A brief reflection on combat in RPGs

Today is a holiday in the United States. Originally known as Decoration Day back when it was established in the 1800s, Memorial Day has come to serve as an annual reminder of the many thousands of American soldiers who have died in various wars throughout America’s history.

It’s sobering to think of the tens of thousands of people who have died in these conflicts, but that really just barely scratches the surface. At various times over the past century, rates of crippling injury among those soldiers who did not die in combat have ranged from 1 in 5 to nearly 1 in 2. And those are just the American soldiers. What about the soldiers from other nations? What about civilians?

This ties into one of those things that troubles me about the current state of RPGs.

Our genre is among those guilty of glorifying combat and overlooking its devastating effects. With rare exceptions (Fallout, Fire Emblem), RPGs offer up their combat reflexively and without reflection. They provide satisfying pyrotechnics and pop-up numbers. They also provide a constant acquisition of experience and loot to encourage the player not only to weather battles, but to actively seek them out. (RPG players call this grinding–in the real world, this would probably be called murder.)

Before we go any further, a disclaimer: I enjoy combat in games generally, and in RPGs specifically. There is a good reason why RPGs have combat. RPGs are the direct descendants of war games: it was all but inevitable that combat would begin as a central part (really, the central part) of the genre. When you consider that combat systems remain unusually rich soil for emergent possibilities relative to most gameplay alternatives, their enduring presence at the heart of computer role-playing games is easy to understand.

But there’s tone to consider as well, and that is where many RPGs simply fail. We commonly treat combat as something frivolous. Wounds never become infected; there is no scarring, no bleeding, no broken bones. Serious injuries have no lasting effects whatsoever, with recovery occurring instantaneously. Indeed, death itself is just one resurrection spell away from being undone (unless, of course, the plot demands otherwise). Characters that do a lot of killing eventually become all but invulnerable to injury even from direct hits with swords, guns or fireballs.

Battlestar Galactica provides us with a great object lesson in the difference between tone and mechanics. BSG featured a race of robots that were essentially immortal–upon death, their memories would wirelessly transmit to a resurrection facility and they would wake up in a new body. Mechanically, it’s not that different from the sort of constant resurrection we see in an RPG. But tonally, the way these two things are handled couldn’t be more different. Compare the pain and trauma of Cylon resurrection depicted on the show with the glassy-eyed indifference of characters resurrected in RPGs.

So frivolous is the combat in our RPGs that children have become the de riguer jRPG warrior-protagonists, nonchalantly slaughtering their way across continents in the search of whatever MacGuffins the game demands. Child soldiers, and we don’t even bat an eye. And why should we? The battles that litter these games are treated like inconsequential fluff.

Not all RPGs need to be dark, or realistic, or serious. RPGs can stay lightweight and silly–realism isn’t the same as fun, after all. But Memorial Day is an occasion to remember that real combat is not inconsequential; it is not fluff. Combat is terrifying, and can carry disastrous consequences for its participants. Those RPGs that do want to be taken seriously should consider treating their central mechanics with a little more gravity–that long sought-after “maturity” that we always claim to want.

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10 Comments »

 
  • Zerbin says:

    I just lost an hour and a half to TVTropes. Again. Thanks for that. :)

  • Zerbin says:

    Also, good article. Thoughtful, and well considered. The best RPGs, in my opinion, are the ones that take the concept of battle seriously.

  • [...] Craig Stern on combat in RPGs: “Battlestar Galactica provides us with a great object lesson in the difference between tone and mechanics. BSG featured a race of robots that were essentially immortal–upon death, their memories would wirelessly transmit to a resurrection facility and they would wake up in a new body. Mechanically, it’s not that different from the sort of constant resurrection we see in an RPG. But tonally, the way these two things are handled couldn’t be more different. Compare the pain and trauma of Cylon resurrection depicted on the show with the glassy-eyed indifference of characters resurrected in RPGs.” [...]

  • InfantryCombatVet says:

    As an combat infantryman, a veteran of both the current wars, I enjoy worlds where resurrection is easy and painless. After seeing my comrades wounded and dead in real life, it is both reassuring and enjoyable to be able to simply throw down an item or cast a spell and have my traveling companion back without psychological trauma or physical disability.

    Just my two cents on the difference in perspective.

  • Craig Stern says:

    Interesting; thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • Christopher says:

    Tthe treatment of combat really depends on the sort of RPG in question. In a cartoony, high-fantasy world where you’re a spiky-haired kid beating up animal-shaped monsters with spells and swords, “lack of gritty consequences” in combat isn’t much of a criticism. It seems kind of weird to suggest that this is somehow glorifying the idea of real-life child soldiers, when everything about the game is crafted to intentionally be more like a dream-state than anything else. There are certainly a large number of RPGs that could stand to treat combat a little bit more seriously based on the themes that they have chosen to follow through with. A pretty common strategy with these games seems to be “meta death,” where run-of-the-mill combat is largely consequence free and seems to exist in some void where real-world rules don’t apply, but certain narrative setpieces can still inflict “real consequences” as scripted elements of the story. That is kind of weak, though. I think combat systems with mechanics that drive home the brutality of combat can be fantastic — Stalker games are maybe the best example of this.

  • Laplace says:

    “And those are just the American soldiers.”

    Nobody cares about those maniacs. Willingly signing on to kill people without consequences, knowing that your nation leads several unjust wars and regularly tortures people for fun – only complete scum or psychopaths can join USian army. Any of them die – good riddance.

  • [...] A brief reflection on combat in RPGs games rpg [...]

  • Kingius says:

    You raise some very good points. I think that scarring and infected wounds would serve as deterrents in themselves against combat in Roleplaying games but the ultimate deterrent to combat should really be something akin to chivalry and honour: a code in the game that the character follows in order to be worthy of being called a knight, a samurai, a warrior and so forth.

    The problem as I see it is that combat is built into the game as a solution of first resort. Upping the danger level will move it away from this, but to really put it into its place, the game needs to wield ethics and not be afraid of punishing a player for breaking the code. In other words, the consequences of slaying the villain when he could have been brought to trial need to be suitably nasty. An example could be that the player returns as the conquering hero… but is regarded as being a villain himself for committing murder, breaking society’s trust and his own honour.

  • […] So that’s all I’ve got at the moment: a fascinating setting and engaging dialog, but absolutely no clue if there will be any pay-off to them. In the meantime, I didn’t note any puzzles, loot-gathering, or combat within the first hour. I understand that this is by design–combat in this game is deliberately rare and hugely consequential, which is an interesting tack to take, and one that I very much respect. […]

 

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