On Combat as Sport Versus Combat as War

In a similar vein, here is a post made on EN world that brilliantly summarizes the difference between playstyles of old and new school play. It's important enough that I thought it deserved a permanent home. The original article is here. The author is Daztur. The following text is written by him.

"[Very Long] Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles...

…and how to reconcile them in 5ed.

On another forum I’ve been running in circles with fans of other editions about different D&D play styles and how different editions support them, but I think I’ve finally nailed a key difference that sheds an enormous amount of light about so many disagreements about 5ed development.

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game).

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Some D&D players love the tactical elements of the game and well-fought evenly matched combat within it while other players prefer the logistical and strategic elements and if only end up in evenly matched fights if something has gone horribly wrong. These two kinds of play styles also emulate different kinds of fantasy literature with Combat as Sport hewing to heroic fantasy tropes while the Combat as War side prefer D&D to feel like a chapter of The Black Company. This was really driven home by one comment from a Combat as Sport partisan talking about how ridiculous and comedic it would be PCs to smuggle in all kinds of stuff in a bag of holding so they could use cheap tactics like “Sneak attack with a ballista!” However, sneak attacking with a ballista is exactly what happens in Chapter Forty-Eight of Shadows Linger (the second Black Company book) and the Combat as War side think that’s exactly the sort of thing that D&D should be all about.

While either form of D&D can be played with any edition, it works better with some editions than others. A lot of people have played TSR editions from more of a Combat as Sport Mindset and a lot of later TSR products seem to consist of trying to frog march poor Croaker into heroic fantasy, but TSR-D&D mostly sucks at Combat as Sport. It’s not easy to gauge what would be a good fair fun fight for a given party and the same fight could end up as a cakewalk or a
TPK, melee combat is repetitive, there’s one-hit kills etc. Also a lot of elements of TSR-D&D design that drive Combat as Sport people crazy, really tie into the Combat as War mindset. Things like tracking rations, torch usage, rolling for wandering monsters, etc. are important for this kind of gameplay since they make time a scarce resource, which is vital for strategic and logistical gameplay since if the players have all the time in the world so many strategic and logistical constraints get removed and without those constraints you get all kinds of problems cropping up (most notably the 15 minute adventuring day). As Gygax says, in all caps no less “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” (DMG page 37), which sounds like crazy moon logic for people who like Combat as Sport gameplay but is a central factor in making Combat as War gameplay work.

With 3ed the game shifted a bit towards Combat as Sport and then shifted a good bit more with 4ed (although you can still certainly run 4ed as a Combat as War game with heavy use of things like rituals, but the main thrust of the game is towards Combat as Sport). In 4ed it’s easy to tell what’s a good fair fight for a given party and combat rarely goes in a direction that the DM completely didn’t expect and there’s tons of fun combat variety. However, the 4ed focus on balancing combat at the encounter level rather than the adventure level (or just not balancing it at all and running a sandbox) runs directly counter to Combat as War gameplay. In order for a combat encounter to be well-balanced nothing that happens outside of that encounter can matter too much. This means that in order to get proper encounter balance, the impact of strategic and logistical gameplay must be muted as if having stuff that happens outside of the combat make a huge difference in the difficulty of the encounter, then there’s no way to guarantee fun balanced fights. Hence Encounter Powers, hence Healing Surges (sure starting combat with half of your healing surges sucks but not as much as starting it with half of you hit points), hence not having any classes that are designed to be below par at tactical combat, hence a lack of abilities that are useless in some fights but “I win” buttons in other fights, hence a lot of Sports and War dislike for the few bits of 4ed design that don’t fit well with balancing combat at the encounter level (notably Daily Powers). Of course 4ed is not doesn’t do this 100%, but it comes a lot closer than any other edition. However, the whole line of thinking runs counter to Combat as War thinking, the whole POINT of Combat as War gameplay is to make the playing field as unbalanced as possible in the favor of the party, so mechanics that are built around balancing combat at the encounter level just get in the way. In addition, 4ed removes a lot of items from the Combat as War gamer’s bag of tricks and it’s much harder to rat
the opposition with 4ed powers than 1ed spells, since they’re specifically written to be resistant to be used for rating and the lack of specific information about specifically how 4ed powers work in real-world terms make it hard for Combat as War players to use them to screw over the opposition instead of beating them in a fair sportsmanlike match since it’s hard to figure out exactly how to use 4ed powers for off-label purposes.

But probably most importantly, 4ed combat just takes too damn long for Combat as War players. If you’re going to spend your time doing sneaky rat bastard Black Company stuff before combat starts, then having combat take a long time is just taking time away from the fun bits of play. Also if combat takes a long time you just can’t have the sort of attrition-based gameplay since there just isn’t time to have 5 combats in five hours with plenty of time for other stuff aside from combat and a break for pizza as well. 4ed thrives on big flashy set piece battles and that doesn’t work well with Combat as War gameplay since the best kind of combat for those players is having the enemy die like a chump in the first round (with a good admixture of the PCs running and screaming in terror in the first round).

OK, now how can we reconcile these two different play styles in 5ed. Having the tactical rules be an add-on module for the Combat as Sport people is an important first step, this lets the people who like that have fun with it while the Combat as War people can use the simpler combat rules to get combat over quickly. But I think that the Combat as War people could use a DM-side add-on module as well with ideas to emphasize strategic and logistical thinking (the “Fantasy
ing Vietnam” Module basically). How monsters are written up also matters a lot. In the getting the honey from the bees adventure, specifics of monster ecology and biology don’t matter that much for the Combat as Sport side, but just look at how much they matter in the Combat as War side (does smoke keep giant bees away? how much territory will one hive of giant bees patrol? what time of day is the owl bear at home in its cave? do owl bears love honey? will thick clothes and mud help against the bees? will the owl bear fight the bees or run away? how far will the bees chase the bear if it runs). Of course the DM will have to answer a lot of these questions, but monster write-ups can help a lot. Finally, the spells that appeal to each side are different with the Combat as Sport side’s favorite spells being boring to the Combat as War side and the Combat as War side’s favorite spells being far too quirky, situational and unbalancing for the Combat as Sport side. Hopefully some ways will be found to reconcile the two sides.


Combat as Sport: valuing the separate roles of the quarterback, linebacker and wide receiver and what plays you can use to win a competitive game.

Combat as War: being too busy laying your end zone with caltrops, dousing the midfield with lamp oil, blackmailing the ref, spiking the other team’s water and bribing key members of the other team to throw the game to worry about all of those damn squiggles on the blackboard.


Combat as Sport:

Combat as War:

Which one you like makes a massive difference in how you play D&D and what sort of rules you want for 5ed. How to deal with this?
I think two main ideas have emerged from this thread: how to DM a CaW game and how suitable 4ed is for running a CaW game. Let’s hit those two points, sorry about the length but people made a lot of points I’d like to respond to. Apologies for not responding to people in detail by name, but if I did that I think I might crash the server...

How to DM Combat as War

Run a Sandbox

One comment upthread talks about how CaW often requires a DM to completely throw out whatever plans he has for the encounter and that CaS is much more “consistent.” Exactly! CaW tends to work better for sandbox campaigns in which the DM has no set plan for any encounter. The best way to kick start these games is often to start off with a standard railroad plan and then make no effort whatsoever to keep the PCs on the rails, the railroad gets the PCs going and then their own momentum sustains them. How I’m planning to start my next campaign is to have the PCs hired as henchmen by NPC adventurers. The PCs and their bosses march through the forest and then the NPCs leave the PCs outside the dungeon to watch their horses while they delve. Then the NPCs never come back. What do the PCs do? Night’s coming on and strange sounds are coming out of the woods and my wandering monster dice start looking tempting…Having time constraints in a sandbox/CaW game is VITAL (especially in the easy stages) as otherwise the PCs tend to faff about.

Recycle Content

In the 1ed campaign I’ve been playing in, it’s taken us about 12 sessions (about 5 hours each with breaks for pizza in the middle) to clear the 36-page B5 module (and we didn’t even kill most of the kobolds). As far as I can tell, the DM has never done any prep at all, so this kind of gaming isn’t necessarily prep heavy, you just need content that the players can interact with for multiple sessions.


Information is gold in CaW games, monster ecology write-ups could answer a lot of the questions about giant bee and owl bear behavior that that scenario depends on and 1ed-style spell write-ups give a lot of information so that judging if a rat bastard dirty trick works often isn’t a DM judgment call. And as the person who mentioned Ravenloft points out, having good information makes these scenarios tick (the PCs should come across things like big scratches on the trees, giant owl pellets and the sound of buzzing in the distance). This is a great way of getting the PCs engaged with the world, since instead of information being about herding the PCs towards the plot, information is about not getting their PCs killed in horrible ways. Information also helps keep the PCs in the sweet spot between cakewalk and TPK by giving them the information they need to seek out the right kinds of challenges and avoid getting slaughtered.

An Uncaring God

As a lot of people have mentioned, DM fiat can play a much bigger role in CaW than CaS games and it can often come down to playing the DM instead of playing the game. That’s bad. For a CaW game to work, the DM should be an impartial and uncaring god, but how to do that when so much depends on DM judgment calls?

Well that’s what all of the random tables are for (and morale rules and, morale rules are worth their weight in gold)! There’s a reason there are random rolls for wandering monsters, reactions, surprise, encounter distance, weather, terrain, prostitutes, treasure! That’s why the DMG specifies that there’s a 20% chance that a harlot is or is working for a thief! Using all of these rules all of the time will drive a DM insane, but they’re there so that when the DM doesn’t want to use DM fiat there’s an alternative. For example my 1ed party ran into a group of 2 ogres and eight hobgoblins when all but the thief were still first level. In most campaigns my reaction would be “WTF?!? Why did the DM plan such hard encounters?! What a bastard!” but in this campaign we cursed our bad luck and set about slaughtering the lot of them. Giving the DM these kinds of tools makes what happens to the PCs a result of luck, game rules and PC cleverness rather than DM whim.

Google “Westmarches” for more information about the DM as an uncaring god, those blog posts are some of the best I’ve ever read.

Oregon Trail

A lot of people on this thread have talked about how CaW play flows from adversity and how this can be done by amping up the difficulty of encounters. This is certainly one way to do that, but it tends to favor the nova classes and results in a lot of TPKs. Often a better way of putting in adversity is through attrition, or what I like to call Oregon Trail D&D, which makes difficulty depend a lot more on the PCs than on the DM.

What I mean by this is hitting the PCs with constant easy fights, environmental obstacles, tracking supplies, actually using encumbrance (the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version, not the 1ed version, dear god not the 1ed version) and, yes, rolling for dysentery if the PCs drink dirty water. This slow wearing down of the PCs really keeps them on their toes and makes them be proper cunning rat bastards even when faced with fights they could easily win. What’s vital to support this style of play is to not let the players be able to easily hole up and get back to full health, limited healing (no second or third level cleric healing spells in 1ed!) and making it difficult for Wizards to get their spells back in the field (look at the specific 1ed rules for memorizing spells, they might surprise you). By wearing the players down with attrition when they’re in the field you make time a precious resource (Gygax used all-caps for talking about time tracking for a damn good reason) and avoids boring like players spending an hour searching every ten feet of hallway. You can’t do that when you’re playing Oregon Trail D&D!

Of course a lot of people don’t want to play Dungeons and Dysentery, but it’s a big part of what makes CaW games tick. Rules that make it easy for the PCs to recover from attrition like ing Rope Trick and readily-available CLW wands (I swear, the damn things have killed more campaigns than the Deck of Many Things) hurt CaW gaming badly.
In Which I Try to Avoid Edition Warring

Some people have mentioned that 4ed can be used to support CaW play and while it can certainly be used to do that (see the awesome hut of doom example) and Rituals do a great job of helping with that, I think that 4ed is less suited to that kind of play, just as TSR-D&D is less suited to CaS-play. This doesn’t mean that TSR-D&D can’t do CaS, I played a 2ed campaign as a kid in which half of the campaign was gladiator fights and the other half was going out into the wilderness to capture monsters to use in gladiator fights (my character was famous as the best Blink Dog trainer in the city and this was before Pokemon dammit), which is about as CaS as you can get. It was a great campaign, but if I were to run something like that today I’d use 4ed over 2ed in a heartbeat.

Note: if I get anything wrong about 4ed please correct me and don’t assume any ill-will on my part. I really don’t want to be one of the people who say, “hur hur, marking is just the same as taunting, 4ed is a sucky WoW rip-off.” I LIKE marking (at least in its most basic form), I just haven’t played all that much 4ed.

Here’re some reasons why I wouldn’t use 4ed for a CaW campaign:

Combat Takes Too Long

Combat takes a long time in 4ed, which means that there’s less time for everything else. The everything else is very important to CaW gameplay. Of course, you can reduce that number of combats but if you do that, it’s hard to make Oregon Trail gameplay work, which brings me to my next point…

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail gameplay is based on wearing the PCs down with attrition. You can’t do this if you don’t have time to play out a lot of mini-encounters in one session. Also (correct me if I’m wrong), there are various ways in 4ed to heal a character without spending a Healing Surge, which means that if you have that available then anything that doesn’t make the PCs spend a Healing Surge or use a Daily Power doesn’t cause attrition. Also it’s much easier for a 4ed party to bounce back from attribution with an Extended Rest than it is for a TSR-D&D party to bounce back from attribution with eight hours of sleep.

Sandbox Play

CaW works better with sandbox play and while you can do a 4ed sandbox (see the Angry DM’s blog post about how to run a 4ed sandbox) it seems like a lot of work for me. 4ed fans always tell me that the same critter should have different stats depending on the party’s level. I read one post by a 4ed fan that said that at low levels a dragon would be a Solo monster, if the PCs gain a few levels it becomes an Elite monster, then a Standard monster and finally (when the PCs are sufficiently badass) a Minion. Does that mean I have to restat all of the monsters in the sandbox whenever the PCs gain a few levels? I’m far too lazy to do that.

Missing Rules

Look through the various rules and other game book text that I talked about as being stuff that supports CaW play in my previous post. A lot of it just doesn’t exist in 4ed (or at least not in the first three books, I know that Dark Sun added in rules for dehydration and there’s probably lots of other examples that I don’t know about) but do exist in even the thinnest TSR-D&D intro box booklets.

Less Weird

CaW often involves the weird, quirky and situational powers that TSR-D&D is chock full of but that are hard to balance for CaS. How the hell do you balance a spell that is useless in most situations but which is massively powerful in a few for CaS play? You can’t. That’s why you won’t find a lot of CaW staples in the 4ed PHB I (although a few remain like the ever-awesome Unseen Servant/Mage Hand). A lot of them have been moved off to Rituals (which are damn cool and great for CaW, but their cost means they don’t get used as often as normal powers).

For example, let’s take a look through 4ed Wondrous Items list, the traditional place for Cool Weird . The stuff on the list that would be more helpful in a CaW game than a CaS game are let you:
-Get more food.
-Carry more stuff (although it seems to say that you can’t pick up a portable hole if there’s stuff in it and no effect of putting a bag of holding in a portable hole noted).
-Keep people from warping away.
-Change what you look like.
-Portable boat.
-Flying carpet.
-Do rituals better.
-Climb better.
-Have a walkie-talkie.

Not bad, but that barely scratches the surface of the Cool Weird that the miscellaneous magic items in the 1ed DMG can do.

Process vs. Effect

Although there are plenty of exceptions, 4ed write-ups generally tell you the effect of the power, not the process that causes that effect. This is great for CaS play and for role playing (you can role play how your power has that effect any way you want!) but I don’t like it for CaW play. One of the biggest elements of CaW play is looking at what a power/ability/spell/item/whatever says on the tin and then figuring out how to make it do something completely different or how to make their character immune to it. That’s harder to do in 4ed (although there are many exceptions to this rule, especially when you get to Rituals) since the write-ups don’t give a CaW player as much to work with.

Just look at the write-up for the Warden’s marking ability. I know what effect it has, but what process happens that makes that effect take place? I have not a clue. I can use the anger of nature? Any time I want? Awesome! Now what can I do with it except for marking people? No idea. What can I do to make my character immune to it? If I fight in an unnatural area or in the vacuum of space, does that render the Warden incapable of drawing on the power of nature’s wrath? I have no idea. Those sorts of questions aren’t very relevant to a CaS player since they can come up with cool fluff that fits the situation and role play it out, but they’re very relevant indeed to a CaW player.

For another example let’s look at monsters. One of the abilities of a Succubus is Dominate: Ranged 5; +12 vs. Will; the target is dominated until the end of the succubus’s next turn. OK, that makes sense, the Succubus is vamping people and it’s a “Charm” ability. But how does it work? Is it her voice? Can I protect myself from it if I put wax in my ears? It is her sexy appearance? Does it still work if my character is dragonborn? Heterosexual female? Gay male? Is it direct mental magic attacking my mind? No idea.

Looking at the 1ed Monster Manual for the Succubus, I can see that it can vamp people with a level-draining kiss (so that won’t work if she can’t kiss me, now I just need the right mask…) and with a spell like ability that works just like the spell Suggestion. Let’s look up Suggestion. Yes! It doesn’t work unless the target can understand what the caster is saying. So, we’ll need proper wax for our ears. One problem down, now what else can we do to kill the damn Succubus…

See the difference? Sure the 4ed DM could rule that the 4ed Succubus’ Dominate ability doesn’t work if the PCs puts wax in their ears, but then the DM is put on the spot and has to decide if the PC’s plan works or not according to DM fiat. The 1ed DM can just look it up and know that, yes, the wax-in-the-ears plan works just fine (at least for THAT ability) without having to resort to DM fiat, which can amount to the DM choosing (without any information to go on) if the PC will win or lose.

There are a hundred other examples like that (although 4ed does get better about that in later books, noting that pan pipes don’t work on deaf PCs for example). That sort of thing isn’t too relevant to CaS, but the 4ed power format cuts out a lot of stuff that supports CaW play or puts a lot more stuff on the shoulders of the DM to decide.

No XP for GP

If XP is awarded for overcoming challenges then PCs will try to overcome challenges (CaS), if XP is awarded for detouring around all of the challenges and grabbing the gold then PCs will try to detour around all of the challenges and grab the gold (CaW).

The Rule Zero Fallacy

Of course a lot of the stuff I’m talking about 4ed missing can be added back in (and a good bit might be present in a lot of supplements that I don’t know about, my 4ed-fu is weak), but that line of argument comes perilously close to the Rule Zero Fallacy (it’s not broken if I can fix it with house rules) and, in any case, the difference between the support for CaW in different sets of the three core books is pretty stark (at least in my opinion).
Addendum: I Love Healing Surges

Healing Surges are such a great mechanic. Losing Healing Surges is a great way of modeling all of the little joys of Oregon Trail D&D and they fix the Fistful of CLW Wands problem (die readily available CLW wands! die! die! die!). Just declare all-out war on the 15-Minute Adventuring Day by making time a precious resource, make them be fewer, make them provide fewer HPs, make them harder to get back and easier to lose and completely eliminate all forms of healing that don’t involve spending a Healing Surge and they’d be one of the best CaW mechanics I can imagine.
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