Genre Thought: Friendly Combat

I was preparing a character for an upcoming sci-fi campaign, and was considering a little brawling skill.  The min-maxer in me said, “Forget that crap!  Unless you go super-monk, there’s no such thing as unarmed combat, and certainly no such thing as nonlethal combat.”  And sadly, that’s usually the case.  You don’t get too many nice fists-only bar fights, people always whip out the high impact weapons.

Which is a shame.  Star Trek, for example, was always all about the unarmed combat; easily the wide majority over phaser combat.  And unarmed combat’s great for plots.  People don’t get killed, so you get prisoners, further interaction, etc.  In fact, in many a movie/TV plot, people have a knock-down-drag-out fistfight and even become friends over the course of it.  Of course, in an RPG everyone assumes any combat will be to the brutal death, and thus moves to deal it out before they take it.

One fix to this is metagame.  The GM can just make it clear what is a “friendly” combat and what isn’t.    In a friendly combat, you understand that nonlethal is the way to go, consequences for losing will not be severe,  and it may be an opportunity for role-playing and not pure tactical optimization.  Alternately, you can set really strong and realistic reactions to violence in-game.  If there’s a bar fight, those just punching get off; those who shivved someone go to jail.

I ran a long term high immersion D&D campaign and had to do that at its beginning.  I clearly set out my vision for the game, but old habits die hard.  Two of the characters start asking around in a bar for information; one guy tells them to slag off; next thing you know they chase him out into a field outside town and shoot him with a crossbow.  Luckily he was still alive when the local sheriff showed up.

The sheriff collected everyone and heard them out.  Entertainingly, the PCs’ story was, “We thought he had information and he talked back to us and ran off so we shot him!”  “Is that the story you’re sticking with?”  “Yeah, why?”  One of the two saw how it was going and voluntarily paid a fine and did restitution.  The other one stuck to his guns, though, and wanted a trial.  You should have seen his face when the mayor sentenced him to three months hard labor in the mines.  Time for a new character!  It sucked, but it made the point and people considered the consequences before they drew steel thereafter.

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7 responses to “Genre Thought: Friendly Combat

  1. Good for you! I think it’s easy, particularly for players, to forget/overlook the role of law and order in a campaign and go around with swords drawn all the time. I do like your story-based reasons for non-lethal combat too; prisoners are very useful!

  2. Stop reading my mind, dammit!

  3. I love a good barfight in D&D. Hitting someone over the head with a barstool or sliding them along the bar can be far more satisfying than just running them through with a longsword. There’s a certain style in a good brawl.

    Sadly, as you say, they are rare. I’ve occasionally attempted to start some in games when given sufficient excuse, but the rest of the party has inevitably escalated the combat to lethal damage in short order. I actually had a Living Greyhawk module outline in the works that would have included a barfight scene with variant rules removing penalties on nonlethal damage and improvised weapons as long as nobody started hitting for real.

  4. Bar room brawls have become something of a staple in my games. They worked especially well in Firefly but are also popular in my D&D campaigns.

    My players learned that if they escalated a “brawl” by drawing steel first, they could bring the wrath of the whole place down on them. Plus as you said, if they lose a brawl they lose some dignity and maybe some coin. If they win, especially if they are packing steel that they never draw, they get some respect (and usually a plot cookie).

    And sometimes a brawl is just plain ol’ fun. :)

  5. The -4 to hit for nonlethal damage in a couple of editions is a big problem. I like your story of how you handled the barfight. One of my friends who DMs often laments over how players have blinders on in terms of, “We’re the PCs, and this is what we do. Why doesn’t the world understand that we’re the PCs?”

  6. That is one of my biggest beefs with many systems of combat in RPGs. Non-lethal combat is given negatives and flaws and any number of reasons why it shouldn’t be done in favour of swinging axes and using blaster pistols, etc. It was actually one of the things I liked about 4E and have lived to regret. Once a character is about to give a deathblow to some monster/mook, they have the option of just knocking out the target. This has led to many interrogations of hobgoblins and orcs, which are fun, but very intense in terms of role-playing and can be divisive for the group (not the players, but definitely the characters). Anyway, glad to see you using them right.

  7. Great post. It is definitely true that it is often far more interesting to be able to subdue or capture the party than TPK them all. The former allows for a whole host of adventure ideas, while the later just makes you look like a gloating neckbearded jerk.

    In building my own RPG at the moment, I’m taking the “barfight” idea very seriously (It’s not called ‘the Tankards & Broadswords RPG’ for nothing). While formal hand-to-hand combat comes under the umbrella skill of “Melee”, the informal “brawling” combat style comes under “Carousing”, although it can be a skill focus if one wants to go that route. Brawling/Carousing generates largely subdual damage, even though it also involves whacking people with barstools, tankards, beef bones, etc..

    And like you said, who knows what might happen? Perhaps that NPC you just bashed over the head is a mercenary captain who “likes your moxie” and decides to ally himself with you. Plenty of chances to keep things interesting with a little friendly fisticuffs.

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