Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 03, 2012
Balance between combat and other

Combat is an important part of many different games, including role-playing games. While games without combat are possible, see for example A Tale in the Desert, they are few and far between. Nevertheless over the decades we moved from single-activity games to multi-activity games. Especially role-playing games always had multiple parts; for example Bioware talked about the 4 pillars of SWTOR being combat, exploration, progression, and story. Regardless of how you call these elements, it is clear that player in a modern game do not spend 100% of their time in combat. At which point the question poses itself of what percentage of the game should be combat, and what percentage should be handed over to the other activities.

For example accepting a quest in World of Warcraft is done with 2 clicks. Reading the short quest description is more or less optional, as the essential summary of "kill 10 foozles" will be shown on your quest tracker and the location marked on your map. Accepting more or less the same quest in Star Wars: The Old Republic takes considerably more time. There is more description, and the cut scenes and voiceovers invite the player to stay a while and listen. The player also will have to make dialogue choices. In addition to that SWTOR on average has longer ways between combats. Add all that together, and on average a player of WoW might well kill twice as many mobs per hour as a player of SWTOR.

Of course there is no universal answer to what the optimum is. Some people hit the space bar often in SWTOR to skip most or all of the dialogue, others quite enjoy it. And to some extent the players have some choice of how much combat they want to have, because they can spend more or less time with optional non-combat activities like crafting.

I was thinking about that balance in the context of writing the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition adventure I'm currently preparing. As I mentioned before, up to now we have been playing Warhammer FRP, which has a set of rules which supports role-playing very well, but isn't all that combat-centric. Players can have character classes like merchant or boatman, which lend itself somewhat less to combat-heavy adventures. And thus lots of the premade adventures have plots of intrigue and murder mysteries to be solved by role-playing dialogues with NPCs, and not all that much combat. D&D 4E is leaning towards the other extreme, where all character classes are designed for combat, and the rules are heavy on how to run a combat with miniatures. As a result the premade adventures are often very combat-heavy, with typical plots leading the players in some monster-infested dungeon with lots of battles and little role-playing.

Fortunately a pen & paper RPG can be more easily adjusted than a MMORPG. If you enter a dungeon in WoW you don't get the choice whether you want to fight or dialogue. If you prepare an adventure as DM for a pen & paper session, you have a much wider range of choices: You can invent an adventure by yourself and put in exactly the ratio of combat to other activities that you want, or you can take a premade adventure and modify it heavily. Remove half the monsters from that dungeon and play up the interaction with the NPCs leading to that dungeon, and you might get closer to the balance you want.

Hopefully what the DM prepares is what the players want. I am not quite sure what degree of combat my players will want in their game, I plan to start with something and then try to get some feedback whether that amount of combat is too much, too little, or just right. As we literally had no combat at all for several months, I hope the players will like a bit more of it. The trouble with long political intrigue and mystery adventures in a group that only meets one evening every two weeks is that the DM spends a lot of time reminding the players what has happened before. I am trying to structure my adventures in smaller chunks, having a sequence of combat encounters and non-combat encounters, with clear objectives to concentrate on at any given moment, and the larger story a bit more in the background. D&D 4E lends itself nicely to that approach. I guess that too is a modern development, taking into account that the role-players have gotten older, and often play less frequently now.

Which side of the game do you prefer in pen & paper roleplaying? Do you like campaigns with very little combat, with a lot, or what percentage in between?
Upon first consideration, I would love to see a game that allows for no combat if someone chooses that route; however, I've played the Sims, and I'm not sure it would be quite as intriguing as I first thought. Honestly, I'm not sure there is a set percentage of the "perfect" amount of combat. I think a game that allows the player to solve problems in different ways, both combat and non-combat oriented, is the best option. There is some of this in SW:TOR when you are given the choice between killing a certain number of or sneak in and set of charges or some such. This provides a bit of depth and decision-making on the part of the player; albeit, not a ton. It would be interesting to see a game that was truly open to solving the same problem in a number of different ways.
I like half and half myself.

This might vary from group to group, but I found that non-combat activities are often somewhat less focused, unless you're about make a very important decision. People will zone out a bit while other characters discuss things among themselves, get up from the table to get a drink or whatever - and that's okay, it's very relaxed. However, if the entire session is like this, there's a risk of players drifting a bit too much and getting bored.

Combat on the other hand requires more focus, because it's so strategic and you want to keep track of what everyone is doing so you can plan your own actions accordingly. It's a great way of spicing things up, but if again if there's too much of it, players can become tired and unfocused eventually, which is not a state of mind you want to be in while fighting for your life. :D

A healthy balance of both means that there's ups and downs in activity and how much attention is required, which makes the whole session more pleasant (IMO).
I've always thought of RP as the build-up, followed by exploration and, ultimately, combat for the finisher.

It's sort of like a Superbowl Party. The RP is hanging out, laid back, getting drunk, eating good food and joking around with your friends before the game. The combat is the actual football game where everything is tense and your concentration and intensity goes up to another level.

You need both. Too much of RP and story development makes people a little antsy to get out there and beat up stuff. Too much combat diffuses the impact of the tension and makes it more of a repetitive chore.

Another analogy is it's like running on a treadmill. You start off at a jog, warming your body up and you want to end with pushing yourself to the extent of your abilities so that you feel like you've accomplished something.
When playing 4e, I think I like between 0 to 2 combat encounters per evening. It depends on the system though. I like 4e combat, but it's not very good at short, inconsequential combat. 4e combat always takes some minimum of time that is usually longer than you want to spend beating up a few orcs. Better to save the combats for grand encounters.

My current campaign is EN Worlds Zeitgeist adventure path, and so far it's beyond awesome. It leaves the adventures we played before (by WotC, bought or from Dungeon) in the dust. And we have had several sessions without combat, instead focusing on investigation.

My players aren't really on the same page in combat. I got three 4e veterans who I've GMed for since 4e was released, and one person who's new to 4e (but has played and GMed a lot of other RPGs). The new guy and one of the veterans really enjoy noncombat encounters and investigation, while the two other veterans are into combat and a bit of optimization (something that 4e is a bit short on compared to 3e). They all enjoy both aspects, but it's noticeable how two of them come for the combat and the other two regard it as a diversion between roleplaying and investigation.

In our sessions with zero combat the combat players do become a bit impatient, but I think it's a bad idea to just throw in a random encounter to entertain them - like I said, 4e is excellent at big, dramatic combats but poor at short, nonchallenging fights. So 0 to 2 combats seem to work. Some sessions are a couple of hours on setup and then a big battle, while others are all setup and investigations, which can lead to a sessions of almost only frantic combats. 3 or more fights in a night is too much again. There is time (barely) for 3 cool encounters in one session, but you loose too much by jumping from combat to combat without any pause to consider what's happening outside it.
I like how Mass Effect games handle it. basically you have cities or places that have intrigue related quests and other non-combat things to do. Then you go on a mission that will be combat or 90% combat with 10% puzzle or exploration.

The key here is to make much of this optional. So if I wanted to complete the main story I can do it by:

1) Doing all things both combat and non-combat.
2) Doing 20% non-combat and all the combat missions.
3) Doing only 20% combat related missions and the rest non-combat.

This gives the ultimate choice to each individual player.
I think you're trying to compare apples to oranges here. I'd honestly try to keep from using things you've learned from video games in D&D.

Case in point, there was a small little 'extra' that D&D put out when 3rd was just starting that very quickly flopped. It was a Diablo campaign setting with rules to add elements of Diablo's gameplay into D&D. Unfortunately, as it limited the players in what they could do, it was a flop at most of the places I had DM'd or played at. Most video games try to keep a constant stream of instant gratification, D&D is more about imagination and 'seeing' the story, not hearing it.

The real thing you need to worry about is the carrot, as it sounds like you're worrying about the length of the stick.

If your players are in the game for resolutions (i.e., completing quests and feeling heroic/smart), then you don't have a problem at all. If your players are the kind that enjoy the complexities of combat, then you might notice signs of boardom. Remember, about 2/3 of your average D&D handbook has to do with combat, some people take this as the game being a combat game.

However, there is an easy way to test all this on your players and find out what they like, and as so I pass on one of the most evil DM tactics that players never understand just how important it is that just happened. Try the following:

If you need to know what drives your players, put the following choice in front of them. As part of a larger campaign (You need this as it needs to feel like an insignificant part, or something inoccuous, if they think to heavily on it they may try to just follow what they think 'should' be done) you add in a side-quest. This quest should be incredibly small, taking at most 5-15 minutes to get to the 'choice'.

The 'choice' is the most important part for the DM. Here, you give them three quick options that are outlined in the lead up to the choice. First, combat for the goal. Second, RP for the goal. Third, stealth and guile for the goal. Fourth, avoid all of the above for the goal.

An example would be a bandit steals an item from the players. Something important enough to go after. However, the players remember the bandit from somewhere. They know where he lives, and know it's outside of town. When they go there, they pass through a town and notice guards questioning people about bandits as they enter the town. So, the players can now choose what to do. If they wait till night and steal the item back, well, that's kind of obvious what they prefer, using skills and stealth to get the item back. If they simply tell the guard about the thief and wait for the guard to return the item, they are of the non-combat variety and prefer completing the main quest over combat. If they charge to the house and fight the bandit (and possible more bandits), they are of the combat variety and might actively seek it out, meaning you can use it as a lure. If they approach the thief and try to talk the item out of him, they are of the RP variety and that can also be used as a lure.

Small little tests like that once in a while show you what they like to do. I've learned the hard way in the past that sometimes players will do what they think you want them to do, while not really enjoying things. Then you have the players that want Loot, Loot, Loot, or the players that actively seek random encounters. Usually, you can use something like random encounters to keep a combat person happy during a long intrigue campaign, or random RP during combat campaigns.
I don't mind combat in RPGs but I hate intricate combat rules where each fight lasts half an hour or more. I don't find rolling dice or deciding exactly where on the grid my character is standing to be very interesting in a roleplaying game.
I found when running my games that things worked best if there was a fight about once per hour.

It varies of course from group to group. In my group I had one player who loved the sound of his own voice and loved puzzles so if I threw complex puzzles at the party he'd be mulling it over, thinking of a dozen different ways there might be a hidden trap or trick and he loved it. However the others got bored because he was so dominant.

One thing for combat - everyone gets a go.
DoTA, counter strike, minecraft and many other games/mods became immensely popular and were started by amateurs.

I think maybe we should begin to move into a model where developers write engines and toolkits that allow both amatuers and proffesionals to create games using those engines and toolkits. And this way seperate out the development part partially from the game creation part.
I tend to be a concrete thinker. Combat anchored the game for me as a player. Role playing was mostly a means to the payoff, and was sometimes a bit awkward for me.

Other personality typeswhiffed, of course. I liked Antivyrus' idea, but his point is to get to know your players, play to their strengths, but also challenge them a bit to get out of their box.

I liked groups that had a good mix of player personalities. That way I could sit back and mostly listen to the role-playing, benefit from the information gained, and use it for tactical decisions.

As a DM, however, with all the information, I was a confident role-player and playing helped me get out of my shell.

Really enjoying this series, Tobold.
tobold I do think that looking at pen and paper has turned up new ground in game discussions.

What you are talking about is pacing I believe. Pacing in a movie sense is the sequence and ratio of the major plot points or action sequences.

In the US the director Michael Bay is a master at action movie pacing. He took a tired franchise like Transformers and spun gold. JJ Abrams is another director I greatly admire for his way to recast standard plot devices and make them new.

This kind of massive workload on the DM made me give up pen and paper gaming. The idea that a DM has to be script writer, director, producer, set designer, costume coordinator, Best Boy, Gaffer, cameo extra and Catering for his adventure group is just too much.

Even if you outsourced catering to mom YOU STILL are doing 95% of the work.
@Angry Gamer heh, I came to comment exactly what you said :) There is no better way to plan for an evening of DM'ing than by examining the movies your group enjoys.

Personally I think Alien and Starship Troopers both have an excellent mix of atmosphere, story, combat and don't forget suspense!
I think combat is just a type of, you know, action sequence, which doesn't necessary has to be miniatures on a square grid.

In pen&paper rpgs, I'd like to see less combat: if I want structured, rule-based tactics, I play wargames instead.
I'd also like to see more action, and I mean more chases, cliffhangers, infiltrations, escapes... Tense, dramatic stuff.
It can be tactical ("you cover me, and you watch the door! I'll try to break in through the window"), but it doesn't have to involve actual combat rules.

I imagine it would be pretty lame if each battle scene in each movie would be filmed basically the same, just with different decorations. But that's basically what we get in rpgs.

Looks like the only way to spice up the formulaic action in video games are much hated quick time events, but pen&paper rpgs are much better than that.
Combat, can further a storyline, but it can become fairly pointless if its used too much and as Mekias says, if used too little, the players tend to get tired of narrative.

Does that mean its brawny muscle-flexing, even if strategic?
I guess this all depends on the preferences of your players and what motivates them. If you reward a lot of loot and xp for combat, the competitive players will pursue that. If you de-emphasize combat and reward role-playing, it changes their approach. Blending the combat with the story was always fun. ie. The players are betrayed by an NPC, they fight, the NPC flees; the players must use their wits to decipher some problems to find him; they catch the NPC and through combat AND non-combat skills, defeat him --- only to find out the NPC was in fact a pawn, a victim of some other machiavellian plot!

I found the main challenge as a DM was always to balance rewards with play styles so that it was fun for everyone.
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