Request for Help Brainstorming a Low-Combat RPG Campaign

I would like to design an RPG campaign which is exciting and interesting with as little combat as possible. After a promising start, I began to get a mental block. I would appreciated any help in brainstorming some possibilities. (More info below)

I have been transfixed by role playing games for nearly thirty years. I love to daydream interesting characters and plotlines. Unfortunately, the actuality of playing rarely lives up to expectations. This is especially true when I am the GM.

I think the main reason that I struggle as a GM is that the parts of the story that interest me are often not the ones most aligned with the game structure. I like the moments of character interaction with player and non-player characters. I like the evolution of a plot more than a way to string together combat encounters. While I am sure that there are skilled storytellers who can infuse a dungeon crawl with character interactions worthy of Noel Coward. I am not that guy.

Faced with my own limitations, my goal is to write a low-combat, no magic campaign. My hope is that by designing it with the focus away from combat that I can create an interesting and exciting storyline for the players that I would enjoy running.
I envision two PCs with a broad range of non-combat skills. The challenges they face will range from persuading an NPC to give them information to stealing something valuable by stealth or guile to frenetic chases where they flee combat. Over the course of time they will be drawn deeper and deeper into a mysterious and dangerous world. In short, it should be more like a classic adventure movie (e.g. North by Northwest) and less like a video game.

Everything from here on out is tentative and open to suggestion.

Setting: London, 1376. By placing the story in the real world, even with an altered history, I hope to make the lack of magic more natural. I like the medieval time period, where night is really dark, communication is slow and the technology level well understood.

Rules: D&D 3.5 with both characters as rogues encouraged to invest in skills. There are probably better systems, but this won’t require me to spend money. The lack of quick healing will make combat a risky proposition. I may beef up critical hits to emphasize that further.

The hook: “It was a dark and stormy night” The characters are out on the streets of London, presumably up to no good. Over the sound of the wind and rain they hear running footsteps. In a flash of lightning they see a man racing down the street. Before they can gather their wits, more footsteps are heard and a large group of guardsmen with lanterns are upon them. One sees the characters and they are arrested. Within the hour, they are being rowed through the Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London.

The first adventure will be the characters interrogated as to “why they did it” while they try and learn what it is they are alleged to have done.

Plotline: on the night they were arrested, Edward the Black Prince and hero of the battles of Crecy and Poitiers was murdered while visiting a tavern. In pursuit of the killer, the guards found the players instead.

With Edward’s son a minor and the king in failing health, a game begins to grab the power vacated by his death. The major players include the Edward’s brothers, the church and French agents. The goal is to have the players become pawns and then major actors in this game, spurred initially by the goal of finding the real killer and clearing their names.

I will gladly accept any input large or small. What I am particularly interested in are ideas for challenges the characters could face that would lead to exciting role playing. I offer my gratitude in advance.

It sounds like a really cool plot line. I would start by outlining the stages of the campaign.

Based on what you mention above, in the first stage the players are arrested and more-or-less powerless. This provides an opportunity for them to be moved around as pawns while they try to unravel enough information to prove their innocence. They could have visitors to the jail giving them information, perhaps an opportunity to escape for the night, maybe even a permanent release with the help of a benefactor. All of these types of activities would be coordinated by others – giving the players a feeling of being manipulated and moved. This stage would end with their release from jail, but with the murder still unsolved.

The second stage could be based on the characters interacting with the primary NPCs on their sufferance only. Perhaps in the investigations in the first stage, the players learned a number of private secrets about the nobles – something that gives them enough leverage to justify why they would be tolerated. The characters may still get the feeling of manipulation, but also the beginning of their own freewill. In fact, some explanation of why the characters would be tolerated is because they are still available for manipulation.

A side tension could be a naive NPCs that is angry that they are tolerated. “Father, why do you allow that riff-raff to follow you around?” That sort of thing. This stage could end with – I don’t know, end with what? The identification of the murderer? Is the murderer a frame? And who was really behind the murderer’s plans. Even better, the murderer is identified unequivocally, but killed before he can talk. A bit of a cliche maybe, but fine for a campaign.

The third and final stage could be based around the players graduation to this society in a more legitimate way. No idea what that could be; perhaps a service they performed in the second stage. During this stage, the players would drive at finding the person(s) behind the plot and exposing them. A tension could be created based on the players’ need to unravel the plot with their fear of losing their new-found positions.

I would break your story line down into three stages like this and tackle each stage separately. Then write an outline for each stage. Stuff that needs to be discovered or accomplished to finish the stage. Identify quests or intrigues based on these needs.

Also, I would identify strong motivators at each stage for the players to solve the mystery. This will keep them focused on your outline and not sidetracked. For the first stage their motivator is easy – clear their names. But what about the second and third?

It sounds like a really cool campaign idea that you have.

Another idea to make it difficult to resolve is to add guilt to two or more NPCs. While only one NPC is behind this particular killing, one or two other NPCs were hatching their own plots. This would let the players uncover guilty details that might keep them in the dark longer (or put them on the wrong track).

Don’t forget that you can “combat” without elaborate combat scenes or descriptions. There’s no magic reason the PC’s have to have any real random chance (and therefore room for stats and dice and so forth).

This is important because combat tends to be more detailed and rewarding in many, perhaps most games. They don’t put in a well-developed social interaction system, and so people gravitate towards what they can control. The point, after all, is to let people have fun and interact, and that means some ground rules. But far too many games either have none, or reduce to a simple and very dull single die roll.

So think about how you deal with it.

Many years ago I did a low-combat dungeon that was well-received by my players. It was about rival political factions. It was really simple to keep the amount of combat down: the NPC’s outnumbered the player characters by a wide margin and were, individually, the equals of the player characters. If the players had simply tried to “run n’ gun,” any one of the factions could have simply murdered them. They had to play smart. Brute force simply wasn’t an option.
In your game scenario, it sounds like your players are up against much the same thing already. The king can simply dispatch some men-at-arms to kill them if they act stupidly.

I was thinking along the same lines. One jailer gets in their face shouting “Why did you do it?” when they deny it, the second jailer (behind the other’s back) smiles and nods approvingly. The two jailers then play good cop-bad cop, while the player’s don’t know if the jailers genuinely don’t like each other or are play acting.

The characters can learn that Edward was murdered and that they are going to hang for it. Right now, the official story is that he died of an illness contracted in Spain. If the truth gets out, the characters will be hung publicly. Otherwise it will be done quietly.

Since they are dead men walking, the jailers are more inclined to be chatty. The characters can find out that the Captain of the Guard is desperate to keep the secret. With a little prying, they can find out the name of someone who would like to see the Captain embarrassed.

I like your idea of visitors. They could be visited by a priest for confession. I haven’t thought of what information he could provide.

My idea of their escape to have them notice that the Traitor’s Gate has rotted and there is a hole in it large enough for a person to swim through. One night, they are awakened by the sound of their cell door opening. Upon investigation, they find nobody there (or just a dead body?). They can sneak through the castle to the gate, dash past the guard and into the Thames. By the time any search can be mounted, they are well downriver and enjoying the benefits of a time without electric lights.

I agree. A low level nobleman who is willing to take a risk for personal advancement. His goal is to help the characters catch the murderer and get proof of who is behind it. Such strategies could involve them dressing up for a fancy party to mingle and gather information or breaking into a manor house. (What would they need to find? Hmmm?)

I envision the third stage to be a transition to a larger conspiracy than just the murder. I just haven’t figured out what the right elements are.

Motivation is key, particularly for the third act. I think I need to get them firmly aligned with one faction, such that if that group lost influence they would lose their heads.

Thank you.

I think you have hit on the point. Most games don’t put much emphasis on the social interaction system. 4th Ed D&D seems to be aimed entirely at creating combat capable characters. 3rd Ed had some elements of non-combat talents, but you often had to sacrifice combat skills to do so. By making it clear that combat is rare, it opens up some of those possibilities. In the end, a lot of it will rely on player buy-in to freewheeling the rules.

My goal is to reward good roleplaying with instant feedback. If a player has their character do something particularly creative or insightful, I will reward them with a bunch of XP on the spot. I hope that it creates an environment where they are trying to focus on those aspects.

Have you considered using the FATE system to run your game with, rather than D20. FATE is free and is easy to customize for any play style out there. Combat is essentially freeform, with descriptions of actions being more important than character placement. There really isn’t a magic system as such, though you could easily homebrew one through the system. Plus, through “FATE points” the characters can directly influence the story which can allow for interesting “cinematic” results, depending how much you are willing to let them get away with.

(e.g. I played a sniper once and we were pinned down in a hallway and two grenades came flying our way and landed right in front of us. I had reminded the GM that I had been readying an action to take out anything that came our way, and asked if I could shoot one of the grenaedes out of the air as it is thrown if I spent a FATE point. He allowed it, and I kicked an extra FATE point in to increase my roll. I blew the grenade up and then asked if the concussion from that grenade would take out the other grenade as well. He charged me two FATE points for that, and allowed it. So I saved our party from taking massive amounts of damage, and even managed to incapacitate two of our enemies, and gravely wound a third, as they suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of two grenades that blew up midair in front of them. Not the most realistic of situations, granted, but it was cool nonetheless. On a side note, I took the inspiration from Fallout 3, where you can shoot grenades out of the air and have them explode before they get to you.)

Oh, and as far as rewarding people on the spot, FATE points are excellent rewards for good play (as well as what you give players when you decide to force them into a situation that tags one of their disadvantages).

I found the article very interesting – thank you. FWIW, I found the author unnecessarily rude in the comments section.

This sounds similar to the approach in this module. That idea intrigued me, and I may purchase the module to read more.

I want the players to cross the important mental distinction between “being very smart about combat situations” and “being open to the idea that a campaign without combat can be fun and exciting”.

His philosophy is, “I’ll be nicer when you get smarter.” However, that was not him being rude. He really does break EVERYTHING down absolutely, and if it can’t stand up under that kinda of merciless scrutiny, there’ nothing to deal with it. Doesn’t matter if its games, set theory, or baking: if you don’t define your concepts clearly and link them together logically, he will rip it to shreds.

He didn’t get a philosophy degree, but he does sound like it. And you do not want to argue with him when he actually is feeling rude. Then he’ll just take your favorite philosopher and grind him to pieces. And he’s actually smart enough that he can do it, too.

Sure, we all know people like that. I still stand by what I said; that he was unnecessarily rude. The fact that he can be even more incredibly rude when he sets his mind to it comes as no surprise.

Anyway smiling bandit, thanks for the link. It was an interesting article.

  1. Add a lot of potentially troublesome details, and let your players run afoul of them from time to time. This can mean pointing out problems which don’t have a set solution, and lean back while the players tackle them on their own. I’ve had players spend hours on complete non-issues, laughing all the way. So:
    -The jailer is corrupt, and won’t feed them unless they do X (this can be anything from comic relief, to drama, to downright obscene depending on the tone of your game.)
    -The barmaid wont help them unless they watch her kids while she “visits” their father. Kids are, of course, horrible, and run away at first opportunity. Cue wild goose chase all over London.
    -They need to talk to some relatively high status person, but their clothes are full of crud after being in jail.

  2. You like Player/NPC interaction? Well, PC1 has a large, troublesome family, including overbearing, clingy mother, a host of bratty siblings, a drunken uncle who just happens to be able to help them, a whorish cousin he feels responsible for, a crippled grandmother and a dog. PC2 is an orphan, but has an illegitimate child whose mother died in childbirth, and is struggling to take care of his kid while the mothers extended family hate him and plot his destruction at every turn. Her four brothers who will beat him bloody if they get the chance, her uncle, the priest, will start cursing him and calling down hellfire if they ever run across each other, and her father, the city guardsman, could be a real problem.

You get the picture, I think.

Foisting family backgrounds (or, really, any type of backgrounds) upon players should be handled with the utmost care, however. Most players want to create their own backgrounds. Unless it’s a one-shot session.

I meant to imply that PC backgrounds (unless the PC is broken) include NPCs, which can be brought to the foreground and utilized. So you don’t foist a family on a player who doesn’t want one, but make sure that each player has a background written out, including family, friends and conflicts, and use them.

Sounds great. My only comment is : Make sure this is the game the other players want to play.

I think most RPG groups fail because people are really there to play different games. Some people want a rules-based competition, for the challenge of solving problems within set rules (like chess, or WoW). Some people just want to act out simple fantasies of killing things and getting treasure. Some people want to explore human relationships (perhaps including kinds of relationships they can’t have in real life). And some people want to collaboratively create epic or interesting stories. I imagine it’s a bit easier these days, as the first two types can just go play WoW, but it’s still important to make sure everybody is at least close to the same page.


  1. Add a lot of potentially troublesome details, and let your players run afoul of them from time to time. This can mean pointing out problems which don’t have a set solution, and lean back while the players tackle them on their own. I’ve had players spend hours on complete non-issues, laughing all the way. So:
    -The jailer is corrupt, and won’t feed them unless they do X (this can be anything from comic relief, to drama, to downright obscene depending on the tone of your game.)
    -The barmaid wont help them unless they watch her kids while she “visits” their father. Kids are, of course, horrible, and run away at first opportunity. Cue wild goose chase all over London.
    -They need to talk to some relatively high status person, but their clothes are full of crud after being in jail. [\quote]

Good ideas. The third one was already percolating in my mind, but I like the philosophy.

Another great idea. The key is collaborating with the players to create it, but with player buy-in will be instant flavor.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. I think the reason that I have struggled as a GM has been that I had not articulated, even to myself, what I wanted from the campaign. Not surprisingly, the players weren’t sure, so I was left feeling frustrated that they didn’t bother trying to figure out a mystery I had created. They assumed that if they bashed a few more orc heads, the mystery would resolve itself.

My goal is to write the campaign first (or at least a rough draft) and then find the players. I think that an abridged version of the OP should give them an idea of what they are getting into and let them self-select. I know a couple players who would be good choices… when I am ready, I will need to see about their availability.

Also, always make sure options beside fighting are available to your players. If they are in a bind, and one solution is to fight, and a player tries something else, let them do it. I’ve seen something like this play out:

GM: The goons are closing in.
PC: I run
GM: Dead end
PC: I plunge into a nearby manhole
GM: No manhole
PC: I try diplomacy
GM: They laugh at you
PC: oh…I hit them

Even if they come up with something a bit leotarded, give it a chance of working, at least.