D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??

Fanaelialae

Legend
Pretty much, yes.

I do. Design it in the hardest-on-the-players/PCs manner, then provide options to ease it off if desired.

Rarely is a player ever going to be on board with making the game harder. Remember that - just as with any game or sport - it's in the players' overall interests to make things as easy as possible on themselves (and, in this case, their characters).

Thing is, there comes a point where the game - or any game or sport - can be ruined in the name of fun; that point being when it gets too easy to "win".

Consider world football, where a powerhouse like Spain plays a minnow like Andorra every now and then. Sure, the Spanish will think it's loads of fun winning 7-0 or 9-0 or whatever every time...but if the Spanish only ever played Andorra the game would soon become a farce from their perspective because it's just too easy. But from the Andorrans' side, knowing they're highly likely to lose in any case, they can at least find fun in it in other ways by trying to overcome the nigh-unbeatable challenge posed by Spain and taking victory from incremental progress as and when it happens.

And if Andorra were ever to win one of those games, how sweet it would feel.

The same principles hold true in D&D. If it's too easy to "win" - and by this I mean overcoming the various challenges posed by and in the game - then winning loses its appeal and becomes ho-hum. Ho-hum is bad, as it's a very short step from there to outright boring, and boredom with a game will kill it faster than anything else will.

Hence, the game IMO has to be set up to be challenging, and carry a real risk of "loss".
I disagree. Increasing lethality in the game is effortless. Throw a dozen Tarrasques at a first level party. Game over, irrespective of edition.

What's difficult, and what earlier editions did very poorly, was helping DMs who didn't necessarily want to constantly wreck their party. High character turnover can ruin any sense of campaign continuity.

IMO, things like level drain and item destruction weren't challenging. They were punitive. They were basically mechanics where you worked your way into the major leagues, but now you get busted back down to the minor leagues because the other team scored a few points against you (in a game that expects teams to frequently score against each other). And it isn't even necessarily that the entire team was busted down. It might just be one especially unlucky player.

Yes, most players didn't like them, for this reason. I've known plenty of players who'd rather have their character die (with no chance of resurrection) than suffer level drain. Death usually feels more fair.

I also disagree that players won't be on board for a harder game. I've played in plenty of games that were significantly harder than the baseline established by that edition. As long as the DM established this at the start of the game, it wasn't an issue. Challenging games can be a lot of fun.

Too easy can be an issue, but increasing difficulty isn't that hard, provided your players are on board. If not, that may indicate mismatched expectations, such as them seeking a more narrative style game (in which case they probably won't get bored of the lack of challenge because they aren't seeking a challenge from the game to begin with).
 

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Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Hence why I recommend expanding the definition of what counts as "losing" to things other than "your character died, roll a new one."

This does, of course, require that the players be more invested than "absolutely ruthless mercenaries who exclusively care about money, power, and combat." If your players are unflinching and unrelenting hardcore murderhobos whose characters would sell their grannies if it meant getting a leg up or a quick buck, then there's probably no hope for a game focused on anything else. You may wish to talk with your players about whether their preferred style is a good match for yours. People talk all the time about how their players are super enthused to play and excited for doing what the speaker wants to run, and then turn around and talk about how limited they are and how much of a player riot it would be to change one little thing... it's very confusing and frustrating to discuss.

Just as not all individual players are a good fit for every group, not all DMs are going to be up for what the group wants to play. E.g. @tetrasodium has pretty bitterly complained about how their players treat them, to the point that I genuinely wonder why they continue to do so rather than just telling said players, "sorry guys, you want me to go somewhere I can't follow. I wish you luck, but I can't run what you want to play."

But if this doesn't apply to you, if you have players who aren't dyed-in-the-wool murderhobos 4 LYFE, then it is eminently possible (and indeed IMO a significant improvement) to provide stakes, consequences, and challenges where player character death is never on the table in the first place, or is a remote and unlikely possiblity. Hence why I have found it so baffling when people respond to my statements about this with cries of destroying the game and stripping away any and all meaning and making it so the players guaranteed always win 100% of the time so why even bother playing etc., etc. It's genuinely like DMs out there are incapable of conceiving that there could be stakes more interesting and relevant than mere survival; as if they believe that there cannot be things which (as Lewis put it) have no survival value, but which give value to survival.
There is a spectrum here, between dyed-in-the-wool murderhobos and PC death is off the table. I want a fun game with an emergent story, for example, but I never want death off the table in D&D. It absolutely is not either/or. As @Lanefan says, as long as the party survives, it's ok if a PC or two falls along the way.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I disagree. Increasing lethality in the game is effortless. Throw a dozen Tarrasques at a first level party. Game over, irrespective of edition.

What's difficult, and what earlier editions did very poorly, was helping DMs who didn't necessarily want to constantly wreck their party. High character turnover can ruin any sense of campaign continuity.

IMO, things like level drain and item destruction weren't challenging. They were punitive. They were basically mechanics where you worked your way into the major leagues, but now you get busted back down to the minor leagues because the other team scored a few points against you (in a game that expects teams to frequently score against each other). And it isn't even necessarily that the entire team was busted down. It might just be one especially unlucky player.

Yes, most players didn't like them, for this reason. I've known plenty of players who'd rather have their character die (with no chance of resurrection) than suffer level drain. Death usually feels more fair.

I also disagree that players won't be on board for a harder game. I've played in plenty of games that were significantly harder than the baseline established by that edition. As long as the DM established this at the start of the game, it wasn't an issue. Challenging games can be a lot of fun.

Too easy can be an issue, but increasing difficulty isn't that hard, provided your players are on board. If not, that may indicate mismatched expectations, such as them seeking a more narrative style game (in which case they probably won't get bored of the lack of challenge because they aren't seeking a challenge from the game to begin with).
I admit I have a hard time accepting any argument that opens with, "throw a dozen tarrasques if you want to increase difficulty", even as a joke. Where's the value in constantly telling people that the DM has infinite dragons?
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I admit I have a hard time accepting any argument that opens with, "throw a dozen tarrasques if you want to increase difficulty", even as a joke. Where's the value in constantly telling people that the DM has infinite dragons?
You can up the challenge however much you want. If four orcs can't challenge them, try six orcs. If six orcs still don't cut it, try eight orcs.

Eventually, finding the sweet spot is virtually inevitable.

Frankly, I calibrate the difficulty of the game for each different party I run for. Every one is a little different. IMO that's just a normal part of the DMs role.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Hence why I recommend expanding the definition of what counts as "losing" to things other than "your character died, roll a new one."

This does, of course, require that the players be more invested than "absolutely ruthless mercenaries who exclusively care about money, power, and combat." If your players are unflinching and unrelenting hardcore murderhobos whose characters would sell their grannies if it meant getting a leg up or a quick buck, then there's probably no hope for a game focused on anything else.
Fine with me. :)
But if this doesn't apply to you, if you have players who aren't dyed-in-the-wool murderhobos 4 LYFE, then it is eminently possible (and indeed IMO a significant improvement) to provide stakes, consequences, and challenges where player character death is never on the table in the first place, or is a remote and unlikely possiblity.
These two things are not necessarily connected.

You can have non-murderhobo players who will, if character death is known to be off the table, still take shameless advantage of the fact their characters simply can't die.
Hence why I have found it so baffling when people respond to my statements about this with cries of destroying the game and stripping away any and all meaning and making it so the players guaranteed always win 100% of the time so why even bother playing etc., etc. It's genuinely like DMs out there are incapable of conceiving that there could be stakes more interesting and relevant than mere survival; as if they believe that there cannot be things which (as Lewis put it) have no survival value, but which give value to survival.
Survival isn't the only stakes but it is the one chip in the pot that underpins all the others; because all those other stakes are meaningless if you don't survive to cash them in.

Hence, survival is always Job One.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I disagree. Increasing lethality in the game is effortless. Throw a dozen Tarrasques at a first level party. Game over, irrespective of edition.
Of course, but most DMs don't take things to such silly extremes.
What's difficult, and what earlier editions did very poorly, was helping DMs who didn't necessarily want to constantly wreck their party.
Perhaps, but I'm OK with a DM figuring it out by trial-and-error. I don't expect a new DM to get it right on the first try or even the fifth try; as long as the game is entertaining in the meantime and the DM is giving it a good effort, who cares if lots of characters get mowed down in the process?
High character turnover can ruin any sense of campaign continuity.
38+ years of running moderate-to-high-turnover campaigns would lead me to somewhat disagree with this statement. :)
IMO, things like level drain and item destruction weren't challenging. They were punitive. They were basically mechanics where you worked your way into the major leagues, but now you get busted back down to the minor leagues because the other team scored a few points against you (in a game that expects teams to frequently score against each other). And it isn't even necessarily that the entire team was busted down. It might just be one especially unlucky player.
Yes, luck has a lot to do with it...and I like that, within reason.
Yes, most players didn't like them, for this reason. I've known plenty of players who'd rather have their character die (with no chance of resurrection) than suffer level drain. Death usually feels more fair.
Which seems odd, as a non-revived character can't be played any more while a level-busted character still can. Never mind that the game does provide means of (partially or fully) undoing level loss, if at considerable in-game expense. (says he, player of a luckless PC who entered 4th level on five different occasions; twice from below and three times from above...)
I also disagree that players won't be on board for a harder game. I've played in plenty of games that were significantly harder than the baseline established by that edition. As long as the DM established this at the start of the game, it wasn't an issue. Challenging games can be a lot of fun.

Too easy can be an issue, but increasing difficulty isn't that hard, provided your players are on board.
That's just it - human nature dictates that people are generally going to want things to be easier rather than harder.

Put another way, if players are already on board for a game of difficulty level 5 you'll pretty much always get a more positive response if you suggest dialling it down to 3 than if you suggest kicking it up to 7.
If not, that may indicate mismatched expectations, such as them seeking a more narrative style game (in which case they probably won't get bored of the lack of challenge because they aren't seeking a challenge from the game to begin with).
True; I'm assuming a somewhat closer match on playstyles to begin with, say e.g. everyone's looking to play a dungeoncrawl-style game and so that's what the DM has come up with.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You can up the challenge however much you want. If four orcs can't challenge them, try six orcs. If six orcs still don't cut it, try eight orcs.

Eventually, finding the sweet spot is virtually inevitable.
Again, experience here differs. :)

I've had situations where - at full pop both times - they meet six wandering orcs and sail through without losing a single hit point, then meet six more the next day and almost TPK.

In fact a version of this became a long-running joke/meme in a previous campaign of mine: whenever the party stopped off in town for some downtime, their first combat of any kind back in the field - no matter how easy it looked on paper - would be a complete crap-show! Six nobody bandits once nearly TPKed a 4th-5th level party of 7 characters who collectively shouldn't have taken a scratch; but the first-combat-out jinx struck again and they had to stagger back to town to recover.
Frankly, I calibrate the difficulty of the game for each different party I run for. Every one is a little different. IMO that's just a normal part of the DMs role.
Not me, other than to the vaguest sense of level-appropriateness that any module has. The adventure is what it is; and if they decide to take a party of composition A in there as opposed to another of composition B (or size A or B - party size can vary quite a lot as well) it's not going to make me change anything.

If an adventure demands they have a mage in the party, for example, and they didn't bring one (or the one they did bring is dead) then when they get to the point where the mage is essential they're gonna grind to a halt. In cases like this, if they think to do any info-gathering ahead of time I'll try to work in a hint somewhere that having a mage and keeping it upright would be useful; but if they don't ask, so be it.

If the Big McGuffin found in the adventure can only be used by a Good Cleric and the only Cleric in the team is Neutral, then so be it: they don't get any use out of ol' Big McG.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I admit I have a hard time accepting any argument that opens with, "throw a dozen tarrasques if you want to increase difficulty", even as a joke. Where's the value in constantly telling people that the DM has infinite dragons?
It covers the holes in the system. If it worked out of the box, it would provide a decent challenge. Since it does not, we get to hear about infinite dragons constantly.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
These two things are not necessarily connected.

You can have non-murderhobo players who will, if character death is known to be off the table, still take shameless advantage of the fact their characters simply can't die.
These are players who are actively malicious.

I don't play with malicious players.

Survival isn't the only stakes but it is the one chip in the pot that underpins all the others;
That is the very premise I am denying.
 

pemerton

Legend
I am thinking that it is not really about combat but combat is the bifurcation point. One play style "Combat as War" is really about Operational Resource Management. By that I mean the use of diegetic resources (Inventory, environment, allies, intelligence (as in information about the enemy) to leverage an advantage in combat.
This supports a number of playstyles but the emphasis is on gritty. Combat is dangerous, the environment is dangerous and poor planning will kill you.
It is also about using resources not native to the character to prevail.

The other playstyle is what I call Protagonist style. This is the character is a hero, has a certain amount of plot protection and has the internal resources to prevail.
This supports any kind of narrative or story focused play (even if that story is an emergent story from some kind of sandbox) it is not easy for the DM to accidentally kill the PCs but still possible to set up challenging encounters and that 5e strongly supports this style. Particularly since I think this style strongly supports casual play.
I think this is the best post in the thread.

The "operational" approach can be separated from gritty lethality - eg suppose the contests are baking contests, and the resources are flour, sugar, cinnamon, oven time, etc. But I don't think I've ever seen a RPG set up like that (but some kids playground games can drift in this sort of direction).

The "protagonist" approach can be high lethality, too - as per your other posts about low-level 5e, and @Fanaelialae's 3E experience. Or it could be drifted in a comedic direction, if PC gen is quick and characterisation is shallow. But it is obviously a good fit for low-lethality casual play.

It seems fairly obvious that there's no special merit or virtue in one or the other approach.
 

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