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The Contract

Bang - Combat Redux

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
November 29, 2001  

If I killed you, would you know who I was? Yes, to certain values of "know."

Clausewitz wrote, "War is politics through other means." In many ways he is wrong, but like any of the great economic or philosophical systems proposed over the years, being right is more of a perk than a goal. Clausewitz is not correct, but his line of logic is amazingly understandable and inspires more thought. Once you have failed to achieve a political goal by politics one turns to war. It is a logical progression. All military goals are only the means towards achieving political ends. Do this. No? Okay, you get the air strikes. Now will you do this? No? Okay, here come the Marines.

Such a summation does do a disservice to the Big C. Clausewitz suffers from a predisposition to be sound bit, as if all of his major concepts were just waiting on transformation into tight, context-less phrases that are almost designed to be misunderstood. Clausewitz holds as much of the blame as anyone. His best known book, On War, doesn't chapter up all too well. But even as a dumbed down concept it is important, because it is in the form of a dumbed down concept that it has been translated to many and is immediately understandable.

It is not hard to see just how warfare is politics through other means. Some definitions of war even hold politics as a necessary component, that a fight is only war when it involves two political entities. However, we are not discussing war and history, but role playing. Still, Clausewitz is worthy of consideration and application. Of course, role playing does not always revolve around matters of war, but old fashion fighting is still important. So, try this summation: combat is role playing through other means.

My original take on combat, that it is a necessity mostly due to the function of numbers, still holds. There are, however, dimensions that I neglected. The essential lesson of Clausewitz is that violence is never an end, but only a means. Even someone out itchin' for a bar fight is not out for violence for its own sake, but for the sake of proving something. After all, how can you say who you are if you have never been in a fight?

What is this discreet end in role playing games? What is the absolute goal to the matter, not the cause? The obvious is character advancement. Back in the old days, fighting was nearly the only way to garner experience, and thus improve. In CRPGs, this is still pretty much the main method. But even when this is not the case combat still is frequent and important.

See, in the Clausewitzian system, violence is the method of last resort. It is the means of achieving a goal that cannot be achieved through other means. It is the final solution, and the only way to achieve a permanent solution. Sure, it is shoddy logic, but it is logical. If violence is the way to get an answer once all other methods have failed, then it is the only way to get to a definitive answer. Death is the only court from which there is no appeal, and violence is the only way to deal death out.

How can you say who you are if you have never been in a fight? How can you say who you are after the fight? Well, first off it proves you as being someone who can fight, and win, so that is a sort of definition. How else does it work? Who are you fighting? What are you fighting for? Those two questions are closely related, in that to answer one is to answer the other. Indiana kills Nazis, so he is against what the Nazis are for. If Nazis are evil then we know Indiana to be good.

Apply the same logic to goblins or cyborgs and you get the picture. There are many varieties in potential enemies, and an equally great number of potential positions represented. Thus, combat is a cheap form of character development. It answers, with simplicity, who is on what side. By using a word like "cheap" it might seem as though I was trying to dismiss it, but I am not. It is cheap in the sense that it is less costly. It takes less time, subjectively at least, and the proof is more concrete.

It is a standard trope of the action film for the hero to spare the villain out of goodness and mercy, and for the villain to then try to backstab the hero. Why does this trope exist? There is a quality of Hannurabi to it, but it is more important that we see that concept as being just in some fashion. It is the justice of the grave. The problem that the villain represents is not solved until the villain is dead; the only solution is the violent one because the violent one is the only one that has the ring of finality to it.

Some games require an economy of expression. Moral goodness, as any philosopher knows, is inordinately hard to nail down. Not everyone wants to try, especially in the providence of what is arguably about fun, and not moral contortion. So in order to prove just who wears the white hats, the characters kill the bad guys.

The notion of trial by combat is old and widespread, even if not always rigorously ritualized as it was in Middle Ages Europe. Physical dominance bespeaks moral righteousness. The sheer act of victory proves that someone is on the right path. The heroes, generally speaking, are the victorious ones, thus they are the good guys, the protagonists.

In games with ample moral ambivalence who fights and who wins is important. Consider again our Indiana, carefully treading the line between prestigious archeologist and plunderer of the developing world. We could almost not make him out as the good guy; except he sides against the inarguably bad guys. Our heroes may be as tarnished as tin, but if they fight the bad for the good, we can deem them worthy of the hero's crown.

Combat is role playing through other means. It accomplishes the same goals, character development, as more "pure" role play. It does so in a way that is comfortably either/or, as opposed to the softer side of things. It is typically seen as inferior, but is so only in an economic sense. It is cheap and effortless, but to curse it on those grounds is to say that Franzia offends because it comes in a box. But violence is certainly not weak. Whether combat is good or bad to encourage is irrelevant. As a tool for developing a character it cannot be dismissed. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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