D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??


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?
Death can be an unsatisfying conclusion to a character's story, but it is a conclusion nonetheless (or it might simply be a speed bump, if resurrection is on the table). All of those hours spent playing that character are still there.

Whereas the mechanics that I referred to as punitive are designed to maim the character, and to essentially undo the hours (likely days) of hard work to get to that point.

You start with Willy Rat Whacker, a 1st level fighter. Over many, many, many hours of play he grows into Willy the Dragonslayer, a 7th level fighter with a signature sword of dragon slaying. But then Willy runs into a few wraiths and a rust monster, and the dice turn against him. Suddenly, all those hours of play are gone and he's Willy Rat Whacker again. It's basically like adding insult to injury.

At least with Perma death you get to start over with a fresh sheet of paper. With such punitive effects you're saddled with playing a mockery of what your character once was. One that likely can't effectively contribute to the party he belongs to anymore, because it's unlikely that the level drain was evenly distributed throughout the party. One that's far more likely to die than his companions, but without so much as his legacy intact.

I disagree that those types of effects are designed to challenge or even kill characters. IMO, they're designed to ruin characters, and that's why I have a very strong dislike of them.

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Follower of the Way
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.
As a big fan of 4e...yeah, I don't see it. 5e is a retooled 3e with an eye toward appearing "traditional" and getting early-edition players on board, regardless of what must be done to make that happen. To say that 4e was merely neglected would be a serious understatement.


Victoria Rules
These are players who are actively malicious.
They're not actively malicious, though. They're simply playing to win, as one does in any game or sport, and taking what advantages are given them.

Dont' want them to exploit the advantages? Then don't give them the advantages to exploit. Easy.
That is the very premise I am denying.
Tell me how any other stakes matter if you lose the survival stake. I mean sure, your character can (intentionally or otherwise) sacrifice itself for the cause and all that; but from the character's point of view, dead is still dead and you don't get to enjoy the fruits of your labours.


Victoria Rules
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.
It's a long time since I looked at White Plume so I can't comment on that; but somewhat more recently I ran Tomb of the Lizard King, and in there is a most un-1e-like encounter with something like 16 wights....
What's so unusual about it in a 1e context is that it kind of expects the PCs to use the terrain to their advantage. It's a big open-space encounter, more reminiscent of a 4e-style set-piece than anything else. There's large pits of acid scattered around the area, and if the PCs are smart about it they can cause at least some of the wights (who are pretty mindless) to walk themselves into these pits while chasing the PCs. If the players/PCs don't think of this tactic, however, or if the wights somehow get the drop on them they could be rather hosed.

When I ran it one PC got cut off from the rest of the party, was surrounded by wights, and was losing levels fast; in a truly impressive move he suicided by cutting his own throat so as not to be killed by the wights and then rise as one.

Then again, Lizard Tomb does also have a vampire in it. Levels can be a fleeting thing in that module. :)


Victoria Rules
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!
History, the Geneva Convention, and boatloads of war-crimes trials would all beg to differ.
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?
MMA is more like combat as war - yes there's some rules but people still get seriously hurt doing it and know that risk going in; and (in theory) are trying to beat the opponent.

WWE is more like combat as sport - it's predetermined who will win and the whole thing is mostly for show (though they still take a beating doing it).
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.
Agreed, more or less.
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).
When even during the mopping-up phase a crit from a monster or a fumble by a PC can have big effects, it IMO has to be run to the end. But, that also assumes a somewhat swingier and less-predictable combat set-up.


Victoria Rules
I disagree that those types of effects are designed to challenge or even kill characters. IMO, they're designed to ruin characters, and that's why I have a very strong dislike of them.
A character losing some or all of what it's gained is always a risk.

In the most basic of ways, it's like hitting a snake in Snakes and Ladders: you get knocked back, but you can keep plugging away and try to catch up. Or perhaps like a bad beat in poker where you didn't go all-in - sometimes the luck just doesn't go your way but you can keep at it and see if you can recover.

Without these sort of Bad Things as risks in the game - level loss, item loss, etc. - death is the only severe threat left; and as others point out, that gets pretty one-dimensional after a while.


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.
Learn to pronounce
the leadingcharacter or one of the major characters in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional text.
the main figure or one of the most prominent figures in a real situation

What the heck is "protagonist play." in a game with multiple players other than a string of conflicting buzzwords? More Importantly, what are the rules doing to carry that playstyle for the gm who needs to run the game for all of their players without treating any one of them as The Protagonist of the game?

Regardless of the answer BIFTS even provide us with examples of design choices made to disempower the gm with regard to any sort of protagonism. In a 5 generations of d&d"* panel a few years back Mearls described an example of a proto5e rule that got cut using a "greedy rogue" flaw to force a player's hand in reacting to a presented situation. If that shift is somehow creating whatever "protagonist play` it's hard to excuse the conflicting empowerment of toxic main character syndrome that results when the gm is exposed to run the game with more than a single player.

We could claim that the party as a whole is the protagonist, but the 5e rules do absolutely nothing to encourage that & editors pre-5e had much stronger reasons to encourage that mindset in mechanics 5e stripped away or oblivisted like risk of lethality required magic item churn & tactical grid combat elements.

*I'm on my phone but want to say that the timestamp for it was like 1:21 for some reason


As a big fan of 4e...yeah, I don't see it. 5e is a retooled 3e with an eye toward appearing "traditional" and getting early-edition players on board, regardless of what must be done to make that happen. To say that 4e was merely neglected would be a serious understatement.

If you're saying that 5e combat in practice owes less to 4e than the other editions, yes I'd tend to agree. It does have some significant 4e derived elements such as Healing Word, battle cantrips (aka At Wills) and the general idea that all PCs should be able to attack every round.

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