Wednesday, March 29, 2023

“Boring” Combat is Fine Actually

Look at how boring this all is! Nobody is using feats or special moves or anything!

It has taken a while to write this post, mostly because I have tried to somehow form my thesis into anything remotely coherent.

So, let’s start with the title of the post itself - boring combat. What am I even talking about here?

“Boring” Combat - What’s so boring about it?

I have seen plenty of blog posts, YouTube videos and discussions on discord about making combat in OSR D&D less “boring”. The solutions tend to cover more or less the same few templates and ideas, which are implied to help make combat more interesting for the person in question. “Interesting” combat usually involves maneuvers or other actions one can take during a fight besides just move and/or attack; or making weapons and armor more diversified by adding tags or abilities to them; or borrowing the fun Might Deeds mechanic from something like DCC and porting into one’s own game (which in many ways is both previous options combined into one).

So, by inference, if those are all things that make combat interesting, then “boring” combat does not involve a wide variety of codified actions, does not have unique weapons, does not have “tactical” choices (we’ll get to that word later).

Here’s where the problem comes in for me though - I don’t particularly care about or want any of those things in combat in my OSR games. I find that those things tend to make combat overall longer both in in-game rounds and, more crucially, real life time. It makes it so combat essentially takes over large swaths of the game session. And if you are into that, and want to do that - that is awesome! Absolutely! There are entire games focused around that - 3.5E, 4E, Pathfinder…all of those offer all of those things in various shades and quality.

However, I want my RPGs to have something besides just one way-too-long fight in the session. Hence our title - I want my combat to be “boring”.

Combat - An attempt at a definition

Let me step back a bit and actually try and define what I even mean when I talk about “combat” in RPGs. Now in this post I am going to primarily talk about OSR gaming in the way I do it - games focused on exploration, a good amount of dungeon crawling, interacting with factions and NPCs and seeing how players handle tough situations with no clear and obvious answers that their characters find themselves in.

In that context, combat I feel is both a necessary and yet slightly dangerous element of the overall gaming experience. As I said, it can take over the length of the session with ease especially once you have a large number of combatants on each side (see my previous attempts at making those fights flow faster)

And I am not someone who thinks that combat has no place in an RPG session. Violence is an integral and important part of dungeon crawling and while one of the OSR mantras is that “Combat is a Fail State”, combat can also be fun and a lot of dungeon crawls tend to involve a lot of combat and murdering of dungeon denizens! Players are sociopaths like that. So yes, I do still want combat in my OSR games. I just want it to move along already and not take up more space than I feel it deserves.

I think part of my feelings on combat is that what I want combat in the context of an OSR dungeon crawler to be is probably different than what most other people think. My sample size here is mostly like at most a couple of dozen people that I’ve had casual conversations about this, so obviously this is going to be massively generalizing.

Most people I’ve talked to seem to say that they either do not want combat at all in their RPGs, or they want “tactical” combat which they use to mean the style of combat found in 3rd edition D&D, Pathfinder and other such systems with grids, action economies, powers, feats, special moves etc. etc. etc. To me though that is not tactical combat at all.

Tactical Combat - RPGs, Wargames, RTS games and Fighting games.

That definition of what “tactical” combat is to me just doesn’t quit work. I am someone who plays wargames, both the tabletop kind and also the miniatures kind and for me all the minutiae of parrying rolls, called targeted shots, 5 foot steps and special flips and twirls are not tactics. That’s just theatre. I find very little satisfaction in modelling that.

I have a friend who does historical sword fighting and so he is someone who is very interested in just how exactly one holds one’s sword, how they swing, how they parry and all that. And fair play to him, it does sound interesting to do. But in my OSR game? Nah I don’t give a fuck about any of that. That just sounds like the most inane waste of time, equivalent to someone describing to me in exacting detail every single ingredient in every single meal that their character eats. Like, yes, I love cooking and food too - I don’t need to know this.

For me, I want the “tactics” of OSR combat to be closer to those in the wargames I enjoy - tactics in this case meaning what is the general approach the party uses for a particular engagement, how they hope it plays out and how it actually plays out. Do you send out hirelings to flank the enemy? Do you deploy magic as a way to draw the enemy into an advantageous position for yourself, or do you use it to hold them back to control the numbers game? That’s tactics. And none of it ever needs to care about each individual swing of the weapon, each individual dodge left or right or just where EXACTLY your character is standing down to the 5 feet wide footprint they occupy. Those are all elements which, barring some exceptions, don’t really exist or factor into wargames. Even wargames that model figures to people on a 1 to 1 ratio. Most wargames are not concerned just how exactly your block of spearmen are holding their spears, what they care is the end result - did you win this bout of close quarter combat or not?

Tangential analogy number 1 - Video games. For me the “interesting” combat people describe always sounds closer to fighting games - your Mortal Kombat, your Soulcalibur, your Street Fighter, you get it. There all of this stuff not only matters, all of that stuff one would argue is the entire point of the game - just where exactly are you, what position are you in, how exactly do you execute your attack.

Compare this to Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. Age of Empires, StarCraft, Dawn of War. Yes, position matters there too. Weapons matter as well…but the position and weapons are on a broader level. Despite being called Strategy games, RTSs I find tend to actually be more about tactics than strategy - you are often (not always!) simulating the tactics employed in one specific engagement, not the overall strategy of how to win an entire military campaign.

And that second option, the RTS/Wargames option is what I am after. I do want there to be tactical choices in combat in my games, but I want tactics not theatre. I do actually think the fact that I’ve always been more into RTS games than Fighting games has something to do with it. That is a realisation I’ve only come to in the last two years or so, as I have started running weekly OSR games. And don’t get me wrong, rulesets like OD&D, B/X or Into the Odd and their derivatives already handle combat in a generally abstracted way which helps speed things up. It’s why I used OSE for my previous campaign and now OD&D for my current one.

What I want out of Combat - Also, pro-wrestling.

Ok now we’re getting to the actual meat of it - what is it that I want out of combat in an OSR context? Since I hopefully made it clear I don’t care about the action-by-action (or even the round-by-round) details, what do I care about?

Well I care about outcomes. I care about what position the players and their enemies are in prior to combat, and what position they are in after combat. Did they win? Did they lose? Did they win, but with heavy casualties? Did they have to run away? Did one side try and parley and surrender? Those are the things that to me lead to the interesting parts of the game.

The obvious question then is - why even bother with playing out combat then? Why not simplify it down to a single roll like some board game wargames do, where you tally up the strength of the two forces, roll on a chart and see what happens? Well…I’ve thought about doing that in games, actually. And I still might! But the reason I don’t do it now, is that I do like playing out the fights..up to a point.

Tangential analogy number 2 - Pro-wrestling. I enjoy pro-wrestling. (Or, well, used to enjoy pro-wrestling. Kind of burned out on it for the last few years, but that’s besides the point.) There are people who watch pro-wrestling specifically for the matches themselves. For the athletics on display as two or more people perform absolutely insane stunts of physical fitness in the context of a pretend sports fight. There are entire promotions like Ring of Honor which were specifically focused on that aspect of pro-wrestling.

But what I’ve come to realise is that I prefer the other aspect of pro-wrestling - the stories that those matches tell. Yes, I enjoy watching the matches (usually), but what I care about is WHY are these people fighting and what does this person or this other person winning a match mean for the overall story that they are trying to tell and play out.

And this is why I also haven’t quite reached the point where I want to completely abstract combat away into one or two dice rolls. I do sometimes want to see the actual match, even if what I care about is the outcome rather than the actions leading up to it.

Let me try and summarize then what I want combat in my OSR games to look like:
  1. I want it to be fast, both in-game and out of game.
  2. I want it to be generally deadly as that helps reinforce point 1
  3. I want broader tactical decisions to matter more than individual round-to-round actions
  4. I want it to be able to produce clear outcomes in most fights that can then lead to further interesting situations in the session
  5. I want it to involve the least amount of number crunching, action picking or mental load possible for me as a referee.

What is to be done - What’s worked, what hasn’t, what might work

So, okay, how do I do this? How do I make combat boring in the way that I want it to in my games? Well, good question...

I don’t know. Some things I’ve done simply by picking a system - in OD&D combat and weapon damage are abstracted, you only use a d6 for hits, and I’ve implemented a phased wargames-style flow to the combat round (you can see the details of that in my player’s handbook document) which helps. I imagine also something like Into the Odd, with its removal of attack rolls, might also work.

I have looked at Tunnels and Trolls and how it handles combat as a possible solution, although trying to implement that into the context of D&D might require a bit of work to make it fit. Plus I have zero actual play experience with T&T so far, and as such I would need to run several games of it first before I even decide if it is a viable solution worth putting effort and time into.

I’ve also toyed around with collating the various mercenaries that the PCs have as a way to speed up the process and reduce the number of dice rolls involved in any given round, though that hasn’t had great effect so far. I am eyeballing the skirmish rules that Marcia B. has included in the optional rules document for her Fantastic Mediaeval Campaigns, however I’ve not had the chance yet to actually test it out at the table.

Lastly, as I said above, I have legitimately thought about just abstracting combat into a single die roll. Perhaps something similar to (what I think I understand) Matrix Games do. Just spend the time with the players to outline their tactics, their approach and their strength, compare it to the enemy and simply roll a die to see which way it goes. This one might be hard to sell to…virtually everyone who plays RPGs in the modern day, but it is definitely an intriguing option if I ever choose to use it.


  1. Maybe you’d be interested in how I’m doing one-roll combat (or, one roll per round of combat, at least):

    1. This actually reminds me a lot of how the Tunnels&Trolls combat system works, where monsters are described as a Monster Rating (which serves as both its toughness and also attack value) and then players simply calculate their party's attack (some of it being random, some of it being static), add it together, and whoever has the higher number wins that round, inflicting the damage as hits to the opposing party.

      Since I already am eyeballing T&T's combat, your take on it definitely also strikes me as a potential way of handling this. Thank you for sharing it!