Why combat should come with risk

When I read many of the blogs published about role-play games (RPG) many writers suggest that MERP and Rolemaster are too harsh in their delivery of combat. Others claim that realistic combat is not something to be used in RPG, but to be reserved for war gamers. An alternative view is that more realistic combat is needed because it adds to the overall reward of playing RPGs.

Already I can hear the cry of a hundred players (and a few GMs) saying but we want heroes who win. The reality then is that you just want to win. That’s not game play its a story and not a very engaging one in general. If I want to listen to a storyteller then I’ll go to my local library. If I know that I will win almost every combat because my opponents levels are so low or the system favours me, then I will treat every guard as potential cannon fodder, charge into every dragon’s lair, every encounter as a an XP harvest. To me this doesn’t reflect the point of roleplaying. In fact, it rather highlights the difference between platform “roleplay” games and the reality of RPG as I understand it.

If you want to recreate a movie, then go ahead and choreograph the whole fight scene. Read the script to your players and see how they now become an audience rather than participants. Yes, you can throw in the occasional plot device where one might have to die heroically to save the rest, but it won’t be the player’s choice. Its the unexpected and unpredictable that make the whole game enjoyable, and in RPG stops the players becoming an audience to the all-powerful GM.

Children have been making up stories cooperatively since, well they were children. RPG are just an extension of that idea. The whole idea is to solve mysteries and problems to use the social skills to create a story that is the property of more than the one, a shared experience if you will. As a GM I want my players to be involved in creating the narrative.

Risk and reward are the two great engines of human motivation. How many adages can you think of that can be related back to the carrot and the stick? For any game to work, there must be a similar risk and reward stimulus. It doesn’t matter if it is a sport or table games. Think about it, push yourself a little further and our team will score, throw the Hail Mary, create a weakness to draw out your opponent. These are the reasons why I think that RPG combat must be realistic.

Life is precious, the reason there is not a war or fight between belligerent neighbours every five minutes is that we all realise this. We know that if I decide to punch you because you looked at me funny the chances are you’ll hit back. Worse still, you’ll turn up with mates for a fight I can’t win. Fighting, and specifically fighting to kill, is the last resort. That’s the reality and that’s the risk that every adventurer needs to understand when deciding to engage in combat. The reward is experience, life, possible fame, loot and most importantly, knowing you have overcome the odds.

So far I have focussed on the benefits of surviving combat. However, there is another added benefit to making combat more realistic. It forces the players to try and think of alternatives. If we charge the opponents is that the best option? As a GM I will match my combatants to force the players to think tactically about alternatives. As result, many players in my games have been quite ingenious in developing ways to ensure odds fall in their favour. It has meant that the wizards and healers have become as important at lower levels as the warriors.

If you want your RPG experience to be more than a cerebral version of Gauntlet (for those of you young enough to remember that video game), then it is important that combat is realistic. Yes, you will need the chance for random events. Yes, characters will die. Some will be of low experience and some will be beloved highly experienced characters. There will be those who die in freakish accidents and those who go down under a hoard of opponents. Some we will forget in a moment, others will live on in legend. For each one of these, there will be those who survived, who achieved fame, notoriety and wealth. We will remember them all. We will retell the stories.