Reprise: 0 and 1, or The Problem With RPG Combat

This post was originally published on August 11, 2008. I’ve found myself revisiting a lot of my topics, looking at different angles or finding alterations to make to my position, but my thoughts on this subject have stayed pretty constant.

I’ve managed to avoid most of the typical problems with my game groups. We don’t tend to have cheaters, I’ve almost never had to deal with the truly nasty intergroup fighting, there aren’t too many playstyle clashes, my players don’t insist that I follow the standard clichés religiously, nobody kills my NPCs unless they have a really good reason, when I PC I’ve never had to worry about being offed by another member of the party and only once have had to be in the same group as someone the character literally should not be able to tolerate; if anything, it’s been downright idyllic.

Except for one little problem: I don’t like combat.

I’ve come up with a lot of possible reasons, but most of them tended to boil down to “It’s always the same, like some monster battle in some console RPG.” I’ve spent a while trying to figure out why. Is it the mechanics over mind issue? The possibility (particularly since I play in permanent-death systems) of losing a character I put so much effort into just because the dice are feeling capricious? The being sidelined because I usually build for the social and mental arenas?

It wasn’t until I got into an argument with one of my own GMs about the necessity of risk to players that I realized what my real problem was with battles in most of the games I’d played in.

It’s all about 0 or 1. Win or lose. Character lives or character dies. And the thing is, oftentimes that’s all there is to it. The battle is just there because there needs to be a battle, and the results are variations on two main themes: either you kill the enemy, or the enemy kills you. Mainly, the variations are just what fraction of each side is dead by the end.

But I like more options than just that. So I usually try something crazy. Negotiate with the enemy. Run away or at least move the battlefield. I even have one character—my most powerful, ironically enough—who’s surrendered at least a third of the battles she’s been in, and I’m pretty sure the strongest out of character reason is because it was a choice that wasn’t just “I live, you die” or “You live, I die.” Those get dead boring.

I’d ask “Is this worth avoiding?”, only that’s going to vary by group. So instead I’ll stick to the easy question: How do we avoid this?

The answer is simple: Create some answers that aren’t 0 and 1. This is doubly important for a group that has some sort of Narrative Protection, as battles are pretty much a foregone conclusion. Perhaps you’re running a fight that will have different results depending on how many rounds it takes to complete. Maybe there’ll be a different result if a certain building is destroyed, or if a certain character is targeted first. This shouldn’t be like a console RPG boss battle, where the main reason to fight is to advance the plot; it needs to be a breaking point, a place where it’s actually going to make a difference where the story goes. Otherwise, why don’t we just hand-wave it and say “They fight, you win, moving on”? Or if what we want is action for action’s own sake, go play a MMORPG? There need to be pathways. Options. Flexibility.

There are, of course, a lot of other things you can do. I’ve always been rather partial to tactics mattering (one of the few things I give D&D 4E credit for), inventive use of the environment in ways the rules might not necessarily cover, creative re-interpretations of abilities that weren’t originally meant for combat, that sort of thing. But all in all, if you’re having problems with people not enjoying combat, making the fight’s outcome more than just win/lose may be a useful first step in recovering their interest.

If anything, I think this goes for writing as well. There’s one important similarity between fight scenes and sex scenes in a work of fiction: there’s an expected conclusion and trajectory, and if it follows that pattern all that’s necessary is to gloss it over. It’s only when what’s going on isn’t the standard pattern—when it pushes the plot, or advances characterization—that it needs to be written in.

What do you think?

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