RPG combat as a carrot

About to have serious fun getting mutilated by a tyrannosaur.

This is a follow-on to the last post, about RPG rulesets. Here I’m pondering why some rulesets are better for some kinds of games than others.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the argument that “the game is about what the games has rules about”. On one hand, it’s been explained why that’s not always true, and counterexamples abound. As Zak Smith pointed out about Call of Cthulhu: “the insanities (the defining feature of the game) are on a barely-described chart that take up a quarter-page” in a 200-page book.

But on the other hand, a game can guide play in the direction of what it has rules about simply by giving players more toys to interact with, with combat being the obvious focus of a lot of rules crunch. Here are three examples of games that do or don’t pull players toward combat:

(1) In the one Trail of Cthulhu game I have run to date, we spent a lot of time roleplaying and big chunks of the afternoon went by with no dice rolling at all. ToC is fairly rules-light, especially my slightly hacked version, and the skills cover a wide range of interactions so there’s no pull in any given direction. And since it’s a Cthulhu game, players go into it expecting their characters to go insane or die eventually, so advancement is not much of a motivation. The sense that time is running out for the PCs means that life itself is a limited resource to be carefully managed and strategically deployed. If anything, this will push players away from combat.

(2) In WEG Star Wars there typically is a fair amount of combat, but also a fair amount of running around being sneaky and trying to con people, just as in the movies. Combat isn’t privileged mechanically – the game has a universal resolution mechanic and you can roll just as many dice trying to get what you want during a social interaction as you can during a shootout. And XP is usually tied to goals accomplished rather than to enemies killed. Now, most Star Wars sessions are combat heavy, but that’s part and parcel of the setting, not because combat gives the players more to do with their characters. In three-fold model terms, combat in a Star Wars is a simulationist expectation, not a gamist this-is-how-you-get-ahead mechanism.

So in my experience, Trail of Cthulhu and WEG Star Wars are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of dice-rolly-ness. In ToC you can get a lot of mileage out of description, interactions with NPCs that aren’t antagonistic and either don’t require opposed rolls, or require only an occasional investigative skill roll, and giving the players room to scare themselves by seeing threats around every corner. In Star Wars, players are usually going to be rolling dice all the time, but a lot of those may be knowledge and physical ability checks or social interaction rolls. In my experience, neither system mechanically pulls players toward combat, and ToC may actively dissuade players from it depending on how they’ve allocated their points during character creation.

(3) In contrast to those two systems, D&D is split: for combat the rules are pretty well-developed, and the rules for everything else are less specified. You can do knowledge checks, opposed rolls for social interaction, and so on, but mechanically those things are set apart from combat in terms of the level of detail, number of potential modifiers, and so on. And XP is usually tied to killing things.

Now, I have to immediately point out three things:

  • Some DMs tie XP to treasure, whether obtained by killing things and taking their stuff or by more sneaky means, or to accomplishing goals, and either path can provide significant non-combat enticements to players.
  • Some DMs, especially in old-school play, run very unforgiving combats, which forces players to either be more clever in how they screw adversaries, or to roll up new characters a lot because they die a lot. This can dissuade players from “straight fights”, both with the carrot of “you can get more XP faster if you figure out some more clever way to kill the monster than simply hitting it repeatedly” and the stick of “if you don’t think of something more clever than repeatedly hitting on the monster, it’s going to kill you first”.
  • I like combat in D&D, even when it’s horribly asymmetric, like a bunch of low-level schmucks versus a tyrannosaur. Sometimes a straight fight where the party simply fights a war of hit point attrition against some baddies is satisfying, in much the same way that a brutal slugfest in BattleTech can be satisfying. I don’t think the combat rules in D&D are bad – subjectively, I personally enjoy them, and objectively, plenty of other people do as well – and I don’t think D&D is a bad game because it encourages combat, because that is a perfectly fun and satisfying mode of play (again, both for myself and for lots of other folks).

BUT I do think that D&D encourages combat, in that if I play D&D for a while and don’t get to hit anything, I get antsy. Even if the XP reward has been tinkered with to make it possible to advance my character without murdering things, I can’t stop thinking about how most of the stuff on my character sheet is fighting-relevant, and eventually I feel like I’m missing out by not using it. I’m like a dog with a treat balanced on its nose – I may do non-combat stuff because I’m supposed to (the scenario calls for it, it may even be the best way to for my character to get what they want), but what I really want to do is eat that yummy treat (hit stuff until it dies), because the game gives me more fun bits to interact with during combat.

That’s pretty interesting, because it means that what’s fun for me as a player (getting into fights) may be different from what’s best for my character (avoiding fights, at least in some scenarios or circumstances). And that can potentially be an engine for in-game drama – often in RPGs it would be a smart move on the character’s part to just go away or call the cops, but it’s usually a more fun decision on the part of the player to grab a sword or a gun and march into the jaws of hell.

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