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D&D General Discuss: Combat as War in D&D

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
D&D is a game. So are you talking about CaW with respect to the game (DM v Players) or as a simulation of reality (Character vs NPCs/Monsters). Is this a meta concept or something you think should be addressed as if this was a real functioning fantasy world.

Gamist: DM vs Players. AKA a "game"
Simulationist: threat it as a "real" world
In my case it's ideally trying to be more of a simulation of what would (in theory) actually happen in the game-world, with the gamist elements rearing their ugly heads now and then just to keep it playable.

Note please the small s and small g on simulation and gamist here; I'm expressly NOT using these as Forge terms but as words in the English language. :)
 

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I would note that it's entirely possible to run a CaW game with the DM not in an adversarial role. Illusionist CaW works just as well (or as badly, as I suspect you would say) as Illusionist CaS. :)
Not only is it possible, the opposite is what is impossible. Combat as war absolutely requires the the GM do their best to be impartial. It's Combat as Sport where the GM can be adversarial (assuming he trusts the system to have set up a balanced encounter to work from).

(Although not being adversarial has absolutely nothing to do with illusionism)
 

Hexmage-EN

Adventurer
So I have a unique situation coming up in that 1) I'm having to cut my campaign short and 2) the party has decided the last thing they want to do is attack a svirfneblin enclave (long story).

I'm currently planning a "Combat as War" scenario where the deep gnomes are going to try every trick possible to take the party down and keep them from escaping to try again later.

The party is also gathering a lot of equipment, having requested that the local (chaotic evil) magic item seller figure out what items would best help them against the svirfneblin. They also plan to hire a small force of mercenaries.
 

Puddles

Explorer
I imagine playing Combat as War for the monsters can be a lot of fun, but I think it needs quite a lot of prep by the DM as you need to create systems for the PCs to interact with to learn information about the enemy, so that they too can approach Combat as War. You also need to make sure they use those systems.

What I mean, is if you want to run the monsters in a way that they are trying their hardest to leverage a 10:1 advantage over the PCs, you need to give the PCs the tools to start tracking the movements of the enemy (like scouts or spies), their supply routes, and the lay of the land. PCs need to be able to gather information that will allow them to outsmart the enemy - strike at weak points, and so on so that they too can leverage a 10:1 advantage through clever play.

This is not an insurmountable amount of extra prep, and it could be really rewarding if this type of play appeals to your players. The reason I say this prep is required is because the last thing you want is a GOTCHA to occur. If the PCs walked blindly into an area to be suddenly confronted by the enemy with a 10:1 advantage over them, I imagine it won't be a positive gaming experience for them. They need to know that the enemy are trying to do this, and they need to be able to do the same.

What it does run the risk of, however, is making combat encounters dull. The example I will use is the Total War computer games. For anyone who has not played these games, there is essentially 2 systems at play. The campaign map and the battles that result from it. At the start of every Total War game, the battles are very exciting because neither you nor the opposition can leverage a great advantage, meaning the battles are closely fought and their outcomes very impactful. As the game progresses and the winning factions are able to muster greater and greater resources, there comes a tipping point where the battles become irrelevant. The stakes are not impactful as the faction with greater resources can weather the loss and grind out tough opposition through attrition. At this point, the player usually starts automatically resolving the battle rather than playing through them. There is a risk the same thing could happen to a Combat as War D&D campaign where the leveraging of advantages makes the battles forgone conclusions.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
I dunno, CaW happens all the time in our games. Home bases get blown up, with strike teams with counterspellers waiting outside. The party gets baited out of camp, and then their supplies get stolen. Teleportation gets shut down with special rituals. Hired diviners track the party down with locate creature.
Assassins follow them, and hit them when they're engaged with other enemies. It's pretty standard.

I think a few general elements stop it from getting out of hand, though.

1) Site-based delves (i.e. dungeons and the like) don't generally bite back. They might organize (depending on the site) once they know the party is there, but they don't follow them back to town. The party can plan a bank heist, the bank doesn't plan a party heist.

2) Generally, all-out war is declared by groups that are roughly analogous to the party, or slightly weaker. Their planning and ambushes make for tough fights, but not impossible ones.

3) The party doesn't generally get asymmetrically powerful groups mad at them to the point where they'll put all their resources to bear to stop them. Intelligent, long-lived enemies don't generally find it worthwhile to gamble on stamping out wild cards. Like, one of my parties recently pissed off a lich, who told them that while he thought he had a 96% chance of killing them all, there were a few too many wild cards for him to risk it, so he let them go. So now he's just going to subtlety weaken them by undermining their base of allies. Combat as realpolitik, as it were. :)
 

Puddles

Explorer
To add onto my last post, I think there is a third approach which is to play Combat as War as Sport. What I mean by this, is to design encounters that have the verisimilitude of Combat as War, but with some of the underlying balancing mechanisms that feature in Combat as Sport.

You can achieve this by borrowing from narrative wargames. When a wargame is played "narratively", it might feature things like forces or varying strength, but it couples this with balancing factors such as asymmetrical objectives. For example, 1 force might outnumber the other, but that smaller force is defending a strong position. Or, they need only have a messenger escape for the battle to be considered their victory.

If you can mitigate some (but perhaps not all) of the advantages a side has with a few disadvantages, you should have nail-biting encounters that still feel like both sides are treating combat as war. :)
 

CaW works for adventures, but not for a full campaign. If you have a BBEG for the entire campaign the party is going to be fighting, then the party will die early on in the campaign.

And this is also untrue.

Tactical moves take time, and there is no reason for the players to be under constant attack by the big bad, even in a war scenario. If the players achieve a victory, the enemy will retreat and need time to prepare their next move. The DM decides the frequency of attacks, and not every strategic move is an outright attack. The big bad could at times be operating in locations where the players are not present. Not every move needs to be aimed at the players directly.

I should know, because I have been running a war campaign for several years now. The players are still alive.

The players survived several intense naval battles, and after each one the enemy needed time to build new ships, send out their agents, gather new intel, etc. It is not going to be one attack after the other.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
That's fair. Maybe if you described your games we could tell you our thoughts?
I did give an example up thread, maybe that helps?

In the game I ran yesterday, the PCs tried to leave a temple complex they raided, just to find 10 or more armed and armored people waiting for them outside. They slammed the door shut, barred it, and ran away to find another way out. They minimized danger by running away but if they had been less hurt or depleted they may have stayed and fought using the doorway to their defensive advantage and drawn people in a bit at time to try to overwhelm them, etc. If they were higher level or feeling confident the guards were significantly weaker than them, they might have marched right out there and fought OR challenged them to a one-on-one fight between leaders. . .the possibilities are endless.

As for the opponents, they had been ordered to try to capture the PCs, but were give the authority to kill them if necessary, so that also colored how they'd approach the fight.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Here's a different way of looking at it that might help. Let's say you as the DM plan out an encounter in a fun location with a particular difficulty level in mind, and then the PCs spend 30 minutes of real time trying to lure the enemies onto a different battlefield where the PCs would have a tactical advantage.

At your table, would these PCs be playing the game exactly as intended, or by refusing to engage with the encounter as presented by the DM, are they being disruptive? The former would be more indicative of a Combat as War game. The latter would be more indicative of a Combat as Sport game.

That would only be disruptive in a good way and I would be proud of my players for coming up with such a plan. That said, the specific circumstances of the environment or the conditions of the adventure can make it that the PCs have to go in there and fight. But that is up to them to decide on - based on what they know - not me.

For some reason this reminds me of playing one of the Resident Evil games on game cube. The one where the bad guys have kidnapped the president's daughter. My friend was over as I was finishing up a section and he was blown away that I was going through fighting zombies and zombie ogre things with a knife b/c I was out of ammo.

"The dude who sells ammo is around here and you can go back and search some boxes looking for ammo."

To which, I replied, "If I happen to find ammo the way I am going I pick it up, but the president's daughter has been captured! Who has time to go shopping or search every crate?"

"But the game has no time limit that way!"

"My character doesn't know that."


:p:LOL:

I think I just wanted an excuse to tell that story because I find it funny, but as a player it was more fun for me to assume the zombies and bad guys meant to actually do what they said they'd do, even though I knew the game would not let it happen til I got there.
 
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tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I imagine playing Combat as War for the monsters can be a lot of fun, but I think it needs quite a lot of prep by the DM as you need to create systems for the PCs to interact with to learn information about the enemy, so that they too can approach Combat as War. You also need to make sure they use those systems.

What I mean, is if you want to run the monsters in a way that they are trying their hardest to leverage a 10:1 advantage over the PCs, you need to give the PCs the tools to start tracking the movements of the enemy (like scouts or spies), their supply routes, and the lay of the land. PCs need to be able to gather information that will allow them to outsmart the enemy - strike at weak points, and so on so that they too can leverage a 10:1 advantage through clever play.

This is not an insurmountable amount of extra prep, and it could be really rewarding if this type of play appeals to your players. The reason I say this prep is required is because the last thing you want is a GOTCHA to occur. If the PCs walked blindly into an area to be suddenly confronted by the enemy with a 10:1 advantage over them, I imagine it won't be a positive gaming experience for them. They need to know that the enemy are trying to do this, and they need to be able to do the same.

What it does run the risk of, however, is making combat encounters dull. The example I will use is the Total War computer games. For anyone who has not played these games, there is essentially 2 systems at play. The campaign map and the battles that result from it. At the start of every Total War game, the battles are very exciting because neither you nor the opposition can leverage a great advantage, meaning the battles are closely fought and their outcomes very impactful. As the game progresses and the winning factions are able to muster greater and greater resources, there comes a tipping point where the battles become irrelevant. The stakes are not impactful as the faction with greater resources can weather the loss and grind out tough opposition through attrition. At this point, the player usually starts automatically resolving the battle rather than playing through them. There is a risk the same thing could happen to a Combat as War D&D campaign where the leveraging of advantages makes the battles forgone conclusions.
You can drop the prep by a ton of you use something like fate style aspects invokes/declares and fate fractal to build a lot of that on the fly as the players interact with things
 

Puddles

Explorer
You can drop the prep by a ton of you use something like fate style aspects invokes/declares and fate fractal to build a lot of that on the fly as the players interact with things
I'm sure you could! Personally those sorts of mechanics are not what I enjoy in RPGs though so I would rather go the whole hog and come up with systems based on realism for the players to explore. The end goal would be for my players to feel as smart as Ceasar or Napoleon when they outmaneuver an enemy trying its darndest to leverage an overwhelming advantage against them. :)
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
This still doesn't make sense to me outside of the specific context.

In the game I ran yesterday, the PCs tried to leave a temple complex they raided, just to find 10 or more armed and armored people waiting for them outside. They slammed the door shut, barred it, and ran away to find another way out. They minimized danger by running away but if they had been less hurt or depleted they may have stayed and fought using the doorway to their defensive advantage and drawn people in a bit at time to try to overwhelm them, etc. If they were higher level or feeling confident the guards were significantly weaker than them, they might have marched right out there and fought OR challenged them to a one-on-one fight between leaders. . .the possibilities are endless.

As for the opponents, they had been ordered to try to capture the PCs, but were give the authority to kill them if necessary, so that also colored how they'd approach the fight.

Sport vs. War just doesn't seem dynamic enough a way to look at the game as I play it at least.
To me this sounds a lot more like enemies engaging in combat as sport.

‘they may have stayed and fought
‘There could have been a 1v1 duel against leaders’

also the enemy appears to have failed to do some fairly obvious things, like trap the exit and hide in wait. Or Putting their backs up to the temple would have allowed them to stay out of the players field of vision and attempt to surprise them and cut off all avenues of escape.

i get the feeling this is a fight you wanted them to be able to avoid, such that the enemies weren’t doing everything they could have to achieve their goals. Your post even notes the PCs were fairly hurt and depleted.

and while this is speculation at the moment I’m betting the encounter qualified for no worse than deadly even if the PCs had chosen to engage - which would be the icing on the cake so to speak.
 
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Something about this isn’t adding up for me, but I’ll have to dig into it later.
I think what you have to understand about the classic 'hard' version of the CAW/CAS thesis is, it is one of that genre of ideas about D&D which imagine some sort of hardcore 'realistic world'. That is, the idea that somehow the GM can 'eyeball' all the myriads of little factors that go into making the real world REALISTIC. Without that contention then the idea devolves down to simply tone. Are the challenges the PCs face explained as the all-out no-holds-barred efforts of an overmanned group of monsters to save themselves? (IE building defensive works, ambushes, traps, ruses, hit-and-run tactics, etc.) or are the challenges sharp claws, weird magical powers, and fearsome bodies, pitted against the PCs in a series of arena-like fights?

My basic response, beyond the "you cannot depict war realistically in a game" is that this is a pretty incredibly narrow range of ideas about how to compose games! I reject the notion that all/any games can be binned this way, but mostly I reject the idea that they are reducible to these two 'modes' of play! It might help to think of games besides D&D, because it becomes a LOT easier to see this if you imagine how things work in other games. All that 'other ways' can and does exist in D&D also.
 

dave2008

Legend
@FrogReaver, you still haven't answered my question so I was just wandering if you missed my clarification of or if you are unwilling, uninterested, or unable to answer:

D&D is a game. So are you talking about CaW with respect to the game (DM v Players) or as a simulation of reality (Character vs NPCs/Monsters). Is this a meta concept or something you think should be addressed as if this was a real functioning fantasy world.

Gamist: DM vs Players. AKA a "game"
Simulationist: threat it as a "real" world

I guess I could answer both, but I was wondering what you are thinking.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I'm sure you could! Personally those sorts of mechanics are not what I enjoy in RPGs though so I would rather go the whole hog and come up with systems based on realism for the players to explore. The end goal would be for my players to feel as smart as Ceasar or Napoleon when they outmaneuver an enemy trying its darndest to leverage an overwhelming advantage against them. :)
I use a mix of the two at campaign level but the fate stuff goes both ways. The politically connected wealthy bbeg is just as limited in what they can do as they are empowered by that wealth & power or would need to somehow make up for it if he crossed the line even a little. There's no right or wrong way & I'm not calling you out or anything, just showing ways people can do it :D
 

So... couldn't the DM just cheat then?
And, this is one of the problems with the whole idea. GMs must be inherently conflicted. The path to 'deconfliction' is to be on the side of the players, which means that there can only be an ILLUSION of 'war'.

I mean, think about what @FrogReaver said about (other poster's too) the limits of intelligence about your opponents. How can the GM possibly arbitrate this in a neutral way? This is an extremely complex aspect of conflict, to the degree that it is probably more significant in real conflicts than fighting strength, etc. How do the orcs know, or not know, what is going on in town? The GM can invent some plausible stories, but he's definitely inventing them, and they can range anywhere from "they know everything, there are multiple spies!" to "they know nothing and sit passively awaiting the PC's next move." None of these are implausible, and you can invent a vast range of alternate and intermediate channels of intel that these orcs could logically take advantage of. Likewise the PC's know basically what the GM tells them. If they act to learn more, it is still up to him what actually comes of that.

This is all why I call this simply a couple of possible choices of 'flavor' or 'tone' of game. It is certainly legitimate to say that the fiction describing the game's happenings can include potentially set-piece type 'heroic' encounters where 'warlike' considerations are ignored, or they could be fixed on 'warlike actions'. Or a million other things!
 

Puddles

Explorer
I use a mix of the two at campaign level but the fate stuff goes both ways. The politically connected wealthy bbeg is just as limited in what they can do as they are empowered by that wealth & power or would need to somehow make up for it if he crossed the line even a little. There's no right or wrong way & I'm not calling you out or anything, just showing ways people can do it :D
Indeed! And there is probably a middle ground where there's a system that let's the players feel like they are making the same decisions as a real general would in war, but is streamlined enough to be quick to get to grips with for both the players and the DM.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Many campaigns would be cut short if DMs really use CaW for all monsters as that would mean no level appropriate encounters, but often swarm tactics with entire dungeons converging on the PCs or, if possible, combatants which are much too high level for the PCs.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Indeed! And there is probably a middle ground where there's a system that let's the players feel like they are making the same decisions as a real general would in war, but is streamlined enough to be quick to get to grips with for both the players and the DM.
That's why fate worlk well, you can get it free from the makers & it's lightweight enough to use transparently as a gm tool without the players noticing anything beyond you applying this kinda stuff fairly even when it seems to come from nowhere or is something you could not posssibly been planning the last several months for this instant you give the big reveal. Theplayers are still playing d&d & the gm seems to be as well :D
 


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