Maslow’s Hammer, or “How to encourage non-combat gameplay”

Abraham Maslow said in 1966 “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”. This applies quite nicely to a commonly asked RPG question – namely, “How do I get my players to stop killing everything as the default response?”

It’s no secret that combat is a large part of many roleplaying games, especially Dungeons and Dragons. 5th edition was pretty much written with combat front-and-centre! Sometimes, however, there are challenges you’d like to present that don’t involve hitting things with progressively sharper objects until it does what you want. That, unfortunately, can be a challenge if your group is accustomed to combat as the first option with which to solve problems. I once had a slightly less extreme version of the below happen.

GM: The Sphinx draws herself up to her full height, announcing that only the worthy may pass. Only the truly intelligent are worthy to enter the tomb, and so she will pose a riddle to you all. If you’re able to answer correctly, you will have proved your worth.

Player: I stab her!

GM: I have millions of eyes, but…wait what? You stab her? Don’t you want to hear the riddle?

The core of RPGs is, of course, choice, but combat after combat after combat can get dull, and we want to be able to write challenges that can’t be circumvented by violence. So, how can we solve this problem?

It can be quite tempting to make sure that combat is simply not an option at all. In the above example, unless the party is quite high level, that sphinx can probably take them quite easily. This can work, but it’s not optimal – Ideally, combat should be an option, but not the first one people go to. It could even be a result of the failure of another option.

The solution, I feel, lies in the game’s tone, and in ensuring that other courses of action are both fun and interesting. If you want to run a game in which combat shouldn’t be the ultimate solution to everything, this needs to be established within the first few sessions. Make it clear that fighting isn’t the only way to resolve situations, and make sure that not fighting is also interesting and fun. Players will tend to gravitate towards fighting if fighting is the only method of problem-solving with an interesting set of mechanics behind it, after all.

D&D 4th edition attempted to tackle this by introducing the concept of skill challenges, which I like as a concept, my own personal irritations with the exact way it was implemented in that system aside, but I think it hit upon a big group of reasons why players tend to favour fighting over less violent solutions.

There’s rigid, tactical mechanics for fighting, and manipulating those mechanics to execute tactics is fun. The combat system allows everyone to contribute to the collective success of their group, which is very satisfying. The combat system is “failure-safe” – by which I mean a failed to-hit roll doesn’t contribute to the collective failure of the group any more than not taking a turn, and so everyone feels happy to participate regardless of their combat ability.

Therefore, in order to encourage use of non-stabby problem-solving techniques, it stands to reason that these should be run a little bit like combat too, allowing everyone to contribute meaningfully and stopping individual failure from holding the group back too much. Let’s take a common example that often results in the players saying “Oh screw it, I start murdering people” – a tense negotiation scene with slightly unreasonable participants.

Concept: A barbarian community is at odds with a nearby city over a perceived slight, and the gathering horde has concerned the city folk. Our heroic adventurers have previously proven themselves to both parties in order to try and resolve this issue, and have been selected as arbiters in the negotiations. This is the final climactic encounter of a longer adventure.

Conflict: The city is represented by Ser Borran, a noble Paladin who sees the barbarians as crude and unsightly, but wants an equitable peace deal without injuring either side if possible. The barbarians are represented by Khan Regnas, a proud man who wants the best for his people, and recognises that open conflict serves nobody. However, he also needs to appear to be a strong leader, and needs a resolution that at least looks like he’s “won” – otherwise, he won’t be able to hold the gathering horde back. He explains this at the start, but due to the stark cultural differences involved Ser Borran interprets this as a threat.

System: I’d split this into four possible outcomes. Total success, in which an equitable agreement is reached that both parties are happy with, minor success, in which both parties compromise but neither is truly happy, minor failure, in which this peace talk has failed to resolve the problem, and catastrophic failure, in which war is immediately declared. I’d then set thresholds for each category based on the previous adventures leading up to this – For example, if tensions at this point are incredibly high, it might only take two catastrophic failures to end this encounter, but take eight of anything else.

Inform the players they’re now in a skill challenge, and set up an initiative order. Don’t go into too much detail behind the mechanics – The mechanics are simply for informing you of the current tone of the negotiation and the end of the encounter, descriptions of what happens work best for the players and give them a better idea of how they’re doing. For each player, have them suggest an action, and then assign an appropriate skill to it. Decide which category success and failure will cause to increase. For example, if a player suggests using Knowledge(Barbarian Culture) to try and help Ser Borras understand the Khan’s situation, that would greatly help their cause if it succeeds whilst not hurting too much if it fails. On success, this would increase the Total Success category by 1. On failure, this action would increase the Minor Failure category by 1. Threatening Khan Regnas cannot possible help, and so immediately fails and counts as a Catastrophic Failure. Once the threshold for a certain category has been reached, the outcome ends that way.

This type of system allows your players a great amount of freedom to innovate, lets everyone participate, and allows them to make interesting tactical decisions to help their group succeed whilst ensuring that failure, unless repeated quicker than success, isn’t too crippling. You can tweak it in a few ways – for example, to discourage using the same skill over and over again you can increase the difficulty of future rolls with that skill, or give it diminishing returns. You can even have an opponent in the mix – If, for example, a dissenter who was also present desired war and was trying to sabotage the peace process, you could roll skill checks for him to add to the Failure count. You could even have certain actions remove previous failures or successes if you feel it would make sense.

In conclusion, most of the time the players only have the combat system to allow them to make fun, tactical decisions backed up by solid mechanics. If you want them to do more, you need to give them the tools to do it in an interesting manner. Give them more than a hammer, and they’ll stop thinking everything needs hitting!


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