D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
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.
Don't forget "talk to your players" and declarations of "GM: Player mismatch". Colville made a really good point in a recent video that points a spotlight at the failure
A style of play is more than just a cometic coat of paint you put over something. It's about the design of the game... The actual rules.

Better example for d&d players. Lets say you're running an adventure set in a haunted house with ghosts & whatnot. So it has all the trappings of a horror game, it seems like horror. Sure. Absolutely. The DM can absolutely create a mood... a tone.. and evoke a genre without any rules. You can do this just telling a story around a campfire. You can create that tone in any RPG, any ruleset just by the choices you make when you made the adventure & things like your tone of voice the language you use. All of that can make your adventure seem like horror... But do the rules think they are the rules for a horror game?

Fifth edition has a lot of rules for fighting monsters. Is that what horror is about? Killing monsters with swords & spells? Another way of looking at this same question is how much work do you have to do vrs how much work are the rules doing? I think in a well designed RPG the rules can do most of the work and if you find you need to do most of the work then there's a problem somewhere. How much work is fifth edition doing & what genre is it trying to evoke...."

Then he goes on to talk about how lord of the rings is the best example of heroc fantasy & how much time those characters spend fighting monsters or argue about taking a short rest vrs a long rest & so on before getting into the CoC comparison
That bolded bit is a pretty serious question that the 5e designers needed to answer during design with something better than expecting the GM to carry the load for holes in the rules as something to brag about as a positive design choice.
 

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Add this all up, and clearly 5E’s combat is neither war nor sport. So what is it?
Going back to the OP at this point seems a bit of a derail, but I think is relevant because near as I can tell most posters here play 5e very differently, if they even play it. One can ask this question RAW, but since practically no one plays RAW even if they think they do, there just isn’t an answer to this question.
What’s the right word to describe something so dramatically lopsided towards one side? Spectacle maybe?
You follow up the question referencing your set up, the medium encounter “default assumption”. So, very clearly you’re asking a RAW question. And, if you want an answer to that question, the 7 medium encounters a day idea, or whatever it is, it’s combat as resource drain.

It’d be boring as crap to do that though, so no one plays that way. And official adventures don’t really follow that idea either. Combat always ends up being whatever the DM makes it into. I PRESUME each one finds a balance between challenging their players and killing them, by some combination of sport and war.

So, since no one actually plays RAW, questions about what X is like in X version always seem to go weird, cause people play very differently, and half of them actually think their playing RAW, so responses don’t understand each other.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
That bolded bit is a pretty serious question that the 5e designers needed to answer during design with something better than expecting the GM to carry the load for holes in the rules as something to brag about as a positive design choice.
We may have our disagreements, but on this we are 100% aligned. 5e, as written, shrugged off this whole question: "Eh, whatever. DMs can figure it out." For folks who fervently dislike ever being told what to do, this might be liberating, but a lot of us prefer some baseline, some structure. It's never been that difficult to hare off in your own direction when you wish to. It's always been a challenge to draft things up from scratch--and some parts of 5e are honestly less useful than just doing the grunt work yourself (in particular, the CR rules and encounter design.)
 

IMO, things like level drain and item destruction weren't challenging. They were punitive.
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.

I don’t totally get the distinction here between punitive and challenging. I think as long as the danger is telegraphed (which could just be the players knowing that X danger is possible), it’s not punitive. Eg. the spiked pit trap is part of the challenge of dungeon crawling, even if falling into it means certain death.

Though, it does speak to some of the expectations of ‘war’ vs ‘sport’ perhaps. For example, I just ran an OSR module that called for 2d6 appearing of a particular creature, where 2 would be somewhat difficult and 12 would be insane. I rolled a 10, and went with it. Is that not very sporting of me?
 

pemerton

Legend
I don’t totally get the distinction here between punitive and challenging.
I think the contrast is between a debilitating effect that is hard to avoid, and a threat or risk that can be overcome via clever play. @Fanaelialae is (I think) saying that level drain is closer to the former.

I would say it depends a bit on context - but modules with encounters with multiple wights (as one example - and White Plume Mountain is an example) are probably closer to the "punitive" end.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I don’t totally get the distinction here between punitive and challenging. I think as long as the danger is telegraphed (which could just be the players knowing that X danger is possible), it’s not punitive. Eg. the spiked pit trap is part of the challenge of dungeon crawling, even if falling into it means certain death.
As a purely personal thing--that is, YMMV--I think "punitive" goes beyond just unknowable dangers. That is, I can think of things I would consider punitive that would remain so even if the exact method by which it could occur were spelled out in explicit detail, which is quite a bit more than is typically done in games like this. The way Paladin alignment was handled in 3e, for example, generally ended up very punitive--and was a big reason why the class had so many problems on both the DM's side (crappy catch-22 guaranteed-failure scenarios) and the player's side (crappy "I'm LG so every single thing I do must be Good and Lawful.")

For me, it gets down to the meaning of the terms. "Punitive": punishment. The point is not to create interesting stakes, nor to enrich the experience with obstacles to overcome. Instead, it is to ensure that people understand just how much they've screwed up. To make failure hurt. "Challenge," on the other hand, is about (if you'll pardon a Forge-ism) "Step On Up," about presenting something that is not easily done, and asking whether the player(s) can achieve it.

I think a key difference is that punishment tends to be closed-ended, while challenge tends to be open-ended. A challenge welcomes many different solutions and (if possible) degrees of success or failure. A punishment just is, and is usually meant to either stick around forever, or to be sufficiently onerous to remove that it may not be worth the bother.

Though, it does speak to some of the expectations of ‘war’ vs ‘sport’ perhaps. For example, I just ran an OSR module that called for 2d6 appearing of a particular creature, where 2 would be somewhat difficult and 12 would be insane. I rolled a 10, and went with it. Is that not very sporting of me?
See, this is where we get into another of the faults of the CaW/CaS concept. What does it mean for the DM to be "sporting"? The DM is the referee--that's something 99% of old-school players drill on extremely hard when the topic comes up. Isn't "referee" a sport concept? Wars don't have refs! Further, what is "sporting" conduct in one space may be totally "unsporting" conduct in another; MMA fights permit numerous actions that would be verboten in boxing, for example. If the players come in explicitly expecting things of this nature, might it not be unsporting to take away the experience they signed up for?

Whereas if we reframe this into the heroic-vs-pragmatic and strategic-vs-tactical axes, the answer becomes clear. Would it create a more heroic, or a more pragmatic experience, to include a challenge of this nature? As a rule, it would be more pragmatic-leaning, because fleeing from a dangerous opponent leans pragmatic, and likewise having an expectation that the players will find a cunning (and probably brutal) way to overcome a fight they "should" lose leans pragmatic. (Note I say "leans," these are trends, not hard rules.) Likewise: would it create a more strategic or tactical experience? It seems quite obvious to me that it would create a more strategic experience, as the players will need to think long-term, to plan for the whole day and perhaps the whole week. Further, such fights--where the victor is essentially already known in advance, whether it be the PCs or the creatures--are often quite dull tactically, hence why tactics-heavy games like 4e tend to recommend glossing over the "wrap up" phase of a fight (where it's clear the enemies can no longer deal meaningful harm to the party). With an effect that pulls toward strategic and another that pulls away from tactical, I think we can safely say this situation, with what little information you've shared, sounds pretty clearly pragmatic and strategic.

By stepping back from the flawed-but-punchy terms, and articulating a more specific, less metaphor-based analysis, we get both a clearer picture and more useful information. I continue to see nothing but upsides for abandoning CaW/CaS and using other terms instead.
 

S'mon

Legend
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.

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.

4e combat is of course set up so that the PC side usually wins. It is 'sport' in the sense that what happens before initiative is rolled rarely matters much.

5e I think is set up so that you can run it in a manner more similar to 0e-2e (exploit the world CAW), 3e (exploit the PC build pre-combat CAW), or 4e (exploit the PC build in-combat CAS) combat style. Because it's designed to do all three, it doesn't quite feel like any of them. It's probably closest to low level 3e I'd say.
 

S'mon

Legend
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.

You certainly can run the game with intelligent enemies using CAW, and yes this will frequently result in PC death unless the players & PCs are more capable than the enemies. I found I could do this ok in 1e AD&D, eventually the players got so good their PCs pretty much stopped dying. 3e made first strike advantage so overwhelming that I had to pretty much give up on the level playing field approach. 4e is not designed for CAW at all, I would have the enemy set ambushes & traps, but ultimately the setup was still set piece CAS. 5e as usual is sort of in a middle ground, I can have much more proactive enemies than in 3e and the game still works, but still no where near as vicious as in 1e. I've seen weaker 5e players (recruited randomly on Roll20) complain that their PCs can die at all, never mind be murdered in their beds.

Edit: Personally I mostly run OSR stuff converted to 5e, which naturally tends more towards CAW. Even running WoTC 5e adventures, I don't find them all that different though. I was shocked how many PCs have died with me running Lost Mine of Phandelver for randomly recruited players on Roll20, how poorly they have done, and how much they complain when their PCs die. I remember I had to nerf the Redbrand Ruffian stats a lot to give the players a fighting chance. And they were still losing PCs.
 
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UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
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.
Thanks, this, I think the most unambiguously positive responses to a post I think I have ever had on this site. I would re-iterate your last line. I do not assign any special merit to one or the other approach to the game even if I have a preference.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Don't forget "talk to your players" and declarations of "GM: Player mismatch". Colville made a really good point in a recent video that points a spotlight at the failure
A style of play is more than just a cometic coat of paint you put over something. It's about the design of the game... The actual rules.

Better example for d&d players. Lets say you're running an adventure set in a haunted house with ghosts & whatnot. So it has all the trappings of a horror game, it seems like horror. Sure. Absolutely. The DM can absolutely create a mood... a tone.. and evoke a genre without any rules. You can do this just telling a story around a campfire. You can create that tone in any RPG, any ruleset just by the choices you make when you made the adventure & things like your tone of voice the language you use. All of that can make your adventure seem like horror... But do the rules think they are the rules for a horror game?

Fifth edition has a lot of rules for fighting monsters. Is that what horror is about? Killing monsters with swords & spells? Another way of looking at this same question is how much work do you have to do vrs how much work are the rules doing? I think in a well designed RPG the rules can do most of the work and if you find you need to do most of the work then there's a problem somewhere. How much work is fifth edition doing & what genre is it trying to evoke...."

Then he goes on to talk about how lord of the rings is the best example of heroc fantasy & how much time those characters spend fighting monsters or argue about taking a short rest vrs a long rest & so on before getting into the CoC comparison
That bolded bit is a pretty serious question that the 5e designers needed to answer during design with something better than expecting the GM to carry the load for holes in the rules as something to brag about as a positive design choice.
It is the video of Matt Colville's that spurred my thoughts on this topic, and I do think there is an answer in the rules as presented. The game skews toward casual protagonist play. Especially the encounter rules.

What I think that Wizards should do is expand their encounter building advice into how to handle more competent parties. If their "deadly encounters" are really medium what constitutes a "deadly encounter". Do you go wide or high.

To illustrate, 4 orcs, and Eye of Guumush and an Orc Warchief is a deadly encounter for a level 4 party of 5. If in practice that turns out to be really a medium encounter, how do you up the ante. Add another Eye of Guumsh and a couple of more orcs or toss in a CR 6 monster? Instead they leave it to the DM to find out by trial and error.
 

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