What purpose does violence in an RPG have? Why is it the section of the rule book that gets so much love in most games? In games that have multiple types of combat it is not unusual to see multiple combat chapters that factor in the different styles of combat! It must be a very important topic to warrant so much information to be written about it in all of those rule books that sit on our shelves, beside our bed or in our tablets.
First, let us consider why combat is featured in games. Combat is a staple of the role playing worlds, especially fantasy. What would Conan be if he talked everything out? Boring, that is what he would be! That statement also holds a bit of the key as to why combat is so important in the game. It adds a layer of excitement to the game. But where does that excitement stem from? Conflict and the risks that are involved in that conflict. A role playing game could quite easily be about a person who gets up every morning, goes to work, struggles with a member of HR over leave, heads home, has tea and then goes out trying to find love. Why is this game not common? Because there is very little risk involved.
For a game to be memorable to a player there has to be the risk of failure present. In the day to day life that I mentioned in the paragraph above there is little risk and the risk that is involved involves very little consequence. If they fail the argument with HR the employee is likely to be stuck with the status quo, as is the same with trying to find love as they head out for the evening. In role playing these circumstances there would likely be rolls involved (unless you are playing Lords of Gossamer and Shadow that was released yesterday!) and the tension for the player comes from the random roll, will I succeed? If there is little investment in this though what is the point and many games these days are suggesting that if there is no real consequence, just let the player succeed. This is why combat is so popular in role playing games because if you fail it is possible, sometimes even likely, that you will pay the ultimate consequence.
There are a number of situations other than combat that offer consequences that are important and significant. Imagine if the fight with HR actually had a separate context such as the HR officer was actually stealing from the company and you were trying to weed that information out of them. The consequences are larger in this circumstance and more dynamic, but it is still not as dynamic as having a dragon snake out its long scaly neck and attempt to bite you in half as you use a pillar for cover. The consequence is obviously a much more important thing here and make it a much more exciting scene.
Are role playing games far too focused on combat though? Running a game you probably have combat rules for an individual with a weapon, some have magic battles laid out separately, you may have rules for chariots and mounted combat, rules for fist fights, naval battles and so on. I watched a video blog once by Shawn Driscoll on Traveller and he boiled it down to a basic statement. Combat really boils down to a single roll, be it a skill roll in some games or an ability roll in some others, so why do we go through all the complicated rules? I agree with Shawn’s point of view but there needs to be some provisos put into that statement.
Traveller has an abstract and deadly combat system. Combat erupts and there is likely going to be a death. The system prepares players for this by even introducing the possibility of death into character generation itself! In other games though players are not as used to losing a character every second game. These combat rules are there so that the players can work things to their favour as they are invested in the characters that they build and invest themselves with. An example of this is things like cover and spells such as blur and displacement or the grappling rules.
As Shawn pointed out though, it really does boil down to a single moment of conflict resolution. Try to simplify this as much as you can as a GM. One thing that I do enjoy doing with new games is looking at the combat rules and playing the “will I use it?” game. Look through the rules and decide what is going to complicate your game and also cause you to have to go for a rule book every time that the situation comes up. Once you have your list do one of two things with the rule, either chuck it or alter it.
Chucking it is exactly as it sounds. We think that the rule is either going to be needed so rarely and is too complex to use or it is just too confusing to use so we put it on a list of rules that aren’t used and communicate this to the players. When a group sits at a table they expect to get some gaming done and very few people enjoy dead time where you are all sitting around while people investigate rules. It needs to be clearly communicated though so the rules lawyers of the groups know up front that they cannot expect to use that rule for justification in a game.
For the alter rules you need to find a happy medium that you can live with. House rule the material. By saying you want to alter the rule you are saying that the situation the rule refers to is valuable and needs consideration. The actual rules may be a little too complex or convoluted for the game though so work out how you want to approach that and create a rule that you and the players at your table can understand. These house rules should be recorded in a place that is easily accessible such as an online Campaign collator or in a book that the GM brings to the game each time. If these are the rules that you play to then they should be as accessible as the core books that you use for the games.
Once this material is all nailed down then you should abide by these rules and also remember that combat is just a skill roll or an ability roll. Honestly, you could run a combat with one roll, but most systems tend to try to branch it out into a number of rounds. In general though, the person with the better skill or ability will win a conflict. Clever play can alter these results of course.
Combat does tend to be the most intense form of conflict resolution and you will rarely find a group of players so attentive as when the beholder starts shooting off its eye rays because of the mortality of their character. The idea that their 9th level character that they had played all this time could be killed because of a bad roll or result really makes them wake to the circumstances. Close shaves stick in the memory like caramel to a wooden spoon.
Remember that there are other types of conflict and a game needs to be more than just fight after fight. Social and magical conflict is important in games as can be investigations and subtle maneuverings. Players will tire of well balanced fight one after another and want more from their game. It is a great way to get their attention but not an excellent way of keeping it. I will look at other types of conflict in my post next week to see how they can be used to make your game a complete story guaranteed to keep every type of player interested.
Mark Knights is 39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia. I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games. I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules. I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner. When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be. On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.