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 scrappign 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 brough 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 inexhaustable 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.

Facilitating better RPG combats

The best sessions I’ve ever played involved player characters bringing an agenda and reaching for it. They take their situation, charge forward, and set events in motion.

Characters often achieve their goals through conflict. In most games, that means combat. Characters will also quest for relics, knowledge, boons, etc. Or through subterfuge, try to avoid overt conflict.

For now I’m focusing on combat.

Combat

The best combats have had one or both of the following:

  • A goal other than “destroy the enemy.”
  • Multiple paths of engagement

If the characters want a physical object, assume they will execute a “smash and grab” plan. They must bypass the opposition. Let the players choose and plan how they do that.

Provide multiple paths to engage in the combat – a main entrance and a side entrance if you will. I personally enjoy when characters agree to attack a common point, but one group goes this way and the other goes that way. The players can make meaningful choices and plans; And they will discuss this in front of you. Listen to what they say. Build on that in the future.

You’ll also want to consider the following procedures:

  • Morale – in meeting heavy resistance, do we want to continue?
  • Chase – with the opposition routed, do we want to give pursuit?

Morale Procedure

Adding Morale checks into combat helps show that outcomes can vary. Morale checks also telegraph information to the players:

  • We can back down from a fight
  • Our opposition has yet to crack, perhaps we should reconsider our approach

Morale provides another strategy the players can use: strike hard and gamble on triggering a morale check. Surprise and planning become very important.

I find morale harder to remember when I use a set initiative for a combat. I have adopted either group initiative or re-rolling initiative each round. This creates another natural point to check morale.

I also enjoyed the “bloodied” mechanic of 4E; a clear indicator of the toughness of the opposition.

Chase Procedure

The chase procedure facilitates transitioning out of combat-mode and back to exploration or role-playing mode. Without a chase procedure, you either hand-wave the retreat or remain in initiative order, with characters moving tens of feet at a time.

By staying in initiative order you remain longer in the combat-mode – a more “precise” blow-by-blow mode that requires more time to play out. Combat-mode also reinforces slaying the opposition as the primary goal.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has procedures for chases. As does Labyrinth Lord. They have different approaches, but are useful in considering how you think about chases.

At present my procedures for chases are ad hoc. If the PCs choose to flee, I let them get away. But I want to tighten that up.

Update: Take a look at David Black‘s “Snakes & Swords” chase procedures. I’m adopting this!

Conclusion

In a future post, I’ll expand from the conflict to the character agenda.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take a look at Burning Wheel’s “Range and Cover” subsystem. It has group initiative, morale, and chase all baked into a dangerous skirmish-style subsystem.

Randomness, I Forgot that I Needed You

I have fond memories of my 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons gaming days. Through random encounters, rolling on treasure tables, swingy spell results, and shared adventures I formed friendships that continue to this day.

From high school through college, we played D&D. Then moved for a brief time to Rolemaster, and it’s notorious charts (and critical tables).

From the Stone Giant Smoothy:

In exploring the caverns, the group had turned the corner and at the end of the corridor was a room packed with Stone Giants. We were out of our league. But we attempted a last ditch defense. My priest decide the best option was to drop a blade barrier in the giant filled room. The wizard thought it would be best to run, and opted to create a wall of force that would buy us all enough time to flee. The initiative fell, and the blade barrier went off, then the wall of force. The dimensions of the blade barrier fit the room, and all we could do is stare at the invisible barrier as the frost giants met their doom.

To Ace and Deuce in a short-lived Rolemaster campaign:

Deuce was an accomplished bowman and rogue; Built to be a death dealing archer. Yet, when arrows flew, his first critical hit – D critical – were superficial and his second hit was the killing blow. To aggravate the situation, the other player adopted the moniker Ace after three occasions of one-shot kills. (Thank you Matt for the corrections)

Through a random encounter with a White Dragon:

I rolled a random encounter: A White Dragon attacked the character’s on the permafrost fields; Lucky initiative and some potent spells dispatched the dragon. From there, the party druid cast Find the Path to locate the dragon’s hoard. And a grand session ensued where the party fought tooth and nail with a drow (again random) raiding party who also wanted to loot the dragon hoard.

And:

A Diversion

For the last 5 or so years, I’ve been chasing game systems looking for the right fit (Thank you 4th Edition for the bitter taste you left in my mouth). For a while my system of choice was Dungeon World.

In Dungeon World, I found a system that I could run with little prep and ample room for rulings. But as I’ve reflected, I noticed these games had a subtle yet profound frustration – the initial character bonds.

We would go around the table, establishing bonds and dive into the details of those bonds. From the interwoven bonds, I would improvise our first session. It is a great trick for convention games and short scenarios.

The interwoven bonds create an obvious starting situation. We’d play and during those sessions the situation would begin to resolve. Moves would snowball, but I found that nothing new and unexpected would enter the ecosystem of the starting situation; We would build on what the GM and players came up with.

What was missing was “Things that nobody knew would happen“; the random initiative, critical tables, and random encounters. Those subsystems that inject the unexpected.

I missed the moment when all players at the table would assess and respond to the unexpected. When imaginations fired and creativity responded to the constraints of the new situation.

The Challenge

Here’s a challenge to everyone, pick one:

  • Ask another player who has been playing for awhile to describe their most memorable experience with a Deck of Many Things.
  • Drop a Deck of Many Things in your next session, and roll with the punches.

In my experience, the table comes alive with the Deck of Many Things: The promise of riches and the gamble. A scene with a Deck of Many Things is a concentrated moment of adventure.

That first player who draws a few cards, and all is well. Thus goading others on. Then the desperation as party members begin drawing from the Deck of Many Things not for riches, but to try to undo the drawing of the Void or Donjon by a party member. And there are the treasure maps, fighting death, gaining a keep, and enmity with an outer planar creature.

In 2nd Edition, I had a Dwarf that once drew 5 or 6 cards. He drew the Euryale (-3 penalty to all saving throws vs. petrification). Several sessions later, the group had a random encounter with a Gorgon’s petrifying breath; The -3 penalty made the difference in his failed roll.

I wasn’t there for another use, but I believe a beloved and long running henchman began his career when a player drew the Knight (gain the service of a 4th level fighter).

Postscript

These days I’m looking to Dungeon Crawl Classics as my system of choice. It is a paradox…a rules light system in a massive tome. The majority of the pages are for random things (spell results, dragon powers, critical hits, fumbles, starting occupations, deity disapproval, etc.).

Characters don’t begin with interwoven backstories, they are instead dropped at the start of an adventure with 3 random bits of equipment and some coins. But more on that for another time.

What Should the Game Master Fight For?

I have kicked off lots of campaigns as a GM, and none of them have been completed to my satisfaction.  Some campaigns withered as I grew disinterested, others collapsed as integral players left, and to my recollection none of my campaigns have completed.

I want to run a long-standing campaign, at least 15 sessions, to it’s conclusion.

Typically I spend quite a bit of time thinking about where things should end up – in 10 sessions – and much less focused on the present situations.

I don’t prepare adventures but prefer to act and react with the players and their characters.  Certainly I could create more challenging “set pieces” for the player characters, but I don’t know if that’s in my gamer DNA.

Burning Wheel builds on the assumption that you will “Fight for what you believe.” And the question hit me – What if this imperative is not just for the characters’ players but is for the Game Master as well?

What should a Game Master fight for?

First and foremost, we are all playing a game, and as such all participants should fight for enjoyment.  The short-term enjoyment of a single in-game moment, the medium-term enjoyment of a resolving story-arc, and the long-term enjoyment of character development and narrative closure.

A Game Master should fight to challenge the players and characters.  Guaranteed success is boring. In fact, my most memorable sessions are inevitably where situations spiral out of control, ala Fiasco-style, because success wasn’t guaranteed.  Typically these sessions are also very combat-lite.  A thinly veiled threat of splitting the loot 2 ways comes to mind.

Most systems I’ve played have two possible outcomes for a given roll…Success or Failure.  If I succeed, I am given narrative control.  If I fail, the GM is given narrative control.  There is no negotiation. No compromise.

I believe Apocalypse World gets it so very right by codifying that moves have a third possible outcome: Partial Success. Partial Success is a negotiated success…I get something that I want, but with a cost.  In the case of Apocalypse World, I’m negotiating with the rules.  In the case of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits, I’m negotiating with the table.

And lastly fight for what the characters and players believe in.  I struggle with engaging everyone’s beliefs.  In part this is a natural consequence of my failure to help shepherd character creation by not successfully conveying my campaign vision.  Also, beliefs are adjusted and change according to developing goals.  Keeping this information up to date is a challenge…especially if you can’t get confirmation from your game group that you are even playing that weekend.

In summary, understand what your players want then challenge and engage them via the story and the system.