Why RPG Combat Is Broken

A painting of Viking Age warriors engaged in battle.
This post is 2 in the series: The Challenge of RPG Combat

Gather round, all ye game masters, designers, and RPG enthusiasts: it is time for part two of this series on extended conflict-resolution rules in roleplaying games. We refer to these rules as “combat” for brevity’s sake, even though they often include rules for car chases, verbal debates, and competitive tea parties. If a system has rules that pause the normal action of the game and provide more detailed options for resolving a problem, that counts as combat for our purposes.

Last week, I explained how in an ideal scenario, combat can benefit a campaign’s story rather than distracting from it, as the common wisdom goes. However, very few combat systems are anywhere close to the ideal. In fact they are so far from it that I would categorize most RPG combat as fundamentally broken. Despite over forty years of collective design experience, we’re still searching for a reliable way to make fun combat rules. But before we can solve this problem, we need to understand why combat is in such a sorry state.

Combat Is Overly Complicated

Imagine you’re sitting down to play chess, but not the version of chess you know. In this game, each of the pieces can move a dozen different ways, and each movement option depends on where other pieces are in relation to it. You’ve played several times, but there are just too many options to keep in your head, so you resign yourself to referring back to the rule book every other move, just to make sure you haven’t done something wrong.

Does that sound like fun? If not, then you can understand why so many players abhor RPG combat. Most systems have countless rules to be memorized, from how each type of attack works to how many feet a character can run each round to what happens when someone uses a bow in melee combat. Character abilities and special gear add a whole new layer of complication, until it’s impossible for most players to keep it all straight.

The complexities of old standbys like D&D and Shadowrun are well known, but they are hardly alone. The much beloved Riddle of Steel tries to simulate every possible way a human can be injured, and the result is nothing but an enormous headache. Even Call of Cthulhu,* famous for not being about combat, has a chase system that I can barely make heads or tails of.

A certain amount of complexity is required in order to create a deep experience, but most RPGs trade a lot of complexity for very little depth. Not only does this make combat confusing and difficult to learn, but it also means combat takes a long time. What should be a quick bar brawl turns into a two-hour slog as every rule must be checked and double-checked. Is it any surprise so many players would prefer to skip combat altogether so they can get on with their roleplaying?

Combat Is Unintuitive

All right, you’ve studied the rules of this weird chess variant backward and forward, but you’re having extra trouble remembering them because they seem so arbitrary. One of your knights moves normally, but the other gets an extra space, and the only way you can tell them apart is that one knight has a tiny hat.

Rules have to be intuitive for players to stay immersed in the action. To be intuitive, combat has to meet two requirements. First, each rule must follow naturally from the last. If a first circle spell takes two mana to cast, and a second circle spell takes four mana, it naturally follows that a third circle spell would take six mana. Otherwise, rule are hard to learn and remember.

Second, players need to be able to imagine what their characters are doing within the fiction when they take a mechanical action. If a player succeeds on a trip action, they expect their opponent to suffer a penalty commensurate with being knocked down. If a PC has a grenade in their inventory, they expect a way to use that grenade in combat. And of course, what they imagine their character doing during combat has to make sense.

Classic RPG combat is riddled with unintuitive rules. Hitpoints are perhaps the most obvious example, with characters routinely able to withstand dozens of sword hits or, worse, gunshots.* But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Turn-based movement means that armored paladins must stand still while enemies dash past them to attack the spellcasters, and powerful abilities are limited to an arbitrary number of uses per conflict. It quickly becomes impossible to reconcile what happens in combat with what’s happening in the fiction, and eventually players stop trying.

A lot of newer systems have tried to solve this problem by making the rules more abstract, and while that’s a good idea in theory, in practice it rarely works out. Abstract systems often leave out important options that players feel their characters should be able to take, like how Mouse Guard* has no option to retreat from a conflict once it’s started. Another common problem with abstract systems is that it’s often difficult to tell what a given option translates to in the fiction. What does it mean to choose “defend” in a car chase? The rulebook can offer explanations, but if those explanations don’t make intuitive sense, players will have a difficult time remembering them.

Combat Is Unbalanced

You’re really determined to play this chess variant, even with the dozens of extra rules, even with the tiny hat of extra movement. No set of rules is too obtuse for you! But then your opponent sets up their pieces, and instead of pawns, they start with a frontline made entirely of queens. That sounds… fun?

Game balance is always tricky, and no game is ever perfect, but most RPG combat systems are so unbalanced it’s a wonder their books can stay upright on the shelf. Often, this imbalance comes from character abilities. RPGs like Eclipse Phase and Tenra Bansho Zero have so many different options in character creation that some are bound to be overpowered – not to mention all the ways those abilities can combo into an ultimate chain reaction. Players who have extra time to spend analyzing all the best options will quickly leave their peers in the dust.

Alternatively, balance issues can creep in through the combat options themselves. In Mouse Guard, the best way to win conflicts is to use the Attack action over and over again, ignoring any other options. In 4th Edition Legend of the Five Rings, there’s rarely a reason for shugenja to ever leave the Defense Stance. All other stances are inferior for spellcasters. Sometimes, imbalance comes from truly bizarre sources. In D&D, playing without a battle map causes major problems, because no one can hold all the different ranges in their head. In the Mistborn RPG, GMs have to keep careful track of how many minutes and seconds a power lasts if they wish to preserve balance.

A Detailed Explanation of Balance Issues

  • Mouse Guard: The MG combat system has four basic actions: Attack, Defend, Feint, and Maneuver. Attack hurts your opponent and auto-defeats Feint, Defend heals you, Feint hurts your opponent and auto-defeats Defend, and Maneuver gives you some miscellaneous bonuses. Attack is the action you need to win, and it has no counter. Choosing Defend will never win, and it opens you to a possible Feint. Feint is always a terrible choice because an Attack will automatically beat it. With these rules, repeatedly choosing Attack is almost always the right option.
  • Legend of the Five Rings: L5R has several different combat stances with the default being Attack Stance, which gives no bonuses or penalties. Defense Stance gives a defensive bonus, with the cost of not being able to make attacks. However, the book specifically says the character can still cast spells, and since that’s what shugenja will be doing anyway, there’s rarely a reason not to take this stance. And while you might think damaging spells would count as an attack, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the rules. Spells are already really powerful, so it’s not like they need a boost.
  • Dungeons and Dragons: In D&D and other games designed to be played on a square or hex grid, numerous abilities are balanced by range and speed bonuses. Monks get 10 feet of extra movement at second level, and longbows get 50 feet of extra range over crossbows as a trade for doing less damage. Without a grid, these differences in range melt together because no one can keep them all straight in their head, upsetting the game’s balance.
  • The Mistborn Adventure Game: In Mistborn, timekeeping is very abstract, measured in scenes and sessions rather than exact units. The exception is magical abilities, which have durations measured in minutes and seconds. This is a pain to keep track of, and the more powerful magics don’t last as long, so if the GM just handwaves the duration, those abilities become even more powerful.

No matter where imbalance comes from, it has the same result: frustration at the table. Players feel misled for picking an option that looked good but turned out to be garbage, or they’re simply discouraged because their fellow PC is so much more effective than they are. This is what leads so many players to check out the moment combat begins; they have no interest in a game that’s rigged from the start.

Combat Is Static

You’ve had it with this convoluted, unbalanced chess variant your friend keeps trying to make you play. In its place, they offer you a different option, one that’s perfectly balanced and super simple, they promise. You agree and discover it’s a board with only two rows, and each player gets only a single pawn as their piece. You take turns moving the pawn closer to the other player’s side, and whoever gets there first wins. Are you happy now? No? Why are you so difficult?

The final nail in RPG combat’s coffin is that few systems offer players any meaningful choices. Sometimes this is a result of poorly balanced rules. As we discussed in the previous section, Mouse Guard combat technically has four different options a player can choose from, but Attack is so much more efficient that it’s the only one worth using.

Alternatively, static combat can come from overspecialized character creation. 3.5 D&D combat had numerous martial options, from trips to grapples, but unless players built a very specific type of character, they would only ever take the basic attack action. Spellcasters had more options, but even for them, there was almost always an obviously optimal attack spell for each situation.

Finally, some combat systems are static by design, with no interesting options to start with. 5E D&D officially did away with most of its combat actions, leaving martial characters with only Attack and the seldom-used Grapple. Fate is even worse, with rules that lead to doing exactly the same thing every round until the enemy runs out of hitpoints.*

No matter the cause, static combat systems are a chore to get through. Meaningful choices are the foundation of all game play. They are what make games fun, and without them, combat is simply an exercise in running out the clock. Meanwhile, the narrative and roleplaying sections of an RPG do allow meaningful choices, as long as the GM is doing their job, so it’s no surprise that many players view combat as a penance they must pay in order to reach the fun part of the game.

Not every combat system is guilty of every problem in this post, but the majority score at least a two or three out of four. These problems are so common that they render combat inaccessible to vast swaths of players, and it’s no wonder that so many indie developers are leaving combat out entirely. That’s a legitimate design choice, but it means giving up all the potential benefits an extended conflict system can provide.

Don’t worry – all is not lost! In among all the dreck, a handful of combat systems manage to shine. If designers are willing to learn from these positive examples, we may yet live to see a vast improvement in a vital element of the medium. I’ll talk more about that next time in Learning From Successful Combat Systems.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.



  1. Elda King

    The problems with combat are a good example of the dysfunctional RPG culture we have. Many players specifically complain that making combat balanced is bad – that it is unrealistic, that it makes the game predictable, that it removes risk, that everything becomes symmetrical. None of that is true, but players lash out against attempts to fix balance on principle. And then people also lash out against munchkin powergamers that make overpowered characters, because the problem isn’t balance, it is people that don’t magically all agree on what is the target power level. Or just bad combat that people try to skip.
    As for combat being overcomplicated, it is the counterpoint to it being static. People add unnecessary rules and complications for the sake of simulation; people all but demand that there be a separate combat system with proper turn order, and get upset if it doesn’t allow a fringe option they feel is “realistic” (my personal experience was when players were outraged that there weren’t basic rules for dual-wielding, but the same goes for stuff like grapple or disarm or for mounted combat or whatever). So you end up with World of Darkness, a system that is very much Not a Combat Game with specific rules for machine guns and semiautomatic firearms and various martial arts. But on the other hand, combat must be “fast” (not unreasonable, considering it so often is not fun) and paradoxically “simple” – which means any obvious attempt to make the system more interesting (more tactical, more consequential, etc) is “bad”. If you don’t have a boring class with no options, what will newbies play? If you add special attacks to a melee warrior, you are making it less unique. You can’t remove the excess rules, but you also can’t add the necessary ones.
    My conclusion: RPG has created a culture so toxic that it kills good game design. Players just insist on being miserable.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s certainly true that a lot of RPG players respond very badly to criticisms of their favorite games, many of them with the exact lines you mention, but I tend to think the issue is more to do with a stagnant design space where there isn’t a huge amount of incentive to innovate.

      The current combat model is “good enough” for the big boys, who are running on razor thin profit margins and don’t feel like investing the resources in innovation. Meanwhile, indie devs who do want to break the mold have little guidance on how to do it.

      I haven’t seen that players will actually reject a better system if offered, it’s just that the few successful entries (which I’ll talk about next week) have been too niche to make much of an impact.

      • Elda King

        Considering the huge success of the “old school revolution”(which is guilty of all the problems above and then some) I would say that the community and the culture are very much to blame. There are innovative indies, which are promptly ignored in favor of yet another copy of bad D&D mechanics pasted onto whatever theme.

        Considering the horrible edition wars and how even trivial fixes often face backlash, I’d say it goes beyond “lack of incentive” to try something new. There is a huge push for not only not innovating, but sometimes even going backwards.

        I personally had too many terrible experiences trying to get veterans to try something new, and saw too much terrible “advice” online. There are good systems with good combat around, the RPG community just doesn’t play them.

        • Jonesy

          Hey Elda King,

          Could you list those RPG’s I’m interested in them.

          Thank you.

  2. Mr. Bill

    Oren, thanks so much for your well-considered and eloquently-stated observations! Seen from my perspective as a GM and player since 1977, you’re spot on. For the past five years I’ve sporadically attempted to design a system with the kind of flow, engagement and immersion that would enable maximum enjoyment and have broad appeal, only to be frustrated by expectations arising from my prior experience with gaming to add more mechanical simulation features. Statistical validation, I’ve also found, does not enhance emotional and imaginative connection to the narrative unless it is reasonable within the context of the narrative and doesn’t mechanically stifle creative solutions. The problem with any sort of design is deciding what needs to be added and sacrificed for a desired result, whether you’re optimizing aircraft or algorithms for CPR or a recipe for meatloaf, but it isn’t enough to just streamline the old, clunky way of doing things. That’s what I kept doing until I clearly identified my game design goals. I started with obvious features, like a more intuitive and simpler mechanic, but a reductionist approach resulted in a dryness and fatalism in the narrative process. Then I attempted to buffer those effects by layering the mechanic with a token economy and bank of limited-use action enhancements. Nothing original there, I know, but those techniques to promote participation pre-date RPGs, hailing from the old days of group therapy. That insight caused me to re-evaluate my goals. I realized I was building a ship in a bottle by isolatedly focusing on processes. I started a meetup and have been running games frequently, observing my players closely. As you’ve commented about how players respond to positive and negative game features and outcomes, I also made note of what sparked imagination, pleasure and comradery in my players. As an experiment, for this past Halloween I wrote an original scenario based on hauntings at an Austrian castle with a historically gruesome past and adapted Dread to run it with heroic possibilities, each player having their own Jenga mini-tower. The players were sent a brief setting description, given a list of occupations and told to write descriptions of 19th century characters and inventories; no stats needed. I prepared for the session by repeatedly pulling blocks from a mini-tower to determine how many could be moved easily versus the maximum before falling over, then I balanced opposition in the scenario accordingly. I also searched online for as many photos and pictures I could download and present as descriptions during gameplay, saving thousands of words of writing. As the Host, I used a single die to introduce variability to challenges and a simple printed map with gaming stone markers and fog-of-war sticky notes to aid progressive visualization. This group of players was a mix of seven newbies and veterans, wide age range, only two knew each other before the session. They were simply instructed to use “weaponized imagination” to resolve conflicts and perform difficult tasks. More than anything, common sense functioned as a performance limiter, reinforced by consensus but with the understanding that Host rulings were final. It was supposed to be a one-shot, but was such a wild success that they demanded I extend it to one more session. They asked if I ever visited the castle, because my descriptions helped them feel like they were there, but I realize it was because they could focus on the narrative instead of being anxious about the rules rather than any vividness on my part. After both sessions, everyone lingered happily conversing about the experience, even on their way out to their cars. Seeing this, my design focus is now less mechanical and more psychological, as it’s all about player experience. Fostering cohesion by structuring the narrative to force the players, via their PCs, to conference and cooperate early on built relationships among the players, fostering the potential for group consensus which I was able to tap when I needed to promote validation for outcomes of actions. This was also reinforced by the players introducing their characters, as each had an idea of the abilities, limitations and resources of the others. This process also allowed me to research and develop an engaging story with historical details for realism and a multitude of possible outcomes in just a few short hours; no wasting time with the excessively mechanical aspects of a conventional scenario. I realize this doesn’t constitute finding the RPG Grail, but reading your articles and experimenting with my reactions to them certainly feels like I’m finally getting closer. Thank you!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks Bill, glad you enjoyed the post! It’s always great to hear from veterans who’ve been in the RPG world longer than I have, and your game sounds pretty cool.

      • Mr. Bill

        I may have been playing longer but you’re more broadly experienced. Your insights are invaluable and your next article in this series is eagerly anticipated by this old dog, Oren!

        • Michael Campbell

          The more I read on the subject; the more I realise that the best RPG system isn’t the most perfect set of rules but rather the most-likely-to-actually-get-played; set.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I really appreciate that Bill, thanks for brightening up my day.

  3. Michael Campbell

    You know, to a certain degree I would have to say that one must first ask the question, “who is making the complaint” before choosing to fix the supposedly broken system.

    Some players actively invest in avoiding combat.
    If my PC invests in hide/sneak, I can by pass the Imperial Storm Troopers guarding the entrance to the Imperial Weapons Research Laboratory; with a single die roll.
    If I get caught, I’ll use my fast-talk skill to get them to let me inside…again with a single die roll.
    This is further exasperated by rules that allow die rolls to be modified by the expenditure of some kind of mojo mechanism…Force points perhaps?…which grant a bonus on a single die roll, causing characters that choose to resolve a situation with a single die roll to be advantaged with a massively efficient adjustment compared to the grossly inefficient adjustment of a die roll that is just one of dozens.

    Then one day these player characters are walking through the woods when they get pounced on by Imperial Scout Troopers in ambush positions.
    And the players scream blue murder that they lumped huge investments in skills like Fast-talk that are being arbitrarily disallowed by the Game Master.
    (It’s amazing how often a character that has been mini-maxed to win by subterfuge is claimed to not be power-gaming but rather “playing smart”).

    Is the combat system really broken or the style of play of the players that’s actually broken?
    I’ld say you first need to know which is the case before considering tinkering with the system.

    • Mr. Bill

      Michael, I believe that Oren’s article is meant to point out that some popular rpg systems lack a conflict resolution process which integrates with player narrative to allow fluid role-playing, with better role-playing being the point. Just as there isn’t a perfect mouse trap, I don’t think a system can be made that has a mechanic someone won’t exploit, and also as you indicated, playing style can be faulted there. Many veteran gamers and storytellers want to show those of us with a passion for shared narrative experience, versus those gamers who focus on being “winners” irregardless of the approach, what the stumbling blocks of some of the more established systems are and that there are some less known RPGs which integrate these aspects better. Granted, it is possible to role-play D&D 5e, but it’s also possible to build a house just using your feet, albeit a very small one with a leaky roof. There are good reasons why the major systems have been tweaked every which way for the past 40-some years; I’ve been there for much of it. My first experience with fantasy, like many, was reading the LOTR as a young teen. When I finally played D&D a few months later, my imagination was fueled by my intense desire to adventure with companions in Middle Earth, also like many others. The flaws of Advanced D&D were transparent in the light of my enthusiasm for this great, new pastime. It was a widespread epiphany which actually stirred up some ignorant opposition from religious authorities, which actually increased its appeal. Eventually enthusiasm waned, the small market became saturated and attempts were made to fix the problems with new editions which had new problems. The real driving force behind most RPG development has been to produce something the masses can understand and appreciate to expand the market. I’m getting up in age but I still enjoy sitting around with a group of new friends and adventuring in the virtual world of our conjoined imaginations. The problem is, my memory isn’t what it used to be. When the sense of adventure bogs down in rules, the role-playing sinks to a sort of metagaming. If your attention and intentions are outside the story, the story dies and actions become contrived to suit unnatural physics. Can you imagine reading a novel and having to reference a code to decipher what happens every time a hero acts? Now, if you’re really a wargamer looking for a little story to connect encounters, much of what has been produced will work just fine. A tabletop role-playing system that is easily understood and applied, makes character building a cinch, doesn’t require too much scenario setup, doesn’t need to be modified to work with different genres, smoothly reflects narrative pacing, rewards imaginative role-play and supports GMs with developing narrative sensibilities has yet to hit the shelves. Given the busy 21st century lifestyle, anything less will be played only by the most enthusiastic gamers, and that bunch has a tendency to float from one thing to another looking for a better experience. I’ve introduced many folks to role-playing, but most stop because of the daunting, counterintuitive rules. People get all fired-up, love the first teaching session using a watered-down system, then feel stupid thinking that they don’t know what they’re doing when the rules lawyers and power players show up a few sessions later. The truth is, anyone playing the crunchy stuff is definitely fudging it if the game is fun, but only celebrity DMs and GMs are willing to admit that. But why fudge something to look bright when it would be so much smarter to make something accessible to everyone? Tonight I was supposed to be playing Call of Cthulhu 7e, which I think is relatively simple, but three out of five players cancelled and the GM called the session off. All three were new to CoC and probably didn’t have time to study it before the game, then became anxious about how they’d look. When perceived cost outweighs the expected benefit, the game is over.

    • Michael Campbell

      Actually, Mike Pondsmith’s cyberpunk Referee’s guide “Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads!!!!” is something that all Game Masters should be conversant with.

  4. Adam Thaxton

    “5E D&D officially did away with most of its combat actions, leaving martial characters with only Attack and the seldom-used Grapple.”

    Which is weird, Grapple and Trip no longer target AC, which means they’re a good choice for high-AC enemies, but players still keep slugging away.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well from what I can tell Grapple in 5E is a pretty edge case option, since it uses up your action and all it does is stop the grappled character from moving. 3.5 Grapple teleported your foe into the Grapple Dimension, where none of their abilities worked and they were slowly squeezed to death by your unarmed damage. Also nearby rogues could mine them for organs because they lost their dex bonus to AC.

      • CanuckAmuck

        all it does is stop the grappled character from moving

        Sometimes that can be enough. Our wizard managed to get off a Silence spell on our Lich opponent. One of our fighters managed to close the distance and successfully grappled it, preventing it from moving out of the silence radius. Since every single cantrip and spell a lich has requires a verbal component, we were safe as long as said lich failed to break free. On its turn it did fail against said fighter. Then our other fighter and our paladin came in and shanked it like we were in an episode of Oz. Teamwork, baby!

  5. BeardedLizard

    I really enjoy this series of article. I usually design my own systems to play with my friends so that the campaign is both adapted to me and my players and your articles are a big help in keeping things in perspective. Can’t way for the next one!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Awesome, glad you’re enjoying it! Next time we’ll be analyzing two combat systems that are actually good and seeing what designers can learn from them, so I hope that one is great for GMs who make their own stuff.

      • Lizard with Hat

        I was about to say the same
        Myhtcreants help me to improve my GM-Style, a lot!
        The entries here on Mythcreants are so insightful and I have to admit I was very skeptical about this a first – but I tried the advice out and … well the rest a half a dozen successful campaigns by now.
        I can’t wait for the next entry in this series.

  6. Bubbles

    I’ve read about 3.5 D&D, so I’m not sure why, for describing balance issues, you chose the grid system. There are a lot of actual broken options and general balance problems you could have mentioned for that system, and considering that each system has certain requirements that are necessary for it to work, I don’t see why needing a grid is always a problem.

    And despite the many problems, I like 3.5 (not even the other editions of D&D). It combines simulationist detail with the flexibility to alter what you don’t like (which can help fix the problems with the system). Now, many other roleplaying games have that, but it’s still one of its draws for me.

    What I think is really special about it is that everyone uses the same rules. The monsters gain feats and skills, have ability scores, HD, and attacks, and so on and on, just as the player characters do. In every other system I have heard of, player characters and enemies are treated in a totally different manner, which just doesn’t make much sense to me. This even allows a wide variety of “monster” characters to be played (admittedly, the LA system is hardly perfect, but it’s at least an attempt while many other roleplaying games only let you play one or a few species). Do you know of any other roleplaying systems which have every creature following the same general rules?

    Finally, even the balance problems can be worked around. There are quite a few rule fixes for 3.5 around the Internet. For even less effort, looking at the tier system and picking classes that are generally around the tiers 3-4 (which are generally considered the most balanced) apparently fixes many of the issues, even if it is not perfect. There are a wide variety of classes in that range, including both users of spells and other magic as well as martial types.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m actually talking about all the modern versions of D&D in that grid example, from 3.0 to 5E, they’re all balanced for play on a battle mat, and it messes up the balance when you don’t use one.

      There are certainly lots of imbalanced options to choose from in D&D, no matter what edition, but I chose the grid problem for that particular example to illustrate how balance problems can come from unusual areas.

      • Bubbles

        Thanks for the reply. Do you know of any other roleplaying systems in which the players and their enemies use the same rules, as I mentioned 3.5 D&D has? As I said, that was what drew me into the game in the beginning, yet very few, if any, other games have that. Instead, the monsters run on fundamentally different rules than the players, while in 3.5, the abilities might be different, but they still use the same overarching rules (natural, extraordinary, supernatural, spell-like), and monsters gain feats and skills, have hit dice and the related rules just as players do.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I think most RPGs still work like that, at least as far as I can tell. The idea of asymmetrical rules for PCs is usually referred to as “Player Facing Rules,” with the idea being that you don’t need the same level of detail for rules the players won’t be personally using, but it’s a fairly new concept in game design.

          Most classic RPGs like Shadowrun, L5R, Call of Cthulhu, and such still have monsters and NPCs use the same rules as PCs.

          • Bubbles

            Perhaps. It’s true that I haven’t actually played that many roleplaying systems. However, I’m pretty sure that the other editions of D&D had monsters using different rules than the players did (for example, even intelligent monsters could generally not take class levels). I might also have been thinking of computer and video games, in which the NPCs are almost always using different rules than the player character(s). One of the few in which this is not true, is, interestingly, main series Pokemon (although I have heard this is generally something that many monster-battling games have). While there are a few oddities, most of the time, the NPCs use items and Pokemon with traits just like those the player can obtain, or if there are any differences (such as the Totem Pokemon stat boost in the 7th generation), there is an in-universe explanation.

      • Jonny Wilson

        I honestly don’t understand this point you make about the grid system. Yes, the game works worse without a grid (I’ve certainly tried), but the grid’s meant to be part of the game. If you’re playing without a grid, you’ve removed an important aspect of combat around which most of the combat was designed – weapon ranges, spell AoEs, et cetera.
        It’s like trying to play checkers just based on your best guess of where the squares are. It’s theoretically doable but not accurate and should be avoided if possible (to be fair, D&D would fare better than this, at least 5E would, but it’s the closest example I could think of).

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Sorry if this wasn’t clearer, but D&D books always say you can play it without a battle mat, and many groups do this because taking out the battle mat every time is often impractical, and then the balance issues show up, in addition to all of D&D’s normal balance issues.

          • Michael Campbell

            I think what RPG rules need is a commentary within the GM’s guide saying that the complexity of the rules should expand and contract with the complexity of the situation and the importance of the situation.

            If James Bond is skiing down a hill being followed by five goons with sub-machineguns. You need a faster resolution system.
            If James Bond is fighting Odd Job in the vault of Fort Knox. You can afford a longer resolution system because the battle should feel climactic and the NPC combatants are fewer in number.

            I think what happens, is the rules say; “Here are the rules, use if you need `em.”
            And by failing to outline when and how to skip rules, certain GMs assume that you use `em all the time.

      • GeneralCommentor

        I’ve seen this crop up in a few of your articles when combat in D&D comes up and I wanted to correct the idea that this sort of regimented combat is something that only cropped up during the 3rd edition of D&D. The original release of D&D was a direct offshoot of Gygax and Perren’s Chainmail, a medeival miniatures wargame ruleset and, as a result, are working under the assumption that players are using miniatures (Or a workable substitute) to position and direct characters in combat.

        While the rules of Chainmail and early D&D do, in fact, predate the concept of the battlemat that doesn’t mean they’re intended to be used for theatre of the mind. The most obvious demonstration in most editions is the measurements used for ranges and areas of effects that spells and attacks: They’re always in 5ft increments to make distances easier to convert to smaller units of measurement relative to the miniatures players are using.

        The original rules of D&D even directly tell players to reference Chainmail for combat rules and the front of the original publication is subtitled “Rules for Fantastical Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. While there are a number of RPG systems that have moved to more abstracted combat systems that better suit theatre of the mind play, D&D has, from its inception, been inexorably linked to tabletop wargaming-style combat.

  7. Shawn H Corey

    The real problem is that combat is not intuitive. Real-life combat is equal parts fear, chaos, and ability. Gaming itself reduces the fear and most combat systems try to eliminate the chaos by enhancing the character’s abilities. Modeling real combat in a game system would be most unsatisfactory because the level of chaos would make it unpredictable.

    • Michael Campbell

      I don’t think the big problem with “real” combat is the chaos…but rather the risk of real injury…up to an including death.

      To a degree, the player should get the chance to “play hero”. As unrealistic as that might be; if it’s fun then let the people play.

      • Shawn H Corey

        Risk of injury and death = fear

        I did mention that.

        Yes, that’s my point. Realistic combat simulation is not fun.

  8. Reiksson

    I have tried playing the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (4e) recently and I will say I was pleasantly surprised in how the game handled combat. Everyone at my table was just like – “This is how combat is supposed to flow.”. The game uses advantages to give bonuses which are accrued through successful actions in combat like I hit the guy or I insight him to size him up. The advantages give bonuses to everything you do until you fail an opposed test or take damage. The game also uses conditions that have very straight forward feeling mechanics. I GMed a 4hr one-off game with the players being required to escape a city under siege. The players were able to do the main objective and the side objective, 7 fights, 1 boss fight and learn the combat rules at the table. This is first time I have ever completed a one-off in one sitting without having to heavily cut down content or lengthen the time played. I will say the game has its flaws but they are things that you can easily polish with a house rule like with Oren’s Mouseguard Axe fix.

  9. Allan T Price

    [No matter where imbalance comes from, it has the same result: frustration at the table. ]

    No. Not always.

    It took me time to learn this. But some people want to be Hawkeye, next to Thor and The Hulk. Or Samwise next to Aragorn and Legolas.
    Seen player A quietly resist as Player B tries to make A’s character more powerful, because Player A wants to be the weakest person in the group.

  10. Ludd

    Wow, this entire post is one big essay on how you’ve been doing combat wrong for your entire GM’ing life. Let me address each point.

    “Combat Is Overly Complicated” – Combat is as complicated as you need or want it to be. There is always rule zero on the stand-by for DM’s who want to make things happen quicker or elaborate on the scenario and weigh all the risks and bonuses. There are DM’s out there who skip initiative entirely for example, instead asking what players would like their characters to do, and then roll for it. The combat system is just that, a system, that can be used and abused and bent and broken at the whim of GM, just like all that unofficial alchemy and magical weaponry you ad-hoc throw into your games. You’re improvising for the sake of the players and the situation, using the system as a means of getting to where you want.

    “Combat Is Unintuitive” – Au contraire. You used hitpoints as an example which leaves me scratching my head. Hitpoints ARE intuitive! If shoot someone, and it deals 5 points of damage to someone with 50 health points, then clearly the hit was negligible. It whiffed their arm, just barely cutting through their skin and muscle. If they suffered 25 points of damage with 50 health, then they took a massive direct hit right in their upper chest that left them winded. It doesn’t get much more intuitive than that.

    “Combat Is Unbalanced” – Nobody said combat was supposed to be, but I think the real criticism here is something that I think I’ll address as part of the next section of your post.

    “Combat Is Static” – Here we are. Combat is NOT static. This is the single biggest complaint I always see being poorly interpreted over and over and over again and often by the same people. Every single game I’ve ever DM’ed everyone always told me how fun it was, and it was always filled with combat. The reason being, I treated combat similar in many ways to the way I treated the rest of the game. With roleplaying! It’s in the name of the game for crimeny sakes.

    If you think combat is static, then that means you/your GM is doing combat wrong. You need to liven it up with actual roleplaying of what’s happening. Did you just stab that Hydra with your spear? Well then roleplay that combat so it shows! “The Hydra recoils as you plunge your spear into its center mass, going on the defensive and shrinking back.” It makes absolutely no sense for the creatures your proclaim to inhabit your fantasy world not to react at all during combat, turning a game where you can talk and improvise your way out of problems into suddenly a game of concrete because combat started and combat is “serious business” so you have to treat it differently and adhere strictly to the rules with no imagination whatsoever. Combat is meant to be improvised. You can cut webbing and nets that blanket you, you can choke-out guards, you can chop off limbs, you can do whatever you please, it’s up to you to make combat fun and interesting for your players and if it’s not, then that’s on you as a DM.

    D&D didn’t become the biggest, most successful and influential tabletop RPG on the planet simply because it’s combat sucked. You need to treat combat with the same liberalism that you treat normal play with, other-wise combat is going to be a grind.

    • Ludd

      Just as an additional little example from a D&D session I GM’d, what happened was:

      Rogue was trying to sneak into an orc encampment to steal the chieftan’s map. Rogue tried to slip behind a guard and got instantly noticed. Rogue proceeded to reach into a pouch he had and threw shards of glass dust into the orc guard’s face. The glass only did a few measly points of damage, but it essentially blinded him permanently as it cut and lacerated his eyes, and she basically defeated him as he writhed on the ground screaming in agony. Fast forward to her trying to escape, hiding in bushes as the camp’s on high alert, and you have the Fighter convincing the party that they should save her, so he starts shooting flaming arrows into the encampment, causing a watch-tower to catch fire and burn to the ground. The Rogue manages to escape in the chaos as the orcs frantically try to put out the fires and run off into the woods, until she bumps into an orc carrying water from a nearby stream in a bucket, and he spills the water all over himself. She ran back to the party with the orc chasing her, and the Wizard decided to cast Ray of Frost on him, freezing him solid (on account of the water he spilled all over himself).

      Now, albeit this wasn’t too much of an abstraction of the rules, but this whole encounter didn’t take very long, and was incredibly fast paced. I’ve had Paladin’s disembowel Slaad, I’ve had fighter’s severe the tentacles of a kraken that were wrapped around the mast of the ship, I’ve had archer’s shoot arrows into the joints of enemy’s (I even shot a priest in the leg with an arrow and caused him to fall on the ground unable to run) in order to disable them, I’ve had a rogue one time shoot an arrow at a flying Chimera, knocking it out of the air by hitting it right in the wing. Why? Because it’s combat, and that can happen.

      All of this and more is what makes combat so interesting and fun and dynamic. It boggles my mind that people blog about it being difficult and boring. Be inventive.

  11. anoynmousse

    Seems like you are more interested in a war-game or video game rather than a roleplaying game.

    Abstracted narrative games do not ‘end up doing the same thing every turn’ because you’re supposed to narrate in detail what you’re doing.

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