The unbearable inconsequentialness of combat

This post is for DMs’ eyes only. If you do not DM, close it now, as it contains a trade secret that may change the way you look at the game. It might even ruin it for you, though it probably won’t. Ok, players gone? Oh, who am I kidding…

Some theory

Lets start with a bit of roleplaying philosophy and definitions. They’ll come in handy, I promise. According to wikipedia, “human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” In short, in RPGs its lack defines a railroaded adventure. Closely linked to the concept of agency are consequences, the direct result of characters’ choice. These consequences of a choice may be apparent before the choice is made or unknown, as well as certain or uncertain – just because the choice is made doesn’t mean it will get imposed on the world perfectly. This uncertainty leads to suspense for the players and risk for the characters. In games, dice provide the lowest layer of suspense. Consequences also often include a cost to either characters or someone or something they care about.

A choice that involves neither cost nor risk is not terribly exciting as no suspense is created. Choosing whether to have beer or wine in a tavern may tell something about your character, but it’s (hopefully) not what’s the adventure is about, and not why players get together to enjoy D&D or most other roleplaying games for that matter. Whatever your choice, you will finish the tavern scene and move on with the plot. Well, here’s the promised dirty secret of the game: most of the time, combat in 4e plays exactly the same role as roleplaying getting drunk in a tavern while waiting for a hooded stranger to offer a new quest.

Wait, what?

Don’t believe me? Think about the last adventure you ran, whether published or entirely yours. Specifically, think of all the combat encounters in it. Would the story change if after describing the set-up you went “aaand then you defeat them”? I’m betting for most of you, the answer is “no”. How could this be? Let’s analyse. There are two ways a typical combat can end: the party wins, or the party dies. Running away or surrendering, while possible, is very rarely practiced, and not really supported by the rules. Out of those two outcomes, Total Party Kill is desired neither by players nor, most likely, by the DM. Unless it’s a competition-style game, like the recent Lair Assault events, TPK is an unsatisfactory end to an adventure.

That leaves us with victorious combat. And combat is fun. It’s full of tactical micro-choices: where to move, which power to use. It is also full of micro-suspense provided by dice rolls: hit or miss, save or… not die. This goes a long way towards hiding what’s really going on from the players. As do DM’s theatrics (cue maniacal laughter from the Designated Big Bad) and semi-conscious suspension of disbelief. Both sides know it’s smoke and mirrors, and DM doesn’t actually want to kill the characters.
After the battle is over, all lost hit points will be restored in 5 minutes flat; encounter powers will recharge; the characters will be ready to face another foe. After a night’s rest, the characters will regain almost everything they have expended and be ready for another adventure, which is the whole point. Well, kind of.

The problem with combat

Combat is many things in 4e. It is exciting. It is a chance for characters to shine. It is the focus of the game, arguably its purpose. But it is not a source of suspense. No uncertainty, no actual danger of failing, only a threat. It is a roller-coaster ride – behind all that excitement and screaming are a lot of engineering effort and solid maths making it safe to ride. It only has tactical level risks for tactical level decisions: how many healing surges are lost, how many daily powers are expended, what consumable items are used up. Two out of three in that list reset daily. Combat is deliberately made to be inconsequential for the characters.

This is the thing that misses from 4e entirely: lasting mechanical consequences for characters. Even death is, according to the game, only an inconvenience, something to throw money at, just like Cure Disease is thrown at any disease the DM bothers to inflict on the characters. This is something many DMs house rule, and I’m no exception. Yet by the rules, it has no meaningful consequences beyound the trivial cost of the ritual. And if failure has no consequence, it was hardly a failure at all.

This makes perfect sense, as 4e is a roleplaying game of heroic combat. That’s what the rules focus on, and that’s what we spend most of our time at the table doing. In such a game, the players shouldn’t fear combat, they should eagerly jump into it. And yet…

Why do we fight?

If something has no risk, no real suspense, little cost and no consequences, it is not an exercise of agency. It is fun as a tactical challenge, but has no meaningful bearing on the story. Up until the moment when initiative is rolled, the players could be making choices, deciding whom to trust, what to do, whom to fight, perhaps participating in skill challenges (remember, a failed skill challenge should never end the adventure, but introduce a complication – an extremely important concept). But once the battle lines are drawn, we know how it will end.

Why? Because most encounters are of the straightforward “Us or Them” kind. And heroes have to win these, because otherwise they die and the story ends. Since we know from the start that heroes will defeat their enemies, what other questions can combat answer? Now, finally, we got to the main point. What is your encounter about? It should illustrate some story point (show, don’t tell). But it should also have meaningful stakes, so tactical challenges can become an instrument of agency.

Motivations, objectives, consequences

Combat objectives other than hit point attrition have been discussed many times before. But I’ve never seen them used as more than tactical exercise, and that’s precisely the problem. Lets look at them from the point of view of suspense and consequences, from the point of view of story. Why is this encounter happening at all? What do opposing sides want? Zombies attacking the village don’t want to eat the adventurers, they want to eat everyone. Guards at a watch tower don’t want to kill the adventurers, they want to warn the main force inside the keep. Robbers attacking a caravan don’t want to kill the adventurers, they want to steal goods and retreat.

Once you know the motivations, you can decide on new combat objectives in addition to “kill everything”. They could be opposing goals, such as “guards win if they sound the alarm, party wins if they don’t”. Or they could be separate conditions: “the party wins if they reach the necromancer controlling the zombie horde; the zombie horde wins if they reach the village”. They also don’t have to be win-or-lose scenarios: the more houses zombies break into, the more lives lost. Such objectives may also be introduced later on in the fight, either on a timer (necromancer arrives at the start of round 4), or based on the progression of combat (once the villain is bloodied, escape becomes his objective).

With motivations and objectives down, the consequences are next. Any objective can be failed by the party, that’s the whole point. This failure should never end the game, but introduce a complication, a cost, or a boon, just like a lost skill challenge (or most indie games). These consequences range from purely roleplaying (some of the villagers were eaten by zombies) to monetary (caravan leader gives an extra reward to the party for preventing any of his goods from being stolen) to mechanical (the party prevented the guards from raising alarm, and so their enemies in the next encounter will be poorly armoured and ill-prepared, taking a -2 penalty to defences) to a mixture thereof. Most importantly, they advance the story, making combat matter beyond the tactical level of resources expended.

Some advice

At first it’s probably best to announce the objectives and consequences at the start of combat. While you’ve undoubtedly utilised such encounters before, the players are used to straightforward kill ‘em alls, and it won’t hurt to point out the changed premise. Once the players become accustomed to the idea, they can suggest their own goals, and even consequences.

This approach may be hard to reconcile with the standard dungeon crawl philosophy of Room A – Room B – Room C, but even if the encounter consists of enemies mindlessly attacking the party until they are destroyed, there are some things you can do. Earlier example with guards raising alarm is one option. Adding a horizon effect to your dungeon, though without the focus on prohibiting rest is another trick: while the enemies will throw themselves at the party and invariably die, the manner in which they are defeated will have further repercussions. Finally, it may be worth reconsidering such encounters at all. Remember, we know the answer to “us vs them”. Ask different questions!

Question answered

More often than not, one side or the other will have reached its objective before all the monsters are eliminated. This is the perfect time to pull a combat out. We have the answer to our question, we know the consequences, why bother rolling more dice? In addition to any in-story ways of ending the fight, consider the following simple rule. Once the objective is met, and both players and the DM no longer care to continue the fight, players may have their characters “pay” to get rid of the remaining monsters at the rate of one healing surge or one daily attack power per monster’s bloodied value worth of damage. The fight goes on for a little while longer, the usual costs for this are paid, but we don’t bother with details and move on with the actual story.

4 thoughts on “The unbearable inconsequentialness of combat

  1. Nice piece. I seriously wonder, though: Are you singling out 4E with no particular intent, or is this something that only 4E out of the D&D editions suffers from?

    I have played a bit of 2E, and though our play was much more gamist than our 4E games, the basic idea remained that of “heroes are supposed to win against the terrible odds, because otherwise what’s the point?” that Pratchett expressed so well.

    1. Hi Adriano, nice to see a new face here :)
      I mostly focus on 4e in this and other posts because that’s the system I’ve been running weekly games in for the last few years, and many of my ideas originate there. I also believe that 4e amplifies many trends present in previous editions of D&D. But you are right – this approach to combat applies to those previous editions, as well as most other combat-oriented games. It’s the utter lack of long-term consequences that’s 4e-specific.

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