Thursday, January 17, 2013

Avoiding Battle

It's been quite some time since I last had a substantial post -- almost a week, I believe. That's just too damn long. Unfortunately, work at the crucible of a tech start-up eats into your blogging time.

Today, we're going to talk about tools used to avoid battle, and again address some concerns of our friend Argo (you remember him). Not that he's had a negative response to the last issue (of thinking outside the rules), just that I have some further thoughts on the subject.

Some of this will be directly restating some things I recently read in a blog post about combat and D&D. I can't recall where I read it, but it was certainly linked from Zak's D&D with Pornstars blog. Anyhow, the blogger wrote that simply because earlier versions of D&D had very developed combat rules and very loose non-combat rules didn't mean the focus of the game was on combat. Indeed, it meant quite the opposite: that since combat was the final stage before being buried in a shallow grave (or more likely eaten by some unpleasant and gruesome creature) it was important that it be highly detailed in order to give players more control.

Playing later iterations of D&D, playing video games, and playing some of the later roleplaying games that have been released recently has convinced a whole host of people that the purpose of every roleplaying game is to fight. If it's not, the game will explicitly warn that about itself—Call of Cthulhu, for example—because the default situation is assumed to be simply this: Players will wander around and fight whatever they encounter. The fun of the game is in fighting and winning.

Well, I've never encountered an old school D&D game (here incorporating AD&D 2e in that umbrella term) that was run as a combat grinder. In all the games that I played, just as was stated in the nameless article that I can't recall, combat was a last resort. It was the final stage, a defeat in and of itself. The smart players found ways to avoid or stack combats so much in their favor that it was easy to win. There's a logic to this: you want to minimize risk. As PCs and as players, the goal was never to explore the variety of cool options you have to fight things, but rather to simply accomplish your ends without dying.

That's not to say those games weren't out there, being played. But those DMs couldn't have been too creative, if that was the drive of the game. There are as many ways to avoid combat as you can conceive  literally, and for not one of them to ever work smacks of a railroad, the iron tracks of inevitability that are the anathema of the old school sandbox.

I have always modeled my combat in a way that parallels the early level experiences in Baldur's Gate: terrifying, prone to go bad very easily, and bone crunchingly awful. My players can attest that whenever they realize a combat is about to happen there is a sort of jittery feeling that passes around the virtual table. Will they survive this time?

For this reason alone, combat is something to be shunned, but beyond that it is also a poor way to deal with every problem. I suppose if, like Argo, you were only thinking of the tools of the game in terms of the rules for killing, you'd be inclined to resort to that every time. After all, if all you have are hammers, every screw starts to look like a nail. Or something.

I would encourage anyone who feels constrained in this way to break away from the combat-as-play chain. It severely hampers your ability to get things done, to get enjoyment out of the game, and to experience the setting in which you're playing—something, ostensibly, that you want to do considering you're playing a fantasy roleplaying game and not a miniature tactics game.

I've been thinking some today about how player goals and character goals synch up or fail to and what that means for the game, but the thoughts are still too fetal to be fleshed out on the mug, I think.


  1. Two things come to mind on a stellar post: 1) can you address (or perhaps it is addressed elsewhere) the so-called "hack n'slash" campaigns that exist, and their relationship to the points raised here; 2) I may be afield of my expertise here, but combat is the chief engine of experience (or, at least, I recall it being so when I played all those years ago). Have you developed in your campaign a way of linking "player goals" and "character goals" qua XP that de-emphasizes combat while still creating the space for advancement. Of course, as I write this, I think that the smart player plays not for XP advancement and this is moot.

  2. I can and will do my best to address these issues for you, in the order they were raised.

    1) Hack n'slash campaigns, as I understand them to exist, are to me antithetical to exploration and sandboxing. I have never seen one actually run that wasn't actually a truly old-school "dungeon crawl" which is just as devoted to avoidance of combat as the sandbox but in a totally different way. The punishments for getting into combat in a dungeon crawl are steep: waste of resources, waste of time (when torches and eating are dungeon-important, time is a valuable resource to marshal), and worst of all the chance of wakening other nearby beasts and turning a relatively simple fight into an unwinnable running battle. The canny dungeon crawler is advised to find a better way to deal with creatures than busting down doors and kicking ass.

    2) Combat is the chiefmost experience gathering activity it is available to participate in... but there's a bit of a lesson in D&D history hidden here. In the oldest editions, combat was secondary to treasure gathering. It was the actual acquisition of treasure that provided experience, meaning that enemies were simply an obstacle to be overcome in any way possible - wether by destroying them, fighting them, or avoiding them. However, I will reference here the pages on experience contained in the AD&D 2e DMG to point out that class-based experience awards generally do NOT focus on combat. The fighter alone receives a class-based xp reward (10xp/HD of foe slain) while wizards are rewarded for using spells to good effect (50xp/spell level for each spell that helps solve a problem), thieves for stealing (1xp/2gp stolen), clerics for following the will of their god (200xp/spell cast in the direct service of your deities' dogma) etc. Indeed, the general reward for good thinking (50-200xp) can far outstrip the meager and mealy xp rewards of low-level encounters with orcs. Additionally, story-awards (200-1,500xp) for completing major missions or accomplishing story goals are also advised.

    And of course, you are correct about the xp advancement and the wise player. Throwing oneself into combat with something quite dangerous and winning is the perfect way to get oodles of xp... but it is also the perfect way to die. It's a risks vs. rewards situation, and the risks generally do not merit the rewards.