TTRPG: 10 Alternatives to Combat in D&D and RPG

Quarrels, combat, battles, and even wars, are often a necessary part of tabletop roleplaying games, and most players wouldn’t have it any other way! But there might be times when there is too much at stake to risk a fight, or you realise mid-combat that your opponents are completely out of your league. If you’re up two against one level 300 aboleth, you should probably bounce. But, if you find yourself in a more manageable situation, then here are some tips and tricks on what to do before engaging.

1. If possible, talk it out reasonably

It might seem obvious, but players tend to forget all about the option to persuade or dissuade when they feel threatened. Ignore the heat and panic, and take a moment to reflect on whether the opponent might be someone an adventurer could bargain with. If the enemy understands you and has yet to attack, some DMs often leave room for a skill check to even out the odds. Particularly designed for Charisma-based classes, such as the Bard, Sorcerer, and Warlock, this alternative befits the Cleric and Paladin too. At level 5, a Bard with 20 Charisma, and expertise in Persuasion, has +11 to their roll; a high chance of weaselling themselves out of a situation. Add in some extra convincing role-play, and you might be rolling with advantage! Here is a list of persuasive phrases for a few verge-of-combat scenarios:

Win them over by appealing to nationalism

– I can’t help but notice the embroidery on your cape, a fellow Athkatlan. What do you say we put our differences aside for the night? Too much blood has been shed on our soil already.

By invoking race

– From one tiefling to another, I feel how irrevocably misunderstood we have come to be. But we can change this misconception, we can show them we are different, that we can be reasoned with.

By relying on gender

– Long has it been since I have crossed paths with a woman fending for herself in the wild. It is admirable indeed, and no easy walk of life, I should know. Perhaps you would make an exception for a travelling sister in need.

By drawing on shared experiences

– My good man, if you are indeed also a soldier as your comrade claims, then you know well that too many battles have been fought in vain. Many of our men met their end too soon, and we need not fall with them.

By calling on religion

– Let us honour our faith in the Moonmaiden, be it Selûne, or Sehanine as you know her by. She who opposes Darkness and champions Good beseeches us to spread her wisdom, not to fight amongst ourselves.

By bringing up values and family

– I cannot help but notice the great resemblance between you and young Merrowynn here. I, too, am a father, and I should wish to one day see my family again, just as you should wish to keep fighting alongside yours.

Invoking pity, for example by relying heavily on emotions

– Prithee sire, I am but a lowly wanderer, an adventurer with no great ambitions and no money to her name. I have nothing of worth to offer you, and I implore you to spare me. Life is the only boon that was given to me.

Invoking knowledge, and mentioning undeniable facts

– A fight in broad daylight is a suicide mission. Needless to say, you will alert the Dynasty’s national guard, and in times of war, marauding and assassinating without good cause is punishable by death. Your loot will do you no good dead. We can waste away our coin, or we can settle this peacefully.

Calling on logic, and suggesting a mutually beneficial option

– Our party is home to an incredible guide who knows the elemental plane like the back of their hand, and an extremely adept healer. We could be of aid; our Genasi Ranger tells me you are not native to these regions.

The doomsday argument

– Listen, we all know that beyond the Great Forest lies the Empire, an Empire favoured by none. Fight as we may, if we do not join forces to take down the entity that oppresses us, there shall be no tomorrow for us to see. There shall be no freedom to relish. I beseech you all to consider a truce.

2. Flattery will get you far

@jointeamalpha

Your first thought might be that flattery is limited to flirting and seduction, and typically restricted to Bards. Throw that out of the window! If you think outside of the box, then this combat-stopper is a well-rounded option, regardless of class, gender, and sex. Try these before resorting to a fist fight:

Proficient in History? Bring attention to fame or noteworthiness

– Lady Darkblade, First of Her Name, Mistress of the Forgotten Forest, Empress of the Highlands; your name carries across continents. Even my lowborn ears have heard of your unmatched accomplishments.

The classic and timeless “rumour has it”

– Rumour has it that this one over here knocked out two Giants in one punch. I doubt he wants to see time wasted on a group of wandering Snow Elves and Firbolgs. There are greater foes beyond these lands.

Flattery of the mind, especially good for wizards

– Such a powerful, and all-knowing Master of the Arts such as yourself would probably see it ill-fit to engage in combat with a party devoid of any academic and experiential training. Though, perhaps we will be in luck if the lack of challenge bores you to death.

Alright sure, seduction works too

– Sir Quixington, may I have a word, perhaps in private? May I call you Maxwell? How kind of you, Max. To be perfectly frank, duelling with such a handsome and strong man such as yourself would be wasting the more sensorial experience I had imagined upon first seeing you. I have been travelling these lands and never have I seen such an attractive… priest.

Well, trying it with an evil priest is a bit far-fetched, but it sure is a roll with disadvantage that I’d like to see! At least you can say you tried.

3. Call on your background or rank

The least appreciated and called upon advantage is probably the one given to players by their background. This alternative is so personal to PC backstories that examples of dialogue might not be fit to illustrate the point. Have a look at your background Feature; if you’re a traveller, your party may be able to pass through favoured terrain undetected by natural means, or if you’re a Navy SEAL (it’s a thing), maybe you can invoke your rank as Commander Lieutenant of the FrostGuard Garrison. Those with military ranks can usually command the respect of their subordinates, and this might extend itself to avoiding a kerfuffle.

4. Trade, or lend your services

This method of doing your opponent a favour as a means of escape is the one least used by my own party. Approaching level 8, we have sadly only just come to the realisation that perhaps we should be doing odd jobs for gold. Travelling rivals might give you a break upon offering to take care of something that has been a huge pain in their side for a while. For example:

Trading inventory

– Instead of killing us all for the platinum shield, rather time-consuming and messy if you ask me, and not a guaranteed win to be honest, we’ll trade it to you for your emerald dagger.

There is strength in numbers

– Well if you’re planning on storming the Castle of Silverymoon, you’ll need more than just four men. How about this, we’ll help you retrieve your stolen artefact, and you’ll let us go our merry way. What say you?

A fresh pair of eyes and ears on unfamiliar territory

– Our party is new to the city, and our business is our own, but we have time to spare at nightfall. Give us no trouble and we’ll see to being your eyes and ears for the fortnight.

Call on your particular skillset

– There need be no haste in this matter; we may be able to strike a deal. I have a highly trained Dwarf Artificer who makes bombs the size of a horse, and a Gnome Wizard-Assassin that can kill your greatest enemy whilst disguised as a Walrus. Solid plan? All in favour, say aye.

5. Offer up a zone of truth

A quick reminder that all your Persuasion checks might be to no avail at all if your opponents disbelieve your party and your worth alive. When in doubt, or when certain of failure, a party Bard, Cleric, or Paladin could offer up a zone of truth as proof of sincerity – immediately, or in a mere matter of hours.

6. Homebrew your bargaining chip: aka lies, lies, lies.

A funner alternative to persuasion when faced with adversity is of course going full chaotic liar. If you’re a Lawful Good Paladin playing on the safe and honest side, then this one might not be for you, but it can undoubtably lead to some hilarious acting. Do be wary, however, of how off the cuff deception checks might lead to absurdity, in which case your DM could have you roll with disadvantage, or severely (and justifiably) increase the DC. Nevertheless, here are some fun ways in which a D&D party can lie :

Disguise self

– I’m awfully sorry I can’t be of help, my liege, I haven’t seen any Dark Elves around here. As you can see, I am a proud Wood Elf myself and great worshipper of the city’s main patron, our Lord and Saviour, Holy Father, Totally My God Lathander.

Feign ignorance and redirect

– Hmmm, a treasure chest, a treasure chest. I think I saw a couple of feral Dwarven swordsmen with eyepatches and pink beards dragging a big old chest in this opposite direction here. In fact, now that I think, I do remember, there was the Emperor’s seal on it, and I did find it rather odd. But my wife Biglie always tells me to mind my own business, and so I do.

Feign allyship

– Oh my good friend, my dearest ally, my sweet long lost companion! I have not seen you in decades gone by. Oh how you have changed, and I too it seems, so much so that you have mistaken me for an intruder! Oh, how I long to embrace you once again, lay down your weapons, and let us share a drink in honour of finding each other once more!

Feign superiority

– I am, in fact, the sovereign ruler of the Mountain of High Tides, and it is actually you who is tress-passing. Another step, and my hoard of angry but very fair Goliaths will seize you and take you to my Torture Chambers of Treason. The choice is yours.

Fake news

– Ah, I believe we are caught up in a great misunderstanding. We are not here to abduct the Pope, we are actually conducting an inspection of the grounds of this monastery by order of the King. Official business, all monasteries must be inspected and be up to code.

7. Cause a distraction

@Shadedown

Within the subcategory of deception you’ll find distractions, ranging anywhere from a “Look, over there!”, to a carefully laid out plan comprised of illusions and trickery. Much like player backgrounds, distractions are often specific to context. Look around and assess your environment; is there anything that can be knocked over so as to create a sound? Are there any animals that could cause a raucous? Are the fabrics available to you flammable? Would it be safe for you to make a drunken scene? With so many options, PCs are truly spoiled for choice, and any good-spirited DM will entertain a fun diversion or two per session!

8. Consider situationally nifty spells

So often do players rely on spells in-combat that we tend to forget situationally useful cantrips or ritual spells that could end up saving the day. There are some very powerful high level spells that have great out-of-combat uses as well. Here is a Situationally Useful Spell List (not all inclusive) that might get you out of having to lose hit points:

Paralyse your enemy: Hold Person, Stunning Strike.

Escape: Arcane Gate, Astral Projection, Demiplane, Dimension Door, Expeditious Retreat, Far Step, Gate, Knock, Misty Step, Plane Shift, Teleportation Circle, Thunder Step, Transport via Plants, Tree Stride, Word of Recall.

Escape through or over difficult terrain: Control Water, Enlarge/Reduce, Feather Fall, Fly, Freedom of Movement, Gaseous Form, Mold Earth, Move Earth, Polymorph, Shape Water, Spider Climb, Stone Shape, Water Walk, Wind Walk.

Incapacitate or inconvenience your enemy: Antimagic Field, Counterspell, Entangle, Magic Circle, Silence, Sleep.

Dissuade from combat: Animal Friendship, Calm Emotions, Cause Fear, Charm Monster, Charm Person, Command, Compulsion, Dominate Monster, Dominate Person, Fast Friends, Fear, Mass Suggestion, Modify Memory, Suggestion.

Hide and protect: Blink, Etherealness, Greater Invisibility, Invisibility, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Magic Circle, Meld Into Stone, Mislead, Nondetection, Pass Without Trace, Rope Trick, Seeming.

Remove the enemy: Banishment, Banishing Smite, Polymorph.

Communicate: Comprehend Languages, Message, Telepathy, Tongues.

Avoid or intercept the enemy: Aid, Alarm, Commune, Detect Evil and Good, Detect Thoughts, Divination, Find The Path, Find Traps, Scrying, See Invisibility, True Seeing.

9. Drop reason, rely on intimidation

@jointeamalpha

So you’ve tried playing nice, and it looks like your opponent doesn’t have an announce of sympathy in their body. Persuasion checks can be tough if you’re up against the big bad, or anyone who lies somewhere on the truly evil alignment spectrum. Puff up your chest, it’s time to intimidate:

Trigger Warning for this subcategory: violence and graphic description.

Out of your league

– Listen up you puny little knave, we are a party of five ferocious fighters who have seen war and death beyond what you could ever conceive of. I can assure you that if you pick a fight with us, you won’t live to regret it.

A friend of mine

– I can see how you would think that we don’t pose a threat to you, that we are easily provoked. It’s funny, really, how appearances can deceive. Curious, really. I wouldn’t like for you to meet the tip of the poisoned blades that my invisible allies, scattered around this city in the shadows and always watching, have pointed on you as we speak. Think twice next time.

Get out the gore

– Out of my way, I said, or I will rip your entire existence to shred, starting with your heart, which I will gladly and without hesitation force feed to the last man standing on your team.

Display of brute force

– As you can see, Morlasch, standing behind me here, is rending asunder an entire wall made of pure lava. He is immune to fire, and mercy. Imagine what he could do to a tiny face. Fascinating.

10. Run… Hide… Or just fight!

When push comes to shove, you might’n’t have a choice. When desired, engaging in combat is one of the best and most satisfying bits of partaking in any tabletop roleplaying game. After all, you spent good time preparing your moves and/or spells, and your diligent Dungeon Master has no doubt spent even more time preparing a world with intense encounters and riveting combat. So good luck adventurers! May you always face Vampires with a silver tongue, and if they refuse to concede, well, switch to the silver arrow instead.

10 Reasons Why Dimension 20’s Fantasy High is a Hit

dropout.tv

Dimension 20 is a tabletop RPG comedy show hosted by DM and actor-writer Brennan Lee Mulligan. Produced by CollegeHumor‘s subscription service Dropout, Fantasy High is set in a 1950s through 1980s American-style city Elmville, Solace. This campaign follows the exploits of six courageous High School students from the Aguefort Adventuring Academy. Here are ten reasons why this Dungeons meets Detentions campaign played by a group of talented comedians should be at the top of your binge list.

1. Complex character building in a digestible timeframe

With a group of comedians behind the wheel, the potential for a show lacking in depth and complete with farcical chaos was necessarily on the table from the very start. This comedy campaign, however, is refreshingly well-structured and thought-through, all whilst remaining lighthearted; no easy feat to accomplish when also doing justice to world building, character development, and narrative coherence.

All players, including DM Brennan Lee Mulligan, have built complex characters with unexpected depth, questionable flaws, and personable qualities. Fantasy High has few clear-cut bad guys vs good guys, and even NPCs who at first seemed almost devoid of emotion might unintentionally divulge their gut-wrenching ails to the party through a Detect Thoughts spell.

Yet what truly stands out about Fantasy High when compared to other campaigns is not its fully-fledged out characters with emotional background stories (the likes of which can be found in many DnD adventures), but its ability to include this level of profound character building in such a short amount of time. Rarely surpassing the 2-hour mark, Dimension 20’s sessions are half the length of a Critical Role episode, and therefore perhaps better suited and more digestible to excited DnD newcomers.

2. Incomparable and yet complementary to Critical Role

Though its generally ill-advised to compare any unique DnD campaign to the next, Critical Role has set the bar so high in all that it does that the juxtaposition has become inevitable. As an advocate of everything Critical Role with a profound admiration for Matt Mercer’s DMing skills, I was formerly convinced that no other set of players, and no other DM, would ever come close to inspiring the emotions and relatability that Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein do.

Dimension 20, by virtue of not being comparable to Critical Role but instead complementary to it, does not pressurise the viewer into favouritism, but lets their fans add another gem to their shelf of unparalleled campaign shows. Simply put, Dimension 20 is Critical Role’s silly sister; though they share many qualities, their DNA is different.

3. High quality improvisation, description, and narration

imdb.com

If you put aside the perfectly produced set, amazing camera quality, and professional lighting and sound, all of which can be prohibitively expensive to a lot of players, one key factor that makes Fantasy High thrilling to watch is the solid acting and storytelling. Never a dull moment, the players find a way to solve the main quest whilst still making time for inappropriate hospital ER romances, strange sex talks with their parents, and killing a villain with a spoon – no, a ladle.

Similar to other campaigns that are also made up of professional actors, the storytelling and improvisation (CollegeHumor’s forte), is so spot on that the show almost seems scripted. Mulligan whips up long monologues about arcane lore in response to a random dice roll, and player characters have comebacks spilling out of their mouths when confronted with High School bullies and vicious villains. Was the Episode 7 one-liner “keep cadaverously cool” conjured in the moment? I sure hope so.

4. Dramatic irony and opposing imagery

One of the comedic strategies used in Fantasy High is constant contrast; everything you thought was set in stone is now up for grabs, and an endless flux of hilarious dichotomies permeate the entire campaign.

Fantasy High uses external character-to-character contrast; for example between half-elf teenager Fabian Seacaster, a wealthy grade A snob played by comedian Lou Wilson, and his father Bill Seacaster aka Papa, a loud-mouthed, overly assertive, and imposingly proud pirate privateer. This same contrast is found between sturdy half-orc barbarian Gorgug Thistlespring, played by Zac Oyama, and his happy-go-lucky, always smiley gnome parents who live in a tree.

Dimension 20 also employs internal character contrast; Kristen Applebees (Ally Beardsley) is a Cleric who pretends to drink alcohol to fit in at parties. Though she repeatedly questions her faith, she does so whilst trying to convert all of her friends to her religion and add them to her Prayer Chain group chat. Figueroth ‘Fig’ Faeth (Emily Axford) is a badass, no BS, bass guitar wielding tiefling whose rebellious nature coats a nucleus of emotions and daddy issues; her elf stepfather Gilear Faeth is a yoghurt-eating, university-educated cuckold, and her biological father is a demon who is partial to a bit of ice cream.

Fantasy High’s mastery of the unexpected, much of which can be credited to Mulligan’s side-splitting NPCs, is without a doubt its biggest selling point.

5. From recurring themes to well-rounded storytelling

As much as this campaign thrives on the unforeseen, the DM and players take heed to one-liners and oddball situations that might make for a quirky comeback later. Riz Gukgak (Brian Murphy) is unanimously referred to as ‘The Ball’ throughout the campaign after having been dunked into a trash can a total of once in the first session, and rolling a NAT 1 Insight Check on an NPC for Gorgug is now synonymous with him believing them to be his dad. When Adaine Abernant (Siobhan Thompson) casts Identify, it is narrated by an immaterial arcane voice that reappears frequently to add some flavour to the spell.

6. Party respect, cohesiveness, and team player attitude

imbd.com

Perhaps most satisfying to watch for seasoned DnD players is the level of inter-party respect displayed by the cast. Both friends and colleagues, the high regard with which the players treat each other is evident in their team player attitudes, willingness to work together to develop each other’s character quirks and backstories, and the caution they proceed with when participating in dialogue.

The advantage of being professional actors and friends is that the cast have an eye for recognising the difference between added dialogue that can take a moment from funny to priceless, and added dialogue that is superfluous, and even bordering on disrespectful. Rarely interrupting each other, instead the seven participants lean back and watch when their pals are having a moment, without the need to insert themselves for the sake of it.

7. The pros of meta-commentary

Meta-gaming is often frowned upon in the DnD community by hardcore RPG lovers, yet Fantasy High makes good use of meta-commentary that has this aforementioned added value. As comedians, the Dropout TV crew play their comedic selves as well as their DnD characters, and are able to expand upon a joke so that it can be appreciated from a meta standpoint. This further encourages the DM to build on the moment, as it is clear that his players are having fun.

In terms of entertainment, this meta-commentary could be seen as part of the campaign’s bi-fold show format, as they are being watched both as CollegeHumor comedians and as DnD characters. The show format also presupposes performativity and impacts gameplay choices. As the party knows they are being watched for the purpose of entertainment, performing meta-commentary provides that extra layer of relatability, and lets us imagine ourselves with our own friends at the table. Because everyone meta-games sometimes. Not only is it funny, but the players are likeable because of it.

8. A twist on your typical Breakfast Club High School stereotypes

Some criticism that a setting such as the Aguefort Adventuring Academy is likely to receive is that it utilises and relies on overused and potentially discriminatory High School stereotypes and tropes, which are extended to gender and race as well. Of course, the same can be said about virtually any DnD campaign or setting, yet the High School scapes seem to lend themselves particularly well to these stereotypes; the half-orcs are the bullies, the jocks are bad boys, the coach can be bribed, and the pretty girls are airheads. The shy and nerdy kids get are tormented, whereas the rebellious party members befriend the seniors, and sneak into the teachers’ lounge to flirt with the Vice Principle. The goblin’s parent can’t afford cereal milk, the elves are rich, and the lead cigarette-smoking tiefling in a leather jacket is literally called Danny Johnny.

At first sight, Fantasy High is like any other loser High School: not very woke at all. But when you dig deeper, it becomes clear that Aguefort is more than what it seems, with a geeky AV club too cool even for Gorgug, a hot greaser who ‘doesn’t fuck’ and embodies cringe-worthiness, a formerly drug-selling bouncer who turns out to be a great guidance councillor, and an angry orc who is coming to terms with the fact that he might be gay.

9. A supportive DM you can trust

thegeekiary.com

Most importantly, it is without a shadow of a doubt that Brennan Lee Mulligan, much like Matt Mercer, Deborah Ann Woll, or Mark Hulmes, is a DM you can trust. He is always supportive of his player’s decisions, frequently starting or ending his sentences with “Hell yeah” and “Rad” in response to their creativity, and rewarding them with advantage rolls or extended dialogue. He claps when a PC rolls a NAT 20, and ‘oofs’ when enemies roll high on their damage.

With several gameplay and DMing styles out there, there is truly nothing better than feeling completely free to make bold and creative choices under the wing of your DM, without unnecessary punishment for attempting a clever move. Not only does Mulligan excel at accents, improvisation, sound effects, character building, world building, and comedy, but he puts up a great DnD fight whilst still remaining fun and fair till the very end.

10. It’s just good fun

If you remain unconvinced, all I can say is that you will be laughing on your sofa, in your bed, and at your desk throughout the whirlwind of crazy that is Fantasy High, and Dimension 20 campaigns in general. You won’t know what you’re missing, until you give it a shot.