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.