When building encounters, present them in such a way that they don’t automatically result in a fight to the death. Encounters, as a general rule, should serve some larger purpose or meaning within the game beyond just rolling dice and killing orcs.
So as a GM, when you design an encounter, ask yourself, “What is the story goal?”
D&D can get old if it is only about breaking in to monster lairs, killing the inhabitants, and looting the bodies. It can be so much more than kick-in-the-door combat. Figure out what the players want (as well as their PCs). Figure out what their potential foes or rivals want. The resulting conflict may not always be a violent one. Consider the type of encounters these ideas can encompass, and then build your adventure from that point of view. Here are a few ideas that expand the encounters beyond just "kill everything standing".
Perhaps villagers are being held hostage and they need an expeditious rescue. Perhaps the PCs need to convince the Admiral not to fire upon an approaching vessels and start a war that could cause numerous deaths. Perhaps cultists are performing a ceremony that will raise some ancient doom.
Whatever it may be, countdown encounters ratchet up tension because the players know they have a limited time in which to succeed. The consequences of failure may also be known, which can also create additional urgency and tension. Villagers will be eaten. War will be declared. Something wicked this way comes.
Hold the Line
This is just a variation of the countdown timer, but in reverse. Instead of the PCs preventing some event, they are instead stalling for time to allow something to occur. Perhaps, they need to hold the top of the wall, repelling invading orcs until reinforcements arrive. Or they are being chased and need to keep ahead of or hold off the pursuers for just long enough. Similar to the countdown, consequences of failure may be known (or at least guessed) to raise the stakes.
A variation of the Hold the Line encounter, an Escort is getting someone or something from point A to point B without harm or capture. Enemies might sneak in to steal, or outright attack the group.
Capture the McGuffin
Investigate a Mystery
This is often a non-combat encounter, but can sometimes result in armed conflict. The party is looking for evidence of missing NPCs, or perhaps some other wrongdoing. They may be asking about recent rumors, questioning a witness, or searching a location for clues involving in the mystery they are investigating.
When building an adventure for your players, don’t think about creating combats for the sake of combat. Figure out what the story goal is, and work from there. Consider the options for encounters to be resolved in ways that don’t end in armed conflict. Consider the motivations of the players (and their PCs) as well as the motivations of the rivals/foes/enemies… While these motivations may be in conflict, that may not mean a fight to the death. The conflict is over when the goal is achieved by one side or the other and does not necessarily imply the total destruction of one side or the other.
What fun objectives have you set up for encounters in your game? Share in the comments!