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Keeping Kosher

Winner Takes All?

by Walt Ciechanowski
Oct 19,2005


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Winner Takes All?

Hi, everybody, sorry for being so late on this one.

Originally, I'd planned on writing a follow-up to my last column, but with a three week hiatus in my current campaign coming, I thought I'd reflect on it a bit more first.

For today's column, I'm actually looking back almost two years. At the time, I was between regular campaigns, and I'd struck up a conversation about running a short game with a friend of mine. Now let me give you a bit of a background on my friend. He's the kind of gamer who, like me, would get turned off if he walked into a new campaign and saw battle maps and miniatures sitting on the table. While he considers himself a "tactician," he's more in the mold of a Holmesian problem-solver than a battlefield general. The third player in our hypothetical game was going to be my wife. While she shows a little interest in problem-solving, she definitely enjoys roleplaying the most. And if my friend and I would get turned off by miniatures and battle maps, my wife would be running for the door.

I pitched a post-American Civil War adventure in New England that had shades of Cthulhu. The premise was that my friend would play an ornery grandfather who enjoyed occult treasure hunting in his youth, and my wife would play his devoted granddaughter and caretaker. Neither one of them would be particularly proficient in combat. As such I had constructed the adventure to have as little opportunities for combat as possible.

While I was discussing the rules set we would use, a thought occurred to me. Since we were playing a game that de-emphasized combat, why not boil down combat to a single roll? While that may sound shocking at first, the truth is we do it in most other cases in a roleplaying game. How many times have you wanted to make a research roll in a library and been given all of the information on a single roll? How many seduction attempts rested on a single dice roll?

Now there are arguments that you shouldn't let problem-solving and roleplaying encounters come down to a single dice roll, and I've addressed that in previous columns. But for purposes of this game, I didn't see what was conceptually wrong with taking combat, which was a chore for this particular group in this particular game, and dispensing with it after a single dice roll.

My wife whole-heartedly agreed. By contrast, my friend was horrified. He did not think it was a good idea at all and practically ridiculed me for suggesting it. There were simply too many factors in combat to allow it to rest on a single dice roll. I countered by saying that there was no real statistical difference between the two (I cited Babylon 5 d20, which dissuades players from combat by keeping hit points extremely low, essentially taking PCs out in one or two shots. I felt I was simply going a step further).

Usually in my columns, I weigh the options and come up with some sort of conclusion. Today, however, I'm feeling a bit experimental, so I thought I'd present both sides and ask for feedback. I should warn you up front that the adventure idea died before I could test the mechanic, so everything is in theory here.


I pretty much laid this one out already. To elaborate, the case for a single roll is that combat should not eat up a lot of time in a game that does not emphasize it. It merely bogs down a game with the chore of slogging through a combat that no one really wants to play out for the entire night just to get to the end result. It's easy enough to set target levels for what you wish to accomplish (modeling many mental and social skills) and simply make a single roll.

Also, players who enjoy non-combat games probably don't want to spend a lot of time covering all of their bases on a character sheet just in case a combat breaks out. They also don't want to be bothered making tactical decisions or look foolish because they fall flat on their face when a combat does break out.

Finally, the lethality factor (the most common defense of the "case against") is usually not much of an issue. Many non-combat games take their cue from television series, the main cast (the PCs) are never in mortal danger unless it's appropriately dramatic or the player grows tired of the character and wants her written out. Also, the case that mental or social tasks should be "crunched out" to include rounds and modifiers ignores the fact that advocates for combat single dice rolls would rather play out their scenes with as little time as possible devoted to dice rolling, except in cases where they can't (could a player who's an accountant in RL really get into roleplaying out the intricacies of brain surgery?).


How can you determine how wounded a character is on the basis of a single dice roll? If your character is supposed to be a golden gloves winner, how fair is it if Skippy the Frail takes him down because of a single bad roll? Chances are that after a single bad roll, Skippy would have his clock cleaned.

There are simply too many factors to account for in a combat, and they are not easily modeled with a single roll. What kind of success modifier chart would you be using that could accommodate all of those factors? Should Health factor into the success rolls at all? And if you modify the single dice roll to two (each side gets a defense roll), aren't all you are really saying is that everyone gets one hit point? It's just way too arbitrary.

Finally, the main argument of the "case for" is that combat should be watered down to a single dice roll because mental and social skills do just that. I actually have three defenses here. First, I'd argue that mental and social skills should never be arbitrarily decided by a single roll. Are we to believe that Rico Suave, stud extraordinaire, should be completely shut down during a ball room scene because of a single roll? I think not!

Secondly, in using the argument that combat has far too many rules while the "emphasized" aspects have a single roll, shouldn't those making the argument for single rolls really be saying instead that combat should go down to a single roll while mental and social tasks should be expanded with their own modifiers and "rounds?"

Thirdly, all expanded combat does is allow the players to "roleplay" combat. Since it's hard to figure out the intricacies of combat, the dice actually helps describe the scene in ways that the average player simply can't. How can you expect such a player to conceptualize all of the modifiers to shove into a single roll?


Well, there you have it, the argument for and the argument against. I'm still on the fence on this one, but I'm leaning towards allowing it in games that use combat only to enhance a drama (I fail to see how Babylon 5 would play much differently). On the other hand, I could easily convince myself otherwise, and then convince myself back again.

So what are your thoughts?

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What do you think?

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