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D&D: Combat as Sport or Combat as War?

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Last year I wrote a post on the problems of trying to design a single version of D&d that could be every D&D player's "go to" system because so many of the things players need/expect from D&D are nearly polar opposites: A New Edition of D&D Designed to Unite D&D Players -- Can It Be Done?.

I saw a post on Enworld that not only adds another to that long list of polar opposites, but that hints at why 4e was a divisive as it has been: Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles... This post points out that there are two very different ways to enjoy combat in a D&D game: "combat as sport" and "combat as warfare".

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.
The article points out that while either can be done in almost any gamesystem, certain systems favor one over the other. For example and in IMHO, 1e favors "Combat as War" while 4e favors "Combat as Sport." While You will want to read the entire article, here's the example the author gave of each style: The basic situation is "the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money."

Combat as Sport Approach:
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 Approach:
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 come 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.

Both styles are lots of fun for those players who enjoy the style (and often very annoying to those her prefer the other style, of course). Problems arise because the type of rules that provide a great "Combat as Sport" experience (mandated balance, no save-or-die effects which could end the combat unfairly, etc.) have the effect of nerfing many of the options the "Combat as War" players want. On the other hand, many of the things that make for a great "Combat as War" experience make it hard to even set up good "Combat as Sport" encounters.

I strongly prefer "Combat as War" to "Combat as Sport". Microlite74, while not purposely designed to be hostile to "Combat as Sport", definitely favors "Combat as War" in its design.

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