Thanks to: - iserith and Centauri for tirelessly advising everyone to insert alternate goals into their combats - everyone posting
The purpose of this thread is to collect and list the different goals you, as the DM, can include in your combats for the players.
What? Why would I want to do that? Failure should always be an option in combat. However, it should not result in a plotstopper like the deaths of all the players. That's not fun for anyone. If you instead make the combat about something besides killing all the monsters, like saving an NPC from getting killed, it not only challenges the players to approach combat tactics differently, but you also introduce interesting ways to fail. For example, all the monsters may be dead, but so is the NPC because the players didn't protect her properly. This can take the story in an unexpected direction, which is good. It also challenges players to use their powers, items and skills in ways they had never imagined before. Lastly, it challenges you to really think about the motivations of your monsters apart from "adventurers = food and gold".
Below you find the list of different goals you can insert in your combats. But this list is far from complete. That's why we need you to come up with more alternate goals so we can keep expanding this list. So if you think a goal is missing, please post it in the thread!
Basics: the players need to stop the enemies from killing an important NPC.
Set-ups: the NPC can be travelling with the players, travelling on his own or already be in the clutches of the enemies. It can be one NPC or multiple NPCs.
Progression: the enemies try to reach the NPC or try to prevent the players from reaching her. The NPC can usually take one or two hits before she dies.
Success: the players get the NPC to safety by killing all the monsters or moving the NPC off the map. The NPC is grateful and shares valuable items or information with them, or agrees to cooperate with their outrageous plan.
Failure: the enemies kill the NPC and run or try to slaughter the players as well. Alternatively, the death could trigger a catastrophic event. The players need to find another way to fulfill the goal they needed the NPC for, or save the world from the catastrophy that the enemies have unleashed.
Risks: don't let the NPC die too easily, give the players a chance to succeed. But don't be afraid to kill her either when it's obvious the players are failing the goal.
Basics: the players need to stop the enemies from kidnapping and escaping with an important NPC.
Set-ups: the NPC can be travelling with the players or travelling on his own. It can be one NPC or multiple NPCs.
Progression: the enemies try to reach the NPC and try to prevent the players from reaching her. When the enemies have reached the NPC, they try to grab her and move away with her. This can be on foot, through the air, by teleporting, or through a portal.
Success: the players save the NPC by killing the enemies or moving the NPC off the map. The NPC is grateful and shares valuable items or information with them, or agrees to cooperate with their outrageous plan.
Failure: the enemies get away with the NPC. The players need to find another way to fulfill the goal they needed the NPC for, or rescue the NPC from the enemies' lair.
Risks: don't let the enemies reach and get away with the NPC too easily, give the players a chance to succeed.
Basics: the players need to protect one or more vehicles from enemies who try rob, board or destroy them.
Set-ups: the players are on board of the vehicles or encounter them during their travels. The enemies charge the vehicles or ambush them.
Progression: the enemies can use a mix of ranged and melee tactics to fulfill their goal. The players not only need to defend the vehicles themselves, but also the cargo and the crew.
Success: the enemies decide to retreat because the players killed a lot of them, or because the players managed to get the vehicles away from the ambush site. The crew are grateful and bring the players to their destination and/or reward them for their help.
Failure: the enemies capture the cargo, kill the crew or hijack the vehicles. The players now need to continue on foot, are stranded, or are captured by the enemies. Alternatively, the crew are disappointed that the players couldn't protect their vehicles and deny to pay them or bring them to their destination.
Risks: don't let the enemies ignore the players when trying to kill the crew or capture the cargo.
Basics: the enemies try to lure the players into a trap while fighting them.
Set-up: the players encounter a group of enemies who seem only interested in fighting. Something about their tactics is off, though.
Progression: during the fight, the enemies behave a bit weird. Unbeknownst to the players, the enemies try to trigger a certain condition. Then they spring a trap that turns the combat dramatically in their favor.
Success: the players prevent the enemies from triggering the condition, thus preventing the trap from triggering. Alternatively, they see the trap coming and disable it before it can be sprung.
Failure: the trap is sprung on the players, and they have to deal with the consequences. These consequences don't have to be immediately apparent. For example, the players might find out after the fight that they've been infected with a disease or that an important item has been pickpocketed.
Risks: don't make it too hard on yourself to spring the trap ("players have to be in 5 exact squares on the map"), but also don't make it too easy ("when someone draws their weapon, the trap is sprung"). A common trigger is when an important/powerful enemy becomes bloodied. A famous one is the lair of kobolds who boobytrapped their lair and make it come down around the players while they are safely behind their arrowslits.
Basics: the players need something that's guarded by enemies.
Set-up: the players reach a location that holds an item they need. Enemies and traps await the players to prevent them from taking the item.
Progression: the enemies and traps focus on players who approach or capture the item. When it becomes apparent that the players are winning, the enemies try to take off with the item or even destroy it to prevent it from falling in the hands of the players.
Success: the players manage to capture the item and get away with it. The location collapses behind them in true Indiana Jones fashion.
Failure: the enemies chase the players off or escape with/destroy the item before the players can capture it. The enemies now know that the players want the item, so they move it or double the guard.
Risks: don't be afraid to exceed the XP-budget by a good margin. You don't want the players to first kill the enemies and then pick up the item at their leisure. Bring in reinforcements after the first few rounds if you need to.
Basics: players and enemies compete for a number of items that both parties want.
Set-up: the players and a group of enemies both happen upon a site that holds a limited number of items that both groups want.
Progression: both parties simultaneously try to capture as many items as they can while preventing the other party from capturing the items. The enemies might have unusual ways to escape with the items, like flying or teleporting away.
Success: the players capture enough of the items to accomplish their goal, or kill enough enemies to force them to retreat with only a small number of items.
Failure: the enemies get away with most of the items, or send the players running with only a small number of items. The players now need to figure out how to steal the items from the enemies or get them some other way.
Risks: initiative plays a big part in this. If you see players rolling exceptionally high or low on their initiative, consider placing the enemies in different spots between the players' initiative counts instead of rolling for it. Also make sure the number of items is limited to keep it tense.
Basics: the players must get to a certain spot while facing an enemy force.
Set-ups: the players encounter a group of enemies they can't fight for some reason. They may be carrying a wounded NPC, they might be on a time limit, or there may simply be too many enemies to fight. They need to break through and get to a certain spot on the battlefield (or off the edge of the map).
Progression: the enemies try to slow the players down while they're moving. If there are too many enemies to fight, they join the battle in waves so as not to instantly overwhelm the players. The players might not immediately notice the destination, or it could change over the course of the fight because the original route to the destination becomes blocked, or the original destination collapses. The players may need to cross or destroy barriers before they can reach the destination.
Success: all of the players reach the spot and leave the enemies behind or close off the way behind them.
Failure: some or all of the players are captured or killed, or they had to leave their cargo or the wounded NPC behind to make it to the escape route in time.
Risks: slowing and immobilizing effects and forced movement can be incredibly cool or incredibly unfair. When used in moderation (only a limited number of enemies can do it) it adds another dimension to the combat: take out the controller while running away.
Basics: one or more enemies are caught redhanded by the players and try to get to safety.
Set-ups: the players discover enemies doing something not so nice, and want them to surrender or fight. The enemies however are more interested in getting away from the players. Alternatively, the enemies might decide during a combat that they'd rather run away to fight another day than die at the players' hands.
Progression: the enemies try to reach one or more spots on the map (could also be the edge of the map). If an enemy reaches that spot, it's safe from further attacks from the players.
Success: the players prevent the enemies from escaping to safety. They have captured them and can interrogate them or hand them over to the authorities.
Failure: the enemies get away from the players. They are now free to continue their evil activities. The players need to find their lair or get the information they need from somewhere else. This result could also lead to a chase scene where the players try to capture the enemies through a skill challenge.
Risks: don't make it too easy for enemies to get to safety. Also give the players an indication beforehand that the enemies are going to flee.
Basics: a device is making life hard on the players. They need to shut it down to have a chance of surviving.
Set-ups: the players encounter a device that's actively making life more difficult for the players. It might spawn enemies, empower them, or threaten to outright kill the players with damage or status effects. It doesn't have to be the only threat during the fight, but while it's active the players will have a hard time defeating the other threats.
Progression: the device can be disabled by damage, skill checks or other methods you deem applicable. The players need to go through several stages to disable the device. The device doesn't have to be defenseless - it might retaliate when the players complete a stage. The effects of the device may increase or decrease when the players get closer to disabling it.
Success: the players go through the final stage and disable the device. It powers down and its effects are no longer noticable.
Failure: the players don't disable it and need to flee. The effects of the device continue haunting the land. Alternatively, the players do manage to disable the device, but it explodes violently, harming both friend and foe. The explosion might also collapse the location or destroy something the players need.
Risks: be careful that the fight doesn't become about only making skill checks to disable the device, because that gets boring really quickly.
Basics: the players happen upon an enemy activity like a ritual that is near completion. If the enemies manage to complete the activity in time, it's bad news for the players.
Set-ups: the players enter an area where enemies are busy doing something. It may be obvious what's going on, or the players will only suspect there's something going on because a number of enemies don't fight them.
Progression: there are two ways to run this. The first is with a time limit: if the players haven't prevented the enemies from completing the ritual in a set number of rounds, they fail. The second is an enemy skill challenge: the enemies need a number of successes to complete their activity, which they automatically get during their turn. The players can prevent them from getting successes by killing them, with status effects or with opposing skill checks.
Success: the players prevent the enemies from completing their activity, and the enemies will either get mad and try to kill the players or surrender/run away.
Failure: the enemies complete their activity. This either ends the encounter or introduces a new element to the fight, like a demon-possessed cultist or some freshly awoken undead. It could also transition into Disable the Device.
Risk: make sure the players can prevent the activity by fighting as well as through other methods like skill checks. Also know your players when choosing a time limit or number of enemy skill checks, since an optimized party can beat a time limit much easier than an unoptimized one.
Basics: for some reason, enemies can't be allowed access to a certain spot on the battlefield. It's up to the players to make sure they don't get there.
Set-ups: there are one or more spots on the battlefield that the enemies may not reach before something is completed, for example a cart being repaired or a ritual being performed. The players stand between the enemies and the spot(s). The players might have had time to prepare the battlefield, due to a previously succesful skill challenge for example.
Progression: the enemies divide their focus between the players and their objectives. Controllers, brutes and artillery mainly focus on players, skirmishers and lurkers focus on the objectives. The players might speed up the goal by assisting in the action being performed by making skill checks instead of attacks. When the players have things firmly under control, another wave may arrive to assault the line.
Success: the goal is completed. This may greatly help the players in winning the fight or escaping from the scene. The latter case may change the goal to Cross the Room.
Failure: the enemies succesfully stop the goal from being reached. This may change the goal to Prevent the Enemy from Escaping or to Cross the Room.
Risks: don't overload the players on control effects like dazed, or make it too easy (or hard) for enemies to stop the goal. Don't be afraid to exceed your XP budget by bringing more enemies to the fight and make it more challenging, but be careful not to introduce too many enemies at once.
Basics: there are two groups of enemies who are just as hostile towards the players as to each other. The players need to be smart enough to set them upon each other, lest they end up fighting both groups at the same time.
Set-up: two groups of enemies appear on different spots on the battlefield. They are obviously as hostile towards each other as to the players. Both groups would give the players a challenging fight if they were fighting one-on-one.
Progression: both enemy groups try to come out on top. They fight tactically and try to stay at range when the players are fighting the other group, peppering both groups with ranged attacks. If one of the three groups is winning, the losing enemy group joins forces with the other losing group to take down the winning group. Everyone can try to be diplomatic and persuade one group into a temporary alliance.
Success: the players either take out both groups or send them running, or they forge an alliance with one group that lasts beyond the initial fight.
Failure: the players are sent running or killed. They might also have inadvertently joined the two enemy groups together into an evil alliance.
Risks: you need to be fair when choosing the actions of each enemy group. Remember that both groups initially hate each other as much as they do the players, though that can change over the course of the battle. An easy way to handle the diplomacy part is to assign each group a commander who orders his forces to fight one group or the other.
You can already see a few examples of this in the list, but if you think about it, just about every goal can be mirrored. Take Stop the Ritual and Hold the Line for example. Be mindful of this when looking through the list. Eventually I'll include all the mirrored goals in the list as well.
The most interesting encounters arise when you start combining different goals. For example, protecting an NPC while a magical ballista is shooting at the players (and the NPC!) is an example of combining Prevent Enemies from Killing the NPC and Disable the Device. The more of these goals you insert into an encounter, the less important the objective of "killing all the enemies on the battlefield" becomes. In the thread that's the inspiration for this one, there are some great examples of memorable encounters where the DM combined several goals. Some even got to the point where most players were not even fighting the enemies anymore because accomplishing the goals was much more important! If you manage to achieve this as a DM, you have truly taken your game to the next level.
Expand the list with more alternate goals, including mirrored goals
Thanks for pulling this together, and for the recognition. I think recognition is also due to the game itself. Skill challenges really helped foster the idea of interesting failure, and the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a section on "Encounter as Story" that provides a list of encounter objectives, including "Protect a Person or Item."
[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy
I'd add, "Stop the enemies from completing a task." Most common thing I've seen is a ritual, but there could be other possibilities.
We just had an encounter with a group of draegloths fighting a group of blood oozes, and we needed to keep the draegloths alive, even though they were probably going to turn on us as soon as the oozes were dead. I'm the bard who ends up doing most of the diplomacy. You try negotiating with an enraged draegloth who considers your paladin a religious abomination.
I wouldn't stress the idea that making the encounter too hard or too easy is a "risk." Or, put another way, I wouldn't imply that that kind of a risk is present in alternate-goal scenarios but not in straight combat scenarios. Straight combat is well-known for being surprisingly lethal or surprisingly easy, even when the encounter creation guidelines are followed.
What alternate goals do is side-step this issue somewhat. An encounter can be massively overpowering, and that's very possibly okay because the PCs can pick themselves up from it and continue on with lessons learned both in and out of character. They can mitigate the failure after the fact, instead of having to get it right the first time. Very interesting failures might even themselves be an incentive to find in-character reasons to fail.
Making an encounter too easy is mainly only a problem of expectations and time. If a DM expects an encounter to be really tough or spent a lot of time crafting it and a daily-AP-daily combo shuts it down that can be a real downer. We see a few threads a month here with that theme.
The main way to mitigate these problems is to manage one's expectations. Make both success and failure interesting. If they succeed quickly, great. There's a general uproar for quicker encounters. If they fail quickly, or even not that quickly, great. Something cool happens and the characters get to deal with it.
Mitigating the issue of time spent gets easier when expectations are managed. Encounters no longer have to be "balanced" quite so finely. The DM doesn't have to make sure there's a way to succeed, because if there isn't who cares? But if there is, then it's probably something the DM didn't even consider and so he or she can rejoice with the players at their cleverness, instead of lamenting it.
[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy
We summoned a devil once. All we used was the D&D books, too. It was pretty kwazy.
God of Arrested Development and Intelligence Resident Left Hand of Stalin and Banana Stand Grandstander Pie-Cooling-On-A-Windowsill of the House of Trolls In the morning HK'll be sober but you'll still be a meatbag. I know I misspell "Danke" in my posts. It's an inside joke. "Ten cents gets you nuts." -George Michael Spoiler:Show
''Being president is like running a cemetery: you've got a lot of people under you and nobody's listening.'' —Bill Clinton
You are not a moral man. There are not enough middle fingers in the world for you.
"Heroes"...I wish I had those. I remember in my first-ever campaign one PC went around shootin all the unconscious baddies in the head to gain Dark Side Points...
Wow...way to waste perfectly good potential slaves.
Er...no wait I mean..uh...something not evil!
(Quotes screwed up on the next one, won't give the poster's name. It's in the Best Lines thread on the D&D forum)
First, an experience from a game I played in a few years back. Our DM didn't like 3.5 as a whole but liked parts of it. So he hands us a big ass rules packet for his modified FR campaign, complete with quotes from important NPC's on the front. I can't remember most of the HRs, just that some how gods like Cyric and Bhaal existed at the same time, despite the obvious problems there. In the end the game became a problem more because of the railroading than the HRs, but it ended with this classic line, after our ranger tried to disarm the strange woman following us WITH HIS BOW: DM: You just killed (insert random noble sounding name here) JP: Was she important? Jack: Dude, she's quoted on the front of the rules packet!
"Why in the wide,wide, world of all things irrational would I help you? -Daniel Jackson "Fun will now commence." -Seven of Nine
Cut the last encounter on your way out after dealing with the Darth. He's the BBEG. Treat him as such. Play up that Darth Revan is THAT much of a badarse. When the shuttle landed, I had no less than 13 JEDI MASTERS step off the shuttle. The PCs were slack-jawed. After the meetup with Bastila (as she's carrying Revan's body), only TWO jedi masters remained with her. Let me tell you, the player whining about not getting to fight Revan himself shut up pretty quickly when he saw that.
I'm glad to see this post. As far as I'm concerned even the most basic combat encounter should have more than just 'kill or be killed' as an outcome. I've really only seen one exception to this rule that worked well, and it was a game run by a fellow DM based in a city slowly overrun and surrounded over thousands of years by an evergrowing horde of undead. The city had founded a mercenaries guild whereby going out and hacking down a few dozen undead was rewarded with small monetary compensation.
There are a number of great encounters ideas above, but one that I see missing and that seems rarely addressed by others is crafting and materials.
Gathering the materials necessary for any profession can be turned into both a dangerous or fascinating element of the game. I know that many DM's fold these errands directly into their quest lines, preferring to give out the materials as quest rewards rather than writing a story around gathering these items to begin with. In some games this can be critical to the story. In a game where the PC's are part of colonization effort on a new continent gathering raw materials is an important function of those strong enough to leave the relative safety of home and venture forth.
So I would like to add, "Gather the material!" as another alternative goal in combat.
I think there are some interesting elements to materials gathering that some may overlook. Descending deep into a cave to gather a sizable chunk of iron can be harrowing, and hauling it back up can be even worse and require substantial teamwork on the part of the players. Iron is often deposited in heavy rock, and barring the ability to mine it out of the rock on the spot the PC's could be carrying around a great deal of weight, which complicates everything-disabling traps, crossing a ricketing bridge, climbing over a rock wall, and the obvious complications during combat. Moving substantial amounts of raw material may require a lot more innovation on the PC's part then a normal dungeon crawl.
...and in the ancient voice of a million squirrels the begotten chittered "You have set upon yourselves a great and noble task, dare you step further, what say you! What say you!"