A recent experience with a pretty horrible D&D one-shot got me reflecting on rpg’s, their history, central mechanics and GMing as a craft. Yeah, a lot of disparate stuff. This is gonna be stream of consciousness so go somewhere else if that bugs you.
D&D came out of tabletop strategy games. At its heart it always has been (and probably always will be) a combat simulator with some roleplaying elements appended to it. Sure, you can run a D&D game where roleplaying is primary, but you’ll end up doing it almost entirely outside the system. The vast bulk of the rules, the massive energy of WoTC R&D and the preference of most of its players keeps D&D focused on battle. Hell, your character has a base attack bonus! What is it for if you’re not whacking things on the noggin? Yeah, when you get right down to it, D&D is about combat.
Since it is the granddaddy of our hobby almost every other game out there has similar issues at heart. The Indie gaming scene of late has been fantastic about trying to put story at the center of their games and White Wolf has for a long time been working on more immersive story experiences, rather than hack ‘n’ slash, but a huge majority of games still include combat as a central element, or the central element of the game. Flip open almost any RPG manual and you might find alot of different things in there, but there is almost bound to be a section on resolving combat. And most players I know, even the hardcore roleplayers, wouldn’t be satisfied with a game if combat didn’t play a role somewhere in it. It’s part of the genes of this hobby that the characters we play end up in violent conflict.
Partly, as I said above, this is due to where RPG’s come from – tabletop strategy games. Maybe it’s more profoundly anthropological than that. Maybe it’s because the root of all games is the kind of playful interaction that teaches baby tigers how to be good predators. Maybe gaming itself is a way that humans have of preparing for warfare. Or maybe we just have such a hard time imagining interesting stories that don’t involve violence because we are saturated with it everywhere else in our lives. Movies, television, novels, real-life – violence is a big part of it all. Most likely violence in gaming is just an extension of all that.
Whatever the reason that RPG’s are so violent, it is worth having a look to see how much time and energy you put into “combat” as an aspect of your gaming. WoTC, for example, doesn’t seem to even ask questions like “why are 90% of our rules about fighting?” Consider the number of man hours being spent on system design so that you and your friends can beat up some orcs. Consider how much time your GM puts into preparing combats (and it’s ungodly with D20). Then think about how much time around the table is spent with the mat and minis out. Is that really what this game is about?