Friday, August 16, 2013

Does Role Play Stop When Combat Starts?

The water bottles are Blue Dragons

            Why do we, as gamers, always assume that our characters are not just proficient at combat, but exceptional fighters, brawlers, martial artists or just plain killers?  In games like Vampire the Masquerade, the Player Characters are generally regular people who were chosen to be Embraced, sometimes because they have a special skill or sometimes it’s an act of passion.  Whether that character was an artist, a journalist, or a financial advisor, the player will inevitably put a couple of points into combat Abilities like Brawl, Melee, or Firearms.  Likely, the player won’t even try to explain why or how the character gained those skills.  Even without putting points into combat-oriented abilities, the PCs react to combat as if they were battle hardened veterans.  As soon as the bullets start flying, the players begin weighing their options and trying to select the optimal choice so that they can overcome the encounter.  Rarely will players run away or just duck and hide until the encounter is over.
            At no other time during play are players more likely to discard playing their character in favor of playing the stats on their character sheets.  Rather than trying to role play their character, the Player is solving the combat problem.  Instead of asking how the character would react in the situation, the player is considering his best move, just as if he were looking at a piece on a chess board.   Players want to win the encounter.  Because many gamers use game mats, players are allowed a god’s eye view of the fight.  It’s less of a role playing game and more of a miniatures war game. 
            Players want to be involved and contribute to the current scene or encounter.  No one wants to be left out, especially when we are talking about combat, because that’s the fun part.  Combat is the chance to smash that smug Elder bastard in the face with a spiked baseball.  (He had it coming!  He shouldn’t have been such an asshole that time in Elysium).  Combat is catharsis.  The climax of many stories is that final confrontation with the antagonist and the epic battle where the players finally triumph and defeat the villain.  If a Storyteller says that a Player can’t take part in that fight because his character is “just an artist” and wouldn’t fight, then the Storyteller is robbing the Player of his chance to contribute and have fun. 
            The issue of how Players approach combat is twofold:  Character Creation and Combat Encounters.  During Character Creation, Players are assigning stats based on their character concept, and in an ideal situation, the player would only allot points to Attributes and Abilities if they were consistent with the character’s concept.  This is not always the case.  Sometimes players have too many points to spend and need expand beyond their original concept.  On the other hand the player may have too few points and need to revise their character concept.  In Combat Encounters, as discussed above, players will act in ways that are not consistent with their character concept.  Ideally, the player would always stay in character, even during combat.
Robert, the Financial Advisor, never mentions his 3 black belts. 
            Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade players can’t take for granted their characters’ combat proficiency.  In D&D it’s just assumed that the character can fight and have been trained to fight, whether it’s a Fighter or a Cleric or a Bard.  All classes assume a degree of skill in combat.  In Vampire the Masquerade, even powerful characters could have zero points in their combat Abilities and be as effective in combat encounters.  In D&D the best way to earn experience is through combat; in Vampire the Masquerade, conversely, experience points are not tied to combat encounters.  So, when building a Vampire the Masquerade character, players frequently choose not combat concepts such as an artist or financial advisor.  The player then builds his character and allots a few points for Brawl or Melee without really describing how or why that character has those skills.  Then in the first combat encounter, the character suddenly has the ability to make brilliant tactical decisions under fire as if he were a Navy Seal combat veteran. 
            When building a character, a player should consider if he wants that character to take part in combat.  There is nothing wrong with having a character who is ineffective at direct combat in Vampire the Masquerade because many Disciplines can effect combat without the player needing to ever throw a punch or swing a chainsaw.  Presence, Thaumaturgy, Necromancy, and a variety of other disciplines can be applied in combat.  Combat isn’t necessarily about overcoming an opponent through violence or being physical; instead, players should consider ways to defeat their opponents through methods that make sense to the character.  
            For example, a player is creating Robert, a financial advisor that was embraced by the Ventrue Clan.  Robert’s Player has allotted most of his points in Knowledges such as Computer, Technology, and Finance amongst others.  It wouldn’t make sense for Robert to have any skill in Brawling or Melee or even Firearms; therefore no points have been spent in those Abilities.  Instead Robert’s Player has decided that Robert will depend on Presence in combat situations.   The second level of Presence is Dread Gaze which should be sufficient against most threats, scaring them away rather fighting them. 
            Conversely, if a player decides that he wants his character to be proficient in combat, then the player needs to determine how the character came across those skills.  Is the character a combat veteran?  Did he serve in the Marines during the Gulf War or is he a street punk used to solving his problems with his fists?  Or is he a martial artist used to fighting in the dojo but not in a real fight?  Each of these concepts will require the player to allot points differently.  Beyond just a character whose primary concept revolves around combat, other character concepts may involve combat as well.  A private investigator is probably handy with a gun when necessary, but not as skilled with it as a soldier.  A street racer could have been in a few fights, but certainly isn’t as skilled as a gang member.  A characters Abilities should be organic and make sense with the character concept. 
Appearance specialization:  HOT!!
            Another example, a player is creating Megan, a punk rock singer that was embraced by the Toreador Clan.  Megan’s player assigns points in Expression, Performance, and Streetwise.  However, because Megan is used to going to punk shows at grungy, dangerous bars, Megan’s player believe that the character should have some points in Brawl to represent that Megan has gotten in a few fights and can take care of herself.    
            These are Robert the financial advisor and Megan the punk rock singer just after being Embraced, but as neonates, they are going to learn new skills quickly or improve on the skills that they already have as they venture out into the World of Darkness.  Both of these characters are going to get into fights.  They are going to throw punches or need to pull a gun, but neither one of these characters is a tactical genius.  Neither one is used to being shot at.  The question is how are these characters going to react to their first real fight. 
When both are caught in an ambush by a pair of hunters armed with shotguns, what will happen?  In most games, both characters would wade into the gunfire, hoping that their undead flesh, and inherent resistance to gunfire will keep them alive.  Robert, the financial advisor, might snatch away the hunter’s weapon and shotgun him to death.  Robert’s player would be gleeful at killing the hunter.  Megan would smash the hunter’s head in with her fist and feel the same delight at overcoming the two overmatched mortals.  The players using their gods-eye view of the encounter and seeing the situation as purely a tactical exercise, rather than a chance to continue role playing, quickly overcome the hunters through violence of action. 
            However, how could the players remain in character and still overcome the encounter.  First, Robert may dive for cover, and if his Dread Gaze power doesn’t work, he could run.  He might even use his briefcase to protect himself from the shotgun fire.  Or Robert may toss the briefcase at the hunters and then try to use Dread Gaze again.  Megan would, of course, fight back.  The gunfire would unsettle her, but given her innate resistance to gunfire would keep her alive long enough to defeat the hunters.  Having defeated one, she could intimidate the other with her ferocity (and a successful Appearance plus Intimidate roll) to send him fleeing. 
            Having defeated the two hunters, what would happen next?  How would the characters react to the deaths of the two hunters?  If the players are thinking only tactically, then a dead hunter is just a quick snack to refill blood expended during the fight.  They’ll drink the corpse dry and might take the time to hide the bodies before someone arrived and started asking questions.  But how would a financial advisor or a punk rock singer react if they’d just killed someone?  Wouldn’t they be distraught?  Terrified at how they ripped a human being apart?  Scared of their capacity for violence?  Could they feel their Beast desperately trying to take over?  They certainly wouldn’t be looking at the bodies as if they were a health pack. 
Could you explain how your character knows how to tactically clear a room?
            The tactical outcomes were the same.  Robert and Megan defeated the hunters, but the methods employed by the players better fits with the characters.  Robert used Dread Gaze and tried to escape because Robert was a financial advisor not a warrior.  Megan, more used to fights, was unnerved by the shotgun blasts, but was able to overcome the hunters nevertheless. 
            When combat starts, the flow of the game and the nature of the game changes.  The consequences of actions become more dramatic, more deadly, and more immediate.  Failure is obvious, and all that hard work put into building and running a character could disappear with just a few bad dice rolls.  The rules for combat slow down the game.  Who can act and when is strictly determined by initiative rolls.  Combat is a complete departure from the rest of the game, and player shift gears when combat occurs.  They are no longer thinking as role players but as tacticians.  The question becomes “How can I or we win this battle?”  rather than “What would my character do?”
            Combat should be a continuation of role playing rather than a departure from it.  Players should not ask themselves what the best combat option for their character is.   Instead they should try to determine how their character would react in a brawl or a gunfight.  How does that change as the character becomes more experienced?  Just because combat starts doesn’t mean that a character becomes a piece on the chess board.  It’s still the character and the role playing should continue even during combat.  If that character is an experienced warrior, then the character should make decisions based on that concept.  If the character is a financial advisor, he might be a little more afraid and a lot less likely to make optimal decisions in a gunfight. 


  1. This is true. Very rarely do people start characters without a premise of combat included into their design. Even fewer role play during a fight. The GM can assist with that by not revealing all the enemies at once and having enemies hide and have to have the players look for them.

    My favorite character ever was mostly a non com. It was a computer hacking/smooth talking/sneaky underhanded Scoundrel. If there were more opportunities for him to abuse his hacking skills during fights I would have loved that and rarely fired a gun. Fortunately that game had a lot of lightsaber swingers so I was rarely needed during the fight portion of the game :)

    1. It's sad but I can't even guess which version of Star Wars you were playing since Lightsaber swingers have always been overpowered! Nevertheless, I always like to have some ability in combat because I don't like to feel left out of the fights. Typically when I build a character I think about how that character might fight and where the character learned to fight!
      I really like how you were looking to use your hacking skills during combat. Apparently, Shadowrun 5th Edition has a similar system for its Hackers/Deckers during combat where they hack the opponent's weapons.
      Thank you for your comment!

  2. The last time I played a D20 game - D20 Modern - I played a fire fighter, good strength and arguably handy with an axe, in a zombie holocaust game.
    First combat, when we encountered the undead, I spent the entire sequence trying to restrain an obviously injured and delirious young lady who kept trying to bite me (rabies maybe? Who knows).
    I ending up endangering the rest of the party and nearly killing us all because I refused to drop my characters standard response in a standard zombie encounter.
    He would try to save people. That's his job.

    In the WoD games I've run I've been lucky enough to have players that prefer to create believable characters rather than marines.

    Roleplay should not stop when initiative is rolled.

    1. See that's how I imagine the first combat experience to happen. It's a learning experience. The first fight he tries to save people, but once he understands the zombies and their threat he was much more handy with that axe!

      I have built soldier archetypes for WoD games, but that was back when I was still in college. Now I prefer playing "normal" people. I still like the soldier archetype but it needs to be more than just a guy who can shoot a gun really well.

  3. In Vampire I made a lot of non-combat characters, especially in LARPs. Had a Ventrue without a lick of combat skills. What I did have was lots of money and influence so I had body guards to slow down whoever was attacking me so I could run away. My car was bulletproofed and armored, heck I drove away from every fight I could. Even the club he owned had escape hatches and secret ways out so I wouldn't have to fight. A few players mocked me for it but by the end of the chronicle I was one of only two characters who survived the entire thing. Most of the others had went through several.

    1. Thanks for your example Peter! That's the kind of roleplaying I'm talking about. Whether the other players mocked you or not, you stayed in character! To me that's the most important thing!