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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.
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Yes, those were the days, when you heard announcements like these: "The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC. "
When I was a kid we only had a black and white TV (we didn't have a lot of money at times). One day mom took all the kids to visit the relatives, and when we got home dad was watching Bonanza. Took all us kids a few minutes to realize it was in color. :p
 

Philature

Explorer
I suppose you could call that time the infancy of TTRPGs when looking at the full span of it to today, but Dungeons & Dragons had been around for 7 years by the time Cthulhu came out and for 11 years by the time Pendragon did and a commercial success also well before those two games were conceived.

Granted, RPG "history" tends to be skewed in favor of Dungeons & Dragons, but considering its history, that's not too surprising.

Infancy might not have been the right word - in it first decades would have been a better choice of word.


No, it's a pretty accurate statement, at least specifically in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. This isn't to say that nobody role-played as part of a "role-playing" game, but that the game was very much hyper focused on the combat and, to a lesser degree, exploration aspects of the game with very little to inform the role-playing "pillar" as it were. I mean, virtually every class/racial feature in the earlier editions of the game was very much combat- or exploration-oriented (mostly the former), and the ubiquity of combat-less sessions, "shopping episodes", etc. is relatively new (again, not to say that these things never existed before but that they were simply uncommon in comparison to modules that were essentially all combat or mostly combat with a side of exploration).

I agree that in the 70s, D&D and many of the earlier RPGs focused heavily on combat. But, that changed quickly in the 80s and the 90s with the publication of other RPGs. I also doubt that everybody played the game as a slugfest only. What I mean is that Critical Role didn't invent RP in TTRPG - it was there for a long long time, even I think Gygax playtesters, is two daughters, did RP.

On a personal front, I fondly remember playing D&D in my youth with one of my favorite character having a romantic affair with a scoundrel, getting married to a prince for political reason and having a child with said prince while still loving that first scoundrel (he brought my character roses at night, how can I resist).

Anecdotally, many of my friends have other cool stories such as mine about their D&D characters that fall way outside of combat. RP have existed for a long time, even if it was not in the module.

But I also remember that some of my first few games I ran as a DM were not stellar and had a fair amount of combat and not very little roleplay (we fixed that in no time and when I got into RPGs it only help solidify my ability to RP). The only difference is that if I was to start today, I probably would know to do some cool RP right from the start thx to the many good TTRPG show out there.

Finally, combat is still around and will always be part of D&D, it just a thing that you do in that game but obviously not the only thing.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
I agree that in the 70s, D&D and many of the earlier RPGs focused heavily on combat. But, that changed quickly in the 80s and the 90s with the publication of other RPGs.
I think the type of game is still the determining factor as to how much combat takes place. D&D was (and is) inherently combat-heavy, but that wasn't the case with other games I played in the 80s such as CoC, Stark Trek and James Bond. I also loved playing Top Secret, where the main aim of the players was not to get detected. The worst thing that could happen to you was if a bunch of security guards came storming in with guns blazing.
 

skotothalamos

formerly roadtoad
I have two campaigns going right now. One is a fairly linear adventure path and the other is a wide-open sandbox that I'm often fleshing out a week (or a day) in advance. The adventure path is very story focused and almost all the combats are big, important set pieces. That leads to about 70% RP and 30% combat, but every combat is a huge, potentially-lethal, potentially story-changing event that eats up an entire session. The sandbox is about 50/50 RP and combat. One session so far has been all combat, but it's usually a nice alternating pace. An hour fight, a couple hours of exploration/roleplay, another hour fight. Or two hours finding something and then two hours of fighting it.

I have split the difference on my poll answer at 40%
 

Jharet

Explorer
It's always 50/50% roleplay vs tactical combat. That's why I play Pathfinder 1E, as I prefer the wide variety of combat options to bring encounters to life.

I like how new players don't want classes, races, alignments, or combat. Well, then you want a different game. K. Thanx. Bai.
 



This was a pointless, dismissive comment. If you want to troll, do it elsewhere.

The tone might have been dismissive, but it's a legitimate remark. If you dislike 70+ per cent of a game's core elements, then maybe the game isn't for you. If enough new people in the hobby dislike those elements, there's the opportunity for a new game to cater to that market.

I know there has always been a push and pull over D&D, due to its overwhelming share of mindspace and its brand legitimacy. But D&D has to be more than just a brand that can be slapped on any system. The last time the license-holders treated it that way (and I personally really like 4E) proved to be a major strategic mistake.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The tone might have been dismissive, but it's a legitimate remark. If you dislike 70+ per cent of a game's core elements, then maybe the game isn't for you. If enough new people in the hobby dislike those elements, there's the opportunity for a new game to cater to that market.

It isn't so legitimate a remark with that many "ifs".

"Kids today!" coments are as old... as old people. Mind you, as a market kids today represent a greater lifetime pool of revenue than players with only a decade or two left in them. It makes business sense to change with the times, not to stay still with your old people.
 

It isn't so legitimate a remark with that many "ifs".

"Kids today!" coments are as old... as old people. Mind you, as a market kids today represent a greater lifetime pool of revenue than players with only a decade or two left in them. It makes business sense to change with the times, not to stay still with your old people.
While I see your point, I kinda hope it doesn't change too much. 5th is a good (and financially successful) edition that lets most people play the game they want to play, new and veteran alike. There are plenty of games with different assumptions, and they're pretty fun too. Why does D&D have to be more like them? Can't we just play the game we want with the people we want to play with?
 

It isn't so legitimate a remark with that many "ifs".

"Kids today!" coments are as old... as old people. Mind you, as a market kids today represent a greater lifetime pool of revenue than players with only a decade or two left in them. It makes business sense to change with the times, not to stay still with your old people.
My impressions is that kids love classes and mechanical options, having grown up with CRPGs and other complex games before even touching a "real" RPG.
 

Mind you, as a market kids today represent a greater lifetime pool of revenue than players with only a decade or two left in them. It makes business sense to change with the times, not to stay still with your old people.

That's exactly what WotC's braintrust was thinking when they embarked on making 4E a game for a new generation. Turned out the new customers didn't come anywhere close to outnumbering the ones they lost with such fundamental changes.

When they want back to the drawing board for D&D Next, they ensured they wouldn't make another colossal blunder by conducting the largest market analysis in RPG history. Those findings informed 5E, a game that makes no bones about appealing to the traditional elements of D&D's appeal. The success of 5E only validates that strategy.

But regardless, your comment presumes that the complaints about D&D having too much lethal combat, that people won't want good vs evil in games, etc are shared by most younger games. There's no evidence they are. Social media firestorms are not representative of real-world concerns - something else WotC's market research for Next taught them.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There's no evidence they are.

Correction: WE don't have evidence that they are. That is different from no evidence existing.

Just as WotC knew long before we did that their demographics had shifted, they likely know far more about the attitudes of their market than we do.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
My impressions is that kids love classes and mechanical options...

Anecdote is not the singular of data.

Everyone has a limit as to how many fiddly bits they want.

There's also a major point about differentiation to be made here - CRPGs and tabletop RPGs are different experiences, and maybe matching the CRPG level of fiddlyness does not actually serve the RPG experience. If you position yourself so that you are basically a CRPG that is slower and more difficult to organize... that's not a win.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
That's exactly what WotC's braintrust was thinking when they embarked on making 4E a game for a new generation. Turned out the new customers didn't come anywhere close to outnumbering the ones they lost with such fundamental changes.

When they want back to the drawing board for D&D Next, they ensured they wouldn't make another colossal blunder by conducting the largest market analysis in RPG history. Those findings informed 5E, a game that makes no bones about appealing to the traditional elements of D&D's appeal. The success of 5E only validates that strategy.

But regardless, your comment presumes that the complaints about D&D having too much lethal combat, that people won't want good vs evil in games, etc are shared by most younger games. There's no evidence they are. Social media firestorms are not representative of real-world concerns - something else WotC's market research for Next taught them.

Change is neither inherently good or bad. But change D&D too much and I don't think it will be as popular.

I don't really know why D&D is as popular as it is, nor do I know the specifics of why it's so popular with new players. I can tell you why I was drawn to the game long ago but that may no longer apply.

But with 5E we have a lot of flexibility to customize the game, simple-to-understand rules for the most part. Any game can, of course, be improved.

I just hope they don't listen to just the squeaky wheels because it's kind of nice being able to find new players if I need them.
 

Correction: WE don't have evidence that they are. That is different from no evidence existing.

Just as WotC knew long before we did that their demographics had shifted, they likely know far more about the attitudes of their market than we do.

We don't know how extensive or accurate WotC's market analysis is. They might know about broad buying trends and preferences by demographics, etc. But to get information about what people actually want in RPGs, and how they play them, they need to poll gamers on a large scale.

As far as I know, the last time they did that was the Next playtest. That data is several years old now, but it's likely still the best data they have. Presumably, before they make any substantial changes to the game, they'll carry out the same sort of thorough and lengthy customer research. I would hope they aren't relying on social media to guide them, as we already know it's far from representative of the wider customer-base.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
To me, "lethal combat" is any battle that has a difficulty setting of "Deadly" according to this calculator. If I'm using such an encounter, it is usually the boss fight of a dungeon, or the showdown with the Big Bad at the grand finale of a campaign....so for me, that number is about 10%.

But if you intended "lethal combat" to mean "any battle in which there is a possibility of a character dying," my vote would have been 100%. Because I don't use a DM screen and I don't whisper my rolls on Roll20...the dice fall where they fall, and the consequences are always unfiltered. And that means death is always possible, however improbable.
 

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