Alternate Goals in Combat

Earlier today, @level30yinzer tweeted the following…

Aight, help me out: I need ideas for alternate goals in combat besides “kill da monsters.” #dnd thoughts?

…I was just thinking of this not too long ago when I dropped in on what would be Episode 12 of the DM Round Table podcast. Tracy (@sarahdarkmagic) had mentioned one (killing the Leader to stop minions from attacking) and at the time I started thinking more about this.

I think skill challenges in a combat encounter are one of the first places to start. Here are some quick ideas based on encounters I have run…

1) Arresting the Sheriff:

For the first example, I will illustrate an event from my first 4e campaign. The players had discovered a number of things a particular sheriff was doing illegally. He was a very corrupt individual, but had been able to keep these things discreet for some time. Eventually, the Sheriff was hunting them down, and had even made an attempt on their lives by way of some of his fellow shady soldiers. Everything came to a head in town when the players were approached by the Sheriff and a number of his soldiers (some of them good, some not so much). Were the players to be captured, they were sure they would be killed in prison by the Sheriff, so they knew they had a fight on their hands… unless they could convince some of the more legit soldiers they had evidence of his corruption. The skill challenge was on, and it was a lot of fun – players shouting at the Sheriff evidence they had, all the while the soldiers looked at each other, unsure of who they should be arresting. They made their case well enough that the Sheriff commanded his men (who would listen) to attack. There was a fight, but now the players had some numbers on their side (the good soldiers). Had they done better in the challenge, it was possible that the soldiers backing the Sheriff might have turned on him to protect themselves.

Goal: Convince the Sheriffs men to arrest the Sheriff without getting arrested yourself

2) Crossing the Gap:


Sometimes, combatants can be used simply as a distraction (albeit one that hurts) to some other task. I recall my players trying to cross a large chasm underground in carts suspended from cables. Just within range, various archers were firing on them. It was a challenge to get across the chasm, and while the incoming archer damage was not too heavy, it could kill them if they decided to fully stop and try an engage the enemy – especially when the melee characters were essentially useless.

Goal: Cross the chasm while sustaining as little damage as possible

3) Split the Party! (Kind of)

: Another encounter I ran had two paths through a dungeon separated by a deep chasm some 10 squares wide. Along each of these paths at various points there were doors (on both sides) that had to be opened simultaneously. The party needed to have someone on each side, so this offered the first challenge – how do we split the party effectively. The great thing was while they were split, they could still see each other, so they knew the ranged classes could help either side. The second challenge was having to decide (at each set of doors) who would attempt to open the door (various skills used in mini skill challenges) and who would defend that person.

Goal: Open doors separated by a distance, simultaneously

4) Playing Defense:

I ran a one-off at one point where the PC’s needed to break through a massive door, but did not have the power themselves to do it (it was really big). However, there were two mech-style suits there, used by Dwarves who would climb inside and use the enhanced strength of them to lift massive stones. So, the players needed to navigate the suits while trying to use them to break down this stone door. The other PC’s had to defend the two players in the suits. The key to the encounter was that their enemy very much feared what was on the other side of the door, so they fought to stop the PC’s, but the more of the door that was destroyed, the more the PC’s saw some of their enemies flee in terror.

Goal: Break down the door to send the enemies fleeing.

5) Playing Defense (Reversed):

Kenku! (Love em)

Another way to approach this is the reverse method. I ran an encounter where an airship the players were on (held aloft via a number of magical sheathed tubes) was attacked by Kenku. Some of the Kenku went right for the tubes, looking to uncover them and thus cause the power to increase at such a rate it would send the sheep veering off course, or plummeting down. The others defended those troublemakers.

Goal: Simply keep the ship in the air long enough to escape the city/enemies.

6) Behind Enemy Lines

In another encounter my players were in an old, dilapidated fort occupied by thugs and thieves who were under the control of a very charismatic leader (one they befriended eventually). At this point though they were not yet trusted in this place and were not allowed beyond the first floor, but they wanted to get to the top floor some 4 floors above. Some NPC’s provided enough distraction for them to slip away. These NPC’s also handed them some bottles of alcohol saying only “you will need these”. Their ascent to the top floor involved almost no combat (and when it did they had to be fast and as quiet about it as possible) and it involved almost no killing (there was one death they could not avoid it seemed). The rest of it was careful role-playing, and handing out of alcohol to those who they thought they could bribe into letting them pass, etc.

Goal: Get to the top floor quietly, with the least amount of combat possible

More Ideas…

Destroy/Stop the “Device”

This is a pretty common theme – during a fight, you must destroy a device (often times this theme plays out as stopping the bad guy from casting a ritual, etc). What you could do, however, is tie a “device” to the power of the enemies, or even let it be the one thing that allows them to fight at all. For example, you might have a complex magical device that powers a number of constructs. There could be so many enemies that in fact if they do not stop the device, the fight they face is more than likely too overwhelming – BUT – if they DO stop the device, their enemies fall to the ground helpless.


This is pretty straight forward. Of course, you can choose not to (on a killing blow) kill an enemy, and instead incapacitate them. The way we generally do this is that when you drop an enemy, you need to follow that up (before the end of your turn) with a “I just want to knock them out” etc. If the next player has gone before you realize you forgot to say it, well, the enemy is dead. This is not my rule, but essentially it is how my players have played it. Another way you could do this is to tell your players they need to call (ahead of time) when they are “pulling a punch”. Perhaps when they do that, their attack damage is reduced by 1 or two points per level (for example) but only then will an enemy be incapacitated if they are dropped from said hit, etc.

Kill the Leader

As Tracy had mentioned, this is a good one. Especially when dealing with enemies who are not that intelligent, they may quickly give in when their true muscle is put down.

Convince the Leader

It might be that the leader of the enemies is known to be a reasonable person – enough so that during combat, a player might dedicate some of their actions to try and convince the leader to stand down.

Take the Throne

Simply getting to a specific location in an encounter might end a fight. For example, imagine a throne room full of goblins. The fight ensues, but at some point a PC (making a proper nature check perhaps) determines that these Goblins revere the throne as having power of it’s own. So much power in fact that it would allow only their true leader to sit in it… so any player sitting in the chair could end the fight immediately with the goblins dropping to their knees, bowing. This might seem like giving the PC’s a lot of power, but at any point you want to pull that back, the true leader could arrive and command them into action, snapping them out of their stupidity.


You might have a situation where the PC’s are outnumbered by an intelligent enemy. They fight this enemy, but it is obvious they are fighting a loosing battle. It might be at this point that a PC (making a proper check of course) remembers that these people firmly believe that an enemy that surrenders in the face of certain death, should be respected and given a chance to speak their case (to parley in other words). In fact, the PC’s might know this ahead of time, and choose to march right into the center of a large group or army even, and surrender, demanding to speak to the ultimate authority.

Final Thoughts

It’s an unpopular comparison, but think about various video game examples. Many of them have different puzzles, or non combat challenges that can be implemented into a combat encounter, or can have combat elements applied to them. Don’t be afraid to consider ideas from other sources such as this when looking for ideas.

Anyway, these were just a few ideas I had at the moment, but there really are a ton of ways to approach alternate “win” scenarios in a combat encounter.

10 Responses

  1. Ameron says:

    I’m a big fan of throwing a skill challenge into a combat scenario. When all the PCs are doing is killing everything it gets boring really fast. But presenting them with a secondary problem to overcome while the combat is happening makes for great role-playing and usually a really fun and interesting encounter.

    The DM needs to make it abundantly clear to the players that there’s more going on than just killing. Once they realize the alternative objective, things tend to get a lot more interesting. This is often when you find the PC closest to the “non-combat objective” making the check and not the guy with the highest score.

    The biggest reason I find that this doesn’t work as the DM expects is that players are reluctant to give up their standard (attack) action to perform a skill check. This is when the DM needs to stress the importance of role-playing and story over just rolling dice.

  2. @TheSheDM says:

    I recently ran a game where the goal was not to win the combat, but to disbelieve the nightmare the characters where unwittingly experiencing. I made a point to describe strange things to provoke the players to make insight, arcana, etc. Skill checks. Successes in the the skill challenge revealed more incongruencies, failures led to the ominous deadly monster looming in the distance to draw closer to the combat. Ultimately everyone would wake up from the nightmare, with either a penalty or a bonus to dealing with the source of the nightmare.

  3. Brian says:

    How about “escort the diplomat”? The PCs act as a group of bodyguards for some high level official, and their goal is to get him from point A to point B safely. NPC doesn’t have a lot of HP, so one or two hits on him, and the mission is a failure.

  4. corwin says:

    Great read, weem.

    Giving the players another way to win besides killin’ all the baddies is probably the most important thing you can do to keep combat interesting and fresh. Some other fun ones can be chase scenes, defending a siege, solving a puzzle, etc..

    @ameron: I do the same and had the same problem, so I made every skill check/interaction action a Minor (with a limit of 1/turn) for anything that doesn’t absolutely have to remain a standard (moving big stuff, ritual, etc.).

  5. chad says:

    The tactic I use lately is to allow minor action checks at the next highest difficulty category. This generally means that the skilled people have a good chance at success, most people have some chance, and a PC that kinda wants their standard action but kinda wants the success can spend the minor to see if they `got lucky’ before deciding to do it `the careful way’ as a standard.

    I’ve been quite happy with it on both sides of the screen. It’s especially useful with older traps, because often it’s very `expensive’ in terms of party resources for the people good at thievery to spend their standard actions (often 3 or 4 of them) disabling traps.

  6. pdunwin says:

    Well, shoot. I’ve been talking about this for a little while now, trying to encourage people who seemed to be getting fed up with battles and with having no alternatives to a monster wipe or a TPK. Despite my talk, I myself have not managed to implement this technique much in my own games. I ran Dungeon Delve 11, which has a “device” that powers up the enemies and that worked pretty well, even with standard actions for the skill checks.

    Imagine my surprise when I discovered that DMG2 has advice on this, around page 38 or so. It also includes the skill challenge from Delve 11, in the skill challenges section.

    Anyway, great stuff, and I’m re-inspired not to run a straight monster bash again if I can help it.

  1. December 12, 2010

    […] Weem discussed alternate goals in combat.  You know, besides “kill all the monsters until they’re dead.”  Because […]

  2. December 15, 2010

    […] my question even nudged @theweem to do a quick write-up on his blog regarding alternative goals.  And of course, not a day later, I see a bit from Kobold Quarterly about using skill challenges […]

  3. December 15, 2010

    […] This post by @theweem has a good selection of ideas for alternate goals in combat that can be used to make encounters more interesting than just having the players try to kill all of the monsters. […]

  4. December 28, 2010

    […] 8. Alternate Goals in Combat […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *