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

It's a pity you haven't read Order of the Stick's "Edition Wars: Invaders From the Fourth Dimension". It shows exactly where 4e lacks in the areas the other posters are describing.

The 3e Order, unable to fight on the same tactical field as the 4e Order, change the battlefield to a CaW engagement. They use spells and attacks with extreme range that the 4e group lacks. They use long-duration spells (Improved Invisibility) and summon expensive outside resources (Planar Ally, lots of potions). The 4e Order literally does not have the option to obtain these resources - they aren't supported in their rules.

And the reason these resources don't exist in 4e is to maintain balance within the encounter, a CaS viewpoint.

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It's a pity you haven't read Order of the Stick's "Edition Wars: Invaders From the Fourth Dimension". It shows exactly where 4e lacks in the areas the other posters are describing.

The 3e Order, unable to fight on the same tactical field as the 4e Order, change the battlefield to a CaW engagement. They use spells and attacks with extreme range that the 4e group lacks. They use long-duration spells (Improved Invisibility) and summon expensive outside resources (Planar Ally, lots of potions). The 4e Order literally does not have the option to obtain these resources - they aren't supported in their rules.

And the reason these resources don't exist in 4e is to maintain balance within the encounter, a CaS viewpoint.
No, I haven't read that, but it raises an interesting point. Most or maybe all of the "war" type resources mentioned seem to require magic or spellcasters. How far would you say it supports The Human Target's point that "Combat as War" is biased towards spellcasters?


I think two main ideas have emerged from this thread: how to DM a CaW game and how suitable 4ed is for running a CaW game. Let’s hit those two points, sorry about the length but people made a lot of points I’d like to respond to. Apologies for not responding to people in detail by name, but if I did that I think I might crash the server...

How to DM Combat as War

Run a Sandbox

One comment upthread talks about how CaW often requires a DM to completely throw out whatever plans he has for the encounter and that CaS is much more “consistent.” Exactly! CaW tends to work better for sandbox campaigns in which the DM has no set plan for any encounter. The best way to kick start these games is often to start off with a standard railroad plan and then make no effort whatsoever to keep the PCs on the rails, the railroad gets the PCs going and then their own momentum sustains them. How I’m planning to start my next campaign is to have the PCs hired as henchmen by NPC adventurers. The PCs and their bosses march through the forest and then the NPCs leave the PCs outside the dungeon to watch their horses while they delve. Then the NPCs never come back. What do the PCs do? Night’s coming on and strange sounds are coming out of the woods and my wandering monster dice start looking tempting…Having time constraints in a sandbox/CaW game is VITAL (especially in the easy stages) as otherwise the PCs tend to faff about.

Recycle Content

In the 1ed campaign I’ve been playing in, it’s taken us about 12 sessions (about 5 hours each with breaks for pizza in the middle) to clear the 36-page B5 module (and we didn’t even kill most of the kobolds). As far as I can tell, the DM has never done any prep at all, so this kind of gaming isn’t necessarily prep heavy, you just need content that the players can interact with for multiple sessions.


Information is gold in CaW games, monster ecology write-ups could answer a lot of the questions about giant bee and owl bear behavior that that scenario depends on and 1ed-style spell write-ups give a lot of information so that judging if a rat bastard dirty trick works often isn’t a DM judgment call. And as the person who mentioned Ravenloft points out, having good information makes these scenarios tick (the PCs should come across things like big scratches on the trees, giant owl pellets and the sound of buzzing in the distance). This is a great way of getting the PCs engaged with the world, since instead of information being about herding the PCs towards the plot, information is about not getting their PCs killed in horrible ways. Information also helps keep the PCs in the sweet spot between cakewalk and TPK by giving them the information they need to seek out the right kinds of challenges and avoid getting slaughtered.

An Uncaring God

As a lot of people have mentioned, DM fiat can play a much bigger role in CaW than CaS games and it can often come down to playing the DM instead of playing the game. That’s bad. For a CaW game to work, the DM should be an impartial and uncaring god, but how to do that when so much depends on DM judgment calls?

Well that’s what all of the random tables are for (and morale rules and, morale rules are worth their weight in gold)! There’s a reason there are random rolls for wandering monsters, reactions, surprise, encounter distance, weather, terrain, prostitutes, treasure! That’s why the DMG specifies that there’s a 20% chance that a harlot is or is working for a thief! Using all of these rules all of the time will drive a DM insane, but they’re there so that when the DM doesn’t want to use DM fiat there’s an alternative. For example my 1ed party ran into a group of 2 ogres and eight hobgoblins when all but the thief were still first level. In most campaigns my reaction would be “WTF?!? Why did the DM plan such hard encounters?! What a bastard!” but in this campaign we cursed our bad luck and set about slaughtering the lot of them. Giving the DM these kinds of tools makes what happens to the PCs a result of luck, game rules and PC cleverness rather than DM whim.

Google “Westmarches” for more information about the DM as an uncaring god, those blog posts are some of the best I’ve ever read.

Oregon Trail

A lot of people on this thread have talked about how CaW play flows from adversity and how this can be done by amping up the difficulty of encounters. This is certainly one way to do that, but it tends to favor the nova classes and results in a lot of TPKs. Often a better way of putting in adversity is through attrition, or what I like to call Oregon Trail D&D, which makes difficulty depend a lot more on the PCs than on the DM.

What I mean by this is hitting the PCs with constant easy fights, environmental obstacles, tracking supplies, actually using encumbrance (the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version, not the 1ed version, dear god not the 1ed version) and, yes, rolling for dysentery if the PCs drink dirty water. This slow wearing down of the PCs really keeps them on their toes and makes them be proper cunning rat bastards even when faced with fights they could easily win. What’s vital to support this style of play is to not let the players be able to easily hole up and get back to full health, limited healing (no second or third level cleric healing spells in 1ed!) and making it difficult for Wizards to get their spells back in the field (look at the specific 1ed rules for memorizing spells, they might surprise you). By wearing the players down with attrition when they’re in the field you make time a precious resource (Gygax used all-caps for talking about time tracking for a damn good reason) and avoids boring :):):):) like players spending an hour searching every ten feet of hallway. You can’t do that when you’re playing Oregon Trail D&D!

Of course a lot of people don’t want to play Dungeons and Dysentery, but it’s a big part of what makes CaW games tick. Rules that make it easy for the PCs to recover from attrition like :):):):)ing Rope Trick and readily-available CLW wands (I swear, the damn things have killed more campaigns than the Deck of Many Things) hurt CaW gaming badly.


In Which I Try to Avoid Edition Warring

Some people have mentioned that 4ed can be used to support CaW play and while it can certainly be used to do that (see the awesome hut of doom example) and Rituals do a great job of helping with that, I think that 4ed is less suited to that kind of play, just as TSR-D&D is less suited to CaS-play. This doesn’t mean that TSR-D&D can’t do CaS, I played a 2ed campaign as a kid in which half of the campaign was gladiator fights and the other half was going out into the wilderness to capture monsters to use in gladiator fights (my character was famous as the best Blink Dog trainer in the city and this was before Pokemon dammit), which is about as CaS as you can get. It was a great campaign, but if I were to run something like that today I’d use 4ed over 2ed in a heartbeat.

Note: if I get anything wrong about 4ed please correct me and don’t assume any ill-will on my part. I really don’t want to be one of the people who say, “hur hur, marking is just the same as taunting, 4ed is a sucky WoW rip-off.” I LIKE marking (at least in its most basic form), I just haven’t played all that much 4ed.

Here’re some reasons why I wouldn’t use 4ed for a CaW campaign:

Combat Takes Too Long

Combat takes a long time in 4ed, which means that there’s less time for everything else. The everything else is very important to CaW gameplay. Of course, you can reduce that number of combats but if you do that, it’s hard to make Oregon Trail gameplay work, which brings me to my next point…

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail gameplay is based on wearing the PCs down with attrition. You can’t do this if you don’t have time to play out a lot of mini-encounters in one session. Also (correct me if I’m wrong), there are various ways in 4ed to heal a character without spending a Healing Surge, which means that if you have that available then anything that doesn’t make the PCs spend a Healing Surge or use a Daily Power doesn’t cause attrition. Also it’s much easier for a 4ed party to bounce back from attribution with an Extended Rest than it is for a TSR-D&D party to bounce back from attribution with eight hours of sleep.

Sandbox Play

CaW works better with sandbox play and while you can do a 4ed sandbox (see the Angry DM’s blog post about how to run a 4ed sandbox) it seems like a lot of work for me. 4ed fans always tell me that the same critter should have different stats depending on the party’s level. I read one post by a 4ed fan that said that at low levels a dragon would be a Solo monster, if the PCs gain a few levels it becomes an Elite monster, then a Standard monster and finally (when the PCs are sufficiently badass) a Minion. Does that mean I have to restat all of the monsters in the sandbox whenever the PCs gain a few levels? I’m far too lazy to do that.

Missing Rules

Look through the various rules and other game book text that I talked about as being stuff that supports CaW play in my previous post. A lot of it just doesn’t exist in 4ed (or at least not in the first three books, I know that Dark Sun added in rules for dehydration and there’s probably lots of other examples that I don’t know about) but do exist in even the thinnest TSR-D&D intro box booklets.

Less Weird :):):):)

CaW often involves the weird, quirky and situational powers that TSR-D&D is chock full of but that are hard to balance for CaS. How the hell do you balance a spell that is useless in most situations but which is massively powerful in a few for CaS play? You can’t. That’s why you won’t find a lot of CaW staples in the 4ed PHB I (although a few remain like the ever-awesome Unseen Servant/Mage Hand). A lot of them have been moved off to Rituals (which are damn cool and great for CaW, but their cost means they don’t get used as often as normal powers).

For example, let’s take a look through 4ed Wondrous Items list, the traditional place for Cool Weird :):):):). The stuff on the list that would be more helpful in a CaW game than a CaS game are let you:
-Get more food.
-Carry more stuff (although it seems to say that you can’t pick up a portable hole if there’s stuff in it and no effect of putting a bag of holding in a portable hole noted).
-Keep people from warping away.
-Change what you look like.
-Portable boat.
-Flying carpet.
-Do rituals better.
-Climb better.
-Have a walkie-talkie.

Not bad, but that barely scratches the surface of the Cool Weird :):):):) that the miscellaneous magic items in the 1ed DMG can do.

Process vs. Effect

Although there are plenty of exceptions, 4ed write-ups generally tell you the effect of the power, not the process that causes that effect. This is great for CaS play and for role playing (you can role play how your power has that effect any way you want!) but I don’t like it for CaW play. One of the biggest elements of CaW play is looking at what a power/ability/spell/item/whatever says on the tin and then figuring out how to make it do something completely different or how to make their character immune to it. That’s harder to do in 4ed (although there are many exceptions to this rule, especially when you get to Rituals) since the write-ups don’t give a CaW player as much to work with.

Just look at the write-up for the Warden’s marking ability. I know what effect it has, but what process happens that makes that effect take place? I have not a clue. I can use the anger of nature? Any time I want? Awesome! Now what can I do with it except for marking people? No idea. What can I do to make my character immune to it? If I fight in an unnatural area or in the vacuum of space, does that render the Warden incapable of drawing on the power of nature’s wrath? I have no idea. Those sorts of questions aren’t very relevant to a CaS player since they can come up with cool fluff that fits the situation and role play it out, but they’re very relevant indeed to a CaW player.

For another example let’s look at monsters. One of the abilities of a Succubus is Dominate: Ranged 5; +12 vs. Will; the target is dominated until the end of the succubus’s next turn. OK, that makes sense, the Succubus is vamping people and it’s a “Charm” ability. But how does it work? Is it her voice? Can I protect myself from it if I put wax in my ears? It is her sexy appearance? Does it still work if my character is dragonborn? Heterosexual female? Gay male? Is it direct mental magic attacking my mind? No idea.

Looking at the 1ed Monster Manual for the Succubus, I can see that it can vamp people with a level-draining kiss (so that won’t work if she can’t kiss me, now I just need the right mask…) and with a spell like ability that works just like the spell Suggestion. Let’s look up Suggestion. Yes! It doesn’t work unless the target can understand what the caster is saying. So, we’ll need proper wax for our ears. One problem down, now what else can we do to kill the damn Succubus…

See the difference? Sure the 4ed DM could rule that the 4ed Succubus’ Dominate ability doesn’t work if the PCs puts wax in their ears, but then the DM is put on the spot and has to decide if the PC’s plan works or not according to DM fiat. The 1ed DM can just look it up and know that, yes, the wax-in-the-ears plan works just fine (at least for THAT ability) without having to resort to DM fiat, which can amount to the DM choosing (without any information to go on) if the PC will win or lose.

There are a hundred other examples like that (although 4ed does get better about that in later books, noting that pan pipes don’t work on deaf PCs for example). That sort of thing isn’t too relevant to CaS, but the 4ed power format cuts out a lot of stuff that supports CaW play or puts a lot more stuff on the shoulders of the DM to decide.

No XP for GP

If XP is awarded for overcoming challenges then PCs will try to overcome challenges (CaS), if XP is awarded for detouring around all of the challenges and grabbing the gold then PCs will try to detour around all of the challenges and grab the gold (CaW).

The Rule Zero Fallacy

Of course a lot of the stuff I’m talking about 4ed missing can be added back in (and a good bit might be present in a lot of supplements that I don’t know about, my 4ed-fu is weak), but that line of argument comes perilously close to the Rule Zero Fallacy (it’s not broken if I can fix it with house rules) and, in any case, the difference between the support for CaW in different sets of the three core books is pretty stark (at least in my opinion).


Addendum: I Love Healing Surges

Healing Surges are such a great mechanic. Losing Healing Surges is a great way of modeling all of the little joys of Oregon Trail D&D and they fix the Fistful of CLW Wands problem (die readily available CLW wands! die! die! die!). Just declare all-out war on the 15-Minute Adventuring Day by making time a precious resource, make them be fewer, make them provide fewer HPs, make them harder to get back and easier to lose and completely eliminate all forms of healing that don’t involve spending a Healing Surge and they’d be one of the best CaW mechanics I can imagine.








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First Post
I think one of my problems with CaW is that its so biased towards spell casters in the older editions.

I think that is my sentiment as well. Traditionally in D&D, while Fighters and other non-spell casters have generally been able to hold their own on a tactical level, they have always lacked access to the strategic abilities necessary for Combat as War play, something spellcasters have had in spades.

As an example of this, lets say that a party of adventurers decides that their best solution to a problem is to redirect a river to flood out the opposition. Crazy strategies like this are what define the fun of Combat as War. However, in traditional D&D, carrying out this kind of strategy is completely dependent on magic; either you have a wizard or cleric who can cast Move Earth, or you use a magic item. I suppose you could try to round up a large work force to carry out the task, but spell-casters are still better equipped for that approach than non-spellcasters, thanks to summon spells and charm person.

On the other hand, Heracles did exactly this for one of his Labors. He redirected a river by himself with a few hours of superhuman digging. It makes me wish D&D non-spellcasters could pull off feats like that at high enough of a level.

Tony Vargas

And the reason these resources don't exist in 4e is to maintain balance within the encounter, a CaS viewpoint.
Well, balance in the game. A DM can imbalance an encounter in 4e, it's just more likely that if he does, he's done so intentionaly.

Those resources don't exist at a game level, not just an encounter level. It's not just combat, it's the whole game that's different. Game as Sport is pretty nearly tautological. Sports are Games. Really, on one hand you've got Game as Game - which is to say, balanced, with rules that actually work and provide for a challenging & engaging (hopefully fun) play. What's 'Game as War,' really? A game where the rules are just an obstacle to be overcome? Who are you at war with? Or just a game veryone's taking way too seriously...?


First Post
What's 'Game as War,' really? A game where the rules are just an obstacle to be overcome? Who are you at war with? Or just a game veryone's taking way too seriously...?

You replaced Combat by Game. One important aspect of Combat as War is that Combat isn't a Game. (For the characters.)

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