Kick Combat Back Into Shape! -part 1-

29 07 2008

Physical combat has been a part of roleplaying games for as long as I can remember. While this focus on combat might not be true for every roleplaying system out there, most rpg products have at least a section devoted to it and some might have as little as a section devoted to anything else. Among people who have played RPGs for some time, this is standard knowledge.

What interests me is that, while a lot of games set a pretty comprehensive framework to resolve physical combat, I have seen very little in terms of actually making an interesting combat scene. This can be very problematic and can turn a supposedly exciting part of the story into 3 hour long boardgames. Let’s get to the roleplaying gym and see if we can kick combat back into shape!


In the past few days I had the chance to play some RPGs with friends and combat popped its head to say ‘hello’ quite a few times. By the second time it dropped by without calling first I was getting irritated, we’re talking about an intrusive fella that will stay for dinner but won’t bring any dessert and it won’t help with the dishes afterwards. The problem was that, except for one exception (and it was only so-so), combat was by far the least interesting part of the whole game. Since we were in high fantasy camp and goblins kept appearing, my mild “oh, ok!… let’s roleplay!” expression of enjoyment was soon replaced by a more familiar “this blows” look (and in the case of D&D 4ed the “I’d be less bored licking a rusted nail than doing this” look.)

So, what was it that made combat such a drag? In a nutshell, the fact that it was meaningless. Just to make things clear, I am not trying to imply that the fact that there was a combat did not mean anything. What I’m trying to say is that the way that combat developed (for 3 mind bending hours) meant very little, if anything at all.

The Things We Do

The important concept to keep in mind is that a scene begins with a setup and ends when action and conflict have been resolved.
From the Mythic roleplaying game.

I remember the Lord of the Rings basic roleplaying game very fondly. It was one of the first games that I played for quite a long time and it basically gave a very good taste of a lot of the things that I’d come to hate about roleplaying games in the present. I remember sitting down at our weekly sessions to face, sure enough, yet another band of orcs (either that or some angry tribesmen) who would stand in the way of the adventure at hand. Combat would surely ensue and we would spend a big part of the afternoon just throwing dice hoping to hit ridiculously high numbers in the hopes of slicing the critters. It was basically a rendition of that toy where two boxers stand toe to toe and you press buttons to make them punch each other… and someone, at somepoint, somehow wins. From reading this you might get the impression that I’m complaining about the lack of ‘depth’ in roleplaying systems and you would find very odd the fact that I had such a lousy time with D&D 4ed (or D&D 3.5 for that matter.) As I said before, however, I am complaining about a lack of meaning and not of mechanical depth.

Physical combat is a form of conflict, therefore it needs mechanics that can deal with conflict resolution. In my opinion, a good system with conflict resolution mechanics can answer these questions in a simple and efficient manner:

  1. Am I winning? (and by how much)
  2. Am I losing? (and by how much)
  3. Are we tied?
  4. What is the new situation?

One of the problems that I see with focusing with task resolution in its current form, is that a lot of times can lead to results that are either too complicated or outright impossible to translate into answers to those questions. The result is that the whole combat affair is transformed into one encapsulated conflict that takes a lot of time (and dice) to resolve. This situation would be even better than what we have now and would create far less problems. If a roleplaying system told me to go play a game of Risk everytime a conflict needed to be resolved and use the winner of the game as the winner of the conflict, it would still be less problematic. Of course it would be cumbersome and totally absurd and probably no one would do such a thing but at least doing that could answer something like:

  1. Did I win? (and maybe “by how much”)
  2. Did I lose? (and maybe “by how much”)
  3. Are we tied?
  4. What is the new situation?

Currently, what I see is a lot of roleplaying games trying very hard to pinpoint exactly what is happening (i.e. the fighter moves 5 yards to the left and strikes the orc on the left arm doing x amount of damage and providing x penalties to using that arm for the next x rounds and now the orc is flanked so he will be at minus x to fight the combatants and…) but not all to tell me what does it means. The idea, apparently, is to go from the specific (for example the orc case) and only then let the players (most times without any help from the system) to figure out the meaning of the specific (in this case, to answer the questions presented before.) The problem, again, is that a lot of these actions are almost impossible to directly translate into a result that can shape the collective story being created in a meaningful way. Sometimes they’re even hard to translate into something that can shape the conflict itself.

This is all for now, but wait for part two of my ramblings.





6 responses

30 07 2008

For me, combat is normally one of the most exciting parts of the game session. That’s why boring/meaningless combats disappoint me quite a lot.

I think that your post has inspired a new post idea in me. I shall comment more later.

30 07 2008

For me, the interesting parts of combat are
1)who is fighting and for what reasons
2)what are the risks for all sides
3)what are the outcomes

The detailed narrative may or may not be interesting, but generating it blow-by-blow is very hard. It works better is small chunks or as a whole after the mechanics are handled, IMO.

30 07 2008
Challenge Rating « tenletter

[…] to the blunderbuss for inspiring the first […]

1 08 2008

I think that the three points that you mentioned before are indeed very interesting points regarding combat.

I would like to add, however, that from my perspective those points can be seen as dynamic rather than static contents. The idea is for those items to be able to be refreshed at each ’round’ of the combat (although here I’m not using ’round’ in the traditional sense of the word, I am talking about a narrative round: one that is essentially a new situation within the scene where the answers to those points you mention change somehow) and thus promote decisions that are more than tactical.

I am aware that this might not sound too clear but I plan to elaborate on this on my next article which will come out tomorrow.

I’ve already commented on your post but still, I’m glad to know you found it useful somehow.

Take care,

1 08 2008

i find that combat has meaning the more danger there is……….if you know that it’s going to be a walkover then it becomes boring………..non mechanical depth also pops up when you add mechanical depth, i know this seems a bit odd so i’ll explain with an example…….in a session i ran the pc’s were sailing, they encountered giant turtles – or something like it :p – this lead to a battle in the water……..fights tend to happen on stable ground so just by changing where it’s happen, it adds to the danger quota making it all good


2 08 2008

An increased level of danger brings meaning to combat as long as the combatants have a meaningful reason to put themselves in the way of such lethality. In general, the higher the lethality involved in any action (for mortal beings) the stronger the emotional reason for choosing that course of action must be.

Even taking that into consideration, I would rather say that a “high stakes” combat is more dramatic (there is more feeling or passion involved) rather than saying that it’s more meaningful. We should note that there are very few things that would move an ordinary man to enter a situation where he strongly believes he might die willingly. Leads in heroic settings (for example) are not ordinary, although note that the belief in the possibility of death works both on a narrative level and a metagame level. So it is more than likely that what constitutes a ‘dangerous’ situation for such individuals in not on an equal scale with an ordinary man.

On a second note, the mechanical elements should present themselves to support the narrative elements. In the example that you put this works just like that (the fact that the scene is set on top of a ship, creates a narrative environment that is different to land combat -and this does not only include the tactical considerations-.) The moment the fight on top of a boat is just a way to introduce difficult terrain into the mix, I believe that there is something problematic with the development of the game.

Do not see that as a harsh criticism, your point of view would be completely valid even if just meant fighting on top of a boat to add the difficult terrain. What changes is the kind of game that is wanted by the players, and not the quality of said game. I try to make my tastes and expectations quite clear, which does not mean that I do not respect and encourage people with different playing styles than mine.

Cheers to everyone,

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