Why is there so much combat in RPGs? – also, vents!

Heads up: This is a bit more design-focused than my usual posts. It also approaches RPGs with the desire to play them as I want to play them: as a narrative-producing machine ala pen and paper RPGs, rather than as a challenge or competition.

I like RPGs, but when I make a new character I can’t help but sigh. Should I be sneaky? Agile? Powerful? Should my expertise be in sniper rifles or shotguns, swords or battleaxes? Because I always end up putting my points into these skills – based around combat or, at the very least, sneaking around combat – rather than the other skills. You know the ones: charisma. Wisdom. Maybe even “gambling” or “seduction”.

Why is this weird? Well, those other skills, based around talking, or persuading, or something a bit odd like playing poker, are the ones I’m interested in. Why can’t I pour my points into a pacifist ex-diplomat sage with a penchant for Bridge? Because combat is everywhere in these RPGs. Whether it’s Neverwinter Nights or Skyrim or even Planescape: Torment (which was actually pretty good about this, but still far from perfect) your character will, sooner or later, be presented with a bout of fisticuffs.

Yes, I can hire companions to fight for me. But this is expected even for combat-focused characters; even with companions, I’d be hamstringing myself. This wouldn’t be such a problem except combat, as noted, is everywhere. Half a dozen tough fights? I can handle that. When every fight is tough? That could be a dealbreaker.

So why is combat so prevalent?

Even in a game like Fallout – quite good in terms of non-combat options – this screen still has me reaching for “ST”, “AG” and “Small guns”.


No alternative

I’m thinking of a certain quest. You know the type. “Go to the necromancer’s tower and kill him (and all his guards, of course).” “Go to the bandit camp and kill them all.” “There’s a nest of Blargons threatening the space village. Take ’em out.”

What’s common to these quests is that they can only be resolved by violence. You can’t talk to the necromancer. You can’t negotiate with the bandits. You can’t find an alternative nesting-site for the icky space monsters. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it does betray something about the basis of RPG design: the developers think of combat as absolutely core to the experience. There’s an assumption that it’s necessary, that it forms the bread and butter of the game. Yes you’ll spend a lot of time walking from A to B, talking to quest-givers, shopping and managing your party, but at the end of the day your time will mostly be spent biffing nasties.

This is why developers turn to combat for these quests: combat is built into the quest because it’s built into the rhythm of the entire game. And since combat is so central to our idea of what an RPG is, it’s no wonder that it’s used to resolve conflict, finish quests and provide general tension throughout: concepts like “challenge”, “excitement” and “climax” are almost always experienced in these games through the lense of combat because they might as well be interchangeable. Got to the end of a minor quest? Have a mini boss battle: it gives you a little spike of excitement. Your party is exploring a new area between quests? Throw a few enemies their way, but nothing too hard: it’ll give them a sense of progression and “business as usual” without throwing a roadblock in their way.

I loved Neverwinter Nights as a teenager, but compared to my P&P exploits today it was ludicrously violent.

Why has combat taken this role? Well, it’s easy to model with a computer. Pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons simulate combat with die rolls and number crunching – something easily delegated to a computer. By contrast, all the other stuff D&D can do – like talking, negotiating and finding creative solutions to problems – relies on the creativity of the human players, something much harder to simulate computationally. Throw in the fact that there’s something exciting and satisfying about combat, and it’s no wonder it’s become the primary past-time for characters in these computer RPGs. It’s also easier for a developer to drum up some combat than craft, say, an elegant conversation/negotiation tree: rather than a complex conversational/skill-based structure, they just drop half a dozen kobolds in a room. (I’m simplifying but the point still stands.)

There are RPGs which have done the work and added those extra options, of course. I’m thinking of the recent Pillars of Eternity, its predecessor Planescape: Torment and the original Fallout games. But even when they do this, there’s often a problem: as Jody Macgregor pointed out in PC Gamer, you often have to kill a huge number of enemies to get to the “pacifist” option:

The spider-headed vithrack people are encountered in two dungeons and in both cases it’s possible to engage in dialogue with their leaders, realize they’re just protecting their nests, and come to an understanding that’s mutually beneficial. In both cases you have to hack your way through a room full of the giant spiders they use as pets and guards first. You’re basically engaging in diplomatic negotiation with someone while covered in their pet dogs’ blood and viscera.

This seems like strange narrative design.

Full disclosure: I have not played this yet. Fuller disclosure: I reeeeeally reeeeeally want to.


The Fallback option

To help understand why this is a problem – and how we can use combat in a more nuanced way – I’m going to talk about fallback options.

I’ve been replaying Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I noticed something. Let’s say you need to get into an office, or a secure area. There are many ways inside, because this is an immersive sim and the whole point is you get a huge box of tools to choose from. Maybe you hack the door, maybe you punch a hole in the wall, maybe you leap over a wall and find an alternative route, maybe you persuade someone to give you the door code. But it is just about conceivable that all these attempts will either fail, or the player won’t have the right skills to even attempt them. But the office could be important to the plot: maybe the player needs to get in there to move the quest forward. What happens then? If there were no other options, they would be stuck with no way to enter the office.

So they find a vent, and crawl through the air ducts.

A vent, shown here in its natural habitat.


Finding a vent and crawling through is the simplest, most straightforward option the player has. It requires no skills, and will always succeed. As long as they can find a (large, obvious) vent in the wall, they’re set.

This is what I call a fallback option: a solution to a problem which will always work, is always available and allows the player to move the plot along. Think of it as an emergency fix, or a worst-case scenario. If the player puts in the time to find those vents and crawl through them, it’s all good and they can complete the quest. Without fallback options, it might become impossible to complete the quest or even finish the game, forcing the player to restart or load an earlier save – a frustrating possibility.

The DX: HR vent isn’t the only example of a fallback option. In RPGs like Planescape or Pillars, where many quests have non-combat solutions, combat is still the fallback option. When all else fails, after you’ve tried to persuade, intimidate, hack and sneak your way past the problem, you can remove the obstacle violently through combat. In some cases this is actively enforced: if you’re spotted while sneaking, the guards will probably attack you on site.

Again, this is useful – it means the player can continue the game – but fallback options are usually the less interesting choice. Hacking the door or persuading the necromancer is, to me, more interesting than crawling through a vent or just killing him. Fallback options tend to be slower, too, and less efficient. RPGs also have another fallback option for when combat itself – the regular fallback – is too difficult: grind. If a particular fight is too difficult you can reload and fight some easier monsters for the XP. It’s slow, boring and inefficient, but it’s a guaranteed route to success.

A good place to grind, in a grindy, grindy game.

A good place to grind, in a grindy, grindy game.Pitfalls

So what’s the problem? These fallback options let players continue when other routes fail. Without these, designers would have to exhaustively work out what any potential player could possibly achieve, and design around that – a much more complex task.

But what pitfalls might designers encounter when using fallback options?

Fallback options which favour one kind of play. Make sure the fallback option is actually a fallback option for any build, like DX: HR‘s vents. In most RPGs, having combat as both the fallback option and the primary way to progress means that these games overwhelmingly favour a combat character as the most efficient build. Yes, you could build a charisma/wisdom/barter-focused character and just grind to improve your combat skills, but that’s so much more frustrating (and boring) than just going with a combat build to begin with, especially when charisma, wisdom and barter are generally much less useful.

Don’t put the fallback option before the more interesting options. If you have to kill a hundred spider-kin before you can negotiate with the spider-emperor – as with Pillars of Eternity – you force people with more specialised, interesting skills like diplomacy into the fallback option of combat anyway. This is because if people have chosen unusual, non-combat skills, they will want to use them rather than solving the problem via combat: it’s more expressive, and rewards players for risky or unusual character choices. Forcing them to fight the spider-people is like showing players a vent before you show them the office they have to break into: if you do this too much, players will always take the vent and will complain that the game is nothing but vents (as players of DX: HR did).

Personally I think violence should be seen as a last resort in these games, because 1) that’s how it’s seen in real life – violence is risky so people generally want to avoid it unless they hold all the cards and 2) players are already well-versed in combat from playing so many violent games, so it’s somewhat blasé now. Ideally,  players should only see the fallback option if all other routes have failed: there should be a multitude of more interesting, more personalised, more expressive solutions for them to try first. If you build a wisdom-focused character and talk your way out of a jam, you feel like you’ve achieved something with your character’s particular skillset. If you just kill everyone then the game feels much less tailored to you.

Don’t reward fallback options. They’re less interesting and should be seen as a last resort, so don’t actively encourage players to use them. DX: HR did this – it rewarded players for crawling through vents with experience points – which led to two problems. Firstly, players were encouraged to crawl through vents, which further exacerbated the “it’s mostly just crawling through vents” problem. Secondly, players will naturally try to get as much XP as possible, worried that if they don’t grab every last drop of experience they will be left behind the difficulty curve. This led to DX: HR players elegantly hacking and sneaking through entire levels… and then retracing their steps just to crawl through the vents to farm the XP.

What can change the nature of an RPG?

This also reminds me of a situation in Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark. Throughout the entire game I’d associated XP with killing. Yes, you got XP for finishing quests as well, but since those quests were accomplished through combat it was all the same thing. XP = killing, violence, how many goblins you put in the ground.

And then, towards the end of Hordes of the Underdark, in the final chapter of the final expansion to a long, long RPG, I was given an unusual choice. I could either fight my way through a large room filled with enemies, or sneak past using a secret passage. At first I thought nothing of it: I needed the XP from the combat, so I would pick the combat. But I decided to try out the passage and see what happened. And I was astounded – my combat-moulded mind was utterly blown – when I was given XP for going through the secret passage. I didn’t need to kill everything! I was being rewarded for the more interesting option!

Then, of course, I realised that I should go through the passage, and then go back and kill everything for double the XP. Huh. The way to stop this is either to lock the fallback option after you’ve chosen the interesting option – maybe to lock the room once the passage has been opened – or to simply never reward the fallback option. This would mean removing the vent-XP rewards and, more intriguingly, providing no XP reward for killing. This was the route taken by Shadowrun Returns, which only gave XP for completing quests. This might seem extreme, but it makes sense: as a fallback option, combat should not be encouraged unless it’s absolutely necessary.


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