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 bird’s-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:

    It’s just this thing that’s easy to forget and sits in the game not really doing anything. It feels tacked on. Vestigial. An afterthought. It certainly doesn’t 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. “People like Bonds in Dungeon World and Aspects in Fate, we should probably slap something like that in there.”

    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 http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      Why did you succeed? How about why did you need to roll to begin with? Just narrate that you are sneaking down the hall. When appropriate for when you encounter a particular known or particular unknown, then have the player roll. If the player is tense about having to roll a Stealth check for the unknown (again, assuming they failed to notice the threat), then that communicates a fear of being caught for the player that the character should have had to begin with. In these cases, you ask the player what their character would do or is doing. Perhaps they succeed, but the unknown remains unknown, then that, again, helps instill a sense of dread in the character via the player.
      Fair enough, though I think I'd want to do this earlier in the process (e.g. in the first passage, to set the tone) rather than later.

      It's really only as metagaming as the phrase "roll for initiative."
      Sigh*...I suppose so, given the rather poor surprise rules in use now. I see "roll for initiative" as something said only after the PCs become aware of a threat or attack.

      * - sigh aimed at the rules, not at you.

      Again, you appear to begging the question of metagaming so to speak by presuming prescribed player reactions to the dice roll when that has not been the case in my experience. But maybe this scenario speaks about how you and your players would react and metagame.
      It's how I'd react, for sure.

      If my character doesn't know something then I as its player shouldn't know it either.

      My approach to all six passages would be exactly the same. The difference lies in where along each passage they encounter points of interest, action, and consequence. The PCs describe what their characters are doing. When they encounter something of note, as they go along the passage, then I would require the roll. The players may be tipped-off, but the characters are not.
      If the character's not tipped off then I-as-player shouldn't be either. Remember, the goal is to see the action through the eyes of my character...

      These are cinematic/dramatic cues of dramatic irony. And despite how the expected reaction would be that it creates a recognized distinction between player and character, I have found that these are the moments where my players become immersed in their character. If my players aren't rolling, then the players/characters are often left wondering, "Why have I not encountered anything yet?" It's a player question, but this is also a natural in-character question, and this would certainly be the case if there was an unknown horror lurking nearby. This may spur further questions or exploration: "Where are the monsters/foes, if they are not here?" They may proceed with whatever their objective may be or this lack of rolls may spur them to investigate their location: i.e., the dining hall where they are all gathered to eat and celebrate.
      This is where the DM rolling in secret can help - the PCs (and thus players) don't know whether they've been lucky in not meeting anything or whether there's just nothing there to meet.

      If you assume the worst of your players, treat them like idiots, or maintain a hostile/adversarial relationship with the players, then I assume they would metagame, but if you have this sort of antagonistic relation to your players they would likely metagame no matter what.
      Not if you don't give them the opportunity.

      And this, again, brings us back to the Angry DM article on metagaming as a symptom that I linked earlier.
      Yeah, I'm afraid the few Angry DM articles I've read here and there haven't exactly thrilled me - he seems to spend too many words being Angry and not enough being DM.

      What you are not getting is that is not inherently true. Nor do you have to use dice to do that. That is rollplaying. That is metagaming the mechanics. By no means are you required to roll the dice as part of the exploration any more than you are required to roll dice for the social situations you described much earlier.
      Quite right. I'm trying here to speak to those whose systems do require dice to be rolled.

      But isn't that revealing knowledge to the players that the characters don't have? But isn't that metagaming?
      Not necessarily.

      I can't count the number of times over the years that I've called for perception checks where a success means they realize there's in fact nothing there but a failure means they aren't sure - in other words, a false check. So, while there's times when it's obvious why I want the check (e.g. last session my crew were - from quite some distance away, using telescopes - trying to make out details about a couple of creatures guarding a bridge) there's other times it isn't - and some of those non-obvious checks are fake.

      So back to the sneak through the castle example: if there's six different areas (1-point of entry, 2-passage, 3-possibly noisy door, 4-passage*, 5-drawing room, 6-passage*) I'd narrate each one as the PC approached it and want a Stealth or Move Silently (system-dependent) check to get to the next, even though I know only the ones marked with '*' hold any serious risk of discovery (passage 4 goes past an occupied room and passage 6 has a guard in it at all times). I certainly don't want to concatenate this all down to one roll as being caught in passage 4 could lead to quite different consequences than being caught in passage 6; and I want to maintain the dramatic tension given by the other likely-meaningless rolls.

      It's all just a matter of slowing down and taking the necessary time.

      Lanefan
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      It's how I'd react, for sure.

      If my character doesn't know something then I as its player shouldn't know it either.
      It's a common enough reaction. Meta-gaming can be a hard impulse to ignore and not every player is skilled at role-playing, so while the player should avoid using out-of-game information to make their decisions, it also behooves the DM to not put the player into that position in the first place. By giving the player information that the character doesn't have, it also introduces uncertainty as to what the player would have done if they didn't have to consciously ignore that fact.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
      Question - if they sent the familiar down the corridor to scout it, wouldn't that define them as interested in it?
      Probably, yes. Perhaps not, depending on context.

      As I said, "There's any number of ways that might have been established: a player succeeded at a check to obtain reliable intelligence; a PC sent his/her familiar to scout the corridor; it's clear from the play that no one is interested in the corridor and so I narrate it as empty; etc."

      Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
      Would the familiar get a stealth check?
      In the abstract, who knows?

      Suppose the plauyers are trying to sneak in: Player A: "How can we avoid the guards?" Player B "I'll get my familiar to check where they are?" GM "OK, your familiar flies in, and you see through its eyes that the corridor is empty." Players A+B "OK, great, we move quietly down that corridor".

      That would be an example of saying "yes", which establishes an empty corridor as part of the fiction with no dice rolled.

      There are other ways it might play out too, if the inclinations of the GM and/or the enthusiasms of the players are different.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Fair enough, though I think I'd want to do this earlier in the process (e.g. in the first passage, to set the tone) rather than later.
      I think that I would rather roleplay setting the tone in this case than rollplay setting the tone, with the dice roll being about a more particular action of tension, drama, or consequence.

      It's how I'd react, for sure.
      So you are saying that you would actively choose to metagame? Wow. Kinda flabbergasted by that. So you have no inhibitions when roleplaying?

      If my character doesn't know something then I as its player shouldn't know it either.

      If the character's not tipped off then I-as-player shouldn't be either. Remember, the goal is to see the action through the eyes of my character...
      Then based upon my players, I would say that I have met those goals. But it seems silly to pretend that there is no distinction between player and character when playing the game. Yes, it is a roleplaying game, but roleplaying is an adjective that modifies the noun "game." There is an inherent knowledge imbalance between player and character, as the character should know things the player does not and vice versa. But as I have said before, I have found that recognizing this distinction and playing with it at the table has helped my players maintain their immersion. They want to find out what happens to their characters, and they want to live in that. And sometimes knowing things or being tipped-off, as you say, instills within them a greater sense of investment in their character. And weirdly enough, they play their characters less like the "player" going through a survival game and more as the "character."

      This is where the DM rolling in secret can help - the PCs (and thus players) don't know whether they've been lucky in not meeting anything or whether there's just nothing there to meet.
      This, I would say, is a matter of rolling when it is appropriate. I'm just resistant to have my players roll for nothing. I want success to actually be a success and not just using rollplay to play psychological games with the players.

      Quite right. I'm trying here to speak to those whose systems do require dice to be rolled.
      Just as dice are not required to be rolled for social situations in D&D, why should dice be required to be rolled in this scenario?

      I can't count the number of times over the years that I've called for perception checks where a success means they realize there's in fact nothing there but a failure means they aren't sure - in other words, a false check. So, while there's times when it's obvious why I want the check (e.g. last session my crew were - from quite some distance away, using telescopes - trying to make out details about a couple of creatures guarding a bridge) there's other times it isn't - and some of those non-obvious checks are fake.
      Again, I don't think that using dice to play psychological mind games is necessary, and as a GM, I would prefer to leave that to describing the situation and playing off the actions of the player(s).

      So back to the sneak through the castle example: if there's six different areas (1-point of entry, 2-passage, 3-possibly noisy door, 4-passage*, 5-drawing room, 6-passage*) I'd narrate each one as the PC approached it and want a Stealth or Move Silently (system-dependent) check to get to the next, even though I know only the ones marked with '*' hold any serious risk of discovery (passage 4 goes past an occupied room and passage 6 has a guard in it at all times). I certainly don't want to concatenate this all down to one roll as being caught in passage 4 could lead to quite different consequences than being caught in passage 6; and I want to maintain the dramatic tension given by the other likely-meaningless rolls.
      If you think that my entire position is to " concatenate this all down to one roll" then you got it all wrong.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      So you are saying that you would actively choose to metagame? Wow. Kinda flabbergasted by that.
      I'm saying I don't want to have to worry about separating player knowledge form character knowledge and that the easiest way to achieve this is just to not give me knowledge or information my character wouldn't reasonably have access to; and that yes, I (and IME many other players I've seen) will pick up on cues like being told to roll now as opposed to all the other similar situations and that this will - either intentionally or not - affect the in-character reaction.

      So you have no inhibitions when roleplaying?
      Inhibitions as in?

      Then based upon my players, I would say that I have met those goals. But it seems silly to pretend that there is no distinction between player and character when playing the game. Yes, it is a roleplaying game, but roleplaying is an adjective that modifies the noun "game." There is an inherent knowledge imbalance between player and character,
      Unfortunately this is often the case, but the goal is that this not be the case whenever possible.
      as the character should know things the player does not and vice versa.
      I disagree with the "should" in there, but admit that it happens. Again, though: where this can be minimized it should be minimized.
      But as I have said before, I have found that recognizing this distinction and playing with it at the table has helped my players maintain their immersion. They want to find out what happens to their characters, and they want to live in that. And sometimes knowing things or being tipped-off, as you say, instills within them a greater sense of investment in their character. And weirdly enough, they play their characters less like the "player" going through a survival game and more as the "character."
      Different than most players I've ever met.

      This, I would say, is a matter of rolling when it is appropriate. I'm just resistant to have my players roll for nothing. I want success to actually be a success and not just using rollplay to play psychological games with the players.

      Again, I don't think that using dice to play psychological mind games is necessary, and as a GM, I would prefer to leave that to describing the situation and playing off the actions of the player(s).
      Where I don't mind a) keeping them a bit paranoid, and b) being able to disguise the real rolls among the fake ones (see sneaking-in-castle example).

      If you think that my entire position is to " concatenate this all down to one roll" then you got it all wrong.
      Please explain where I got it wrong. In the example I gave, with the six areas to be passed through silently where two of those areas are potentially risky and the other four are pretty much safe, how many rolls and how many narrations would you use? And how long in real time would you expect it to take between the time the PC enters the castle to the time she either makes it to her goal (a particular door in passage 6) or does not?

      Lanefan
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Suppose the plauyers are trying to sneak in: Player A: "How can we avoid the guards?" Player B "I'll get my familiar to check where they are?" GM "OK, your familiar flies in, and you see through its eyes that the corridor is empty." Players A+B "OK, great, we move quietly down that corridor".

      That would be an example of saying "yes", which establishes an empty corridor as part of the fiction with no dice rolled.
      This assumes, of course, that the information gathered by the familiar is still valid when the PCs get there; the odds of which in turn may greatly depend on how much time the PCs take to get from where they are to the corridor. If the PCs were waiting right around a corner at the corridor's end, for example, then the info is almost certain to remain accurate; but if the PCs are waiting outside in the garden and have to climb the wall and go in through an open window that gives more than enough time for the gathered information to (maybe) become inaccurate due to something changing (most likely, that there is now someone in the corridor).

      In other words, just because the corridor's empty in the fiction at the moment the familiar sees it doesn't mean it's always going to stay empty.

      Were it me DMing I'd just very quickly assign odds of something significantly changing between the time of observation by the familiar and the time of arrival by the PCs - assuming there's enough delay to make it relevant - and roll some dice*, then narrate what happens. Most likely this narration will be something like "You've made it to the end of the corridor. There's a simple wooden door in front of you across another corridor which yours is intersecting as if the stem of a 'T'. What do you do now?".

      * - I'd also go through the motions of quietly rolling a stealth or move silently check regardless of whether there's any chance of their passage being heard elsewhere; if it came up really bad I'd change the narration to include "Despite your best attempts you don't think you were moving all that silently but all clear so far, no alarms or anything." after the first sentence.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      This assumes, of course, that the information gathered by the familiar is still valid when the PCs get there; the odds of which in turn may greatly depend on how much time the PCs take to get from where they are to the corridor. If the PCs were waiting right around a corner at the corridor's end, for example, then the info is almost certain to remain accurate; but if the PCs are waiting outside in the garden and have to climb the wall and go in through an open window that gives more than enough time for the gathered information to (maybe) become inaccurate due to something changing (most likely, that there is now someone in the corridor).

      In other words, just because the corridor's empty in the fiction at the moment the familiar sees it doesn't mean it's always going to stay empty.
      In real life, the presence of people in corridors depends upon the decisions made by people about where to lug their bodies.

      In a RPG, the presence of people in the corridors that exist only in the fiction depends upon decisions made by authors of the fiction.

      My own view is that if the players go to the effort of decarling an action to establish the emptiness of the corridor, I am not going to bother second guessing that because it takes the PCs a few minutes (in the fiction) to get from A to B.

      Hence, as I posted, this is one way in which the emptiness of the corridor might be established.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      I'm saying I don't want to have to worry about separating player knowledge form character knowledge and that the easiest way to achieve this is just to not give me knowledge or information my character wouldn't reasonably have access to; and that yes, I (and IME many other players I've seen) will pick up on cues like being told to roll now as opposed to all the other similar situations and that this will - either intentionally or not - affect the in-character reaction.
      To me this tells me less about my style of GMing and more that metagaming is endemic in the gaming culture. But when you are consistent about when to roll, no matter your approach, then I have found that players will learn what a given dice roll actually means. In my case, a roll means that there are potentially interestesting consequences for success or failure.

      Inhibitions as in?
      When it comes to metagaming.

      Unfortunately this is often the case, but the goal is that this not be the case whenever possible.

      I disagree with the "should" in there, but admit that it happens. Again, though: where this can be minimized it should be minimized.
      I disagree with your "should" in there as well, because as I think that it speaks only to your preferred GMing and player style. IME, recognizing that a difference between player and character knowledge exists is beneficial for players and gameplay. I think that it's okay for the player to know something that the character does not. If roleplaying is indeed about assuming a role, then good roleplayers should manage to put aside player knowledge for the sake of roleplaying a character and generating a story via the actions of those characters.

      Different than most players I've ever met.
      Perhaps. But from what I recall, you have a fairly self-selected table with a well-defined set of preferences.

      Where I don't mind a) keeping them a bit paranoid, and b) being able to disguise the real rolls among the fake ones (see sneaking-in-castle example).
      It's clear that your mileage does vary, but I have not found much use with rolling blanks. More focused rolls, IME, have led to more focused roleplaying.

      Please explain where I got it wrong. In the example I gave, with the six areas to be passed through silently where two of those areas are potentially risky and the other four are pretty much safe, how many rolls and how many narrations would you use? And how long in real time would you expect it to take between the time the PC enters the castle to the time she either makes it to her goal (a particular door in passage 6) or does not?
      It depends on which corridor(s) they pick. As you say, the result in one may affect others. The roll would be at points of interest, consequence, or drama. I would narrate an empty corridor or have my players describe how they are going down the corridor. I would narrate a mostly empty corridor with a "risk point." The difference is that the location with the "risk point" would also require a roll. There are potential rolls in play for Perception/Notice/Spot/Listen/etc., for Stealth/Sneak/etc., for whatever skill a player may actually think applicable that could produce interesting consequences for play. As I have no real sense for the scope of the castle or its relative importance in the grand scheme of things, it's difficult to say how long it would take to run. For a one-shot, it may be shorter, and I would possibly streamline it. If it was part of a bigger overarching campaign, then I may take my time. Even an empty corridor can provide a lot of information for PCs that can hint at worse things to come.
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