Non-Combat – Getting it Just Right

One of my most important design goals for Let Thrones Beware is to ensure that the non-combat challenge portion of the game is as compelling and fun to play as the tactical combat component. I’m really looking to avoid designing yet another game where heroes roll some dice against a target difficulty and pass or fail depending on how high their number is.


The First Try at Non-Combat

Well, if combat was interesting and fun, my first thought was “why not use the same challenge mechanic?” I replaced the tactical grid with zones that the heroes had to move between, I whipped up a list of complication mechanics that could be attached to obstacles to make them dynamic and interesting, individual obstacles were given the ability to block heroes from accessing other obstacles until they were dealt with. In place of a way to deal damage to the heroes, obstacles had clocks – and they had to be defeated before the clock ran down, or the heroes would lose the challenge.


A Prelude

Going in, I knew that these intricate non-combat scenarios would need prep – there didn’t seem to be any good alternative to great set-piece challenges, especially because I had concerns about  how easy it would be to create a challenge out of whole cloth on the fly. Still, not a problem, I figured. Interesting non-combat challenges were the point, weren’t they?


I also wasn’t quite sure how to present these challenges, but since I was playtesting anyway, that didn’t seem like a big deal. It’d all sort itself out in the end.


Rubber Meets the Road

My playtest group and I sat down to run through an adventure. We’d primarily focused on combat before, with just a few quick demonstrations of how the non-combat system worked. They breezed through the first part of the adventure, quite happy with the improvements that had been made to character creation and combat.


Having bested a brigand ambush of the caravan they were guarding, the heroes now had to escape with a small group of peddlers to the safety of a nearby village. I laid out the scenario, and we immediately crashed into problems.


“How do I know which of these obstacles to prioritize?”


“There’s not really any way to


“It just feels like we’re throwing our powers at them and hoping that attrition works in our favour”


“What if we wanted to do something else?”


The list of questions and complaints continued. It was clear that something had to change.


Arriving at a Solution

Reworking the non-combat system was a must, but there were a number of mechanical elements that I wanted to retain. I was also very determined to retain the detail and complexity of non-combat challenges.


Hashing things out with the playtest group and reflecting upon things later, my thinking coalesced around a few very obvious pain points.


First, I needed to address obstacle difficulty. Obstacle health and individual round clocks went out the window. In its place was a standardized set of difficulties. This change makes it straightforward for both GMs and players to know what sort of challenge they’re up against.


Second, and more importantly, was challenge presentation. Before, I was laying out the entire scenario in detail, effectively railroading players into a specific sequence of events. The new approach, which I much prefer, works as follows:


Planning Phase

The GM lays out a goal for the party – this can be something as straightforward as “question the merchant about recent bandit attacks,” or as complicated as “infiltrate the ruined town and steal the mcguffin.” With this goal in mind, the heroes plan out in detail how they’ll achieve the objective.


Execution Phase

Based on what the players have planned out, the GM builds a series of Obstacles representing the situations that the players must deal with as they carry out their plan. A single success overcomes each Obstacle, rather than the complicated rounds and timers of before, but these Obstacles have individual difficulty levels – they’re also where the mechanics are hooked up.


The table resolves all of the Obstacles presented, and will end with a tally of victories and failures – note that failing to overcome an Obstacle doesn’t mean that the plan fails and ends immediately. The plan’s success or failure hinges on the total number of failures and successes.


Resolution Phase

Once all Obstacles have been addressed, the GM narrates how the well the plan was executed. Success across the board means that the heroes accomplish their goal exactly as intended. A mix of successes and failures means that the plan hit snags along the way. How significant the complications are will depend on how many failures occurred.


Wrapping Up – The New Non-Combat System

Thus far, I’m quite happy with the new approach to non-combat. It’s done a lot to encourage roleplay and gives players freedom to make their own choices, rather than shepherding them into pre-constructed scenarios. Excitingly, it also has a certain Oceans 11 quality to it, which I’m very excited to see unfold at the tables.

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