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Worlds of Design: Is Combat Now Passe?

What percentage of time in your RPG play (as player or GM) is spent in lethal combat?


  • Total voters
    242
In April 2020 my column was titled “Is Fighting Evil Passé?” Readers pointed out that it was a misleading title, and that's because the editor changed it [Ed note: Yep!]. My original title was “Is Fighting Evil the Focus of Your Campaign?” This time I want to address what my proposed title suggested.

knight-3038799_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

I’ve modified the question from “fighting” to “combat,” because fighting is going to occasionally occur in the lives of special characters who often have military-style training, if only in a bar-room or as part of the typical love triangles and other expressions of lust and greed.

So, is combat now passé? Keep in mind that virtually all of the original D&D players were wargamers. We were accustomed to playing games where there was a battle if not many battles. I’m using the term "combat" here to mean deadly skirmishes rather than scuffles, events where people/creatures get killed rather than they get a bloody nose or a broken limb.

But now the vast majority of new D&D players don’t play wargames; they may not play other (non-RPG) games at all. In that case it’s easy to imagine that many players are not much interested in combat. This reminds me of something my wife said the other day (keep in mind I met my wife through D&D and she played for about 15 years). She prefers the first book of the Lord of the Rings because she’s not interested in the battles that occupy so much of the other two books. Even in Moria, the Fellowship’s purpose was to get through without a fight, not to fight the Balrog.

Perhaps the change in science fiction and fantasy we’ve seen since 1980 has also made a difference. Stories now are far more often about people and their motivations and daily difficulties, more about shades of gray rather than black and white, and much less about Adventure with a capital “A.” That has conditioned people not to look for battles.

In a well-realized setting/world, there ought to be lots of things to do, including lots of conflicts, that don’t end with life and death fighting. Politics, business success, greed and lust (which seem to power most of the dramas you see on TV), exploration, there are lots of alternatives to adventuring and killing. This might not be satisfactory to the old guard D&Ders but may be fine for newer players.

Another approach is to have frequent battles that could theoretically result in death, but virtually never result in player character death, only the death of the opposition. I suspect that’s where a lot of campaigns have gone, just as the rules of the games have gone that way. I remember playing in the “D&D Essentials” games with the Fourth Edition rules, and being shocked when a couple of player characters died, because it was so, well, difficult to die! Yet Fourth Edition was all about combats and little else. (I always try to make sure everyone in my party (as a player) lives unless they do something really stupid, but I guess these two were behaving so foolishly I had to ignore them, or I might have somehow saved them.) When I first read the Fifth Edition rules I noted the rules and spells that made it difficult for anyone to be killed, such as the third level cleric spell Revivify. It’s “a far piece” from how it was with original D&D where you had to husband every hit point and often had to decide to run away or even leave the adventure for lack of hit points.

How does it work in your campaign? Let me know in the poll and in the comments.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
So, is combat now passé? Keep in mind that virtually all of the original D&D players were wargamers. We were accustomed to playing games where there was a battle if not many battles. I’m using the term "combat" here to mean deadly skirmishes rather than scuffles, events where people/creatures get killed rather than they get a bloody nose or a broken limb.

But now the vast majority of new D&D players don’t play wargames; they may not play other (non-RPG) games at all. In that case it’s easy to imagine that many players are not much interested in combat. This reminds me of something my wife said the other day (keep in mind I met my wife through D&D and she played for about 15 years). She prefers the first book of the Lord of the Rings because she’s not interested in the battles that occupy so much of the other two books. Even in Moria, the Fellowship’s purpose was to get through without a fight, not to fight the Balrog.

I think in this sense combat has been passe since about 1985 with the rise of the Dragonlance Saga, and Gygax being forced out of TSR. I'd go so far as to say that with the sole exception of 4e D&D has not had good combat rules since hirelings were deprecated and the low level experience moved from rules intended to cover a small platoon on the PCs side to the PCs having enough people for a strong fireteam or possibly a very very small squad. When you're dealing with an entire platoon having a single attack button is more than enough - there are a couple of dozen hirelings and you don't want to slow things down. Also Attacks of Opportunity being just for breaking out of the melee are fine. On the other hand for a single character walking forward and mashing A into a horde of enemies is reminiscent of nothing more than Double Dragon.

Another approach is to have frequent battles that could theoretically result in death, but virtually never result in player character death, only the death of the opposition. I suspect that’s where a lot of campaigns have gone, just as the rules of the games have gone that way.

Again, 1985. When the low level experience involves an entire platoon of hirelings then putting death on the table for the NPCs is fine. And even if the fighter dies we've got a ready made pool of NPCs right there and waiting. DL1 meanwhile had the "Obscure Death Rule" to protect low level characters.

Yet Fourth Edition was all about combats and little else.

I assume that this is about how Fourth Edition wasn't about spellcasters? Because it was the only edition to have defined rules for problem solving (replacing the long-missed XP for GP rules from 1e) and set structures to enable the DM to handle task as opposed to action resolution. 4e also does great capstone fights but not so good incidental fights.

It’s “a far piece” from how it was with original D&D where you had to husband every hit point and often had to decide to run away or even leave the adventure for lack of hit points.

Very far from D&D-with-hirelings. But not far at all from the Obscure Death Rule from Dragonlance.

To sum up combat isn't passe - but the game hasn't been about teams with hirelings for a long time. Combat is a desert not the main dish it was in the wargamer-dominated era.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
For me, no. Combat is the best part of D&D. It is by far the most exciting, but without a good story to support the battles, it would feel just like a series of combat-simulations. So, I voted about 65% or roughly 2/3 of our game time revolves around combat, with the rest being story, exploration, NPC interaction, etc.
 

Rhianni32

Adventurer
Back in the day most game communities were isolated to a table or local gaming group. Conventions allowed some overlap of groups but that game play was 2-4 hours so you didnt have time to RP really. The rules of the more common rules were all combat focused leaving RP as a subchapter buried past all the combat rules. Skills were an afterthough, if even in a set of rules so having a challenge other then killing something was harder. Sure a GM was free to add in rules but generally your average GM has a lot going on without having to invent rulesets. I enjoy that sort of thing but I don't know if your average GM across the gaming population really does.

Then Critical Role happened.

Now the general gaming population has a direct example of adding story and RP into a combat focused ruleset with video example of what to do and what not to do. It also brought in non gamers without previous TTRPG experience or notions of what to do.

Note: Please don't tell me how you and your specific game table have RPed over combat forever so therefore I am wrong. It always happens here so please don't be that poster for once. I'm talking more of the general overall population.
 

ZeshinX

Adventurer
41% - 60% for my group. It's been this pretty consistently for about 30 years of playing D&D (though we skipped 4e for PF1e, 4e just wasn't our cup of tea).

We enjoy combat a great deal. We enjoy the romanticized, fictional portrayal of combat, like something you might see in Star Wars or a swashbuckling film. There are times we enjoy it to get gritty, dirty and downright ugly, but for the most part, those elements only come into play during combat that serves the narrative in some form (establishing villainy, eliciting emotional reaction from the PCs, etc).

I try to have at least one major combat encounter per session, but sometimes the PCs are having plenty of fun solving puzzles, interacting with NPCs, mapping out a dungeon, etc that it's sometimes not missed during play...though often once the session ends, they'll vocalize their eagerness to fight some baddies next session.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I assuming lethal you mean a dead pc even if a spell brings him back afterwards. As of Tuesday my AL games have 35.27% lethal chance if you enter combat. For Season 9 modules 18 pc killed to 399 monsters. For Descent 5 PC killed 235 monsters killed. 19 captured 7 escaped. Things that throw my numbers high. Bad group tactics but great individual tactics. Occasionally they leave me with only one valid target. Two regular players not caring if their pc dies. And in my first year lack of game knowledge to know when to pull blows or switch targets.
Back in 1E I had pc die before the erasable ink dry. But back them I could create a pc in 3 minutes if non caster. 5 if caster.
 

Reynard

Legend
About half of our table time is used up in combat, but that usually translates to about 10% of the "story" time being combat. It's just the nature of round by round action to eat more real world minutes than negotiations with the king or exploration of the tomb or whatever.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
I answered the 1-10% because of one word - "Lethal" - 90% of my gaming is Super-hero genre. Lots of combat, but very little of it is lethal - which matches the tone of the comics we emulate with our game. Stakes are high, losing can result in catastrophe, but death is not the only failure state.

When I'm not playing supers, I've been playing Numenera - which repeatedly states that it is not combat based, down to system rewards "killing things does not give XP, but discovery and exploration do".
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I have sessions that have no combat, and I have sessions that are almost entirely combat. I'm running 5E and most of the character abilities are combat-focused, so I like to make sure the players get a chance to use the shiny new, but combat isn't the only way to solve every problem.
 

schneeland

Explorer
Depends on what we're playing. In fantasy settings, probably about 1/3 (hence my vote for this), in my current Cyberpunk campaign, probably 10% or less (open fight is generally happening only as a last resort).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Perhaps the change in science fiction and fantasy we’ve seen since 1980 has also made a difference. Stories now are far more often about people and their motivations and daily difficulties, more about shades of gray rather than black and white, and much less about Adventure with a capital “A.” That has conditioned people not to look for battles.

I think you may be conflating things that are actually independent. Basically - you've not clearly established that whether the morality is black and white or shades of grey has little has anything to do with how much combat ensues.

In black-and-white morality, yes, when faced with Evil with a capital E, that which is Good is authorized to use deadly force. However, in that same framework, that's pretty much the ONLY time Good is authorized to use deadly force.

In shades-of-grey, deadly violence is rarely completely off the table of options.

Fafhrd and Grey Mouser and Conan were not in a black-and-white worlds, but they got in a lot of fights. Shadowrun is not a black and white world, but geeze is there a lot of fighting....

In a well-realized setting/world, there ought to be lots of things to do, including lots of conflicts, that don’t end with life and death fighting.

Yes. And that opens up the space where literal combat is not necessarily the only way to "fight" evil. Maybe our settings are just getting more well-realized as time goes on.
 



Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I anticipate you might get some skewed results because “I’m using the term ‘combat’ here to mean deadly skirmishes rather than scuffles, events where people/creatures get killed rather than they get a bloody nose or a broken limb” is, for many players, a counter-intuitive definition of combat. I’d estimate somewhere around 60% or my games being combat, in the sense that initiative is being tracked and the combat rules are being used. But if you limit it to life-and-death conflicts only, its harder to estimate because different campaigns will focus on such lethal combat to different degrees.
 

More than quarter of the game time spend on combat is too much for me, even in action genre. And in other genres there really doesn't necessarily need to be any combat at all. That being said, D&D is definitely built for action adventure and certain amount of combats are expected part of the game and can be great fun. But too much and it becomes boring, people lose immersion and it just becomes a mediocre wargame. And if I want to play a mediocre wargame I have 40K for that.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Fighting evil is still the primary focus of my current campaign and most campaigns I run. However, for a long time I've run very RP heavy games. The exception was 4E which tilted more towards combat at higher levels because combat took so long.

That means a lot of investigation, intrigue, building business and alliances. But D&D without combat wouldn't be D&D to me. When I do get into combat I want it to be fast, fluid and exciting with the risk of death and dismemberment. I think 5E does that quite well, probably the best of any edition.

Yes, it's not as deadly for the PCs as older editions in some ways but in my experience that was always group preference anyway. Even back in OD&D we never killed off PCs because it didn't just end a PC's life it ended a story. I'm sure other groups had disposable PCs that would go through the meat grinder but our group just never saw the point. BTW - there's nothing wrong with meat grinder campaigns, it's just a preference.

So PCs do die in my campaign now and then, but when they do it's a pretty major traumatic event. I think the threat of dying is more interesting than actually dying. I want the sacrifice and death to mean something, if it happens every few sessions it doesn't stand out. Bringing someone back from the dead has also never been simple, so in every case a PC has died they stayed dead.

When I was a teen, dungeon crawling and kicking down the doors and taking out whatever random monster was there was probably 80% or more of our game. Now, it just depends. Some sessions are primarily RP, others are a fight for survival with one combat after another with little chance for rest.
 

Pawndream

Explorer
In my current 5e campaign, there are typically one (maybe two) combats during a 3-hour session. I estimate about 30-45 minutes of that 3-hour session is tied up in combat. The majority of time we are exploration, roleplay, or goofing-off mode.

So, roughly 25% of the session will be spent in combat.

This is the average session. There are of course outliers where that % goes way up or down, depending on what's going on in the campaign. In general, I try to avoid sessions of non-stop combat and/or sessions with none (because some players just want to blow off steam by wacking stuff).
 

Combat is a lot of my 5 e campaign, maybe 65% but that's because it is slow in 5th eddtion. In my last campaign played in 1e the combat was 40% of the campaign. Both played in the same style.

Or to put it another way the RP and Explorering part take the same time in each edition but a similar combat goes longer in 5e than 1e.

In both campaigns there was a lot of death. 5e is deadly if you want. Just ignore the silly encounter building tools and put some teath in your encounters.
 



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