Combat vs. Roleplaying

I have been asked to provide my view on where I fall in the Combat vs. Role Playing argument. What specifically do I prefer in a game that I create and do I target my games at my player’s preferences over my own. This is a very complex question to me and I will need to unpack the question first to give you an idea exactly what I think the question is before I answer it. That way you will be able to see exactly what I think the question is about and therefore put my opinion on it in perfect context.


You need to look to the system to workout what it encourages

Firstly, let us consider one side of the argument, “Combat”. What exactly are we talking about here? We need to look at the other side of the argument “Role Playing” to give it context so I am assuming under the heading “Combat” it is any action that calls for the player to act without in depth thought to developing relationships in game and acting from a point of survival. This to me would suggest a broader category of “Action” instead of “Combat” as the character is not normally considered to be seeking to develop when dealing with traps or navigating the pitfalls of a dynamic and dangerous environment. Even actions that simply require a skill roll is taking things out of the “Role Playing” arena and including it in something that is determined by a mechanic. But that may be going too far as I often modify Diplomacy rolls by good role playing as well.

Then the other side of the coin here is the “Role-playing”. I would define this as any time the character is acting as, or referring to the character’s reactions and interactions to the game world. This may be defined as when they are dealing with a non-player character (NPC). It may also be things that they want the character to do that would show character driven development of the character’s in game life or personality. These are the times which make the player think about who, or what, the character is in reflection of the actions or reactions of those around them.

Ask most GM’s what their preference is and the will say that want to see the characters interacting from their character’s perspective and acting in character all the time. So it would likely lean toward a Role-Playing perspective. It would probably end up a 50/50 split if you surveyed a group of players what they liked about the games. It may even possibly lean a little more toward the action side in certain games. I will actually set up a poll after running this game and place it in some of the more travelled Google+ communities to get an actual answer on this. I will provide the results of this as a blog somewhere down the track.

I think there is a definite perspective problem here and it is always this problem that causes the debate. Games like FATE and other Indie games that are riding a popularity wave at the moment are working on systems that will likely reduce this argument in the long term if they make it into the mainstream. Until that time, or until the time that mainstream games (Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons etc.) start a progressive approach to in game advancement this argument will exist. First thing I need to do before I clarify this statement is actually look at what an RPG is from a theoretical perspective.

What is an RPG?

Beyond the dice what is an RPG?

A game is largely defined as (and I know I will get many arguments about how well this suits) something that participants enter willingly; something that has goals; something that contains conflict; something that has rules; something that is interactive. A game is a closed formal system aimed at providing a problem for the players to solve. This system and problem is in place to provide the player an experience that is in the player’s mind arising from the social nature of the game and the risks that are inherent from the conflict in game.

Because the experience is in the player’s mind each player will have a different experience. But this is built from the expectations of the game. From the GM’s perspective we want to provide an interactive environment for a story to be told by the Player/GM interaction and we want this to fire the players imagination. In most mainstream games though, from a players perspective, how they overcome these “conflicts” is by character advancement. How do character’s advance in mainstream games? It is by gaining advancement points (normally experience but I will generalise to save confusion) which they get how? By facing conflict.

So there is the catch 22 in this situation. To defeat the conflict in an RPG, the player must face the conflict to make their character more able to face bigger conflict. To me this is the real crux of this argument. It is how advancement works that provides a key difference in opinion between the GM, or the person running the game, and the player who plays it. All of the mainstream games (as a generalisation) have this underlying structure as the backbone to their systems. 

There is no easy way around it. Whilst I would love to invest in a game where the players have an extensive discussion about how to defeat the Jabberwocky that has taken the royal palace as it’s lair and the royal family as it’s prisoners it is just not feasible. Imagine if at the end of the session that was total roleplaying I turned to the group and said: “Sorry all no advancement points today because you did not kill anything”.

My opinion

My point of view on this is likely to differ from many

This is precisely why it is so difficult for me to answer this question. It comes down to me as a question of how advancement is handled. I play Pathfinder mainly and it’s system of advancement relies completely on conflict for advancement. There are no real suggestions of awarding more than a pure token amount for excellent roleplaying. The only situation you will find this in is if you talk your way out of a fight and therefore defeat a threat in a different manner than by the sword. You get awarded nothing for roleplaying well when developing the story from a non-threatening foe.

Indie games like FATE (just released) and Lords of Gossamer and Shadow (not yet released but I have the rules as part of a Kickstarter) tend toward a more abstract advancement system. In these games the players may play for several sessions with no advancement. In other words the players game is made up of conflicts the GM deems are appropriate for their level and it is the roleplaying that is the focus in these games. After a few sessions or a major goal the GM then decides it is time for an advancement in these games. Both games handle advancement quite differently but the essence is the player can alter their character, perhaps get better and advance how they want to. In Lords of Gossamer and Shadow their is an ingenious mechanic where there are “advancement points” but the player never really sees them! In FATE it may be altering your character or advancing a skill, but there is no requirement that you get an advancement per x amount of creatures killed.

Games like these tend to focus much heavier on the roleplaying side as that is what the focus in game is squarely on. But of course that is not the entire story. Without action there would be no need to role play. The character’s would have nothing to do in a perfect world so there MUST exist conflict and risk. It is from this conflict and risk that arises problems for the players to solve. So I lie firmly in the middle of this debate if you want to call it a debate. In reality you can not have role playing without action but you can have action without roleplaying. They are called board games.

Try a system that encourages what you want
in your game

If you are an Indie game supporter then this may be an argument you do not need to have with yourself. You are likely playing a game whose advancement system focusses on the role playing side of this argument rather than the “action” side. If you are a mainstream game player the difficulties involved in having this discussion are many and are integral to the games whole system. Changing a rule that is so intrinsically woven throughout the whole system is fraught with danger and you will be putting out fires all over the system as a GM. I am not saying that it can not be done as I played in a game of AD&D many years ago where the only “advancement points” you got was from how well you role-played your character. But it was demanding on the DM and games were few and far between as planning took a long time for him.

Ask yourself what you want from your game and choose a system to match it. I play Pathfinder because it is familiar to my players and I would likely not have an in person game if I did not. It would not be my first choice of game if I had the pick of systems to run though. I enjoy role playing and all of my players do too, but their expectation is you kill things, solve traps, avoid combat with evil doers you advance. That is the game I play to. I attempt to weave as much role playing into combat that I can. I do not make it a simple roll fest but have my key NPC’s drop clues in the heat of battle and I encourage others at the table to do the same.

So, in conclusion this was a massively hard question for me to be asked. I hope you followed through my argument OK and understand my point of view. Action (inclusive of combat) is integral to a good role-playing story. The real issue is how your system is set up and what does it encourage? Take a good look at the system that you are playing in. If you have people that constantly wax lyrical about wanting to role-play more and fight less then try and introduce a new system that supports this. As always, let me know what you think in the comments and keep on rolling! 

1 Comment

  1. I use combat for plot forks. The story can change depending on the outcome. The combat also develops a character more. Combat is maybe 20-30% of my adventures. And not every NPC or animal has to be killed in order to complete quests.


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