Before we get started, I have joined the world of Twitter finally, and can be found @drraagh for those looking for me.
I was recently exposed to Pixel2Paper and their stuff is pretty interesting to examine and I may even make reference to it more in other material, but right now I am interested in their June 18th discussion on Combat/Story. They use the examples of Destiny and Farcry 4 to show how, since roleplaying games are primarily a conflict media, the story in the games do not need to suffer because of the desire to have combat in the games. They then use these as examples as to how you can incorporate it into your tabletop.
My stance on this issue is the fact that games are about conflict and conflict does not have to equal combat. So many games use combat as the main conflict in the game because fighting someone is a universal experience to do, everyone knows how to fight and in most RPGS has at least some capability to do it. So Pixel2Paper was right with the fact that you want to have conflict and story together, but there are options besides having direct combat.
First, let us look at the different types of conflict in literature. I’ve seen it usually ranging from four to seven. I am going to post them all here with some examples that I have gone to for inspiration.
The first thing to recognize about the conflicts is that there are two types; internal and external.
External is much easier to convey in a plot, with people shooting at you, cars following you suspiciously, things like that. In the end, you’ve got some item in the real world you can point to and say ‘This is the source of my problem’.
Internal, however, is harder to create in plots for most people. Part of it is the choices discussion I posted earlier, part of it is theme. There was a post on Dumpshock I read a few years ago, about adding grit to Shadowrun, and they had some examples of creating internal conflict by making it so the players can’t right all the wrongs, the world is a darker place than it seems.
Onto the conflicts, with some plot ideas after them.
Man Vs. Nature: Simply put, the environment is preventing the man what he wants to do. Shipwrecked on an island and need to survive, a test to prove your worth (ie: ‘Once you survive out in the wilderness unarmed for a week, you will be a man’)
Man Vs. Man: You’ve conquered the general world around you, now you’re living with other people. These are probably the standard sort of adventures, someone stole something, you’re out to prove you’re the best.
Man Vs. Society: Sort of like man versus man, except it’s a larger group you’re dealing with here These are things like racism, dealing with the (meta)human rights, but at the same time you’re looking at dealing just as much with another society as it is yours. Mafia member wants to return to society, but cannot; Romeo wants to marry Juliet, but cant.
Man Vs God: Relgion is still big in SR, even if to most people, it doesn’t become that big an RP issue. Sometimes, it is Man Versus Self, such as spiritual enlightenment, but think about the Bible story of Job or Homer’s The Odyssey. In SR, there are a lot you can do with totems, as well as just turning it into a Man’s quest to deal with religion.
Man Vs Supernatural. There are two directions for this, is the supernatural the main combatant, or is it a catalyst to the conflict. In the first, think the Headless Horseman from Sleepy Hollow (any spirit/elemental/magical whozits you have). For the second, The Exorcist brought questions up in the Father, another example would be like Vampire or Werewolf conflicts where the characters evaluate themselves through the transformations. Sort of an Id versus Superego sort of conflict.
Man Vs. Self: Man has fought all the things he can’t control and now turns onto himself, to better himself and fight his own demons. A perfect example would be ‘How does your character justify the ware, the magic, the whatever they have? Why are you pushing yourself past your normal limitations?’ Others could be drug addiction or, as one example I’ve seen that I liked was about how Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts over the anguish of his mother’s betrayal and father’s death are eerie in that they touch close to home about the suffering of life.
Man Vs. Machine: Man has conquered his demons and faced those of the outside world, and now all is at peace. So, we have things like Terminator, Renraku Shutdown, Frankenstein. For those of you who remember it, I, Robot had a quote on that sort of topic. “Guy creates Monster, Monster Kills Guy, Everyone Kills Monster.” So, examples here are plentiful. Robocop 2 has Robocop fighting RoboCain, a creation of man just like he was, except this was a sort of Good versus Evil struggle.
Writing alternative challenges can be hard, especially since there are not a lot of examples of it in gaming regularly. We see shoot-em-ups, we see some detective work and some research, but those usually cut out all the wait times or reduce it to a montage and then suddenly, ding, the results come back. There are various links to look at for some ideas of how to introduct conflict with a direct attack roll, such as Add a touch of original game theory to spice up your RPG at Gnome Stew or Non-Combat Gameplay: Myths & Reality and From screenplay to RPG: Non-combat conflict. Let’s look at some examples of in-game conflicts that are not directly combat encounters. If you’re thinking these cannot be as encompassing as combat, a good GM can keep players on the edge of their seat by keeping the pressure on and making these challenges feel like life of death.
- Have your characters in a dangerous situation, such as climbing a mountain in a rainstorm. They have to rely on their skills or end up falling.
- Have your characters give you a list of exactly what they are carrying, and enforce the encumbrance policy. It’s not too bad to do once you get used to it, and it keeps people from pulling out the kitchen sink with no penalties.
- Put the characters in situations where combat skills will be a problem. Chases, in areas with volatile chemicals or gasses.
- Put a character in a social situation, where combat options are not available. Biomonitor hooked up to an alarm or detonator, negotiations (peaceful or otherwise), even a mystery style plot.
- Subject the characters to environmental situations. They were captured and dropped in the middle of nowhere in the desert/rainforest/lawless city zone/etc, with nothing but the clothes on their back and must survive the harsh challenges to get to freedom.
- Borrow from an MMO and have the character have to do a ‘collection’ quest where they must gather so many items within a certain timeframe. Can be good for cakewalk plots, but adding in some interesting chaos like these are for the antidote to the custom biotoxin the player has been injected with.
- Start enforcing punishments for dealing with leaving a bodycount behind. These people have friends, family, employers, any of which may start coming after you either legally or illegally. Not to mention that some other runners may see you as a threat to the profession.
- A fire is raging out of control, there is a horde of fire ants closing on the village, the dam is going to overflow and the entire valley will be flooded.
The list goes on, but I can think of many different examples. Prince of Persia has a great complex environment and, in the original games at least, not much focus on combat. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s ending was a bunch of puzzles. Escape from New York/L.A. has some interesting ‘How do I deal with this’ moments. The ending of The Recruit was a great example of misdirection that required no combat on the part of Colin Farrel’s character.
Some people avoid talking and other types of approaches besides combat, and I can see a few reasons why. First, if the GM didn’t prepare for them, then you’re basically putting them on the spot and some GMs don’t think well that way. Secondly, some players have been trained that combat is the only appropriate solution and then focus on that, feeling that killing is the only way to get those XP. Third, there are times that the alternatives are not spelled out clearly, and that is a problem that can be hard to fix without leading the players around by their noses (and sometimes why mystery plots can be hard to do, if they players can’t think about where the clues you planted may lead). Fourth, and this one is evident in computer RPG games, the game designers usually focus on the good path (such as by furthering interactions between PC and NPC), as well as the dialogue and actions done in the game make the evil side usually seem more inane than plausable. Especially when evil is considered to be selfish and self-serving.
That last point was mostly inspired by a university paper Addressing Social Dilemmas through Role-playing Identities in Computer Games.It focuses, in my opinion about how the player interacts with the puzzles and what the puzzles mean to the player. Some interesting thoughts in there, for those who want to read it.
For more thoughts on non-combat approaches and players, I like this discussion on the subject, as I find it gives some good thought onto some of the reasons that social combat was not well used in computer games. In summary, they mention 3 reasons that non-combat isn’t much done. It branches the storyline so failure of some tasks can freeze the plot, players focus on combat because those skills are more important against the bosses than being able to sneak or hide, and the fact that most people play video games to kill virtual things.