Combat is the multiheaded monster we have to slay. There are so many issues to tackle that it may look like a hydra at first blush. But, this behemoth can’t be approached head on. No, combat is too big of a subject and too robust of a terror to be demolished in one fell swoop. Rather, combat must be slashed along its flanks. The only to bleed this monster is to unpack why it’s become the elephant in the room and why everyone’s forced to pay homage to the terror at the table. Defeat it we must if we are to free gaming from the rut that many products have maneuvered us into.
If pulp fiction has taught us anything, it’s that physical conflict is exciting. The majority of fiction plays up on the interior monologues of the characters and how they process their predicaments. The problem with all of this is that there isn’t any action and while the drama may be on the edge of your seat, it doesn’t make for good visuals. But, this is suspense at its finest. In visual media, you have to rely on dramatic irony as much as music and lighting to convey the interior spaces of the characters.
This puts us in an uncomfortable place in roleplaying games, however. The inherent problem is that we’re supposed to be friends with the people who share our gaming table and to add that level of intensity to any game can strain the strongest of relationships. So, how do most games escape that level of mental anguish? Partially they do it by having little to no rules governing social conflicts. This includes any experiential rewards for those situations. The lion’s share of the rules covers the equipment, technology/magic, and combat system’s features of the game. What’s left over is often advice on how to run the game and enough information to get a flavor of the different roles for characters and their niches in the world.
At stake here is the complete jettisoning of the interior for the exterior. Conflicts are often resolved on the battlefield with little to no interior conflicts for the characters. In effect, it’s the detached style of storytelling used in pulps and Ian Flemming’s Bond novels. And it would be a mistake to ignore that it’s infinitely easier to stick with surface descriptions of interior states than it is to explore deeper. A fist to the face is a clear indication that the attacker is angry/frustrated with the attacked.
Accompanying the excitement of the physical descriptions of harm beset on foes who in dramatic terms are in dire need of it due to their clear role as the alien “other,” combat is rooted in the thrill of sporting contests and conflicts that keep the tribe safe. The result is the continued glorification of the warrior/athlete. This should be expected when you look at the roots of the genre: sword-and-sorcery pulps and miniature wargaming. The use of miniatures only helps to reinforce the heritage. Add in the dice throws and the excitement of the outcome that the dice provide and you have a potent mix of physical actions that put the interior dialogues of characters to shame.
Why is this a problem for the RPG genre? First and foremost, events outside of combat have fewer rules and are left in the hands of the players to interpret the outcome. Even if the game system has rules to facilitate game play through social encounters, they are often loose and lack the excitement of combat. Besides, how much of a letdown is it to have a passionate debate get reduced to a handful of rolls between the contestants? Consider that the specialized roles of the characters in many games revolve around what they can do on the battlefield and not what they can do behind closed doors to grease the wheels of society.
Combat is the juggernaut of the game not just because of the edge cases, but also because it represents brute force and magical might. The tactical prowess of the players and their characters is at its apex in the heat of combat. A bit of terse, witty dialogue is preferable to a soliloquy. The players get to showcase their unique talents at defeating their foes for good. This isn’t always good for the story, which is why some boss characters often slink away during the battle only to antagonize the characters once more. But what if you can’t touch your foe no matter what you want to do? What if their words are always getting the best of you while their influence also keeps you in check?
In many cases, the characters are stuck pounding the hell out of that character’s underlings and followers or those who stand to gain from helping keep the player characters from profiting on their own skills and political clout. Beating the villains into the dirt and saving the townsfolk from their own blindness is a satisfying way to gain their trust, but it puts back at square one: solving all problems with combat. This can make the game suffer from a formulaic pattern. That’s a surefire way to boredom.