Monday, January 23, 2012

Why D&D Has Lots of Rules for Combat: A General Theory Encompassing All Editions

D&D, in all editions, has a lot of rules for combat. That's generally what the majority of the game's rules are for, even when it's got fairly detailed rules for non-combatty type things. That doesn't mean that D&D is "about" combat, though, at least in all editions. Sometimes, in fact, it means that it's very much not about combat.

Obviously, sometimes D&D is about combat. 4E is the big one here. If you're not spending a decent chunk of your sessions fighting monsters in 4E, you're playing waaaaay outside of what its designers intended for it. This is a function of the complexity of the rules 4E has related to combat: in 4E D&D, you have a lot of interesting decisions to make inside of combat, and you're not risking much by initiating it. Your guy has a lot of neat things he can do in combat, the rest of the party has a lot of neat things they can do in combat, and the monsters, terrain rules, encounter design guidelines, and other DM advice and features of the game make it fairly easy to set up a particular kind of "interesting encounter." And the DM has to step outside of what the game rather strongly recommends to even be able to kill the PCs. It's tough to do accidentally.

Depending on the quality of the GM, of course, you probably have some interesting decisions to make outside of combat as well, but it's harder to say exactly what you're risking in those situations than it is when you're working within the game's combat system. 4E D&D is a game where you're supposed to spend a lot of your time hitting things.

At the opposite extreme, you've got OD&D/Basic and their retroclones. Combat in OD&D isn't that interesting unless the DM knows what he's doing and the players are active and creative-- neither the games rules nor its advice really funnel play towards "fun" combat. To the degree that combat is interesting, it's interesting because you're allowed to bring in whatever non-combat systems you have for handling problems-- the nets, 10-foot-poles, and spells of physical problem solving-- into the combat. If that's fun in the rest of the game, you're probably going to have fun with OD&D combat, too.

The main function of the combat rules, instead, is to make combat deadly, in a way that's fairly adjudication agnostic. If the DM is doing her job right, she's going to kill your character sometimes, and you're going to know that you deserved it. It needs fairly detailed combat rules because it's relatively difficult to adjudicate combat compared to most of what you do in D&D, and relatively important compared to most of what you do in D&D that it be adjudicated "correctly," or at least in a fairly neutral way. (Among other reasons-- to a degree combat is always complex because combat is inherently interesting).

So here complex combat creates a situation that's the opposite of what it does in 4E: "If we get into combat we will probably die; as long as we stay out of combat we might die but we're not sure" vs. "If we get into combat we probably won't die; as long as we stay out of combat we might die but we're not sure." It doesn't change the fundamental D&D situation of "you don't really know what the DM is up to, and to play and have fun you have to be willing to trust her."

The combat rules create a particular environment for decisions to be made, and they create context for decisions made outside of combat. In 4E, combat is inherently interesting, and the context it creates encourages players to engage in combat. In OD&D, combat isn't inherently interesting, since its intended to create a context that discourages players from engaging in combat without pissing them off if that's what they decide to do. In each case you get different behavior. (Depending on the assumptions that the players themselves bring to the table. I've had players fling themselves into OD&D combat because they didn't understand the rules and they assumed that it was like the video games they were used to, or other games that they'd played.)

For me this is a simple and clear case of some general principles in game design. Just because a game has a lot of rules for something, it doesn't mean the game wants you to spend a lot of time doing that something. Player's may assume that's the case, if they mistake "complex" for "interesting," but they'll eventually learn better if it's not. If a game has a lot of rules for something that's a good sign that it's important, but it may be inherently important or it may be important because it's a failure state or other consequence of normal game play. 3E has fairly complicated rules for death and dying. That doesn't mean that 3E is "about" death and dying to the degree that it has rules about them.

As an aside, I feel like this combat/rules dynamic puts 3E in sort of a weird place. The volume and kind of rules that it has for combat indicate that combat is inherently interesting. For the most part, that's true. But it lacks a lot of the safeguards that 4E has built-in to combat. It's not nearly as deadly as OD&D, but it can still be pretty deadly, especially when the players misjudge the situation somehow. It extends a lot of OD&D's assumptions to their logical conclusions-- OD&D combat can be interesting, if the DM presents it in a sufficiently textured way, and the players have some toys to play with, so D&D 3E provides the texture and the toys. 

Unfortunately, that makes it easy for things to guy awry if the players then take their inaccurate OD&D assumptions to their logical conclusions. Either they'll die a lot and get frustrated, or the DM will low-ball the challenge (and the 3E books don't give a whole lot of guidance away from this tendency) and the combats will get really easy. The underlying physics of D&D's combat can make for pretty boring combat if there aren't any interesting stakes involved; if you're not trying to achieve something in particular, or desperately avoid death. 3E makes it interesting to go "oh hey! this game is about combat!" then have that initial impression confirmed, and play that way until the game gets very boring and the DM gets annoyed.

16 comments:

  1. Very astute. This certainly gives me food for thought with my frankenstein game.

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  2. Thank you for articulating a whole bunch of stuff I've been talking around but unable to make clear!

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  3. Excellent observations.

    I was just re-reading some of the Essentials line of 4e books that a friend gave to me for freebies (because he is clearing out his "old" stuff in anticipation of 5e...don't ask) and was struck by the amount of options that are available to players in combat. Contrast this with the very bland skill system and the skill challenges, which seem geared towards just rolling some dice to push past Diplomacy and Bluffing without resorting to any sort of detailed role-playing that might slow the action down.

    The entire XP and Encounter system seems to be geared towards pushing players towards combat as well.

    Another interesting note is the staggering inflation of Hit Points between 4E and oE. Most starting characters have over twenty-five and lots of low level monsters, not counting 1 HP minions, have 30 to 40 or more.

    Many of the standard spells also have an explicit damage value associated with them rather than relying upon the DM to adjudicate their results, Phatasmal Forces for example.

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  4. The whole General Theory is eloquent, but these excerpted passages evince marked observations and a true understanding of the Old-School D&D gaming style, and its associated assumptions about the particulars of battle:

    'Combat in OD&D isn't that interesting unless the DM knows what he's doing and the players are active and creative-- neither the games rules nor its advice really funnel play towards "fun" combat. To the degree that combat is interesting, it's interesting because you're allowed to bring in whatever non-combat systems you have for handling problems-- the nets, 10-foot-poles, and spells of physical problem solving-- into the combat. If that's fun in the rest of the game, you're probably going to have fun with OD&D combat, too.'

    'OD&D combat can be interesting, if the DM presents it in a sufficiently textured way, and the players have some toys to play with,'

    'The underlying physics of D&D's combat can make for pretty boring combat if there aren't any interesting stakes involved; if you're not trying to achieve something in particular, or desperately avoid death.':

    This is an AWESOME explication of Old-School Fytin' and its rationale(and to me, its appeal!). And put so succinctly and clearly, to boot!

    Nice job summing up the 'reasoning' behind a major potential pitfall new groups playing 'Old School' games may fall prey to:

    '(Depending on the assumptions that the players themselves bring to the table. I've had players fling themselves into OD&D combat because they didn't understand the rules and they assumed that it was like the video games they were used to, or other games that they'd played.)':

    I've found that once the scales fall from the neophytes' eyes(i. e. they discover they don't have to 'grind' to advance their character; especially since, by the book, most XP comes from treasure), game play in general, not *just* slicin' 'n dicin', becomes more focused and entertaining. Of course, when players become acquainted with ODnD's freeform and deadly combat, the less dull fighting becomes, and with sufficient ingenuity(where warranted, of course) on the part of the opposition, they may be more loath to attempt to blast/carve away their troubles. And, of course, when a battle is won, or conversely, averted, the accomplishment is all the more rewarding!

    This isn't to say that Hack 'n Slash *isn't* a viable option in Old School, you just have to be a mite more 'creative' in your application of Fire And Sword.(And PCs are often nothing if not 'creative', right?) Rapid 'mowdowns' are quite achievable in many Old School PnP RPGs, I've found. It may, in fact, be all the more satisfying from a tactical standpoint to pull off massacres in such a lethal system where the players aren't significantly more powerful than their potential foes. I've read something to that effect on several occasions, iirc. There's a certain appeal for some in going against the grain, it seems.... :-)

    Excellent post!

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  5. 'In OD&D, combat is something characters do well to avoid.' That's kind of an epiphany for me. It certainly explains why most published encounter tables I've seen for the retroclones out there seem to assume that monsters are always running around in great numbers. I used to think "How are a bunch of low-level characters supposed to survive an encounter with these things?" Now I'm thinking "Aha. They're not."

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  6. Ronson: Bingo! Exactly. Once you make that shift, the old games make a lot more sense.

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  7. Very good post! Can I translate it to Hungarian?

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  8. I have to comment on this and say whatever mistakes or innovations DnD makes you've got to be thankful for them. For the past year I have been playing an almost entirely rule-less system that a friend of mine created. My tabletop rpg group insists on this system and I am beginning to resent it because of its lack of rules. The role can be 2 on a D20 and the DM will let is pass because the "creativity of the player's description was 'cool' enough". Basically, anything goes...and I feel as though this perspective and style of playing ruins the roleplaying. Anyway thank you for your analysis of DnD's rules for combat.

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  9. This post is just absolutely excellent!
    I think it really gets down to the most deeply seated basics of D&D combat and the difference, not just in mechanics but in the supported/expected/developed mindset, in the different D&D editions.
    Thanks a lot!

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  10. I agree, but I have to add that all the people playing 0D&D-2nd started to give more fun to combat with critic tables, armor vs damage type rules, called shots, magic items, monsters summoning, etc. A heavy houseruled game of 2nd Edition can have a complexity level similar to 4th edition, but a lot more fun, unpredictable and imbalanced.
    Also, this complement the view of Combat as War vs Combat as Sport. http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2012/02/on-combat-as-sport-versus-combat-as-war.html

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  11. I'm not a fan of 4E and switched to Pathfinder which has plenty of advice on how to make the context interesting through cool cultures and strange places. The combat there is just right for me.

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  12. Funny, but when I was playing 1st Edition and 2nd Edition all that time ago, we were never bored about combat. We house rules and made it work.

    It's depressing that there are endless arguments about game systems on blogs on the internet.

    Play what you like and have fun.

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  13. Good post! I agree that 4e in particular scraped everything out of the game that didn't directly correlate to combat and phat loot!

    You could put all the rpg stuff that isn't combat-related into a pamphlet and the rest of the 4e book would be fundamentally unchanged. I played it for a bit and it stuck in my craw ... I felt like I was playing WoW ... and not having fun doing it because the fun of WoW was not having to deal with all the crunch ... so 100% crunch sucked ass!

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  14. Thank you for the post. I’ve watched a few 4E games at conventions and local gaming stores and I’ve just didn’t like it. I still play what I call 1.5 edition using mostly 1st edition and some things from 2nd edition. I own third edition but my group did not see a reason to change how we had been playing for 30 years (why spend the money).

    It is a good session if everyone ends up laughing and role playing. We have games where combat never even happens. If we want combat we can always play some Frag or Nuke War. Some of the best sessions are all role-playing. I understand that some individuals (be they player or game master) are not comfortable with role-playing so some groups don’t do that. I remember a game at Gen con that you never touched your dice the entire 4 hour game, this really threw some people off as they did not really role-play but just fought.

    You have to ask yourself what do you remember from a gaming session that amazing dice roll that killed the dragon or the role-playing where a party member shaved off the dwarf party members beard (while under a hold spell). Which one do people talk about the most months or years later?

    As a game master I try to bring my players to the edge of death but not kill them. I consider it a good fight (and so do my players) if I bring a party of six characters to the state that one or two of them are unconscious and the rest are within one hit of going down. The challenge is to push the players to the edge without going over it.

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