Do you prefer your RPG Combat as War or Sport?

I was reminded again today of a long running thread on Enworld.org discusses the difference between Combat as War and Combat as Sport.

There are two competing ideologies about combat in RPGs. The modern one, Combat as Sport, is based around the idea of two more-or-less evenly matched sides engaging in combat where luck and good play within the intended rules of the combat system prevails. The older ideology, Combat as War, favors seeking every possible advantage in order to make the fight as quick and deadly as possible (and I do mean every possible advantage).

Combat as Sport assumes two sides crashing against each other, likely evenly matched. Here each side aims to build on tactical advantage and to gain tempo; optimize the action economy and so forth. The majority of dice rolls occur during the conflict.

Combat as War assumes each side engages in operational and strategic positioning, one side may well be unaware of the other. Then pow a surprise strike that aims to decide the outcome with minimal reliance on dice rolls. In a Combat as War game, a long-running combat encounter is a loss for the attacker. They are likely depleting more resources, and putting more up to fate.

I prefer “Combat as War”. I suspect other OSR advocates, acolytes, and adherents favor Combat as War as well. There is no room for LeRoy Jenkins in a Combat as War game.

“Combat as War” assumes that the characters will engage in antics to eek out every advantage. The antics and scrapping together a plan is the wheelhouse of tabletop RPGs compared to other systems that have combat elements (e.g. boardgames, wargames, computer games)

When GM-ing a game, nothing compares to the crazy ass shit that players come up with when they:

  1. have time to prepare
  2. know the odds are against them
  3. scratch for most every advantage
  4. and decide to go for it

Take a moment to reflect on your most memorable game sessions and encounters there within. What makes them memorable? What details do you highlight? What makes you smile?

I believe the best “Combat as Sport” story pales in comparison to the story about planning for and executing a strike for a “Combat as War” story.

For Combat as Sport, I imagine the following:

I saw the ledge and knew if I could push the ogre over, we’d win. I went for it, and rolled a nat 20. Woo! Bye bye ogre!

For Combat as War, I envision the following:

We heard there was an ogre guarding a bridge. And they are nasty. So we hatched a plan. First, we’d lace a shank of mutton with a sleeping drug, then someone would approach and attempt to engage the ogre. The ultimate goal was to get the ogre to take the shank of mutton and eat it. Jehat, the rogue with a silver tongue and quite a few evasive maneuvers, approached.

If I have to sit through someone telling me a gaming story, I’d much prefer a Combat as War over a Combat as Sport story. In the real world, I’d rather hear a war story than a sport story.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as War

In D&D, mechanics that circumvent the HP mechanic point towards Combat as War:

  • 3E’s poison that does ability damage
  • 5E’s exhaustion mechanic
  • 0E to 3E’s save or die mechanics
  • 3E’s coup de grace mechanic
  • 1E’s assassination table
  • 0E to 2E, and 5E’s morale rolls

Assuming an attacker has access to these, they can strike quick and decisively at a target (albeit relying on a failed save). The cost of spells, in early editions of D&D, was once spent they required far more time to get recover (a full night’s rest and 10 minutes per spell level per spell to re-memorize).

And at a more basic level, look to the XP rewards for early editions. Most of the XP (80%+) came from acquiring treasure. Whereas fighting monsters brought perhaps 20% and a higher chance of death.

Another thing to consider, combat in war-mode tend to be quick and decisive affairs. Not the multi-round grinds of 4e and to a lesser extend 3e and 5e.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as Sport

In D&D, mechanics that shift position on the battlefield or are inexhaustible resources:

  • 3E to 5Es Attacks of opportunity
  • 4E’s marking an opponent
  • 3E’s 5 foot step
  • 3E’s cleave and great cleave
  • 4E to 5E’s Healing surges and hit dice
  • 4E to 5E’s “at the end of each round make a save”
  • Powers that encode rules for moving others on the battlefield
  • At-will combat spell powers

Combats in sports-mode tend to be multi-round affairs; Each team vying for position and building on their accumulated tactical advantages.

D&D as Sport or War

By default, the current incarnation of D&D is Combat as Sport. Characters recover hit points quickly and time is a bit abstract. To bring about a more Combat as War element, make sure that time matters. Taking a long-rest outside of a secure location should come with risk (random encounters). Likewise, short-rests should come with danger. Consider modifications to Death Saves (e.g. a failed save sticks with you until you complete a long-rest). Shift XP from combat towards milestones or wealth accumulation.

In other words, shift the game towards an operational and strategic perspective.

Litmus Tests for Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War

Within the fiction, what is the impact of a single roll? As a GM, how much could you place on the line with a single roll? How much does the system allow to be put on the line? The more at stake with a single roll, leads towards a system that is more Combat as War. In Burning Wheel, I could place an entire season’s military campaign on a single Tactics test (with a linked Administration test from the quartermaster).

Another way to rephrase this is: does a dice roll represent a change in momentum or a substantive change in fictional state?

Do you have a gruesome critical hit chart? What does resource management look like? What does the press your luck mechanic look like? What tools do you have to mitigate a bad roll of the dice? How long are your typical combats? What is the ratio of time between combat and not combat?

Further discussion

Systems

As I’ve looked at my game shelf, I thought I’d start to categorize. And there are varying degrees of War and Sport.

Combat as War

Combat as Sport

Tangent

As a software developer, I see analogues to compiled languages vs. interpreted languages. Compiled languages optimize execution, at the expense of greater upfront resources (e.g. compile the code into an executable). Interpreted languages distribute their source code, and when the time comes to execute, the entire code-base is read into memory and then executed.

Combat as War assumes more planning and quick conflict; It is the compiled software language. Whereas Combat as Sport is the interpreted software language.