Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #65:

Combat, Part 7: Breaking away from D&D-style combat

by Travis S. Casey
August 15, 2003

I've talked fairly often over the last few columns about "D&D-style combat". But what is D&D-style combat? Why would someone want to avoid it? And when is it a good thing?

The central element of combat in the D&D-style is a simple one — hit points. D&D combat focuses around each side wearing the other down. Hit points are recovered slowly by "natural" means, but can be recovered quickly using magic... but that magic is in turn slow to recover.

This fits well with D&D's original emphasis as a dungeon-exploration game. In the classic setup, the characters move through a dungeon, encountering resistance along the way. The dungeon is set up to be large enough that the characters cannot achieve their goal (which lies deep within the dungeon) without having to stop periodically to rest and recover. This may take the form of retreating back to a "safe", already explored area of the dungeon — or it may involve "going back to town" for an extended period of time.

In this context, the slow drop of hit points puts pressure on the players to make a choice — can they afford to "try another room", or is it time to back up and rest a bit? (And other elements play into this setup as well — the old-style D&D assumption that mages cannot carry their spell books around with them, and "wandering monsters" which add risk to the choice to retreat to a "safe" location in the dungeon itself.)

A Brief Aside

One element of the classic "dungeon exploration" scenario is often forgotten — namely, that the "monsters" can take an active role as well as a reactive one. If the players choose to have their characters "go back to town" for an extended period, the "monsters" can (and logically should!) take advantage of the time to heal, fortify their own defenses, possibly set up ambushes, and so on. This especially applies to intelligent, organized monsters, such as the traditional orcs and goblins.

For that matter, intelligent monsters might go out and seek out allies... e.g., seeing if they can get a neighboring orc tribe to help. Or they might simply move out and establish a new lair while the adventurers are off recuperating!

Intelligent monsters also add to the dangers of opting to fall back to a position inside the dungeon to rest. They might organize and attempt a counterattack while the player characters are trying to recuperate... or set a quick trap or the like.

This is also one reason why classical D&D-style combat didn't have a lot of player choices involved. The combat itself wasn't the point of the game — it existed primarily to be a driving force in decisions about the exploration of the dungeon.

Now, Back to the Main Point

D&D-style combat works well for its intended purpose... but that's not the only purpose for roleplaying games. As noted at the start of this series, before designing a combat system for a game, you should know what the purpose of combat in that game is.

What alternatives are there to D&D-style combat? Well, lots. Let's look at things point-by-point.

How quickly things can happen. Classic D&D combat features a fairly slow grinding down of hit points. There's a built-in "safety zone" when one is starting fresh. (At least, once characters have earned a couple of levels — at low levels, single-hit kills are quite possible.) As mentioned above, this is intentional — the choice being highlighted is "when do we turn back in our exploration?" If combat were risky even for a "fresh" character, that would take away the choice of "let's get out of here while we're still safe".

The opposite extreme, of course, is combat where there's always a high risk of character death, even when one is fresh. If you want to discourage combat in a game, this can be a way to do it. Be prepared, though, for players who are used to the "safety zone" of D&D-style combat to complain, even if you go far out of your way to make it clear that combat always carries a potential for death in your game.

A middle ground is to either have a probabilistic "safe zone" (i.e., a character might be killed by a single hit, but it isn't likely) or a very narrow "safe zone" (i.e., the first hit can't kill you, but you're not guaranteed a lot more than that).

Some games take the tack of making individual hits more dangerous, but also making hits happen less often, so that combat still tends to take a while. This is a possible solution, but care has to be taken; players tend to find "You miss, the orc misses, you miss, the orc misses..." to be boring.

The level of player input. In classic D&D, the main player input into combat for players of non-spellcasting characters was the choice of who to attack and when to break off combat. Originally, there wasn't even a choice to "fight defensively". Later versions of D&D have changed this, thereby shifting the emphasis from exploration towards combat.

This one's also a balancing act. Giving players more input can help keep them interested, but it can also tend towards turning the game into one of who can type fastest. Note, though, that player choice doesn't always have to involve typing or clicking commands during combat — but more on that later.

Possible results of combat. Classic D&D combat doesn't have a way to knock out or cripple an opponent — unless one side or the other gives up, combat is to the death. As I mentioned last time, allowing for combat for other objectives than "kill the opponent" can broaden the range of practical character types, and open up some types of classic scenario materials.

Something which is often ignored, but which most versions of D&D did have, is the ability of "monsters" to run away or surrender. Some paper RPG systems, including at least a couple of versions of D&D, have a "morale" mechanic for determining when or if monsters or other GM-controlled opponents will run away or surrender. Adding such a mechanism would be difficult, but could have a large amount of role-playing potential. Will a group accept an orc's surrender? If they do, what are they going to do with the orc? Let it go? Keep it as a prisoner? And of course, with monsters running away, there may be a need to run them down and catch them before they warn others!

Also often ignored are the possibilities of specific injuries (e.g., a broken arm or leg, impairing the character's ability to move and/or fight) and of broken or damaged equipment. It's easy to throw in too much of either one, but a little bit can add extra interest to combat — and make new sets of useful skills for repairing things, and/or encourage characters to buy and carry spare equipment.

Next time, I'm going to (finally) wrap up this series on combat by talking about how combat can encourage roleplaying... through events and choices. See you in 14!

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