The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Conversation
It would be foolish to contest that our hobby grew out of war games. How far, however, has it grown? A quick tour of the ever-growing spectrum of RPG blogs will suggest that what growth there has been is not without some serious backsliding into the hobby’s primordial ooze. When virtually every discussion involves combat mechanics, combat options, monsters to fight, or optimal builds for effective adventuring, it lends the impression that all we do is pretend to fight. You know that’s not true, and I know that’s not true, but is it really untrue?
On the face of it, there is this: most roleplayers, for whatever reason, play D&D or the games derived in homage to it. The focal point of that game has increasingly become, particularly since the mass market editions, combat. Rather than move away from the one thing war games were designed to do toward the variety of things that they were not designed for, that sector of the hobby and many others in a diverse range of genres have instead chosen to circle back to combat again and again, only paying lip service to the idea of offering broader options.
Oddly, from my perspective at least, the games which provide the most freedom from combat-focused stories also provide the most freedom from actual consequence and risk, and therefore reward as well. In other words, they tend toward the boring as they have drifted very far from the idea of a game, from the idea of challenge. This is not to say they are not entertaining, but there is a difference in deriving pleasure from performance, and deriving it from risking failure to snatch victory. Scripting failure to buy success just does not have the same zing. To find systems with the most support for non-combat solutions to problems, it seems like we must turn to purely narrative games, where the purpose is to generate an artistic and traditional story with satisfying character development arcs, but virtually no fear of loss. This is by no means exhaustively true. On the surface, it seems to me that D&D4e managed to combine all the focus on combat with all the bland safety of FATE, but with narrative control resting with the rules, not anyone actually sitting at the table. Neat.
Lest this seem like a rant, let us get closer to the heart of the matter: social mechanics are often too simple to be entertaining in play, often lack the visceral and far-reaching consequences of combat, and when failed, tend to devolve into combat anyway. All of that makes them far too frequently, a colossal waste of time.
Thankfully this situation is not always so, but for many gamers out there exposed to a limited choice from the huge panoply of available games, it might just as well be. In how many systems are social skills relegated to a skill description and a simple or opposed roll, while combat has page after page of specific rules, conditions, and options? Are combats really so much more complicated than successfully conning someone? Really? By the same token, if to find detailed and flavorful social systems a player must surrender the thrill of discovering a story in which they are taking part and must instead pick the same old beats that any tale on the shelf might have in order to ensure that everyone enjoys the inevitable conclusion, where is the motivation to buck a very clearly established tradition? It’s not swimming against the stream if you have to leave the water. That is something of a game-changer, and for many of us, not in the good way.
So, what does this mean? Probably nothing- but it has been on my mind for a while. I am curious about how systems like Ubiquity, which make no overt fuss about social combat and manipulation, can sometimes have a very robust and satisfying method of portraying them. I am curious about groups which take the time to learn the principles of the systems they use well enough to apply more engaging methods to the resolution of non-combat tasks. I am curious about game design which continues to put combat first. I am curious if that will ever change.
Most of all, I am curious if most of us even want it to…
- RPG Blog Carnival Roundup: Combat Avoidance (exchangeofrealities.com)
- Interrogation in ‘A Time of War’ (Casting Shadows Blog)
Darken others' doors: