Action vs. Adventure

I realized yesterday that my genre expectations for 4e have been skewed. I think of it (and most RPGs) as being adventures, but I think it might be more accurate to describe 4e as part of the related-but-different action genre.

What’s the difference? Speaking in terms of films, think about adventure movies vs. action movies. In an adventure movie, the hero or heroes are taken out of their usual context, face an array of challenges. While many of the challenges may be dangerous, they are not necessarily fights. Eventually the hero finishes the job and returns home (or to his original context). Essential in this is the idea that the hero’s non-adventure existence is important to him. Indiana Jones teaches. Jack Burton drives a truck.

On the other hand, the action hero gets into a dangerous situation because that’s who they are – the guy who gets into danger. He might have the trappings of some other life, but usually that life is an avenue to action (soldier, cop, dangerous courier) or a forgettable façade (like whatever Schwarzenegger does for a living in his flicks). At best, it provides an excuse to put the character in the situation required by the story. The character will then overcome successive challenges with escalating violence. There will be elements external to the violence, but mostly they’re just there to move things on to the next fight.

Now, the lines here aren’t clean cut. Die Hard, for example, has elements of both, and most exciting moves pull a little bit from column A and a little bit from Column B. What’s more, the genre is not a measure of quality. Action may have interchangeable Van Damme flicks, but it also has Jackie Chan. Raiders might be an adventure film, but so are the vast array of direct-to-video Rutger Hauer masterpieces. They can be done badly or well, just as in the case of a game.

4e is designed for action. It’s characters are primarily defined by their relationship to action, and elements external to that are very thin at best. Their arc is one of progressive violence, and the mechanics of the game steer things that way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the primacy of fights and the shaky footing of skill challenges.

But so what?

It would be easy to stop here as some sort of sneering dismissal of 4e, but that would be a waste of effort. The important thing to me is that in understanding what 4e is skewed towards, it makes it easier to tweak it. It means that if I want to play is straight up, I might get a more satisfying experience if I am in the mental space where I recognize that these characters would be played by Jason Statham or Milla. That is to say, I would be well served proceeding under the assumption that they are not adventurers, but rather, awesome badasses.

On the flipside, if I feel that I want something other than the action movie formula, I can do it with an understanding of _why_ it is that anemic skill challenges and boring skills feel like they’re not working. Knowing why they don’t work (because they’re designed for action, not adventure) is incredibly useful if I want to change them since I can do so with better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish.

20 thoughts on “Action vs. Adventure

  1. Conanb

    I realized this last year. 4E is primarily a combat system with some other role playing stuff tacked on. The stories I tell at the table (that in my mind is what role playing basically is cooperative storytelling) don’t always center on combat. But since we’ve started playing 4E they have to. The players build their characters for combat and to have a huge array of powers and no fights means my players start itching for fights. It’s like trying to guide a bunch of bullies and malcontents around. Go to the general market “Hey bub!? You looking at me? So are you?” Go to the library for research “Why you want to know what we’re doing Huh?! You in on it?!” Fighting doesn’t have to be part of a good story nor do I feel it should be the focus of the entire role playing game.

  2. Brad Murray

    Action vs. Adventure was the conflict banging around n my head when Hollowpoint came out — the idea was to build action without leaning on the tools we normally use for Adventure in order to avoid expectation collisions.

    Your post here is way clearer than it ever was in my head though.

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @conanb The rub is I’m reaching the opposite conclusion. See, I _like_ action movies. They may not be my favorites, but I can still enjoy the hell out of the latest shoot-em-up. But a large part of that enjoyment is that my expectations are tuned to it. Within those expectations, the movie might be fantastic or it might be a piece of crap.

    4e is the same way, but its expectations are not so clearly labeled. If you expect more than an action movie out of the box, it’ll get frustrated, and the emphasis on violence (which would be totally appropriate within the appropriate category) can seem WILDLY out of place. But if it _does_ line up with your expectations, then it can rock out.

    Which comes back to my thinking that it’s not that 4e’s combat emphasis makes it something other than a roleplaying game, but rather, that it’s structured in a way that ties it as strongly to genre as a game like, say, Call of Chthulu is tied to its genre. You can deviate from the genre with knowledge and effort, but expecting it to be something else without that effort is a recipe for frustration.

  4. Ivan Ewert

    I have been having the most success with 4E since equating to a console game. Part of this may be because I’ve only recently twigged to consoles and how they work, and how they can be awesome if you frame them properly.

    Each time the characters level, they go to a new zone with 9-10 related challenges. Most of these are combats, some are skill challenges in which a loss has a direct bearing on upcoming combats.

    The roleplay in between are cutaway scenes – I try to keep them short, focused, and to the point. Reveal the information, get them moving, move them on.

    Now – this isn’t my *preferred* way to game. I have more fun with bigger stories and more roleplay. But the majority of my players prefer this style, and those who don’t prefer it still enjoy it.

    In return for playing to my audience, I’m learning new ways to script things like action scenes, exciting combat environments, and how to better tie one combat or challenge directly into the next.

  5. Cam_Banks

    I think this is spot on. Leverage is an action RPG, precisely for the reasons you describe at the end, and as you know this was our aim going in. I’m keen to know what the most successful adventure RPG would be, in this case. What RPGs are specifically defined as “take ordinary joe and drop him in extraordinary circumstances”? I don’t think any incarnation of D&D was this. I suppose Call of Cthulhu excels at this.

  6. Arcane Springboard

    “Which comes back to my thinking that it’s not that 4e’s combat emphasis makes it something other than a roleplaying game, but rather, that it’s structured in a way that ties it as strongly to genre as a game like, say, Call of Chthulu is tied to its genre.”

    I hesitate to ask this, because I really don’t want to get into an edition war, but there’s one thing that continually has been bothering me since 4e came out. It’s this idea that 4e, uniquely among the different editions of D&D, has a combat emphasis.

    Now, I don’t dispute that 4e is combat heavy, if only because the published adventures are written that way. However, I don’t see how the 4e _ruleset_ is any different than previous editions regarding the emphasis of combat.

    That’s not to say that D&D couldn’t benefit from some mechanics that would emphasize roleplaying (I’m thinking FATE Aspects or Burning Wheel Beliefs/Instincts). But none of the other editions of D&D have those either.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    @Arcane So, that discussion could fill MANY blog posts, but here’s one curious difference. In 2nd and 3rd, it was not hard to establish some idea of who this character was outside of the context of them being some flavor of ass kicker. There were mechanical tools for this (NWP, Kits, Longer skills lists, multiclassing and so on) that let you really say “I am an X, and my class or classes and other elements are chosen to reflect that idea”. In 4e (as in 1e and basic), your class is THE choice, and even if you want to color it in some way, the system does not provide you much of anything in the way of tools to do so. It’s tried to add them (Backgrounds, and the things in Dark Sun), but in the core system, there is an essential difference about the nature of your character.

    Note that while that doesn’t speak directly to combat’s central role in play, it sort of sidles up to it. All 4e classes are combatants of various flavors, and when the most important thing about a character is how he fights, is there any question that fights will be central to play?

    Put another way, previous editions of D&D (though less so first) allowed you the option of making a non-combat-optimized character (Thiefy thieves, enchanters and subtle mages, anyone diplomatic) with the expectation that play could be bent to support that. This was a lot of work, and did not always come off well. 4E solved it by saying “whatever it is you are, you kick ass well” and removed the question entirely. On the face of it, this is an admirable, clever change, but in practice there is definitely a price to it. Specifically, in the absence of tradeoffs, other choices feel less meaningful. If you made a non-combat guy in 3e, you did it with your eyes open, and because the idea of needing to come up with strategies to deal with a violent world was a challenge you would enjoy. 4e removes the challenge, and with that, some of the appeal. But, again, the tradeoff is that the guy who WOULDN’T enjoy that challenge, can now play a kung fu diplomat. It’s a trade off.

    Anyway, that’s just a single facet of what is a very deep and varied issue, but I hope it illustrates that the differences show up in unexpected places, and often for good reasons.

  8. John H

    @Cam I can think of a few RPGs that do a fair job of “take ordinary joe and drop him in extraordinary circumstances”. I think Heroquest+Glorantha does this well. Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne (TriStat) lends itself to this approach too. In both cases, it’s probably because they both emphasise belonging to a clan and a culture. Ars Magica works too, because it emphasises that the adventures are not what the characters normally do (even if most of the characters are hardly ordinary joes).

  9. Rob Donoghue

    @Cam to echo John, the one rub is that while adventure _can_ be about ordinary joes, it doesn’t need to be, it just matters that you have some role or life separate form running around doing adventure stuff. Birthright, for example, was a great example of this – adventuring had a context because you were spending the rest of the time doing lord stuff, and you stepped away form that, did something important, then came back.

  10. Arcane Springboard


    I can _sorta_ see your point, though I would then respond by saying that there is an underlying assumption there that roleplaying/combat is a zero sum game, where if you add to one you necessarily take from the other.

    For instance, there’s no reason that 4e can’t get another aspect added onto it that really does emphasize the roleplaying aspects of the game, including rewards and such.

    I look at what you’ve done with Leverage, and what’s been done with FATE and Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard and ask myself, “Why can’t 4e have that?”

    I suppose where I would agree with you is that there isn’t the explicit links to background that 2e and 3e had. Though there’s nothing stopping a person from just doing it. What 4e did was remove the ‘cost’ of doing so. Themes might help fix that though.

    Anyway, I’m starting to drift dramatically off target now, but your response was clarifying.

  11. Cam_Banks

    Pendragon would be an Adventure RPG, in that case, as while you do play a knight and you do go roaming about doing adventurous things, once that’s over you spend the remainder of the year managing your manor, doing mundane noble things, getting married, etc. In fact, the whole idea of the Winter Phase (during which everybody gets older, horses die, kids are born, and advancement occurs) shows that “adventure” is not the norm, but the exciting break from the norm.

  12. Alphastream

    I see a lot of Essentials as undoing that singular focus on tactics and mechanics. Story, color, setting is all coming back in droves. A lot isn’t about the actual game rules but about the way it is portrayed. Run a suggested MM encounter and you end up with a minis game. Actually use 4E rules to construct an adventure and you can end up with a fantastic time, full of RP/story/setting/flavor. The writing was too shallow.

  13. buzz

    @Arcane 3e dramatically shifted the focus of D&D to the encounter. OD&D, AD&D 1e, and Basic were more focused on exploration, and encounters with monsters were obstacles to overcome in the process of exploration. (AD&D 2e started off the same, but then fell prey to the “story” emphasis of the ’90s.)

    3e and 4e (even more so) are very encounter/combat-focused. My experience matches @Conanb; 3e/4e will always gravitate toward combats, and attempts to work against that are usually in vain.

    Honestly, I’ve asked this very same question in the past (“Aren’t all editions of D&D about fighting?”), but the more I explores Old School, the more I see that there is a distinct difference between TSR- and WOTC-era D&D.

  14. The Angry DM

    Great post and I heartily agree, though it is often seen as heresy to suggest that D&D isn’t designed to be all things to all people. Anyhoo…

    In response to Arcane, I wanted to draw attention to something interesting I noticed in the transition between 2nd and 3rd. 3rd Edition explicitly included combat attrition as an adventure design tool for DMs. The 3rd Edition PHB was pretty clear in spelling out the idea that a proper “adventuring day” needed four combats of various degrees of difficulty to properly challenge the party because each encounter used some percentage of the party resources. 4E cranked that up a notch. The four encounter day is so central that resources like hit points, healing surges, milestones, encounter powers, and daily powers are all doled it in just the right numbers to fit the four-to-six encounter day. This sends a very strong signal to game masters that combat encounters are not optional. While it doesn’t come right out and say it, the game implies heavily that the right way to challenge a party is to have a certain number of combat encounters.

    The tactical format for adventures further strengthens this signal by spending two pages per combat (sometimes four). That’s a lot of page real estate to spend. Five combat encounters can run ten to twenty pages.

    I’m not saying that attrition through combat as a method of raising tension and increasing challenge are new to D&D. But they are now a strong part of balancing encounters and adventures and are introduced to every DM. Many DMs have a sense that, if the party avoids a combat through cleverness or with a single, smart action that ends the fight as soon as it begins, the players have cheated the system somehow.

    But, thinking back to how I played and ran 2nd, and even Basic, many more combats were avoided, out thought, or outmaneuvered. At low levels, combat was just so damned dangerous that the heroes that survived were the ones that minimized combat encounters. I might be remembering things differently, but I will say this: the game that I am presented with in 3E and 4E seems to be telling me that combat is essential, not optional, and not avoidable. Again, its not a hard and fast rule or anything. Its not explicitly stated that you must have X combats every day. But everything in the game is balanced around the assumption that you will and the rule books spell that out as the key to running a fair and balanced game.

  15. Reverance Pavane

    Because you define your character in 4E in terms of tactical combat powers you are automatically going to end up with a tactical combat game. The rules [as opposed to guidelines for play] (from admittedly what little I’ve read of them), are almost totally written to support the tactical game. Any strategic options in the rules are directed toward that end (either in setting up for the next tactical battle or recovering from the last).

    What’s needed is some method of increasing the strategic options of play (although given the amount of prep a DM is expected to perform for an encounter [battleboards, miniatures, balancing the opponents] this makes things harder for them), and take the tactical game up to the strategic level. To allow the players to maneuver strategically in the same manner that they can maneuver tactically.

    One level to do this is to possibly have powers that have effects outside of combat, either by introducing new powers, or more probably, by writing non-combat strategic options into existing powers. But they should use the same systems (which mean that they almost always have to be Daily Powers, or perhaps the sacrifice of an Encounter Power before play might be used to change the encounter set-up in your favour).

    Just a semi-random thought.

  16. Telas

    Thanks for pointing this out so succinctly. I’ve seen the differences, but your thesis statement distills it down.

    I like action movies, too, but I prefer more drama in my TV series. To carry this analogy, 4E is a better system for one-shots than for campaign play. (Of course most ‘campaign play’ back in the late 70s/early 80s was just a series of one-shots…)

  17. Goken

    So how does Dresden Files (or FATE more generally) fit along the spectrum? FATE seems less exclusively Action focused than D&D to me. Dresden Files, though, spends a decent amount of descriptive effort on combat, pointing the focus toward action badassery as a profession.


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