2019-03-05 What about combat?

Some people have been posting about combat, recently.

It all started with OSR Heresy, where James Smith wrote that players will remember barely surviving combat more than they will remember the clever use of spells or diplomacy, and I think he’s right. Players take pride in using their advantages to win against all odds.

In Adventuring by Other Means, Necropraxis quoted what he considered to be engaging combat from A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin. There, a village defends against a raid using a powerful fog spell and good tactics. It’s an illustration of using advantages, an illustration of clever spell use, of winning against all odds.

In Failure is always an option, Yora focuses on the issue of finding and pressing an advantage:

You don’t just walk through doors, put your hands into holes, make a lot of noise, and see what happens. Because then the opponents prepare for a fight and pick a battlefield of their choice. When this happens and the players chose to stand their ground and fight under the conditions their enemies want them to, then they have failed.

I still Natalie’s The Ever-Present Threat of Death from 2009 where she says “combat is ten minutes of terror”. In combat, she says, she’s never bored. She’s always awake and thinking of what to do next. Even the threat of combat is already engaging: can she talk her way out of it? Can she even the odds? She’s looking for advantages. And because it’s deadly, she worries.

Combat, and the threat of combat, is engaging.

In 2012, Natalie wrote Why D&D Has Lots of Rules for Combat: A General Theory Encompassing All Editions. There, when she talks about older editions of D&D, she says that combat is supposed to be deadly and that if characters die, players will know that they deserved it. They decided to risk combat (a strategic decision) and it went awry. And, she says, this business of risking something is harder to get outside of combat. In combat you know exactly what you’re risking: the time and energy you spent with your character.

And that’s how combat also ends up being the final arbiter of everything else: if the negotiations fail → combat! And yes, you can risk other things: the fate of your non-player character relatives, of the organisation you belong to, and so on. The life of your character is simply the simplest and most direct way of threatening the time and energy the player invested into the game. That is why players fear combat, that is why the threat is real.

So that’s why I think combat is important, the risk of character death is important, and why I think that the strategic question of when to engage in combat is the most important one. Like Yora says: picking the time and the place is super important. And if you fail to do that, then you “failed” at the kind of D&D I like to play. Ideally, combat is easy and simply proof that you made the right decisions, and the role-playing games I like to play are all about making decisions.

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