This is my attempt at exploring different issues relating to combat in RPGs, with an emphasis on alternatives to the traditional methods of handling it. Some parts are more developed than others. The “Shared Narration” bit is something I want to experiment with in a game (I’m working on a short RPG called “Zero Breakers” that’s basically a proof of concept for that), and I feel like tactical combat merits a longer and more sophisticated discussion, perhaps moreso than I’m really equipped to provide.
Perhaps because they grew out of wargames, combat has always been an important part of most RPGs. In actual play, they’re often not as combat-centric as the considerable page count devoted to combat rules might suggest, but RPGs that don’t make violent action a key component of gameplay are still the exception to the rule. Violence is so prevalent in the medium that it’s hard to remove or even alter the amount of violent content in a game without it feeling at least a little bit like a political statement.
Geek culture in general tends to have a disproportionate number of narratives that involve a great deal of violence, as well as games where it’s the most developed and enjoyable part of gameplay. It’s hard to pinpoint where that came from. A lot of the early greats of science fiction like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke didn’t have much violence in their stories, but then they were more on the intellectual end of SF, and the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek were what became iconic franchises. I’m not going to advocate for eliminating violence from pop culture or geek culture, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to look at it with a more critical eye.
In real life, violence is chaotic, intense, and too often horrifying. Primal instincts sear it into your memory. Sometimes it arguably can serve a righteous purpose, but in violent conflicts between human beings, at least one side is doing something immoral. Fantasy violence is nothing like that. It’s often an exhilarating clash, as much about the stories and principles at play as the details of attacks and defenses.
The Combat Minigame
It’s helpful to understand that one of the major influences on D&D’s combat system was naval wargames. Where wargames typically had units either die or not die depending on die rolls, some naval combat games gave each ship an Armor Class and a number of hits it could take. Like a lot of things about D&D, that’s not a bad thing, but it is a very specific thing that has specific effects. Particularly as presented in D&D and similar games, it encourages battles of attrition, where combatants whittle each other down until one succumbs, usually to death or at least incapacitation. Without some work to prevent it, this kind of combat can easily become “two sides mash against each other until one dies,” which isn’t especially true of either real or fictional battles. Even wargames have stepped away from some of these assumptions, with other outcomes besides death figuring prominently in the rules.
Combat rules in RPGs typically amount to a sort of minigame. Although the fuzzy human element can and should influence the way the GM adjudicates combat, it’s not unusual for RPGs to have combat systems that you could play as a sort of skirmish-level wargame. While it’s not always the case, combat can make the actual role-playing grind to a halt. None of which is to say that traditional RPG combat is bad, just that despite its dominance it’s one of many possible approaches. I devoted an entire chapter to the subject because it’s such a big part of RPGs in general, and it connects to a huge number of other issues that deserve exploration.
One way to address combat is simply to take it out of the equation. A massive portion of the fiction people produce and consume either doesn’t involve violence, or invokes it so rarely that it wouldn’t make sense to have much of a combat system in the RPG version. Golden Sky Stories is an ideal example of a non-violent game, as it presents an idyllic Japanese countryside town, and the PCs’ objectives are simply to help people in various ways. There are brief rules for “quarreling” in the book, but the text emphatically says it’s something you shouldn’t do, and the game makes it a boring mechanic without any lasting mechanical significance. If you pick a fight, you make an opposed check, and any consequences that come out of it are basically just whatever you role-play.
Although you can approach it from other angles, by default GSS has a sort of “mission-based” method of setting up game sessions, in that an archetypal session involves the PCs discovering a problem that some NPCs are having and working to solve it. Although the “working to solve it” part doesn’t involve violence, otherwise it’s not that different from how a wandering band of D&D adventurers operates.
You can as easily structure a game differently, while keeping in a milieu that doesn’t call for violence. Emily Care Boss made a freeform larp called Remodel, which concerns four women helping a friend with remodeling her house. It creates compelling stories, and while I wouldn’t say violence is completely out of the question, it’s not a part of the game as written. RPGs about more normal things tend to not need violence, because a lot of us are fortunate enough to live in a time and place when violence is outside of the everyday.
A huge portion of RPGs operate on the assumption that combat (and adventuring in general) should be a potentially fatal endeavor, to the point where a lot of gamers will balk at the idea of a game where death isn’t on the table. The essential issue is that there needs to be something at stake, and whether the PCs live or die is the only thing that the rules of RPGs have traditionally helped put at stake. A story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu protagonist with Magic Plot Armor who succeeds and comes out unscathed when other characters are dying would be annoying and unsatisfying, but you can have a compelling story with real stakes and consequences without trying to outdo George R.R. Martin’s body count.
The first thing that comes to mind when I try to envision a non-lethal RPG that still has lots of violent conflict is RPG adaptations of silly anime like Noodle Fighter Miki or Ranma ½. The characters in those kinds of series have things that they care about enough to fight over them, they have things that wind up at risk, but the audience knows that no one is going to die on camera.
You can also have death be a possibility without letting the rules dictate that it happens easily. In the Smallville RPG, the conflict rules allow for characters to take a lot of stress, but a PC will only really die if the player decides that that’s what they want. This is a game where before you start playing you generate a huge relationship map, and each character starts with a web of people and things they care about, making it the polar opposite of D&D’s default of rootless murderhoboes.
Even if a game’s themes call for there to be lots of fights, the rules don’t necessarily have to be particularly detailed or time-consuming. A while back I designed a game called Magical Fury. It’s in the magical girl genre, and calls for characters to regularly get into battles, but I wanted the combat to be quick and to the point. The system that resulted reduces battles down to a handful of rolls and a system that produces consequences for a battle depending on how the group’s rolls panned out. It’s certainly not an approach I’d use for everything, but it’s decidedly refreshing to be able to resolve a combat in a matter of minutes and have the game keep rolling on.
Orthogonal Combat Rules
Combat rules in RPGs are generally wargame-like simulations of the physical situation of combat. We can quibble about realism or adherence to genre conventions, but the rules you engage and the die rolls you make are with the aim of playing out a simulated combat. Attacks cause injuries, and enough injuries will disable a combatant. However, some games use combat in other ways.
The clearest example of this is Nathan D. Paoletta’s excellent World Wide Wrestling, which is perhaps the best professional wrestling RPG available so far. Pro wrestling is fake in the sense that it isn’t an actual athletic contest like in boxing or mixed martial arts, and in the years since it became common knowledge, the fandom has realigned to being about appreciating the artistry that goes into the performance at least as much as the fictional show. World Wide Wrestling plays with the space between the fiction that a wrestling promotion shows the audience (the “kayfabe” in wrestling lingo) and the reality backstage, which is a big part of what makes it such an effective and interesting game. That’s why, although certain things make it possible to change the outcome, by default the GM (“Creative” in WWWRPG terms) decides the winner of each match in advance, very much like the booking for a pro-wrestling show.
With the booking decided in advance, playing out a match is primarily a combination of role-playing and a series of rolls to see how well your wrestler performs and how well the crowd reacts. It’s possible for a wrestler to get injured, but as a player you’re not trying to incapacitate the other performer, just to put on an entertaining match. As in real life, when a wrestler genuinely gets injured it’s likely because someone involved in the match screwed up.
This is a fundamental realignment of the purpose of combat in the game, and I think it points to an important point about combat rules in general. What are the fights actually for? Though they can be fun, they shouldn’t be an end in themselves. In basically every fictional medium, creators only include combat when it has some kind of significance. If there’s a fight that doesn’t especially matter, they’ll summarize or outright omit it. More often than not, fights are actually a clash of two sides, and they serve to not only determine a victor, but generate consequences that affect the events that follow.
Multipurpose Conflict Rules
There are several games that have rules for resolving conflicts, but don’t make a strong distinction between different types of conflict, so that a fight and an argument don’t use particularly different rules.
One obvious and simple example of this is Primetime Adventures, Matt Wilson’s game of television-style drama. It arranges action into scenes, and each scene is built around a single conflict of some kind. You might choose to have a conflict be a fight and show a character getting hospitalized or even killed off, but tracking damage and such simply aren’t within the scope of the game’s rules. Instead, the same conflict rules apply equally to a fight, an argument, navigating bureaucracy, a car chase, etc. The game is so much about the characters and what they want (and how much the audience likes them) that it leaves those other concerns up to how the players choose to narrate things.
Another way to approach combat is to take away the idea that it should be a game in any conventional sense, even in the way that World Wide Wrestling does. Fights can instead be an exercise in narrating an interesting fight.
If combat is going to be a minigame, one way to approach it is to make that minigame a really fun and engaging one. Some versions of Dungeons & Dragons (especially 4th Edition) take that approach. The danger of including a tactical combat system is that it can exacerbate the tendency of combat to cut off your role-playing at the knees, doubly so if it’s time consuming. An RPG doesn’t have to involve a constant state of role-playing, but it certainly pays to make a tactical combat system efficient regardless. In that respect, there are several common things in RPGs that are potentially counterproductive, though other kinds of tabletop games that involve tactical combat aren’t always as efficient as they could be.
Tactical combat doesn’t have to involve an element of positioning, but it’s an obvious and extremely useful way to add tactical complexity, especially when the combatants can control territory and affect the way they and/or their enemies can move. Aside from the fact that some people simply don’t prefer it (though many do), this kind of system inherently raises the issue of how to keep track of such things at the table. D&D’s embrace of tactical combat has created an entire market for maps and miniatures. These things can be just plain fun, but they also have a natural overhead, since at a bare minimum they require a certain amount of planning and setup.
One way to mitigate the overhead of tactical combat is to use a system that divides the battlefield up into larger chunks than D&D’s convention of 1” squares that represent 5 feet. Fate has optional rules for dividing a battlefield into abstract “zones,” so that when there’s action happening in one zone, a character can’t immediately reach another. Meikyuu Kingdom uses a default Battlefield Map with a set of six ranks arranged in one row, while Agon has a similar map with a variable number of ranks (and the ability to force enemies to move back or forward). Last Stand meanwhile calls for setting up a battlefield with around 6 areas, arranged however the GM things suitable, whether a 2×3 grid, a 1×6 row, or even a vertical arrangement to represent things like a battle on a skyscraper.
Another important consideration in tactical combat is making the tactics interesting. MMORPGs and MOBAs make extensive use of roles, a concept that D&D4e adapted (in a heavily modified form) to tabletop. In your typical MMO, each character class belongs to one of 3 roles:
- Tanks are defensive; they “pull aggro,” meaning they can force enemy AI to attack them more than others, and they can take a lot of punishment.
- DPS (short for “Damage Per Second”) characters can dish out a lot of damage, but can’t take much themselves, hence the need for a tank’s protection.
- Healers of course deliver healing, keeping the rest of the party on their feet by keeping their HP up.
That’s a simplified version, and some games add other roles (like crowd control). With the exception of DPS, they’re awkward to port over directly to an RPG, which is part of why D&D4e has Defenders and Leaders instead of Tanks and Healers. But the bigger point is that the three roles give each character both strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to compensate for the weaknesses of their teammates. That gives the game the challenge of working together to make the party greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s a great way to make tactical combat more interesting.
Initiative is a topic that deserves special attention in RPGs, because it can be an issue even in games that don’t use tactical combat, and it tends to be an important-yet-boring part of games. Initiative is a way of determining who goes when in a fight, and potentially other situations that involve tight timing. From 3rd Edition on, D&D has had each combatant make an initiative roll, where they’d roll a d20 and add their Dexterity modifier and any other relevant bonuses, and then they act in descending order of their initiative check results. When everyone has taken a turn, you start a new round with the same initiative order. There are some variations on this premise, like games where initiative is by sides, and within a side’s turn individual members can go in whatever order they like, or games where players can freely trade initiative slots with teammates.
In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, the designers came up with what I think is one of the more elegant initiative systems. You pick someone to go first based on what makes sense in the story, and then when that player has finished taking their turn, they pick who (among those who haven’t acted yet that round) goes next. It came about because of stuff like the “Fastball Special,” where the hulking metal brute Colossus hurls the much smaller Wolverine at enemies. In a more traditional initiative system, Wolverine would tend to go before Colossus, and even if Colossus got a lucky roll and went first, it’d be a fluke if Wolverine got to go immediately after him. That general approach extends to other kinds of teamwork, a regular feature of superhero comics, and it’s adaptable to plenty of other kinds of action. It also has the advantage of being just plain simple to handle at the game table. In D&D, the DM has to get each of the players to report their initiative roll, make rolls for the enemies, and then sort them all out to get an initiative order to use for the rest of the battle. It can also drastically affect what tactics the players can bring to bear, and it’s common for a player to wind up holding their action until an ally can do something to get the situation to a point where they can do something remotely useful.
Apocalypse World meanwhile dispenses with any concept of turn order per se. Instead it’s the MC’s job to work out what’s going on, and ask the players questions to figure out what happens when. It can make the MC’s job more demanding, but the challenge there is creative rather than mathematical.
 When asked which specific game(s) influenced him, Dave Arneson replied, “Some Fred T Jane (Armor class 1912) some Fletcher Pratt (1938 hit points, armor class) plus more than a few others.”