Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fair Fights

I once heard the quote "Any man who finds himself in a fair fight is a poor tactician." I have no idea where I heard it, who said it, and I'm pretty sure that my memory has badly paraphrased it, but there it is.

Somehow, a lot of gamers have the notion that fights in games need to be fair. (Though often this definition of fair is "definitely winnable by the player characters) Look at console games... generally, aside from boss fights, the player navigates characters through tons of encounters that are vastly skewed in favor of the party. In many gaming groups I have been in throughout the years, as well as one-shots at cons and other events, there seems to be an expectation among many (but not all) gamers that any fight they can get into should be one where it is possible to win. (I would go so far as to say possible and probable) Later editions of D&D have even set up encounters such that they should, on average, consume x percentage of party hit points, spells, and other resources. If the "average" encounter ("encounter" in gaming very often meaning "fight") is only supposed to consume 10-25% of the party's hit points, spells, ammo, charges, whatever, then it isn't a fair fight. (Well, the players probably consider it so, but really the odds are skewed very much in their direction)

I can understand the appeal of "fair" (to the players) fights. For many, gaming is about kicking ass and being heroic. (Well, maybe for some the heroic part is optional) Media tends to give us fights in which protagonists fairly breeze through opponents, unless it is a "big bad" or climactic final battle. Given that some roleplaying games even style themselves after such media (games that encourage campaigns to be structured into seasons and refer to players as cast members, for instance) naturally bring over the notion that you are going to win because you are the hero or the main character. I can think of at least one or two roleplaying games off the top of my head where character death is impossible unless prearranged between the player and the GM.

I am no expert in military history/strategy. My tactical engagements have largely been limited to turn based strategy games such as the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series of video games. However, from these games, I know that fair fights are not what you want; you want to make the fight as unfair for the other side as is humanly possible. If infantry will get smoked by tanks, then by the gods hit 'em with tanks. If the next boss monster is a fire dragon, equip all your characters with fire -resistant items and spells. If your party hears the orc patrol approaching down the forest path, hide and prepare sneak attacks or that web scroll you have been saving.

As my taste in games continues to shift and mutate, I find myself utterly bored by the idea of a fight that is "pre-balanced." There might be a black dragon in the Dread Swamp, even if your party is only 2nd and 3rd level. An orc village should be home to hundreds of orcs, even if there is no earthly way your party could engage that many and survive.

Not all fights need be "balanced." Not all fights need be fought. High level monsters and powerful, resource-rich opponents should exist regardless of the player characters' relative strength to them.

These thoughts come to mind because we got our asses handed to us in Shadowrun tonight. We walked right into it. We took on an opponent with vastly more resources in a relatively straightforward fight...well, we had some ambushes prepared, but we didn't scope out his resources, didn't plan for his countermeasures... I think, in a way, we all had this subconscious expectation that the fight was going to be perfectly scaled so that we could win in a head to head confrontation. The only reason half the party isn't dead is because the GM seemed to take pity on us.

During the car ride home (the GM usually gives me a ride to the game), he relented that perhaps he created enemies that were a little too strong for us. (To his credit, our ork and troll have thus far been nearly unstoppable and nigh-invincible in previous combats) He suggested that he might have overcompensated. I told him that we, as a party, were stupid and we got what we deserved. The only way we could have been stupider is if we have refused to retreat and continued to fight while clinging to the believe that we could and should win because we are the player characters, goddammit.

I have been shaken out of my complacency.


  1. That's definitely good food for thought. I don't know about 4E Shadowrun, but I don't recall the earlier texts giving any indication that encounters should be scaled to players (I've been reading the 2nd and 3rd editions a lot lately). Certainly, in T. Talsorian's Cyberpunk RPG, players are extolled to do everything possible to keep a fight from being "fair."

    Still it's tough when one comes from the background of "be the impartial DM" to not feel like encounters need to be scaled "fairly" against PCs. Even after running modules like Tomb of Horrors, I feel that if *I* personally design un-winnable encounters, ambushes, and death traps, then I'm being some kind of asshole to the players...and risk alienating those same players.

    There is a fine line between tough challenges and abuse, of course.

  2. Hmm... I think I could come up with a way to beat those orcs, especially as a mid-level Beastmaster.

  3. As another player in last night's Shadowrun of Asshandedness, I have to say that I thought the combat was both reasonable and moderate, even though it resulted in the party retreating. We WERE pretty complacent prior to that session, and stepping into a setup was pretty much what we decided to do. The NPCs were tough, but this was to be expected, since it was a setup. My only issue with it was system related, namely that two big tough guys duking it out makes for a boring combat session. I played the main "tank" going head to head with the "bigbad", and the DM and I were each rolling literally DOZENS of dice at each other, to attack and defend. Ultimately, rounds later, we were each virtually unscathed... A fight to the finish, without some MAJOR edge on one side or the other, would take forever.

  4. JB- I think one is only being an asshole if the players are sent into a death trap or unwinnable encounter with no warning, no alternative, and no way to escape/circumvent the encounter. Yeah, maybe they're 3rd level and there's a black dragon in the swamp, but the DM can have an NPC warn them he's in there somewhere, or they can see his menacing shadow fly overhead, or find his partially burned and devoured prey. Abusing your players is when you inflict this shit on them and give them no way to get out of it if a straight confrontation isn't feasible.

    C'nor- Perhaps you could, but I'm betting that whatever you have in mind probably isn't a straight up fight, right? I say if you can find a way to best them, more power to you.

    Rob- I've made it no secret that I hate the rules of Shadowrun 4... too many dice, too much unneeded complication. However, I am enjoying his game, so I'll roll with it.

    ...oddly, I have come across TWO used copies of Shadowrun 2nd edition in the last week at two different places. A sign from the gods, perhaps?

    ...although I admit my fondness for older versions of Shadowrun are almost certainly influenced by nostalgia. I'm pretty sure they had some savage rules problems as well.

  5. I did re-read Shadowrun 2e and the big difference is that the target number changes instead of a set 5 or 6. That means fewer dice and it makes the mage more interesting but it also makes it more complicated I think. There were pluses and minuses so I didn't want to alienate anyone by changing the rules all of a sudden. We can change it though for one session if everyone wants to try it.
    I don't want people to think that I went easy on the group though. They came loaded for bear to wipe up the group with SWAT armor and assault rifles. And most of the group took it,,, for a while. Like Mike Tyson hitting Steve Irkel and the geek just smiles and cracks his knuckles.
    The mage was also disturbed with coming so close to death. Plus they could not see with the smoke grenade. They could have chased you down but I figured they were just as happy they got away and would change tactics.
    But do beware,,, they don't get paid till someone croaks as well,,,,
    I just hope everyone had fun,,,
    On a separate rant, I miss the chance for a natural 20 in Shadowrun. Sure you can "blow up" a six but not as satifying seeing that beautiful 20 come up.