D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??

S'mon

Legend
That's the relevant distinction for me too. Regardless of what terminology is used, I see the question as whether: (1) players are expected to accept the premise of a potential combat as presented by the DM and attempt to win it after initiative is rolled; or (2) players are expected to try to redefine the premise of a potential combat to play to their character's strengths, effectively trying to win before initiative is rolled.

Well said. One way to put it might be "Combat As Set Piece" (4e) vs "Combat As Emergent" (0e-1e/2e). That's hopefully less derogatory than The Alexandrian's term "My Precious Encounter" for the 4e style.

IME the best game sessions tend to combine elements of Set Piece (CAS) and Emergent (CAW) play, though if I had to go with one it'd be emergent. I find the potential for catastrophic game failure with players saying "Why are we even doing this?" is greater with Set Piece play. But Emergent play puts a bigger burden on the GM to simulate the environment using the game tools, and does have its own fail states, such as over reliance on procedure - 'roll roll "Three hundred Orcs jump out and attack!"'
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Well said. One way to put it might be "Combat As Set Piece" (4e) vs "Combat As Emergent" (0e-1e/2e). That's hopefully less derogatory than The Alexandrian's term "My Precious Encounter" for the 4e style.
Oh good Lord. And people say Mr. Alexander doesn't have it out for 4e. Could he possibly get any more openly insulting without just sitting down and saying, "I'm here to naughty word on 4e."?

IME the best game sessions tend to combine elements of Set Piece (CAS) and Emergent (CAW) play, though if I had to go with one it'd be emergent. I find the potential for catastrophic game failure with players saying "Why are we even doing this?" is greater with Set Piece play. But Emergent play puts a bigger burden on the GM to simulate the environment using the game tools, and does have its own fail states, such as over reliance on procedure - 'roll roll "Three hundred Orcs jump out and attack!"'
The procedural reliance occurs on the player side too--optimizing the fun out of the gameplay by developing airtight "standard operating procedures" that avoid risks before they happen. This very thing was what led to so many of the adversarial DMing elements of early D&D, such as horrible cursed magic items that look identical to proper ones, cloakers/rust monsters/ear seekers/etc., and the ever-proliferating number of slimes or golems only weak to certain kinds of damage.

I'm not sure I completely agree with your analysis of "Set Piece" design though. (I refuse to use the other terms, except to advocate for people to stop using them.) Much of what I do as a Dungeon World GM is in a "Set Piece" lens, but I do so through things my players are interested in following up on. We recently completed a whole friggin' adventure that arose purely out of one player botching a roll for getting in contact with an antiquities dealer who was thought to have information on the El'Adrin that his Battlemaster would want to know, involving shattered spacetime, alternate pasts and futures, and an extremely British time dragon. The players were doing it specifically because they cared; they wouldn't have been rolling for those things if they didn't, and as the mystery got deeper they became more curious. Had they brushed it off or latched onto something else, it would've been just another discarded plot point.

Instead, I think the issue is a more nuanced, less buzzwordy version of what a lot of people grouse about with regard to games like this, without actually appreciating the texture of the thing. In Set Piece Land, the GM has an enormous responsibility to ensure things like pacing and apparent progression and actual impact over time etc. These things no longer innately arise out of the monsters themselves, because, at least in a properly robust Set Piece-designed system, you can take any given monster block and scale it across a significant range of levels and it will work more or less correctly.* It's incumbent on the GM to curate the experience of progressing and growing, of facing off against an incredibly tough opponent at level 5, then those opponents eventually becoming standard (if still challenging) fare, then them becoming distinctly secondary targets before finally having them as the fodder the characters mow through. For example, using 4e terminology, an ogre might be a Solo at level 5, an Elite at level 8, a Standard at level 10, and a minion at level 15+, possibly even dipping into "swarm" rules from other games once you get up into Epic tier.

The GM no longer needs to worry about the mechanical structure of the world, and is instead relied upon to provide the narrative and ecological structure of the world, things that rules are notoriously pretty bad at providing anyway.

For folks deeply immersed in the "Emergent Behavior" kind of design, where narrative and ecology are baked in but mechanical structure is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, this more or less turns everything on its head. The things you expect to do yourself are already done, and the things you expect to be already done have little to no effort put into them. That could be extremely frustrating and disorienting to deal with.

*There are always exceptions, e.g. a level 1 dracolich is a bad idea, and odd examples e.g. needlefang drake swarms had some...issues...but the overall pattern holds fairly consistently.
 

S'mon

Legend
For folks deeply immersed in the "Emergent Behavior" kind of design, where narrative and ecology are baked in but mechanical structure is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, this more or less turns everything on its head. The things you expect to do yourself are already done, and the things you expect to be already done have little to no effort put into them. That could be extremely frustrating and disorienting to deal with.

Good post I think, and I agree Set Piece game & encounter design has its own challenges for the GM. I think it can risk the "What's the point of this anyway?" feel I get from most computer games, especially across long campaigns. I find it's a style most naturally suited to evoking a film or film trilogy, whereas most RPGs lean much more towards TV serial type play. Something like Red Hand of Doom looks like it'd be perfect for 4e, and resembles a fantasy film or novel in its structure. Whereas a megadungeon exploration campaign suits Emergent design a lot better.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The procedural reliance occurs on the player side too--optimizing the fun out of the gameplay by developing airtight "standard operating procedures" that avoid risks before they happen. This very thing was what led to so many of the adversarial DMing elements of early D&D, such as horrible cursed magic items that look identical to proper ones, cloakers/rust monsters/ear seekers/etc., and the ever-proliferating number of slimes or golems only weak to certain kinds of damage.
All of which are in my view fair play. The trick is not to over-use any one of them.
... an extremely British time dragon.
Time dragon? I'm curious about this - what's a time dragon?
Instead, I think the issue is a more nuanced, less buzzwordy version of what a lot of people grouse about with regard to games like this, without actually appreciating the texture of the thing. In Set Piece Land, the GM has an enormous responsibility to ensure things like pacing and apparent progression and actual impact over time etc. These things no longer innately arise out of the monsters themselves, because, at least in a properly robust Set Piece-designed system, you can take any given monster block and scale it across a significant range of levels and it will work more or less correctly.* It's incumbent on the GM to curate the experience of progressing and growing, of facing off against an incredibly tough opponent at level 5, then those opponents eventually becoming standard (if still challenging) fare, then them becoming distinctly secondary targets before finally having them as the fodder the characters mow through. For example, using 4e terminology, an ogre might be a Solo at level 5, an Elite at level 8, a Standard at level 10, and a minion at level 15+, possibly even dipping into "swarm" rules from other games once you get up into Epic tier.
And that lays out my problem with that type of design very neatly: the same monster in the fiction doesn't have consistent mechanics; instead those mechanics are expected to vary vary depending solely on what it is fighting. Internal setting consistency? What's that?

A creature's mechanics - its hit points, hit dice, fighting capabilities, etc. - should and must go with and remain tied to that creature throughout, changing only if something material about the creature itself changes in the fiction, if the setting is to be consistent with itself. For example, if a party of 2nd-levels flees screaming from a 74-hit-point 10 HD Giant, then a few years later when now at 14th level they meet that same Giant again, said Giant should still have 74 hit points and still be a 10 HD monster unless something has changed about the Giant itself in the meantime e.g. in its own life it somehow became tougher, or aged and became weaker, or whatever.
The GM no longer needs to worry about the mechanical structure of the world,
From here it seems the GM has to worry even more about mechanical structures: instead of setting a monster's mechanics once and then leaving them alone, the GM now has to constantly adjust that monster's mechanics based on the level and-or capabilities of the party it is fighting. That looks like more work, not less.
For folks deeply immersed in the "Emergent Behavior" kind of design, where narrative and ecology are baked in but mechanical structure is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, this more or less turns everything on its head.
This doesn't square with anything. Ecology and monster mechanics go hand in hand, for the most part, and both are pretty much baked in. Narrative has nothing to do with it, and can arise by whatever means it takes using those baked-in elements as a foundation.

It's the setting where a monster's stats change based on its at-the-moment opponents where one could say the mechanics are wibbly-wobbly.
 


Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Then, as stated, why not use "strategy" vs "tactics"? People generally understand the meaning of the words, and the meaning is (as others have noted) closer to the metal than that of "war" and "sport." Indeed, the latter two have explicitly problematic elements purely in their intended meanings, not even accounting for any historical-precedent issues.
Differing levels of emphasis on strategy and tactics are definitely an important part of the relevant distinction. As they are general terms with their own history of debate over where one ends and the other begins, however, I'm not confident that they make effective labels for a gaming-specific distinction between (in the D&D context) an expectation that one accept the premise of potential combats as presented by the DM, versus an expectation than one will try to redefine the premise of those combats. Further complicating matters, there are other aspects of RPG playstyles to which the terms "strategy" and "tactics" can be applied. An "armchair-general" style campaign, for example, could focus heavily on large-scale strategic troop movements while still having an expectation that the premise of personal-level combats be accepted as presented by the DM.

That's not to say the gaming-specific terms "combat-as-sport" and "combat-as-war" are necessarily better labels. Your experience of the terms being used with intent to denigrate and/or dismiss "combat-as-sport" playstyles is important, and I agree that such usage is highly problematic. In my own experience, I've seen the terms used mostly as neutral descriptors, and the exceptions of people using either term to intentionally denigrate a playstyle having gone both ways. You are more active on this forum than I am, however, so I take your contrary observations very seriously.

Solution-wise, I'm not confident that the best strategy for combating intentional denigrations of others' playstyles is to try to change the vocabulary itself. My reasons are twofold. First, the terminology is already in common use in the wild. While enworld undoubtedly played a role in popularizing the terms as they apply to RPGs starting with this thread, I'm skeptical that a deliberate effort ten years later to revise the terminology could have much success--naming something novel is always easier than trying to rename it when it is no longer novel. Second, there's an awful lot of denigrating other people's playstyles in online RPG forum discussions, using a wide variety of terminology. Maybe I'm being too cynical, but I'm skeptical that people who intentionally use "combat-as-sport" (or "combat-as-war") to denigrate the other style would fail to communicate their derision even if we convinced them to use different terminology.

Instead, I personally think it would be more effective to rebut the derision directly rather than the specific terminology employed. That approach has the added advantage of focusing effort on convincing those engaging in the problematic behavior to stop, rather than spreading that effort across everyone using the terminology (which would also risk provoking resistance by a larger group than just those engaging in the derisive behavior). There are times in other contexts when a label becomes so problematic that changing the terminology is an important end in its own right, but I dearly hope technical terminology identifying a specific aspect of gaming playstyles can't rise to that level.

Ultimately, you've identified a problem I agree should be fixed. I disagree with you on what the most effective strategy to fix the problem would be, but I could easily be wrong.
 

Time dragon? I'm curious about this - what's a time dragon?
Well, in default D&D (well, Pathfinder) stuff, a "time dragon" looks like this.
6b2b76edcdc72897d5570c5a90cdcb12.jpg
They're basically cookie-cutter Gallifreyan-type "guardians of time" creatures who are supposed to be incredibly alien and only intervene in extreme circumstances. I find this time dragon quite boring, both in appearance (it's basically a gold dragon with purple body scales and orange belly scales) and in behavior.

Instead, I went with something vaguely like a Red dragon in physical appearance, but colored like one of the Infinite Dragonflight dragons from WoW (essentially: "time bandit" dragons trying to change history in ways that would avert tragedies but would cause much, much worse things instead.) For reference, this is what an Infinite Dragonflight dragon looks like (in this case, this is a mount from WoW):
infinitedragonmount.jpg
I personally think this color scheme looks both enormously cooler and significantly more alien than "purple and orange." Further, all of my players are former WoW players, so they would instantly have an idea of what this dragon would look like.

Dragons in my Jewel of the Desert game are classified as "Guardians," a type of being that is sort of halfway between being a proper outsider (celestials, fiends, aberrations, abominations) and a proper mortal (essentially all sapient races.) Guardians are created, rather than born, gifted with power and a mission to fulfill via using that power. The only dragons known to exist in the PCs' world live on a different continent, Yuxia; guardians in the local area, the Tarrakhuna, appear to have been the Genie-Rajahs (who abused their powers rather badly and eventually forsook their mantle entirely, but tried to hold onto the power) and the El'Adrin (who pulled their entire civilization into a magical pocket-plane to prevent its destruction in a still-mysterious cataclysm long ago.)

This time dragon, who gave his name as Oleander Pierpont Mortcombe (did I mention he was excessively British?), appears to be a Guardian with a non-planetbound purpose, tending to the clockwork machinery of the universe and fixing up problems as they arise. He had been just casually observing when a Major Something happened that fractured spacetime on the PCs' world, and it caught him off-guard; he then realized, only too late, that this world had a metaphysical barrier around it which would allow things to enter but would not allow them to leave, meaning he was metaphysically "stuck" halfway manifested on their world. Coordinating themselves and using both physical and metaphysical strength and senses, the party was able to pull Oleander through the barrier to properly exist inside their world. He thanked them, promised to be of aid to them at a future date, and then vanished backward through time, intending to leave the planet before the barrier was erected in the first place.

It was something of a one-off encounter I dreamed up as part of the timey-wimey shenanigans of their most recent major adventure. Now, however, it gives me an excellent tool in the toolbox, because they've done Oleander a significant service. The aid of someone who can provide that aid before you need it is an incredibly useful tool to have, but since he's clearly got his own job to do and can't just hare off to do whatever the players like whenever they like, and they have no means of contacting him directly, it manages to provide the justification for a rare-use deus ex machina (or perhaps deus ex dracone? Hah!) My players don't strictly know this, other than knowing that they have earned a favor from a time dragon, but it's plausible they could figure it out or ask the right kinds of questions to learn it.

And that lays out my problem with that type of design very neatly: the same monster in the fiction doesn't have consistent mechanics; instead those mechanics are expected to vary vary depending solely on what it is fighting. Internal setting consistency? What's that?
Why does the mechanical representation need to be a direct, 1:1 correspondence with the fictional reality underneath? It's not like players are staring at these statblocks. They only see the qualitative, not the quantitative. If the quantitative is structured so that it produces the desired gameplay experience, what more does one need?

A creature's mechanics - its hit points, hit dice, fighting capabilities, etc. - should and must go with and remain tied to that creature throughout
I'm going to stop you there and reiterate the previous question. Why? What value is gained from this? The players don't see the numbers. They see the fantasy. Fantasy is comprised of two things. First, the narrative: the meaning, story, and substance of the creature, aka "why does this matter to us?" Second, the ecology: the environment, ambience, and interconnections. Neither of these things are mechanics. They are, in fact, completely disconnected from mechanics. So I am deeply confused when you refer to them as "mechanics" in literally any way whatsoever. There is nothing mechanical about any of this.

Mechanics are the numbers, the statistics, the conditions and how they interact with one another. They are things which can be enumerated, as opposed to things which only admit qualitative description.
 

S'mon

Legend
I'm going to stop you there and reiterate the previous question. Why? What value is gained from this? The players don't see the numbers. They see the fantasy. Fantasy is comprised of two things. First, the narrative: the meaning, story, and substance of the creature, aka "why does this matter to us?" Second, the ecology: the environment, ambience, and interconnections. Neither of these things are mechanics. They are, in fact, completely disconnected from mechanics. So I am deeply confused when you refer to them as "mechanics" in literally any way whatsoever. There is nothing mechanical about any of this.

Mechanics are the numbers, the statistics, the conditions and how they interact with one another. They are things which can be enumerated, as opposed to things which only admit qualitative description.

In World Simulation type play, consistent mechanics helps the player immersion, for those of us who value this style. And players very often do see the monster stats, the DCs etc. It is NOT all about "why does this matter to us?" - there is a sense of a living world beyond and independent of "us". The stats help define the relation of setting elements to each other, not just to the PCs.
 

In World Simulation type play, consistent mechanics helps the player immersion, for those of us who value this style. And players very often do see the monster stats, the DCs etc. It is NOT all about "why does this matter to us?" - there is a sense of a living world beyond and independent of "us". The stats help define the relation of setting elements to each other, not just to the PCs.
So you actually look at the written statblock each and every time you encounter one?
 




So, if the DM ensures that all narrative (story, meaning, relevance) and ecology (physiology, environmental context, relationships between creatures) remains faithfully represented to you, how could you know whether the statblock remained perfectly identical every single time the creature appeared?
 

S'mon

Legend
So, if the DM ensures that all narrative (story, meaning, relevance) and ecology (physiology, environmental context, relationships between creatures) remains faithfully represented to you, how could you know whether the statblock remained perfectly identical every single time the creature appeared?

I think you're engaging in some kind of straw man argument? Sorry, I have flu, can't really engage.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
First off, cool write up about the time dragons! I might just have to swipe a bit of that... :)
Why does the mechanical representation need to be a direct, 1:1 correspondence with the fictional reality underneath?
Because that's what the mechanics are there for: to take the underlying fiction and quantify it for gameplay purposes; and from what you say below I think we even agree on that much.
It's not like players are staring at these statblocks. They only see the qualitative, not the quantitative. If the quantitative is structured so that it produces the desired gameplay experience, what more does one need?
Consistency, and consistency. Two different variants, here explained.

Consistency 1 - Grog the Ogre is Grog the Ogre, whether he's raiding a village full of peasants or getting slaughtered by a bunch of 16th-level adventurers or just happily going about his day in the forest. His mechanics should reflect what he actually is, without regard for external concerns. If his mechanics are, however, set only by the way others perceive him, then there's a consistency problem.

For example, if Grog is terrorizing a village full of peasants as an 85 h.p. elite and then three 14th-level knights come riding in who see him as little more than a 1 h.p. minion (and his mechanics correspondingly change to reflect this), does that mean the next peasant to lay a scratch on Grog kills him? It shouldn't; and that's where the consistency issue arises. Put another way, 6 points of damage from a peasant should count exactly the same against Grog as six points of damage from a 14th-level knight, both mechanically at the table and narratively in the fiction.

Consistency 2 - if I'm a 4th-level Cleric with x-amount of spells per day and 32 h.p., it doesn't matter whether I'm facing a single unarmed peasant bandit or a bloody great big nasty dragon or just puttering about in my temple: my own mechanics don't change. I still have 32 h.p. and the same number of spells regardless of my surroundings. If it works this way for me - that my mechanics remain static in any situation - it should work this way for every other inhabitant of the setting; that it doesn't is consistency problem number 2.

Worth noting here that the PCs are not the only inhabitants of the setting whose perception matters.
I'm going to stop you there and reiterate the previous question. Why? What value is gained from this? The players don't see the numbers. They see the fantasy. Fantasy is comprised of two things. First, the narrative: the meaning, story, and substance of the creature, aka "why does this matter to us?" Second, the ecology: the environment, ambience, and interconnections. Neither of these things are mechanics. They are, in fact, completely disconnected from mechanics. So I am deeply confused when you refer to them as "mechanics" in literally any way whatsoever. There is nothing mechanical about any of this.
The mechanics are there to - consistently, one hopes! - reflect the fictional reality, not the fictional perception of reality. Your way is trying to mechanize the perception, which becomes a hopeless task the moment you have multiple entities in the same scene who would perceive that scene differently (e.g. how the knights and peasants perceive Grog). Yes the players don't see the stat blocks, but the DM does; and the DM needs something concrete to work with.
Mechanics are the numbers, the statistics, the conditions
Yes.
and how they interact with one another.
No. The rules are how they interact with one another.
They are things which can be enumerated, as opposed to things which only admit qualitative description.
Particularly in combat, the narration describes those interactions and, sometimes, also puts the mechanics into non-mechanical words. But note: the narration only describes those interactions, it doesn't (or shouldn't) materially affect them; much like a play-by-play commentator can only use words to describe what's happening on the field while being unable to materially affect those events.

Here the to-hit roll is the event, and the DM's reaction to that roll ("you hit" or "you miss", often in more flowery terms) is the play by play.

Same is true when narrating a monster. I can narrate Grog any way I want but my narration doesn't and shouldn't materially affect his underlying mechanics, which were already there before the PCs ever saw him.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
First off, cool write up about the time dragons! I might just have to swipe a bit of that... :)

Because that's what the mechanics are there for: to take the underlying fiction and quantify it for gameplay purposes; and from what you say below I think we even agree on that much.

Consistency, and consistency. Two different variants, here explained.

Consistency 1 - Grog the Ogre is Grog the Ogre, whether he's raiding a village full of peasants or getting slaughtered by a bunch of 16th-level adventurers or just happily going about his day in the forest. His mechanics should reflect what he actually is, without regard for external concerns. If his mechanics are, however, set only by the way others perceive him, then there's a consistency problem.

For example, if Grog is terrorizing a village full of peasants as an 85 h.p. elite and then three 14th-level knights come riding in who see him as little more than a 1 h.p. minion (and his mechanics correspondingly change to reflect this), does that mean the next peasant to lay a scratch on Grog kills him? It shouldn't; and that's where the consistency issue arises. Put another way, 6 points of damage from a peasant should count exactly the same against Grog as six points of damage from a 14th-level knight, both mechanically at the table and narratively in the fiction.

Consistency 2 - if I'm a 4th-level Cleric with x-amount of spells per day and 32 h.p., it doesn't matter whether I'm facing a single unarmed peasant bandit or a bloody great big nasty dragon or just puttering about in my temple: my own mechanics don't change. I still have 32 h.p. and the same number of spells regardless of my surroundings. If it works this way for me - that my mechanics remain static in any situation - it should work this way for every other inhabitant of the setting; that it doesn't is consistency problem number 2.

Worth noting here that the PCs are not the only inhabitants of the setting whose perception matters.

The mechanics are there to - consistently, one hopes! - reflect the fictional reality, not the fictional perception of reality. Your way is trying to mechanize the perception, which becomes a hopeless task the moment you have multiple entities in the same scene who would perceive that scene differently (e.g. how the knights and peasants perceive Grog). Yes the players don't see the stat blocks, but the DM does; and the DM needs something concrete to work with.

Yes.

No. The rules are how they interact with one another.

Particularly in combat, the narration describes those interactions and, sometimes, also puts the mechanics into non-mechanical words. But note: the narration only describes those interactions, it doesn't (or shouldn't) materially affect them; much like a play-by-play commentator can only use words to describe what's happening on the field while being unable to materially affect those events.

Here the to-hit roll is the event, and the DM's reaction to that roll ("you hit" or "you miss", often in more flowery terms) is the play by play.

Same is true when narrating a monster. I can narrate Grog any way I want but my narration doesn't and shouldn't materially affect his underlying mechanics, which were already there before the PCs ever saw him.
This was the core of my problem with 4e. As a DM, playing it the way they intended felt like the world was a holodeck and the PCs were the only real people.
 


Micah Sweet

Legend
Oooooooor the world was a story being told, and thus the beings in it are filtered through the lens of what is actually relevant to the people participating in that story.
I don't see my game as the Story of the PCs. I want as little "lens" as possible, so the elements of the world are what they are regardless of who is looking at them at the moment.

I know you feel differently, and that's ok.
 

I don't see my game as the Story of the PCs. I want as little "lens" as possible, so the elements of the world are what they are regardless of who is looking at them at the moment.

I know you feel differently, and that's ok.
I mean, it's literally not possible to do that. You cannot not tell the story from the perspective of the people experiencing it.

Especially if you ever engage in even the smallest forms of illusionism, which I know is quite a popular technique around here. Like...how is illusionism okay but this stuff isn't?
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
I mean, it's literally not possible to do that. You cannot not tell the story from the perspective of the people experiencing it.

Especially if you ever engage in even the smallest forms of illusionism, which I know is quite a popular technique around here. Like...how is illusionism okay but this stuff isn't?
And yet many people engage in a more simulation-oriented style of play, and prefer that the setting exist independently of the PCs. How are they able to do that?
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top