D&D 5E Combat as war, sport, or ??


The High Aldwin
Combat as Professional Wrestling? Or Combat as Fashion Show?

Combat as... donuts?



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"Combat as..." describes a play style rather than a type of system design. The design might encourage certain play styles over others, but the reality is that you can play any system in any style.

When I was a kid (Basic/2e) I had no one to teach me how to run D&D. So I designed my encounters in what we would now call CaS style. This, despite that most people would consider those systems to inherently promote CaW.

As for those claiming it isn't a sport for a professional boxer to beat up an amateur boxer (or whatever), 5e doesn't presume the sport to be found in a single match, but rather in a gauntlet of matches. That's why you hear complaints that 5e doesn't work well if you only have one combat per day (unless you use gritty resting). This has been the case since at least 3e (thought I would argue even earlier). 5e simply lengthened the gauntlet and therefore made it more obvious.

I would say that 5e has a more CaS approach by default, but easily allows a DM to run the game however they like. I've literally seen both styles of play in the same campaign. As long as you and your group are having fun, there's no wrong way to run it.


Uncomfortably diegetic
Combat as spectacle. It's a chance to cut loose and do cool stuff against enemies that do cool stuff to accentuate your cool stuff.

This is the way..
Yes this. While it can be flexible, 5e favors trad and neo-trad play styles. The goal is to show off your character and their abilities, winning generally happens after enough rounds have passed of using those abilities in a reasonable manner.

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.
I have said this a few times but I argue that at best there is a spectrum of this, but realistically it is more a 3d graph with 6+ sets of options.

Let me walk you through the last game session I played that envolved combat.

We were mid dungeon from not just the session before but 2 sessions before... and this is BY far the largest dungeon we have been in for a while. We are 2 artificers, an artificer cleric multi class and a barbarian rogue.

So we started the night out having taken a short rest at the end of the game before by throwing up our portable tower in a huge chamber next to lava... and there was a giant fire snake thing with 3 heads waiting for us outside... we buffed, made a plan and our 2 ranged characters went to arrow slits and our two melee character split up 1 going to the roof 1 going to the door (one going to the roof fully intended to jump down and land on said fire snake
SOOO we stacked the odds in our favor, we started off with a surprise round, and the fight didn't last long... so I guess that was combat as war...
then we followed the lava tube, did not scouting and I realized AS we got ambushed I forgot to put up aid on the 3 of 4 of us like I normally do... fight 2 involved 6 ranged enemies that started out of range of any of our melee from getting there on round 1 and by the time my melee artificer (armor if it matters) got in range it was the last round of the fight... so maybe combat as sport?!?
so then I put up aid as our artificer/cleric used his healing kit to boost us and the battle smith used his spell that let him concentrate to heal 2d6 for 10 rounds... and we were back in fighting shape... this time we remembered to scout (2 familiars the barbarian rogue and an animal companion) found there was a split and down 1 way had 2 small things, down the other seemed to be a sunken temple... and we thought that was what we were looking for so we went that way...
so encounter that we had preped for followed by a 'surprise' of 2 more multi headed fire snakes hiding inside lava followed by getting to a giant egg where the villain was healing from our last fight and we got there before his 8 hour regeneration was finished... I couldn't call ANY of that either one
We then had a choice, do we kill a hurt regenerating enemy or do we give him a chance... it was a bit of a discussion but we decided to wake him and give him a chance to surender... that HAS to be combat as sport there. We gave him a shot, she was hurt already but he attacked us and we killed him.

now we had the artifact we came for, we killed the guy who stole it and attacked the town so we headed home. The DM reminded us there were 2 points of forked paths and asked if we were going to check them out, we decided not to.

Excellent point, one I had not considered. "Combat as War," as traditionally presented, only considers the players as waging war, with the monsters doing barely more than basic self-preservation. When paired with my above criticism of "Combat as Sport," with how the "two equal-ish teams" analogy demonstrably breaks down in all but occasional instances, one has to wonder: what is this analysis achieving? Its alleged "war" prong holds no water because it is blatantly artificial, allowing only one side to behave as though the conflict is like actual warfare.
yeah, what about combat as part of teh story


Follower of the Way
I like "combat as performance" for this, because it creates a new acronym.
My problem with using this term for this concept (as opposed to the one I outlined) is that a performance is something where the performers wish to be seen.

A spectacle is where the observers wish to see something.

Given the aforementioned issues with 5e combat, e.g. the "big fat bag of HP" problem, and how hard basically every drills down on the fact that 5e combats don't have enough time to allow a character to build up to something cool over a couple rounds, I just don't see any room for 5e combats meeting either definition. If, however, you would still like a new acronym (even though I think it's unnecessary, because "Combat as Sport" is a faulty, inaccurate, intentionally pejorative term), you might consider "Combat as Display." Again, the difference being whether one is emphasizing the experience of the combat as something to dazzle the players themselves (that is, displaying something which the players regard and scrutinize), or whether one is emphasizing the scene as a place for the players to show off their skills of various kinds (that is, performing, even if only to the audience of fellow players.) "CaP" is something akin to showing off your skills at a Magic the Gathering tournament, while "CaD" would be more like doing raid content in an MMO because you want to see the story. Both can involve aspects of demonstrating skill and witnessing events, but it's a matter if which thing the content is designed for. (Anyone familiar with FFXIV, I would say those BLU raid achievements are CaP, while most Alliance raids are CaD.)
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The one thing I'll say about the idea that 5E can't be Combat As Sport because the two sides are not balanced in strength against each other... this is only true if you are using WotC's determination of balance for some mythical middle-ground party that their CR system is written towards. A party that really doesn't exist in nature but yet players still seem to think their games are supposed to fall into.

But if you know your players and you know what their PCs are capable of... you absolutely should and can build balanced fights for them to face off against in their Combat As Sport just using your own knowledge and intuition of the game and their capabilities. But it's something that you as DM have to do by feel... not by using a chart found in the DMG.


Honestly, I think something like Combat as Heroes (CaH) and Combat as Anti-Heroes (CaA) is more descriptively accurate of these play styles.

Heroes typically face dangerous challenges head on. They normally fight the BBEG directly. They might occasionally cleverly deal with a dangerous or impossible challenge, but that won't normally turn a hero into an anti-hero.

Whereas anti-heroes typically seek to win by any means possible. They're perfectly happy burning down the BBEG'S house while the BBEG is sleeping inside. Even if they occasionally face an opponent head on, it doesn't suddenly turn them into heroic characters.

5e works fine for either heroic or anti-heroic play styles.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I have taken to using strategy focus vs tactical focus of combat. I think war implies this anything goes arms race and sport seems to indicate some sort of fairness between opponents. I think the appropriate comparison is before or during combat. Strategy places the focus before combat, arming with gear, casting spells, choosing battleground. Tactical focus on combat during the fight, defined roles, abilities, grid assisted visualizations.

Neither system design eliminates the other, but design focus pushes a particular playstyle. 5E is a fence sitter edition of D&D. Its doesn't lean into strategy or tactics. For hardcore players, that isnt particularly satisfying, but for causal players it gets the job done. Which is again why I call 5E everybody's second favorite edition.

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