D&D is a Combat Game

Wizards of the Coast has caused a little bit of a stir in the tabletop community with the advertising of their new book. D&D says its new adventure book, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight (WBW) is possible to complete without engaging in combat.

Now, most situations in a D&D game should be presented with the possibility of avoiding combat. That’s just good open design.

But, if you’re going to play an entire adventure without combat, you should probably be playing another game. Why is that?

D&D is fundamentally a game about combat. That’s what most of its rules are for. That’s what most of your character features do. When you advance and get more powerful–whether that’s through killing monsters and gaining XP, or from talking through social situations and surpassing leveling milestones–you generally get more combat powers. Where fighting to get stronger makes sense, there’s a certain incongruity with talking through things and getting more powerful in a fight. If you want to know what a game is about, look at what it has rules for, and what kind of rewards you get for playing. D&D is a combat game.

It’s not that D&D doesn’t work for social games. 5th Edition is a rules-lite social game with a binary d20 resolution mechanic. There is a smattering of spells and features that are useful in the social arena, but D&D often handles these poorly by using agency-stealing charm effects that can feel pretty gross when leveraged in social situations. For an example, look to the leaked-then-pulled Love Domain Cleric that was a flash in the Unearthed Arcana pan.

A lot of people see this and respond that they like the freedom offered by the simplicity of D&D’s social system. They don’t think 5e D&D needs more social rules. They feel that social rules only constrain them. In fact, these are benefits offered by any rules-lite social system.

But, D&D is not a rules-lite combat game. So, if what you want is a social game, you should probably save yourself a lot of reading rules (that you can’t use) and wasted ink (on your character sheet). Pick up a rules-lite game with the same resolution mechanics and don’t waste your time with combat features you don’t need or can’t use.

What we see from WBW is an effort to push D&D more towards the storygaming demographic that has risen during 5th Edition. Most folks would probably agree that this is a good direction for D&D, except that it rubs against 5e’s core system. In fact, combat used to be disincentivized in earlier editions where deadly encounters and “XP for gold” conspired to make parties seek the easiest path to paydirt. 5e has struggled with incentivizing non-combat resolution without such avaricious motives. Perhaps shifting their modules from XP leveling to milestone leveling was an effort to rekindle this notion. But, 5th Edition has never been so overt about pacifism as an option.

The reason you see so much pushback on advertising efforts like this is because D&D, as the largest player in the market, is attempting to be “all games for all people.” But, it’s not that. It’s a combat-heavy high fantasy game. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of people who have designed their games around social functions when D&D tries to step outside its box and grab indie games’ market share.

While D&D is a rules-lite social game, is strength in the social pillar is tied to its richness of character creation. Next week, we’ll focus on how D&D has used game text to enrich the social pillar without overcomplicating its social rules. Until then, consider supporting us on the ThinkDM Patreon.

4 thoughts on “D&D is a Combat Game

  1. What I think a lot of people are missing from the Witchlight discussion is that it doesn’t require social or combat to complete. Instead it enables each encounter to be “solved” by either method. That’s good design, even for a combat-centered RPG

    Liked by 1 person

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