Since its beginning rpg has evolved from simple miniatures combat to something that no self respecting rpg would dedicate at least a few pages to. And if the 400 pound gorilla of all Rpgs can still be considered an rpg, then this means it has taken a complete turn on itself, back to a miniatures game. There are obviously many, many rpg's that do not touch the issue of physical combat, but these focus especially in internal conflicts, and I will reflect on these in a future post. For now, I want to talk about those I consider to be the three main purposes of combat in roleplaying games: The characters are the Heroes, Combat as a Tool for Advancing the Story, Combat Itself is the Purpose of the Game.
1 - The characters are heroes
This point is in one way or another in all games. Nobody wants to be John Doe, and even in games that focus on human misery players still want to win, because if you don’t, you can’t continue being miserably human, right?
Some games are specifically made to be like this, to show how badass the character is. Exalted, Wushu and the in house game The 101, among many others, are made to this point. Exalted has the rules of stunting, which dice to a pool when a description is done in a way that suits the table, Wushu adds dice according to the complexity description, and The 101 helps by bringing the Cool Factor up, thus making the task easier.
Three different systems with the same purpose: interesting descriptions showing the character in a heroic light help the player succeed in the action.
2 - Advancing the story, players have little or no intervention
A recurrent situation in many games is when the GM mounts the stage for an exciting fight that only serves as a bridge to a more important event, showing one of several situations: either the battle is going badly for the players because of bad decisions or bad luck, and the story depends on them living, so the GM brings up the cavalry, who saves the day, the characters’ skin and some NPC's show up who are potentially important for the characters; the combat can also be going bad for a character, and the GM changes the results so the character in fact succeeds; or, no matter the outcome of the battle, the important event that the GM had planned happens. None of this is terribly bad, if everyone agrees and is having fun. However, it is important to note that there is little or no influence from the players on the course of the story.
3 - The purpose of combat is the game itself
There are a few games like this, of which the ultimate example is the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D4e). The game does not live without combat. The rules are described so that the various possibilities that can happen in a fight involving magic are covered almost entirely with systems for distance and movement, weight and load have an effect on the effectiveness of the character so much as its expertise in the various weapons, just like the different effects that the various weapons, spells and objects can have on people. Is so detailed and is so strong a part of the system that everything else takes a distant second place.
There are other systems as well, albeit with a weaker take on combat (than D&D 4ed, that is), are GURPS, which is modular in its complexity but allows a degree of variety in combat almost identical to the D&Ded, and Savage Worlds, which is rather simpler than the previous but particularly inclined to tactical miniatures combat.
In this third point, the choices should always be on the side of the player players, otherwise the game crashes. The player must always have the power to choose what kind of action his character takes. The success or failure of its character in combat must be more than the result of a dice roll.
There is a game that I know of but have never played, but I’m told to be tremendously tactical, which is The Spirit of the Century. In this game the player can tag Aspects of his character to change the situation in his favor, changing the ability to use in the conflict to a higher, favorable ability, and can create new Aspects on the fly that will be tagged to create situational modifiers, and still has some resource management in the form of Fate Points. This is different from other combat systems because it doesn’t use the usual type of "rock-scissors-paper" decisions and is not directly dependent on situational modifiers. Here the player is closely tied to how combat is resolved, as it’s his decisions affecting the outcome, and the combat is there to show the character as hero.
This type of game promises to be fun and engaging, of which there are several examples, all based in the FATE system. A must see.
There is also a game that I’ve not played, but of which I’ve already done a hack, called 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars. Here combat is present at 100%: the characters are Galactic Marines fighting monsters in the name of Humanity. Combat here serves as a vehicle for a journey of self discovery, because players can invoke memories of other battles to provide bonuses for this conflict. It also deserves further attention.
Because of this post I started a discussion in rpg.net about the possibility of tactical combat without having any kind of randomness. So far, the results seem promising, with some posters making references to chess...