Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why Are CRPGs So Combat-Heavy?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 15, 2012

Why don’t we have more RPGs that emphasize non-combat activities? Why wasn’t Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines able to keep up its efforts for non-combat solutions to problems, particularly in the latter part of the game? Do players tend to min-max their characters for fighting because the CRPGs emphasize it, or is it the other way around? (Note: This last one is a problem in pen & paper RPGs as well… what gives?)

So why are CRPGs so combat heavy?

1. Combat is exciting

Stories need to be about conflict, and combat is a straightforward, immediate conflict. It appeals to us on a hard-wired level, just as sports do. Our cavemen brains somehow recognize this as training or practice for survival skills, which it rewards with a dopamine trickle or something. I know for me, this true of turn-based games as well as action-RPGs. Now, some people will get just as excited at a courtroom-drama style conflict, but straight-up combat has a more universal appeal.

2. Combat is satisfying

In the real world, we have to restrain a lot of impulses and seek non-violent resolutions to problems. This is a very good thing. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t WANT to just haul off and punch that jerk right in the mouth.  Video games in general allow us to cut loose a bit, throw our weight around, and exert our dominance with a well-placed fireball or mini-nuke.

3. Combat is easy (to make)

Relatively speaking, combat is easy to do on a computer. Computers are much better at representing the physical world, spatial relationships, and visual effects. They aren’t so good at representing interpersonal conflicts, mental anguish, or many other subtleties of human drama.  These kinds of things would have to be represented in abstract, less-satisfying forms, whereas it’s easy enough to animate a monster’s head getting lopped off in full, visceral detail.

4. Combat is a repeatable mini-game

Combat represents a mini-game in RPGs that can be easily re-used, with enough variations to keep things relatively interesting through hundreds (even thousands) of iterations – at least, if it’s done right. That’s without requiring custom content, like new voice-overs! With lots of inputs and options that really come down to mixing & matching & math, it’s tough to find a worthy substitute. Plus, once a combat system is in place, it’s easy to fire that sucker up whenever the game needs some action, as combat rarely requires any sort of new content (like voice-overs). Cheap, easy, and fun is a tough-to-beat combo.

5. Combat has an inherent risk-reward structure

If combat is supposed to be lethal and potentially game-ending, there’s an inherent risk. This is why players may tend to favor  combat skills over non-combat alternatives: a botched Conversation roll may get someone mad at you, but a botched Defense roll may kill your character and end the game.  The stakes are high from the get-go.  It’s hard to repeat that with a lot of other kinds of conflicts.

In addition to risks, there may be costs associated with combat – in the form of expended resources. Even if it’s just as simple as using up hit points or healing potions, there’s a miniature economy at work with every fight that layers complexity into the game system.

Combat has a lot going for it in RPGs. It’s hard to create substitute activities that will fulfill the same criteria. This is why I don’t see it being dethroned any time soon.

But I certainly don’t intend this post to dissuade anybody from trying. Quite the contrary – I’d like to illuminate the advantages combat has as an RPG activity so indie RPG designers could start coming up with a few more ideas to broaden the genre. I gave it a shot with the trap system in Frayed Knights, which is still going to be there -but  improved! – in the sequel.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Brent Gulanowski said,

    Related to “Combat is Easy” is that most games are already representing the characters you are going to interact with. Interacting with them through something basic and physical like force is the simplest kind of interaction.

    But what’s a real drag is that there is so much more to characters, environments and worlds than combat. I’m sick of combat. More accurately, I’m sick of games where the only kind of interaction offered is physical.

    That’s not to say that lots of games don’t also feature gigantic dialogue trees which give you the illusion of interacting with characters. But it’s time to go deeper.

    I think games need to simulate more than just physical interactions. While full language processing is still a long way off, there should be ways to interact with characters symbolically in simple ways. I have some ideas that I hope to implement in the near future.

    But aside from that, there are other systems in the real world that could be better implemented in games. An obvious one is commerce and trade. Most game economies are pathetically bad.

    There is also room for a lot more subtlety in physical interactions. The best example I can think of is to make a kind of virtual chemistry or biology. Very, very coarse, sure, but extend the rule set outward. This won’t jive at all with the contemporary trend of automatically regenerating health. I’m talking going back to the old days, when games like Dungeon Master required you to sleep to regain power, and required food and water to drive your regeneration. (I believe some mods for Bethesda games enforced similarly strict requirements.)

    Making games more interesting as games, as opposed to interactive movies, comes down to providing a wider variety of choices for interaction, and better, deeper, more consistent rule systems.

    I tried to describe some of my ideas to this (admittedly tangential) recently on my gamasutra blog. Didn’t get a lot of traction, though.

  • hexagonstar said,

    @Brent Do you have a link to your Gamasutra blog article about this?

    Virtual chemistry or biology sounds very intriguing! I can think of some system that makes characters more diverse on a mental/emotional/etc. level and influences their AI. The Sims does something like that but I find that still to be a poor system. It would be interesting to delve deeper into this topic.

  • Maklak said,

    There are some games without combat, or at least not combat-oriented, but they are much less popular than those with lots of combat. I can do combat and enjoy it some of the time, but for me almost every single game has too much of it, Frayed Knights included.

    I don’t really like it that wherever I go, I have to fight. Heck, in some games combat it the best / only way to obtain some common items that by all logic should be for sale in shops. It is one of the reasons I dislike WoW (in that game cloth is a good example).

    What made Ultima Online the best MMORPG ever was the freedom it gave to players. You want your character to have no combat skills whatsoever, fill your skill cap with tradeskills, decorate your house with beauty and skill (including making a few stacks of blue clothes and a fish look like an aquarium), hang around the Britain bank and chat to people? Sure, you can do that and have fun. What spoiled the game, though, were its players. Some would go as far in being dicks, as to steal from others and engage them in non-consensual PvP.

    All in all, I see combat as mostly a filler, thrown at the player to slow him down. Just think, how realistic is killing hundreds of enemies in a few days, even with magical healing? And why can’t the enemy use some clever tactics to TPK for once? The reason I optimise my characters for combat is because I want to get through it faster, so I can explore.

  • FallenAngel said,

    “Do players tend to min-max their characters for fighting because the CRPGs emphasize it, or is it the other way around?”

    I’d say the former.
    For those (precious few) games that consistently give you credible alternatives to straight violence and/or rewards for investing in non-combat stats, I find people are much more likely to do just that.

  • Brent Gulanowski said,


    Sure, here it is:


  • Brent Gulanowski said,

    @Maklak: +1

    Combat is frequently used as filler. Even when it’s not, it’s still something that’s been done to (ahem) death. There is no way to innovate in interesting ways in combat, short of what Neil Stephenson is doing with Clang (custom controller, more realistic physics and technique). But if you’re not interested in the reality of combat mechanics–I think it’s safe to say that many (most?) people aren’t–you aren’t going to care about improvements in the minutiae.

    A lot of contemporary game design and development is stuck in a dead end. They’ve committed so heavily to certain styles and elements that they can’t see where to go next. There are some half-hearted experiments (I’m thinking in major games), but no real serious explorations.

    That’s where indies are going to have to save the day. By going back to low-fi, you can basically reboot the history of video game development and start to take it in different directions. Find new mechanics, new kinds of systems, and get back to making games, not interactive movies.

  • Kaspar said,

    One way would be to step back and make combat more abstract. So if your char runs into a party of orks, you would be offered Fight (rolls against your combat skill), Parley (Diplomacy), Flee (Speed) and Hide (stealth). But you wouldn’t be controlling the fight directly. At most you would get to decide whether to continue fighting or retreat. Alternatively, if you succeeded in Hiding, you can either let the orcs go past, or Ambush them.
    This would put combat on equal footing with other options, but at the cost of not having much of a combat minigame any more.