I have been thinking a lot on alternative goals in combat lately. These are not “combat outs” (which were developed to speed up 4th edition combat and reduce some of the grind that can develop) such as bad guys…”gulp”… actually surrendering instead of determinedly inviting the players to cut them down like shafts of wheat or monsters fleeing when bloody or underlings/minions dropping when the master is slain. What I am really talking about are goals that one or both sides can have in a given encounter that isn’t just curb-stomping the other into Valhalla. I don’t think this concept is particularly limited to 4th edition, or new for that matter, but given the tactical nature of the combat these kinds’ goals can really make the game shine, particularly if you feel like you have fallen into a bit of a rut with encounters playing out in a predictable pattern of powers and feats each round almost like a combat assembly line. Although this maybe more of a DM issue than a player issue because when I am a player I looove stabbing things until their dead at which point I continue to stab them like I have some kind of stabbing Tourette’s..but I digress.
The alternative goals can be almost anything from needing to protect a high value target during an attack or transport to acquiring an item before time runs out. In the later example imagine a scene where an item is guarded by powerful opponents, perhaps much more so than the players where a straight up brewhahah could go either way. The players then have the option to either throwdown, hopefully survive, and acquire said package or do they have some players defensively engage the guardians while one player grabs the item followed by a measured retreat?
Alternative goals are meant to not only make choices interesting but also failure interesting. Take the former example of protecting a high value target during transport. Say the players are tasked with protecting the king’s daughter on a diplomatic mission to a warring neighbor. During the journey they are attacked and while perhaps they defeat the enemies in the traditional fight mode but fail to protect the princess because the attackers had the alternative goal of killing/kidnapping the princess and not necessarily wiping out the players. What are the consequences of that failure? Probably pretty interesting, particularly of your a sadistic mother fucker like me 😉
I will give you an example from my Dark Sun game. I set up an encounter in the desert where the players were ambushed by the Muto Tieflings. I had several ground troops followed by some Muto’s swooping in on giant bats as I piped in Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. The Muto’s had the goal of capturing one of the player’s (Quell) who they were calling the Muadeeb for a ritual sacrifice. It played out rather nicely with the players adjusting strategy to try and protect Quell (I kept trying to have the bat riders grab him and fly away) and the associated tension/urgency it generated. The defenders were overjoyed as the Muto’s repeatedly violated marks to try and get at Quell.
One of the side benefits of having encounters with alternative goals is that you don’t’ need to be so neurotic with encounter balance or scaling (if that is your thing) because there is usually a win button that doesn’t involve total annihilation of the monster(s). A word of caution, like most things in life, with the exception of gaming and maybe porn, moderation is probably best with alternative encounter goals. I don’t think you want them in every encounter or your players might start rolling their eyes every time you frame a scene while fondly reminiscing about the good ol’ days when you could just kill things and take their stuff.