Thoughts on combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war

I’m using the classic EnWorld forum post, “Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles…” as my springboard here, so if you haven’t read that, you may want to do so before you proceed. But here’s the TL;DR, as expressed in that post, with illustrative examples added by me:

Princess Bride swordfight

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

ROTK Legolas vs oliphaunt

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.

I have been thinking about this a lot in terms of the kinds of play that different game systems tend to support or perhaps even evoke. A lot of it comes down to the question, “How much out-of-the-box thinking and improvisation does this game allow or favor?”

At one end of the spectrum are tabletop wargames like BattleTech, where usually both sides start with roughly even forces and no clear advantage in terms of terrain, with a clear “may the best player win” ethos. You may come up with clever tactics in a game like that, but there are no rules for dirty tricks like sending an agent to poison the opposing commander, or burying a tac nuke on your front lines and then retreating to draw the enemy forces right over it. Of course enterprising gamers can and do make up house rules to cover stuff like that, but this is a post about what the written rules of games natively support. And on that basis, BattleTech is pretty squarely combat-as-sport.

Now, I love BattleTech and always have, so clearly I have no deep objection to combat-as-sport as a thing in itself. But combat-as-sport, and rulesets that support or evoke it, drive me crazy when applied to roleplaying games. I’m writing this essay to try to figure out why.

Certainly some of it has to do with the inherent reward for people playing the game–in short, what they find fun. On the combat-as-sport side, much of the appeal of wargames like BattleTech is the opportunity to play tactician. Sure, you could rewrite the game so that you could poison the enemy commander or blow up the entire opposing force, but if you want that style of play, it’s not clear why you’d pick BattleTech as your vehicle. If you want to win a pitched battle by outmaneuvering your opponent, an outside-the-battlefield “win” is probably going to feel hollow, like winning a game of chess by flipping over the board.

On the combat-as-war side, it is a lot of fun to think up ways to screw over the enemy and to put those desperate, improvised plans into action. It’s not so fun to lose because your opponent blindsided you by thinking up something not covered by the rules–best of offload that hurt onto NPCs. It is probably telling that wargames tend not to have gamemasters or referees (at least in their modern guises, although they often did have referees decades ago). So the rules have be limited enough for unambiguous outcomes. There may be rules for hidden units and other forms of limited information, but that’s sorta the point–anything outside of a stand-up fight will have rules to cover it. That’s in contrast to most roleplaying games, where the scope of action is pretty much anything you can think up, so the rules cannot possibly cover every eventuality and a referee of some kind is practically required (even on a temporary or rotating basis–I know there are “GM-less” RPG systems out there, but they all seem to sneak the GM back in through the side door). Knowing how much damage a heavy laser cannon will do to a hovertank may be useful in either a wargame or an RPG, but if you only want to know that, you’re probably playing a wargame (combat-as-sport). Whereas if you’re trying to figure out the results of a livestock stampede through the enemy camp, you’re probably playing an RPG, and explicitly in the combat-as-war mode.

And–at least for some of us–it’s not so fun to prevail in an RPG because you merely ground through the enemy in a pitched battle. That usually represents a failure of imagination: you were forced into a pitched battle because you weren’t clever enough to either gank your enemy or get away before the fighting started. A “grind” victory feels Pyrrhic because RPGs offer something better: the chance to trounce a logistically or numerically superior foe by being clever. If your starfighter pilot could take out a corvette by playing fair, you could probably take out a Star Destroyer if you are an underhanded sneaky bastard. Or maybe even a Death Star if you are especially sneaky–I’m pretty sure the Imperial Starfleet Operations Manual (combat-as-sport) doesn’t say anything about defending against proton torpedoes guided by the Force (combat-as-war). Wouldn’t you rather do that? And wouldn’t your character rather do that?

I think this is why dungeon-crawl boardgames tend to leave me cold. As I wrote about the D&D Wrath of Ashardalon game in my “All the games” post,

I was frustrated at having some of the RPG feeling but without the freedom to do the crazy stuff that actual RPG players come up with in desperate situations.

What I hadn’t realized at the time is that I go to dungeon crawls for combat-as-war, and the game (being a GM-less light wargame) delivered me combat-as-sport.

I realize now that this all has a lot to do with expectations. I first encountered mecha through BattleTech so I tend to think of them in a combat-as-sport idiom, but there are mecha-based RPGs (heck, I’ve even played one). And although I and many other people first encountered dungeon crawls in the combat-as-war mode of RPG play, numerous boardgames treat the same theme as combat-as-sport and they appear to be perennially popular. But at least now I understand why Wrath of Ashardalon and the Robotech RPG left me cold: I was trying to extract combat-as-X fun from an inherently combat-as-Y game.

In the first draft of this post, I started the last paragraph with:

There is no inherent reason why giant mecha flinging missiles and particle beams at each other, on one hand, and fighters, thieves, and magic-users fighting monsters in tunnels, on the other, should “belong” to either the combat-as-sport or combat-as-war sides of the spectrum.

But after thinking some more, three things occured to me:

  1. The best dungeon-delves from literature–basically the two in The Hobbit, under the Misty Mountains and the Lonely Mountain, and the passage through Moria in LOTR–involve small bands prevailing against or at least surviving encounters with numerically or logistically superior enemies.
  2. To the extent that dungeon crawling is about exploration and a sense of wonder, it needs to involve unexpected discoveries, dangerous secrets, and powerful foes, all of which are probably easier to deliver in GM-arbitrated combat-as-war than in GM-less combat-as-sport.
  3. When you’re in a vehicle like a tank or a fighter the scope for cleverness is basically limited to maneuvering and exploiting the terrain (in a dogfight, altitude and proximity to other fighters), which can be handled to most peoples’ satisfaction by wargame rules that don’t require a GM.

All of these factors make me think that vehicle combat doesn’t lose anything by being compressed into the arena of combat-as-sport, whereas dungeon crawling does actually sit more comfortably on the combat-as-war side. And that to make dungeon crawling work as combat-as-sport, you have to remove a lot of the unpredictability–in terms of both what the dungeon delivers, and what the players come up with to survive it–that makes it rewarding in the first place.

I have more to say about the role(s) of the GM, but this post is already long enough. I’ll be grateful for your thoughts: the comment thread is open.

This entry was posted in Big Ideas, roleplaying, wargames. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Thoughts on combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Only a whole lot of agreement here. Combat as sport is pretty dull to me — which is the reason (I hate to admit) that Battletech has never really taken off in our house. It feels too much like you and your opponent take it in turns throwing dice and accumulating scores, and the first to 100 wins. Cleverness is what marks us out from the animals. That’s what I want to be doing in games.

    As an aside, this is part of why single-player Quake keeps being fun 18 years after it was released: its bestiary (and the additions in the various extension packs) are varied enough and also characterised strongly enough that a clever player can find clever ways to kill them, rather than just wading in with the nailgun and hoping they run out of HP before you do. My favourite levels are the ones that encourage that kind of thought, and the big arena combats that are the climaxes to some levels leave me cold.

    Finally, on settings. Back in the day, I wrote a lot of adventure games (of the GO NORTH, OPEN DOOR, READ BOOK kind). I kept trying to spin away into different themes and kept finding myself coming back to fantasy worlds — trolls, dragons and magic books. Because that setting just offers so much scope for coming up with ideas, unexpected ways to approach problems. I’m not surprised you find dungeons the best setting for what you’re terming combat-as-war. They’re all about problem-solving.

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    Combat as sport is pretty dull to me — which is the reason (I hate to admit) that Battletech has never really taken off in our house.

    Ah, well. It was a noble attempt. And I have to admit that as time goes on, my interest in Battletech is waning. If both sides are reasonably competent, the fights are just wars of attrition that end up being decided by lucky shots rather than tactical flourishes. That can still be fun, but usually one game is enough to scratch the occasional itch.

    Oddly enough, Pacific Rim Battletech feels fresher, even though the emphasis on high-damage close-quarters combat makes it even more of luck-ruled slugfest. I think it’s because we try to make each kaiju different from all the ones we’ve used before, so in each game we’re doing what you’re doing with a new opponent in Quake–trying to learn enough about how the new monster ticks to tilt the eventual slugfest in our favor. Also, the incredible violence means that games tend to be short, so we don’t have time to get tired of them.

    Your description of Quake is interesting to me because the game as written is almost by definition combat-as-sport (there’s an arena, the enemies may be more powerful than you but they are hobbled in ways that make them killable, your scope of improvisation is limited), but the way you play it ends up being more combat-as-war. Which hits two of my favorite principles: first, people usually find ways to use tools in unintended ways, and two, pretty much any game is more about what the players decide to make it about, than whatever the rules (or code) say it’s supposed to be about. That can be good or bad–things can get ugly when two people decide that a light ‘family’ game (or any game, really) is going to be about which of them is smarter.

    I’m not surprised you find dungeons the best setting for what you’re terming combat-as-war. They’re all about problem-solving.

    Yeah. Zak Smith has written eloquently about how the “fantasy” in “fantasy role-playing game” is often misread as wish-fulfillment, when it should mean creativity and invention, and about how dungeons are nice because they offer a multitude of options but not an infinity of them, because they contain only what the GM puts in them, and what the players bring. That always makes me think about ESB: “What’s in there?” “Only what you take with you.” Narratively, that’s dynamite, whether you’re talking about a cave on Dagobah or a dragon’s hoard. Not only will be there limited options–which, given enough time, almost always result in desperation–but the options will be tilted toward the PCs because they’re the primary moving parts. Whatever else was going on before the PCs went in, once they go in the story will become more and more driven by their choices. And making interesting choices and then discovering and living with the consequences is at the heart of not only satisfying roleplaying but most other kinds of storytelling as well.

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