RPG Combat: Sport or War?
  • RPG Combat: Sport or War?


    There are two different extremes in arranging fights. One is like war and the other is like a sporting event. Sporting events are supposed to be fair contests between roughly equal forces. On the other hand, war is the epitome of unfair competition.


    Jeffro Johnson introduced me to this topic, which was discussed in an ENWorld forum. If your game doesn't involve much combat this discussion may not mean a lot to you.

    Strategem: a plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent or achieve an end

    Any GAME implies fairness, equality of opportunity. Knightly jousting tournaments were combat as sport. We don't have semi-pro soccer teams playing in the Premier League, we don't have college basketball teams playing the NBA, because it would be boringly one-sided. People want to see a contest where it appears that both sides can win. And occasionally the weaker side, the underdog if there is one, wins even when they're not supposed to.

    An obvious problem with combat as sport, with a fair fight, is that a significant part of the time your players will lose the fight. Unless they're really adept at recognizing when they're losing, and at fleeing the scene, this means somebody will get dead. Frequent death is going to be a tough hurdle in most campaigns.

    The objective in war is to get such an overwhelming advantage that the other side surrenders rather than fight, and if they choose not to surrender then a "boring" one-sided massacre is OK. Stratagems are favored in war, not frowned upon. Trickery (e.g. with the inflation of the football) is frowned upon in sports in general, it's not fair, it's cheating.

    Yet "All's fair in love and war." Read Glen Cook's fantasy Black Company series or think about mercenaries in general, they don't want a fair fight. They don't want to risk their lives. They want a surrender or massacre. The Black Company was great at using stratagems. I think of D&D adventurers as much like the Black Company, finding ways to win without giving the other side much chance.

    When my wife used to GM first edition D&D, she'd get frustrated if we came up with good stratagems and strategies and wiped out the opposition without too much trouble. She felt she wasn't "holding up the side." She didn't understand that it's not supposed to be fair to the bad guys.

    Think also that RPG adventures are much like adventure novels: we have to arrange that the players succeed despite the odds, much as the protagonists in a typical novel. In the novel the good guys are often fabulously lucky; in RPGs we can arrange that the players encounter opposition that should not be a big threat if the players treat combat as war rather than as a sport.

    I'm not saying you need to stack the game in favor of the players, I'm saying that if the players do well at whatever they're supposed to do - presumably, in combat, out-thinking the other side -then they should succeed, and perhaps succeed easily. Just like Cook's Black Company.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5
    Comments 155 Comments
    1. Paraxis -
      A couple good videos on the topic.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnKc64ADYf8

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a_84LKiyAs
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      An obvious problem with combat as sport, with a fair fight, is that a significant part of the time your players will lose the fight. Unless they're really adept at recognizing when they're losing, and at fleeing the scene, this means somebody will get dead. Frequent death is going to be a tough hurdle in most campaigns.
      For a grog such as yourself, I find it odd that you consider this a "problem", weren't many of the original modules, especially the ones Gygax himself had a hand in essentially meat-grinders? Haven't many of your posts been talking about how the older stuff, which was on average much less forgiving than the modern stuff, significantly better?

      Now I understand the human brain is capable of holding opposing positions, but I see your statement as a feature of combat as a sport. Players will either need to "play smart" or "die". Yeah okay I don't have a problem with that. "Frequent" on it's own doesn't have much meaning. One or two deaths per combat? One or two deaths per session with multiple combats? We've got to be able to find common ground here in order to establish "frequency" in order to have any sort of discussion about if it's a tough hurdle. I've had players who think "frequent" is "once is too many" and I've had players who don't think every combat is frequent enough.

      "Frequent" death is a problem if players do not wish to play smart, wish to have things handed to them, or don't come prepared with backup characters. Even in my soft games, I advise everyone make at least one backup.

      The objective in war is to get such an overwhelming advantage that the other side surrenders rather than fight, and if they choose not to surrender then a "boring" one-sided massacre is OK. Stratagems are favored in war, not frowned upon. Trickery (e.g. with the inflation of the football) is frowned upon in sports in general, it's not fair, it's cheating.
      Sort of? Overwhelming success if obviously the goal, but there's an opportunity cost to preparation. If every day that you wait your enemy becomes better armed, then the objective is of course to get the best possible advantage given the situation.

      This problem with this statement is that we're quickly mixing up the definition of "fair". Is a fight between two cheaters fair? What if cheating and deception are part of the game?

      There are two definitions of fair at work in this same sentence.
      "Fair" in terms of "equally matched combatants".
      and
      "Fair" in terms of honorable and rule-abiding.

      Combat as a sport can be both. But it is typically at least "fair" in the terms of roughly equally matched combatants. Deceit and deception may be the tools of Team A, while strength and power may be the tools of Team B. They may not be mirrors, but their respective level of skill within their domains puts them on par with each other.

      Yet "All's fair in love and war." Read Glen Cook's fantasy Black Company series or think about mercenaries in general, they don't want a fair fight. They don't want to risk their lives. They want a surrender or massacre. The Black Company was great at using stratagems. I think of D&D adventurers as much like the Black Company, finding ways to win without giving the other side much chance.
      Maybe, but again there's an opportunity cost. You cannot achieve victory without some form of engagement. Be it political, moral, social, or physical. The line "You win a war by making the other poor dumb guy die for his." is fitting...and yet, soldiers still die. Clearly you can't make an omlette without breaking a few eggs.

      When my wife used to GM first edition D&D, she'd get frustrated if we came up with good stratagems and strategies and wiped out the opposition without too much trouble. She felt she wasn't "holding up the side." She didn't understand that it's not supposed to be fair to the bad guys.
      Maybe. I'm fairly certain she got a chance to land some epic TPKs on you with that logic, since ya know you are the bad guys in the eyes of the bad guys.

      That's sort of the problem I feel "combat as war" generates. Players get under the impression that they should be the only overwhelming force, and it can lead to adversarial DMing, because what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

      Think also that RPG adventures are much like adventure novels: we have to arrange that the players succeed despite the odds, much as the protagonists in a typical novel. In the novel the good guys are often fabulously lucky; in RPGs we can arrange that the players encounter opposition that should not be a big threat if the players treat combat as war rather than as a sport.
      Lolz, speak for yourself man. I get that some people find that engaging but kindly don't treat the entire hobby like the goal is to coddle the players into making their game into a heroic epic.

      I'm not saying you need to stack the game in favor of the players, I'm saying that if the players do well at whatever they're supposed to do - presumably, in combat, out-thinking the other side -then they should succeed, and perhaps succeed easily. Just like Cook's Black Company.
      You just did. Please don't treat us like we're idiots who can't read. It's insulting.

      In summary: I find your logic hollow and your arguments shallow at best. You speak of using strategy but then talk about how the DM should arrange for the players to win. You address your enemy as a static, unchanging element (a poor strategy) and you speak of your wife's frustrations in a manner that is rather disrespectful to the DM. We grow through loss, and also through victory, but rarely from either one alone. If you want to tell a story about Victor the Victorious, write a book. If you want to play a game that provides challenge and presents the possibility of loss as a potential outcome, I've always got a seat open.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Not sure if I'd write that long of a response to article...past history of forum wars or something?
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      Well, I don't have a lot of time right now, so I'll be brief. Sport <--> War is a sliding scale with RPG's (and from within individual campaigns). If death is something that takes time, it falls more towards Sport...if it happens because of a single miscalculation or bad die roll, it's more towards War. In a SUPERS! rpg game (great RPG, btw) it's nudging right up along max Sport...but in something like HARN Master (another great RPG), it's rubbing elboes with the very end of War.

      If we are talking "D&D", things get muddier. This is because D&D is a more 'generic' type of RPG (fantasy, in particular). I've played hard-core death-is-everywhere D&D games where fighting was something to be avoided unless you OBVIOUSLY had time to prepare for it and gather solid information...and I've played in games where rush in, kill the monsters, take their stuff was the order of the day. The thing with D&D is that it can be tailored to one side or the other, or anywhere in between, with reletive ease.

      For a "core 5e"; I'd say that it's based more towards Sport as a whole. The PC's are expected to win a lot of the time, and if they 'mess up', it is generally of the "Oh, man...we should run in a round or two if things don't start turning to our favour".

      My preference...I have none. I enjoy all manner of games...as long as I know what type of 'slide location' the game is at (sucks to be expecting a War sided game and getting a Sport sided one, and vice a versa).

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      It's an interesting article. In terms of D&D, combat is probably a 'sport' by this definition - look at how much effort goes into 'balancing' Classes by design and specific Challenge Levels and so on. It's an elaborate game, where each 'piece' or 'move' has had careful balancing to ensure that it's all a fair contest by design. Traveller combat, by contrast lies in the planning of ambushes really - it's a closer facsimile of how soldiers would prepare for a combat - where first strike is all important, and an unprepared group has no chance of retaliation.
    1. Lanefan -
      Note that I'm only speaking to D&D here. I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of other systems to comment on them.
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      That's sort of the problem I feel "combat as war" generates. Players get under the impression that they should be the only overwhelming force, and it can lead to adversarial DMing, because what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
      Exactly, and that's why combat as war is good: as a player you know the DM is not going to pull punches and really will use whatever reasonable-for-the-monster tactics she can to try and finish you off, knowing you're not likely to show her monsters any mercy either. The players do have to trust the DM to stay within the rules - but it's a very poor DM who wouldn't.

      Adversarial DMing on the battlefield is a good thing.

      I get that some people find that engaging but kindly don't treat the entire hobby like the goal is to coddle the players into making their game into a heroic epic.
      A pretty decent argument can be made that D&D has slowly gone this direction over the editions. Basic was rough. 1e was rough. 2e backed off a bit. 3e couldn't make up its mind - rough in some ways, not in others. 4e backed off quite a lot and 5e has followed suit.

      In summary: I find your logic hollow and your arguments shallow at best. You speak of using strategy but then talk about how the DM should arrange for the players to win.
      It sounds odd when you put it like that, but isn't that exactly what the whole combat side of the game is in theory balanced around at the design level - the PCs winning (very nearly) all the fights?

      "Run away" was once a very viable and frequently-used option in a combat. Not seen so often any more as players have - rightly or wrongly - come to expect via the expressed design of the game's last few editions that most encounters will be more or less balanced such that even with poor dice luck the PCs will win...and this shows that D&D combat has by design moved toward sport.

      I don't like it, but I can't deny it.
      If you want to play a game that provides challenge and presents the possibility of loss as a potential outcome, I've always got a seat open.
      Now this is more like it!

      Lan-"war is coming - heed the call"-efan
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      In an even fight - a fair fight, where both sides are equally matched - the chance of victory is fifty percent. And, given the nature of monster-filled dungeons, the losing side is dead.

      If it takes ten encounters to gain a level, and the chance of your side surviving an encounter is fifty percent, then nobody has ever made it to level nine (where they could pick up Raise Dead) because the odds are worse than one in an octillion. If we want characters to reach level nine, and we don't want them to get there after just eight encounters, then we need those encounters to be biased in favor of the players in some way. We don't want fights where there's a fifty percent chance of a TPK. We want fights where's much closer to a five percent chance of a TPK. We want encounters that are balanced rather than fair.

      The practical difference between combat as sport, and combat as war, is that the former delegates the burden of achieving the desired balance squarely on the DM; the latter puts it on the players. In a game with sport combat (like 4E), the DM is obligated to contrive a scenario where the party will encounter monsters that can put up a respectable show, but which are nevertheless unlikely to overpower the party. In a game with war combat, the players take responsibility for avoiding deadly encounters, by dropping rocks on the enemy and sneaking past the dragon instead of engaging it.

      Obviously, it can cause problems if everyone isn't on the same page. If you like sport combat, then avoiding fights and crushing your enemy with traps is a waste of your time at the table, because you want to be fighting. If you like war combat, then all of your planning and scheming is wasted because the DM is going to contrive a balanced encounter anyway.

      More importantly, though, contriving a balanced encounter requires the DM to commit the illegal act of meta-gaming by altering the in-game reality in response to the capabilities of the players. There is roughly zero chance that the party would continually find themself in balanced encounters, if the DM was honest in their roles of designing the world and playing the NPCs. It is exceptionally difficult to reconcile sport combat with honest role-playing, because the DM isn't allowed to contrive balanced encounters after the game starts. The best you can hope for is to design the world in such a way that dangerous encounters are rare, and hope that things happen to work out.
    1. Mephista's Avatar
      Mephista -
      I'm sorry, but I' can't get past this picture. As someone who's been in fencing before, I can't help but comment about how their posture is TERRIBLE. Bending a sword upside down that way iwll snap it if abused, and the tip went under the mask, dangerous and a penalty. Don't straighten your legs like that!

      Yesh. My teacher would kill these two for the way they're fighting.
    1. Garthanos's Avatar
      Garthanos -
      RPG combat is story.
    1. Aenghus's Avatar
      Aenghus -
      People have different tastes with respect to the Sport/War continuum. There are two problems with this continuum though. Firstly, Combat as War sounds more macho, which is a problem, as that's not really true, because of the second point. Which is the DM can always win if they want to. The only way the players can "win" is if the DM permits it. Whether they do so by designing winnable encounters themselves or allowing the players to reframe the enounter to something winnable, the objective is to give the players a fighting chance to win.

      Players tastes vary a lot with respect to recon, planning, stealth, tricks and thinking outside the box. A bunch of players have fun just charging in and see all the above as timewasting nonsense.

      And as at least one other person has commented, Combat as Sport involves designed encounters. But "fair" is a loaded term, fair for who? A totally even encounter would be a 50% chance of losing or having to run away. But that's sheer insanity for a combat heavy campaign. TPKs would be inevitable in short order. Actual designed encounters are designed to be winnable by the players most of the time. This allows players who want to to use a style closer to "kick in the door" than "ninja squad" and still obtain success.

      The only encounters set up to be fair and even I have seen regularly is in Player vs Player combat arenas. These tend to become explorations of the prejudices of the referees in a search for a broken winning combination.

      Obviously, some people like board games set up to be relatively fair and even and like the constraints of the rules. Others feel over constrained by them and might test the rules to breaking point, or attempt exploring the notional gamespace beyond the rules.

      Combat as War can devolve into "if you can convince the DM you win you win, otherwise your PC loses" paradigm, which sucks for players who hate the "convince the DM" subgame.
    1. Alzrius's Avatar
      Alzrius -
      An obvious problem with combat as sport, with a fair fight, is that a significant part of the time your players will lose the fight.
      This seems like it should be true, on its face, but there's something that needs to be kept in mind: D&D (at least in Third Edition and onward) decouples "fair" from "level-appropriate." The result is that an appropriate challenge is one wherein the PCs are heavily favored to win, which isn't exactly "fair" per se. That's why a typical party that's facing a monster with a Challenge Rating equal to their level will find it "to be a worthy challenge, but not a deadly one."
    1. thzero -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mephista View Post
      I'm sorry, but I' can't get past this picture. As someone who's been in fencing before, I can't help but comment about how their posture is TERRIBLE. Bending a sword upside down that way iwll snap it if abused, and the tip went under the mask, dangerous and a penalty. Don't straighten your legs like that!

      Yesh. My teacher would kill these two for the way they're fighting.
      Based on the moment in time the picture was taken of its apparent that the fencer on the left has attempted to avoid the touch of the fencer on the right which explains his body position. As for the 'under the mask', it looks much more like the tip hit the armpit. And as for bending a foil upside down; that I'm willing to bet wasn't intentional rather it is physics based on the direction of forces in relation to where the tip found purchase on the jackets. A foil is a square flexible blade and can bend pretty in any direction.
    1. cmad1977's Avatar
      cmad1977 -
      I run it as more of a spwart. Because this isn't an either or thing.


      Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
    1. Mephista's Avatar
      Mephista -
      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      Based on the moment in time the picture was taken of its apparent that the fencer on the left has attempted to avoid the touch of the fencer on the right which explains his body position. As for the 'under the mask', it looks much more like the tip hit the armpit. And as for bending a foil upside down; that I'm willing to bet wasn't intentional rather it is physics based on the direction of forces in relation to where the tip found purchase on the jackets. A foil is a square flexible blade and can bend pretty in any direction.
      That's an epee, not a foil. The guard is much too large for that; as well, the lack of mesh jackets for the electronic scoring are a give away. In either case, the blades are designed to bend in a single direction, so as to not break them or the wire; the blade bending the wrong way like that should have broken the wire inside at minimum, the whole blade itself at maximum.

      Its possible the guy on the right is attempting a Flash, but the bend is still rather extreme, and if you're getting hit by your opponent like that, it was very badly executed.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Note that I'm only speaking to D&D here. I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of other systems to comment on them.
      Exactly, and that's why combat as war is good: as a player you know the DM is not going to pull punches and really will use whatever reasonable-for-the-monster tactics she can to try and finish you off, knowing you're not likely to show her monsters any mercy either. The players do have to trust the DM to stay within the rules - but it's a very poor DM who wouldn't.

      Adversarial DMing on the battlefield is a good thing.
      I guess I can agree with that, provided the human beings at the table all keep it clean.

      Personally, I prefer combat as sport. I provide tough, but fair fights.

      A pretty decent argument can be made that D&D has slowly gone this direction over the editions. Basic was rough. 1e was rough. 2e backed off a bit. 3e couldn't make up its mind - rough in some ways, not in others. 4e backed off quite a lot and 5e has followed suit.
      Maybe. The idea that the base game is "safe" is a pretty reasonable approach in gaming to garner interest from people new to the hobby. I still find the sentiments of the author odd given he's written several editorials about how he dislikes how things have become soft. I mean, what's the point of things being hard if you're plot-protected?

      It sounds odd when you put it like that, but isn't that exactly what the whole combat side of the game is in theory balanced around at the design level - the PCs winning (very nearly) all the fights?
      See now we're talking about something we can talk about. Is the game designed to make the players win? That's a pretty clear-cut answer: YES.
      I personally like to keep things in the Party vs Monsters range of 60/40 or 40/60. I like the idea that victory (not necessarily death) is really never a guarantee. If it is, I won't roll the dice, there's no point, and frankly it's a little depressing.

      "Run away" was once a very viable and frequently-used option in a combat. Not seen so often any more as players have - rightly or wrongly - come to expect via the expressed design of the game's last few editions that most encounters will be more or less balanced such that even with poor dice luck the PCs will win...and this shows that D&D combat has by design moved toward sport.

      I don't like it, but I can't deny it.
      I don't know if that means the game has moved more towards combat as a sport, I think it just means it's moved towards the designers putting extra odds in favor of the PCs to start with. They cast "Protection from Noobs" on the later editions. 4E definitely favored combat as a sport (in their encounter balancing design). The CR system from 3.X and now 5E sort of lets you do your own thing.

      I'll be honest, I don't think I've ever played with total noobs. I'm curious if the default difficulties outlined in 5E are actually fitting for newcomers.
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      D&D has been more of a sports game since 3E with 4E being the high point.
      What people often confuse is that the sport/war difference has nothing to do with deadliness but the amount of preparation you could do to trivialize encounters.

      While 3E started the descent into sport combat by trying to balance all classes instead of having classes which, while not non combatants, were a lot weaker in direct combat than others like it was in 2E there were still ways to either bypass encounters or trivialize them with things like prebuffing and teleport bombs.

      4E actively tried to prevent any form of outside influence on combat and to make sure that both sides start without any advantage.

      Some people like combat as sport but I loath it as in my opinion it punishes clever players and prevents creativity. It also forces some constraints on the system design I do not like, for example that all PCs have to be balanced in combat as otherwise you would have a hard time creating fair fights.
      And lastly combat as sport breaks versimilitude as no one in his right mind would approach combat that way.
    1. Aenghus's Avatar
      Aenghus -
      "Creativity" is very subjective. People are entitled to their own tastes, and IMO it's important to be fair and objective in evaluating them if you want to talk about them. Cleverness applied to rules mechanics isn't inferior to cleverness applied outside the box, just different and appealing to different people.

      In games people use tactics and strategies that work given the other people involved, and that fit within their comfort zone.

      I don't see Combat as War as smarter, or cleverer or more creative, I see it purely as a matter of taste. This helps avoid insulting people with different views.
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aenghus View Post
      "Creativity" is very subjective. People are entitled to their own tastes, and IMO it's important to be fair and objective in evaluating them if you want to talk about them. Cleverness applied to rules mechanics isn't inferior to cleverness applied outside the box, just different and appealing to different people.

      In games people use tactics and strategies that work given the other people involved, and that fit within their comfort zone.

      I don't see Combat as War as smarter, or cleverer or more creative, I see it purely as a matter of taste. This helps avoid insulting people with different views.
      Combat as war does not take anything away compared to combat as sport. You still can do all the tactical maneuvering you can do with combat as sport. But in addition you have vastly expanded strategic options which combat as sport lack in order to ensure a fair (as much as RPG combats are fair as the PCs are supposed to win) competition.

      So in the end combat as war allows for much more creativity than combat as sport, simply because there are more options on the table which are not only limited to what happens during the combat.
    1. Aenghus's Avatar
      Aenghus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Derren View Post
      Combat as war does not take anything away compared to combat as sport. You still can do all the tactical maneuvering you can do with combat as sport. But in addition you have vastly expanded strategic options which combat as sport lack in order to ensure a fair (as much as RPG combats are fair as the PCs are supposed to win) competition.

      So in the end combat as war allows for much more creativity than combat as sport, simply because there are more options on the table which are not only limited to what happens during the combat.
      IMO it's important to realise that people apply their creativity in different ways, and it really isn't the case that one matter of taste is strictly and objectively superior. You are entitled to your opinions as is everyone else, but Onetruewayism is the death of the hobby. Recognise diversity.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Shidaku, there's a big difference between "harder" and "let's kill some people" in old D&D. I never used nor played in those "meat-grinder" modules. I don't believe in human sacrifice.


      The problem isn't whether combat is nasty or nice, it's more practical: if the players lose at anything like the rate you'd expect from a fair fight, they'd never get anywhere, unless (perhaps) they rise in levels very quickly. Even the best NBA, NFL, MLB teams lose 25-33% of the time. Those teams are playing as smart as they can within the fair-play system, and still lose that often.


      Yes, even in successful war, soldiers die. Did I say they shouldn't?


      Notice also, I don't advocate players as "overwhelming force that cannot be denied." No, you don't need to stack the game *heavily* in favor of the other side, IF your players take "combat as war" to heart. That means things like gathering intelligence (taking prisoners!?), scouting, even reconnaissance in force (scouts try hard not to engage the enemy, recon may involve engagement). And an unwillingness to fight unless there's no alternative, combined with a willingness to flee when things go badly.


      In summary, you're setting up a straw man and then criticizing me for advocating what I did not advocate. I am definitely not of a "coddle the players" mentality, though I know many players now *expect* to be coddled and looked after, not only in RPGs but in a great many video game genres. They automatically blame the GM (or the game) if they fail. (And often expect the game to be "all about ME".) Anyone beginning a campaign nowadays who wants to avoid coddling players would be wise to describe the adventuring group as military based, in a war of sorts, before anything gets started.


      EthanSental, I have no idea who shidaku is, no past history that I know of.


      Saelorn, quite true.


      Yes, 3e arranged combats that certainly weren't fair fights, but had the potential to harm if the players screwed up too much instead of only a little. The 5e method seems to be to make it really hard for any PC to get killed.


      Aenghus, yes, creativity is subjective. I think of it as finding unconventional ways to solve problems. Many people seem to think of it as a kind of "brain fever," a profusion of wild ideas, that somehow turns out well.
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