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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.


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

Comments

jgsugden

Legend
You're not asking what you intend to ask (per your description of the question).

D&D is an RPG, a role playing game. Characters play a role in a story.

When I DM, the stories are the core of the game. However, there are a lot of combats as mini-games that take place within the story.

Some of the combats are directly tied to the main campaign storylines, while others are just there to provide interesting puzzles for the players to figure out.

Generally speaking, players spend half their time in combat, but only a quarter (or less) of that is combat in which the heroes have a realistic chance of death.
 

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Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
I prefer to call them "scuffles." :) Or "fights." Tolkien uses the word "affray."
Seriously, the word "combat" has such a modern military connotation, as a veteran of the U.S. Army (though non-combat experience), I prefer to refrain from the word. It's a bit of a PTSD thing. I just don't need that 'real world' tenor in my play and rest life...or in any part of my life!
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
"Battle" is a good one too.

Movies and video games do a lot to push the needle toward the Combat side. So I'm not sure that the current generation of players are a bunch of pacifists.

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.
Sounds familiar. I never know which of my planned encounters is going to run longer than I expected, or if the party is going to decide that haggling with merchants is worth occupying the bulk of the session.

Modern players are only a bunch of Critical Role copycats who can't beat the matt mercer effect, now, if you consider that Critical Role takes the first whole 3 hours episode only to get out from a damn inn, you can imagine why modern players don't fight a lot in their games.
Gratuitous Matt Mercer praise follows:

D&D, to one degree or another, has stayed true to its roots; it might have Three Pillars, but it's still all about killin'. Matt Mercer is doing D&D a big favor when he makes it about role-playing instead of roll-playing. Thanks for propping up the other pillars, Matt!
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
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.
YMMV, but this has been Pulsipher's best article to date for me. Keep it up.

As for my 2 cents, as long as there are the occasional boss battles, escapes/chases and NPC betrayals that end in a scuffle, etc., there's room for both sides of a perspective when it comes to combat and the experience at the table.

(I'm trying to pull away from describing everything in ttRPGs as "story" because that comes with baggage. I'm not a fan of min/maxing but that doesn't mean a table of min/maxers are doing badwrongfun.)
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I find this hard to answer and context is everything here. Depends on the game, the people, the campaign, whats going on in particular session. A lot of things. I decided the best way to answer was to make a judgement based on all the games I have ever played. How much combat happens in VtM? Unusually very little. D&D? Usually a lot more. Overall, because I have played so many different systems I think there has been less combat than conflict. I belive conflict should be the backbone of the game and the reason to play so while combat may be less common there is always conflict, requiring choices to be made and dice to be rolled. I think conflict vs non-conflict may be a more interesting poll.
 

jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
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.
I thought the previous title was about whether the idea of good-vs-evil was passé.
 

willrali

Explorer
Combat is strongly over-represented in my games because navigating power-structures while being powerless is boring. A great strength of RPGs is wish-fulfillment. Players can cut through the things the repress them and smash Evil, save the world, and get rich.

Nobody wants to eat shit and eke out tiny victories over weeks and months. There is a thing that we do in the the real world that’s exactly that, and it’s called ‘work’.

Also, making everything about acted-out social interactions forces people, who are otherwise socially awkward, into situations where they’re deeply uncomfortable. Nothing fun about that.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.

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.

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.

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.
Good analysis.

Reading it makes me sad.

Combat doesn't have to be the main dish but when it does arise it should be, to coin a phrase, war rather than sport.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Voted "26-40%" but that's for combat overall; while any combat in theory can be lethal - dice will be dice, after all - in practice there's quite a few where the odds of a PC dying are low enough as to be irrelevant, which would shade the % down a bit if I only looked at those with real potential of killing one or more PCs.

We spend a lot of time on exploration and mapping, and on inter-character RP (including post-adventure treasury division; dividing a big treasury can eat up a few sessions); with less-but-not-zero time spent on planning, and on social interaction with NPCs. My guess would be that overall combat takes up maybe 25% of the time, with maybe 1/3 of that being combats that are on paper extremely unlikely to kill any PCs (e.g. typical wandering monsters, 'nuisance' encounters, etc.).
 

Retreater

Legend
I voted 41-60% because most of the other time is spent preparing, discussing, telling jokes, etc. But I would say that a higher percentage of "actually playing the game" revolves around combat - if we're talking about D&D. Other systems (for instance, Call of Cthulhu) might have an even lower percentage.
But combat is probably my most consistently favorite part of the game to DM. Exploration is probably the worst, as it's trite and insignificant. [Though that's a topic for another thread, I think.] Role-playing/social interaction can be awesome, showing more higher highs (but also lower lows) than combat.
 

DemoMonkey

Explorer
I don't think everyone is interpreting the word "lethal" in the question the same way.

To me a "lethal" combat, is one in which somebody dies. Doesn't have to be a PC.

So if your group is one taking prisoners, always using the "reduced to 0 HP can mean dead or unconscious, PC choice", one using non-damaging spells or exceptional skill checks to end encounters, etc, then your % of lethal combat may be just a fraction of your % of combat (period).
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
For me, fun combat, ie good gamplay, is the primary reason I play trpgs. It's the best part. Any story or RP is a bonus. Yeah, there can be cool RP moments, but if there was no combat I'd find other things to do with my time. This is probably also why I dont enjoy 5e very much (too easymode) or Critical Role, which is more show than game (the show must go on, so the PCs are never really in danger).
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Combat has been just about the least interesting part of D&D to me for going on 30 years now. Rolling dice is exciting, but long drawn out battles are not. And the ejection of morale rules from the main rules set makes combat more likely to be lethal in nature, which I find ridiculous.

Most creatures aren't going to fight to the death, especially against an obviously superior foe/force.

So the short form is: I voted 11-25%, but odds are the numbers are even lower than that in my campaigns.
 

Hussar

Legend
I enjoy the hack. I do. I make no apologies for that. So, my games probably fall in the 40-60% combat range.

One thing I think has really changed though from the old days is that combat is often now contextualized within the game world rather than a goal in and of itself. Back in the day, you went in the dungeon (whatever that dungeon was - be it above ground or below) and killed everything you met because, well, it's there for killin'. You didn't need a reason to slaughter those orcs in the Caves of Chaos - that's what they were for.

These days, I find that sort of play mind numbingly boring. I recently bowed out of a group that was going through the Undermountain campaign for 5e. Session after session of killing stuff for no particular reason other than "it was there to be killed" meant that the whole game soured on me and I was no longer enjoying it. Attempts to bypass combat were pretty much instant failures and there was no other way forward.

I no longer enjoy that kind of game.
 

SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
Combat is easily accessible drama for people. Clear stakes, clear actions taken, and there’s a reason why it still features heavily in popular culture/entertainment. Video games, action movies, etc. A lot of my home group are friends through an old acting troupe, but they still relish combat.

As a GM, I tend to get tired of the slog long before my players. In a group of players ranging in age from 20s - 50s, we have a mix of players who relish story and character, but they all perk up during a skirmish. I need those fights to have meaning to keep from going out of my mind. As for lethality, in my Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer games combat is risky and any scrap could mean death or disfigurement. In 5e, after the first level or so, the edge softens.

Saving players from dying unless they do something really stupid is pretty popular these days, and I’ve read a lot of good reasons for people taking that perspective. Again, probably the influence of other games I played, but I prefer to be a cold, neutral force when it comes to combat and death. If the fates/dice are unkind, I don’t like to cheat for or against the player.

My players rarely feel safe in a fight, and when they do that makes them really nervous.
 

Campbell

Legend
Our OSR games tend to be fairly exploration focused and we avoid combat when possible unless we have an overwhelming advantage. I would say about 2 fairly short combat in a 3-4 hour session are pretty normal. About 20%.

Our more character focused games tend to be heavily focused on social interactions. It is not unusual for us to get into a fight like once every 2 or 3 sessions. We have runs where there has not been a fight for 5 sessions. Fights do tend to be longer because there is still a lot of dialogue and they are knockout drag-down affairs. (15% maybe)
 

The poll question is misleading. The amount of IRL time of combat is about half for the average session/campaign (our Avernus campaign is much more combat, while our Saltmarsh campaign is much more exploration). Even campaigns that are combat light are still going to have a lot of IRL time spent on combat solely because it takes much more time to resolve. The author's premise is flawed however, because IME combat is almost always the most interesting part of the game for new players.

Also IME, combat is NOT the focus in most campaign, merely the movement of the plot (which requires conflict). If you wanted to assume the players would always succeed without tracking resources, the story of most campaigns would stay about the same, changing only details (usually the memorable ones, such as when someone sacrifices themselves, another dies tragically, or the party fails miserably and has to try again). For a group that is only focused on story, this could easily be a tactic used, but my guess is that it would feel rather dry to most.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The poll question is misleading. The amount of IRL time of combat is about half for the average session/campaign (our Avernus campaign is much more combat, while our Saltmarsh campaign is much more exploration). Even campaigns that are combat light are still going to have a lot of IRL time spent on combat solely because it takes much more time to resolve. The author's premise is flawed however, because IME combat is almost always the most interesting part of the game for new players.
Interesting.

IME the most interesting part of the game for many new players is exploration*. For some it's RPing and social interaction, and for a few it's combat.

As time goes on and those players gain more experience (and, perhaps, side-along with their characters gaining levels and powers) combat tends to push to the fore, often taking the place of exploration. Those who start out interested in RPing, though, tend to stay that way throughout.

* - maybe this is because we usually map the dungeon or adventure and take our time over exploring and info-gathering rather than jumping from one encounter to the next, hard to say.
 

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