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[Very Long] Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles...


…and how to reconcile them in 5ed.

On another forum I’ve been running in circles with fans of other editions about different D&D play styles and how different editions support them, but I think I’ve finally nailed a key difference that sheds an enormous amount of light about so many disagreements about 5ed development.

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game).

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Some D&D players love the tactical elements of the game and well-fought evenly matched combat within it while other players prefer the logistical and strategic elements and if only end up in evenly matched fights if something has gone horribly wrong. These two kinds of play styles also emulate different kinds of fantasy literature with Combat as Sport hewing to heroic fantasy tropes while the Combat as War side prefer D&D to feel like a chapter of The Black Company. This was really driven home by one comment from a Combat as Sport partisan talking about how ridiculous and comedic it would be PCs to smuggle in all kinds of stuff in a bag of holding so they could use cheap tactics like “Sneak attack with a ballista!” However, sneak attacking with a ballista is exactly what happens in Chapter Forty-Eight of Shadows Linger (the second Black Company book) and the Combat as War side think that’s exactly the sort of thing that D&D should be all about.

While either form of D&D can be played with any edition, it works better with some editions than others. A lot of people have played TSR editions from more of a Combat as Sport Mindset and a lot of later TSR products seem to consist of trying to frog march poor Croaker into heroic fantasy, but TSR-D&D mostly sucks at Combat as Sport. It’s not easy to gauge what would be a good fair fun fight for a given party and the same fight could end up as a cakewalk or a TPK, melee combat is repetitive, there’s one-hit kills etc. Also a lot of elements of TSR-D&D design that drive Combat as Sport people crazy, really tie into the Combat as War mindset. Things like tracking rations, torch usage, rolling for wandering monsters, etc. are important for this kind of gameplay since they make time a scarce resource, which is vital for strategic and logistical gameplay since if the players have all the time in the world so many strategic and logistical constraints get removed and without those constraints you get all kinds of problems cropping up (most notably the 15 minute adventuring day). As Gygax says, in all caps no less “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” (DMG page 37), which sounds like crazy moon logic for people who like Combat as Sport gameplay but is a central factor in making Combat as War gameplay work.

With 3ed the game shifted a bit towards Combat as Sport and then shifted a good bit more with 4ed (although you can still certainly run 4ed as a Combat as War game with heavy use of things like rituals, but the main thrust of the game is towards Combat as Sport). In 4ed it’s easy to tell what’s a good fair fight for a given party and combat rarely goes in a direction that the DM completely didn’t expect and there’s tons of fun combat variety. However, the 4ed focus on balancing combat at the encounter level rather than the adventure level (or just not balancing it at all and running a sandbox) runs directly counter to Combat as War gameplay. In order for a combat encounter to be well-balanced nothing that happens outside of that encounter can matter too much. This means that in order to get proper encounter balance, the impact of strategic and logistical gameplay must be muted as if having stuff that happens outside of the combat make a huge difference in the difficulty of the encounter, then there’s no way to guarantee fun balanced fights. Hence Encounter Powers, hence Healing Surges (sure starting combat with half of your healing surges sucks but not as much as starting it with half of you hit points), hence not having any classes that are designed to be below par at tactical combat, hence a lack of abilities that are useless in some fights but “I win” buttons in other fights, hence a lot of Sports and War dislike for the few bits of 4ed design that don’t fit well with balancing combat at the encounter level (notably Daily Powers). Of course 4ed is not doesn’t do this 100%, but it comes a lot closer than any other edition. However, the whole line of thinking runs counter to Combat as War thinking, the whole POINT of Combat as War gameplay is to make the playing field as unbalanced as possible in the favor of the party, so mechanics that are built around balancing combat at the encounter level just get in the way. In addition, 4ed removes a lot of items from the Combat as War gamer’s bag of tricks and it’s much harder to rat:):):):) the opposition with 4ed powers than 1ed spells, since they’re specifically written to be resistant to be used for rat:):):):)ing and the lack of specific information about specifically how 4ed powers work in real-world terms make it hard for Combat as War players to use them to screw over the opposition instead of beating them in a fair sportsmanlike match since it’s hard to figure out exactly how to use 4ed powers for off-label purposes.

But probably most importantly, 4ed combat just takes too damn long for Combat as War players. If you’re going to spend your time doing sneaky rat bastard Black Company stuff before combat starts, then having combat take a long time is just taking time away from the fun bits of play. Also if combat takes a long time you just can’t have the sort of attrition-based gameplay since there just isn’t time to have 5 combats in five hours with plenty of time for other stuff aside from combat and a break for pizza as well. 4ed thrives on big flashy set piece battles and that doesn’t work well with Combat as War gameplay since the best kind of combat for those players is having the enemy die like a chump in the first round (with a good admixture of the PCs running and screaming in terror in the first round).

OK, now how can we reconcile these two different play styles in 5ed. Having the tactical rules be an add-on module for the Combat as Sport people is an important first step, this lets the people who like that have fun with it while the Combat as War people can use the simpler combat rules to get combat over quickly. But I think that the Combat as War people could use a DM-side add-on module as well with ideas to emphasize strategic and logistical thinking (the “Fantasy :):):):)ing Vietnam” Module basically). How monsters are written up also matters a lot. In the getting the honey from the bees adventure, specifics of monster ecology and biology don’t matter that much for the Combat as Sport side, but just look at how much they matter in the Combat as War side (does smoke keep giant bees away? how much territory will one hive of giant bees patrol? what time of day is the owl bear at home in its cave? do owl bears love honey? will thick clothes and mud help against the bees? will the owl bear fight the bees or run away? how far will the bees chase the bear if it runs). Of course the DM will have to answer a lot of these questions, but monster write-ups can help a lot. Finally, the spells that appeal to each side are different with the Combat as Sport side’s favorite spells being boring to the Combat as War side and the Combat as War side’s favorite spells being far too quirky, situational and unbalancing for the Combat as Sport side. Hopefully some ways will be found to reconcile the two sides.


Combat as Sport: valuing the separate roles of the quarterback, linebacker and wide receiver and what plays you can use to win a competitive game.
Combat as War: being too busy laying your end zone with caltrops, dousing the midfield with lamp oil, blackmailing the ref, spiking the other team’s water and bribing key members of the other team to throw the game to worry about all of those damn squiggles on the blackboard.


Combat as Sport:
[ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lC6dgtBU6Gs]Princess Bride Sword Fight - YouTube[/ame]

Combat as War:
[ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwGg_F7s7xg]Indiana Jones - Swordman Vs. Indiana - YouTube[/ame]

Which one you like makes a massive difference in how you play D&D and what sort of rules you want for 5ed. How to deal with this?
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First Post
I'll admit that I couldn't quite get myself to read through all of that, but I certainly understand the gist of what you are saying. It is certainly an important consideration of the game that opens up a lot of pitfalls.

One thing that strikes me is that you really need to balance the game for both approaches. 4E doesn't really work well at the "war" approach because it doesn't provide as many options for acquiring a massive strategic advantage, but it is great for "sport". On the other hand, 3E was kinda bad at both, since while it gave plenty of options for both "sport' and "war", it tended to give them all to spellcasters, so they had better options for either approach (which tended to stack up and give them a double-advantage). A game with options for both "sport' and "war" that balances the different classes well for both approaches is the ideal, though it is hard to obtain.


I'll admit that I couldn't quite get myself to read through all of that, but I certainly understand the gist of what you are saying. It is certainly an important consideration of the game that opens up a lot of pitfalls.

One thing that strikes me is that you really need to balance the game for both approaches. 4E doesn't really work well at the "war" approach because it doesn't provide as many options for acquiring a massive strategic advantage, but it is great for "sport". On the other hand, 3E was kinda bad at both, since while it gave plenty of options for both "sport' and "war", it tended to give them all to spellcasters, so they had better options for either approach (which tended to stack up and give them a double-advantage). A game with options for both "sport' and "war" that balances the different classes well for both approaches is the ideal, though it is hard to obtain.

I agree completely with your analysis of 4ed and 3ed but think that it's harder to balance for both at the same time than you do. The whole POINT of Combat as War is to take encounter level balance and stomp all over it and Combat as War-friendly spells are really really really hard to balance from a Combat as Sport perspective (which is why most of them weren't included in the 4ed PHB I). However, it should be possible to provide elements of both or 5ed modules that cater to each.

The main point of this post was trying to understand why a lot of the posts of 4ed fans sound like crazy moon logic to me while mine seem insane to them, I think this is a better rubric than most I've seen for providing an explanation for that.


This essay is very perceptive and even perspicuous. It certainly highlights two common approaches to encounters. However, I think that many players like myself enjoy a bit of both. We like planning and clever tricks to matter, but we also enjoy a well-fought and dramatic combat, using all of our powers and resources.

All of the cunning you described with the owlbear and the bees has been present (whether well-done or ill-conceived) in countless sessions of various roleplaying games. However I do feel that the Fourth Edition more consistently offered a gripping and interesting combat on top of the ambushes, treachery and cruel trickery.

I do know that there have been players in my groups however who had little time for any sort of planning or discussion. And I have been often guilty of bloodthirstiness or vainglory in the face of overwhelming odds.


I'm firmly on the "Combat as Sport" (CAS) side, with a penchant for flashy heroics. So yes, I like 4E (and the Feng Shui RPG). But now that I think about it, I've met a few "Combat as War" (CAW) players too. It definitely does explain a certain group of players who never warmed up to 4E.

I'm not quite sure how to appeal to both sides in one game. Both are deeply gamist, but they don't agree on what the game is. For CAS, the game starts when you roll initiative. Each combat is self-contained, similar to a sports league. They get irritated if they have to bother with boring stuff like counting arrows. They get irritated if the Wizard scys the next enemy group and has the right spell prepared to end the combat in his first action.
For CAW, an entire module is a game. They get irritated if they don't get the chance to prepare fights. They hate if the resource management is handwaved. They consider it a good fight if they walk over the enemies in one big swoop.

How do you ever accomodate both? This isn't something that you can integrate by giving players spotlight who enjoy a certain game element. This is about how the DM sets up the entire game.

The only solution I see is that the DM has to prioritize either CAW or CAS. Ideally, the group tends in one direction as a whole, and the game gives the DM the tools to tailor the campaign in one direction.

The difficulty starts if both sides clash at one table. You can mix and match a bit, allowing the group to trounce some encounters by careful planning, and improvising as much as possible to accomodate clever ideas to achieve a tactical advantage. On the other hand, you make sure that there are enough set-piece battles to make the CAS faction happy. It does require both sides to learn to enjoy both elements, though. It doesn't work if one side sulks and complains that "this is not D&D".


First Post
I used to have what you'd call a "combat as war" style.

The problem was that eventually I started to recognize the man behind the curtain. I knew that I wasn't actually coming up with brilliant plans to defeat the monster, I was, at most, coming up with brilliant plans to defeat the DM. But that's like a four year old wrestling with his father- you only win if (when) he lets you win.

The Human Target

Huh, interesting thoughts.

I like both to a degree, but I prefer combat as sport the most by far.

And I feel like most of my players do as well.

And yes we do play 4e.

In real life I'm the kind of guy who shoots first, but at the table I prefer the drama of kicking the dropped sword back to the enemy. More dramatic.


As far as putting them both into the same gameplay session that's often hard since the different players are looking for different things (but, of course, a lot of people want different things at different times), my guess is the best way to do that is to keep combat short, make sure that the ability to do dirty tricks is spread around among all classes (and make sure stuff that unbalances Combat as War gameplay such as Rope Trick are killed), keep some logistical elements but ditch others and have the DM move things along is the Combat as War people spend too much time making intricate plans. Basically just make sure that no one element of the game takes too much time or too much fiddling and try to balance things that way.

I'm very happy that I'm seeing 4ed players agreeing with this post, when I've tried to explain the differences between my play style and the play style of many 4ed players, I just never found a way that got through, so I'm happy to have hit on it now.

As people have pointed out the War/Sports (which is basically strategy/logistics vs. tactics, but I think my phrasing gets the idea across better) divide is a divide within Gamism and it's also neutral to difficulty level and roleplaying. Both can cater to challenge and roleplay in different ways.

Personally I strongly prefer Combat as War for D&D since it emulates the fantasy I like better (Black Company, old school S&S, etc.) and when I want high action and drama (and stuff like the Princess Bride) I tend to prefer FATE over any edition of D&D, so perhaps FATE scratches the itch that 4ed scratches for other people, leaving me wanting Combat as War when I play D&D.

It occurs to me that this explains Ravenloft, and not just in the "do you like Horror" sense.

Ravenloft, as written, was clearly intended to be CaW. You're supposed to uncover the rampaging flesh golem, be helpless against it, fall back and research its weaknesses by clever observation, then walk in and stomp it.

You can't really do that in a 3E/4E "Appropriate Encounter Level" mindset.

I definitely prefer "Combat as War". Though our plans are typically much less complicated than the owl bear plan, we like to plan, we care a lot about logistics, and we like a good, quick, bloody rout of the enemy -- or a knockdown, drag out fight where lives are really on the line, if that's the only choice. That's what AD&D and 3e/3.5e deliver for us, so it's what we played AD&D and straight into 3e, with no plans for 4e.

In 4e (which I'm willing to do as a player, but most of my close friends won't try), the lack of logistics/spell planning, and the lack of randomness/suspense in combat (no PC ever dies) make it boring for me. I can see how no logistics is "Combat as Sport", with emphasis on balance, but a sport where you can't ever lose doesn't seem like much of a sport to me.

Note that in the past, the only other games I've DM'd long campaigns in were RECON (roleplaying of Long Range Recon Patrols in Vietnam), Boot Hill (high lethality Western), Top Secret/SI (our campaign was Mission Impossible-type high body count "black ops"), and yeah, it's pretty clear I'm into "RPG as War".

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