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 http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. Stacie GmrGrl's Avatar
      Stacie GmrGrl -
      Of course its still focused more on combat than anything else. Nearly every class ability is used primarily in combat. Characters still have Hit Points as the only codified rules system for determining whether or not they stay in the scene encounter or not. The only way to hurt Hit Points is to Attack in a combat.

      As long as this is the primary form of taking out characters and monsters, this will never change.

      One can argue that there are rules for other ways to resolve situations... Technically there isn't. Everything else is GM Fiat and GMs making rulings based on what they want to happen. Milestones is entirely left up to GM Fiat. Players have no say.

      The only say players really have is when combat happens, and initiative is rolled. Then players have some agency.

      As for Exploration and Social encounters... There is no true codified system that tells players they can do something. The GM can always rule, if they choose to, not allow players to roll dice.

      There are No specific rules that say players can do social maneuvering that has real impact in the game system. Even the Bards abilities are presumed to be used in combat.

      So as much as they try to say D&D has evolved... It hasn't. Not in its core essence.

      It's still a murder simulation. Everything else is the players and GM making it more than its core, basic design. But if we're talking pure game design, then the only thing that truly matters in discussions of game design are the game mechanisms as specifically designed and in this paradigm... Anything left up to the idea of MGs making Rulings are NOT game mechanisms. Its just a fancy way of saying GM Fiat is okay.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by LordNightwinter View Post
      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
      Absolutely. The way I prefer to run a game is to have a fairly combat-heavy session every three or so. I've both run and played in intrigue-heavy D&D games where RP resolved conflicts. It's totally possible.

      IMO a problem with 5E is that the authors provided too little rules in these other areas. I wouldn't want anything as heavy as the combat rules, but they have about 50% too little space and detail. Things like the personality mechanics are clearly an afterthought.
    1. Garthanos's Avatar
      Garthanos -
      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.
      Funny how the version most claimed for tactical also is the closest to supporting the narrative
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      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...(snip)
      That's a matter of opinion and certainly not a universal truth. Why should social situations rely so heavily upon GM fiat when physical combat ones rely on rules? Social combat rules would offer the same benefits as standard combat rules: codifying the effectiveness of certain strategies over others in specific circumstances and against certain enemies. Why is it okay to build "vulnerable to fire" into the game but not "vulnerable to bribery" or to say "at 0 hp the creature dies" but not "at 0 resolve the NPC capitulates?" I think that the D&D combat systems are generally good foundations on which to build social rules, but would require the same care toward balance and fun.
    1. CapnZapp -
      No.

      Sent from my C6603 using EN World mobile app
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      I've been reading a lot of fantastic fiction, both for children and adults, and I've noticed that majority of the stories would actually be hard to reenact using D&D rules, because fighting is so rare.

      Mearls and team ought to release a D&D Storybook game where entire novel-sized stories can be easily run with nary a fight. Of course, this can be done with D&D as it exists. Yet it's not hardwired for that.

      One way of going about it would be to release a "Tales of D&D: The Storytelling Game" which uses the streamlined, non-combat-oriented Tales of Equestria (My Little Pony) system.

      Another point of approach would be to release a 5E D&D Modern rulebook which models not only fight-oriented Modern genres (such as Pulp), but also entirely non-combat oriented fictional genres where there's rarely any guns or shooting at all. Look at the list of Kindle Worlds, and look at how many Worlds and stories would be hard to model with D&D. And then provide story-based 5E rules modules for doing just that.
    1. Enevhar Aldarion's Avatar
      Enevhar Aldarion -
      Every version of D&D that I have played since the days of Basic and 1st Ed have run combat heavy, regardless of the group of players or the DM. It is just how they are written to be played. 5E is the first version where I feel that is no longer true and more time can be spent in non-combat situations without the players feeling like that are not advancing their characters. Sure, every version can be played how a group wants to play it, combat heavy or combat light, but 5E just feels like the default is to give more weight to non-combat stuff than any previous edition.
    1. Ovinomancer's Avatar
      Ovinomancer -
      Asking this question implies that you wand a different experience than what D&D provides. I think it's perfectly valid to want a different experience, but not valid to expect D&D to provide that for you. This is like asking if Monopoly is too focused on money.
    1. Ry's Avatar
      Ry -
      All the ways a player can assert himself in logistics and exploration fail in the face of an opponent.

      Part of the difference between our play selves and our real selves is that in the universe of the game, something's actively trying make you unsafe, cause you harm.

      Maybe we all should have just tried harder to talk with our opponents, but when it comes down to it they will kill us if we don't respond. Combat, and skill in combat, is a kind of tangible, measurable source of security and also agency. If the vampire refuses to be convinced by my argument that I should live, at least I can fight the vampire. If I'm losing an argument in the town square, and I'm ten levels higher than everyone in the town, I can always get respect the hard way, by showing I can duel the ten most battle-hardened veterans in the city, in order, and kill them all without more than a few scratches. That's an intoxicating and persuasive truth even if I don't say it.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      That's a matter of opinion and certainly not a universal truth. Why should social situations rely so heavily upon GM fiat when physical combat ones rely on rules? Social combat rules would offer the same benefits as standard combat rules: codifying the effectiveness of certain strategies over others in specific circumstances and against certain enemies. Why is it okay to build "vulnerable to fire" into the game but not "vulnerable to bribery" or to say "at 0 hp the creature dies" but not "at 0 resolve the NPC capitulates?" I think that the D&D combat systems are generally good foundations on which to build social rules, but would require the same care toward balance and fun.
      Rules work both ways, and role-playing is fundamentally about making decisions. You are your character, making decisions from their perspective. If the rules say that you capitulate at 0 resolve, then NPCs will attack your resolve to make you capitulate, and then the players aren't making decisions for their characters anymore.

      It's okay to kill characters without their consent. It's not okay to change their mind without their consent.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      IME the more you make rules for social situations, enable players to resolve situations with "I make a skill check" instead of actually going though the conversation with the NPC (DM), the less actual interesting stuff happens in those situations. And the last thing I want is to bog such interactions down with a social combat rule-set.
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      Rules work both ways, and role-playing is fundamentally about making decisions. You are your character, making decisions from their perspective. If the rules say that you capitulate at 0 resolve, then NPCs will attack your resolve to make you capitulate, and then the players aren't making decisions for their characters anymore.

      It's okay to kill characters without their consent. It's not okay to change their mind without their consent.
      That rings a little hollow in a game with spells like command, charm and dominate. Not to mention lots of games have systems for codifying those kinds of struggles and their potential outcomes.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by Flexor the Mighty! View Post
      IME the more you make rules for social situations, enable players to resolve situations with "I make a skill check" instead of actually going though the conversation with the NPC (DM), the less actual interesting stuff happens in those situations. And the last thing I want is to bog such interactions down with a social combat rule-set.
      Do you feel the same way about tactical choices in physical combat encounters?

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      Do you feel the same way about tactical choices in physical combat encounters?

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
      To a degree. In the olden days of 3e I did see more players who thought they only options they had was what they had a feat for. And in general I don't mind a very abstracted combat, less time spent on each fight and more on exploration and getting into more fights.
    1. ehren37's Avatar
      ehren37 -
      I don't see why you'd run D&D if you DIDN'T want a fairly combat focused game. The bulk of the rules are on combat. Most abilities tie to combat. There's little narrative player agency outside of casting spells, so virtually no reason not to be a spellcaster in such games. What good is a fighter who doesnt fight basically.

      There are other systems that run a more narrative, social, light combat style much more effectively. It's kind of like asking if an 18wheeler design is too focused on moving heavy loads. It's just what D&D IS. It's a relatively poor universal RPG, but people just seem scared to branch out into a better tool for the job.
    1. ehren37's Avatar
      ehren37 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      That rings a little hollow in a game with spells like command, charm and dominate. Not to mention lots of games have systems for codifying those kinds of struggles and their potential outcomes.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
      Not to mention fear, intimidate, etc. I have no issue with losing narrative some control of my pc, because the rules say he believes an NPC lie. I don;t care if its a flubbed save or a skill check. If your character gets convinced, you should basically portray them as convinced or suffer an in-game consequence.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      That rings a little hollow in a game with spells like command, charm and dominate.
      Those don't change what the character thinks, as much as they prevent the character from being able to think clearly in the first place.

      The real point of an RPG is that the player should have exactly as much agency over their character as the character has within the world. The player should be able to evaluate arguments based on their merit, because that's what the character can do. If the character is put under a magic spell, such that they aren't able to do that anymore, then it would be wrong to let the player ignore that.
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      Not to mention lots of games have systems for codifying those kinds of struggles and their potential outcomes.
      A lot of bad games do, and a lot of games are bad because they try to do this. It doesn't stand to reason that it necessarily can be done well.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Garthanos View Post
      Funny how the version most claimed for tactical also is the closest to supporting the narrative
      But not a coincidence - it's got tight mechanics.

      Also, the bits that get criticised by a certain sort of wargamer - eg the stuff that makes it rational (say) to confront multiple foes at once (Come and Get It, Valiant Strike, etc) or that might discourage hunkering down behind discover - is exactly the stuff that expresses a particular character's archetype and thematic significance.
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      A lot of bad games do, and a lot of games are bad because they try to do this. It doesn't stand to reason that it necessarily can be done well.
      That's just silly. Lots of games do it well. If you personally don't like games that include such mechanics that's one thing, but your preferences don't determine whether something is objectively bad.

      As to agency: games are designed to model things. You may be the world's greatest roleplayer, but even if that is the case you don't have the cultural or life experiences in the context of the world, not to mention the real life motivations, to respond accurately. So, in order to bypass the litany of skills, experiences and perspectives that would be needed to model such interpersonal struggles, game mechanics present a shorthand -- just as they do with the extremely complex and not at all certain outcome of physical conflict. I mean, people that think the player should have absolute control over every decision their character makes no matter the circumstances must never have been worn down by an argument or terrified into action or bullied or just plain exhausted by the opposition before. Ask a trial lawyer whether there is such a thing as "social combat"and whether it requires specific skills or whether experience level has anything to do with the outcome.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      I feel that D&D makes the assumption that combat will be a lengthy mechanical part of a session whenever it occurs, so that every character should be good at it. This doesn't mean that you need a lot of combat, or that every session has combat. It does mean that when it occurs it's going to take a good chunk of time and involve everyone.

      And this is part of the definition of what D&D is as a roleplaying game. That's not good or bad, it's like saying that blue light has a shorter wavelength than red. You may prefer red, and I prefer blue, and they are both right for us.

      Now, if the question was "is D&D too little focused on X", there I might be more opinionated. For non-casters, it feels like 80%+ of character creation and advancement is about combat-related items. We get cases where people look at the Fighter (Champion) and say tat it has little feel outside of combat (and the new UA Brute has even less).

      Everyone being useful and having a niche in combat is a sacred cow of D&D and I accept that (and can easily play systems that don't have that when I feel like it), and that I accept. Where it could grow even stronger is if it too that assumption about combat and applied it across other pillars, so everyone had niches in them and could contribute, instead of only needing one Face, or one tracker, or one PC who can find and disarm traps. Having multiple feels like it's a small tacked on bonus instead of allowing different niches that naturally complement.
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