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Over the weekend I had a long discussion with one of my friends about how important or necessary combat is in a roleplaying game. Should there be multiple combats in a session? One per session? Less than one per session? None?

It does seem as though the more combat there is in a game, the less tense each combat is and the less important combat becomes in the game as a whole. Combat is often simply thrown into sessions because referees feel that it has to be in there to make the game ‘fun’ and that players will get bored if there isn’t any. The trouble is that the more fighting there is, the more chance characters have of dying. With this in mind, many combat heavy games skew the rules in favour of the players: by making them better than their opponents; by giving them healing magic; by allowing them to be brought back from the dead. All this serves to do is to make combat essentially meaningless.

Combat in a game must be there for a purpose and I don’t mean as a way to hoover up XP. It has to serve the story, it has to be tense and/or exciting, and it has to make players think twice before doing it (there has to be a penalty if players ‘lose’).

Interestingly, the last game I played in – Shadowrun – featured very little combat, but was a really good game. Coincidence? Design? Possibly a bit of each, but it does show that combat doesn’t have to be front and centre of every game to make it fun and interesting.

What are your opinions?