Plot-related combats--or not?!

Benimoto

First Post
I sometimes see people declaring that their favorite combat frequency is to have only "plot-related combats", but what does that mean exactly? I take it to mean that combats only happen when either an NPC decides to have a combat showdown with the PCs or the PCs decide to attack something, but is that correct? What does it mean to you?

Also, as a counterpoint, I think of my campaigns as ones that have more combats than the plot alone would dictate, but that's a function of my group's preferred playstyle and my own strengths/weaknesses as a GM. Don't get me wrong, we still do lots of roleplaying and skill checks/challenges, but combat is still the resolution mechanism my group seems to find most satisfying overall.

To give an example of some not-exactly-plot-related combats, here's a few categories that combats appear in campaigns I've run or played in:

  • Combat as negative reinforcement: If the PCs make terrible decisions or roll particularly bad, combat might result.
  • Combat as a "wrong way" marker: Sort of a subset of the previous category. If the PCs are trying to accomplish something, but suddenly find themselves bogged down in unrelated fights, that might be a sign that they're not looking in the right places.
  • Combat as foreshadowing: Combat might foreshadow the abilities of future foes. Obviously if you're fighting undead, a necromancer might be nearby. More subtly, a combat with a few flying foes might get the PCs ready for a more complex aerial battle.
  • Combat as a clue-delivery vehicle: When your villain is too smart to leave diary pages laying around, he might give a report or other information to a henchman, who can then be defeated or serve as a chatty prisoner.
  • Combat as an obstacle: And of course there's this. When you want to make a trip seem tough, you could batter the PCs with skill challenges or repeated demands on their logistics skills. Or you could have a chimera attack. You could make a fortress physically imposing, with unscalable walls, unliftable gates and unpickable locks. Or it could be full of angry hobgoblins. You know, that sort of stuff.

I'm sure there's more categories, but those are some examples. Maybe I'm wrong, and more of our combats are plot-related than I thought. Combat as foreshadowing or clue-delivery could actually be plot. Anyways, if you think of your combats as plot-related, what makes them so? What does that term mean to you? Alternately, how do combats happen in your campaign that aren't plot related?
 

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Nightson

First Post
Basically, plot related combats mean that they aren't random encounters as far as I'm concerned. I mean plots can vary widely, stop the scheming courtier is as much a plot as stop the orcish horde but they imply vastly different levels of combat.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I sometimes see people declaring that their favorite combat frequency is to have only "plot-related combats", but what does that mean exactly? I take it to mean that combats only happen when either an NPC decides to have a combat showdown with the PCs or the PCs decide to attack something, but is that correct? What does it mean to you?

To me, it means the characters are not risking grievous bodily harm or death just for the heck of it. After the fact, you can "tell the story" of a string of fights. However, it won't be a really good story if there aren't interesting causal and thematic connections between those fights. If the story of the game were to be written down as a novel, and as you read the story you said, "Wait, why did the author put this fight here? This doesn't seem relevant to anything else..." then it probably isn't plot-related.

"Plot related combats" are combats that not only serve to use up party resources, or provide a tactical exercise for the players, but first and foremost serve dramatic purposes. Combat that has any real risk in it creates (and releases) dramatic tension - that tension should be part and parcel with the other tension in the work, or the whole will seem muddled and unfocused.
 

Wormwood

Adventurer
A meaningful fight involving stakes aside from lost hit points, empty potion bottles, or a pile of gold pieces.

Basically, what Umbran said.
 

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