Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Philosophy of RPG Combat

While posting in this thread it occurred to me that what I value most in an RPG combat system is deadliness. And this is because I want combat to be something players think twice about: I want the decision to engage in combat to be the most important and weighty kind of decision in the game.

This is not because I'm one of those people who is of the view that real combat is nasty and horrible and people should resolve conflicts in make-believe games peacefully. Real combat is nasty and horrible, but fictional combat is both enjoyable and interesting, and to be encouraged.

Rather, it is because of two related reasons:

a) In order to make players genuinely invested in a game, their decisions have to matter. And as a general rule, in order for decisions to matter there have to be meaningful consequences. If the decision to fight a gang of orcs is a simple one because the orcs are easy to defeat and there is almost no chance of death, then what business does that decision have being in a game at all? It makes almost literally no difference whether the characters have that fight or not - so why have it? At best it satisfies the largely masturbatory impulse to show off how powerful your fictional character is in a fictional universe. I'm not sure what on earth the point of that is; your mileage may vary.

b) I like to reward player skill, and easy combat does not reward player skill: it rewards character skill. I like to play Steel Panthers: World at War, and what I always find interesting about that game is the way it rewards intelligent use of command & control, terrain and subterfuge: in a good, well designed wargame like SP:WAW victory is as much, if not more, about where you concentrate your forces, when you time your attack, where and when you commit your reserves, and how you predict your opponent's moves, than it is about Tiger tanks being more powerful than Shermans. Similarly, in an RPG, I'm much more interested in how PCs pick and choose their fights, try to manipulate circumstances to their own advantage, and use the terrain than I am in the fact that a 6th level fighter can easily beat up a goblin.

Which isn't to say that the actual fight itself should not be one which the players have made easy through their own intelligent play. The crucial point is that, when players win a fight, I want it to be because they are good and clever players and not because they have kick-ass characters with super duper magic swords.

20 comments:

  1. JB at BX Blackrazor sorta "rebuilt" Basic D&D from the ground up to create his Five Ancient Kingdoms game. With regard to deadliness, I believe I remember him talking about that in one of the game's "development" posts.

    At any rate, during combat in 5AK, if your attack roll exceeds the number needed to hit an opponent by four or more, then you kill that opponent with that attack. I believe he worked this into the rules because he wanted a way to cut down on long, drawn-out combats and also to reflect heroic tales in which a well-placed blow slew a monster outright (think Bard and the arrow that took out Smaug, right?.

    Check it out:

    http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/2013/08/five-ancient-kingdoms-what-you-get.html

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    1. That's quite a cool idea.

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    2. Yep, it's one of a good number of cool ideas that JB's put into the game, as a way of answering some of the long-time complaints about the D&D system. Definitely take a look if you can...

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  2. Agreed on all points!

    I always made sure to preface their decisions to fight things with the same "Are you suuuure?" I used for entering areas of trap-filled menace.

    Plus after a couple of years of 4e's undeadly combat making it kind of boring for me as a DM, I wanted my players to actually feel worried that the measly goblin might stab them to death.

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  3. If there are no pushover fights, it harms the sense that the world exists out there regardless of who the PCs are or how powerful. The ultimate expression of that is in the Challenge Level advice of later D&D or some computer games where no matter where you go or how you level up, the goblins and the bandits become more powerful or you stop meeting goblins and bandits and only meet dragons and beholders. That doesn't mean you have to play out the pushover fights in any detail, but assuming the PCs can become more powerful then they should sometimes run into things that ought to just surrender to them or run away and if they don't should get slaughtered easily.

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    1. Yes, there will be easy random encounters generated sometimes in D&D. Even those shouldn't be easy, though. I'm a great believer in creatures having a strong sense of self-preservation and just legging it if they come against powerful PCs. But that then confronts the PCs with a meaningful and difficult choice: follow or not. (So does surrender, for that matter: kill them or take them captive?)

      But I don't see D&D as having the perfect combat system, for this very reason. My favourites are Rolemaster, Cyerpunk 2020, ORE.

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  4. Well put. I'm not certain I would never want to include some easy fights for players. Occasionally allowing your players their masturbatory impulses can enhance the game if it doesn't control the game. And it can function to lull the players into taking interesting risks.

    But in large part, I agree with you. Combat should be scary for players to enter into.

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  5. I spent years playing Runequest, a game where any combat has the potential to be deadly. The result was that the players were forced to use every advantage, to never give the monsters a fair fight to only attack when their victim was unprepared or overmatched. They became a vicious band of murderous cowards. It was actually quite depressing. It wasn't just one group either. Every group of PCs ended up this way.

    Constantly deadly combat? Count me out!

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    1. Each to their own. Isn't "vicious band of murderous cowards" also an apt descriptor of a bunch of souped-up PCs killing inferior opposition in a stand-up fight, though? An easy face to face fight strikes me as as cowardly within the fiction as an easy stab in the back. At least the latter requires more thought.

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    2. My players have responded to lethal combat by trying to negotiate with everything rather than becoming vicious murderers. I do think there are a lot of other variables at work here though, such as the nature of consequences for actions within the setting.

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    3. (Which can be quite amusing, I will add, when clerics have access to speak with animals.)

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    4. Yeah, that would definitely be my preference. As a DM I love it when players try to negotiate with potential 'enemies', because it brings them further into the setting and also provides opportunities to riff on. If the PCs parley with a randomly encountered ogre, it might turn out he needs something and will do something for them in return. Hey presto! More stuff to do in the sandbox. But will he betray them? Or they, he? Etc.

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    5. Consider the situation where a group of 4th level character encounter a small band of goblins. In D&D, these goblins aren't a threat so there is no downside to revealing your position and approaching the goblins for some discussion. Maybe you'll get some info or pack bearers out of it. Worst case you take a few d6 hits. However, if you change the combat system such that these goblins have the potential to kill the PCs, then the risk of dealing with them goes up whereas the reward (info, laborers) stays the same.

      Thus the PCs will have less incentive to talk to the goblins versus ambushing them or simply avoiding them. Talking to the monsters is a stupid move when it allows them to prepare for combat (even if it is just drawing weapons).

      Deadly combat results in less monster-to-PC interaction as doing so gives up any tactical advantage the PCs might have.

      My D&D players always talk to weaker monsters, something my Runequest players (some of whom the same people!) never did unless they were caught off guard and trying to talk their way out of a fair fight.

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    6. I would argue that "PCs have surprise" should not necessarily be the standard state of things. And in the case where the PCs do not have surprise, deadly combat tends to make conversation much more likely.

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    7. In the case were the PCs are surprised, the players will have no say in whether or not to engage in combat so deadliness here only punishes the players. As a reaction, they will focus more on stealth leading to more situations where they attack by surprise, leading to more monster massacres.

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    8. I don't understand that scenario. Why are the PCs going to try to ambush and kill the goblins just because combat is more dangerous, if they weren't going to do that if combat is safe? If they kill the goblins they don't get any info or labourers or anything much at all.

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  6. Completely agree. We often play the Harn RPG which has a very deadly combat system. It's almost the reverse of D&D, PC's only engage in combat when they have a huge advantage and think it will be a pushover.

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