In Defence of Combat-Heavy Roleplay Games

I’m one of those people who looks for roleplay-heavy games. Whether it’s my tabletop games, my live games, my video games. I’m an immersive roleplayer, and I want to be able to zone into the gritty emotional stuff. In some circles, this is called ballgowning.

But I also really, really like fights. Why? Because I think there’s just as much to gain from seeing what your characters do when put in that situation as in what they do when asked to attend a masked ball.

Even still, in the past I’ve often found myself defaulting to looking down on more lighthearted games or games that are heavier in combat. I actually stopped running a D&D game this year because I was struggling with how the party’s only solution to anything was to walk face-first into it.

So today, I want to talk to you about the ways in which you can get your immersion from higher combat games.

There’s no tool for revealing character roleplay like high stakes pressure.

The points where you discover things about your character are the points where they’re put under pressure. This can be from being confronted by someone on a painful truth, to watching their friends around them die.

Very early on in my present D&D campaign (set in Critical Role’s Tal’dorei), half of the party went unconscious in a pretty vicious fight. This wouldn’t be quite so scary, except it happened in about one and a half rounds. We were very quickly getting ruined, and one of those people was through some death save attempts before he’d even made one.

I didn’t hesitate to use an item I’d picked up which I knew was ridiculously powerful for our level. Back then I think we were only level 3. In a prequel session, I’d picked up one of the elemental summoning orbs – I just used it. I didn’t really stop to think about how much it was worth, or the fact that I the player tend to hoard things like that.

That helped cement for me the character’s intrinsic belief that the lives of people who support you are more valuable than any amount of money. It’s something I was already kind of aware of – it’s an extrapolation of other aspects of her – but having it made that clear was very powerful.

Also, if you’re wondering, we all survived.

You’ll get to describe your character’s way of fighting, and learn more about their roleplay.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not brilliant at this. It’s very very easy to fall into the habit of just saying “that’s a 17, does that hit? Okay cool, I do 8 damage” – and nothing more. We’ve all done it, and it’s especially easy to just go with what the table’s doing.

I’ve been more recently trying very hard to actively describe how I’m attacking things. Especially as I’m playing a barbarian in our D&D campaign and a rogue in our 13th Age campaign. Fighting is what they do, so it’s something I want to – and get more out of – putting a lot of creative focus into.

It’s hard. Super hard. I find it much easier as the rogue where more often than not I’m assassinating something, so it lends itself to a cooler description. As the barbarian it’s so easy to go: another round, another reckless attack, oh I missed. Your turn.

But when I do manage to do it, it really helps me feel like I’m engaged and involved. Rather than just throwing a D20 about the place and getting frustrated with the fact that I keep missing when hitting things with an axe is my primary thing seriously can I not just roll over a 10 already.

Ahem.

Even if it’s not immersive roleplay? It’s still fun. And all kinds of fun are valid.

I mentioned at the start of this that I used to look down on people who really liked high-combat roleplay. I also had a low opinion of silly or meta games. Now? I want to do more of them. I want to play a game where we’re all bears performing a Honey Heist, or a D&D one-shot where everyone plays a rogue.

How did I get here? Honestly…just Critical Role. Because the thing that I learned from CR was that what makes that game amazing is that they have these hugely immersive, people are crying at the table, you need a debrief to get over it moments. But they also have days where they scream ‘Fluffernutter!’ and try to set fire to wet gunpowder.

And it never feels jarring. It feels natural, and it serves to make it better and better. That contrast enriches it, and that’s why I want to try and play more things with more contrast.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to hear more from me about roleplaying games, let me know! I’d love to hear from you on Twitter or Facebook, or even via email.