Friday, February 3, 2012

Balance between combat and other

Combat is an important part of many different games, including role-playing games. While games without combat are possible, see for example A Tale in the Desert, they are few and far between. Nevertheless over the decades we moved from single-activity games to multi-activity games. Especially role-playing games always had multiple parts; for example Bioware talked about the 4 pillars of SWTOR being combat, exploration, progression, and story. Regardless of how you call these elements, it is clear that player in a modern game do not spend 100% of their time in combat. At which point the question poses itself of what percentage of the game should be combat, and what percentage should be handed over to the other activities.

For example accepting a quest in World of Warcraft is done with 2 clicks. Reading the short quest description is more or less optional, as the essential summary of "kill 10 foozles" will be shown on your quest tracker and the location marked on your map. Accepting more or less the same quest in Star Wars: The Old Republic takes considerably more time. There is more description, and the cut scenes and voiceovers invite the player to stay a while and listen. The player also will have to make dialogue choices. In addition to that SWTOR on average has longer ways between combats. Add all that together, and on average a player of WoW might well kill twice as many mobs per hour as a player of SWTOR.

Of course there is no universal answer to what the optimum is. Some people hit the space bar often in SWTOR to skip most or all of the dialogue, others quite enjoy it. And to some extent the players have some choice of how much combat they want to have, because they can spend more or less time with optional non-combat activities like crafting.

I was thinking about that balance in the context of writing the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition adventure I'm currently preparing. As I mentioned before, up to now we have been playing Warhammer FRP, which has a set of rules which supports role-playing very well, but isn't all that combat-centric. Players can have character classes like merchant or boatman, which lend itself somewhat less to combat-heavy adventures. And thus lots of the premade adventures have plots of intrigue and murder mysteries to be solved by role-playing dialogues with NPCs, and not all that much combat. D&D 4E is leaning towards the other extreme, where all character classes are designed for combat, and the rules are heavy on how to run a combat with miniatures. As a result the premade adventures are often very combat-heavy, with typical plots leading the players in some monster-infested dungeon with lots of battles and little role-playing.

Fortunately a pen & paper RPG can be more easily adjusted than a MMORPG. If you enter a dungeon in WoW you don't get the choice whether you want to fight or dialogue. If you prepare an adventure as DM for a pen & paper session, you have a much wider range of choices: You can invent an adventure by yourself and put in exactly the ratio of combat to other activities that you want, or you can take a premade adventure and modify it heavily. Remove half the monsters from that dungeon and play up the interaction with the NPCs leading to that dungeon, and you might get closer to the balance you want.

Hopefully what the DM prepares is what the players want. I am not quite sure what degree of combat my players will want in their game, I plan to start with something and then try to get some feedback whether that amount of combat is too much, too little, or just right. As we literally had no combat at all for several months, I hope the players will like a bit more of it. The trouble with long political intrigue and mystery adventures in a group that only meets one evening every two weeks is that the DM spends a lot of time reminding the players what has happened before. I am trying to structure my adventures in smaller chunks, having a sequence of combat encounters and non-combat encounters, with clear objectives to concentrate on at any given moment, and the larger story a bit more in the background. D&D 4E lends itself nicely to that approach. I guess that too is a modern development, taking into account that the role-players have gotten older, and often play less frequently now.

Which side of the game do you prefer in pen & paper roleplaying? Do you like campaigns with very little combat, with a lot, or what percentage in between?

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