Monday, February 13, 2012

Combat as War vs. Combat as Sport

In perusing EnWorld, it came to pass that I found a very interesting, if also rather verbose, set of observations on the nature of combat in RPGs.  Here's a link; come back when you've at least skimmed it.  I'll still be here.

Back?  Great.  For those of you who didn't actually read the link, here's a paraphrase summary of the important bits:

There are two competing ideologies about combat in RPGs.  The modern one, Combat as Sport, is based around the idea of two more-or-less evenly matched sides engaging in combat where luck and good play within the intended rules of the combat system prevails.  The older ideology, Combat as War, favors seeking every possible advantage in order to make the fight as quick and deadly as possible (and I do mean every possible advantage).  Combat as War was prominent back in the early editions of D&D, where players made heavy use of sleep spells, thrown oil flasks, guard dogs, and other tricks to survive against foes many times their number and strength.  Examples of this type of gameplay include Justin Alexander's Caverns of Thracia game (particularly Part 8) and the infamous Tucker's Kobolds (sadly, the main site appears to be down, but part of the article is up here).  However, sometime around the beginning of 3e, the focus of D&D started to shift more towards combat as sport (but there were still enough crazy things casters could do to screw the opposition that playing Combat as War was feasible), and then 4e shifted even further towards Combat as Sport with the relegation of open-ended abilities to long-casting-time ritual status.

A discussion of the implications of this for 5e ensues, but that's not the really interesting thing here.  More interesting, and more useful, is being able to look at things through this CAW vs CAS lens.  For example, as Alex pointed out this afternoon, the response to Beyond the Black Gate's query here of "Why do you no longer see adventures set 'in the city of the enemy?'" is made very clear by the CAW / CAS lens.  Such adventures are no longer published because there's basically no way to treat such an event as a series of balanced encounters, which is what CAS-driven modern publishers strive to do.  If the PCs screw up, they're toast; victory in such a scenario requires stealth and planning and subterfuge for survival.  But that's a very CAW way to play, which is no longer in favor.

This ideological split also explains my post Damage Hurts, to some degree.  What I was seeing in that post was a shift towards Combat as War from our usual Combat as Sport ways as a result of higher perceived risk in combat.  Further, after the events of last session, I'd argue that we've shifted pretty far towards CAW in Traveller; we spent probably two hours planning how to break into a building, disable the robotic guards, and steal the goods without alerting the police or the compound perimeter guards.  We did psychic reconnaissance, bought equipment just for this task, bribed the use of a delivery vehicle, cut the phone wires, killed power to the alarm systems, mined parts of the building as a backup plan in case everything went south, and even doused the sentries we knocked out with rum.  And then we waltzed into the target area and put down the 'bots in one round with dirty tricks like non-line-of-sight psychic assault and autofire stun grenades.  Perfect execution...  and also a perfect example of Combat as War gameplay.

(Related: Trailblazer's short rest is a decidedly CAS mechanic.  Decreases resource management concerns over the course of an adventure and tries to keep the party close to full-ish resources to increase encounter balance.  Textbook.)

Finally, with the distinction between CAW and CAS articulated, it becomes another way to look at the preferences of players.  For example, I like to win.  I especially like a guaranteed win by some ridiculous maneuver as a result of lots of planning, which puts me closer to the CAW end of things.  Matt, on the other hand, seems to be more on the CAS side; his comment on resource management on Damage Hurts seems indicative, for example.  I don't say this negatively; rather, the ability to look at player preferred game style in this light is a useful tool for GMs looking to maximize fun had.

A final interesting tidbit is that this point has been made before about the Legend of the Five Rings CCG here (and arguably in other criticisms of TSR D&D combat vs WotC D&D combat); slightly more frustrating is that while I had read Slouching Towards Slugfest before, it didn't quite stick as well as Combat as Sport vs Combat as War just by lack of coining a good term for it.  The power of words.  One question which follows, then, is whether or not examples of this trend are to be found in the evolution of other long-running games.


  1. Hmm, I too hadn't really considered this before. I'd say that there are definitely elements of CAW I like, but there are also many things I find mind-numbingly boring about it.

    I like making and executing elaborate plans. I don't enjoy it when they take a long time to make and I don't have a part in them. I like short combats, I like roleplaying. I don't particularly enjoy the munchkinly things you sometimes see CAW players doing. I guess there's another view here that I would say I espouse:

    Combat as a means of progressing the story

    I don't want players to spend forever in two encounters in the course of a session. I want other interesting things to happen. But by the same token, I don't want players to spend forever planning for an encounter they can already steamroll. Particularly if at the end of those plans, my job amounts more or less to just saying, "Yeah. I guess you do that. Good job."

    I guess the way I feel is this: if players are supposed to have limited time to execute their plan, they damn well better have limited time to make it.

    Next CAW game I run I'm bringing an hourglass. You get maybe 10 minutes to plan for an encounter before things begin to progress without you.

  2. Mmm... to some degree 'story' exists outside the paradigm. I suppose what you may be getting at is just deemphasizing combat as an activity in RPGs, and the elimination of 'meaningless' combats which do nothing to move the narrative. However, within those combats which do move the narrative (and therefore continue to exist), the CAS vs CAW choice persists, unless you even strip the combat system way down.

    I do agree that players overplanning for an encounter that they would definitely steamroll is kind of a waste of time. CAW mindsets tend to develop in response to high-threat environments, though; only a problem if you mix your lethalities, in which case yeah, the logical thing to do is to play CAW. A consistently low-threat environment will gradually shift CAW players to a more CAS set of expectations (except for a few pathological munchkins and/or people identified as Tactician gamers).

    One point which has not been made is that CAW totally espouses skipping / avoiding encounters which can be avoided. If you don't need to fight those guys to achieve the objective, don't fight them, because if you do, waste of resources. This can be frustrating for GMs, too, if they've spent a lot of time doing encounter prep, and may be part of what you're saying (not sure).

    Finally, I agree that sometimes planning should be timed. When the PCs are in the dungeon and you're tracking 10-minute dungeon exploration turns (as in OSRIC), if you spend 10 minutes planning OoC, there's no reason not to count it in game. When the PCs are sitting in their starship plotting a heist with no particular deadline and have vastly more time than the players... there is seems wrong to restrict player planning time.

  3. Yeah, not all the time, though there are definitely situations where it's important.

    In Alex's campaign so far the danger level (from humans) has seemed pretty low; maybe that's why I feel like we should be doing more charging in.

    1. Mmm... perhaps. I feel like if we'd gone head-to-head with the drones without doing the fieldwork first, they'd've put a decent dent in our resources (Gauss rifles hurt when you have armor 5-6), and they would also have gotten an alarm off, in which case we'd also have to deal with the perimeter guards _and_ the police, loaded for bear since we'd've provoked a high-threat combat response. So, I disagree cyclically; we've experienced a low danger level from humans because we haven't been charging in :p. But you are right to some degree; Alex is relatively merciful as a rule. Perhaps we should try it this coming session.