Welcome back to part 2 of my series on dedicated combat mechanics in D&D. Here we will take a look into what exactly is going on under the hood of D&D in terms of its dedicated mechanics.
So games typically provide complex mechanisms for the parts of the game that are deemed “important” by its creators. In D&D, combat is “important” because combat is the crucible that enables character development and progress. (This is something D&D arguably does better than any other system out there.) The designers of D&D had a reason in mind when they gave combat multiple pages while giving Diplomacy a humble paragraph.
Consider for a moment just what improves when you gain a level in D&D. More HP, more combat abilities, more spells, even? Your proficiency bonus raises every so often that increases your other skills like perception, but that’s almost an afterthought since proficiency bonuses also improve your ability to hit stuff. That’s a lot of bonuses and changes for one thing: combat. But take a look at the rules for combat in the Player’s Handbook compared to everything else! This is a great rule of thumb for any RPG: If you ever wanted to know what an RPG wants you to do to resolve conflicts, look for the sections with the biggest amount of dedicated page space.
What do you get from a dedicated system?
So why do RPGs want to dedicate page space to different portions of a game? What do you “get” by introducing more rules into a system?
The first thing it does is introduce distinguishable paths of doing the same thing. In D&D are you fighting with a sword? Axe? Two swords? Bow? Javelin? Spells? These options allow players to choose how they want to succeed or fail. Players choose their avenue of what numbers to add to their rolls in order to improve their chance of success.
Pokemon does this exact same thing. While it doesn’t really come with a manual and it doesn’t really need to. Every problem in that game is a nail that you solve with your hammer: Pokemon Battles. Your choices are which Pokemon you bring with you.
In a more complex way, introducing new mechanics can also change the resolution of your action. If a game tells you to roll a die to determine if you succeed or fail, a designer may produce mechanisms to protract that instant success or failure into a series of successes or failures. Instead of a succeeding right away, you might have only taken a step in the right direction.
This is most obviously demonstrated through combat damage. If you hit a monster with your weapon, did you kill it? Did you cause just a flesh wound? The might of your blow is determined by this new “effectiveness” mechanic called damage. Damage figuratively and literally chip and hack away this game’s puzzle. If monsters are puzzles that take X pieces to solve (X being the number of hitpoints) then it’s logical that the more damage you do, the faster the puzzle is solved. This is why having more or less players at the table affects the challenge of puzzles.
Compare this to a perception check or other “skill or ability” check where your action’s success AND scope are tied into a single roll. If and how well you heard the goblins is a part of your single perception skill roll.
The trade-off for emphasizing combat is that your non-combat options are always a little underdeveloped and left to the GM to determine their effectiveness. Ponder this for a moment, does my character get experience and, thus, better at killing things, if he or she talks every problem out with monsters?
So Why Combat?
Why do we emphasize life and death struggles? Simply put, fictionally this type of struggle provides the easiest tension and understanding of the stakes. If I win, I live, if I lose, I die. Clerical spells aside, there’s a certain permanency to those ending states of a struggle so a player is forced to engage if he or she wishes to keep on keeping on.
Just like pokemon, sometimes combat is also the only way to settle disputes. The majority of adventures in D&D also occur outside the realm of law. Most fantastic adventures thrive outside towns and deep in the unknown outside world, above or below ground. And in these far flung places, the law is in short supply and thus the “Natural Order” is king. Kill or be killed. It’s difficult to look into the smoldering onyx eyes of the skeletal guardian and get it to agree to take this property dispute to the judiciary system of Hamlettsburg. What would the town do as skeletons gave testimony in court? Would the town even recognize these undead as legal persons? These are questions you rarely have to ask in your D&D games.
Next week, I will take a look into good and bad of a RPG system that grants near equal emphasis on everything: Dungeon World.
I hide in a cubicle all day until the night time where I play RPGs and other games and stuff.