The Trouble With Combat

Role-playing games have their origins from wargames. The through-line from Chainmail to Dungeons and Dragons is an undisputed point of historical record, and the through-line from Dragon Pass to RuneQuest pretty much the same. And as the eponym of wargame is war, it’s pretty clear that all wargames have concerned themselves with killing and dying all the way back to the invention of chess. The problem is that, derivative as they are, role-playing games are not wargames. Role-playing games need not merely concern themselves with killing and dying. After nearly fifty years of evolution, I’d argue that role-playing games shouldn’t only concern themselves with killing and dying.

To be fair, even back to the earliest editions of D&D there were more interesting things going on than just monsters to slay. By 1983 we had Call of Cthulhu, where few or none of the foes within the game were intended to be ‘taken on’ in a violent manner. White Wolf games prized intrigue and social dynamics over outright violence, though both clearly had a place. White Wolf games, though, especially Vampire:the Masquerade, revealed the distinct liability of designing a game, regardless of genre or intended primary activity, with a wargame-like combat system at its center.

The trouble with combat in RPGs is that it being a central mechanic is from historical precedent, not good design. While it’s hard to argue that violence isn’t a broadly popular medium for conflict (with the exception of Tetris, the top five best-selling video game franchises of all time are all about fighting at some level), I would argue that we don’t need it to be a central pillar in RPGs anymore. I’d also argue that Fifth Edition D&D is making this worse. When D&D actually had three pillars, when dungeons were dangerous and the game prized creativity and alternate approaches, its wargaming core was nicely nestled among all the other components that made the game. As those other constituent rules keep atrophying, though, what’s left is a game that’s about all the different monster-killing permutations available through character advancement. D&D is teaching a large swathe of gamers to jam the square peg of murder into every round hole the GM presents for them, and for that reason alone we need to change how we approach combat in RPGs. We could get rid of the combat system altogether, and I’d like to see at least some designers do that. Looking across history, though, there are plenty of games written in the combat-centric dominant mode that managed to be more than just fight sequences strung together.

Why Center Combat?

Putting aside the question of mechanics for a moment, I’m not the only one who has realized that maybe fighting and killing shouldn’t be the central activity within a game. I mentioned Call of Cthulhu above; the investigation arc of a Call of Cthulhu adventure is a good and early example of a game where combat was not necessarily required or was done at the players’ peril. The same notional idea was used in Cyberpunk 2020 to strongly shift the balance away from making combat inevitable, while the system is arguably still violent the chaos and unpredictability of its gunfights (modeled after real gunfights) did a lot to persuade players to think of other approaches, or at least act more strategically. In terms of strong mechanical disincentives you can’t miss Unknown Armies; while Cyberpunk aimed to model the physical outcomes of gunfights realistically Unknown Armies did the same for the mental outcomes, making violent encounters severe sources of mental stress.

Games like Cyberpunk and Unknown Armies that lean into the consequences of violence do a fairly good job of presenting violence in a more grounded, less over the top way compared to games like D&D. That said, they’re still firmly traditional games built on wargame rulesets. Cyberpunk got its combat realism through a lovingly detailed combat system, making up a dominant chunk of the rules for the whole game. Call of Cthulhu (and Unknown Armies to a lesser extent) are based on Basic Roleplaying, the generic version of RuneQuest, which had its setting introduced in a predecessor wargame. While each of these games frame combat in a way intended to at least somewhat decentralize it, they’re all still built on frameworks which are structured around combat rules. This is an easy assumption about role-playing games, but there’s no reason it needs to be true.

Why Have a Combat System?

In my view, the biggest traditionally structured, campaign-driven role-playing system which well and truly eschewed a combat system is Powered by the Apocalypse. While games prior to PbtA had attempted to bring other conflicts up to the level of combat (Fate and Burning Wheel come to mind as examples, but there are others), Apocalypse World was a game which pushed combat down to the level of other actions. In Apocalypse World, violence was one of several Moves. While there was eventually a battle mechanic added (something I half-jokingly attributed to peer pressure when discussing it in the past), even the battles are intended to work without giving combat undue focus in the game. Of course this hasn’t prevented the system from being used for violent ends; games like Masks and Monster of the Week recenter combat and fights as part of their core storytelling toolkit. On the other hand, though, games like Monsterhearts wouldn’t really be possible with mechanics that orbit around a combat system. The same is true for Dream Askew, and other games using Belonging Outside Belonging as their specific framework. Under Hollow Hills, designed by the Bakers just like Apocalypse World, serves as another key example because of how it treats violence within the structure of its rules. While there’s a Move for fighting in Under Hollow Hills, there’s also a Move specifically for murder, for killing a fae who is not normally under threat of being killed. It’s likely one of the only games I’ve read that truly sets down moral lines around murder, not just killing, and defines what it means when it happens ingame. In that way, from a violence-centered perspective at least, it is essentially the opposite of D&D.

There’s nothing special about tabletop RPGs when it comes to their love affair with violence. Movies, video games, even books all rely on physical conflict to advance their stories. Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be a chart-topping series without its mayhem, and all the major tentpole movie series (Star Wars, Avatar, the MCU) rely on their fight scenes. We’re not different.

At the same time, tabletop RPGs lag seemingly everyone else in breadth. Virtually every game people actually play has a combat system, and the exceptions to that are less than fifteen years old. There’s no popular romance RPG. Comedy RPGs are still completely couched in violence (the two best examples are Toon, which relies on a Looney Tunes interpretation of violence, and Paranoia, which has hyperbolic violence as part of its satire). Despite the genre’s immense success in the digital world and the RPG hyperfocus on advancement, there have been few if any attempts at writing an RPG about building something, be that a business, a town, or a farm.

While I’m sure someone will point me to an indie title that does one of these things, it more bolsters my point than anything else that any small efforts at breaking the violent mold are met with basically no reception at all. The issue here is assumptions of form, rather than stating gamers are sociopaths (the characters they play, on the other hand, could fit that mold quite easily). Over the last fifty years, we’ve been led to a narrow expectation of what a role-playing game is, and that expectation is completely built on wargames. I need you all to understand that the wargame roots of D&D and other early games have basically nothing to do with roleplay at all. It’s OK that games like D&D are popular, and it’s OK that violent action is the core attraction to the hobby, but there’s no inherent limitation to the roleplaying form that says it has to be this way. I know this might be a tough push, lord knows there are enough people out there who don’t understand that RPGs don’t have to have classes or levels. But for the hobby to move on and grow, we need to understand that RPGs don’t need combat systems. I know all the indie nerds are scoffing at me right now, but this is a message for the other 99% of the hobby. RPGs don’t need combat. RPGs aren’t about combat. The sooner we actually internalize that, the sooner we understand how big this hobby really can be.

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble With Combat”

  1. Nice one!.
    This is what I love in your post
    Great article! It’s refreshing to see someone challenging the assumption that combat must be a central mechanic in RPGs. The examples provided of games that have successfully decentralised combat are fascinating and it would be exciting to see more games exploring mechanics outside of violence.
    Ely Shemer


  2. Great article.

    I think part of the problem is building a context.

    Where Call of Cthulhu works, it is because the setting’s definition of reality (or unreality), includes a framing where combat is futile and does not help your survival. We don’t have to look at the rules to know that, because it is part of the literary genre.

    From a another direction, I’ve played in a lot of games that didn’t center on combat. This includes DnD 5e games. What was different was the people playing. If you have people who enjoy Roleplay, you can develop satisfying play around shopping or exploring or performing concerts. And this can be done even where the rules don’t really do a good job of supporting that kind of play.

    I do like the way Apocalypse World essentially frames the rules around Story structural shifts, rather than around Task accomplishment or Win/Lose structures. Changing where the random elements bring divergence into the process of the game seems significant. But maybe it needs to be better spelled out in rules explanations?

    So, with context framing and rules that are focused on outcomes that are not zero sum/win-lose, maybe you can get players to engage differently?

    I think they will still need something to engage with. Are there structures in place to create game level choices for crafting or exploration or selling or … ?

    Finally, in person, you can teach a fair number of people to play differently by modelling alternate play behaviour. This applies to better combat strategy as well as better roleplaying. But I don’t know how easy it is to convey that just with rules?

    Liked by 1 person

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