The Gassy Gnoll: How I Came to Love/Hate Combat (RPG Blog Carnival, April 2012)

As a Gnoll, there’s a part of me that loves combat. The Gnoll wading into the thick of battle protected by nothing more than the hair on his back and a thin layer of hide armor. The Gnoll slicing through enemies with a blade, a club, or bare claws, glee and blood lust in his eyes. The Gnoll seeking vengeance for wrongs against him or simply protecting what’s his.

And on the other end is the kinder gentler me. The Gnoll who’s just as happy sleeping sprawled out in the sun without a care in the world. The Gnoll who loves to dance, eat, and make merry with his companions. The Gnoll who would rather see what adventures lie just around the next bend instead of wondering what enemies lie there in wait.

Ravyn @ Exchange of Realities is hosting the April 2012 RPG Blog Carnival and it’s a good one… Combat avoidance. Most of us have encountered it ourselves or with others at gaming tables around the world. Do we simply get tired of fighting the older we get? Is it the mechanics of combat that get old? Are there simply days where players or the GM just doesn’t have their heart set on battling through a 10-30 round combat that takes an hour or three to resolve before moving on to other parts of the story?

These are all great questions. And I don’t have many answers. But let me tell you a couple of tales of my experiences with players who had battle lust whether it was needed or not and I’ll finish up with a bit of a ramble about my own take on things and some possible ways to avoid discord in the group when this kind of thing comes up.

First, let me talk about a campaign I played in just a few years ago with a relatively new player to tabletop RPGs, but who had experience with console- and computer-based RPGs. He was playing a monk at the time – a character who should have been some form of neutral (whether “True” or Lawful I don’t remember). And in social encounters, he did try to hold to a certain amount of balance, following the law, trying to do what was right, and accomplishing his own side quest to retrieve an item for his temple. (Think more an Eastern, martial-arts monk than a Christian one.)

But in combat he flipped a switch and went for the kill more times than I can remember, which was completely at odds with the other half of his character’s persona. There was a glee in combat that just didn’t fit. And it didn’t stop when combat was over, as he got a bit of “loot fever” and would try very hard to get as much of it (items, gold, whatever) as was his cut of the total. From my perspective, this was due to the influence of CRPGs, where you were forced to pick up every item of worth after a battle and sell it to gain in levels, better items, or simply for the gold involved.

If he had roleplayed in combat like he did in social encounters, I could have divorced the loot-happy behavior from the character and attributed it entirely to the player I think. But that wasn’t the way it presented and he was a bit schizophrenic throughout that entire campaign. Still fun to play with, but a bit difficult at times.

Second, let me talk about an experience I had just this past weekend. We had a player who’s never played a 4E Striker in any campaigns (apparently long before I joined the group) and was excited to play a new Rogue-like character in Zeitgeist. This character apparently is a heck of a shot with a rifle (think Steampunk/4E with guns) and, with his very first action, shot first in an encounter where we were really trying to use non-lethal means to deal with a situation. (We are constables attempting to apprehend potential evil-doers before they could disturb the day’s festivities.) He took several other shots and eventually killed one of the five criminals outright with a critical shot.

Now, this was a bit different of a situation. Though my character (and myself) disagreed with his actions as excessive, he was playing in character and gleefully doing his job. The player was excited to be playing a different type of character and the character was simply doing what he felt the situation required even if the rest of the party took issue with it. We didn’t really have time to discuss it in the heat of the moment and that’s just how combat goes.

These two situations show two different aspects of combat in RPGs however. The first showed a player who was excited about combat and dropped any pretense at roleplaying to embrace it fully. The second showed a player excited about combat but stayed in character the whole time to embrace it fully. Though I think both may have been excessive, it all has to do with the style of playing the player chooses to use. I’m sure I’ll see more of the second case with this new campaign and I am excited to have the opportunity to roleplay discussions about toning down the violence, coming up with tactics appropriate to each situation, and simply using a bit more common sense. Those chats ought to be quite entertaining.

Third, let’s look at my own perspective on combat. I used to GM all the time and got burned out on combat when I had a couple of players in a campaign take advantage of the freedom I allowed in a sandbox campaign. No matter
which approach I took, they managed to find the loopholes and worm their way out of it. Eventually I decided the campaign wasn’t worth it and gave up. That was probably 15 years ago now and I haven’t done much GMing since. But all that GMing and battle with the PCs wore me out.

As a result, most of my characters are typically not combat monsters. I played a rogue that was a bit crazy and would come unhinged when he saw slavers (he was an escaped slave himself). I had a philosophical wizard in a Palladium Fantasy campaign that was eventually disemboweled by a Wolfen on a lonely mountain top. And of late I’m playing a warlock and now a fighter in 4E. This is the first fighter I’ve played in a couple of decades. And I’m playing him as a strong, silent-type – a veteran of the most recent war. He’s assessing his team and looking for ways to contribute.

Since I’m usually combat-averse, how will I deal with this character? Through roleplaying and back story… He’s retired from the military to become a constable. But that’s so he can stay on the front lines. He has survivor’s guilt and will charge into the fray to save people without thinking about the personal consequences of his actions. He will throw himself on the grenade to save his fellow party members or someone under his protection. And he will do it until he dies in the attempt or is physically unable to do it – which means he might as well be dead. So far he’s been lucky. But will his luck hold out?

That’s my approach to combat avoidance. His view on the world will direct his tactics in a constant feedback loop. Every battle becomes another opportunity to test his mettle and see if he’ll survive another day or meet his fallen comrades in the afterlife.

So that’s my first tip for dealing with combat avoidance at the table. Ultimately it should be dealt with on a personal level. The player or GM should deal with it individually unless it becomes a bigger issue that has to be brought up and discussed as a group.

Here’s the list with that and a few other ideas:

  1. Find a way to embrace combat through roleplaying. Some nugget of back story or a reason that drives them to fight when they must.
  2. If combat avoidance becomes an issue at the table, poll the players at the table to see who’s spoiling for a fight and who isn’t. As GM, make sure you have at least one prepped non-combat encounter as well as a combat encounter every session that you can pull out when needed.
  3. Model your PC’s combat style after a favorite character in a book, on TV, or in the movies. Though it may be out of sync, have your meek gnomish illusionist fight like Wolverine. Or have your big burly fighter talk like The Man in Black from Princess Bride during combat to throw opponents off. Find some icon to bring some roleplaying to each encounter, adventure, or campaign. When you find the right one, keep it!
  4. Tempt fate occasionally. Number your different combat-applicable abilities and roll a die to determine which one you’re going to use. Roll randomly, come up with a brief description of why that particular ability is being used, and use it with gusto! Great way to vary your strategy so you don’t always use the same attacks.

I’m sure there are others, but there’s four for you to ponder. What ways do YOU use to keep combat fresh and interesting?

Thanks go to Ravyn @ Exchange of Realities for this blog carnival topic. It’s one I hadn’t really pondered until now even though it’s something I’ve dealt with for years!

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