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 You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Follow up question: Can D&D-related discussions take place on this forum without combat-like arguments? Roll to disprove disparaging remarks and use your reaction to take overly-defensive stance! Flame attack! Dispel other game systems as plausible or fun! Yeaarrgh!!
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      I think that a majority of players find 5e to be middle of the road in combat in rules complexity and bits and bobbles to keep track of. (As the current trends of gaming go.)

      And it seems as long as D&D keeps to that spot with some side systems, then it will keep going strong.

      As a side note: It never hurts that guys like Kevin Crawford keeps cranking out overlay systems, that keep surprising people.
    1. Panda-s1's Avatar
      Panda-s1 -
      man so many people are saying "D&D doesn't need 50 pages explaining social interaction lol", but did it ever occur to anyone that D&D doesn't need 50 pages describing combat either? "combat needs detailed rules" no it doesn't, so many games get away with abstract combat rules and people love playing them. I don't want the combat of D&D to go away but some people are missing the point.
    1. jbear's Avatar
      jbear -
      I honestly don't need any special emphasis to be put on any particular area of the game, personally. I've played D&D where there were detailed rules for every aspect of exploration you could think of. It was exciting to discover these rules, reading them in the books for the first time. But it became quickly clear to me that there were too many rules to learn them off by heart. The practical result was that game play was frequently slowed down while looking up the rules every time a player tried to do something. I also found myself saying - 'No you can't do that, and you can't do this because ...' and then there would be another stop while I looked for the rule I was pretty sure I had read related to that situation somewhere.

      4e I found refreshing because the rule system was so easy to memorise that I was able to learn the fundamental mechanics so thoroughly that I never had to look up rules during play. Then, based on the solid notion of the systems mechanics, I did what I felt needed to be done with it on different occaisions in order to create fun, dramatic, cinematic play experiences - whether those experiences involved combat, social interaction, or exploration ... or logistics I guess (though never really considered that one of the pillars of D&D, personally).

      5e I also found refreshing because it moved a step back towards the style I remember playing when I first began, but with a far tidier engine that again was very easy to memorise, so that books are rarely if ever referenced during game play (except the odd spell reference every now and again perhaps). I personally find 5e to be lacking a touch for my taste in terms of battle complexity, but I do appreciate the speed of play and the flow of most battle scenarios that doesn't need to be defined or balanced as an 'encounter'. This means that 60% of battles that lack in complexity are just fine, because the battle isn't actually the most interesting thing going on; the conflict is just a small part of a bigger story. But the system is tight enough that I can easily turn up the dial and create a fully complex battle scenario (especially after the many things that I learned from 4e regarding interesting battle terrain and having way more interesting goals happening in a battle than solely killing everything and taking the lewt).

      As for the other pillars, exploration and social interactions, do I need more input on how to run them or make them equally interesting play experiences? Not really. Certainly not if that is just going to result in more rules that I'm going to have to try to memorise or that I would have to look up during play, thus slowing down the game. When I want those aspects of the game to really stand out, I invest some of my own time creating a special scenario that will test my players and their characters, and allow the stories the players have created before, the connections they invoke from their characters back stories, or the connections they make to their PCs social networks, to influence the outcome in significant ways that make sense based on the story my players and I are weaving together at the time. I really don't feel any great need for more emphasis on these areas mechanically than I feel the need for a greater need for there to be a greater emphasis on combat (despite my own personal tastes on this matter). My players and I can best handle that ourselves.
    1. Lanefan -
      Logistics? Largely faded away from the game (a negative development)
      Exploration? Fading away from the game (a negative development).
      Interaction? Starting to fade away, replaced in part by combat-like rules (a negative development).
      Combat? Not going anywhere, because it's all that's left.

      And why is this?

      The simple answer is that today's players and DMs seem to expect/demand a much faster pace of play both in the small scale and in the large. They approach every normal session as though it's a tournament game where whoever gets the farthest (or levels up the most) wins...and while this is fine for tournaments it really takes a lot out of the game otherwise.

      Logistics - the careful tracking of gear, encumbrance, food and water, torches, party treasury, minor personal expenses, and so forth; along with the hiring of henches and porters and the like to carry stuff - take time to do, and thus slow down the pace of play. Encumbrance was generally the first to go - people just stopped bothering (and of this I too am guilty). Careful tracking of minor resources (food, water, torches, etc.) was next, along with tracking of minor personal expenses to buy these things (other than maybe during session 0). And the last reported sighting of anything resembling a hench in RAW was the cohort that came bundled with 3e's leadership feat. Score a major victory for the anti-realism crew.

      Exploration - including careful mapping, trial-and-error magic item testing, puzzles and riddles, etc. - also takes time to do, and worse than that it rudely inserts itself between the exciting fighty swashbuckly bits. And so it's slowly being abandoned in favour of a few die rolls and-or automatically knowing what an item does once you pick it up and hold it for a moment and-or nobody on either side of the screen bothering with a map. This is reflected in a steady (though uneven) trend of simplification in dungeon/adventure design as time goes on, along with some elements being hard-written into the rules e.g. the magic item identifying example.

      Interaction - the talky bits, role-playing (as opposed to dice-rolling) your way into and out of situations, engaging with the NPCs in character - has been over the last few editions quite strongly encouraged to go away by the RAW, to be replaced by dice. This started in late 2e days and then was codified in 3e's skill system - diplomacy, bluff, intimidate, etc. - which, modified, remains in place still. That actual interaction has stuck around as much as it has is a credit to all involved who haven't forgotten that role-playing means playing a role.

      Combat. Almost everyone likes combat. Dice fly, things happen, enemies fall, xp pile up...all is good, and the rules support it more or less half-decently in all editions. Yet what's the biggest complaint about high-level 3e and mid-to-high-level 4e? Yep, that's right: the combats take too long.

      So, how to bring back the Logistics and Exploration aspects of the game? Supporting and encouraging them - rather than the opposite - within the RAW is step one; but a more important step 2 would be to strongly advise all involved to simply slow down and take the flippin' time. Don't expect or demand that the campaign simply jump from set-piece to set-piece or encounter to encounter or framed-scene to framed-scene; you're missing everything that can happen in between and turning your back on the rest of the game. Further; when everything's exciting, nothing is; and you're at constant risk of getting into "how do I top this?" mode.

      Another way to look at it: in an average day during a dangerous adventure maybe a sum total of half an hour of game time will be actual encounters or combat or framed scenes. Why not give some thought to what the PCs are doing with the other 23+ hours in the day? I'm by no means suggesting playing out every little detail of their day (to forestall the expected criticism I'll get), but for gawds sake allow some role-played downtime between encounters to track resources or chat around the campfire, or allow the players to spend the time between one encounter and the next mapping out where they're going; and every now and then ask how their supplies are doing. (for example: last night my party got up into the mountains and hit some cold weather - it suddenly became very relevant who had winter gear on hand [one character did; another has magical cold protection] and who didn't [everyone else in the party])

      With this in mind I see the 4e DM advice to just "go where the action is" (and by implication skip everything in between) as probably the worst thing ever written in a D&D rulebook.

      The game is endless. Play it that way.

      Lan-"putting up the tomato-catching net now"-efan
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      It's okay to kill characters without their consent. It's not okay to change their mind without their consent.
      So, no Fear spells?
    1. TwoSix -
      Hell, it's not focused on combat enough. If I wanted to chat with innkeepers, I'd leave them Yelp reviews.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      So, no Fear spells?
      A fear spell doesn't change what someone is thinking. It just makes it so that, regardless of what you're thinking, your body is acting as though you were afraid and now you're running away (or whatever the mechanical effect is).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      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.
      Good point.

      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).
      IMO the Champion is an example of decent design. It's a simple character for the kind of player who really dislikes complicated play mechanics. That's not bad. I do wish they'd supported all characters with some useful non-combat actions, though. The Champion's only really good stuff in this regard is Athletics, short of the player making it happen.

      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.
      In some respects that's later in D&D's history, though niche protection is old. A number of characters were notably weak in combat in the early days.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      A fear spell doesn't change what someone is thinking. It just makes it so that, regardless of what you're thinking, your body is acting as though you were afraid and now you're running away (or whatever the mechanical effect is).
      Seems like splitting hairs to me, but there are both charms and illusions which most definitely change what your character is thinking.

      Now I agree one should use such things sparingly, but they're a long-established part of the game.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Seems like splitting hairs to me, but there are both charms and illusions which most definitely change what your character is thinking.

      Now I agree one should use such things sparingly, but they're a long-established part of the game.
      It seems distinct enough to me, but I get what you're saying. Really, the big difference is in acceptability. If the DM says that your barbarian is now friends with this guy in a robe who was just trying to kill you a minute ago, because he cast a spell and it's magic making you think things you wouldn't ordinarily think, then that's one thing. If the DM says that your barbarian is now friends with this guy in leather armor who was just trying to kill you a minute ago, because he made a very convincing argument and now you believe that it was an honest mistake, then you might disagree that your barbarian would be so accepting.
    1. Kobold Boots -
      Quote Originally Posted by Panda-s1 View Post
      man so many people are saying "D&D doesn't need 50 pages explaining social interaction lol", but did it ever occur to anyone that D&D doesn't need 50 pages describing combat either? "combat needs detailed rules" no it doesn't, so many games get away with abstract combat rules and people love playing them. I don't want the combat of D&D to go away but some people are missing the point.
      I'd argue that people who are looking for stronger rules in any category are making "their" point. I don't think it matters much with "the" point is.

    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      It started out as a tactical wargame. The fact that it has any non-combat elements to it should be impressive in that regard. All these folks who claim that non-combat elements of D&D are dying are, IMO out of their gourd. Non-combat elements have grown, though yes, rules for them have not, which leads to combat having an apparent over-representation in the rulebook. But some editions tried adding rules to social and exploration elements of the game, they weren't terribly successful because all they ended up really accomplishing is setting DC's for diplomacy checks on making gods your friends. That's obviously not the approach we want to see.

      Certainly RPGs don't need hard mechanical rules for combat, but I think that, at least for the type of combat D&D wants to have, it's necessary. Combat in D&D is very fixed-outcome. Either something happens, or it doesn't. It's not wishy-washy on its results and I think for combat, that's good. (I'll add that I generally don't like systems of more "make believe" combat). Social and exploration is very much less a fixed-outcome sort of deal and I think because of that, it's a lot more difficult to create rules. We don't know what the outcome of talking to the King is. We do know what the outcome of swinging a sword is. The sword is a known variable. Unless we're going to create rules that say something like "All Kings are the same." in the same way that all longswords are the same, we're never going to be able to have the same kind of rules we have for combat work for social situations.
    1. Sunsword's Avatar
      Sunsword -
      To me this depends on the table and the mood. Some nights you can tell a combat is what is desired, some nights we don't roll any dice. In my opinion the most successful DMs are the ones who can read the table and go with the flow.
    1. Thomas Bowman's Avatar
      Thomas Bowman -
      I don't think die roles should ever substitute for players using their brains to figure out a situation.
    1. Enevhar Aldarion's Avatar
      Enevhar Aldarion -
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      I don't think die roles should ever substitute for players using their brains to figure out a situation.
      The D&D system is not too bad for character knowledge being greater than player knowledge, but there are plenty of other systems out there that have character skills, proficiencies, etc that many players would have no clue how they work in real life, so having to default to dice rolls instead of figuring it out can and will happen. Also, while I love role playing games, I am not so good at the actual role playing, so there are plenty of times I will just roll the dice rather than trying to act something out, especially CHA related stuff. And DMs need to be smart enough and aware enough to understand when their players are in those types of situations.
    1. MichaelSomething's Avatar
      MichaelSomething -
      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 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.
      I bet Gygax thought the same way you did. That's why the early rulebooks went lite on the social roleplaying rules because he thought they weren't needed.

      However, lots of people read those rulebooks and came to the conclusion that D&D was purely a combat game because it was full of combat rules and little else.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Quote Originally Posted by Flexor the Mighty! View Post
      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.
      The Outdoor Survival rules and the encumbrance rules in OD&D/ AD&D made for some fun. Players could starve or die of thirst. You couldn't take it all with you. Pack animals were a good idea. You had to plan an adventure / expedition. Add weather and environmental effects and it got really interesting. It was fun.

      Magic could mitigate some issues as you advanced in levels of course. Later editions started using more and more magic to evade the problems players encountered on outdoor adventures. Too bad. Worrying about where your next meal was coming from gave players something to worry about besides the next combat. It also helped make the game more immersive and gave it a dose of "reality". My initial group loved it, but then we were straight out of miniature wargaming and these issues came up in miniature campaigns (as opposed to just setting up a single battle).
    1. Jhaelen -
      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 to settle on a price, one can roll dice for those things, but that is kind of artificial.
      I've seen this argument quite often, but I'm convinced it doesn't hold water.
      There's nothing inherently different about combat that it merits being treated different from any other activities in an RPG. In fact there are numerous RPG systems that have seamlessly integrated combat-relevant skills in their skill system. The only reason combat is treated differently from other skills in D&D is that D&D historically didn't have a skill system.

      Combat encounters could be resolved purely by roleplaying exactly as any other kind of encounter. And the reverse is just as true: All kinds of encounters benefit from a rule framework, especially those that involve some kind of conflict. It doesn't matter if that conflict is fought with weapons, words or thoughts.

      Going back to the article's question, the answer depends entirely on the preferences of the players. D&D has traditionally been focused on combat, so unless players are reluctant to learn any other RPG systems, there's no reason to play D&D if you feel it's _too_ focused on combat. If you feel that D&D has just the right amount of combat, though, you're obviously fine.

      Interestingly, the article's author apparently chooses to ignore that there ever was a 4th edition of D&D. However, it was 4e that introduced the concept of skill challenges, i.e. trying to provide a rule framework for encounters involving something other than combat. 4e was also the edition where I as a GM first used milestones instead of tracking xp to decide when it was time for the pc's to level up. I'm not sure where I got the idea, maybe from 4e's DMG2?
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ry View Post
      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.
      But this really begs the question - in that you assume that it is inherent in combat mechanics that they deliver finality in resolution, but social mechanics can't have the same character.

      Classic Traveller doesn't have a universal social resolution system, but it has a few social resolution subsytems (especially for dealing with officials). And it delivers finality of resolution in those areas. One result is that Traveller players don't have their PCs blow up all the police and customs inspectors, because they know that a successful Admin or Bribery check can result in them being convinced.

      Quote Originally Posted by Stacie GmrGrl View Post
      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.

      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.
      In the history of D&D there has been some exceptions to what you say here.

      Gygax's DMG has a complex system for establishing social reactions, loyalty and morale, etc. As written, it is applicable to friends and acquaintances, not just hirelings. I'm not sure it's actually playable as written (there are surprisingly many and complex moving parts), but it does offer something other than GM fiat to resolve some aspects of social interaction.

      Another exception that tackles head on a lot of your points is the 4e skill challenge - codified resolution framework, player checks matter, finality of resolution. Unfortunately the "died in a fire" (I think that's the technical term).
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