Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Split games

What do the XCOM games, the Heroes of Might & Magic games, the Final Fantasy games, and the games of the Total War series have in common? They are all what I would call split games: Games in which the combat part happens split apart from the rest of the game, with a different user interface, different rules, and all that. Compare that to games like Diablo or MMORPGs in which controlling your character in and out of combat is basically done in the same way: In Diablo searching a barrel for treasure is the same action as hitting an opponent. And what is slightly less evident, pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons are split games too!

I am not just talking about a narrow case like 4th edition, where the split is more obvious, because you take out a battle map and figurines once you enter combat. But fundamentally that split has always been there, through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons as well as in most other pen & paper rules systems. There has always been a more strictly regulated part of the game which is combat, and a more free-form part of the game between fights. Even back in the days of THAC0 and all that, the THAC0 was strictly a combat mechanic which had absolutely no relevance outside combat. Many spells and abilities were clearly designed either for combat or for "out of combat". Outside of combat a spell like Magic Missile has no function. And balance issues arose from the fact that some classes didn't have any useful "out of combat" abilities, while for example a wizard could still use spells like Invisibility or Fly out of combat and was thus more useful in the long run. Even if you played without figurines or battle maps, the split was there. Players always behave differently in combat than out of combat. And nearly universally combat actions are turn-based, giving every player equal opportunity to act, while out of combat gameplay isn't necessarily so equalized.

There are several consequences to this split in pen & paper games. One is that if you look at a game, or watch people playing, the impression is a very different one depending on whether they are in combat or out. And if you look at rules systems, the actual effect of that rules system on combat tends to be much more significant than its effect on the "roleplaying" out of combat. I watched a few videos of WoTC playing D&D Next on YouTube, and didn't learn much about D&D Next in the process: Most of the time they were roleplaying, and there was no discernible difference between what they did in the video and how they would have acted if they had played another edition of D&D.

The other big consequence of the split is that as a DM you need to consider your campaign as a mix of two different games, and keep in mind that the same group of players might not enjoy both parts equally. I always facepalm when somebody tells me that 4th edition D&D has "too much combat". Sorry, the rules system says NOTHING about how much combat any edition of D&D has. That is the decision of the DM, or of the person who wrote the adventure. I've played mega-dungeon adventures in early versions of D&D where all we ever did was combat. And you can play a 4E adventure with not a single fight in it if you wanted to. Personally I am much in favor of a 50:50 mix, because if you roleplay too long in a row everybody loses concentration and focus, and a fight wakes everybody back up.

I stopped following the beta of D&D Next, as I don't have a group to play it with. But once the new edition is finalized, I will very much judge it on its performance in combat. Because that is where a rules system actually comes into play. Nobody needs a rules system to negotiate with a dragon, but you certainly need one to slay him.

One thing I've heard repeatedly about pencil and paper RPGs, and still rings true today is that RPGs move at the speed of plot. That lends itself well to the split environment, where combat is handled differently than exploration/role playing/traveling.

pencil and paper RPGs move at the speed of plot

That is one advantage of pen & paper over computer RPGs: An uneventful voyage of 3 weeks can take just seconds to play. In a computer RPG, single or multiplayer, you always spend some boring time running from A to B and back. And if you put too many means of fast travel in the game, the virtual world loses its perception of distance.
I think most people that judge 4th edition saying that "it has too much combat" probably just look at the time it takes to finish an encounter, compared to the previous editions.
On the few cases that I played 4th, we had battles that literally took a more than an hour, consistently, while on 2nd a 20-minute battle would seem exxessively long.

That was my perception of it, at least.

Maybe we were just being newbies and were simply wasting time on trying to figure out how things work. But the general consensous in the group was that the systems were a bit too "combat heavy" for our tastes.
probably just look at the time it takes to finish an encounter, compared to the previous editions

What is important in how "combat heavy" a game is, is how much time in a typical session is spent in combat, and how much time is spent out of combat. The length of a single encounter is different in 4E because 4E tends towards more epic battles. Thus instead of having a combat against 3 orcs, followed by a combat against 6 goblins, followed by a combat against 1 ogre, 4E has ONE combat against 1 ogre, 3 orcs, and 6 goblins at the same time. Once you learn the mechanics, the overall time remains the same. But combat *is* more "blocky" in 4E, with fewer but longer fights instead of lots of small ones.
That's probably true.

Also I found that characters (and NPCs) were seriously buffed conpared to the previous editions, which added much survivability that could make fights go on for longer. I mean second wind and healing surges were unheared of until then and our first reaction was "wait, does that mean the cleric doesn't need heals?".
Don't think Diablo is a good idea. It is a split game too, since the autcion house is an integral part of it, and it has a different interfacce.
One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that split games can be incredibly difficult to design. I often find that one aspect of split will be dumbed-down or just not feel as robust as the other half. For example, the Total War series has some of the most complex combat around but the overworld management is generally quite light. Obviously, the best games are the ones that can make both sides of the split compelling enough that they could stand on their own right.
"I always facepalm when somebody tells me that 4th edition D&D has "too much combat". Sorry, the rules system says NOTHING about how much combat any edition of D&D has."

You probably misinterpret. I left DnD behind and never looked just because it has "too much combat". Just as you say: It is up to the group to decide how much combat you want. *And* choose the system you play accordingly.

DnD is designed for a combat-heavy playstyle. If this is not your thing, DnD is the wrong - as in: not the optimal - system for you. Just count how many pages in the rulebook are devoted to combat-rules and how many are not.
Also your dragon argument works just as well the other way round: To negogiate with a dragon some rules would be helpful. Slaying it though is so epic, no rules should cover that, but great roleplay for which rules are unnecessary.

But this is of course all about playstyle. For example I usually don't give XP for battles ("encounters"), only for adventures and roleplay.

That is what I mean when I say DnD has too much combat: It is obviously designed for a combat-centric playstyle.
"In a computer RPG [..] if you put too many means of fast travel in the game, the virtual world loses its perception of distance."

There are ways around this. You can have a real clock, in which wasting time on long journeys involves some resource penalty, and/or the odd random encounter.

Many players dislike this, but then again many players are minmaxers who not only want to optimise their character for power, but want it to be easy.
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