In fact, it’s so effective and can be so predictable that it can become kind of monotonous. Taken to extremes the process of “kill things and take their stuff” is referred to as “grinding”.
I don’t like grinding. “Grinding” is why I don’t play many computer (PC or console) games, in many cases you have to grind for a time, or periodically, to build up the resources needed to get the the stuff you really want or need. I prefer things to have a bit more story aspect to them (and no, “bring back twelve wolf pelts” is a pretty boring ‘quest’, even if the quest patron needs them for something important and cool).
In yesterday’s post about JRPG-Inspired Encounter Design I described some of the encounter elements such games use to make combat more interesting. In many cases they make the fight more interesting, but even when there are tricks to make it easier, the PCs are still defeating the opponent through combat.
A few months ago I wrote about reframing campaigns and adventures so after the fact they can be used to tell a story. The campaign provides the framework, and the various adventures and scenarios answer more specific questions, describing how something came to pass.
Encounters be similarly reframed. They can be basically random, with little direct attachment to the major story, but they can also be cast as answering a detailed question about what’s going on, or about minor elements of the story. They can be turning points or focal points of an adventure.
This suggests that individual encounters can have plot value. Each can be a nexus of possibility, a good place for the PCs to get hold of the plot and shove. If you know the actors (creatures encountered or driving the situation from the NPC side) and their goals, encounters can be seen as a means to achieving a goal of some sort.
These goals don’t need to be “kill the creatures involved”. Of course, unless “keep the creature alive” (or “don’t kill anything”) is a goal or desired outcome, “kill everything” often can be a path to success.. but it might be a difficult or risky one.
If PCs have enough information about an encounter to understand what they want out of it, the encounter can take that into account and offer other solutions.
- The PCs don’t necessarily want to “kill the guard and enter the keep” when on an infiltration mission. They might be able to simply bribe him, fast talk their way past, lure him away from his post so they can sneak in, or even avoid him altogether and go in another way (which has other challenges and benefits). Killing him will make it easy to get in, but is risky, in terms of possibility of personal harm but even more importantly revealing that there are intruders.
- The PCs don’t necessarily want to “kill the dragon and take its treasure”, they might want a specific item. Killing a dragon can be very dangerous and difficult, it might be possible (and easier) to negotiate a trade of some sort… or even riskier but less immediately dangerous to try to stealthily steal the sword.
- In JRPG-Style Encounter Design I mentioned a creature that is immobilized by fire (it feels really good and will bathe in flame when available). Finding a way to activate all the flame pipes in the chamber so the creature is constantly able to do this could cause it to stop fighting… which is good if the creature is otherwise very difficult to defeat.
There are many goals besides “kill the opponents” that can make killing the opponents the lesser option. I find that having concrete goals that don’t require combat, and having the PCs (players) aware of them can make for a more varied game. More PCs get to exercise their non-combat skills, which gives spotlight time to the characters who chose to do “the inefficient but interesting”. It also makes for a more interesting experience because more different things can happen, it’s not all a matter of the different ways to kill stuff and take their things. I find it also leads to more clever play as players get used to it and seek out less obvious solutions.
And hey, if those don’t work? They can still kill stuff and take their things, Plan B is still available and effective.