The Sense of Risk

So many good comments on yesterday’s post that I can’t really do them justice in response, so they are likely to be fodder for a few more posts. So with that in mind, I want to start with one point that a few people raised about a distinguishing feature of combat, and that is of course, risk.

Classically, RPG combat includes a risk that the players might lose and die. This gives the player strong personal stakes in the outcome, even if the fight is otherwise uninteresting. The fight might be the most random, railroad-y, cookie cutter encounter you can imagine, but if it could kill your character, you pay attention.

Now, there are two things worth noting about this. First, there is nothing about this that suggests that non-combat _can’t_ be compelling. It’s certainly easier to draw players in with personal risk, but it’s far from the only way. Skill scenes, especially athletic and social ones, can often carry dire risks, and that’s easy too, but that’s only part of it. ANY scene can get player investment if it’s interesting and if the stakes interest the players. Yes, if your players are only interested in survival then you’ll have a hard time coming up with ways to interest them without threats, but I think most players are a bit more broad-minded than that.

Second, and more profoundly, it’s all kind of a farce.

There have been games where the lethality of combat was a real consideration, and speaking as a rolemaster fan, I can say that they can be a lot of fun, but that is not the mode of most modern games, and it is especially not the mode of 4e and the various 3.x derivatives. While they keep the trappings of combat and risk, it’s usually built on top of a resource management engine. The risk of a TPK does not come from the opposition so much as it comes from the danger of a badly designed encounter.

Now, this is not to say there’s no risk. Heck, some games (like Gamma World) have done a good job of bringing risk back to the table, but they do so by embracing ideas that reduce the pain of character loss. But the point is that even in risky games, the generally expected outcome (and, in fact the desired outcome) is that the PCs will win. It may be costly, but they’ll pull it through.

On some level, I feel like a bit of a grognard here, in that what I’m saying is not too far off from “It’s not very convincing to talk about risk if you’re not playing a game where a crossbow through the eye will kill you dead” but that’s less kind than my perspective. I think games have improved in a lot of ways in their understanding of the balance of risk vs playability. But I also think a lot of that improvement depends on some sleight of hand. The GM wants the players to FEEL like they’re at great risk, but doesn’t want to the risk to actually be that great because it’s disruptive to play. The best GMs are the ones who really can create the “Die Hard” victory, where heroes are bloody and broken but unbowed as they manage to land the final deathblow and win the day.

And that’s awesome. I’m totally not knocking it. But what I am saying is that the idea that combat is materially different than other challenges is a well-constructed fiction. The things you think of that make it different are just tricks, and tricks can be used on other things too.

6 thoughts on “The Sense of Risk

  1. scimon

    The players in my WFRP game know that combat is risky. They know this because this is the 4th iteration of the same campaign after 2 TPKs and one sad dissolve. They have learnt some important things about surviving in the Old World which should hold them in good stead…

  2. Kit

    Right, yes to all your points.

    I want to tangent off a bit, though, and say that part of how it’s a farce in, say, D&D3.5 is revealed through the revolving-door-afterlife phenomenon. Even if your character is killed, that’s actually a tax on resources and time, rather than a big honking DEAD. And as such, revolving-door-afterlife actually helps fix what would otherwise be a broken risk system, one where failure throws you entirely off the rails.

    (Personally, I think that it’s a penny-farthing style design solution—fixing one problem with a bigger problem—but I can see how not everyone would find either or both of “easy and random death” and “revolving door afterlife” to be a problem, and may, in fact, find them genre-appropriate and fun.)

  3. zdashamber

    Hum! I am quite interested in this question, “why is combat different from the rest of RPGing”, which is right in the spine of gaming.

    I think there’s more to explore with the “risk” point… Both your counterpoints are true: risk is not necessary for engagement, and risk, in-game, is something of a farce…

    But for the second, there are actual risks in combats. You could be taken out and spend half an hour watching people make interesting decisions while you don’t have anything to plan. You could end up with a -2 going forward. In game, losing a combat often has unfortunate consequences for the character even if death isn’t on the table.

    And for the first counterpoint, in a circular bit of definition, people playing RPGs expect that they’ll face in-game combat. You get at this with “combat is easier”: people have bought into the idea that there may well be combats, while they might not have bought in to the idea that if they don’t publish in Nature this year they will not be able to make professor, or whathaveyou.


  4. VoodooEconomist

    To me my first session of Paranoia was a definite ZEN moment regarding the topic of risk, since in Paranoia anything a character does; whether it is of athletic, social, artistic or any other nature, can easily lead to that PC’s demise. But on the other hand each PC had 5 backup clones with identical knowledge and equipment! So combat or no combat, the real risk was of other players getting somehow ahead, knowing more about the situation or gaining the upper hand in any way imaginable, not the physical danger of being stabbed, blown up, poisoned, irradiated, cut to pieces by a medical bot, or executed for treason (all of those happened during the first 0.5h of play).

    So the next time i designed encounters in my regular Deadlands campaign, I kept that in mind – sure combat’s pretty deadly and sending assassins after the PC’s is a good way to speed things up when they’re stuck. But I didn’t honestly want to risk killing them most of the time, and with such a cumbersome combat mechanic, we concentrated more on the story, on the plot, on accomplishing whatever goals with the least amount of complications possible.

    What I’ve learned from Paranoia: when the PC’s “fail” whether through bad choices or fate, don’t punish them. Make things more complicated. Change the objectives. Add enemies and spice things up. Screw-ups are more INTERESTING, more fun.

  5. Donnie Clark

    Although this might be a bit off the reservation, I want to point out the MouseGuard does an excellent job illustrating this, and (to the previous days post) actually raising non-combat skills and wises to the level of combat. It might also be argued that in this example, combat is brought down to a middle ground. In MG, it’s all about framing your objective and what you stand to lose. It could be a combat sequence where you attempt to drive off a beast before it eats you, or you could be negotiating the release of a captive before they hang him. Both situations are mechanically played the same way with risks, rewards, and compromises on the table.

    Not everyone is a fan of MouseGuard, but I think it’s well worth reading over if only for it’s description of handling conflicts.


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