Friday, 19 July 2013

Fight! (Part One)

It has been observed elsewhere, perhaps many times, that there is a disproportionate amount of page count devoted to the subject of combat in roleplaying games. Indeed, to many people combat is the essence of a roleplaying game -- the most popular games in the industry are all about achieving advancement by defeating enemies and acquiring more powerful weapons.

So why is it that so many people seem to complain about combat in roleplaying games?

If there is one complaint I hear over and over again on message boards and at our local game club, it is the gripe that a particular session bogged down because of a fight that was ultimately unnecessary and not very much fun. I think that the fact the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons explicitly made combat the core of its design -- and especially tabletop combat using miniatures and battle maps or tiles -- was a contributing factor to many gamers rejecting the brand. Of course, they largely migrated to Pathfinder, so that may say more about the community's parochial nature than a rejection of combat-centric play.

I grew up in the early days of the hobby, where its roots in the wargaming community were clearer, and it's true that most of my formative experiences revolved around combat. I remember the days when it was considered a mark of excellence that a game's ruleset modelled combat with excruciating realism. My favourite genre in roleplaying -- superheroes -- is one that almost requires a certain focus on people in spandex punching each other in the face.

And yet I'm tired of roleplaying games that focus on combat. I get the appeal, and I enjoy playing characters that are good at combat (mostly because that speeds things along), but it's a case of diminishing rewards. Combat requires a lot of effort and rules infrstructure to do well. If you aren't getting a payoff from all of that work, what's the point?

Moreover, it's a truth of modern game design that the rules are weighted in favour of the players. I can't remember a single combat I played in D&D 4th Edition that we didn't win handily, with little sense of challenge or interest. That doesn't make D&D 4th a bad design -- on the contrary, it does what it's intended to do very, very well. But what it's meant to do is create a complex illusion of challenge that keeps the players advancing. Your mileage may vary, but I think this is also true of many other games: Leverage is well known as a game of "competence porn", and even something with deep indie roots like Fate makes characters very capable and hard to take out of the story. So where's the drama in a fight you know you're probably going to win?

This is not an argument for the unforgiving, one-bad-roll-and-you're-dog-meat "old school" rules systems. For me, and I suspect many others, those weren't fun either. With the possible exception of Call of Cthulhu, I have little interest in old school games where the character's fragility is a central part of the game. The Mongoose edition of Traveller (which is a marvellous, crunchy ruleset full of delights) sensibly included the "hardcore" version of character generation where you can die before actually playing the game as an option, to satisfy the old-school fans, but not a requirement.

So where does that leave us with combat? What do you do with it in a modern game? How do you use it in a way that keeps the adrenaline but discards the baggage that can make combat Not Fun?

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