I GM-ed a multi-generational D&D3E family game over the Holidays. While that was very rewarding, I was left with some slight doubts. It felt great to bring people together for a fun time and to have some family togetherness, but I saw my young cousins get excited about killing and looting and stealing, which was off-putting to say the least. It made me think about the example I was setting for them at such a young age, and what sort of habits I might have myself that I am unaware of. It made me start thinking about ways to keep the game fun, but to encourage problem-solving that does not always include wanton killing.
At first I was at a loss for solutions to my dilemma. The typical non-violent game of political intrigue doesn't hold the attention of the 12 and under crowd, and I wanted to have a game for my whole family. Looking through my stack of game materials I realized that although the mechanics of the d20 system allow for non-combat skills to take a front seat, few, if any, of the important encounters in published adventures are focused on non-combat skills. I wanted to make a game for my family that would let us all have fun, and at the same time provide positive role-models for the young'uns. Luckily, there are a lot of good models we can follow from popular entertainment that don't rely on lethal violence for their excitement, and some of them are even appropriate for the younger players. I will outline a few non-violent game models in this article, and in future articles I will detail encounters and adventures that incorporate these ideas.
Adventure - This model pits the PCs against their environment. They must use all their skill and knowledge to navigate an uncharted sea, climb to the top of a mountain, slog through the jungle to uncover the ancient temple, or explore explore forgotten ruins. Traps, wild animals and unfavorable conditions are the focus of this game, which emphasizes physical prowess, willpower and survival skills. A large part of the fun in this game is derived from the environment being fully engaging and the object of the expedition being truly interesting. If your players prefer the 'you walk for three days to the next town' type of travel, this game may not be for them.
Detective - This genre encompasses a huge variety of settings, from film-noir private eyes to prime-time cop shows like Law and Order and CSI. This type of model is the easiest to use for the younger ages, because it can be clear-cut and fast-paced. It is most similar to standard combat oriented play. The players will have ample opportunity to beat up the bad-guys, but the emphasis can easily be placed on capturing them unharmed for questioning and to stand trial, or on gathering clues from informers, crime scenes and computer hacking. Depending on the theme of the game, the GM may choose to use the setting to reinforce faith in the justice system, expose the evils of corrupt cops, explore the fine line that many law-enforcement personnel walk between right and wrong, or just provide a convenient backdrop against which the players may display their combat prowess against thugs, criminals and low-lifes. This game type can still rely heavily on combat skills, but introduces investigation and interaction skills as important aspects of the game.
Natural Disaster - This model has the excitement and danger of the combat-heavy game but focuses on quick-thinking, athletic skills, and helping others. There probably isn't enough meat in this model to cook up a whole campaign, but for short adventures it can provide an interesting change of pace or serve as the focus of a one-shot adventure. Whether there is a raging forest fire, tsunami, hurricane, tornado or earthquake, the natural disaster can endanger the players just as much as a combat encounter. The heroes may have to organize the evacuation of a village before the lava hits, rescue patients from a flooding hospital, hack into a heavily guarded computer before the building crumbles around them or find a source of water before the village wastes away during a drought.
Political - Reuniting the bickering factions, sowing dissent in the enemy land, slinging mud at a political rival and vying for control of a criminal organization all fall under this model. This game focuses heavily on role-playing with an emphasis on interaction and investigation skills. There may be moments of violence, such as an assassination attempt, but they should be the exception, not the rule. For a silly, kid-friendly game the PCs can be high school students running for class office and student council, with all the high emotion and angst of a typical teen drama.
Puzzle - This model speaks for itself. This game usually focuses on a mechanical or magical device that must be studied and manipulated or a riddle that must be solved. Usually this style of adventure focuses on player, not character, knowledge and skill. Rolling a die to solve a riddle is not any fun, but hanging around with your friends for a few hours mulling over word puzzles and speculating about the powers and origins of a device can be entertaining if your group is interested in the concept.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think most combat-light games fit into one (or more) of these categories. Tune in next time for the first in a series of adventures written to minimize combat and encourage some good habits in my younger players.