King Arthur Pendragon

Monday, October 21, 2013

Combat: The bane of roleplaying?

One thing I hear a lot goes something like this (not exact words): "We were roleplaying the scene when suddenly combat broke out. After we killed / drove off / defeated the enemy, we resumed our roleplaying of the scene."

I am always perplexed by this way of thinking. It's not universal but it's more frequent than we think. What does it even mean? People are roleplaying their PCs' interactions with NPCs and when combat starts, roleplaying ceases to be and it all becomes a tactical / mechanical game? Is combat mutually exclusive from roleplaying? In my opinion, no, and it's a fallacy to play any roleplaying game based on this false assumption. It's true that I see this more often in games like D&D and GURPS where the rules that govern combat are more complex and extensive, so there might be a reason why people stop thinking in terms of roleplaying during combat when they are forced to micromanage an endless rooster of mechanics. On the other hand, it's perfectly possible, and even preferable, to maintain a modicum of roleplaying during physical conflicts of any sort.

People who consider combat extraneous to roleplaying are splitting up what are essentially two complementary elements. Everything should flow naturally from one scene to the next, and roleplaying should be always on the forefront. After all, if roleplaying is acting like a character would in any situation, why would the character stop acting the way he does in combat? In the reality of the setting, does the character thinks in terms of turns, rounds, the mechanical bonuses of his sword or the level of the opponent to determine spell resistance? No, he thinks in terms of moments, of how sharp or strong his sword is or how tough or mind-resilient his opponent is. He would think in terms of the elements natural to the setting. The mechanics don't exist in the setting, though they exist in the game to define what is permissible in the setting.

This is why so many roleplaying games take the time to encourage the players to describe their actions in combat, to embellish what is happening. Otherwise, combat turns into an exercise of cold management of mechanics and bonus crunching. And this is why so many players complain that combat cease to be roleplaying and turns into a boring tactical conflict. There's nothing wrong with tactics. It's even encouraged in some systems. What I contend is that both can coexist.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to think in terms of social and physical conflicts. These terms do not preclude roleplaying, so they are not so restrictive in the mind of the players. In both types of conflicts, rules are called for and applied. I roll Persuasion to convince an NPC of something he does not believe in (Social) and I roll my Sword to attack an NPC who doesn't want to be hit (Conflict). In both cases, I'm acting against an NPC and that NPC is an obstacle to what I want to do. In both cases, I always consider what my character is doing or thinking before I act. And this includes speaking IN CHARACTER. The character shouts orders to his men in combat, he/she runs to a beloved friend to protect him from the orcs and he cries in anguish when an ally falls down.

To sum up: combat is not a game apart from the main game, where the act of roleplaying is diminished or even banned, not matter how tactical it gets. It should be an opportunity to highlight those traits that are not evident in more social occasions ("I hunger for the blood of fallen enemies"). It should be as heroic or as grim as the game allows and encourage roleplay in that sense. It should also be acting in character. Remove roleplaying from combat and you're just using mechanics and moving pieces like a chessboard. In this sense, it ceases to be a roleplaying game. You might as well be playing a boardgame.

What do you think?
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