Non-Combat Encounter Levels

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Talanall
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Non-Combat Encounter Levels

There's a whole class of encounter that doesn't really involve combat, or even an adversarial interaction with an NPC. Instead, your PCs are tasked with piloting a boat down a stretch of rapids, or driving a carriage through a chase sequence, or working a series of Gather Information checks to track down the location or identity of some Plot Token that is needed to advance through some phase of an adventure. It could be anything, really; the only thing we're concerned with is that there's something happening that pits the PCs against something that isn't a combat encounter and isn't an NPC.

The DMG isn't terribly helpful, here. There's plenty of instruction if you need help figuring how to count multiple creatures with the same (or different) CR to derive an Encounter Level that will allow you to gauge how hard the encounter should be. And if you're dealing with a non-combative encounter against an NPC or monster, it's actually pretty explicit that you can still award XP based on this underlying mechanic--CR and EL are used to gauge the amount of treasure and XP that should be awarded if the PCs "overcome" the encounter, not necessarily what they get for looting corpses and strongboxes.

I think this leads a lot of DMs just to rely on gut and eyeball. But there's an alternative, which requires you to work backward from the rules for traps. So let's look at a trap, for just a second. The following is the very first exemplar from the SRD:

Basic Arrow Trap: CR 1; mechanical; proximity trigger; manual reset; Atk +10 ranged (1d6/×3, arrow); Search DC 20; Disable Device DC 20. Market Price: 2,000 gp.

We can disregard anything about this that doesn't have bearing on the trap's CR. So we can disregard that this is a mechanical trap, how it's reset, and how it's triggered. Those things are solely involved in pricing the trap, and they don't have anything to do with how difficult the trap is to overcome. Traps are rated for challenge based on how hard they are to detect (Search DC), how hard they are to disable (Disable Device DC), how reliably they take effect if triggered (Reflex Save DC OR attack bonus), and how damaging they are. Each of these categories gets a scale that determines how much it contributes to the trap's final CR. And better still, except for damage potential, they all use the same scale.

Difficulty Class CR Modifier
Less than 15 -1
16 to 24 +0
25 to 29 +1
30 and greater +2

If a trap uses attack rolls, then in essence it still uses the above figures; an attack bonus of +6 to +14 counts as +0 CR, and higher and lower bonuses modify CR in the same ways. You can convert the attack bonus to the DCs listed here by adding 10 to the attack bonus. Simple enough.

Damage scales in multiples of 7 points. In a rare exception to the general rules about rounding in D&D, this scale rounds upward when that would be appropriate for standard mathematics. In our example trap, the entirety of the CR 1 listed is derived from its damage output--the attack bonus, Search DC, and Disable Device DC all are in the +0 CR ranges.

CR 0 doesn't exist in the 3.5 rule set; either something presents a challenge, or it doesn't; very minor challenges merely present a lesser challenge than a full CR 1. So if we cared to do so, we could create a CR 1/2 trap from the example by eliminating its damage-dealing capability and leaving everything else the same. It'd work out fine, so long as there was still some negative consequence for falling victim to the trap--maybe it trips up its victims or sets off an alarm. And really, we could keep pushing the CR lower by reducing DCs. A non-damaging trap that is detectable with a DC 15 Search check, disarms with a DC 15 Disable Device check and which relies on a +5 attack bonus would have a CR of approximately 1/6.

Conversely, we also can use this framework to create a non-damaging trap that has a higher CR. With a +20 attack roll, Search DC 30, and Disable Device DC 30, the framework yields a CR 3 trap. In fact, we could extend this framework to encompass all sorts of skill challenges. As long as there are roughly three checks, and all of them are against roughly DC 16-24, the outcome is a CR 1/2 challenge. In fact, we could immediately adapt this principle to create a CR 1 skill challenge in the form of a tightrope crossing. To overcome the challenge, the PC must successfully negotiate three consecutive Balance checks against DC 20. If he fails a check, he immediately falls 20 feet, suffering 1d6 points of damage. If we want to make the tightrope only ten feet above ground but keep the rest of the difficulty, it deals 1d6 points of non-lethal damage instead, then we have CR 1/2 challenge.

It's also somewhat feasible for us to use this mechanism to control common activities like the use of Gather Information to unearth the whereabouts of a fugitive NPC. Let's imagine that your PC is interested in tracking down a skilled forger who can provide the appropriate fake credentials to allow him to pose as a military officer. We can lift the basic mechanics for this task almost directly from the Urban Tracking feat. Let's say that the search takes place in a "large city" of approximately 13,500 residents. This sets our base Gather Information DC to 15. We'll say that the primary race of the city is human, followed by dwarf, but our fence is a gnome. So we'll modify the DC downward a couple of points, because gnomes are rare enough to stick out in this town. And then we'll add 5 to the DC, because the gnome knows this perfectly well, and as a forger he does his best to maintain a low profile anyway. We get a final Gather Information DC of 18. That gets us a +0 CR modifier.

The PCs aren't going to take any damage if they bomb a Gather Information check, so right now, we're sitting at a CR 1/2 encounter. If we look at Urban Tracking, though, we see that finding someone in a large city takes 2d4 checks (average 5). So this probably works out to a gentle CR 1 challenge because of the overall number of checks required. The low CR is an outcome of the lackluster DCs involved in the Urban Tracking application of Gather Information, which is designed with the idea that it should be hard to fail these checks if you've invested significant skill ranks into Gather Info—and also because it's a "plot essential" bit of activity. If your adventure is written so that it depends on your success at urban tracking in order to move it along, then failure means you don't have an adventure after all. This would be a problem by the lights of most gaming groups, so the DC is artificially a bit low for this example.

But also, this is more generally an outcome of the limitations of the trap mechanics underlying this approach. A skill challenge against DC 34 is still only about CR 6, even though many characters would struggle even in the middle levels of the game. A better approach to make a skill challenge more difficult is by packing two challenges together. Returning to our non-lethal tightrope challenge, we can make it a CR 2 challenge by asking for one of the checks against DC 25 instead of DC 20, or perhaps we also intersperse a Tumble challenge (also relying on two checks against DC 20 and one against DC 25) with it, to obtain an EL 4 skill challenge made up of a pair of concurrent CR 2 challenges.

Despite the challenge involved in making this framework yield single-skill challenges of CR higher than 6, I think it has a lot going for it. Not least of all, it's very predictable and objective. You don't have to use your gut, or throw your hands into the air in frustration and conclude that you should just ignore XP and have the players gain levels as you decree it appropriate. Instead, it yields a very straightforward result. If you start with three checks per challenge, and say that you want the skill checks to have difficulty of X, Y and Z, then it spits out a CR that allows you to award XP according to established practices. It also allows you to combine skill challenges, either with one another or with a combat encounter (maybe the rogue is trying to get to a lever or switch, while the rest of the party is fighting a monster), and get a predictable combined EL as the output.

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

This is a solid option. The only real alternative that approaches something like a solution based on game mechanics is to speculate on which characters in the party you assume will be the most active during a skill-related challenge and set the DC based on their modifiers in the relevant skills. However you slice it, the absolute last thing you should do is set up a challenge where the only way to advance the storyline is to succeed. It's perfectly ok for the outcome in the result of a failed skill challenge to be less favorable than if the party had succeeded, but it should still bear investigative fruit. Indeed, in most stories we know from literature, TV and cinema where the protagonist is trying to investigate X problem, it's really a whole book or whatever full of failed skill challenges strung together (but which still offer new avenues of investigation) until the story's climax.

"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Outside of some general advice, 3.x really screwed the pooch on XP. In the 21st century, giving XP for murder is problematic.

Ideally, when creating an adventure, you'd create an XP budget and have objectives with XP rewards. Using the XP budget, you create obstacles to attaining the objectives. If the PCs attain the objective through creative use of abilities they get the full XP.

I've been with a party that deliberately risked their primary objective to attack an Otyugh simply for the XP. We had already determined that the creature protected a magical item; through the use of mage hand we had secured the treasure without alerting the monster to our presence.

XP is a reward; it incentivizes certain behaviors. The behaviors it tends to reward are incompatible with my favorite style of playing. In prior editions treasure was directly correlated with XP - successfully carrying gold out of the dungeon was usually worth far more XP than the monsters in said dungeon - that also provides an incentive for behaviors I find distasteful (Greyhawking).

Interacting with NPCs, exploring the world, and solving problems should be how rewards are primarily determined.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Yeah, tracking and urban tracking via those feats and their associated skills are really a pain point for me as a DM, because they often are the only reasonable way for an adventure's plot to move ahead (at least if I don't want to drop extremely broad, obvious hints into the players' laps).

To a certain extent, I'm willing to accept this as a fact of life, but I'm weird because of my reliance on randomized encounters. If the PCs run into a wall in one of my games and find themselves unable to follow the NPC they're interested in, that's basically fine with me because sometimes investigations turn out that way, and there's other stuff happening to keep them busy. I guess that's what's going on in Ancestral Burdens right now, really.

It'd probably be of greater concern to me if I were running a planned adventure with a clear beginning, middle, and end, the PCs were at a very low level, and I NEEDED them to go to the correct place in order to continue the adventure. There's a much greater chance that a PC won't have the appropriate skills, feats, etc. to be sure to succeed on the DC 15-20 Survival check to follow tracks.

By the time you hit even 3rd level, that's much less of an issue unless the players are actively trying to avoid wilderness adventures by making sure their characters are deliberately bad at Survival checks. Eventually, you end up at middle to high levels, with characters who'll use magic, like Alannah has been doing in Ancestral Burdens, as an alternative or augmentation to these skills. Or they'll enlist the aid of an NPC.

But it's still kind of a nuisance, because as you say, it can be a single point of failure unless you resort to some kind of flimflam where the outcome of the challenge is always a success from the perspective of advancing the plot, and you're really just checking to see whether the PCs move into the next challenge at an advantage, a disadvantage, or on a level playing field. That has its attraction in the sense that it provides narrative sufficiency, but I also think it's troublesome if it becomes glaringly obvious that the PCs don't have any actual control over the plot.

I think that's less of an issue for skill challenges that rely on Balance/Climb/Move Silently, etc. to control the PCs' ability to infiltrate an area. It's really an issue that's specific to skill challenges that have to do with the flow of information. Challenges having to do with tracking, or Gather Information, or Knowledge checks are nasty if your players fail them, especially at low levels where they may not have any other resources that allow them to locate information concerning the whereabouts of an NPC or a Plot Token.

Anyway, I think that it's also worth considering that the trap model that I'm using as the basis for this framework isn't just an on/off switch. Utter failure against a trap is what you get if it somehow results in a TPK. Otherwise, you've technically "overcome" the trap as long as you're still alive after it goes off. And I think that this is modeled pretty well by the fact that every trap has three checks involved in it; one to see if you notice it in time to avoid it, one to see if you can disable it entirely, and a third to see whether/how badly it hurts you.

So it may be worthwhile to think about that a little bit with regard to the skill challenges that I've proposed to base off of the same underlying mechanics. If we posit that a given CR on a skill challenge is the result of three checks, then perhaps we should also consider that the challenge is overcome (but in a troublesome way that still hurts the PCs' larger goals in some fashion) as long as you succeed on ONE of those checks. Two successes, and they succeed, but gain no particular advantage or disadvantage later on. Three, and they've aced the challenge so that they receive some kind of perk going into the next phase.

Thoughts?

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Talanall
Talanall's picture

DDMW: I would have awarded the XP for that otyugh regardless of whether they fought it, in the scenario you've described. The PCs harvested its treasure without putting themselves at risk at all by being quiet and using a couple of spells in a clever way. If they want to get torn up in an unnecessary combat interaction, good for them. I'll laugh at them for being dumb.

I think it's very important to maintain a distinction between "kill the monster" and "overcome the challenge." If you sneaked past the monster and stole its stuff, you overcame it without killing it.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Talanall wrote:

I think it's very important to maintain a distinction between "kill the monster" and "overcome the challenge." If you sneaked past the monster and stole its stuff, you overcame it without killing it.

That's where the advice in the DMG is good; but the actual implementation by individual DMs can be lacking. As a player, you know you get full XP if the monsters are dead at the end of the night; even if their only goal was to buy time to escape with the McGuffin.

If the XP guidelines were more focused on defeating the opponent's narrative objective, I think it would be better. Killing 100 orcs shouldn't be worth XP if your goal is to forge an alliance between the orcs and elves.

I think we've even heard people on these boards joking about being 10 XP shy of gaining a level and looking for a fight. As a player, I can't fault another player for thinking that way - gaining a level is a big deal and murdering a goblin is easy XP. So I fault the rules for rewarding the type of behaviors that I don't think make a better/more interesting game.

As a DM, if the PCs defeat a villain and allow him to go free, is that full XP? If he comes back is he worth XP again? If there isn't a clear answer and each DM is picking what they think the rules mean, I think that's a problem.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

deadDMwalking wrote:

That's where the advice in the DMG is good; but the actual implementation by individual DMs can be lacking. As a player, you know you get full XP if the monsters are dead at the end of the night; even if their only goal was to buy time to escape with the McGuffin.

If the XP guidelines were more focused on defeating the opponent's narrative objective, I think it would be better. Killing 100 orcs shouldn't be worth XP if your goal is to forge an alliance between the orcs and elves.

I think this is backwards. I usually ask two questions. I want to know what the PCs were trying to accomplish, and I want to know the extent to which they succeeded. If the PCs use stealth to avoid an encounter with an NPC who has information they want to obtain, they failed the encounter. If they kill the NPC and find an incriminating note on the corpse, they overcame it (but if there was no note, they just failed REALLY HARD unless they have speak with dead prepared). If they keep the NPC alive and induce him to talk, they've not only overcome the encounter, but they've done so in the way that is most likely to be productive.

Quote:

I think we've even heard people on these boards joking about being 10 XP shy of gaining a level and looking for a fight. As a player, I can't fault another player for thinking that way - gaining a level is a big deal and murdering a goblin is easy XP. So I fault the rules for rewarding the type of behaviors that I don't think make a better/more interesting game.

I'm pretty sure Darker really was just joking.

Quote:

As a DM, if the PCs defeat a villain and allow him to go free, is that full XP? If he comes back is he worth XP again? If there isn't a clear answer and each DM is picking what they think the rules mean, I think that's a problem.

At least for me, it is worth full XP if you defeat your adversary but allow him to go free, unless I'm operating under a strong belief that your goals really are incompatible with his survival. I'd have trouble giving Chuul XP for leaving Cole alive at this point. Not that I think it'd happen. I fully expect that Cole's not only going to get killed if at all practicable, but that his remains will be damaged in some fashion to make it harder for him to return from the dead.

But Cole may not be the best example. Let's take the example of that goblin worg-rider that you guys let go after his warband attacked you and the caravan. You got full XP for him, but you really weren't interested in killing goblins. Your goal was mostly to avoid getting dead, and secondarily I guess you wanted to question him and find out more about the goblinoid invasion. You overcame the challenge, in that respect.

By letting him go, you've created a situation where you might encounter him again. It'd be quite a coincidence, and I usually don't go out of my way to reuse NPCs who just play a bit part like he did, but there's still a possibility that if you fight another warband, one of you will recognize him, though maybe only after he's dead. Anyway, there's a pretty high likelihood that you'd still get XP for that second encounter with him, unless your objectives at the time of the encounter had changed in some fundamental way.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

If you'd give XP for PCs succeeding at what they were trying to accomplish, codifying that as the clear guidelines would have been a good move from the point of view of the developers. A good GM can make the game good with or without rules; the ones that struggle the most need good guidelines that help make the game fun.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

In defense of the developers, they spoke very explicitly to this effect in several different venues and on multiple occasions back when 3.x was the most current edition. Their intention that overcoming a challenge didn't have to involve killing things was clear to anyone who read articles or Q&As associated with 3.x. I can think of clear statements to this effect from Cook, Tweet, and Williams offhand, and similar commentary from Sean K. Reynolds, who was probably the most consistently vocal of the major 3.x writers after Cook and Williams. Monte Cook, in particular, often talked about this sort of thing.

They all also acknowledged that hack'n'slash is a major approach to D&D, and that this wasn't likely to change anytime soon. But they were very clear that they were aware that lots of gamers prefer a less combative approach to the game that emphasizes skill challenges, intrigue, negotiation, and other non-combat encounters.

If I have a gripe about the way the Core Rules are set up, it's that this admittance on the devs' part was never translated into a really useful system for assigning CR to such challenges. I think my first post to this thread illustrates that it probably would have been possible, but if we're being honest, our little group is part of a relative minority of gamers who'd care about such things. I've encountered plenty of D&D groups who'd just as soon stick to killing things and taking their stuff, and to some extent I consider theirs the normative approach.

So it doesn't really surprise or bother me that when the 3.0 < 3.5 update happened, WotC concentrated on stuff that served the interests of the hack'n'slash contingent of D&D players, with only minimal attention to those who wanted to focus on non-combat encounters.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold