In my last post, where I talked why rpg systems make warriors boring, I think I jumped across a crucial point of the discussion: what makes combat interesting? So, today I'd like to elaborate a little bit on this question using the GNS theory (gamism, narrativism and simulationism), which is a very well known rpg theory and gaming theory. If you are not acquainted with this theory, do not worry, for I will make a quick introduction of it.
Just as a very broad and brief summary of the concepts, Gamist games and players focus on challenges and on the 'game' aspect of an rpg. The main objective comprises of defeating the problems that appear during the adventure using all the different skills and powers that your group of characters has. Simulationist games and players tend to center around the 'roleplay' aspect, and the system offers a wide array of options for customizing characters in order for them to 'feel real' and to simulate reality. Narrativist games and players focus on the greater picture, the 'plot' and 'story' being created by the group. Its mechanics are created in order to give every participant in the table a chance of adding to the story, often sharing the narration control of the GM with the players.
So, through the lens of those different views of play, what makes a combat interesting?
Combat in Gamism: The fun is in the challenge, in creating a good character build and being able to overcome your foes with superior tactics. The stats and mechanics exist to create a tactical environment for the players and the GM to clash forces and strategies. Characters builds are oriented for specific maneuvers, monsters have specific weaknesses and, although luck is always present, a good player, well versed in the rules of the game and with a good character build, is able to overcome most of the challenges with ease. The most well known example of Gamist Combat is D&D (specially 3 rd edition and 4 th edition) and Pathfinder (which is, basically a D&D 3,75 ed). Those games give a thousand different choices for customizing your character, every single one with different tactical applications. Combat may take hours (sometimes days), with monsters using the widest array possible of powers and skills to take the players off guard. However, in my opinion, the greatest example of Gamist combat in rpg is the not well known Fate of the Norns. In that game, instead of using dice, you use little runes, each one linked to different skills of your character, and you are able to play them in the gaming table following very strict and interesting rules (similar to a Domino game). The way you combine pieces in relation to what others combine in the table will affect the result of your actions and this is probably the most tactical and interested combat system I have ever seen in a tabletop rpg game.
Combat in Simulationism: It is all about simulating the verisimilitude of reality. Every action and every move a character makes must have an echo in the rules. Blinking, changing weapons, readying weapons, speaking, everything makes the difference. With the focus shifted from the 'challenge' to 'simulation', combat in a Simulationist game must feel real. Injuries have clear effects at the body. If a character is hurt, he will feel pain, and that must interfere in someway with his rolls. The stats reflect this reality, and players have a wide variety of many 'small' options, small variations of skills, attributes, advantages, everything in order for them to feel the combat as real and to feel immersed in the game. Although we have many simulationist rpgs systems (like Storytller/ing, Daemon, EABA, Fuzion), they are very similar in their objective of simulating reality. If I'd point one out, I would say that the greatest example of a Simulationist game is Gurps, one of the great old ones of all rpg systems. In Gurps, combat turns take 1 second, a very realistic approach, and the characters can do very little in their turns. It is like the saying: 'Art imitates life, and life imitates Gurps'.
Combat in Narrativism: The focus is on telling a story and narrating events. Because of that, the stats of a character normally matter very little to narrativist combat. All that matters is how the player will narrate his actions, and the stats function mostly as a 'coloring' tool. Some good examples lies within two of the oldest narrativist rpg games: Risus and The Pool. In those games, characters have very broad stats (like, for example, 'Viking', 'Retired Space cowboy', 'In search for the Holy Grail', 'Master of the Elements beyond Space and Time'). Those stats may be used however the player find them possible to use – you may use 'Viking' for drinking, and 'In search of the Holy Grail' as a social skill to convince a merchant guild to lend you a boat in order to fight those pesky orcs for 'The Greater Good'. Narrativism does not care much about realism and challenge, but in telling an interesting story. Other very well known narrattivist game is FATE, which is less 'open-ended' than Risus or The Pool. Each character has specific stats to use and rules are more solidified. However, the greatest of all Narrativist games is the infamous Wu Shu. In this game, you have very broad stats (just like Risus and The Pool) but, instead of rolling a fixed number of dice depending on your level of those stats, you roll 1 die per description you say in your action. So, if you say 'I attack the guy (1) with my knife (2)', you gain 2 dice. If you say 'Gritting my teeth (1) in a smile filled with a rage (2) similar of a thousand eunuch demons of hell (3), I raise my hand high (4) and descend it upon my enemy's neck (5), while saying “how'd you like this now, sucker?” (6)', you roll 6 dice. Wu Shu is one of the most different, strange and amazing rpg games I've ever read. Everyone should take a look at it.
So, what makes combat interesting? All o those. There is no thing such as 'plain gamist' or 'plain simulationist' rpg game. All rpgs have a fair share of all those different flavors – some have more of one than another, but nevertheless they all share a bit of every aspect. You, as a player and as a GM, must find what kind of combat you prefer the most – what kind of rpg gamer you are. If you are interested in Gamism, creating tactics and attaining victory against challenges; in Simulationism and feeling immersed in the world while you roleplay your character and play with realistic mechanics; or in Narrativism, where your passion lies in telling stories, adding details to the setting and sharing narrations with the GM. With that, I conclude this reflection by asking you folks to ponder about the way you like to play your games and think of what is your favorite style.
Until next time
Images: in the text