D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??


B/X Known World
The topic of combat as war vs sport came up again in one of the threads and I want to talk about it. Old-school TSR-era D&D is famously more combat as war than combat as sport. For those of us that played 4E, we know the pendulum swung the other way to almost pure combat as sport.

Here’s a Web DM video on the topic. The video does a good job explaining things. It’s really worth the watch. I especially love the intro.

One of the big divides between the two styles is that combat as war is about gaining as many advantages as you can to win the fight as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible before initiative is even rolled. The goal is to have the outcome be a foregone conclusion because you stacked the odds so drastically in your favor in-game/in-the-fiction through planning and cunning that the actual combat, if there is any, is a formality. Whereas combat as sport is two roughly equal opposed forces clashing in a fun and engaging bit of interesting gameplay where both sides get to show off their cool stuff.

So, looking at 5E combat, it seems to be…neither. The default assumption clearly is not that you’ll treat combat as war as you would with an old-school game, but it’s also clearly not really combat as sport. Sure, the PCs get to show off their cool stuff, but most official monsters are famously lackluster, and most combats are in no way contests between two roughly equal sides.

Any fight that’s four on one (typical for PCs vs solo monster) in 5E is lopsided due to action economy. Even higher level solo monsters typically have fewer that four actions per round. Legendary actions help mitigate this, but most monsters are big bags of hit points rather than an opponent roughly equal to the PCs. Most monsters lack bonus actions or reactions, so action economy is heavily in the PCs’ favor.

Even having fights be equally sized doesn’t help much. The classic party of four is cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard. Between them they’ll have at least 32 HP at 1st level (plus whatever CON mods they have), a +5 or +6 to-hit, and deal 1d8+4 damage on average. A pack of four goblins (a medium CR1 encounter), will have 28 HP (if you take the average), a +4 to-hit, and deal 1d6+2 damage. So HP, to-hit, and damage all favor the PCs. AC is a bit varied, but also tends to favor the PCs. And again, most monsters don’t have bonus actions or reactions.

The above assumes medium combat encounters, which is the default. DMs can easily crank up the difficulty to deadly by adding monsters to a fight. But that is problematic as 5E’s action economy severely punishes whichever side has fewer actions.

Then there’s healing magic and death saves. Most monsters get neither. So another big advantage to the PCs.

Add this all up, and clearly 5E’s combat is neither war nor sport. So what is it? What’s the right word to describe something so dramatically lopsided towards one side? Spectacle maybe?

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Dusty Dragon
Combat as a sport is never "roughly equal" because if it was, the PCs would lose frequently! Instead it creates the illusion of being a roughly matched context - but it is that, an illusion. In almost all fights the PCs are almost guaranteed to win... which is why the PCs are going along with it. If the 2 sides were roughly equal, the players - after losing a number of times - would try to tip the scale in their favor via various shenanigans and cunning plan, moving towards combat as war.

So I disagree with you - 5e totally is combat as a sport. But it doesn't have to be.


I think this depends a lot on what the table wants. At my table, I've got a mix of people who are really into the mechanical bits of the game wrt combat, and they love the sport angle. When I busted out a video game-y, 3 phase boss fight in a church where halfway through the dude ascended into an angelic form? Yeah, they loved that two hour long fight.

I find the people who are all about exploration or social interaction, though? War is the way to go for them, because the time investment isn't spent in initiative hemming and hawing over Actions, Bonus Actions, Reactions, but in communication and planning. If they do things right, they don't have to roll initiative at all! Of my current 5 players, about two of them fall into this camp.

Me personally, I love both for different reasons. I won't apologize for loving 4E and all its set powers, game balance, general combat as sport. But I also love B/X which I find tends to lean the other way, and am currently playing Stars Without Number which I think resembles a bit of a solid middle ground.


Follower of the Way
Add this all up, and clearly 5E’s combat is neither war nor sport. So what is it? What’s the right word to describe something so dramatically lopsided towards one side? Spectacle maybe?
Considering I dislike the fundamental argument in its entirety--it is both reductive and unhelpful, insulting and muddling--the fact that they (and you) seem to think that 5e fails to go either way would in fact be excellent reason to ditch the framework entirely.

However, to make this more than just a threadcrap, I will try to take the fundamental premise seriously, at least for a bit. I grant that 5e combat isn't either of these things (albeit for reasons other than what the video creators probably intended.) It's also not spectacle, because spectacle IS the point of 4e combats; that's why literally everyone, fans and haters alike, refers to them as "set-piece" battles. It's not tactics nor strategy, because 5e has flattened the tactical side of things to almost nothing, and flattened the spectrum of items and interactions that could produce strategic advantage. It's further not combat-as-puzzle, nor combat-as-performance because so many fights are either grinds against piles of squishy nobody mooks, or single fat-sack-of-HP bosses against which there's little of interest to do other than Moar Damage.

Perhaps Combat as Obstacle? It's a thing to get past. It's a weirdly hyper-focused "thing to get past," since 5e's rules for anything that isn't combat are either the spell list, or barely enough to fill a single chapter. But...I'm honestly not sure what else to call it.

And, as I said, that's why I think this is excellent evidence that the "Combat-as-X" model is fundamentally flawed to an extent that it should simply be abandoned. It doesn't actually give information about the game. It basically only says things about the speaker. It's a jersey color, a political party slogan, and nothing more. It may be aspiring to something more and better, it may be trying to say something productive and meaningful about game design, user experience, etc. But it genuinely fails to actually DO that. All it does, in the vast majority of cases, is tell other people which team's cheerios you believe deserve to be pissed in.


Follower of the Way
I wouldn’t call a professional football team vs a pee-wee league a sport.
Well, see above. I wouldn't call it a sport either because it shouldn't be called that.

But more pertinently for the analogy: Even the very best football teams lose. It is exceptionally rare for a given team to go a whole season without losing a single game; in fact, there's only one American/"gridiron" football team that has ever completed a whole season winning every game, including the Superb Owl: 1972 Miami Dolphins, who defeated the Washington Commanders 14-7 (thank you, Google; I am no sports guy.)

If legit actual professional sports teams cannot generally manage more than a dozen victories without at least one loss, what then should we say of TTRPG characters, who are expected to lose not one combat after thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred combats? It simply cannot be reasonably expected that every single time the opposition they go up against is meant to be legitimately, actually their equal--because if that were the case, they would TPK about half the time. That demonstrably does not happen; therefore, whatever the matchup might be, it definitely must favor the PCs to some extent.


As long as i get to be the frog
I'd argue combat as war is the bigger illusion.

I'm all for players trying to gain advantages in whatever way they can. But the simple fact is if there isn't a thumb on the scale then eventually intelligent enemies should proceed to enact their own combat as war on the players and that is going to feel exceedingly unfair to the players, and ultimately culminate in PC deaths/TPKs. Thus, what combat as war boils down to is letting the players get whatever advantages they can but not letting team monster do the same.

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