Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gygax on Combat

Consider the following statement by Gary Gygax concerning how much detail and complexity should be accounted for by D and D’s combat mechanic:

“If, in fact, D&D were a game of simulation of hand-to-hand combat utilizing miniature figurines, such detail would be highly desirable. The game is one of
adventure, though, and combats of protected [protracted, sic] nature (several hours
minimum of six or more player characters are considered involved
against one or more opponents each) are undesirable, as the majority
of participants are most definitely not miniature battle game enthusiasts.” (The Dragon, April 1979)

This precisely captures a huge part of my disenchantment with the 3.5 rules. Combats simply take way too long and depend upon an unnecessary level of complexity. The result feels more like a “miniature battle game” as opposed to an RPG. I offer this quote, not because I feel that Gygax’s statements should be treated as some sort of holy writ that express the “truth” of what D and D is supposed to be, but rather as an insight into just how prescient he could be about the future of the game he created.

Admittedly, Gygax is mostly talking about and rejecting complicated combat systems that make extensive use of hit locations and such, not the elaborate array of feats used in 3.5. But the point is that, several times in this article, he stresses that D and D is not primarily about combat, but rather the development of an imaginary persona. Combat is only a means to this end. Later versions of the game, while often paying lip service to this idea, seem to have increasingly lost sight of it.


Superhero Necromancer said...

Interesting quote. I've seen something similar in a letter Gygax wrote to White Dwarf magazine in 1978.

Combat at best is something to be done quickly so as to get on with the fun...

The full letter is quoted in my blog post. At any rate, as you said, it's not a gospel or even necessarily a perfect representation of Gary Gygax's opinion (which shifted from time to time, as far as I know). But it's an interesting point of reference for thinking about combat in D&D. It's one thing in the game, yes. But not the only thing, as I think your quote and this quote both suggest.

Ironbeard said...

Super Hero Necromancer, thanks for the reference to that letter. Fascinating and useful stuff. I've been trying to trace the history of how the importance and centrality of the combat encounter has changed in D and D over time. Obviously, there is no ultimately no "true" version of the games, but older versions were just more enjoyable for me personally.

I'm also interested in the contradiction implied by the combat encounter. It is an absolutely crucial part of the game and yet, if too much focus is lavished upon it, the game suffers.

Aeschere said...

I agree with both you and Gygax, Ironbeard, and have found that the problem of protracted combats has become increasingly challenging as the characters in my campaign have ascended in level. As a player in that campaign, I imagine you have noticed the same thing. While these long combats are certainly fun, I am finding that they are beginning to dominate play, and overshadow other elements that I enjoy as much or more than combat, such as role-playing. This might not feel like such a problem if we were able to play more often, but because the group is only able to meet once or twice a month, the combats are becoming difficult to manage.

The other issue I have is the complexity of both preparing and running the combat. Because the character and monster mechanic is the same, creating a high-level monster or NPC can take a lot of time, and although I love creating complex NPCs and monsters, it is difficult to give equal time to things, such as designing interesting dungeons. In fact, I have often deliberately designed simple dungeons simply because the combination of a complex dungeon and protracted combats would slow things down so much that the party would be able to accomplish very little in the course of an evening. Again, this might be less of a problem if we played more often, but schedules and lives simply don't permit this.

The complexity of running combats is also beginning to bother me. There is so much to keep track of - adjustments, special abilities, etc. - that I am finding combats increasingly difficult to enjoy because instead of role-playing the monsters and NPCs that I took so much time to create, I am struggling to keep all the minutia straight.