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The Contract

Why Combat?

J. S. Majer
July, 2000
Why combat? I mean, for all that I've played in and ran, combat always came into focus at some point in the game. And even in those few instances when there was no combat it felt self-conscious, like when a potential disruptive topic of conversation is avoided by all participants so that they don't end up throwing things and shouting "you never loved me!" Massive chapters of game rules are spent on it, and endless hours in argument over reality versus playability concerning those texts.

Even in theater-style LARPs, where the absolute distance between any true actions other than political or social doodads is supposed to be at its farthest, combat still unwittingly springs up, often to the woe of the architects of the game. I barely hesitate to mention that, in other forms of LARPs, it is the core focal point around which the entire game swings. So why all this surrealistic fighting?

The obvious answer is that it all relates to the genre from which gaming takes its cues. Be it action-adventure movies, the pulp press or plain history there is a lot of fighting. Yet, there is no force that dictates what we do to be in their footsteps. RPGs are an entirely new fiction, and one can mack on Marlow or swipe from Spencer from time to time without accepting all of the premises inherent in whatever other genre is being plagiarized. In fact, it would seem the harder path to take to include fighting, simply because there is so much time and energy that must be inspired to make it "right," both in gameplay and in design. But it is the right strategy to look to the past for the reasons why this is the way it is, and we must look to our past, to the history of gaming itself.

Everybody get in the wayback machine and get ready for a little trip into the history of gaming. It will be a rough and untutored history, so excuse me if I should commit some egregious errors. But, like good old Thucydides, I have attempted to capture the truth of what happened, as opposed to the actual facts.

Back in the proverbial day when it was just a bunch of pale-males out of Lake Geneva or Minneapolis or wherever, they hit upon something (no pun intended), something that was far greater than the sum of its parts. At the time, they were playing a combat system for miniatures. People started wondering what the lead figures did when not slaying the evil X, and somebody invented the concept of character. I imagine that it started something like this:

"I dart in with my short sword."
"Why does Thalgrog use a short sword, Bob? The long is an overall better weapon."
"Yeah, we only threw the stats in for it to be historically accurate."
"Thalgrog enjoys spitting in his enemies faces when they die by his mighty blade, Ted."
"A short sword is a 'mighty blade?'"

The next thing you know, a game is formed. Around the combat system, of course, because that was what put the 'ad' in adventure. The old myth in the Second Edition AD&D Player's Handbook that role playing games were just childhood make- believe with rules is utter bunk: the rules came first. While, in effect, our ancestors may have been tapping into the same wealth of imagination that drives children to play such games, it happened the other way around.

Besides, tooling around in some other persona was fun but there was not much to it. Talk to bartenders, actually have plots for why these folks are risking life and limb, argue as someone else with your friends who are someone else over how to distribute magical items that do not really exist: it's all fine and good, but there's no challenge in it. There is no risk. Sure, you could make the wrong choice and end up betraying your soul to an evil warlord, but does that really matter? The story does not end because you lose or win. The story changes, and frequently for the better because of the wrong choices. And it is those unexpected changes that compose originality in a storyline.

Now combat, that was true risk. While what consists character may be much more, there is only one "real" representation of character, and that is the numbers on the page. As the characters are defined by mathematical fiat the only real danger they were in was by mathematical fiat, i.e. the roll of the dice, which, traps and random encounters aside, meant hacking at Orcs with a two-hander. For some reason the idea of throwing the character sheets into the washer and seeing which ones came out whole never caught on. Perhaps, at some deeper level, all those involved recognized that what they were doing was playing statistical games in which victory gave you better chances at success.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated, because I think it was an extremely comforting, if subconscious, fact, which the players understood. It is somewhat like watching a horror movie: there is some part of your mind which registers the fact that you are actually in a theater or huddled around a television set, and these facts make the identification and catharsis both good and useful. Likewise, with there always being the rules to fall back on, the event was elevated from being an improv exercise for those people that did not make call-backs. You are playing a game, not engaging in some weird sharing of emotions with a bunch of friends.

Besides, character development is never an instantaneous thing. It is damnably hard just to jump into a role, even in our modern and enlightened time. It always takes a while for people to understand what the parameters of existence that they have set for their fictional persona to mean, and, equally importantly, how they factor into what goes on into the world that has been set out for them. Think about how convoluted it must have been when the thing first started. Six guys, sitting around a table, none knowing just how far out to go with these invented people, and all profoundly affected by just how the Referee reacted to their pushing of the envelope. And so, when you do not know what to do, worry about the rules and the advancement of the statistical qualities of your persona.

Luckily for us the good Referees out there realized that between these two extremes, between fostering the emotive giblets and systematically progressing the game elements, a game could be strung out forever. Give 'em an enemy they have reason to hate and make the enemy just above their numerical reach and watch gamer run, run, run.

In short, the reason that combat is so prevalent is not that there is any particular love for it, but rather that on some deep level, all the other parts of gaming that most of us consider more important play second-fiddle to the deeper workings of the game itself. All humans are just cells and matter with some unusual preconceptions, and characters possess that same relation with numbers. To ignore numbers is to ignore the material world. So, in some bizarre gaming twist on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (short version: food, then philosophy) one needs the consistent challenges to the statistics, the numerical attacks if you will, to make for a whole character.

This is not to say that one cannot have a character without numbers, so please don't attack me for being a dice-head or some such. There are far too many examples of excellent games without them. However, these numbers are comforting. They reinforce the idea of the game; sustain the comfortable illusion that there is some substantive quality to what goes on between the participants in a role-playing game and not just collective hysteria. They are as substantive and important a portion of role-playing games as the introduction of character, if only because they are our past and what anyone who strives to remove them must fight against.

I must admit, there is another powerful reason why combat is still included in the pantheon of role-playing games, but, alas, that reason connects much more eloquently to a whole another topic of considerable size, so I feel compelled to keep you in a bit of suspense until we address the nature of myth and story in gaming.

J. S. Mage

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