Combat and non-combat skills | KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

Combat and non-combat skills

Combat and non-combat are generally seen as two different areas of gameplay in a roleplaying game. A lot of the time, the two areas have different paces and different methods of resolution. Even under some universal mechanic, they can still end up feeling very different. Under these circumstances, however, you'll still find them lumped together when it comes to certain aspects of the game. Namely: leveling up.

I've never really understood the reasoning behind the lumping of these two things together. Take D&D for example: You can use a feat and get a +1 to attack or you can spend a feat and gain +3 to the "search" skill. It is your choice to spend your feat in any of many areas, but in the end this ends up making the GMs job harder. Not only does he have to handle the guy who chooses all combat feats, but he also has to deal with the other guys (in the same group) who have chosen half or no combat feats. I've played in games where the disparity between two characters of the same class has been such that one character would clearly die in a given situation and the other would have no trouble overcoming it.

So I come back to the question: Why lump together combat and non-combat gains, leaving the GM to keep track, sort through, and balance each encounter in such a difficult way? I imagine it was done to keep the game simpler. 1 less term to make for nifty little power gains (although they did end up with feats and fighter-feat feats) and a little less work distributing abilities to classes. In the end, it did allow you to take a class that was combat focused to begin with and slowly alter it for a more skill-focused game, but I don't believe that it's worth it.

This brings up something else: How I believe it should work. I think that systems should be designed in such a way that there is a divide between combat and non-combat abilities. This divide ensures that characters are balanced according to their combat abilities and their non-combat abilities, instead of the sum of all of their abilities. This makes all characters relevant both inside and outside of combat. It also makes it a lot easier to have group-based challenges or group-level challenges because everyone is on common ground.

I do think there is an initial opposition to this idea, however. Some people will think that a player who would create "Fred the Fighter" in 3.x, put all of his choices into combat and generally like participating only when something is being hacked up, will be put off by or discouraged in such a system. I, however, believe that his participation will thrive in such an environment. He probably likes to kill things, and would be happy to kill things in most systems, or he likes the challenge of being the best thing killer, in which case he'll still try to "game the system" within the combat choices that he does have. It's a win/win design choice.


Joshua Macy said...

Older versions of D&D solved this by having both your combat and non-combat abilities defined solely by your class and level; there was no opportunity to starve one to feed the other.

Even D&D 3+ almost got it, by giving you separate combat adds and skill points, which everybody got but weren't useful for combat-related things. Where they screwed up was not splitting the Feats so you got both combat and non-combat feats and had to choose, as well as making the skill points go up much quicker for less combat-oriented classes furthering the imbalance.

4e seems to solve it by eliminating non-combat abilities entirely. ;)

Ameron said...

I think 4e D&D has addressed this distinction nicely with the introduction of skill challenges. It encourages characters to think about their non-combat skills and provides a practical way to get XP for using them.

Having characters in the party that are good at the non-combat areas has proven to be essential in 4e (in my experience). It’s become as important as having a cleric and a tank in every party.

Joshua Macy said...

Don't get me started on how broken skill challenges are...

Anonymous said...

4e: Rituals versus other powers. That is a good fix for adventure-path or string-of-encounters style play.

Anyway, I completely agree with this post.

I'd extend it further to say that if a given game has certain type of gameplay as dominant but not all-important (combat in 4e and 3rd edition), it is wise to allow all characters to be at least decent at that activity and still be capable at other avenues. Different resources for different spheres is a good way of achieving this, though certainly not the only one.

Zzarchov said...

Personally I've never really had this problem. Even at the moment Im running a group which has two very different extremes.

One has a warrior that is specialized in kicking ass, the other a bard (not D&D bard) who is specialized in taking names so to speak.

To reign back away from specifics, that seems to be an issue of over emphasising combat. Increasing the emphasis on exploration and communication could alleviate this.

For instance, consider giving some real experience point awards for travelling and finding hidden locations. I do and its worked wonders for encouraging combat as the only way to advance.

KingSpoom said...

I understand what you are saying. My problem isn't so much with combat being too in-focus or taking up too much game time, but the disparities between two characters that hinders encounters (both combat and non-combat).

For example: I might send a giant at the party. The combat guy might be able to beat him one on one, but the non-combat guy would be squashed by him even if he had a twin helping. Thusly, it means that the biggest enemies end up going right for the combat guy. That's not a bad thing, so much, but when it happens in 99% of combats, it starts to wear on verisimilitude.

The same thing could apply to non-combat. One character might have 75% of the skills at max rank and another can barely tie his own shoes.

In essence, I think the a roleplaying game works great when "the guy who normally only plays combat monsters" can actually add something to a non-combat encounter without sacrificing his juicy combat prowess. YMMV

Vincent said...

First of all, let me say that this is my opinion, so don't take offense if you feel differently. You may well be right.

It feels like part of the problem here is the tendency to create "pure" challenges, something which to me seems very much to be a "dungeon-focused" (if you'll forgive the term) style of adventure construction. This is also a bit of a problem stemming from thinking in terms of levels.

Now, levels (in D&D3/.5 at least, not sure on 1, 2 and 4E) are great, for the inexperienced and non-optimization-inclined. Want the players to have a challenge, you send in something the same level. However, as soon as players begin building characters according to a specific role which _only_ has or _doesn't_ have combat focus or skill, it quickly falls apart. In all of 3E, magic in particular screws over all "appropriate level" thinking.

In non-level-focused games, you don't have this problem in the same way. Let me explain what I mean: Obviously, Bob the Killer has a player who likes to kill things, and likes to be good at doing this. In a non-level-focused game, you can check his skill levels in killing stuff, and know that something with similar stats will be about as good as him. Depending on your knowledge of the system, you'll be moving around factors to make the opponent hard to kill through damage, hard to hit, etc. However, something which poses a challenge to Bob should be the exception, not the rule. A mid-boss, at the least. Bob _should_ be good at his role - just as Slim the Sleuth is good at his detective role or Terry the Thief is good at crimes. Obviously, they should have a chance to shine - but at the same time occasionally they should be challenged at what they're good at. This doesn't mean that, when there's a door, you'll need the entire group to unlock it. In the same way, you don't need the entire group for a fight. Throw in the challenges, but don't make them challenges that requires the entire group. Instead, look for a way to build tension, or underlying conflict, etc. Sure, Bob is excellent at killing orcs. But can he hold off 20 orcs while his squishy friends retreat from the dungeon as it collapses around them? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he'll die in the attempt, maybe he'll live.

As I illustrated, I don't feel challenges should happen in a vacuum, or always be winnable - instead players should choose themselves in what way to approach a challenge - momentarily distracting the dragon while Terry steals the magic ring or unlocks the door so they can escape, for example.

I believe non-level-based games tend to force you more into this thinking. However, it IS less easy to handle than merely using level-appropriate challenges. That's how it goes.

KingSpoom said...

I agree and would like to add that verisimilitude plays a significant role in some problems. If nobody can survive bob the killer's assaults, then why aren't more people like bob the killer? There's never an "economy of options" that tells me how likely people are to take a certain ability or spell... nothing beyond the mechanics of it, and perhaps a fluffy description.

Level based games can become ever more troublesome, as there is usually no default set of abilities that always increases. Hence, it takes more time to gauge a challenge and there's no guarantee that players will make reasonable builds.

I think there still needs to be caps or limits of somekind to control growth in point-based systems. Some groups need the help, and other groups won't mind (or will just remove them).

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