RPG Combat: Sport or War?

There are two different extremes in arranging fights. One is like war and the other is like a sporting event. Sporting events are supposed to be fair contests between roughly equal forces. On the other hand, war is the epitome of unfair competition.


Jeffro Johnson introduced me to this topic, which was discussed in an ENWorld forum. If your game doesn't involve much combat this discussion may not mean a lot to you.

Strategem: a plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent or achieve an end

Any GAME implies fairness, equality of opportunity. Knightly jousting tournaments were combat as sport. We don't have semi-pro soccer teams playing in the Premier League, we don't have college basketball teams playing the NBA, because it would be boringly one-sided. People want to see a contest where it appears that both sides can win. And occasionally the weaker side, the underdog if there is one, wins even when they're not supposed to.

An obvious problem with combat as sport, with a fair fight, is that a significant part of the time your players will lose the fight. Unless they're really adept at recognizing when they're losing, and at fleeing the scene, this means somebody will get dead. Frequent death is going to be a tough hurdle in most campaigns.

The objective in war is to get such an overwhelming advantage that the other side surrenders rather than fight, and if they choose not to surrender then a "boring" one-sided massacre is OK. Stratagems are favored in war, not frowned upon. Trickery (e.g. with the inflation of the football) is frowned upon in sports in general, it's not fair, it's cheating.

Yet "All's fair in love and war." Read Glen Cook's fantasy Black Company series or think about mercenaries in general, they don't want a fair fight. They don't want to risk their lives. They want a surrender or massacre. The Black Company was great at using stratagems. I think of D&D adventurers as much like the Black Company, finding ways to win without giving the other side much chance.

When my wife used to GM first edition D&D, she'd get frustrated if we came up with good stratagems and strategies and wiped out the opposition without too much trouble. She felt she wasn't "holding up the side." She didn't understand that it's not supposed to be fair to the bad guys.

Think also that RPG adventures are much like adventure novels: we have to arrange that the players succeed despite the odds, much as the protagonists in a typical novel. In the novel the good guys are often fabulously lucky; in RPGs we can arrange that the players encounter opposition that should not be a big threat if the players treat combat as war rather than as a sport.

I'm not saying you need to stack the game in favor of the players, I'm saying that if the players do well at whatever they're supposed to do - presumably, in combat, out-thinking the other side -then they should succeed, and perhaps succeed easily. Just like Cook's Black Company.

contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
But D&D has hit points and there has been no agreement on what they mean and how they work from the earliest days. Massive dragons can fly in D&D, breaking the laws of physics, and don't automatically kill PCs if they pounce on them even if they weigh tons. Because it's a game, not a physics simulator.
That you do not understand what Hit Points represent speaks only to your own lack of understanding. The system would be to blame only if no consistent solution existed.

The attack of a creature, even if it is simply trying to crush someone with its bodym is subsumed into the abstraction of minute-long combat rounds. I assure you that more than one individual has met their fate as a multi-ton corpse was dropped on them.
My players don't want to play the "drop rocks on hapless foes game" whatever that is, they want to play D&D with the copious, and detailed rules in many, many rulebooks. If I tried to enforce a "read the mind of the DM or die" style of play on my players I would be a terrible DM and deserve them walking out on me, which is what would happen. Attempts to force players into styles of play they don't want seldom end well.
If they really wanted to play D&D, then they would know that the DM is supposed to adjudicate the outcome of every action, only consulting dice when the outcome is uncertain. If you failed to account for the actual reality of the game world, and forced every interaction through a narrow interpretation of the game mechanics, then you would be a "terrible DM", as you put it.
 

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Jhaelen

First Post
In an even fight - a fair fight, where both sides are equally matched - the chance of victory is fifty percent. And, given the nature of monster-filled dungeons, the losing side is dead.

If it takes ten encounters to gain a level, and the chance of your side surviving an encounter is fifty percent, then nobody has ever made it to level nine (where they could pick up Raise Dead) because the odds are worse than one in an octillion. If we want characters to reach level nine, and we don't want them to get there after just eight encounters, then we need those encounters to be biased in favor of the players in some way. We don't want fights where there's a fifty percent chance of a TPK. We want fights where's much closer to a five percent chance of a TPK. We want encounters that are balanced rather than fair.

The practical difference between combat as sport, and combat as war, is that the former delegates the burden of achieving the desired balance squarely on the DM; the latter puts it on the players. In a game with sport combat (like 4E), the DM is obligated to contrive a scenario where the party will encounter monsters that can put up a respectable show, but which are nevertheless unlikely to overpower the party. In a game with war combat, the players take responsibility for avoiding deadly encounters, by dropping rocks on the enemy and sneaking past the dragon instead of engaging it.

Obviously, it can cause problems if everyone isn't on the same page. If you like sport combat, then avoiding fights and crushing your enemy with traps is a waste of your time at the table, because you want to be fighting. If you like war combat, then all of your planning and scheming is wasted because the DM is going to contrive a balanced encounter anyway.
Why can't I grant XP for this post?!
You're eloquently stating something I've been trying to point out much less effectively in countless posts over the years.

I don't really have much to add, except to point out that this is closely related to the reason I no longer grant XP (for defeating combat encounters) in D&D. I'm perfectly fine with players coming up with ways to circumvent, avoid, or effectively negate combat encounters. Ultimately, they're just saving everyone time by concentrating on their story goals.
If it comes to a fight, I prefer it to be meaningful, which usually translates into a 'challenging' encounter. And when I say 'challenging', I mean a combat that has a (very) low chance to result in the death of one or more characters, but a high chance of characters going down at some point.
There's never a good reason for 'filler' encounters. There are more elegant ways to model 'attrition', if you consider it important.
As you may have guessed, I'm a fan of D&D 4e's style of dynamic tactical combat encounters. They can be fun in their own right. But they shouldn't dominate every session (unless that's what the players prefer).
So, it really makes sense for me to let the party level up whenever it's appropriate considering the storyline.

I'd like to stress that when playing a 'grittier' RPG system, you have less freedom, in a way: Since combat is lethal, it's something that must be avoided at all cost. Players _must_ come up with ways to overcome their opposition by means other than open combat, otherwise your campaign is going to be short-lived.
 


pemerton

Legend
I'd like to stress that when playing a 'grittier' RPG system, you have less freedom, in a way: Since combat is lethal, it's something that must be avoided at all cost. Players _must_ come up with ways to overcome their opposition by means other than open combat, otherwise your campaign is going to be short-lived.
For me, this illustrates the point I've been making upthread, to [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION], [MENTION=94143]Shasarak[/MENTION] and [MENTION=3400]billd91[/MENTION].

In a genuinely grim & gritty RPG, ambushing someone with a sword, or a crossbow, should be (more-or-less) as dangerous as dropping a rock on them. It's purely an artefact of D&D's mechanics, which rates a sword at d8 or d10 but leaves the rating of a boulder to the GM, that results in a fighter being unable to kill someone in a weapon ambush but able- at least at the tables of those GMs mentioned - to kill someone with a boulder ambush.

Which once again relates back to [MENTION=2656]Aenghus[/MENTION]'s point, that the effectiveness of the boulder vs the sword turns primarily on end-running around the damage rules. It's entirely an artefact of mechanics, not of "narrative first". In a "narrative first" game involving people of "flesh and bone" (to quote [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]), an ambush with a sword or bow should be capable of lethality. (And in games like RuneQuest, Rolemaster, Burning Wheel, etc - ie with broadly simulationist action resolution mechanics - it is.)

But D&D chooses to subordinate lethality and grittiness to heroics, via the hit point mechanic. That design choice having been made, why should boulders - of all things - be exempt from it?
 

No. Someone asks "Why is a rock more dangerous than a sword?"
Because a falling boulder imparts several orders of magnitude more force than a swung sword, and swords aren't actually all that lethal to someone wearing armor.
In a genuinely grim & gritty RPG, ambushing someone with a sword, or a crossbow, should be (more-or-less) as dangerous as dropping a rock on them.
[...]
But D&D chooses to subordinate lethality and grittiness to heroics, via the hit point mechanic. That design choice having been made, why should boulders - of all things - be exempt from it?
"Grim and gritty" is a matter of degrees. D&D is less gritty than GURPS, and Hit Points are a big part of that, sure. That doesn't give D&D carte blanche to just throw physics out the window, though. Even if a high-level fighter is heroic enough that they can shrug off being run through with a pike (as an absolutely extreme example of what you could do with a weapon against an unaware target), that doesn't necessarily mean they're heroic enough to survive being crushed by a ten-thousand pound boulder.

I've seen movies where someone was still up and fighting with ten arrows in their back, and the tone of the story meant that it was dramatic rather than comical, but that tone would not have survived a ten-thousand pound boulder. You can only suspend disbelief so far before it breaks, and that's well beyond the limit.

Boulders aren't exempt from the fantastic physics of a D&D world, but they have a much stronger starting position.
 

pemerton

Legend
Even if a high-level fighter is heroic enough that they can shrug off being run through with a pike (as an absolutely extreme example of what you could do with a weapon against an unaware target), that doesn't necessarily mean they're heroic enough to survive being crushed by a ten-thousand pound boulder.
This is the first time the boulder has been specified as weighing 10,000 lb.

How is your average D&D character using this as a combat weapon? While the character is mucking about with levers and blocks, what stops the target of this boulder attack just walking up and stabbing them?

And in any event, even a 10,000 lb boulder on your foot is only going to break your foot. It's not going to kill you. Admittedly I'm neither a martial artist nor a rock artist, but I don't see that it's significantly easier to kill a person using a 10,000 lb than (say) a two-handed sword.

If the target is asleep, for instance, it seems that stabbing them through the chest with a sword or spear is probably as easy as making a 10,000 lb boulder roll or drop onto them.

EDIT: by my maths, a 10,000 lb boulder is around 5' in diameter. It's not going to be especially easy to move, or to guide once it starts rolling.
 
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I'd like to see both sides in this argument re-read the 1E DMG from cover to cover without doing so to score points in this debate. I think a lot of us form opinions around arguments online, and start to project that onto these books. Just commenting because I haven't posted here in a while, but it seems like this conversation was still going on years ago when I left (honestly one of the reasons I don't post here much is because of this conversation overtaking so many discussions). Read the 1E DMG again and take it on its own terms, not in terms of getting it to support a point of view gamers fight over right now.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
For me, this illustrates the point I've been making upthread, to [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION], [MENTION=94143]Shasarak[/MENTION] and [MENTION=3400]billd91[/MENTION].

In a genuinely grim & gritty RPG, ambushing someone with a sword, or a crossbow, should be (more-or-less) as dangerous as dropping a rock on them. It's purely an artefact of D&D's mechanics, which rates a sword at d8 or d10 but leaves the rating of a boulder to the GM, that results in a fighter being unable to kill someone in a weapon ambush but able- at least at the tables of those GMs mentioned - to kill someone with a boulder ambush.

Which once again relates back to [MENTION=2656]Aenghus[/MENTION]'s point, that the effectiveness of the boulder vs the sword turns primarily on end-running around the damage rules. It's entirely an artefact of mechanics, not of "narrative first". In a "narrative first" game involving people of "flesh and bone" (to quote [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]), an ambush with a sword or bow should be capable of lethality. (And in games like RuneQuest, Rolemaster, Burning Wheel, etc - ie with broadly simulationist action resolution mechanics - it is.)

But D&D chooses to subordinate lethality and grittiness to heroics, via the hit point mechanic. That design choice having been made, why should boulders - of all things - be exempt from it?

And in a genuinely grim and gritty (and more realistic) RPG, ambushes with swords and crossbows would still not be 100% at killing the enemy yet leave the PC vulnerable to just as grim and gritty a retaliation. That's one element you're missing in all this focus on damage mechanics. It's not simply an issue of deadliness, but also of minimizing exposure to risk by eliminating it or reducing its duration. If Conan lurks above, ready to lever or push the boulder onto the monster as it comes out of its lair, he's reducing his vulnerability. And even if he doesn't outright kill it but just injures it, he still reduces his risk of death when he closes in to finish the fight.

Gandalf minimizes the risk of the fellowship by breaking the bridge. Tarzan minimizes his risk by staying out of the lion's reach until he can close off its path. Luke tries to avoid close combat with the rancor like the plague. The ents flood Isengard to reduce their risk. The ewoks are full of nasty tricks to take out stormtroopers. Kobolds lay traps galore. The Dwarves in Crusade trap the expected battlefield to reduce the mobility of the Tuigan horde. The in-genre and related genre examples go on and on.
 



Derren

Hero
If you are playing a character concerned with honor and being a hero then you won't have combat as war.

The ability of having combat as war is a trait of the system. The character decides if he will use it.
Thats why I think combat as war systems are more open than combat as sport system. You do not have to use combat as war if you do not want to, but in combat as sports systems you are unable to.
 

smbakeresq

Explorer
I play with my kids, who basically play as Overwatch PCs, a Goliath Paladin (Reinhardt) and a elf monk (Genji.). Every combat is sporting war, and it’s great to DM.

Every obstacle is jumped on and then lept off of to gain some sort of advantage, every barrel is thrown, every prone bad guy is booted, every enemy is a “hacker” if they use evil ways etc. Goblins are thrown like bowling balls.

It’s war to me but the way they play it sure seems like sport.


Sent from my iPhone using EN World
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
The ability of having combat as war is a trait of the system. The character decides if he will use it.
Thats why I think combat as war systems are more open than combat as sport system. You do not have to use combat as war if you do not want to, but in combat as sports systems you are unable to.

Doesn't work. A character that treats combat as sport in a combat as war game will die.
 

EDIT: by my maths, a 10,000 lb boulder is around 5' in diameter. It's not going to be especially easy to move, or to guide once it starts rolling.
That's where the number comes from - it's a rock, roughly 5' in diameter. A rock that is roughly five feet on a side is particularly easy to represent in D&D.

I'm not saying that it's easy to aim, by any means. I'm just saying that, if it does hit you, then you're dead. Because it weighs ten thousand pounds.

It's not a weapon that a character uses in combat. It's a weapon that a character uses to avoid combat. You use it like Wile E. Coyote trying to flatten the Road Runner while they stop to eat bird seed.
 
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S

Sunseeker

Guest
The ability of having combat as war is a trait of the system. The character decides if he will use it.
Thats why I think combat as war systems are more open than combat as sport system. You do not have to use combat as war if you do not want to, but in combat as sports systems you are unable to.

I'll agree with this. In combat as war it is very easy to approach your enemy on even terms and thus make it combat as a sport, and there might even be some good roleplay there combined with some very in-world reasoning as to why you would do this. I think that it's important to keep in mind that pretty much everything we love from the literature that supports out favorite games almost always treats combat as a sport, even in warfare. Honorable Knights are almost always outnumbered by evil hordes. Parties of adventurers are almost always beset by foes in number and power much greater than their own. They rely on cleverness, tactics, creativity and often even that means they just end up running away.

Further, I disagree with [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]'s assertion earlier that nobody has ever made it past 9th level. If every fight is a 50/50 chance of victory that means...nothing at all about death rates and survival to higher levels, it only does if you assume every fight is a fight to the death. And even then "death" is not very permanent in D&D. PC's may lose fights and be captured. PCs may lose fights and flee. PCs may lose fights and their bloodied but not-yet-dead bodies are completely ignored by the enemy for *reasons*. PCs may defeat half the forces before them before being routed. There are plenty of options where failure is still the outcome but failure does not universally equal death.

Plenty a party has lost a fight, lost and objective, lost a battle, without losing their lives.

Beyond that, I don't see it as unreasonable that getting past 9th level is highly against the odds. Aside from the fact that most editions of D&D break down after that, it sets a rather believable point where the party has gone from tomb raiders looking to make a quick buck, to genuine people of legend.
 

I'll agree with this. In combat as war it is very easy to approach your enemy on even terms and thus make it combat as a sport, and there might even be some good roleplay there combined with some very in-world reasoning as to why you would do this.
It's not easy to approach an enemy who wants to kill you - which includes the vast majority of monsters in a dungeon - and offer them a fair fight. Even if you speak their language, they have every reason to betray you, and cheat in any manner that they can get away with, and they expect you to do the same. Fair fights are for chumps who don't care about winning, and winners don't fight fair if they can ever avoid it!
Further, I disagree with [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]'s assertion earlier that nobody has ever made it past 9th level. If every fight is a 50/50 chance of victory that means...nothing at all about death rates and survival to higher levels, it only does if you assume every fight is a fight to the death. And even then "death" is not very permanent in D&D. PC's may lose fights and be captured. PCs may lose fights and flee. PCs may lose fights and their bloodied but not-yet-dead bodies are completely ignored by the enemy for *reasons*. PCs may defeat half the forces before them before being routed. There are plenty of options where failure is still the outcome but failure does not universally equal death.
If we assume that half of fights don't result in death for the loser, which is a significant exaggeration compared to what actually happens (how often do your PCs take prisoners?), then it's still unlikely that anyone has ever made it to level nine. Even with a 75% survival rate, you're just not going to survive eighty fair fights. That's still at least a billion-to-one against you.

And death is only temporary if you have a level 9 cleric around to reverse that, which you won't, because no cleric would ever reach level nine if each encounter only had a 75% survival rate.
 

There are two different extremes in arranging fights. One is like war and the other is like a sporting event. Sporting events are supposed to be fair contests between roughly equal forces. On the other hand, war is the epitome of unfair competition.
The answer is implicit in the question: the G in RPG stands for 'Game.' If you are conducting your Game like a War, you are not a very good host. Even wargames are games, and need to be fun, which typically includes balanced, or at least fair - for instance, if you're going to be running some dreadfully one-sided scenario, you set 'victory conditions' such that the historical losing side holding out a bit longer is a 'win' for that player.

Then there's asymetric warfare. Put that in your CaW pipe and smoke it, sometime.

That said, you can approach a "CaW" scenario as a game, you just focus the game aspect on the pre-combat planning, logistics, deceptions, &c. The combat, itself, if it's even played through, would be perfunctory, with upsets an indicator of a flaw in the system. The strategy phase would contain the actual 'sporting event' roughly-equal challenge...
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm not saying that it's easy to aim, by any means. I'm just saying that, if it does hit you, then you're dead. Because it weighs ten thousand pounds.
I knew someone who was hit by a car - which weighed (say) 5,000 lb and was probably moving as fast as or faster than many rolling rocks. Her legs were broken, but she didn't die.

If a 10,000 lb rock rolls over my foot it will break my foot, but I won't die.

And in a genuinely grim and gritty (and more realistic) RPG, ambushes with swords and crossbows would still not be 100% at killing the enemy yet leave the PC vulnerable to just as grim and gritty a retaliation.
Rocks aren't 100% effective either. And I don't see why dropping a rock on someone, or rolling it onto someone, is less likely to make someone vulnerable than shooting them. A rock isn't a particularly long-range weapon when compared to a bow or crossbow. And is not any more accurate - it's considerably harder to aim.

It's not simply an issue of deadliness, but also of minimizing exposure to risk by eliminating it or reducing its duration. If Conan lurks above, ready to lever or push the boulder onto the monster as it comes out of its lair, he's reducing his vulnerability. And even if he doesn't outright kill it but just injures it, he still reduces his risk of death when he closes in to finish the fight.
Again, the missile weapon is the more traditional way of doing this.

Gandalf minimizes the risk of the fellowship by breaking the bridge.
This particular tangent of the discussion was meant to be about a contrast between 4e, which is "unrealistic" in its treatment of boulders, and other versions of D&D.

As far as minimising risk by the use of movement and terrain is concerned, 4e is an excellent system, which places more emphasis on tactical positioning and the use of terrain than probably any other version of D&D.
 

I knew someone who was hit by a car - which weighed (say) 5,000 lb and was probably moving as fast as or faster than many rolling rocks. Her legs were broken, but she didn't die.

If a 10,000 lb rock rolls over my foot it will break my foot, but I won't die.
You could also fall out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and survive. Just because something can kill you easily, that doesn't mean it will. Either one of those things has a substantially better chance of killing you than someone swinging a sword at you while you're wearing armor, even if they know what they're doing.

The damage formula for falling objects in 3E (which I only cite because it's at hand) is 1d6 per 200lbs for the first 10 feet, plus 1d6 per 10 feet beyond that. It's still just damage, though, and you could always roll significantly below average. The whole point of this tangent is just that it does damage based on its intrinsic properties, rather than any sense of fairness.
 

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