06 February 2012

RPGs are war

My first thoughts on the “combat as sport vs. combat as war” topic...

Here’s the difference between a sport and a war:

In a sport, each side agrees to a set of rules. If you don’t follow the rules, it is called a foul, and a penalty is assessed. Or it’s called cheating.

In war, there are no fouls; there is no cheating. When some group gets too set in their ways about “how war should be fought”, some other side comes along as defeats them by ignoring those rules.

(We do try to come up with fouls and cheating in war. e.g. The Geneva conventions. But that doesn’t help you win. You have to win first and then try to enforce those rules. If the side that wins finds it’s in their interest to ignore such rules... In any case, honoring them is about longer-term concerns.)

Most conventional games resemble “combat as sport”. Role-playing games, however...

For me, “combat is war” is easy in a role-playing game, but “combat as sport” is hard. I have to introduce things that interfere with some of the aspects of role-playing games most important to me. Such as “player agency” and “tactical infinity”. (Sorry, I don’t have good links to explain those terms.) Even then, it’s tough to balance on every axis enough to make sure it’s sporting. Sporting combats tend to happen more by chance than design.

(Though, I think superhero games manage to do the “sport” angle a lot.)

The comparisons to literature in the original article seem particularly apt. When you take a character out of a story and give that role to a person to play with the freedom to find creative solutions, they start looking for strategic solutions. It’s the same as the “how it should have ended” videos.

In any case, I definitely prefer “combat as war” in my role-playing games whether as judge or player. The hard part is that—as judge—you may have to have or improvise more stuff when the players find creative ways to short-circuit something you thought would take a while. But I’d rather reward strategic thinking than make things easier on myself.

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