Combat Roleplay 101: Even Masters Study the Fundamentals.
A Guide introducing the topic of Combat within Roleplay, and how it is approached.
Hello, and welcome to the first of many guides I will create regarding Combat within Roleplay!
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It's the immediate circumstance that we're all thinking about, we know it's going to happen. Somewhere, somehow, our character is going to find a position that results in conflict; perhaps even to the level of, gasp, physical conflict! This guide, and all of its contents thereby, will discuss this seemingly universal situation that roleplayers will encounter.
Combat is a very defined construct in the minds of most people. One person takes a swing at another person. There is so much involved in this, however. There is so much context, so much expectation, so much occurring - both internally and externally, In-Character and Out-of-Character, that rarely does Combat Roleplay really receive its due credit.
A few of the subjects that I will be addressing in this guide will be very fundamental, perhaps redundantly so, but necessarily so for a full, broad-spectrum appreciation of the topic.
Firstly, I will discuss combat in roleplay; why do we do it? What does it give us? Why is it appealing? Where can it fail?
Secondly, I will specify the forms and expectations of combat roleplay, ranging from Dice-Rolling, Emote-Fighting, and Player-Versus-Player game mechanics, with the understanding that there could always be more.
Subsequently, I will discuss combat itself briefly; I will begin with a broad observation, but narrow my focus to showcase how truly vast in scope the subject is.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, I will enforce the importance of differentiating yourself from your character.
Combat in Roleplay: Why do we do it?
"Oh hey, that Orc's got an axe, wonder what he's doi-".
Suffice to say, whatever that Orc was doing, that guy probably figured out.
Engrebor gripped the gritty shaft of his battle-axe, snarling at the shieldswoman in front of him.
He wished to curse for how her steel-skin armor turned his axe away from her blood.
Weary were his lungs, Engrebor Who Slew Muogthad! No whelp was he,
but in his chest were weights of silver that pulled at his throat. Protesting with a bloody howl,
if not to the woman defying his murderous rage - then fate itself!
Our characters are beautiful in all their little ways. Stories told and made to tell again, our characters set the stage for an infinity that we behold piece by piece, hour by hour. Most often, they are novelesque; they proceed towards a goal despite any number of potentially varying conflicts. Perhaps one of the most romantic, is that obstacle that stands in your way, defying you any hope of reconciliation, and in so doing - provoking a confrontation; combat.
I did not mean to get so poetic just now, but such is perhaps the most objective statement I can make to regard my thoughts on why we roleplayers engage in combat roleplay, and why some of us love it so dearly. It is a present, physical conflict, often barring us from the next step in our character's life-path.
For some, it is a trivial affair. A mercenary soldier during wartime will fight in the most horrendous conditions available to the human experience regularly for shiny coins, a guard may quell a rowdy crowd - perhaps by force, a mugger will mug for a living. These standards are juxtaposed by the bookworm scholar whom has never raised their fists to anyone in his life, or the priest whom has turned away from worldly conflicts in pursuing salvation. Surely conflict cannot have an equal and abundant place in both of these extremes, and all things between?
But, maybe they do! Consider this. When we roleplay even the most hardened, jagged, and irreprehensibly violent characters - what is it we are roleplaying? Do many of us actively seek out the repetitive slaughter, the immutable savagery of war that has been hard pressed to utter redundancy? Or, rather, are we looking for that spark of conflict? That instance of something standing in our way, that thing that prevents us from moving forward? Just because violence is made a triviality, does not mean that the concept is devoid of meaning. In this same way, social interactions are not made worthless by the character whom is regularly involved in social intrigue.
So, perhaps the easiest sentence I can give you to condense all of these thoughts and feelings is this: We roleplay combat to experience the physical manifestation of a conflict. If anything, I'd say Hollywood picked up on this with having magnificently flashy, utterly ridiculous fight scenes in movies.
Combat in Roleplay: Forms and Functions.
"Come on, nat-twenty! Nat-twenty! Na-Oh shit... Saving throw! Saving Throw!"
Me, every single Dungeons and Dragons 3.5E tabletop campaign ever.
In the real world, there is no perfect weapon. There are only weapons designed to be more effective in certain situations. Various roleplaying communities often ask the question, 'which is better' when it comes to systems of roleplaying, and often times it comes down to a 'whatever floats your boat' type of response.
This is very natural, and is perhaps the only thing that can be expected. There are a wide variety of roleplaying styles that exist out there, and many of them approach different activities in different ways. Many of them differ heavily, or their differences perhaps originate, in how they represent combat.
For the purpose of this guide, we're going to assume that all situations in discussion are genuine. Disingenuous activities, and perceived likelihood thereof, will be disregarded for the time being.
Dice Rolling: The first, natural system that I see people refer to and have experience with is the Dice Rolling system. There are countless variations of this that fine tune the elements accordingly to specific standards, but the general idea is this: you make individual attacks with a chance of success being determined by a dice roll. They range from utterly simple to incredibly complicated, and often deal with certain factors in between. In this way, the roleplay cannot be 'scheduled', giving a feeling of power to the moment and to the player. This system can be done quickly, across single actions, persons, or even whole groups. This makes it invaluable for group roleplay, time-sensitive issues, or for situations of chance. Where it fails is that it restricts the players' abilities to decide their own actions, imposing actions on them rather.
Play-to-Lose Emote-Fight: The next iconic system comes from text-based mediums similar to those of the dice-rolling, but perhaps more exclusively in smaller circles - such as forums, or 'pen-and-paper'. This system is appropriately titled the Play-to-Lose emote-fight. In this system, it is the combatant's duty to type out their character's actions in their totality, with the expectation that you do not decide the effect of anything that you have done. To refrain from Godmodding (controlling characters that you have no control over), you describe the actions you 'attempt' to do, and likely highlight the fact that you are attempting these things instead of completely doing them. It is the opponent's responsibility to type out their character's actions in totality, acknowledging the effect that your actions have on them. This is a cooperative system that works well between two or more peers. This system allows the total freedom of action between all participants in an in-character perspective, with Out-of-Character understandings of the players involved allowing a welcoming and immersive experience. The failures of this system is that it is very reliant on communication, properly both In-Character and Out-of-Character, and as such is both rather intimate and time-consuming. The system is almost impossible to do for multiple groups, unless the emotes encompass the actions of the group in totality.
Play-to-Win Emote Fight: The third, and perhaps least familiar system within the various roleplaying comunities I've been in - used in only two specific mediums in some communities - is another form of emote fight. In this system, Play-to-Win Emote Fighting, or Competitive Emote Fighting, you are responsible for typing the whole of your character's actions - with the expectation that you are attempting to best the other player through familiarity with the activity in question. You still type your descriptions without deciding what happens to the opponent, but with a strong emphasis on what you believe 'should' happen. The opposing player will respond in kind, attempting to beat you in the same way. There may be some agreed upon, arbitrary rules or systems that can decide a winner, or a valid move in certain situations. This system gives full freedom of action to the players involved, and is highly rewarding to those players who have a vested interest in the roleplay that they're doing. This system is disadvantageous, as it encourages 'winning' the roleplay, avoiding Out-of-Character communication (for the purposes of 'winning'), pushes players towards metagaming, produces hostility, disenfranchises those who 'don't know enough about what they're roleplaying', and requires an incredible amount of time to perform just between two people - and may additionally require someone to moderate the encounter. This system, like most systems, is not limited to combat, but efforts of espionage, intrigue, and politics. In combat, it is most often used in mediums that involve firearms where actions are perceived to have an unavoidable effect.
Player-versus-Player Game Mechanics: Though native to the traditional roots of modern roleplaying, Player-versus-Player Game Mechanics have received a large focus in what I would call the new wave of modern roleplay. This fundamentally simple system involves using an established game's combat mechanics to decide a conflict of combat between two or more roleplayers. Whether physically or on-line, this system is emerging as a prominent form of deciding combat between players. The strong suits are that it is typically quick, or at least more quick than an emote fight, there are typically options to include multiple players - even if only using a succession of single bouts, while also being entertaining, requiring little to no communication (without a loss of perceived fairness), and giving a rewarding feeling to players whom succeed the combat. The downsides are that it doesn't truly take much, if any respect to the situation or circumstance to which the characters are fighting, primarily rewarding time and effort spent in the unrelated game medium that the roleplay is hosted in. This could also encourage feeling of martial superiority among players solely out of the player's ability to play the game. Though, often, communities do tend to evolve productively around these systems, instead of being destructive; though, the negative consequences can still negatively affect a group or community.
Combat, What is a Fight?
Why use a sword (1d6) when a scimitar deals 1d8 damage?
"Some day, people with no idea about anything
will be talking about our modern guns like we talk about medieval weapons.
'People who carried around glocks were stupid,
what I would've done was carry a Barrett 50-cal on my space-pack,
an AA-12 on my chest rig, and an AR-15 Spec Ops on my back...
oh, and a Taurus Raging Bull in my boot.'
I swear, if we'd live to see it, I'd bet money on it."
Me, lamenting future Historical Western Combat Studies come the later space age.
As before noted, there is no one best weapon for all situations, only weapons specialized to be better in certain circumstances over others. This previous point stands absolute within the subject of defining combat itself. There are countless situations that can evolve in which you would need to defend yourself, and likely as many situations in which you may attack someone else. This understanding is paramount, as Context is Key.
The context in which combat is employed changes everything. From the weapons used, to the strategies employed, fights often vary heavily from instance to instance. If we take a look at a professional highwayman in armor, wielding a lengthy axe, versus a poor merchant armed only with a rondel dagger would be very different than two of the same person squaring off in a duel. The situation changes, in that the highwayman wants to subdue the merchant, from two people willingly participating in a duel. The armor would likely change from the highwayman wanting to be as protected as possible, to both men being similarly outfitted to demonstrate skill. Lastly, the weapon of the commoner might be replaced, or supplemented, to give himself an equal standing against an opponent using a more devoted weapon.
These circumstances are most observable in environments of heavy realism, but can also be noted in roleplay. The circumstances of your fight should be looked at individually and specifically, so that each one is a different experience from the last - even if similar.
Combat, the Player or the Character?
Always the character.
As a closing note to this guide comes one issue of the utmost importance. As with all things in roleplay, there must be a separation between the player and the character. While this does not mean that a player cannot be emotionally invested in a character, there most be a difference between the player and the character in the roleplay. A character being wholly indicative of a player, known by writers as self-insertion, can easily become harmful or toxic to a roleplaying environment.
The character must be allowed to be its own entity, separate from the creator, the player. It has to be able to grow, to breathe, and be changed during the course of its adventures. It shouldn't adhere to an absolute path, or be restricted by the failures of the character being perceived as the failures of the player. Allowing the character its own agency is the most rewarding and productive way of maintaining a character.
Specifically, with regards to combat, this is a necessity. The failure of the character, and possible negative repercussions that come from the situation, should be for the characters to maintain. Now, if the players don't want to engage in the roleplay in the first place, that's a separate matter. The issue arises when a player enters the roleplay willingly, with the fixation that the character's experience be indicative of the player's wants and expectations.
Just remember, be awesome to your fellow roleplayers, and to yourself.
And, with that knowledge, so comes the end of this introduction to combat roleplay! I know a lot of it was basic, perhaps tediously so, with some ineffective tone of academia on my part. Hopefully this didn't bore you all to sleep! If this helps so much as one person out there, I'll be happy to have written it!
As always, I look forward to the future with all of you roleplayers out there!
Farewell, peers and masters!