With Amazing Tales being a kids game I’m sometimes asked about how parents can keep combat out of it. The answer of course, is not to put any in. The challenge, is what to put there instead?
A lack of combat shouldn’t mean a lack of conflict, as I wrote last week if you’re going to have much of a story conflict is essential. But as last week’s article pointed out, the range of possible conflicts is huge.
This article isn’t about how to write the perfect mystery or an investigative scenario. It’s about having more options to go in that gaming space where you’d usually say ‘And then the bandits attack, roll initiative!’. This week it takes a look at two kinds of non combat encounters – natural hazards, and contests.
An easy place to start is with natural hazards. You’ve got the weather, you’ve got natural disasters, you’ve got flora and fauna, and all of them can be challenging.
Start with the weather. Have you ever been on a hilltop when the weather closed in? When visibility dropped to a few meters, a storm picked up, rain lashed down, and you were no longer sure of the path?
It’s no fun.
It’s a perfect encounter. Can the heroes stay on the path? Can they keep warm and dry? Will they have to attempt a difficult descent in impossible conditions because they’re up against the clock?
Usually the best way to deal with weather based problems is to sit them out, but if your heroes have to venture out – perhaps they’re on a rescue mission, perhaps they’re being pursued, the weather becomes a fearsome opponent.
Earthquake, hurricane, tornado, tsunami, forest fire. These are all deadly events that could tax any adventurer to their limit. And they’re usually big. They have the potential to threaten not just the heroes, but anyone nearby, which creates lots of people who need rescuing.
Natural disasters often unfold over an extended period. This lets you give the players a series of choices. Do you stay where you are or move? How about now, when the roof blows away but the wind is stronger outside?
They’re also events that could make great openings for a game. As the hurricane passes someone needs to get to the next village to get help, across the swollen rivers with collapsed bridges and flooded roads. Avoiding the creatures that have been displaced from their dwelling places.
Flora and fauna
Creatures and plants can be challenging even when they aren’t the kind that attack heavily armed humans. What do you do about stampeding cattle? What do you do when those cattle are two ton buffalo, and the herd is so big it would take you six days to ride through it?
What do you do about jungle so dense and thick that even with a machete you can barely progress through it? This 1942 guide to jungle warfare suggests troops following a good jungle trail would cover about 1 mile an hour (page 66).
A quick note on caves
Adventures often take place in caves where there is room to stand, swing a sword and walk around with a backpack on. Why not put your adventures in caves like this instead? (Warning, not for the claustrophobic)
If the players have particular skills, put them to the test. This is mechanically the same as a combat, what’s lacking are the stakes. So when setting up a contest make clear both why the heroes would participate, and what they stand to lose if they fail. Perhaps the prize is something the heroes need, or perhaps they want to catch the eye of a spectator – or a future employer.
When including a contest take a moment to think about the setting – where is it taking place? In a temple, or in a market square? Think about the audience, and think about the judges. These are all elements that will turn your contest from a roll of the dice into a memorable event.
Physical contests are often a great alternative to fights because they can use the same sets of skills, and allow players who built physical characters to shine even if they’re not hacking through monsters.
Running, jumping, climbing, wrestling – all these can easily be turned into a contest. Either against a clock; ‘Return with the pennant from the top of that hill before sunset’; or against an opponent, ‘Best Broderick in an arm wrestling contest, and the ring is yours!’.
Contests of skill
Myth and legend contain plenty of stories that revolve around contests of skill. Arachne took on the gods in her chosen skill of weaving, and made the mistake of winning. The treasures of the Norse gods were created in a contest organised by Loki. Elsewhere contests of poetry, storytelling and singing abound.
Contests for the players
You can of course throw in puzzles or mysteries aimed at the players rather than their characters. I’ve written a little about these, and how to come up with them quickly here.
Next week, more non-violent encounters for thrilling games.
If all this has inspired you to think about running a game for your kids you can get a copy of Amazing Tales