This topic came up while writing about the shifted balance in 5e.
The three parts of D&D were always exploration, social interaction and combat. Depending on the rule-set, some parts are more underlined than others, like 4e got so much into combat, that exploration got kinda short, something which was tried to fix later and social interactions was worse. The reasons were obvious: The fact that you had limited powers and that you run out of powers fast in the early game, which warped the perception of the player, that he should better not get any powers, which were useless in combat. In 3e on the other hands you got so many spell resources, that actual exploration became kinda boring at some point, because you could fly over most stuff (who needs to storm the gates of a fortress, if you can fly above the walls), Passwalls to avoid dangerous rooms, whatsoever (some would call it clever, I call it too cheap). But even in this edition, a lot of players used a lot of resources (like feats, skill points, etc) to actually make their characters better in combat.
Why is that so? There are some reasons, why combat seems more vital at the first glance.
- Combat is the time every player has her/his turn, at the other times there are always players which aren’t either interested, or thinking to be in the way, or decided not to participate
- In combat most players get the feeling, that a single mistake will end their characters life
- A bunch of dice rolling for different things and using a lot more of stats makes players believe, that a system is more about combat than anything else
- In every rulebook in most systems you’ll find a whole combat chapter
- Combats are the things, the DM is most likely best prepared for
- The fact, that even small encounters will use up a decent amount of time
In contrast, exploration is more like incrementalism, making one careful decision after another to finally get into combat and social interaction is pretty often about how to go to the dungeon and from there to the combat or happens inside a dungeon by a foe you’re about to kill.
Even if any rule is felt as too powerful it’s more likely to be about combat but anything else (like having +40 for Bluff while the standard DC is 22 couldn’t possibly a problem).
So the question stays, how can you, as a DM, makes the other parts more interesting, so players won’t be too focused on combat and might come with strange ideas like creating a real character background & personality, using words instead of swords for conflicts or just staying awake during the game outside combat.
Here are some hints, that might come in handy:
- Use more simple combat encounters more often. If they want to sneak around the forest to kill the bandits, let them find the guard post instead the whole camp. If combat only needs 2-3 rounds to be solved, it will be less impressive and serves for more focus on other parts.
- Let Exploration and Social Interaction change the final combat situation. I know, if you are a DM, you don’t want to give your players surprise rounds, when they’re storming an important place. But if they did only minor mistakes in exploration, then let the party be on the surprising side. Don’t use small mistakes to let the enemy muster full strength, if the PCs succeed there, they’ll see that the hard work paid off and the exploration got a tad more important. Or in Social Interaction, if the PCs got new enemies, they might consider an alliance with the PCs other enemies or just hire someone to make their life miserable. If you enter a dungeon and after some exploration sees that the entrance caved in intentionally, you might consider if some outsider might pull a trick.
- Reward avoiding combat: Give the players full XP reward, if they actually avoided the combat in a way that makes sense. Items and other treasures are much harder to dismiss for most player’s, so you could give them a special item, which wouldn’t be findable, when slaying those people. Like because they now a rumor (information) or because they’re thankful enough to pay them back later.
- Don’t be a dick and put a death trap in every room. This will only create paranoia in the long run and most player’s want to solve puzzles every room. Every second room has to be sufficient.
- Tell a story! Most dungeons have a theme, but not a story. How comes that they’re abandoned, who lived there, who are the undead which are going to eat the PCs’ brains? If you shouldn’t use too many puzzles in death traps, you could use them more often in your dungeons. Let the players find piece a piece and let it be a useful information, opening new possibilities (like talking to the Wraith when called by his name as a person, which would change the combat encounter to a social one) or helping to find clues for weaknesses or treasures. Diaries, ‘crime scenes’, gibberish words of monsters, all of that can make an exploration experience more intense. This works outside of dungeons, too, but needs more care, depending on the environment.
- Take some time to narrate the place. In most commercial adventure’s and campaigns, there is a small description to every room. Those are the conclusion of some decades of gaming, that players wants to hear some information, but not too much. Copy it and let vital information flow, while only list some minor details.
- Be creative or at least know sources of creativity. Unusual rooms are more interesting than a lot of well-known clichés. You don’t need to be creative on your own, just read or watch stuff your player’s don’t and adapt it to your means. ‘Why is there a room with crystal pillars which are only about one meter tall?’ Oh, the crystals are for bending the light for a laser-themed death trap… It’s the second room, guys!
- Give players some minor achievements during the exploration outside loot. Seeing a mid-boss character of a previous encounter being caught in a situation and needing help from the PCs or getting a magic item which they may see, but not reach without solving a puzzle are minor to medium achievements, which doesn’t hurt the storyline. If the players feel some refreshing triumph after all the painstaking and grinding exploration, they’re more willing to endure some more.
- Use less ability checks, unless your PC(s) are especially socially awkward. Some PCs aren’t just able to make a proper ingame conversation, but don’t let those who are get away by a bonus on a skill. If someone says: “I’ll tell him, that he should go to the south gate, to see if someone opened it.” you should answer: “Then say it.” It’s most likely even shorter, like “Check the south gate! Maybe it’s open.”
- If a roll is really needed, grant Advantage for good ingame role-play. Try to avoid Disadvantage if a weaker role-player tried to talk ingame but did some major blunders. Only if said player did something which is so dumb, that normally no roll could save it, use Disadvantage. Don’t discourage your players if they want to talk ingame, this improves the confidence and fun of Social Interaction.
- Don’t use Social Interactions only as exposition devices. Like a famous admiral said: It’s a trap!!! If you look back into Social Interaction, how much was about explaining what’s going on, why are the PCs here, how they get to the next plot-point, etc. It’s kinda natural to use Social Interaction for this, but don’t forget that there’s more to RPG than quests, plots and evil wizards which are conquering the world. Let some normal or even known people come by, throwing useless side quests around (‘If you go to the city, I’m looking for a imp’s tooth, they shall ward evil and I could pay you some gold for it’), player’s tends to actually care more about the side quest, instead the main one. Use a tavern as a chance to let some rumors reach the PCs ears, to prepare them a bit beforehand or tell them information, they could never get another way, like the name of the bandit’s leader and how he was as a kid, while telling them how to flirt with the other or even the same gender. Unlike ‘The Last Airbender’, ‘The Dark Knight Saga’ or ‘Man of Steel’ tried to teach us, friends and strangers don’t only tell important stuff.
- Let your villains have a threatening advantage. If people do bad stuff, PCs will crush their heads with their weapons and spells. If said evil (or their middlemen) people comes into town, having enough back-up to kill the adventurers if needed or targeting something the PCs are actually caring about (normally I’d say the citizens, but somehow only the magic stuff shop comes into mind) than it’s time to talk. Even villains often don’t want useless bloodshed, let the lawful evil ones first try to talk it out, while having all power in hand. The chaotic evil might want to humiliate them first and afterwards break his promise and kill the people/burn down the magic shop anyway. If your PCs can kill the villain too swiftly, let a middleman do the talking, because they’ll try to persuade you, that the henchmen won’t do any bad stuff without the boss.
- Let Social Interaction be corner-points. No part but Social Interaction can be more defining, how a adventure can unfold. Combats are more like yes/no-options and exploration is too random to actually tie the plot with a clear conscience to it. Social Interactions on the other way are not random and handles the biggest conflicts possible with about unlimited solutions: Dealing with people. If your goal is to let the PCs arrive at DungeonX, they’ll first start the preparation to get there and might come to the idea, that they could take a caravan for part of the way, while getting some money at the same time. If they handle the conversation poorly, don’t just dismiss the attempt: Make it, that the caravan leader gets interest what the adventurers are really after and how it benefits the merchants, it may end in a horde of mercenaries waiting in ambush for the tired party, which just finished and left DungeonX. Or if the prince of a kingdom is needed to fulfill a prophecy, maybe the way they treated the prince may be the key if he’ll really fulfills this prophecy (be it good or bad). Players love the feeling that their decisions makes a difference and if you tie it to Social Interaction, they’ll begin to care more about it.
There are way more ways, but this might actually help you for the time being. The most important thing is: Let have Exploration and Social Interactions don’t just be necessaries, but important aspects which defines either combat or the whole campaign. Even though plot twists may arrive, when the party do combat, like creating their own archenemy by killing his family (be it human or goblin… or pet), seeking more and more power driven by revenge, which is normally a heroes origin story.