Worlds of Design: A Worthy End?

Is combat an end in itself, or is it a means to an end; and is that a worthy end?

Is combat an end in itself, or is it a means to an end; and is that a worthy end?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

War is not a means to an end, it is the end, whereas politics is merely the hiatus between wars. - Norman Finkelstein

Why Are We Fighting?​

Long-term tabletop gamers may often ask themselves: is combat an end in itself, or is it a means to an end; and is that a worthy end? With many rulesets the answer is more or less built-in: combat is the center of all activity in a category that originated as wargames. But that doesn’t make it an end in itself, and the focus doesn’t mean there is a worthy end.

An answer in games can often be related to lethality in combat. The more lethal combat is for the player characters, the more they’re going to look for non-combat ways to solve their problems. If combat is hardly ever or never lethal, most players will indulge in combat whenever they feel like it.

It’s quite common in Dungeons & Dragons and its variants for combat to be a means to gathering treasure. Combat is a means rather than an end, but is the end a “worthy” one?

Combat to gain experience points (by killing “monsters”) becomes an end as well as a means. Getting experience points isn’t something we think about in the real world. For a warrior, it could be equated to “being successful in life.” Yet we can ask, as a means, is combat for experience points a worthy goal? For the more violently oriented the answer is probably yes, for those less violently oriented the answer will often be no.

Fourth edition D&D combat appeared to be an end in itself because the “strategic” parts of the game were largely stripped away – seemingly leaving combat and little else. Of course, as with most any RPG, the GM could work to restore the non-combat parts of the game if desired.

Are You Worthy?​

The initial question is not solely, end vs means, but also involves a means to a worthy end. This could be posed as a mission-oriented end rather than an essentially selfish end. This is all a matter of motivation.

The “murder-hobo” trope exists for a reason. Killing everything and taking its stuff has a long history in tabletop games, starting with Dungeons & Dragons but not ending there. The original rules certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade those players from believing that combat was the primary solution to every obstacle.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Treasure-grubbing or XP point chasing are essentially selfish goals. Characters can be soldiers fighting against evil, not the mercenary searching for treasure. Integrity, doing “the right thing,” and other virtues come with it. The soldier is on a mission, a mission that means more than money or XP-grubbing, more than mere mayhem or slaughter.

Yet how many players care whether they behave in a “worthy” manner or have a worthy goal? How many worry about integrity or doing good works? I don’t know nowadays, but insofar as the Chaotic Neutral jerk stereotype exists, I suspect there are still those who play this way.

If it’s just a dungeon crawl, the mercenary and soldier might seem similar at first. This is where setting and story come into play; if there are moral consequences for actions, the distinction between soldier and mercenary becomes clear. It’s what happens after – in town, in the tavern, amongst civilized folk – where the difference comes into sharp relief. Mercenaries who have no tether to society but personal power are just as likely to murder the innkeeper as they are to pay him.

Does this matter? If your game never goes beyond dungeon crawling, maybe not. But for campaigns that want to explore more than just what’s gained at the point of a sword, the nuance can make for more interesting play.

You Turn: What is the purpose of combat in your games?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Community Supporter
XP for Gold is a much better system than XP for Combat.

Changes the motivation from slaughter to pillage. Sure killing things to take there stuff is still viable, but opens up lots of other avenues to get XP without it devolving into combat.
The question them becomes "so you're rich, now what?"

AD&D had a framework for this, that you transitioned from a field combatant to a commander, and thus you were focusing your wealth accumulation on investing in a stronghold of some sort. Essentially, transitioning back to Chainmail style of miniatures play. I think there was an assumption that, since D&D came from Chainmail originally, that going back to Chainmail was somehow always the goal. D&D far surpassed its inspiration though, and not a lot of folks are content with "play a different game where you tell other folks what to do."
If the goal is wealth, what happens when you become wealthy?


combat are simply speedbumps on the way to achieving goals in our games. An important part of the game yes. but the point of the game not even close.


I will argue that old D&D rules most DEFINITELY dissuaded combat. If you look at old modules, fighting for your life was a punishment for failing to correctly solve a puzzle or encounter. Most XP came from treasure, not defeating enemies - which encouraged avoiding enemies to get at that precious wealth. Wandering monsters are the ultimate expression of this - "if you don't hurry up, we're going to get overrun and our resources unnecessarily depleted."

If you wanted to survive in older editions, you did what you could to avoid or mitigate any combats as they were usually stacked against you. More often than not, charging straight into a combat would get you chewed up. Adventures were built around discovering paths, objects or clues that allowed you to avoid fighting or turned an overwhelming encounter into a fair or easier combat. If you look at the old random tables for building dungeons or the random encounters you invariably find that a not insignificant number of encounters are explicitly over the characters abilities to beat in a straight up fight (I think it's somewhere around 1 in 6 or so?).

Late 3E and into 4E changed that paradigm in that the fight was anticipated to be faced and overcome. Avoidance became unnecessary and the PCs could be expected to just plow their way through by fighting.

I don't think any edition changed the paradigm. Seems about the same to me now in 5e as it did in 1e.
IMHO if you look at the incredible amount of effort the designers put into balancing encounters, combat and monsters with characters it is pretty obvious that combat is a very essential paradigm of later editions.

In the early editions nobody really cared that much about unbalanced combat encounters (if some warning was given) because players were much more on their toes and knew to avoid dangerous encounters. Starting with 3e it seems that more and more effort was put in making all encounters "fair combat encounters".


I see a lot of effort on forums to balance encounters other than 4e (from what I hear) i haven't seen any actual balancing. 5e just flipped it the the other way and made D&D Anime, 3rd edition by the designers own words didn't care about balance and 3.5 was an attempt to reel in the Whale so I really haven't seen any real effort put into balance.


Mod Squad
Staff member
What is an end, and whether that end is "worthy" are not objective things.

Why is a particular player sitting at the table? What do they want out of playing? That is what defines the ends.

"Worthiness" is merely a judgement layered on top of that desired end.

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