Combat is not a punishment

Picture the scene: you’re playing an RPG with your mates. Your characters are sneaking into somewhere… I don’t know where. The Duke’s castle. The Dark Lord’s undermountain. The back of the pub. Delete as appropriate.

Anyway, you make your stealth checks, and one or more of you fail because one or more of you always fail, and the GM’s all “Welp, looks like you guys get spotted! Enemies spill from every nook and cranny around you – roll for initiative!”

And we need to have that never happen again, never ever. This isn’t a tirade about about bad GMing, mind, or your favourite stealth system. It’s a tirade about the fact that fights should be a celebration.


Look – roleplaying games are almost universally about combat. There are some edge outlier cases, and I want more of these cases, not less – but most games have extensive rules about cracking heads.

But the problem with combat is that it’s the lowest common denominator – you can always choose to throw down. No matter what situation you’re in, you can start pulling triggers and kicking in teeth and hoping that gets you out alive.

Traditionally, you can’t de-escalate, either – once swords are drawn, blood’s gonna come spilling out – and that’s, well, 1) that’s bullshit and 2) that’s boring, really. But it’s the way it goes, generally, even to the point where I’ve heard of GMs throwing out Diplomacy-focused builds because it makes it too easy for characters to avoid a fight. (While, crucially, still getting what they want.)

(When I say Diplomacy-focused builds, I am of course referring to D&D, and the Diplomancer, a character build that was so nice and so persuasive that they could convince pretty much anyone that it was in their best interest to get along with them, even while their mates were going through the other party’s cupboards and stealing all their biscuits. And that’s before we get into the Alphornomancer, a stitched-together weirdo of a thing that replaced Diplomacy with Perform and would stand on a mountaintop, blow out a quick parp on their alphorn, and convince everyone in a 5-mile radius to follow them with absolute zeal.

D&D is a weird game.)

ANYWAY. Enough Alphorns. Back to that stealth roll, at the top of the article. Let’s break down that challenge:

Your characters want to get into the place without a fight.
You roll dice to see how sneaky they are.
If you roll well enough, you get in without a fight. If you roll badly, you have to have a fight.

And that’s all fine, except that fighting is the point of so many games. Even storytelling games like WoD; there’s a reason they’ve had two separate Armoury books but none on Arguments or Love Triangles. (At least, I don’t think so. I’d love to be corrected.) That reason is that people like to have pretendy fights.


So why are fights seen as a problem to be overcome? I’ll tell you for why – our heroes, on the whole, don’t want to get into fights. Oh, sure, maybe there’s a barbarian that’s spoiling for a brawl, maybe there’s a cleric that wants to visit the righteous wrath of her god on the unbelievers, but the majority of heroes would very much prefer it if every dungeon they found was completely empty aside from mountains of glittering treasure.

But that’s boring. Not for them, obviously, or if it is they don’t care on account of all that treasure, but for us it’s dull as. We want a fight. We want to get in trouble. We want to feel like we’re capable of throwing a punch or two. Quite aside from the power fantasy, from the fantasy of feeling like we’re thrust into a dangerous world, fights are exciting when we care about the participants. What would Buffy the Vampire Slayer be like if no-one ever got into a brawl?

So we hit the dichotomy in roleplaying between character and player, in that as players we are leading our characters into godawful decisions every week for the sake of drama. But that’s cool, because our characters don’t exist! They’re not real! They don’t have motivations. You know who has motivations? I do. You do. Your dog does.

Your character doesn’t. Your character is something that you made up, and continue to make up, week after week. Claiming that they’re something beyond you is the same as claiming that Bayonetta chooses to wear a skin-tight catsuit made of mystical hair because it’s empowering, and conveniently forgetting that Bayonetta is a fucking character made up by someone else.

ANYWAY ANYWAY. Let’s talk more about that dichotomy, shall we?


This is storygaming shit, right here, and it’s basic storygaming shit but it’s still beyond the reach of a surprising amount of people because they’ve not been taught any differently; they’ve been taught to play their character as hard as they can, and that’s it.

I’m not of that philosophy. (No shit.) Characters are game pieces, or rather diving-bells for exploring imaginary worlds. Your character is a mask, not a disguise, not an actual person. (When I say “mask,” I don’t mean like those Mission Impossible masks that little Tommy Cruise hides underneath, I mean like the sort of masks that people wear in religious or cultural ceremonies.)

So what I’m taking a tremendously fucking long time to say is that it’s okay to do things that are out of the scope of your character’s brain because you’re in a goddamn story; I wrote about this at length in far wankier terms about two years ago, and you should read that if you haven’t tbh because actually it’s quite a good article.

Here is a basic idea to hold at the forefront of your head – as a player, combat is a desired outcome of a situation.


I can feel the Shadowrunners popping their cybernoses in here and saying that the POINT of the game, Grant, if that IS your real name, is to AVOID combat. The point is to get away clean without any problems. That’s the ideal job. That’s optimal.

(This is also true of Dungeon Delves, although I have more patience for them because they tend to have simpler rules-sets attached.)

Why are there so many rules for weapons? Why are there all those rules for enemies?

Because your game is about fighting, but also fighting is a punishment, and honestly I don’t want to take part in the sort of procedure where the GM is given a wide array of options with which to punish me with, that’s not my idea of a fun time. Also I don’t like the idea of a game where we’re given all these weapons and the best outcome is to never pull the fucking trigger.

Maybe you do! Maybe you can vent your spleen in the comments. Maybe I’ll listen. ANYWAY ANYWAY ANYWAY.

(Also maybe your game is Project: Dark, in which case avoiding combat is the whole point, but it’s still fun, so no worries.)


I’m not sure who this advice is for. Players? Gamesmasters? Kind of both. What I’m driving at here is the point that, given our character sheets, we’re probably up for a fight. We came here to have a fight. We are bristling with Chekov’s +1 Swords.

Fights are climaxes. Fights are opportunities to show off, to let off steam, to tackle a challenge and try to come out on top. Fights are not the problem. The problem is framing. The problem is that we can always, always, always downgrade to a fight, and that gives them a sort of… drudge, I suppose, an inevitability.

I am writing a new game at the moment and we are thinking a lot about combat, part of which is the reason for me writing this article. What we’ve decided on is the following ethos:

If either side would find a fight easy, don’t have a fight – it’s a skill check. If both sides are going to struggle, it’s a fight.

What this involves, though, is asking the players to accept defeat. Not the characters – they can rant and rave all they like. But the players have to be ready to hear “this is not a fight you can win” and for them to trust the GM. It involves removing the idea of fighting as an option.

Why not? When you fight, we’ve already removed the idea of being nice as an option. Violence is not some sacred, last-ditch resort, some tool of heroes to be protected at all costs. Violence is a dramatic tool, just like any other.

So say to the players: “if you fail this stealth check, you can’t get in this way.” Not “if you fail this stealth check, you have a fight.” Try it out. What this skill check represents is a story branch, not an actual physical challenge. It’s going to force them to try other things.

Crucially, though, don’t think of fights as obstacles. Shit, don’t think of obstacles as obstacles. Think of them as adventure. When we put a chasm in front of our heroes, are we trying to dissuade them? No – we’re seeing how they’re going to overcome the problem. When we put a locked door in their path, we’re asking the fighter to kick it in or the rogue to pick the lock.

So let’s amp this up a little. “If you succeed at this skill check, you get to have a fight on your terms. If you fail, you fight on the enemy’s terms.” See that? A fight is going to happen, whatever you roll. In dramatic terms, we are going to have a fight and that is fine.

We’re going to have a fight – awesome! What’s shit is that the enemy have surrounded us, and honestly, that’s still kind of awesome. Crucially, though, this fight is not admin. This fight is not “oh, you didn’t roll high enough, now we have to go through this boring part of the game before we can progress to the part you wanted to experience.”


Your characters don’t want to have fights, but you do. Everyone should understand this, the GM especially, and just… frame stuff differently. From a narrative, dramatic perspective, never have a fight that you aren’t interested in – handwave it and move on.

When you do want to have a fight: talk it up. Make it huge and important. Set the scene and make it matter, because we want to to have a fight, we want to watch our friends die, we want to punch something into dust and limp away bleeding because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be playing Dungeons and Bloody Dragons.






3 responses to “Combat is not a punishment”

  1. Paul Avatar

    You do rather have this knack for being eloquent and shout all at once. It’s a gift.

    But yeah, totally agree with you on pretty much every point. I think only thing I vaguely disagree with is the idea that the Diplomancer is a bad character concept because it avoids combat. In my experience at least, it’s a bad character because it makes every other character in a group irrelevant (unless they’re the diplomacy equivalent of backing singers) and renders interesting role play opportunities (“Hello there, adventurers! I’m an NPC. How will you persuade me, with your fine words and actions, to do what you want me to do?”) into a dive roll that’s almost impossible to fail. But that’s a long aside for a brief point you snuck into the post for humorous purposes…

    I know what I’ve tended to do when GMing stealthy situations is reward the approach with a relevant response, even if the execution didn’t work out. A botched attempt at being stealthy is still going to end up with a different kind of encounter to a full on ram raid after all. It makes combat feel like an obstacle to be overcome, but not something that equals a failure state or a last resort.

    1. Paul Avatar

      And then I realised the last paragraph I wrote is basically just regurgitating what you said with different words. Don’t comment when sleepy kids!

      Let’s just pretend what I actually typed was “I fully agree with the Right Honorable Mr Howitt” and leave it at that.

  2. Alasdair Avatar

    “Even storytelling games like WoD; there’s a reason they’ve had two separate Armoury books but none on Arguments or Love Triangles. (At least, I don’t think so. I’d love to be corrected.)”

    Strange Dead Love, for Vampire the Requiem/WoD. I’m not claiming it’s great, but it *does* exist, and does provide rules and other tools for supernatural love triangles in WoD.

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