Combat as Sport and War

Combat Engineers

Well of COURSE I take it more seriously than Superman! He’s bulletproof!

For today, it’s another question…

So how would the (THIS) article relate to the debate regarding Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War? (I’d link to the original post on EN World, but they’re down right now.)

– Alzrius

For convenience, I’ll quote the basic definitions that that article provides:

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.


Now definitions are good, but they only really help if relate them to design decisions.

Combat as Sport only works in a character-based game if you either…

  • (A) Assume that the characters involved care little or nothing for their own lives. Look around you… baboon gangs, wolf packs, and human societies all contain a wide variety of mechanisms to settle disputes without seriously risking life and limb. Sure, they might be seeking fabulous rewards – but if they’re that good, why don’t they get their rewards and retire?
  • (B) Place the characters in a situation – such as a gladiatorial arena, or being ordered about by gods, emperors, military commanders, or other powerful figures – where they are being forced into “fair fights”.
  • (C) Ensure that the characters are very sure of surviving – or of being resurrected if they die, which amounts to the same thing.

So what are the consequences of those three options?

(A) Kills off most role-playing, leaving the characters as playing pieces who disdain pain, and personal risk, and see combat as a goal rather than a tool. Sure, the players may state that their characters are death-or-glory types who don’t care about the pain or death – but should that really apply to all of their opponents too? There’s nothing wrong with that in a tactical wargame – but once you discard realistic motives you’re no longer playing a role-playing game.

(B) Kills off player-character decision-making (and is also known as “railroading”). There’s nothing wrong with that if the railroad goes to what the players want to do and the GM is simply providing an in-character excuse for the characters to be doing it – but it’s worth noting that actual gladiators were quite creative about finding ways to “cheat”.

That leaves (C) – Which is why death is a simple temporary inconvenience in most computer and video games. I died? Who cares? Just wait a moment while I go pick up my stuff, or put in an extra token, or hit the replay button…

In most tabletop role-playing games the classic answer to “being fairly sure of survival” was a bit of GM warning of especially tough or dangerous opponents, ablative combat, scouting out the opposition, and having the characters be prepared to escape and heal themselves if things seemed to be going badly. As characters became more powerful, they tended to acquire special methods of escape – ranging from smoke pellets and skill at hiding on up to cloning systems, limited-use teleportation devices, and resurrections. Sometimes – in desperation – they would even resort to bargaining or surrendering…

The World Tree game – where even basic starting characters and ordinary folks can easily be equipped with short range teleportation powers, a small supply of “automatically heal me from death” devices, and are usually pretty tough into the bargain – is the logical end point of this progression. On the World Tree most fights against intelligent opponents are not to the death; they’re “until keeping going starts becoming seriously risky or expensive and I use an escape effect” – or they’re social or political or some such to start with.

Now World Tree can be a lot of fun – but a lot of players will find it really annoying when their opponents escape. A fair number of them hate to retreat even when they should. Worse, living through truly serious World Tree combat when it comes up, even if it is pretty rare, involves quite a lot of careful forethought, planning, and resource management.

A lot of players don’t like that – and the solution was “Balanced Encounters”.

Of course, “Balanced Encounters” are a lie.

Lets think about that. Is Chess “balanced”? It may not be entirely perfect – there is the first-move advantage – but that’s why most people choose who goes first at random, which restores perfect parity between two random players sitting down for a game.

Chess is fair and balanced – and pretty much comes down to player skill and intuition. One or the other player may win or it may wind up a draw – the equivalent of “one or the other side falls back and escapes” in a RPG – but the odds are pretty much equal.

But WOTC had a stroke of genius – and in a bit of doublespeak worthy of substituting “ethnic cleansing” for “genocide” – redefined a “balanced (combat) encounter” as “one where the player characters are expected to win quite readily – without needing to bother with scouting or special preparations or even any really complex tactics – at the cost of about 25% of their daily resources”.

Funny, I thought that “Balanced” meant “Both sides are more or less equal and have fairly equal chances”. That’s what it means in Chess – and in Monopoly, and Poker, and Scrabble, and Tennis, and Baseball, and pretty much every other game. The few where the two sides really are grossly unequal are usually played in rounds where the players switch sides – like baseball innings.

You could do that; make it a genuine test of player skill; run through your “balanced encounter” as usual – and then switch sides and replay it. To get any rewards for it, the players have to win both times.

Not going to be popular using WOTC-style “balanced encounters” is it?

Still, despite the irritating-to-me doublespeak, “Balanced Encounters” really do work perfectly well from a gaming point of view and a game using them can be lots of fun. It does, however, require throwing out any pretense that the setting makes sense on its own, rather than revolving around the player-characters. A lot of players and game masters won’t mind that – after all, it’s basically true – but it will drive others (mostly the “deep immersion” players) right up the wall.

Combat as War only works in a role-playing game that… (A) supports a fair level of world detail as opposed to mechanical detail, (B) has players who are ALL willing to invest a great deal of time and effort in both role-playing and in planning and preparation, and (C) is run as a simulation of a fantasy reality, with an emphasis on the physics of the fantasy universe – how things work instead of what they do – and the motivations of the characters (both PC and NPC) involved rather than as a “game”.

Please note that this isn’t a “pick one” situation like Combat as Sport. This is all or nothing.

(A) isn’t entirely a matter of rules; the game may help by telling you HOW things work in the setting, and even by providing a certain amount of random background (Percent in Lair, Morale Table, etc, etc, etc…), but it can be a lot of work for the game master to make sure that the background makes sense, to keep track of time, and to have intelligent opponents make sensible preparations. (B) is required – since if some of the players aren’t willing to invest a lot of time in role-playing and planning they will be horribly bored and will soon rebel. Finally, of course, (C) requires making sure that the players have a reasonable idea of how things work in the setting and are willing to restrict themselves to what their character’s know.

Either style can lead to an enjoyable game as long as the people playing are all willing to go along with the assumptions and behaviors involved – but when someone isn’t, you get problems.

Not entirely by coincidence, Chess IS about perfect as a combat-as-sport game. It’s about as rules, setting, information, and terrain equal as you can get and no one worries about the motives of the individual pieces (outside of a few short stories) – and thus it doesn’t even need a game master. Guided Freeform games are about the epitome of Combat-as-war; they rely heavily on rules that may be in the game masters head but are unknown to the players, the advantage goes to creative use and interpretation of the setting, and anything else may be wildly unequal to the point where many combats will jump straight to the foregone conclusion.

My personal observation is that combat-as-sport is better for episodic games, if players may or may not be able to make it to any given session, and for shorter campaigns. Combat-as-war tends to require greater committments and longer games. When players come and go, it can really disrupt a combat-as-war game since a single “battle” may span multiple sessions.

It’s still possible to mix the two of course. As an example the last d6 Star Wars campaign ran for a bit over a hundred sessions – and did indeed lean towards “Combat as War”. There were a few roughly “balanced” battles (The weaker, but well-prepared, Bounty Hunters have caught up with you!), and plenty of grossly unbalanced battles – but they were fun anyway when the objective on one side was “Capture” and the other was “Impress these men enough to recruit them”, or “let them escape believing that they just fought a battle with the people we are trying to frame”, or “stall them and keep the damage to an absolute minimum while our negotiators slip through to try and settle this”.

When the objective was “rescue several thousand civilians who think that half of the party are legendary villains from bioengineered flying jellyfish-monsters who’s touch induces berserker madness, get them to the spaceport, take the spaceport away from a fanatical defending force with starship weapons who also think that the party is full of legendary villains without damaging the defenders or the ships, and get everyone offworld” things got complicated – but there was a mighty string of exciting battles and tense negotiations during which very few people (there were a few civilians that the party didn’t manage to rescue from the jellyfish-things) actually got killed.

To mix combat-as-war and combat-as-sport more readily, simply ensure that…

  • (A) The players do a lot of their planning in their personal time – such as picking out and upgrading their equipment, training in their special options, and coming up with pre-planned maneuvers – rather than before fighting. The good old “Next week we’ll be dealing with these problems… you might want to plan ahead” at the end of the session works beautifully. The players who want to plan will come with plans, the ones who don’t want to bother will simply ride along with the ones who did.
  • (B) Most battles are not to the death. This cuts down ENORMOUSLY on the frantic efforts to plan for every possibility and allows a lot more spontaneity since the players can afford to lose occasionally – and may well be quite happy with a partial win if there are multiple goals (which takes us to…)
  • (C) The goals are usually more complex than “defeat the opposition”. If your goals are “Kill the enemy and take their stuff” things are a lot simpler – and more one-correct-tactic oriented – than if your goals are “capture the bandits, find the rare item we want, impress the sheriff so he’ll owe you a favor, cover up the involvement with the bandits of one character’s idiot nephew, and get some information on the guy who drove the bandits out of their usual haunts”.

Thus, over the course of several battles in that d6 Star Wars campaign the bounty hunter D’arc went from Captor (goals; escape and steal his ship!) to Menace (goals; escape, find out how he found them again, try to keep the reward on them down), to Comedy Relief (goals; knock out D’arc and his henchmen, steal D’arc’s NEW ship, and persuade the locals that the group was NOT a major menace), to Stalker / Leader of a menacing enemy team (goals; keep him from revealing their location, try and persuade him that they were currently the good guys and should be helped, rather than hindered, and recruit him) – and finally to Ally.

There are more discussions along these lines in several other articles on the site – such as Battling the Balanced Encounter and the Ridmarch series on flexible adventure design (Part I, Part II, and Part III).

Unfortunately, none of that is precisely related to the original article, which is about players who attempt to import real-world tactics into games where they don’t work (and so their characters would not be familiar with them except, perhaps, as “things that don’t work”) and then get upset about it when they fail – although there is a relationship to the article you mention.

That article does make a good illustration though: the combat-as-sport side is presented fairly – but the combat-as-war side is not.

First up, a combat-as-war group generally IS going up against targets that they cannot defeat in a straight fight (and would need to run to survive without preparations), whereas the article implies that the groups are equivalent and the combat-as-war group could win if they just jumped in. That’s rather unfair since that’s generally not how it works.

Secondarily, the combat-as-war PC’s are presented as expecting benefits from trying to use obviously silly stratagems. A couple of layers of clothing and some mud are good against ordinary bees. Against giant bees with stingers the size of short swords? Not so much; that’s just “padded armor” (which monks were not allowed to use). Similarly, the “sneak attack with a ballista in a bag of holding” example is rather blatantly chosen to look like a silly rules exploit. Now if it had been “lure them into a corridor and use Stone Shape to collapse the ceiling on them” that would pretty obviously be clever tactics – albeit just as much an exploit and just as likely to be a cheap way to end an encounter with very little fuss.

One Response

  1. […] there’s basically very very little chance of them losing – which winds up with the old “Combat as Sport and War” […]

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