If you're playing in my D&D campaign, please don't read this
January 7, 2014 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I will be DMing a D&D campaign for the first time ever and I'm looking for some help/guidance on making this as enjoyable as possible for my players, mostly in terms of creating scenarios and encounters that are best resolved without combat.

My experience with D&D is pretty limited but I've got the basics down. I'm DMing mostly for people who have never played before so I'm not worried about playing into cliches or expanding their experiences, I just want to create a solid, basic but fun campaign for people who might not naturally be into D&D. What I am worried about is creating a monotonous adventure that's just fight-find treasure-fight-find treasure.

The main thing I'd like to avoid is having a campaign that settles into a dull pattern where the party meets someone, kills them, and then moves on and does it again; I'd like to have some problem-solving and role-playing and teamwork rather than just a series of combative encounters. I'd really appreciate strategies for doing this and creating scenarios that aren't just combat-based dice rolling (obviously there will be plenty of this, I just don't want it to be the only focus). Other first-time DM tips are great, but really suggestions for more complex scenarios with puzzles and whatnot would be great.

In case it matters, I'm planning to set my adventure in an Arabian Nights style world (kind of like Disney's Aladdin -- sorry Edward Said) and am perfectly willing to embroil my players in high level Djinn politics or trap them in a pyramid if that would be enjoyable.

Thank you so much for any help you can give me in making my campaign fun!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (40 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
In my first D&D campaign the DM solved this problem by responding with harsh consequences if all our party did was run around beheading people. For example, if we wandered into a tavern, saw it was fairly empty, and then killed the bartender and looted his body, a mob of angry townspeople would show up and pursue us as the murders we were. In other words, allow your NPCs to be powerful enough to repel unprovoked or poorly thought-out attacks from your players. You can also take a cue from MMORPGs and place obviously well-trained, well-armed town guards around areas you want to discourage combat in.

You can also bake in consequences down the road. For example, if your players are heading on down the road and encounter a single beggar, the beggar probably isn't strong enough to fight back, and may be isolated. But if they make a habit of killing off anyone they find isolated, they would probably attract the attention of the local authorities -- you can send agents or knights after them to bring them to justice.

Then you need to give them incentives to start talking to NPCs. I suggest keeping track of what information you want them to get out of a certain town or encounter, but be flexible in how you allow them to get the information. It's no good pinning the location of the dungeon on the bartender if your players only go to the stables and the castle. So allow the stable boy to feed them the dungeon's location if that's where they go.

Also, consider giving your game a large story arc, like "Kill Big Bad Guy." Then each gaming session can cover a smaller arc, like "Find Big Bad Guy's Lair" or "Find Sword to Kill Big Bad Guy" etc. Allow some goals to be accomplished by force (e.g. standard dungeon crawl) and require others to be accomplished by wit or charm (e.g. Sword is in the palace and guarded by hundreds of soldiers; kicking in the front door won't work, so the players better figure a way to sneak in or charm the prince or work out a trade).
posted by craven_morhead at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think all it will take is for a stereotypical monster, whatever that looks like in your campaign, to reveal its essential humanity (er, not too be to homo-sapiens-centric), perhaps by rescuing the party from danger, or being willing to negotiate a mutually beneficial compromise, or providing a plot-critical piece of information. They'll pretty quickly twig to the idea that every intelligent creature in the setting is an actual character, not something you beat on until XP pops out.
posted by BrashTech at 12:23 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been DMing for the first time this last year and liberally using AskMe; here is my D&D tag. I think you may get some helpful tips in there, as I was asking many of the same questions re: having a more complete and role play-y experience than just hack-n-slash.

Some wisdom that I either received or figured out:
-Write down any offhand suggestion/deducation that the players make (e.g. "I bet the Bazaar Mafia and the Djinn are in cahoots!") even if it isn't in your notes/plan. You get a better idea of how your players think and you get some ideas for future plots that you know they'll feel smart for having "figured out."

-Liberally award XP for plot stuff. D&D is set up to level characters up by way of killing shit and you have to put effort into getting people to realize there are rewards for other things as well. In my sessions, the XP is split almost 50/50 between monster and actually doing stuff like accomplishing goals, thinking laterally/inventively, etc.

-While you may see "progress" as the plot going along, many players -- especially D&D players -- see progress as XP, gold and loot. So liberally bestow all three unless you have a good reason not to. I explicitly limit what people can buy in a store, so giving them a bunch of gold isn't inherently game-breaking and giving them special loot they can't get in a store is particularly rewarding.

-Keep track of their experience. It's a pain in the ass and they should be doign it themselves but holy shit has it made things easier for everyone. Especially when someone loses a character sheet.

-Assign a player the task of keeping track of initiative in battle. You can round-robin, or if one person is particularly capable of it, just give it to them each time. That way, you just have to keep track of NPCs you control in battle.

-If you have a tablet, Evernote+Penultimate is an unbeatable combination. If you're playing 3.5, The Hypertext D20 SRD is your greatest resource.

-Just a for instance from Sunday's game: the PCs, on their way to investigate a thing, decided to drop by some NPCs' secret base for intel. Due to a plot point, they couldn't be there and they players walked into an empty base. One of them decided to look for a trap door, and, while I had nothing prepared, they found one. I made up a small basement on the fly, with some traps, a bit of loot, a monster or two and revealed some plot points (via a map on the wall in a hidden room) they otherwise would've been surprised by. It ruined the surprise, but it also let them feel like they earned the info. I could've just said "nope, base is empty, everyone is gone, nothing here" but if the players really want to find something, let them.
posted by griphus at 12:23 PM on January 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Tucker's Kobolds is an example of how to make higher levels more interesting than "kill bigger monsters".
posted by jozxyqk at 12:25 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, because my group can't play often (twice a month max), they level up every other session. It takes some heavy-handed XP granting, but it's proved worthwhile as it prevents stagnation and lets me throw bigger and badder stuff at them.
posted by griphus at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for the suggestions so far -- to clarify, I'm not concerned that my players will only want to fight and in fact I know that they are interested in more problem solving/puzzley stuff. I want to make sure I give them these opportunities so I'm looking for advice on how to structure my campaign so they have them. I don't think anyone in my party is going to kill the caravanserai owner unless it turns out he's in cahoots with the Dread Caliph of Shah-al-Mindar.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: Don't be afraid of the dungeon. It's a cliche because the dungeon environment makes it easy for you as a DM to put options into an environment without having to have something ready if the PCs wander in a direction you never anticipated. The monsters and other inhabitants of the dungeon don't have to be combat-only encounters. I have a ton of fun roleplaying encounters in dungeons with no combat at all. Consider things like having a non-combatant group of NPCs wandering about to introduce non-fighty responses as a possibility.

The key with riddles and puzzles in an RPG is to present the PCs with a challenge that doesn't have a single solution. If you come up with A as the "right" way to do something, players will often come at you with B, C, X and 3 as solutions. Come up with some weird magical artifact or effect, and watch the players get creative with it. Put an item in a location that's not conventionally accessible for some reason, and leave a few potential (but not perfect) solutions elsewhere in the adventure. Leave room for creativity.
posted by graymouser at 12:27 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Put the problem solving and puzzles between them and the loot or xp gain. They'll be guaranteed to give it a try.

Things like decoding tomes to learn spells, cryptic clues to aid in finding a treasure map, etc. etc.

Make sure to allow for solutions that totally sidestep the problem. Sometimes your best laid plans will go awry due to unexpected actions by your players. Don't punish them for that, as nobody wants to feel like they don't have free rein in the world. If you have to make stuff up on the fly, keep notes and flesh those extra areas or characters out in between sessions. Some of my best NPCs were generated in-game in response to actions of the players.

Give generous XP rewards for non-violent solutions that are close to or more than what killing your way through an encounter would yield.

I've often found in my puzzles that what is glaringly obvious to me on the page often is too subtle for the characters to pick up when playing through the game. So, have plenty of backup clues (of decreasing difficulty) you can drop if they are having trouble with the puzzle.
posted by Roger Dodger at 12:34 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: In an Arabian Nights-ish world my brother came up with one of the best magic items I ever saw. A stump of a candle, just a bit of burned wick and an inch of wax left, which contained a mighty Djinn, which would obey the candle's holder as long as the wick was lit and the candle exposed to the open sky (no putting it in a lamp). Out goes the candle, poof goes the Djinn. And when the wax runs out? Who knows, maybe the Djinn will turn against its "masters", maybe it'll never be seen again.

Great fun to have rain, sandstorms, breezes, and just bad luck be such a detriment to one of the players greatest weapons.


As far adventures I used to like to throw my players on the opposite side of classic dilemmas and try to get the people out of trouble. I.e. The sultan's son has promised to give someone one gold piece the first day of the month and then to double that everyday. Now that the sultan has learned of this he realizes his honor is on the line, but there's no way to cover the trillion gold that's been promised. Enter the players.

Or Zeno's Arrow, the players have to kill a monster which can only be harmed by a magic arrow. But the arrow can never reach its target because it has to travel half the distance. (My solution would be to move the monster to the arrow, but hey, let your players have fun!)
posted by bswinburn at 12:35 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I always thought that having a bazaar on a quest would be a fun interlude. Perhaps your folks can sell something or trade something. You can build riddles and easter eggs into that.

So let's say you get your barbarian to scare off a theif, and then she gets a choice of three items from a vendor in the market. You can imbue the items with certain properties. Perhaps it's a talisman. And let's say that in the hands of the barbarian, the talisman can open a locked door. Let's also say that in the hands of a wizard, that the talisman can turn weeds into roast haunch of beast, which noureshes the group such that they all gain a temporary power surge. And let's say in the hands of the rogue, that the talisman makes an opponent instantly drunk, and more vulnerable, or trickable, "Hey! Look behind you!" You could think up about 5 different things, that can have different properties depending upon who is holding them. Extra bonuses if your team discovered that if they share the item around that it can do different cool stuff for them.

Another thing can be to encounter a petulant prince or princess. In order to pass through the kingdom unmolested, your group must create a song to sing for the prince or princess. Then your group can work together to create the song, and sing it.

Would these kinds of things spice it up for you?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:40 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: To build on what c_m said; build your players a storyline that's a big complicated fetch-quest or a hunt for a specific person - make the party be bounty hunters, but they person they're seeking must absolutely be returned alive. Most of the campaign should take place in "civilized" towns with robust guard presence, to disincent hack-slash gameplay.

Perhaps they are sent on this quest as punishment for losing/breaking something important and they must go obtain a replacement (or bring back the one retired master craftsman/hermetic archmage/ cranky but powerful warrior-artiste who can repair the damage). It's up to them to figure out how to a) locate the object of the quest and b) determine how to induce the principal to return with them or how to wrest the object from its current powerful owner without violence. This may involve deceiving (or working in good faith with) powerful third parties to pressure the principal or overcome whatever security measures may be in place, then outwitting those parties or paying them off with other proceeds of the outcome. For instance: The party originally is contracted by a lord to clear a ($haunted ancient crypt), the denizens of which are troubling a remote village. They do so ALMOST successfully but in the process they accidentally free a ($lich), which returns to the capitol city and wreaks havoc, including destroying the ($Protective Artifact) which keeps the city magically free of, like, giant sewer crocs or something. The lich is defeated by the time the party gets back to town, but they are totally hated and held responsible for the damage. They need to find the old mage who created the artifact and then disappeared 100 years ago, and get him to come back and fix it. Finding him will entail lots of travelling about cities tracking down rumors and visiting libraries and such. Very little plot-centered violence. Once he's found you need to figure out what will bring him out of retirement, and then how to make that thing happen. The party needs to determine creatively what the mage fears or wants - is there an old enemy with which he may be blackmailed? Does he owe favors to another powerful entity? This could be drawn out indefinitely until the party is able to find, gain credibility with, and negotiate with an indefinite chain of powerful actors to line up favors, threats, and payoffs to get at the old mage.

It will make your planning harder since your party may not make the decisions you anticipate - be prepared for them to go off the rails of your planned narrative, but you absolutely can weave an involving tale with minimal combat.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 12:45 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I ran my first campaign in a decade last year. I was similarly anxious. The first dozen games had very little combat because I really wanted to throw novel role playing experiences at them. So they commanded the siege of a city, controlling various siege engines. They had to turn the tide of public opinion against a local ruler to achieve some other end. I built a scenario in which court intrigue was the way to win. My favorite was a murder mystery dinner party with actual murder.

It was fun but I exhausted myself working towards the novel. While some players like bits of it and others liked different stuff they really wanted to just hulk smash some kobold skulls. So while it is great that you want to give them different experiences, don't be afraid of the ol' hack n' slash.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd like to have some problem-solving and role-playing and teamwork rather than just a series of combative encounters.

In my experience (as a high school dungeon master that actually did like combat, granted), the best way to make this happen is:

A) To provide rooms in dungeons and other scenes with plenty of objects and structural features other than monsters and treasure with which the PCs can interact. For example, barrels that can be rolled down a ramp, tables that can be used to barricade doors, animals that can be coaxed, unmotivated monsters that can be charmed or bought, doors that can be strategically locked. Reward PCs as much XP for "defeating" foes by neutralizing them without direct combat as you would for doing that with.

B) Be flexible. If you plan for an encounter to go one way, and the PCs poke a hole in it, that's actually good. Not that it would necessarily be a problem for you, but don't be upset that you now don't get to use a bunch of stuff you planned. The DM being able to improvise is the main thing that makes it different from a computer game.

C) Think of simple (or complex if you have time) motivations for the NPCs and monsters. If you work off of that, they'll have more fun interacting and maybe trying to manipulate them than if you just script out IF…THEN stuff for them or if you don't even think about it at all.
posted by ignignokt at 1:02 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe for just their first time, use an off-the-shelf, story-driven scenario, then go back to your Arabian Nights setting once they've got the basics of gameplay down? I've got this one on my shelf, haven't played it yet but read through it and it seems pretty great. Pre-made characters and all - just sit your folks down and tell them, "okay, you're in this movie now, you're this guy, you're this other guy."
posted by jbickers at 1:19 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: A classic motif in the Arabian Nights (and in other Islamic literature, including the work of Nizam al-Mulk) is the ruler who disguises himself to find out what's going on in his city. Could be a fun plot hook, or a way to up the stakes for characters.
posted by yarntheory at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I enjoy quests that start seeming like one thing but turn out to be something else entirely. Like the players are sent by a sultan on a "fetch me that egg" sort of mission but, in the course of pursuing that goal, they discover a conspiracy to murder the sultan, or discover that the sultan has sent them into an unknown area to see if its safe (its not safe), or they meet somebody along the way who (in pursuit of their own thing) completely derails the quest and leads them into some insane situations.

In the games I've designed, I usually build a world and some key characters who have agendas, connections to some of the players and grudges against others, secrets, etc. I don't always have specific ends in mind, just laws of the land and motives and neat locations that they may or may not find (and if they don't find it this time, maybe they will next time). It makes things a little more free form, but it also creates a sense of "what we players do really has an impact on this world."
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:36 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If the campaign is based in a single area, let the players set agendas for their characters -- maybe the thief wants to build up a criminal enterprise, the wizard wants a magical workshop, etc. Give them experience and rewards for taking steps toward attaining their goals. This has the virtue of tying the players' success to the area's. They will want to shore up the local Calif if they are relying on his good graces to keep their stuff.

Some of Vincent Baker's ideas in Apocalypse World are useful everywhere -- ask players a lot of questions and go with their answers "what does the potion smell like?," "Why do the townsfolk trust the dwarves?" "Why does the Captain of the Guard hate you?" That can get the players engaged in the world. You could encourage them to describe the world and even give them XP awards for good description.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:48 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've just started reading The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones, a fantasy novel set in 8th-century Baghdad. The main characters are first called to adventure by their bored master/vizier (they end up disguising themselves as commoners, as per yarntherory above). The bored sultan could be a good way to drive the plot - if the adventurers have to recount their exploits The Bored One, you can easily have him dismiss yet another "we found a baddie and done killed it" tale with a request for more daring do. In their search for better stories to tell, they could then stumble across information the Sultan definately does not need to know ("turns out you are adopted and your real parents are goat herders so.. uh... yeah.") which could lead to them needing to tell their tales while leaving out certain information, which can in turn lead to weirder adventures ("Nevermind about those old goat herders we mentioned last time because, uh, we're going to go get a phoenix feather! Yeah! Feather! No goats!") in a heroic effort to Change the Subject.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:55 PM on January 7, 2014

Skill challenges! They're technically new in 4e, so if you're not using that you may have to be a little creative. But the basic idea is that the party is faced with a problem that can't be solved by fighting. It implicates a skill--usually the players have the option of choosing one of two that make sense in context--and the players all have to make a series of checks against designated DC. The DC may increase with additional checks, and failures may impose a penalty on later checks.


Camping on an exposed, rocky ridge in early February, and it's cold. Everyone in the party has to make a series of skill checks using either Nature or Endurance. The person standing guard gets a bonus, and the two people who fit in the tent get a larger one, but the other two just have to use whatever natural skill they've got. The party can light a fire if they choose, giving everyone a bonus, but they run a risk of attracting unwanted attention (which you can either make combat or affect something they won't know until much later!). Everyone has to make four checks, one every two hours for the full eight-hour rest. DC gets progressively harder as the night gets colder, and failures give a penalty to future checks.

Finding a particular book in an ancient library. Everyone makes one check against History and either Religion or Arcana depending on whether we're looking for a clerical or magical book. Two DCs in play. A very high one that a single success from anyone in the party will result in finding the book (they knew right where to look), and a somewhat lower one that three successes will result in finding the book (three players working together methodically search until they find it). Failure results in the loss of a day, as your search is inefficient and you go over a few areas more than once (which is important for wider campaign reasons).

Crossing a trackless desert. Everyone makes three Nature and Insight checks. DC is the same for each check, and relatively difficult, but a single success from anyone will succeed for all. Failure means getting lost, taking a few HP damages from exposure, and losing time. Success means staying on track, keeping water supplies up, and staying on schedule.

Etc. I just came up with those off the top of my head in five minutes. Basically, anything you can think of for your characters to do that isn't killing things can probably be accomplished using a series of skill checks. This can add a ton of variety and realism to your game. Characters have skills for a reason. That reason is to give them something to do other than kill things within the game mechanic, so that you don't have to rely on pure RP skills, which is always dicey.

A few observations. It's been a while since I've played, but I seem to recall that 4e lends itself a little better to these sorts of things than earlier editions. 4e has less than twenty skills and everyone can always use all of them, even if they suck. This is in contrast to 3.5e, where there are a bajillion skills, more than any one character could possibly train, and many of them require training to use at all. Pathfinder is somewhere in the middle, but I seem to recall it having a skill challenge mechanic, so you can just use that one.
posted by valkyryn at 2:15 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Had a DM in high school who was good at rewarding players for unusual solutions to problems. Which in turn encouraged me as a player to think of alternate uses for skills... like, target opponents armor with Enlarge Object spell, resulting in a suddenly armorless bad guy and free splint mail for one of our players once the spell wore off. Or, likewise, taking a roomful of baddies and growing a floor tile large enough to hide behind, so they could only come at us a few at a time. It made survival much easier. Man I guess I liked that spell.

You could possibly force this kind of behavior by throwing them a few magic items with non-offensive spells only, and see how they use them... but be prepared for them to be creative, in that case!
posted by caution live frogs at 2:43 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, for setting ideas and background, you might get some inspiration from Peter Adamson's excellent The History of Philosophy (without Any Gaps) podcast. He's spent roughly the last year going over philosophy in the context of medieval Islam (also discussing Christian and Jewish thinkers in predominantly Muslim lands). Some of it can be fairly heavy going, but Adamson talks a lot about how philosophy had political repercussions, and, of course, in a world with magic, philosophical schools can have a lot more impact....

Basically, a little real-world detail can add a lot to a fantasy game, and a podcast is a really easy way to get a taste of something.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:48 PM on January 7, 2014

For Arabian Nights scenario ideas, you might try to acquire or download some old Al-Qadim materials for AD&D2. It was pretty good, and googling a bit, I see a number of people have done work on 3.5 and 4.0 conversions. Saladin Ahmed's recent novel Throne of the Crescent Moon may also give you some fun ideas--it feels a lot like a D&D adventure itself, and I'm sure he plays (here he is running a game with Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, Patrick Rothfuss, et al. at a con). I ran an Al-Qadim game shortly after reading some abridged edition of the Arabian Nights itself, and maybe unsurprisingly, the stuff that was already in the form of a D&D campaign provided the most inspiration.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:07 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: Sort of along the lines of what GenjiandProust said: One of my favorite DMs, even if using a published campaign, would develop a separate, personal quest with each of us that none of the other players could know about. He would pepper the general story line with artifacts/information/encounters that not only made the game interesting for the party at large (especially during long travel segments), but was also possibly useful to one of our secret story lines. I think it also sated his masochistic lust for random encounters.

Our campaigns always started via the conceit of a group of strangers meeting randomly in answer to a call for Adventurers Needed to Do/Find/Investigate This Thing - Reward!, so the personal side-quests were a neat game-within-a-game as we tried to figure out what was going on with our fellow players, and was a really neat trick to get us to more fully develop our characters and invest in the story line.
posted by feistycakes at 4:59 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The sultan is at war with a powerful bandit chief. The chief claims to be the rightful heir to the throne. Who is right? Maybe they both have claims of similar worth. Regardless of which heir the party 'elects' (or option C, D, or E...) the city is immediately besieged by genies/monsters.

A Grand Vizer with obligatory goatee who acts suspicious as all heck... but is he evil? Maybe he believes the party is evil and out to kill his sultan...

Have a room with a big monster that the party can probably kill.... but it is immortal and the right answer is either Run, you idiots, or trap it/deactivate it somehow. Or, use a never ending stream of small/weak monsters that also needs to be evaded or shut off.

My last DM used minis on a grid map, and was very fond of using little wooden blocks to we had pressure plate and block pushing puzzles. Also, he had mirrors on several puzzles. One doing laser light type things, and one using a fixed crossbow where the mirrors were portals. Said (bastard) DM also had a quest for Item of Plot importance.... and the FIRST trapdoor right in front of the pedestal was virtually un-findable... the other TWO were hard to find and easy-ish. Trapdoors dropped us in different areas, grr.

Pyramids! Bigger on the inside than the outside. Also, sneaky random teleports for the party, and never ending hallways, and rooms that fill with sand.

Sphinxes. Riddles in tomb rooms, where one of the five sarcophagi has treasure, the other four... death. A cursed treasure, with serious effects (ideally that last outside of combat) A cave that is, in fact, a living giant creature. An adventure in a dungeon that is time based. They have X hours to get in, get out, and survive. A 'jumping puzzle' fight... exit is at the top of a big room, entrance at the bottom, and they have to jump from pillar to pillar to get there... but the monsters like to hover at the roof and can sometimes knock down people.
A nice, normal town by day... but, mixing your legends, werewolves! Or were-hyenas, i guess.
posted by Jacen at 6:12 PM on January 7, 2014

If you are writing your own campaign, think about having your big bad being a refugee from some other fantasy universe- The Master, or Dracula, or your favorite non-D and D bad guy. The players must discover this.
posted by vrakatar at 6:57 PM on January 7, 2014

Following the Al-Qadim suggestion, there's a recent rulebook out, Five Ancient Kingdoms, based on the little brown book-era D&D; like a lot of old-school RPG materials, it's rules lite and could easily be adapted.

Steal from the greats (The Thief of Baghdad or The Adventures of Prince Achmed! Lawrence of Arabia!)! Steal from people your players haven't heard of! Perhaps Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare (dervishes! lepers! talking apes!) or Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (dervishes! concubines! assassinations!). Steal from, I dunno, buddy-cop movies or Kurosawa, only skin it with that sweet, sweet Orientalist flavor!
posted by snarkout at 7:03 PM on January 7, 2014

Also, they're far too late for the period of the Arabian Nights, but reskinned Janissaries + harem politics should give you lots of factions of people who your PCs can bounce off of. A lot of things -- mob movies, say -- then open up, as various people need to be rubbed out/framed/saved from themselves/made to look better than they are to gain the sultan's favor. All it takes is one major NPC taking exception to what the PCs have been hired to do, and you've got a long-term plot opening up.
posted by snarkout at 7:06 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: This is non-D&D specific advice, but if you want social opportunities, I've had great luck with this technique: I like to start a campaign with sessions that have ample opportunity to meet NPCs, that I have not necessarily planned, which I often start detailing for myself on the fly with a simple 3-adjective system - like, "this person is 1)cunning, 2)frightened, and 3)rich", or whatever comes to mind and seems to fit the character and immediate situation. (Also, make try to make them different, and at least two non-physical. Avoid "this person is "tough", "fearless", and "huge".) This gets you enough to wing a previously unnamed "background" npc long enough to get you to the end of one night, where you can expand on it, and bring them back later. How/why frightened? rich? What do they do with that cunning?

You can rack up a dozen of these in a few hours. Keep them on hand after you play, note out more about them. Spend more time on the ones your players respond more to. Map out potential relationships. Within a few sessions, (my minimum for really introducing a setting or campaign) your players will have put together a character-driven tapestry for you, which you then play back at them. They practically wrote it, after all.

And there's always a thousand and one reasons why you can't kill your way out of webs of relationships.
posted by mrgoat at 7:31 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your are seeking some visual inspiration try some of the Orientalist painters. Yes, a lot of the stuff is blatant stereotypes, and there is a lot of "harem" stuff to wade through, but still stuff like this or this or this might give you ideas for NPCs. An Adventurer? Street views 1, 2, 3.

Or try a google image search for Ludwig Deutsch‎ or Jean-Léon Gérôme‎ (though Gérôme‎'s stuff tends to be more NSFW).
posted by fings at 8:11 PM on January 7, 2014

General tip: The players have no idea what you planned, so feel free to create the illusion of choice at every opportunity. Provide plenty of seemingly meaningful choices that don't actually lead to distinct outcomes.

As an example from a video game I played recently: You have a choice to feed an animal or not feed an animal. No matter what you choose the animal attacks you, but unless you played multiple times, you wouldn't know that. So then you can spin off a whole bunch of consequences as a result of being bitten that the players think you made up on the fly, but in reality was planned all along.
posted by empath at 8:22 PM on January 7, 2014

There was a lot of solid advice in this thread. Here's another one worth looking at.

Have characters been created yet? Take 10 or 15 minutes and have each player tell you about their life - where they grew up, what their family was like, where they learned their skills, etc. This gives you lots of handles on the characters (old friends, odd bits of knowledge they might have, etc.) that you can work into adventures later on.

When your players are looking for clues, avoid making dice rolls be the difference between success and failure unless there are enough clues that they can miss a bunch of them. Instead, have people roll and if they roll low say something like "after an hour or so of fruitless searching you find..." whereas if they roll high, "You immediately notice an out of place bit of paper...". Feel free to imply that their feeble searching has given the bad guy a head start whether it has or not.

Give your players a patron of some sort. Someone of rank or title, not too important, but important enough that they can look for outside talent (your PCs) when a situation is both too important and too sensitive to trust to the city guard and provide backup and support as needed. Now the characters don't have to stumble upon a murder every 15 minutes. Instead, a 10 year old boy can show up and tell one of the PCs that their "uncle" Nazim has need of them and they should come right away! (If you play your cards right, one of your players will create your uncle Nazim for you and explain why, when he calls, they come running.)

This might come in handy for creating atmosphere. Have a list of like 50 or 100 names that you can toss at the players any time they're talking to an NPC they might talk to again.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:32 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Snarkout is right that the Janissaries were specifically Ottoman, but if you like the dynamic of slave soldiers with political power there are plenty of earlier models: look up the Ghaznavid dynasty, for starters. (In D&D terms this might get you barbarian-classed horse archers. Could be interesting.)
posted by yarntheory at 10:52 PM on January 7, 2014

Back in the day, we used modules that provided the basic storyline, maps, etc. Maybe one of those ?
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:46 PM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: I think players often fall into a combat mindset because that's how they are allowed to have an impact on the world. When the things they do otherwise really matter, they are more inclined to pursue other activities than violence.

One example from the last time I got to DM anything (rarely these days):

The adventure is set in a post-apocalyptic Europe. At one point in the adventure the PC are in a vehicle, with a team of NPCs in another vehicle, on opposite banks of the Rhine. They are both trying to get to a point further south, where there is an installation they want to reach before the other team. No bridges are intact, and there are several days of travel to get to the target.

I made a simple game mechanism for driving on the crumbled infrastructure, and a map with spaces every x km down the banks. I presented the mechanism to the players after they have decided to commit to getting there first, and everything is transparent so they can see what kind of repercussions their decisions can have. I divided the game into four-hour cycles, and the players had to tell me at the start of every cycle who were driving, and if they were going slow, normally or fast. There were penalties for driving in the twilight and darkness and penalties for how tired the driver was. I tracked fatigue, fuel consumptions and wear on the vehicles. Consequences for missing their rolls were damage to the vehicles (that could be repaired if they had the correct skills and time), getting stuck and needing time to extract the vehicle or outright accidents. The faster they went, the more wear and tear they received, but they also got further.

They had already had had a good discussion about how much fuel, food and water to bring, and whether to go in one vehicle or split up in two and this new mechanism worked rather well in making them agonize over simple decisions about how fast to go, if they should press on into the night, when to swap drivers, if they should try and race ahead to put up an ambush where the river was narrower and things like that. I credit this to the fact that they could see in cold, hard percentages that their decisions would have consequences, and that there were several valid approaches to solving their problem.

(You should of course substitute camels for halftracks, and make them manage their food, water, feed and decide when to rest their animals.)
posted by Harald74 at 4:59 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: BTW, survival elements are great for non-combat resolution of conflicts. I.e. they can't cross a particular stretch of desert without resupply, so they need to cosy up to the nomads in the area, so that they're able to find the wells and oases out there. Maybe they can pay their way, or maybe they need to provide other kinds of assistance to the nomads. Maybe the local ruler is harassing them, and they would like it to stop? Maybe they are harassed because they are framed for livestock theft, and would really like to clear their name? Maybe they can't get the nomads themselves to help them, but a nomad who is an outlaw to his own people offers to show them the way, but if they are discovered to have helped him, they too will be outlaws in the eyes of the nomads?
posted by Harald74 at 5:24 AM on January 8, 2014

A word of warning, if you mix puzzles and combat, be careful. After sticking my players into this, even when they did acquire the map, the constant combat in each room got to them. If combat is going to draw out a puzzle, consider separating them. (And I still think that maze is one of the coolest things I have ever seen- I was good at puzzles, good at running combat, mediocre at RPing multiple characters. I've decided I'm happier as a player, even if I don't get to build worlds.)
posted by Hactar at 6:53 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: 1) Create recurring non-player characters.

This is one of the most powerful tools a GM has to create interactions which are more than "as a break from fighting, solve this puzzle or get information from this random guy". Create characters who pop up periodically, travel with the group for a while, are gone for a bit and then come back. Soon you'll have players who have in-game buddies, boyfriends or girlfriends, arch-nemeses, parent figures, etc. Plots and directions for these things to go will soon basically suggest themselves. Here are a few tips for creating these:

- It is often helpful if these characters can directly socket in to things the players have suggested with their backstories and personalities, although they don't always have to.

- Similarly, it can be equally helpful if these characters are "plot relevant", i.e., they have a significant role in your ongoing story.

- Characters who are basically there to supply the players with goods or materials are often not good for this purpose. Players tend to treat them as plot devices rather than people, in the same way if they have a horse they will generally treat it like a bicycle rather than acting like it is a living, breathing, pooping thing they must take care of. (This has to do with the necessities of storytelling more than anything else.)

- The players should always be the stars of the show. Refrain from having NPCs who magically solve all their problems all the time. Having one do it very occasionally when the situation is dramatically appropriate is fine.

- Only sometimes introduce constant (rather than periodic) companions for this purpose because constant companions can start to be exhausting for a GM. Unless you're careful, it can rapidly build up to your suddenly having to be eight people at once during every conversation. Having one or two around a lot for extended periods is fine, though.

- Ways to make characters recurring rather than constant include: (a) They are not powerful enough to go on dangerous missions with the players, they would die if they tried; (b) They show up mysteriously every now and then, and vanish just as mysteriously - for reasons; (c) They have a regular job or duties that they can't simply drop to travel around hither and yon. There are plenty more ways to do this, though.

- It is easier to introduce such characters if they players have a home base (city, dorm, caravan, castle, whatever) that they periodically return to.

- Sometimes, they won't take off and no one will be much interested in talking to them. Don't force any characters onto the players unless the plot absolutely demands it.

2) Different problems suggest different solutions.

If the problem is, there is treasure and it is guarded by a monster, the solution is kill the monster. If the problem is that the Grand Vizier and the Caliph of Caillot are no longer talking to each other because of a disputed bet, and the Caliph of Caillot's troops are desperately needed for the war effort, the solution requires different techniques.

Look for problems that suggest solutions such as diplomacy, stealth, tracking, research, winning a game, ethical conundrums, seduction, etiquette, wilderness survival, lying, theft, distraction, or, I don't know, cabinet making, and you are more likely to get those as solutions.
posted by kyrademon at 7:37 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wanted to pop in to thank everyone for the suggestions! I've marked as best answer the ones that are most applicable to me but there's a lot of good stuff here and I really appreciate everyone's contributions.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:31 AM on January 8, 2014

One other suggestion for character creation: while your players are creating their characters, make sure that as part of fleshing out the background of their characters they home in on what motivates their character. Then if you want to lure a certain PC into a puzzle or quest, you can dangle something before them that will surely motivate them. In our main D&D campaign we had a lawful/good paladin that was always motivated by what was "right," and a chaotic/neutral thief who was purely motivated by self-interest. The party could be drawn into encounters or quests by one or both, but usually for different reasons. Other options include a desire for adventure, a desire for wealth, a desire to garner political power, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:59 AM on January 8, 2014

the consequences are important. force them to spend the gold and time to train for the next level. They groan like they hate it but they love it because going up a level means something. I usually made them travel to a place where they could train with a higher level fighter. Also, make magic users buy spell components, etc.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:05 AM on March 14, 2014

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