Musings about Combat in RPGs

One thing I noticed while reading RPG rules (and even while writing them myself) is that combat rules often make up the majority of rules. Even in rules lite games, combat rules are usually more complex and deep than the rules needed for non-combat activities.

Even in games which are not focused on fighting monsters and taking their stuff, combat seems to be of vital importance. I don’t think I know a roleplaying game without any combat rules – although I am sure there do exist a few out there. Regarding the history of roleplaying games it’s no surprise that combat rules are so important. Everyone’s favorite fantasy RPG Dungeons & Dragons pretty much started out as an extension to a miniature combat game.

Some games – especially modern indie games – replace the rules focused on combat by conflict resolution rules which can be used for social conflicts as well. Having a game where combat is handled by a single dice roll are pretty rare. The whittling down of hitpoints by exchanging blows (or shots) is much more common.

Recently I noticed that this focus on combat starts to bother me. Combat often takes a lot of time and because of all the details involved a couple of combat turns can take hours of real time (Shadowrun is especially bad when it comes to this). Non-combat actions are usually handed by just one roll, but when the guns (or swords) are drawn, we switch into tactics mode. Is this really neccessary?

There’s also another problem. If your only tool is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail. In most roleplaying games the characters are no people I would like to spend time with. Often they are more likely to bash your head in than to start a pleasant conversation. Conflicts tend to be solved by violence because that’s what characters are usually optimized for.

I don’t know if this is really a problem that needs solving. I am just thinking out loud here. It’s just something I noticed. So, what is your thought on the matter? Do you think combat is a vital component of any RPG or do you know of any games where the emphasis is on non-violent solutions? What about games which solve conflicts with a single roll? Share your thoughts below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

10 thoughts on “Musings about Combat in RPGs”

  1. I have played in many game sessions where there was no combat at all, the longest was an eight hour marathon and possibly the best character roleplay I have ever experienced. Most RPGs though are modelled on Sci Fi and Fantasy fiction and the ‘excitement’ comes from overcoming existential threat.

    If you look at TV, even romantic sci fi and fantasy like Vampire Diaries has at least one murder an episode.

    I play a very rules lite flavour of Rolemaster and even that has the blood thirsty and violent combat system with its critical tables describing the damage done in real terms such as shattered bones rather than a simple 8HP damage. For my players the climatic battle is certainly the highlight of the session that they look forward to.

  2. While I think tactical combat support is fine in traditional D&D, I like the broader action/conflict-resolution subsystems in generic and indie games like FATE.

    My groups have debated how much rules, player styles, and Game Master preferences affect the tone of various games. I do think the “hack-and-slash” mentality can derail plans for campaigns based on intrigue, exploration, investigation, or diplomacy.

    In a modern superhero game, for instance, killing bad guys and taking their stuff might not work, since the rewards for combat and risks of collateral damage are different. In an espionage or heist game, avoiding gunplay could well be the team’s goal.

    Good role-playing requires more guidelines than rules, so it’s no surprise that most tabletop RPG books devote lots of space to combat, but it’s still up to each group to figure out pacing and what sort of stories it wants to collectively create.

  3. Interesting notion. For me combat is an integral part of the game, one I tremendously enjoy. Combat is the part of a session where the “Game” part of RPG is strongest as well. Not every encounter should be solved with aggression of course, but I must admit that I myself mostly optimize for combat. After all, that is where the character lives or dies. When I fail with a skill roll that is usually not immediately deadly.

    1. Combat can be fun, no doubts about that, but I usually prefer solving problems without violence. In the Shadowrun campaign I play in we usually try to do runs without even shooting once. That’s actually quite absurd considering our characters are best suited for killing people. 😀
      I also love the investigative nature of the Gumshoe games or Call of Cthulhu. I think I am mostly in for the story and playing out my character. I think I can easily live without gamist elements (or almost none).

  4. Golden Sky Stories and Primetime Adventures are both games with no combat rules and no expectation of combat happening. Both are rather good.

    There do seem to be more games around than there used to be where the focus is on something other than combat, or perhaps it’s that those games are getting more attention. Something like the Gumshoe system, where there’s more page count devoted to rules for investigation than there is to combat. Mind you if the amount of pages devoted to something is the main indicator of what a game is about the D&D has been about spells for a long time (some might argue it has). Yet having played several Gumshoe games, Mutant City Blues most recently, I can say that combat has been almost entirely absent and we really were spending more time trying to discover information than in combat. And we really didn’t miss the latter.

    While it technically doesn’t resolve in one roll (both the player and the GM make opposing rolls), the Heroquest RPG is one where any sort of contest can be resolved either in one round or over several, whether that’s a fight between two mutant cyborg gladiators or a courtroom clash between two barristers. I remember once ending a conflict (a siege) that had gone on for six months with a single round contest, though it was modified by other things the players had done or tried to do. Their side won, or I suspect I’d have heard a little more about why it should have been an Extended Contest, to use the games terminology.

    1. True, the Gumshoe games are more focused on investigations than combat. I also have to give Heroquest another look. It sounds pretty awesome on paper but I haven’t actually tried it yet.

  5. I’m sure its been said before, yet RPG Violence does seem to be because the rules are so interestingly complex. I remember pouring over the Rolemaster combat rules, imagining my character performing amazing looking action sequences, jackie chan style, yet anywhere else in the rules, were not so complex or interesting. Conversations had no rules, Stealth was less interesting, If The other areas of RPGs had such interesting flavours, maybe they’d have had more interest.

  6. As Chaosmeister alluded, combat is detailed because it is the most extreme (direct physical) conflict, with big repercussions on winning vs losing.

    Social and mental skill challenges resolved by dice rolls are by comparison somewhat controversial. Boiled down to its lowest form: “I convince the King to help us — ’23!'” You can build detailed rules for social conflicts, but picking up dice can risk taking some of the wind out of the GM-player social interaction.

    Anyway, I meant to mention my interest in rules that grind down characters, where combat is just one expression of the grind. Torchbearer and Polaris are two very different examples; Fiasco could maybe qualify as well.

    I think the great RPG stories out there go outside the rules and address characters’ life arcs: Desires and challenges, dark foreshadowing, change, suffering, positive/negative consequences of past actions, and the opportunity for insight/transcendence all come into play in great campaigns. Physical conflict and its consequences is one tool – but a powerful and versatile tool – in that toolbox.

  7. I believe that the current Doctor Who game has additional combat rules specifically designed to make physical violence the worst option in any interaction.

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