Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?
  • Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?

    Dungeons & Dragons' wargame roots are well-known, but what is sometimes forgotten is how much its origins influenced role-playing games. Although D&D has been a platform to tell many different kinds of stories, its mechanics focus on a few core themes and one of them is combat -- but it's not the only one.

    The Three Modes

    Jon Peterson in Playing at the World explained that there are three modes of D&D play, in which dramatic pacing is achieved by transitioning between the three:

    ...a mode of exploration, a mode of combat and a mode of logistics. Time flows differently in each of these modes, and by rationing the modes carefully a referee guides the players through satisfying cycles of tension, catharsis and banality that mimic the ebb and flow of powerful events.

    These modes are interrelated in important ways, and modern role-players tolerance for all three has changed over time. Exploration has experienced a resurgence with sandbox-style play. Combat has been de-emphasized, particularly in story-telling games. And logistics are back in vogue thanks to the Old School Renaissance. Let's take a look at each in turn.

    The First Mode: Exploration

    In the original boxed set of D&D, exploration was important, but beyond the scope of the rules. It was a key part of emergent play -- using basic guidelines to encourage creative strategies -- but it wasn't actually part of D&D itself. Instead, D&D encouraged players to buy Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game, as Peterson explains:

    The object of Outdoor Survival is to navigate a wilderness, though there are five scenarios providing distinct justifications for doing so: for example, lost players returning to civilization at the edges of the map or racing to find the object of a search party. Given that the board itself is not a secret from the players (Outdoor Survival has no referee), some other means is required to simulate being lost in the woods, since the players necessarily command a birdís-eye view of the environment. Dice therefore determine whether or not players are lost, and if so, in which direction they will wander. The board is overlain with a hexagonal grid, segmenting the board into hexagons about 1.5 centimeters across; as there are six possible directions on a hexagonal board to move, a six-sided die can easily dictate the orientation of lost players. Each hex contains a particular terrain type, in much the manner of Hellwig: there are mountains, swamps, rivers, deserts, plains and even roads (well, trails).

    Evidence of D&D's interest in hexcrawling is strongly represented in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which was published after the original set but before the rest of the AD&D line. Each monster has a few noteworthy statistics, particularly: frequency, number appearing, and % in lair. Much of these stats do not make sense in a typical dungeon context, where the rooms are planned out; DMs would likely know the monsters that were to appear in their dungeons, and in fact author Gary Gygax states, "...It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of Dungeon Levels." But when used in hexcrawling they're useful in describing the encounters there, beginning with frequency, then determining if the monster encountered is in its lair, and then concluding with number of appearing (which could sometimes be in the hundreds, befitting a camp but not a dungeon room).

    For a time, hexcrawling and emergent play were out of favor as more scripted adventures came into vogue. The OSR has reinvigorated sandbox-style play, in which the players generate the world as they adventure, one roll at a time.

    The Second Mode: Combat

    D&D's second mode is the one most gamers are familiar with: killing things. D&D grew out of Chainmail, itself a product of wargaming, so combat's relevance to D&D goes all the way back to its first iteration. Additionally, it mimics the style of the fiction that influenced it, including the violent Conan among other swords and sorcery novels. What's changed is how D&D scales combats. The emphasis on leveling up was treasure, as explained in a previous article, "The Original End Goal of Dungeons & Dragons." Kiva Maginn (Battletech design lead) on Twitter explains how this changes the style of play:

    As a player, you could gain experience by fighting monsters or claiming treasure. You could lose it by dying in battle with monsters. You could encounter monsters without treasure, and you could encounter treasure without monsters. So there was an obvious 'best' path. Get in, get the treasure, get out. Do as little fighting as possible, because fighting risks XP loss. Avoid encounters when you can, and subvert them with clever tricks if possible. Money you find without a fight is free XP.

    This changed with Third Edition, in which experience points were rewarded for defeating a monster:

    Consider 3rd Edition D&D, by contrast. Gold provides no inherent advancement. At a certain point, you simply don't need it anymore. You have so much of it that it's absurd to bother picking up any more. So there's a new obvious 'best' path. Ignore tricks and clever solutions. Never avoid fights. Kill every single monster in the dungeon, with 'it's in the dungeon!' as your justification for doing so. Seek out harder fights with bigger monsters. Don't stop killing.

    Ironically, D&D became MORE about killing than less, as PCs were no longer incentivized to just accumulate gold to advance. Third Edition also did away with name levels and retainers as being an end gold, so the purpose of spending gold had shifted from building strongholds and hiring mercenaries to personally enriching the character through acquisition of magic items. This change was a recognition that players were less interested in leading armies and transitioning back to a life of perpetual adventuring, and the game shifted gears to reflect that.

    Of course, role-playing has since moved beyond combat -- relying more heavily on the narrativist style of play -- even if it started with the primarily tactical dungeon and overland exploration of D&D.

    The Third Mode: Logistics

    Logistics have largely fallen out of favor today due to onerous nature of keeping track of encumberance, equipment, and gold. These factors were all intentional controls on player greed, ensuring that PCs couldn't just cart out mountains of gold (and thus experience points) without some challenges. You can read a more detailed discussion of inventory management and encumbrance in a previous article, "The Lost Art of Packing it All In."

    Third Edition's shift towards combat meant that the nature of logistics changed to be less about accumulating gold and more about personal advancement, exemplified by Pathfinder which spins out even more options than Third Edition for character development.

    D&D Today

    So where does that leave us with D&D today? Kiva points out that the combat biases are still there, but now D&D has expanded to encompass other styles of play -- it just doesn't emphasize it equally:

    The flaw in later D&D was that it was a game that was good at modeling killing, and spent a decade trying to be anything *other* than a game about killing.

    Inspiration, Personal Characteristics, and Background were added to incentivize players to role-play but as the AngryDM points out, many players forget all about it because of the way it's implemented:

    Itís just this thing thatís easy to forget and sits in the game not really doing anything. It feels tacked on. Vestigial. An afterthought. It certainly doesnít seem to have a clear purpose, as evidenced by the fact that the DM and the players get different advice about it and how it is weirdly disconnected from the mechanics that it seems to be connected to. It seems thrown in. ďPeople like Bonds in Dungeon World and Aspects in Fate, we should probably slap something like that in there.Ē

    Fifth Edition D&D has also changed how experience points are gained, providing an option to level up through milestones instead. This shifts the incentives yet again away from combat.

    Is combat overemphasized in D&D? Maybe, but that's at least partially due to the other two modes of exploration and logistics falling out of favor. If the eight pages detailing combat are any indication in the Basic D&D Rules, combat is still an integral part of the game, and many players are just fine with that.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. Fandabidozi's Avatar
      Fandabidozi -
      Well, I like combat and I like exploration and I also like logistics.
      But which one's better? There's only one way to find out! Fight!!!
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Almost everything in D&D revolves around combat. Combat has always been the main course. And there is no shame in that, but we often see attempts made to either apologize or compensate for it unnecessarily. What I loved best about fourth edition was it actually embraced the true nature if the system. It was the most honest and innovative version of the game, and true to form, flawed no less than any of the others.
    1. pogre's Avatar
      pogre -
      If there were truly a goal of representing the three modes of play equally, the rules are too heavily geared around combat. IMO, D&D is biased towards combat because it is the most popular mode of play. I do agree that the history of the game plays a role as well.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      There's no inherent contrast beteen "narrativist" play and combat. Look at super hero comics: combat can be a significant arena for a character to express and exemplify his/her values and commitments.

      But "narrativist" combat should be about character and stakes, not ASL-style tactics and logistic. Games like Burning Wheel and Cortex+ Heroic give non-D&D examples. 4e is as close as D&D has come to this.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      No, But since there would be real life combat, thrown dice, hurt feelings, broken chairs, broken mugs. Combat rules are need so the players are on the same page.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      The operative word in the thread's question is "too". That's, I think, almost completely a matter of opinion.

      If you're looking for a heavily story-oriented, narrative game, which is also directly supported by the rules...I'd say D&D is the wrong tree up which to bark.

      Of course, tons of D&D play has been narrative and story oriented, but that's more due to the creativity of the DM and players involved...and often their willingness to bend the rules.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
    1. hawkeyefan's Avatar
      hawkeyefan -
      I donít thibk it is. Certainly it plays a part, and due to the nature of it, combat requires more rules than other areas. Or at leadt it does in the mechanics used by D&D.

      But exactly how much of the game is devoted to combat will vary greatly from group to group. Even when playing the same published adventure, there can be sognificant difference from one table to the next. The numerous live streams that are available support this. The most popular among them would not, by most, be considered combat heavy.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      I could certainly stand to see some more emphasis put on the Exploration and Interaction pillars of the game in the next few supplements/adventures.

      But "too focused" is very much a matter of opinion. Indeed, I'm not convinced it's not entirely a matter for the individual group to answer for themselves.
    1. BackInAction's Avatar
      BackInAction -
      Quote Originally Posted by hawkeyefan View Post
      I donít thibk it is. Certainly it plays a part, and due to the nature of it, combat requires more rules than other areas.
      This is so true, should we have 5 pages of rules describing how to convince the barkeeper to give up more town secrets? And if the social rules are a bit too weak, or thin, what advantage does that give the players? Whereas weak or thin combat rules can really fubar all sorts things in the game.

      The other issue, is that the min/max and a big chuck of the 'on-line' world tends to focus on it, but that doesn't mean your group or the game itself are too focused on combat.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      While the origins of the game are in miniature wargamming, the same could be said about the hobby, which now includes a myriad of combat lite and storytelling games.

      2e shifted towards a combat focus, as only the thief received experience for treasure and everyone gained it for defeating monsters. That did make combat more preferential. 3e just made this worse with the idea of "balanced" encounters, so PCs tended to assume they could overcome any fight.

      D&D's focus on combat is paradoxical. On the one hand, the hobby has very much grown beyond its wargamming origins and has evolved in many new an innovative ways. But many of the things that make D&D into D&D rather than a generic fantasy RPG are its iconic and consistent elements, which typically tie into combat. You can never entirely divorce D&D from combat. And while you can play D&D without having combat or battles, so much of your characters just fall to the wayside and reduces the need to gain levels or be mechanically rewarded. And at that point, are you still playing D&D or just doing freeform storytelling with the names of your D&D characters?
    1. LordNightwinter's Avatar
      LordNightwinter -
      The focus of the game depends on the DM and players. I've gone 10 sessions or more without combat sometimes because the players were more interested in the political intrigue and mysteries I had sprinkled throughout the city they were in. They actively avoided combat by using social graces and standing in the city just so they could continue the exploration/intrigue phases quicker. lol
    1. Thomas Bowman's Avatar
      Thomas Bowman -
      Well combat needs rules, role playing does not. Players can always play "Lets pretend" There is no die rolling involved when characters are attempting to solve a mystery, or haggling with a merchant to settle on a price, one can roll dice for those things, but that is kind of artificial. I'd rather rely on the player's skills at interacting with people than to roll a d20 die to see if a difficulty class is met to determine an NPC's reaction. As for accumulating money, that is easy enough to put back into the game. One can employ a house rule that the accumulation of 1 gold piece is worth 1 experience point. Lets take D&D 3.5 rules for example. Suppose we did not award experience points for combat encounters or how about this, what if we just cut the experience points in half, and the other half of experience points was awarded on the basis of 1 xp per gold piece value of treasure accumulated?

      Not all combat encounters involve treasure, so if one just kills things one does not advance as fast, but treasure helps one to advance quickly. Perhaps to balance things out, maybe the amount of treasure awarded should be cut in half too, that way 50% of experience awarded is through combat encounters and 50% is through the accumulation of treasure, combine the two and one advances as normal. of course one wants to encounter intelligent creatures as they are more likely to have treasure than some random beast in the forest.
    1. Kobold Boots -
      I'm of the opinion that rules need to be in place where it's obvious, and not in place where creativity, common sense or social skills should take over.

      1. Combat/Resolution Mechanics - Yes, by all means rule the living heck out of this because we're not going to beat each other up to see who wins.
      2. Exploration - Draw a map. Describe the process. Adventure.
      3. Logistics - Rules, but only so much as to support Exploration. (economy of movement and coin mostly)
      4. Interaction - Roleplay, it's not hard. Maybe one die roll to determine initial disposition if players haven't met them before or done anything to influence it.

      Now I consider myself to be in the minority of gamers because I write often (mostly crap, but every once in a while something cool happens) but I'm not in the minority of gamers on this site. I can't imagine anyone would need more fluff to be creative and make their own. On a personal note, (where I could very well be in the small minority). I don't want bigger rulebooks or prettier rulebooks that MSRP 50 bucks. I want streamlined rules that support the genre and I want it to be D&D with a price point around 25 bucks MSRP.

      Only reason I wouldn't is if doing so would take the brand offline.

      Be well
    1. neobolts's Avatar
      neobolts -
      D&D hasn't been wargaming for decades. Old-school logistics don't matter anymore and aren't compelling outside of specialized survivalist scenarios. The introduction of Non-combat Proficiencies in 2e inspired actions and narratives in D&D not centered around combat. And story awards mean that clever avoidance of combat can be just as rewarding as fighting (if the DM wants). I would not agree with the premise that D&D is too combat focused these days.
    1. Narl's Avatar
      Narl -
      How long combats take is something to consider. With OD&D and AD&D 1st and 2nd combats went very quickly, which leaves more time for other activities. 3rd and 4th had combats taking much longer, and now we have 5th ending up somewhere in between.

      I'm currently running G1-3 with 5th edition. They feel quite combat-heavy (still fun though!). That wasn't as much the case with 1st edition -- the faster combats in 1st left more breathing room for exploration.

      With 5th edition, combat is simple so it moves quickly, but the HP economy has monsters staying in the fight longer than they did with 1st edition. Fireballs just don't clear rooms like they used to.
    1. RSIxidor's Avatar
      RSIxidor -
      As long as the combat system is given a codified and complex and interesting structure and non-combat is mostly boiled down to "roll dice and DM tells you if you're cool," combat will always be more important in D&D. While I'm not sure it's gotten there completely, I do think the Adventure's in Middle Earth adaptation of 5E does a decent job of giving other pillars enough complexity to be more interesting (journeys from place to place and audiences with important people are detailed in the rules). Combat still has the most focus and this is clear in the player options but there is at least some thought to other concepts.

      A good DM can overcome this issue but it would be nice to see the rules provide structure closer to the amount of detail that's in combat. Indeed, I wouldn't mind if combat was simplified and the other pillars brought into level with it somewhere below its current complexity.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Agreed. It all depends where people find their fun, and how the DM chooses to balance that out. In addition to milestones, there are also story awards that can bump XP quite a bit.

      All that being said, I donít mind when players donít have much of an interest in non-combat activities, but it drives me up a wall when a player starts causing trouble because theyíve gone too long without rolling for damage. I work hard to make sure everyone gets to have fun, so donít go trying to sabotage it just because itís not your time in the spotlight.

      Quote Originally Posted by LordNightwinter View Post
      The focus of the game depends on the DM and players.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      My gut-reaction feeling to this article is "yes". Yes, I know that you can play many sessions of D&D without combat and that mileage will vary at the table. It is incredibly table dependent. But this fact almost seems like a trite truism rather than strong counter-evidence to the claim in question. Because the system mechanics of a game undeniably affect trends in how that game is played. The game mechanics incentivizes and reinforces certain player (and GM) behaviors in relation to the game as played. D&D is undeniably associated with a certain degree of hack 'n' slash play. when you ask people what's the goal of D&D, you'll likely get an answer akin to "kill the dragon and/or steal its golden hoard."

      As one of the links in the article notes, the primary mechanical benefits of leveling up in D&D is being better at combat regardless of whether you used combat to achieve that experience. (Which is also true for a number of other class-based systems.) Consider also, for example, the sort of characters that you can create in D&D and the sorts that you can't. You can't make a traveling merchant who has no proficiency in armor or weapons, but, rather, puts all their character creation points in social/exploration skills. It's a class-based game that assumes competency in combat. Your character will be proficient with a range of weapons, armor, spells, etc. and your class will give you particular combat-specific benefits. Sure, you can choose not to fight or take less combat-oriented options/stats, but that's about like choosing to be a pacifist in a Mortal Kombat brawler. Not saying its impossible or hasn't been done, but, rather, the overall mechanics establish a heavily-mechanized combat-oriented tone for the system.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      There's no inherent contrast beteen "narrativist" play and combat. Look at super hero comics: combat can be a significant arena for a character to express and exemplify his/her values and commitments.

      But "narrativist" combat should be about character and stakes, not ASL-style tactics and logistic. Games like Burning Wheel and Cortex+ Heroic give non-D&D examples. 4e is as close as D&D has come to this.
      Yes, but I would argue that this rarely plays out this way in D&D at most tables, and I also don't think that the article is claiming that these two are exclusive, but, rather, that the combat pillar has been de-emphasized in a lot of narrativist play, as it tends to redistribute more focus on the other game pillars. And again a big part of that, as you allude, has to do with the associated system mechanics.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Fandabidozi View Post
      Well, I like combat and I like exploration and I also like logistics.
      But which one's better? There's only one way to find out! Fight!!!

      IMO you can synergize RP, exploration, combat, and logistics. Here's a very simple example:

      Let's say your characters want to get some healing potions for an upcoming expedition. They go to the alchemist at Ye Olde Alchemist Shoppe in their favorite town Homebase. Ye Olde Alchemist Shoppe is, alas, out of such potions as there has been a run on it due to the tensions between Homebase and Rivaltowne. However, they know where the main ingredient can be acquired... unfortunately it's very dangerous. It's in a swamp that's known to be infested with all sorts of beasties, such as trolls, alligators, and such. So... the PCs can help out and Ye Olde Alchemist Shoppe will give them a nice discount on potions if they get the ingredients, which requires exploring. There are many variations and ways to hook the PCs into the world. The bard character can negotiate this deal. The ranger and druid are obviously going to be needed and indeed be special on this mission. It's a side trek that might take only a few sessions but I suspect it'll be memorable and it has useful consequences.

      A larger, higher level story might be something involving opening up a caravan route that is being plagued by a dragon or some giants.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      IME over the years combat is where the players focused, then again we always played a wandering adventurer looking for lost temples to raid style of game. I was planning on running a WHFRP campaign but in the end I just accepted that I would probably constantly be fighting for the players attention as they zoned out as soon as the fighting was done other than a couple of the players. And if you run that system like D&D you end up with a lot more deaths and downtime as they heal up from injuries. But if I say lets play skirmish wargaming instead they say they prefer a RPG, that they try to play like a mediocre skirmish wargame.

      One thing I miss from that list in the OP is logistics. Today it seems like the we have a multidimensional loot storage area, find 15000 gold, add it to the loot sheet. Its like Pillars of Eternity. Weight doesn't matter. How you are going to carry it out doesn't matter since "that's not fun". The backpack is a tardis staffed by a gnome who hands you the exact item you need as you need it. I would prefer a game where decisions on how to get a large treasure pile out of a dungeon is an issue. Where hirelings become important for such matters. I'd like the environment to be more of an issue the players have to take into account as well. I'm playing in a ToA game and honestly the environmental matters are such a non issue that its hard for me to take the game seriously as we romp around the jungles in full plate. I was hoping it would be a a battle against the environment as much as the enemies. Maybe its just the DM.
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