September 29, 2020

Combat & Role-Playing: The Yin & Yang of TTRPGs

Combat and role-playing form the traditional foundation and balance of modern tabletop role-playing games. Different players gravitate toward different aspects of the “yin and yang” of TTRPGs. So today’s Newbie Tuesday post helps guide the new and prospective TTRPG player through our history to which story system best meshes with your play style. Enjoy! And happy playing…

Where We Came From

Modern TTRPGs got their start as evolutions to classic war game simulations. People moving pieces representing the 101st Airborne division on a map of Bastogne, for example, would be up against another controlling the 5th Panzer Army – and their respective tactics would decide the fate of the battle.

Eventually, in the 70s and 80s, these wargames evolved to incorporate role-playing (RP) elements. Dungeons and Dragons was originally published in 1974 and eventually set the standard for modern tabletop role-playing games. Instead of a purely tactical affair during wartime, you could be a glorious knight choosing just how to rescue the fair princess from the lair of the powerful red dragon.

So role-playing and combat became a type of Yin and Yang of the tabletop story world. The natural expectation of players and GMs/DMs alike became that their sessions would include opportunities for both role-playing and combat. To have one and not the other for prolonged periods of time would be kind of strange.

As tabletop RPGs have evolved, and more and more systems were created, the community has taken a number of different stances on the ideal RP-to-combat ratio. “Wargamers” tend to emphasize combat whereas those who prefer story tend to align more with RP. If you were to poll members of the tabletop RPG community on what their ideal ratio, you’d likely get widely diverse set of opinions ranging from “that’s why I’m here (combat)” to “why does every story have to involve fighting?”

Ultimately, new players are going to find their groove on what they prefer – just know going into it that many folks have strong opinions one way or the other!

Passage of Time

Another important consideration when reflecting on the balance between RP and combat is simply how long a session of combat takes to play out. Most oftentimes, the answer to that question is mainly driven by the system that’s being used to facilitate the story. The most famous system today, Dungeons and Dragons, can have sessions of combat play out over multiple hours when perhaps 5-10 minutes have passed in “real time” within the story itself.

This structure of combat pacing is certainly rooted in the “wargame” roots of tabletop and strongly appeals to many tabletop RPGers out there. Other systems, like our (StoryTogether’s) StoryNite, speed up significantly the pacing of combat and relate the elements of fighting back toward the story, deciding instead to emphasize more of the RP side of the combat-RP spectrum. Although our system can be altered with the Advanced Combat module to go back to tabletop’s more classical hyper-tactical wargaming roots.

So as new players the trick, once you’re feeling comfortable with the basic ins-and-outs of playing stories, is to select a tabletop RPG system that most closely aligns with your preference on the combat-to-RP ratio. And certainly, to have open conversations with both the other players and GM/DM on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. When everyone at the table is honest about their preferences on the Ying and Yang of tabletop RPGs, you’ll find that you’re more harmonious – and have better flow – as a group.

So take the time to feel out what you like – and then, talk it through with everyone else. You won’t regret it!