Sunday, February 5, 2012

Combat as War vs. Combat as Sport

I've got to say, this post over at ENWorld is quite insightful. The upshot of it is that there are two distinct schools of thought as to what constitutes combat as it should be in D&D. It's long, but well worth reading the whole original post and the ensuing thread. Here's the idea in a nutshell:

The "Combat as War" faction (which would include most of the OSR) revels in unbalanced combats. They want to eke out every possible advantage, even to the point of so subverting and sabotaging the enemy that they don't even get to the point that combat even happens. They're toast before swords get drawn.

The "Combat as Sport" faction (which would include most 4E fans) loves evenly balanced, long drawn-out fights. Even to the point where one side or the other will fight sub-optimally ("Here, you dropped your sword!") in order to even things up and make it "sporting".

Personally, I vastly prefer the combat-as-war approach, but every once in a while things turn out fairly evenly matched even when each side is trying to stack the deck in their own favor. THOSE are the epic fights that everyone remembers. Not the ones that are completely mismatched because the goblins fell into the camouflaged pit traps, not the ones that were mathematically preordained to be 50-50 chances because the rules required it, but the ones that were unexpectedly close, where despite everything the whole affair hinged on a single roll or a decision to fire the lightning bolt to the right or the left, not because the rules dictated it, but because it just worked out that way.

9 comments:

JasonZavoda said...

After reading the article it seems to me that this is really about roleplaying combat versus wargaming combat.

Roleplaying is the art of the game. It is the hardest thing to accomplish and the downfall of RPGs versus things like video games and online games. This would be the combat as war.

Wargaming is easy to set-up but as complex as the ability of the players to think tactically within the confines of the rule system. It is much more of a skill than an art and roleplaying can be minimized. This would be the combat as sport.

It seems like the author is saying that 1e and 2e are open to more roleplaying, while 4e is more like a wargame.

My feeling is that regardless of the rulesystem it is the DMs and players who adjust the game to their comfort level of roleplaying versus wargaming during combat.

Justin Alexander said...

"Not the ones that are completely mismatched because the goblins fell into the camouflaged pit traps..."

Mostly true, but not necessarily so.

I've had some pretty epic battles in my current campaign, but the one the PCs remember most? When they managed to dispatch a group of cultists and kill the two that were trying to warn the rest of the complex. Which resulted in them being able to sneak into the lower temple, open a door, and find the priestess (who had been making their lives hell for several sessions) sitting on the floor sorting through various artifacts.

She said: "I said I was not to be disturbed!"

And the party's rogue put an arrow through the back of her skull.

That's just one example. But I've generally found that the simple victories -- particularly the simple victories that are earned through hard work or daring -- are often the most memorable.

Stainless said...

I agree with this analysis. I also feel it echoes (or is the cause of) the divide between "simulationist" and "gamist" approaches. With all the fantasy, non-real-life aspects of RPGs taken as read, the OSR tends towards rules that simulate reality (a heroic fantastical one) while the latter systems tend towards game design for the sake of the rules as an end to themselves (symmetry, balance, consistency, etc.), the things that real life most definitely isn't.

Roger the GS said...

This conflict between unfair war and fair game is actually as old as wargaming itself. Many historical encounters were rather one-sided (think Hitler invading Poland, or the Carthaginian rout of the Romans at Lake Trasimene). The question then became whether to just avoid those kinds of scenarios in gaming, or to have some kind of points system to reward doing better or worse relatively speaking.

Mjolnir said...

Yoi know, when I read the title I thought this was going to be about tournements vs campaigns, but that just shows you how hard wired my brain is for Pendragon. Serioisly, though, who even goes into a fight (we're talking RL here) saying "I'm a lot better than him. Maybe I should tone it down a bit"?

Besides, any system that makes a fight with a non-magical bear take most of a night, because it's "balanced" is going a little too far IMHO.

Dan of Earth said...

There are some good insights in there but to me it is a post hoc analysis that goes backwards. What I mean is, it's looking at the consequences of a wider design philosophy but presenting it as if it is the initial cause.

Old-school D&D is concerned with "game balance" in a looser way than 3e and 4e. That extends from classes and spells all the way to monsters and the way encounters are rolled up. In terms of encounters there is much more left to chance. How many creatures of what HD will you encounter? It varies all the time, as do monsters' max hp. You can't have strict balance in that system. As a player you have to be able and willing to improvise because you just never know what an encounter will bring. In addition, the DM should play creatures to their full potential, sometimes having them set up tricks or traps, and that can change everything. Whereas in later editions you don't have to think about those things because each encounter is supposed to be "balanced" in a way that a straight up fight can be carried out with reasonable chance of the players winning.

So I guess part of what I'm saying is that it is a bigger issue than just combat, because it is tied into a bigger paradigm that differs between the game styles with players who have very different expectations about how the game is played, starting all the way back at character creation.

Gene Sollows said...

I read the post and about four pages of the responses; I think the danger comes when players of one stripe play in a game of the other stripe. A CaW player in a CaS game will be bored or frustrated by a lack of options. A CaS player in a CaW game is in real danger of an early death, believing that his 'encounter' is 'balanced.'

When you add this to the Sandbox vs. Adventure Path debate, you end up with I think a pretty complete picture of the current divide in PnP gaming. You have CaW/Sandbox old schoolers on one hand and CaS/Adventure Pathers on the other. They are really entirely different GAMES at that point, not merely different playstyles.

Personally, I am open to either method, but I find myself a bit bored by CaS/Adventure Path. I very much like the "Oregon Trail D&D" espoused by the EnWorld OP.

David said...

Daztur (guy who wrote the ENWorld post) = me

There's some really good commentary on the thread a few more pages in, it's just that a lot of it gets swamped with standard edition warring.

JasonZavoda:
"After reading the article it seems to me that this is really about roleplaying combat versus wargaming combat."

Sort of, there's some kinds of roleplaying that I think that 4ed caters to better, it's just that TSR-D&D does a better job of connecting to the kind of stories that I like (old school S&S, Black Company, etc.).

For me, one of the big problems with 4ed is that it's not really set up well for MacGyvering (see my explanation about the Succubus here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/new-horizons-upcoming-edition-d-d/317715-very-long-combat-sport-vs-combat-war-key-difference-d-d-play-styles-3.html#post5805524 (the process vs. effect bit) Basically 4ed makes it harder for players to be MacGyver.

Justin Alexander
"That's just one example. But I've generally found that the simple victories -- particularly the simple victories that are earned through hard work or daring -- are often the most memorable."

I'd agree. In an adventure I ran a while back (ripped off of The Merchant of Venice), a PC had seduced Portia and had been challenged to a duel by the (higher level) Antonio. The PC managed to finagle it so that Antonio would choose the weapon (pistols) but the PC would choose the location (tight rope), once failed Balance check and it was all over, the PC loved that fight.

Stainless
"I also feel it echoes (or is the cause of) the divide between "simulationist" and "gamist" approaches."

Kind of. The problem with GNS is that S is mostly a dumping ground of a whole bunch of stuff that Edwards didn't know what to do with. 4ed does a better job of Simulating certain sub-genres of fantasy than TSR-D&D, does that make it more Simulationist? But then, there's more nods to actual reality in TSR-D&D and it does a better job of Simulating other sub-genres of fantasy.

Dan of Earth
"So I guess part of what I'm saying is that it is a bigger issue than just combat, because it is tied into a bigger paradigm that differs between the game styles with players who have very different expectations about how the game is played, starting all the way back at character creation."
I think you're basically right here, I was trying to focus in on one specific difference that emerges from different design styles, but get to the root of different design styles.

My main goal was try to explain why I don't want to play 4ed in a diplomatic enough way to make 4ed-fans agree with me (something that is often maddeningly difficult), the number of 4ed fans who actually agreed with my analysis (all except Tony Vargas on the ENWorld thread pretty much) made me very happy.

Gene Sollows
"You have CaW/Sandbox old schoolers on one hand and CaS/Adventure Pathers on the other. They are really entirely different GAMES at that point, not merely different playstyles."
Yup, as you note I make the point later on that CaW and sanboxes go together.

I think a good Rorschach test for this is the DM of the Rings webcomic. Their game sucked. Is it because of bad DMing or bad players? I think it does a great job of showing that even if you have the best story arc in the world (The Lord of the Rings), it's not much fun if the game is about your story instead of the players.

Mark Thomas said...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu, definitely Old School :D