The trick for me, as I see it, is going to be learning to use rules and frameworks to my advantage rather than seeing them as an obstacle. I’m getting fairly confident in my ability to run roleplay encounters, but I feel like I’m lacking the skills to consistently run and plan fun and engaging combat encounters.

There’s always the temptation to try and talk my players into a system with simplified combat, and I’d love to try some of those, but it’s been my experience that D&D is kind of like speaking Common. It might not be the absolute best choice in the universe for me in particular, but it is something I enjoy playing and running and it’s an easy sell to players.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter as long as dice were rolled and fun was had. Listen up, players. Next session we’re going so deep into the theatre of the mind that it’s gonna be like friggin’ Inception up in here. And if you get trapped in a layer of roleplaying, you get to play D&D for 70 years. This is the best idea I’ve ever had.


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  1. Sounds to me like the kind of game a love to run and/or play in. Keep it up mate!

  2. There is an answer to your “the rules get in the way” comment: Burning Wheel and it’s related games. Last week I played an entire Burning Empires session where the dramatic high points were two arguments, one centering on a peaceful prison/slave resistance movement’s effectiveness and the other around whether or not it was OK to brainwash said prisoners. Both got at least as intense as DnD combat. I do understand that DnD is “Common”, but if you have adventurous enough players, I’d really suggest giving Burning Wheel a try (particularly for combat, which is AWESOME).

    The notion of a game that’s “something for everyone” bugs me, because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that anything entertainment-related that’s trying to be for everyone will wind up being for no one at all.

  3. Knowing Vanir very well and having read and played BW a few times (including combat), I know that he’s into much lighter stuff . BW is elegant in that it doesn’t feel rules-heavy once integrated but it is as crunchy as all the advanced RPGs I’ve played.

    However, I would totally show Vanir the game while using only the Spokes of the game (basic rules) plus Duel of Wits… because THAT’S what so freaking amazing about BW in my opinion.

  4. Hm, that could be interesting, although I personally think the Fight! rules make for the best combat I’ve ever had in an RPG, for the simple reason that I don’t need to get a nail-clipper after one of those combats… but hey, if he likes rule-lighter games, that’s awesome too! You could play Burning Wheel really easily without the Fight! rules, so that would be something. I mean, it sounds right up his alley what with the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits stuff.

  5. So, basically, you exceeded expectations at DMing the game, but failed to achieve on playtesting D&D Next rules. Good tradeoff probably 😉


  1. […] the balance of combat and roleplaying in your campaigns? Vanir @ Critical Hits just had a session that seems like 90% or higher of roleplaying and maybe 5-10…. I don’t have a problem with […]

  2. […] pull that off. I don’t know that this is a good fit for the kind of game I run. Then again, combat sometimes isn’t a good fit for the kind of game I […]