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
So, is it just me or is this thread now "Everybody vs. Saelorn telling people they are playing the game wrong"? Because that's what the last few pages have read like to me.

Partially, although once his full one true wayist colours were revealed it became clear that he's not restricting his comments to 'the game' (ie D&D) - he's telling people that they are playing other games wrong (Traveller)... or not roleplaying at all (FATE).

When people have annointed themselves the final arbiter of true and correct roleplaying like this they fully warrant denouncing, laughing at and blocking, in whatever order works best for you.
 

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Arilyn

Hero
Not sure why Lanefan' s quote keeps getting quoted by me. It's not there, and then it appears mysteriously when I post. Lanefan, are you practicing your ninja moves? Is that your next character? Find your own posts!
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Yes, this thread has drifted. Conversations do that. You are right, it has gone on for a while, but you know, human nature and pet peeves. Actually, for my part, I enjoy discussions on the nature of role playing and find the variety of styles interesting. My pet peeve is creeping in because I'm trying to convince Saelorn on the large scope of RPGs and playing styles, and Saelorn' s pet peeve is creeping in because Saelorn has a very firm definition of role playing. And then, pemerton has opinions too, which align more closely to mine, cause we're right, of course! Bright side, we are not flinging abuse at each other. Yet....
"We" being the operative word here. Saelorn has already accused people who don't subscribe to his One True Wayism of cheating, being bad DMs, not actually playing "real" RPGs, and "illegal gameplay". It's about everything you can do on this board short of more conventional ways to call someone a chicken kicker.

Partially, although once his full one true wayist colours were revealed it became clear that he's not restricting his comments to 'the game' (ie D&D) - he's telling people that they are playing other games wrong (Traveller)... or not roleplaying at all (FATE).


When people have annointed themselves the final arbiter of true and correct roleplaying like this they fully warrant denouncing, laughing at and blocking, in whatever order works best for you.
Right now I'm ignoring him the old fashioned way (by simply not responding to him). But yes. I'm more than willing to hear out people's differences on combat v sport and combat v war, since I fully admit to using both but lean towards sport, and I quite like the term "Spwart", but there's really no discussion to be had with him, which is unfortunate.
 

pemerton

Legend
It's written in my imagination too. The source of the problem was a continuous outpouring of accessory books that reinforced using existing rules or new rules to do new things. Instead of, well, just providing the fluff and letting the GM worry about the rest
I'm not sure what accessory books you have in mind - the only one I can think of is the Terrain Powers section of DMG 2, and that is just a p 42 variant.

I have engaged in multiple 4e threads in which I've talked about the time, fairly early in our 4e campaign, where one of the players used the 1st level power Icy Terrain to freeze a pool of water, only to be told - by the same people who complain that 4e doesn't allow "creative" play - that my adjudication was against the rules. When I ask what rule they have in mind, they can't tell me (because there isn't such a rule) - all they can point to is this "rule" written only in their imaginations.

If a GM takes the view that using Icy Terrain to freeze pools of water is forbidden - despite the fact that (i) the power has the Cold keyword, and (ii) the PHB (p 55) tells us that that means "Ice crystals, arctic air, or frigid liquid", and )iii) the DMG (p 66) has guidelines for the interaction between various power keywords and various sorts of objects and materials - then the problem is with that GM, not with the rulebook.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, is it just me or is this thread now "Everybody vs. Saelorn telling people they are playing the game wrong"? Because that's what the last few pages have read like to me.
You as a DM have a job to provide excitement, believability within a fantasy world, and consistency. “Honesty” isn’t required. You are not an umpire, you are a playwright directing a script you wrote.
Well I'll break the monotony a bit by disagreeing with someone else. As GM I don't see myself as playwright, scriptwriter or director. (If other's see themselves that way, good luck to them - but I don't regard such a suggestion as having any more normative force than [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]'s suggestions about the proper way to run a game.)

As a GM, I frame the PCs (and thereby the PCs) into (hopefully) interesting situations. What they do is up to them; hence, what new situations will arise can't be known in advance, as it depends on (i) the players' action declarations for their PCs, and (ii) the result of the resolution of those declared actions.

Did anyone read or play City of Skulls? Right in the adventure was described a playtest were the PC were caught during an infiltration mission by an Orog but a PC charmed the Orog, took the Orog out to a bar and got him drunk, cast forget to make sure no memories existed, and then sent him back to his barracks, were in his stupor he assured everyone there that everything is ok. That’s role play and DM greatness right there, and not a single rule would really cover that situation.
I'm not sure why you say that. The Charm Person spell is governed by a large number of rules (for range, casting time, spells slots, saving throws, eligible targets, etc). As well as those mechanical parameters, there is probably the most important rule of the spell, namely, the very high degree of influence it gives its caster over the victim. The Forget spell has similar mechanical rules that govern it, as well as the rules for its actual effect (of memories being wiped).

AD&D 1st ed had rules for the effects of intoxication; I don't know about 2nd ed AD&D. The only bit of the story you describe is the GM adjudicating the response to a soldier turning up at the barracks drunk and disorderly, although in AD&D that could have been resolved by way of a reaction roll.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Well I'll break the monotony a bit by disagreeing with someone else. As GM I don't see myself as playwright, scriptwriter or director. (If other's see themselves that way, good luck to them - but I don't regard such a suggestion as having any more normative force than [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]'s suggestions about the proper way to run a game.)

As a GM, I frame the PCs (and thereby the PCs) into (hopefully) interesting situations. What they do is up to them; hence, what new situations will arise can't be known in advance, as it depends on (i) the players' action declarations for their PCs, and (ii) the result of the resolution of those declared actions.
I agree with this to an extent.

I like to think of DMing similar to the zoom function on a game like Civilization. The closer the party gets to anything the more the DM "zooms in" and details about that *thing* get filled in. I may not have made up my mind about what's going to be there in specific terms until it happens. Yes, maybe the Orb of Awesome is located in the Temple of Danger but beyond that it's unlikely I've even lightly penciled anything in until the party actually reaches the temple.

And I don't see anything wrong with that. DMing is a lot of work, and it's incredibly stressful to develop in detail every bit of the world, only to have your players walk past 75% of it.

But none of that is really combat as sport v. combat as war. Or is it?

Lets face it, the players don't know what's in the Temple of Danger either, heck, the information about the Orb of Awesome may be falsified! It might be inaccurate! It might be outdated! The players have no way of knowing this. In a way, this is very much how combat as war works. The players take actions based on the limited amount of knowledge they have about their enemy (in this case, the Temple). That's very much how war IRL works. You may not know the strength of your enemy, you may not know your enemy's numbers, and you have to make decisions based on that information.

Now, as a DM who typically runs "combat as sport" players can know a few things about their enemy: their enemy is about as as strong as them....wait...that's really it. What it means to have an enemy "about as strong as you" can mean a lot. It could be one powerful dragon with a couple minion kobolds. It could be many deadly vipers. It could be something in-between.

I don't personally see a lot of difference between combat as a sport and combat as war. Clearly some people do but maybe I just mix the two together so much that I don't see a meaningful difference. What, the striking difference is that in combat as a sport you know your enemy with present a reasonable challenge to your level? Okay...as your DM, I don't want to run a massacre and I don't want to bother preparing a fight when you're planning to "skip it" (it's not fun for me or you).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Not sure why Lanefan' s quote keeps getting quoted by me. It's not there, and then it appears mysteriously when I post. Lanefan, are you practicing your ninja moves? Is that your next character? Find your own posts!
Meanwhile I keep getting these quote notifications only to find it's you again, quoting the same bit for no particular reason. :)

No idea what's going on there...

Lan-"for that matter, Monk is the only old-school class I have never played in my life"-efan
 

Aenghus

Explorer
One of the things that attracted me to RPGs in the first place were the rules. They varied in quality but at their best (IMO) were clear rules in black and white that allowed in-game situations to be resolved with some semblance of objectivity.

So one of the reasons I tend to dislike "Combat as War" is that it often involves skipping the rules as written and moving problem resolution to a metagame layer of direct negotiation with the referee. There are elements of no holds barred where individuals can attempt to coerce the other participants into moving the game in the direction they personally desire, regardless of their wishes. I prefer mutally agreed "Rules of Engagement" to attempting to evolve such in a competitive environment mixing role-playing and individual tastes.

There's also an element of seeking out broken rules and exploiting them which is more associated with "War" than "Sport".

I see it as a paradox that in actual wargames, so much effort is devoted to set-up, initial deployment, setting limitations and victory and loss conditions, whereas all that is associated with "Combat as Sport" while "Combat as War" is supposedly freer and less limited. In the latter case the game can become about how to reframe the problem so that your faction is obviously on the winning side, and therefore sidestep as much as possible the conventional rules layer, which is the part I find fun.

I see the "War" camp often refusing to discuss things because "it's too metagame" or such, and leaving the group "market" to evolve an answer over time. From my point of view, RPGs are always artificial, refusal to talk about the metagame or "why are we playing" questions doesn't automatically produce a less artificial or more authentic game, it just ignores or actively avoids addressing these questions, which I find are very important in in any long-running campaign.

So much of this is actually decided by the group of players you end up with and your own personal tastes. My current group are far closer to the "Combat as Sport" side of things, my 3.x group had wargames experience and were maybe half way along the "Sport-War" continuum. If I had a group closer to the "War" camp in tastes, I would drift my game closer to that direction to suit their interests.
 

I'm not sure who you have in mind as "most people", but I think that Gygax and Marc Miller thought about these things; and modern designers like Robin Laws, Luke Cane, Vincent Baker and others absolutely think about them.

Having thought about them, they noted that (i) a virtue of a RPG is that the play of the game is engaging relative to the interests of the players, and that (ii) one way to achieve (i) is by having the GM manage content introduction as the game unfolds.
Having thought about them, they concluded that role-playing wasn't an important aspect of the games they wanted to play, so they proceeded to write games that weren't about role-playing.

And then they declared those games to be RPGs anyway, for whatever reason.
You feel games like FATE or Dungeon World are claiming to be something that they are not, but this is simply not true. They have differeing philosophies behind role playing, but still share the same basic tenets which constitutes the hobby.
I guess it depends on what you consider the basic tenets of the hobby to be. Personally, I say that the central tenet of a role-playing game is the role-playing itself, and I don't see how any suggestion to the contrary could possibly be taking itself seriously.
I'm curious as to what games on the market you consider RPGs?
You know, the classics: D&D (2E and 3E), GURPS, Palladium, Shadowrun.

I've been reading through Blue Rose (AGE edition) lately, and I'm surprised by how much it seems to get this issue. There are a couple of mechanics which superficially resemble the sort of out-of-character agency mechanics in other games, but they've all been reframed in such a way as to put the characters back in control.
So, is it just me or is this thread now "Everybody vs. Saelorn telling people they are playing the game wrong"? Because that's what the last few pages have read like to me.
I'm just here to defend the hobby against those who would tear it down. Unfortunately, dealing with so many trolls at once can be exhausting, so I decided to give it a break... until they started spreading their anti-role-playing rhetoric into other threads. Now I'm here to tie up loose ends.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Not sure why Lanefan' s quote keeps getting quoted by me. It's not there, and then it appears mysteriously when I post. Lanefan, are you practicing your ninja moves? Is that your next character? Find your own posts!

I've had this happen before, it's most likely because you multi-quoted Lanefan and that button has become sticky. Scroll back up to the post you keep quoting and see if the multi-quote button is still engaged. That's done the trick for me before.

Also, logging off and clearing cookies works, too.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I've had this happen before, it's most likely because you multi-quoted Lanefan and that button has become sticky. Scroll back up to the post you keep quoting and see if the multi-quote button is still engaged. That's done the trick for me before.

Also, logging off and clearing cookies works, too.

Thanks for the tip!
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
I'm just here to defend the hobby against those who would tear it down. Unfortunately, dealing with so many trolls at once can be exhausting, so I decided to give it a break... until they started spreading their anti-role-playing rhetoric into other threads. Now I'm here to tie up loose ends.

Oh my god man, I have honestly been trying to avoid adding you to my ignore list, but this is the straw that broke the camels back. Goodbye forever!
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Oh my god man, I have honestly been trying to avoid adding you to my ignore list, but this is the straw that broke the camels back. Goodbye forever!

Dude, if you block him, he can't see your post. It's reciprocal the way Morrus has implemented it. He'd have to see it in someone else's post if they replied with the quote (though it might come through email notifications, I'm not sure if that gap has been plugged yet).
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Dude, if you block him, he can't see your post. It's reciprocal the way Morrus has implemented it. He'd have to see it in someone else's post if they replied with the quote (though it might come through email notifications, I'm not sure if that gap has been plugged yet).

I know, I don't really care. I was way beyond done with this thread before he quoted me to talk about defending the faith. I couldn't care less at this point.
 

pemerton

Legend
Dude, if you block him, he can't see your post. It's reciprocal the way Morrus has implemented it. He'd have to see it in someone else's post if they replied with the quote (though it might come through email notifications, I'm not sure if that gap has been plugged yet).
When you "go advanced" to post a reply with a quote, the last 20 posts comes up on the page. And that includes posts by people who have you on their ignore list. So Saelorn can still see the post through that means.
 


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