Today I’m going to talk to you about why Dungeons and Dragons is not a combat-focused game. Undoubtedly I’m going to take a hit for this viewpoint, but honestly I don’t give a shit, because you’re wrong and I’m right, and that’s all there is to it. Still, let me go a step further and actually explain my position.
D&D was based off of wargames - true enough. That is not however where its real strength lies, especially not in the modern age of high-graphic video games. If you just want to play a game where you destroy stuff, there are plenty of video games that allow you to do just that - and if you really want to get wargaming out of your system the old fashioned way, tabletop wargames are still pretty easy to find at local comic shops and the like (especially WarHammer). But again: that’s not what Dungeons and Dragons is all about.
“But Odin” I hear you whine, “I like combat-oriented D&D games!”
“Well” I say, “you haven’t played properly yet.”
See, D&D is all about roleplaying - which means literally “placing yourself into the role of the character you’re playing”. Depending on how different your character is from you, this can be pretty difficult - but it is also the most rewarding part of the game. Of course combat encounters will probably usually play some role - but they don’t actually have to, that’s the point here. And when combat does take place, D&D (especially 5.0) allows for it to be extremely fluid and cinematic.
Combat, at the core of D&D, is fun because of the choices you get to make as your character when a tense situation arises - not because you have a big sword and get to beat people to death. Games that revolve around nothing but combat tend to lose the interest of any but the most juvenile players pretty quickly. Likewise with games that are nothing but puzzle solving, or diplomatic subterfuge - they cater to personality subsets, but they miss out on the bigger picture.
D&D’s brilliance is in its ability to juggle little bits of everything while allowing the player to feel as if they are actually succeeding alongside their character. A really good game of D&D should be able to incorporate bits of combat, puzzle solving, and unscripted narrative improvisation, and never bore the players or make them feel detached from the game. How? Freedom of choice. D&D will always be able to do what video games can not - expand infinitely with the scope of the collective imagination of the DM and the players at the table. If I want to jump on a table, lob my sword at the orc, and try to swing away on the chandelier - I probably can. I may fail in one or all of those things, but I can attempt them. And if the roleplaying aspect has settled in, I get to take enjoyment from that situation even if I fail, because I’m involved intimately with the life and experience of the character I’m playing.
D&D is roleplaying made exciting by its virtually unlimited freedom of choice. The system provides rules to help govern the action and provide a way to manage danger and chance, but it isn’t designed to get in the way of freedom of choice or roleplaying - ever. If you find the rules are bogging you down, you need to readdress your game.
But jumping back to my original topic, I want to talk about why combat is not the key aspect of D&D, and why it can actually be a lot more fun to find alternative ways to navigate the game world.
Recently I was playing in a friend’s game, playing as a Druid - the second one in the party actually. Our group was hunting down the leader of this evil cult leader who worshipped a demonic blood god. In our quest so-far, we’d slaughtered a whole bunch of sleeping cultists, killed a few more while they were eating dinner, and eventually set a whole quarter of the town on fire when we destroyed the cultists drug stash. For a supposedly “good aligned” group, we were not exactly taking the highest available road (to be fair, my biggest contribution to the various slaughters was when I set our rogue on fire by accident).
Eventually though we tracked down the big bad boss in the cellar of a temple in the town, and it looked like things were going to get bad - there were about twenty cultists and their leader against the five of us. Not the greatest odds. But then, suddenly, the blood god decided that his followers were pretty much useless twerps, and turned them all into a host of random animals. Suddenly we were surrounded by badgers, goats, and a couple of apes. The cult leader was turned into a goldfish. It was sort of surreal.
Our bloodthirsty paladin wanted to rush in and kill everything, but myself and the other druid refused to just sit by and let the animals be slaughtered, since it was pretty clear that they had become animals in mind as well as body. We just didn’t think it was right. So we convinced our party to use non-lethal force only, I put the poor goldfish cultist leader into my water flask, and things started to get actually crazy.
Us druids were casting spells to calm and subdue the animals, and our paladin was tackling a goat. All of us were taking minute amounts of damage from a dozen little bites and kicks, but we just kept slowly retreating back the way we’d come (up through a manhole cover the animals couldn’t climb), all the while not badly harming even a single one of the animals. When we reached the top, where the city guard was bemusedly standing, I convinced them that the blood god wanted to use the animals as a sacrifice, and that not a single one should be killed. So the guards were forced to go and get a bunch of nets, and deal with the angry animals humanely. Which they did - concerned that I might be right about the blood god.
And that was it.
We declared a victory without a single death. After six hours of play, the great boss battle of the game was handled with completely pacifist gloves, and it was glorious - especially since the first part of the adventure had seen our party encroaching dangerously close to evil in some of its decisions regarding the dispatch of helpless enemies. I could see the looks of astonishment and confusion on the faces of many of our players, and our DM. Our DM in particular wasn’t sure what to think of the game, because it so drastically differed from his perspective of how D&D is supposed to be played. And yet the group enjoyed it. We gained enough experience to level up. We got to feel the fulfillment that comes from actually roleplaying our characters. Most importantly, we got to experience the best part of D&D - the freedom of choice. No video game would have allowed us to change the rules and alter the story to such a degree, but our DM did, because that’s how D&D works.
Granted, it would have been too easy for the DM to stymie our pacifist efforts, but he went with our choice, rolled the dice, grimaced as we reduced the encounter to virtual farm labor. And I think the game was considerably better for it. Better than it ever would have been if we’d just encountered another “meat grinder” style battle. Indeed - this was one of the most memorable encounters I’ve ever played in a D&D game, and I can assuredly say that would not have been so if we’d just hacked away at a bunch of nameless NPCs.
I know that this single instance is not enough to convince everyone that combat is not the core focus of D&D, but I hold to my statement. Combat is not the focus of D&D: roleplaying under the banner of freedom of choice is - and, when done right, makes the game take on a life all of its own. Trust me, if you strive for gameplay like this, you’ll never want to go back to standard kick-in-the-door gaming ever again. Leave that to the videogames, where it belongs, and let D&D do what it does best - put you in the shoes of your character, viewing the world through his or her eyes.
Public project updates, author information, and the like. For more of Odin's thoughts, follow him on Twitter.