Alternate Victory Conditions for 4e Combats using the Three Pillars of D&D

Darn MSW program. It’s cutting into my D&D writing time. But more importantly, its also cutting into my D&D reading time, which is where I get a lot of ideas that get my brain churning. Plus, I won’t be DMing until PAX East in April. I don’t want to post if I don’t have anything new(ish) to say, so I’ll definitely need scale back my posts until PAX, at least. Thanks to those of you who have kept in touch, thanks, and keep the great ideas coming!

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Two of my favorite D&D blogs, Critical Hits and Skyland Games, have recently mused about the three core pillars of D&D: combat, exploration, and social interaction (the last pillar is usually called ‘roleplaying’, but Mike Mearls contends that roleplaying is more of a catch-all phrase that can happen in any of the pillars, while social interaction is more specific to PC interaction with NPCs and with one another). Every good campaign shines an occasional spotlight on all three to some extent. I like it when DMs take the further step and weaves together elements of all three pillars in the same encounters. The combat encounter is kind of the wheelhouse of 4e, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing because I believe there are lots of ways to bring exploration and social interaction into combats to make them awesome.

One way in which a DM can weave together combat, exploration, and social interaction is through combats with alternate victory conditions. An alternate victory condition is simply another way for PCs to end a combat besides just bashing and smashing monsters until they die. Maybe the PCs poke around the combat area and find a quick way to dispatch an enemy (they lead the orcs on to a rope bridge and then cut it, for example), or they might talk their way out of a combat.

The spiritual father of what I am calling an “alternate victory condition” is Dave Chalker’s idea of ‘the out’, which he discussed here and other places last year. Mike Shea also wrote some articles about the out on his blog. I will blatantly steal many of their insights. I would like to change the idea a bit, though, because I think “the out” is a very 4e-centric phrase that was born out of the need to make 4e combats shorter. Instead, even if D&D Next makes ‘the out’ unnecessary by making combats simple and fast, I believe that DMs should still build alternate victory conditions into their combats for the following two reasons:

1) It gives the DMs a knob to adjust combat length at the table, either making it shorter or longer. ‘The out’ is obviously meant to make a combat shorter. In addition, a DM might put in some alternate victory conditions to add some meat to a combat, especially a big boss battle. Players get disappointed when they beat a big boss in the same time it takes to beat a goblin sharpshooter. However, that won’t happen if they also have to deactivate a portal or save the princess from a burning pyre at the same time.

2) It allows DMs to make combats more interesting and interactive. As a matter of fact, I never, ever design combats anymore without some kind of alternate victory condition anymore. Teachers call it “starting at the end”. I find that thinking about alternate victory conditions during encounter creation gives me ideas for interesting terrain, ways to weave combats into the overall plot… lots of stuff.

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I’ll probably expand this list out to a real “DM crunch”-type article when I have the time. For now, here are some starter ideas.

Exploration:

  • Manipulating a power source of sacred object – i.e., the urn that controls all the undead, the portal that spawns and/ or empowers monsters, the shield that unlocks the “I-win” secret weapon, etc.
  • Using fun terrain powers – i.e., the rope bridge to lure enemies onto, the collapsing wall for a brute to bury himself with (very cinematic!), etc.

Interaction:

  • Beating an enemy boss, then intimidating the underlings to drop their weapons.
  • Pitting enemies against one another. This encourages DMs to mix up the composition of an enemy group where, for example (in a nod to Tolkein), ye old faceless horde of orcs might be from different tribes and can be turned against one another.
  • Buying off the enemy with gold, information, or magic items. PCs hate giving away their real magic items, but they can probably part with scrolls and potions.
  • Leveraging the enemy into standing down. This might be through obtaining compromising information, kidnapping a non-combatant that is valuable to an enemy (pretty nasty!), etc.
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