Monday 15 November 2010

Would it be so terrible if I never rolled to hit again?

During my ongoing CoC pbem, I’ve been having a few thoughts about the raison d’etre of the adventures I'm running and those I'm planning.

For many, many weeks, the brave investigators have probed the mysteries, followed the clues, talked to the NPCs and been led a merry dance by the twists and turns of the plot. There’s only been one gunfight, and that lasted all of two rounds. And they seem to be loving it.

I’m also working on a module that is very light on combat. There’s a lot of location-based investigation, magic, weird goings-on and of course talking to lots and lots of people. And its follow-up will be similarly combat-light.

Even Death Frost Doom (to take one of the flagships of the OSR's output) is more about atmosphere and ambiance than sword-swinging and axe-hacking (although there is the potential for that). From the reviews, it seems to me that a careful party that is not too greedy and not too foolish can actually get in, get loot and get out again. With no combat.

When I was playing first time around in the good old days, it was taken for granted that we were there to kill things and take their stuff. D&D or Traveller, the tactics were the same, it was just the weapons that differed. Guys wanted bigger guns to make bigger bangs and blow bigger holes in bigger opponents.

However, recent anecdotal evidence points me towards a view that there is a sizeable proportion of players out there (it seems to be female gamers, but I'm sure that there are males who would agree) who would get just as much enjoyment out of a game where there is as little combat as possible, and the main thrust is on interaction, investigation and problem-solving using brain rather than brawn.

The raison d’etre of D&D and indeed Old School dungeons is exploration but it’s implicit in the rules and the way that the characters are established (hit points, armour class, weapons, damage, enemies whose first resort seems to be fighting, stats for monsters which list AC, HD, Att) that combat is going to be taking up a lot of that exploration-centred activity. Cure Light Wounds implies that wounds are going to be suffered, after all.

So I find myself thinking – am I shifting focus to a genre of role-playing that eschews violence? Is it a mark of getting old and finding continual hack-and-slay boring or am I undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift?

Being a writer, I'm aware that the main feature of any story is conflict - the same applies to adventures. In days gone by, perhaps we took that word a little too literally. I know that I did - although towards the end of my first stint of gaming, back in the late 1980s, we were starting to move towards a style of play whereby we felt that if we had to draw our swords, we had failed to achieve our ends successfully. Admittedly, that was a city-based campaign where the opportunities for role-playing non-combat situations were somewhat heavier on the ground than they might have been if we were exploring the wilderness.

In my gaming sessions with Junior Grognard, the mix for the Training Dungeon was combat and puzzles, physical obstacles and features that challenged his thinking abilities as much as his dice-rolling. Yet if I'm selling D&D to kids, it's going to be pitched at the "Are you a Warrior or a Wizard? Find out with Dungeons and Dragons" tagline level - hack 'em or zap 'em, it's still combat. Where's the alternative? For seven-year-olds, the level of patience and social sophistication needed to run an adventure on non-combat lines is still lacking - they want to hit things with things.

I suppose it all depends - there is no "right" balance - the tastes of the DM and his players, the type of campaign and terrain in which the action takes place all play a part in determining how often the cry goes up

"Roll to hit!"

What's your view? Do you like a good bit of bloodshed or is it better to talk than fight? Would adventures that are less combat-oriented help to attract women into the game? And should adventures be slanted towards situations that can only be solved by combat or should the non-violent options be given equal chance?


  1. This made me want to find out when I last ran a proper combat, and after scrolling through the archives on my blog, I think it had to be early last April. Even so, I wouldn't say I run a no-voilence campaign. Rather that most conflicts are played out either as roleplaying-encounters, or in a more narrative mode.

    And since it's relevant to your post, I play in a men-only group - not by choice, but because there're no female players in my particular part of the RPG-universe.

    Oh, come to think of it, I did run a combat last month, but that was a set-piece battle with a couple of thousand on each side. More of a board-game thing, then.

  2. I like non-combat resolutions to situations -- clever negotiations, evasions, a swift Turning of undead or bit of trickery . . . my current players seem to enjoy that too, though some of them get a bit restless if there isn't SOME combat at least every other session -- make that every session if they're deep in a dungeon like Stonehell.

  3. Well, combat avoidance is more realistic, isn't it? As they say, you can control how a fight starts, but you can't control how it ends! My people definitely like the thinking aspect of the game, with climactic confrontations to punctuate things.

  4. adventures that consist of nothing but exploration and combat (= most dungeons) quickly bored me even when i was a teenager.

    sometimes physical conflict can (sometimes even should) be unavoidable, but most of the time there should be other options for the players.

    on the subject of young gamers, it's true that kids seem to have problems with non-violent solutions. the trick is to put them into situations where there is no other way, when fighting simply won't do any good. they will surpise you. :)

    here's an example of what i did:

    i pitted my nephew and his friends against a poltergeist that they couldn't harm with weapons or the magic they had (they tried of course :)). they had to get past the ghost to rescue an injured child (heh, that got them interested!).

    the ghost was hitting (and damaging) them with stuff and from close by they could hear the injured boy wimper. they were "very" excited. at first they had no idea what to do and there was a bit of frustration... (retreat was an option but what about the boy?!)

    the trick was to get the ghost to talk. during conversation it would then reveal through several clues that it wasn't there by choice, but was bound by someone else's will and that it was seriously unhappy about it's unlife cause it was used to a live of luxury.

    if you gave it any object that could remind him of his former life, the ghost would be pacified long enough to rescue the kid.

    the whole situation took quite some time but afterwards they were seriously satisfied. after the game they talked more about the ghost than about anything else that happened that game.

    after a few encounters like that, "hitting it" might not be the first impulse upon encountering something, even for young and inexperienced players. :)

  5. As a player in yon game of PBeM my view is as long as the players are engaged and feel like they've got something to contribute using skills etc - I've become a bit of a convert to the BRP as a side effect - then the balance finds itself. I've had to rein myself in a few times making adjustments for what might or might not be socially acceptable in the 1920s.