The Alexandrian

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Tied into the success of the dungeoncrawl is the success of traditional combat systems in roleplaying games. Although individual mechanics may vary, virtually all roleplaying games use a basic game structure for combat derived from D&D: Combat is divided into rounds in which everyone gets to take an action (or actions). Usually combat is further defined by an initiative system of some sort, so that you can easily answer the question, “Who goes next?”

If this sounds like the rigid structure of a boardgame or card game, that’s because it is: Derived from tabletop wargames, the average RPG combat system supplies clear-cut answers to the questions of, “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?”

Or, to break it down in a fashion similar to the dungeoncrawl:

Default Goal: Kill (or incapacitate) your opponents.

Default Action: Hit them.

Easy to Prep: Grab a bunch of monsters from the Monster Manual.

Easy to Run: The combat system breaks the action down into a specific sequence and usually provides a fairly comprehensive method of how each action should be resolved.

This is one of the reasons why so many roleplaying games focus so much mechanical attention on combat: No matter how much the players may be floundering, all you have to do is throw a couple of thugs at them and suddenly everyone at the table knows what to do. It’s a comfortable and easy position to default to.

It should also be fairly easy to see the almost perfect mesh between the macro-level structure of the dungeoncrawl and the micro-level structure of combat: When you pick an exit in the dungeoncrawl and find a room filled with monsters, you seamlessly switch into combat. When the combat has been resolved (and the room emptied of interest), you effortlessly return to the dungeoncrawl scenario structure and pick another exit.

Rinse, wash, repeat.


Combat also shows us how D&D links its systems of reward directly to its default game structures: The dungeoncrawl takes you to monsters, combat lets you defeat the monsters, and defeated monsters reward you with XP and treasure.

This is something which I believe other XP reward systems have generally overlooked: Many games have broken XP away from being a combat reward, but they haven’t reattached the XP award to another concrete game structure.

Whether or not that’s a desirable thing is a completely different discussion; a discussion involving Skinner boxes, the psychology of reward-driven pleasure, mechanical-reinforcement techniques, and a whole mess of other stuff.

But I think it’s an unexplored design space that would be interesting to turn some focus on. Particularly when you consider that (A)D&D has featured non-combat rewards for more than 20 years, and yet people still complain about all the XP in D&D coming from killing monsters.

Go to Part 5: Mysteries

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8 Responses to “Game Structures – Part 4: Combat”

  1. Stephen says:

    I think we’ll wind up seeing a lot more player-directed XP mechanics over the next few years for just this reason. By which I mean a short list of concepts on your sheet that pay out XP when you do them, as seen in Apocalypse World and the new Marvel game. They speak directly to the problem created by 90s era “XP for roleplaying” systems where players have no idea what they should be doing to get a system reward, other than relying on the good will of the GM.

  2. Hautamaki says:

    I like the OD&D solution best in the end: supply the characters with an ultimate goal (the default being loot treasure) and then award exp precisely according to the degree to which the long term goal has been achieved. There is no award for killing monsters unless the monsters have valuable loot on them, or unless the long term goal is explicitly to kill those monsters.

    Players should be given a clear goal with a clear reward for accomplishing that goal, but infinite choice in how to go about accomplishing it.

  3. Peter K. says:

    Man, from a player perspective the whole XP reward thing has always stuck in my craw one way or another, whether or not the DM/GM was house ruling things much.

    The first major campaign I was in (AD&D 2E) awarded XP based on:

    * Monsters slain – But in particular you had to actually hit a monster at least once to claim a share of the XP. Problem: My fighter was typically melee armed (no access to ranged weapons in the area) and barely had a chance to rush over to engage an enemy before the spellcasters slew them all from a distance.

    * Spells cast – If you cast spells, XP for each spell, if not then no extra XP.

    * Gold – Just the thief would get extra XP for the gold pocketed, though ironically there was little gold to be had in these adventures and no thieves.

    * Clues figured out – It was a mystery, so key details figured out or useful things accomplished got you a bit of XP. Although trying to earn these involved a sometimes frustrating roadblock/guessing game, it was nice that the DM handed them out during play when the events occurred.

    The 3E game I was in was pretty much just XP for monsters slain and chunks of plot arc completed. Wasn’t bad, but since there was a plot to follow (world always needs saving) the progression was moderately predictable.

    Some of the non-D&D games I’ve played tend to hand out rewards for good “in character” moments, accomplishing specific goals, MVP for the session, votes by other players on anything interesting your character has done, etc. Which is fine and all, but sometimes I feel like this is trying to pressure me to participate (or punish for not participating at a certain level), rather than just letting me play to natural level of in-characterness, cleverness, or wittyness I’m feeling that night.

    It might be a popularity contest of sorts, but folks in the groups I’ve been in aren’t cliquish or jerks about it. They want to up-vote your XP reward. I guess when it comes to it though I’m not that comfortable tooting my own horn, and have a tough time recalling others’ memorable exploits when suddenly put on the spot to do so.

    There was a time I thought gold for XP was a cop-out, thinking XP should be for things your character learns, rather than random acquisition. But now I’m not sure what I would want to have give a character XP. Preferably some universally defined in-game objective that comes in conveniently sized chunks I guess. Something known beforehand that all characters have a chance to strive for with reasonable chances of success.

  4. Strange_Person says:

    Might be interesting to have an RPG that gives characters XP for territory explored and infrastructure built, with loot as a stepping-stone and combat as a distraction.

  5. Hautamaki says:

    That would be perfect for a colonizations/settlement establishment type game.

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  7. Alex says:

    In the first part of game structures you said exploring dungeons could be resolved by one die roll.
    I remembered several encounters I’ve played in and run where players basically hack and slash with a group of enemies, and later heal themselves with only a potion of their reserves (healing surges, cure spells, different editions). So I connected the dungeon exploring roll with another one, a roll to determines how much the players have lost after a combat – thus simplifying combat to one die roll.
    I tried to look for the answer to this in the article but I didn’t make the connection, sorry if this has been answered in some way.
    My question is with regards to either dungeon crawling or combat hack and slashing.
    Why don’t people run it with only one die roll? What makes the encounters and dungeons different than the one die roll dungeon or one die roll fight?

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Good question! I think there are a couple of factors:

    First, pacing. As I describe in The Art of Pacing, effective pacing in an RPG often boils down to identifying the meaningful choices. And that, in turn, really boils down to the question, “Which choices do we, collectively, care about at the table?”

    Second, the severity of consequence. This is actually related to the first point, insofar as the severity of the consequence from a choice often impacts the degree to which we care about that choice. But, more generally, it’s also offering the opportunity to withdraw from risk or to change strategy in response to risk in order to avoid a catastrophic outcome.

    From a purely mechanical standpoint, therefore, we can compare the resolution of combat through a series of discrete actions to the difference between (a) walking into a casino and placing all of your money on a single roulette number and (b) placing a series of smaller bets over time to increase or decrease your pot. (Gambling on roulette isn’t a perfect analogy because tactical decisions in combat will impact your odds of survival, but it’s close enough for rhetorical purposes.)

    From an artistic or entertainment standpoint, it boils down to, “Is there awesome stuff in that dungeon that would be missed with a short summary?” Usually the answer to that question is “yes” because the dungeon is where the DM has been trained to put all the awesome stuff. OTOH, we could also imagine a game in which the primary focus of interest was on the adventurers building up fortunes over time and using them to become lords and barons.

    In fact, we don’t have to imagine too hard because that’s basically what the old “clearing the hex” mechanics in D&D used to do: The PCs move into a hex. There’s a cut scene where they fight a monster. If they win, the hex is considered completely cleared and open for economic exploitation.

    This begins touching on the stuff I talked about in Subtle Shifts of Play.

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