Split games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 September 2013, 7:28 am
What do the XCOM games, the Heroes of Might & Magic games, the Final Fantasy games, and the games of the Total War series have in common? They are all what I would call split games: Games in which the combat part happens split apart from the rest of the game, with a different user interface, different rules, and all that. Compare that to games like Diablo or MMORPGs in which controlling your character in and out of combat is basically done in the same way: In Diablo searching a barrel for treasure is the same action as hitting an opponent. And what is slightly less evident, pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons are split games too!

I am not just talking about a narrow case like 4th edition, where the split is more obvious, because you take out a battle map and figurines once you enter combat. But fundamentally that split has always been there, through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons as well as in most other pen & paper rules systems. There has always been a more strictly regulated part of the game which is combat, and a more free-form part of the game between fights. Even back in the days of THAC0 and all that, the THAC0 was strictly a combat mechanic which had absolutely no relevance outside combat. Many spells and abilities were clearly designed either for combat or for "out of combat". Outside of combat a spell like Magic Missile has no function. And balance issues arose from the fact that some classes didn't have any useful "out of combat" abilities, while for example a wizard could still use spells like Invisibility or Fly out of combat and was thus more useful in the long run. Even if you played without figurines or battle maps, the split was there. Players always behave differently in combat than out of combat. And nearly universally combat actions are turn-based, giving every player equal opportunity to act, while out of combat gameplay isn't necessarily so equalized.

There are several consequences to this split in pen & paper games. One is that if you look at a game, or watch people playing, the impression is a very different one depending on whether they are in combat or out. And if you look at rules systems, the actual effect of that rules system on combat tends to be much more significant than its effect on the "roleplaying" out of combat. I watched a few videos of WoTC playing D&D Next on YouTube, and didn't learn much about D&D Next in the process: Most of the time they were roleplaying, and there was no discernible difference between what they did in the video and how they would have acted if they had played another edition of D&D.

The other big consequence of the split is that as a DM you need to consider your campaign as a mix of two different games, and keep in mind that the same group of players might not enjoy both parts equally. I always facepalm when somebody tells me that 4th edition D&D has "too much combat". Sorry, the rules system says NOTHING about how much combat any edition of D&D has. That is the decision of the DM, or of the person who wrote the adventure. I've played mega-dungeon adventures in early versions of D&D where all we ever did was combat. And you can play a 4E adventure with not a single fight in it if you wanted to. Personally I am much in favor of a 50:50 mix, because if you roleplay too long in a row everybody loses concentration and focus, and a fight wakes everybody back up.

I stopped following the beta of D&D Next, as I don't have a group to play it with. But once the new edition is finalized, I will very much judge it on its performance in combat. Because that is where a rules system actually comes into play. Nobody needs a rules system to negotiate with a dragon, but you certainly need one to slay him.
Tobold's Blog

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