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There are a lot of systems around nowadays that don't focus on combat, and that's great.

But I was struck recently by the fact that D&D has always been, and remains, heavily oriented toward fighting when a reading of its inspirations would suggest the opposite.

Consider: the fantasy literature most commonly cited as being inspirations for the game include the works of Tolkien, Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard. However the first two are driven far more by character, narrative and imagination than combat, and while there's plenty of fighting in Conan, it tends to take second place to stealth, exploration and adventure. Many other inspirations are explicitly listed in the AD&D 1e DMG's Appendix N, and a large chunk of that list isn't "all fights all the time."

Furthermore, fluff in the early editions of the game were often at pains to emphasise the imaginative and characterful aspects of the game rather than the militaristic ones, even if the actual rules suggested otherwise.

I know the original rules came out of a wargame, Chainmail, but given that D&D is a standalone product inspired by relatively combat-light fantasy narratives, there should have been ample opportunity to develop non-combat aspects of the game as it was being designed.

So is there any information suggesting how the rules ended up so heavily focused on fighing? Was it just what the designers and playtesters enjoyed most, in spite of intentions otherwise? Or is there more to it than that?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I was under the impression that the early versions of the game encouraged avoiding fights, since it was very easy to get outright killed. Certainly there would have been players too dense to see that, but players rarely see a game in the same way as its designers do. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian S Sep 15 '14 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a valid question but I will warn answerers that random opinions are not valid answers. Answers to this question should follow Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and cite sources and/or relevant experience and not simply speculate. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Sep 15 '14 at 15:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianS Early editions encourage avoiding fights, but the game still often revolves around those fights and how to approach/avoid them. More than, say, Amber Diceless Roleplaying does. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 15 '14 at 15:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Guess-answers in comments are worse than guess-answers in answers and will be deleted per site policy. Don't do it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Sep 15 '14 at 17:09
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I suspect you're underestimating the effects of the wargaming roots, both on D&D specifically and on role-playing games in general, which, in those early days, were all but synonymous.

The cover of the original edition of D&D, published in 1974, described it as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames". Although it included various non-wargaming elements, and sometimes took pains to emphasize them, the background this emphasis should be viewed against is that of traditional wargaming, which is what its designers and target audience would've been familiar with. After all, before D&D took off, there was no separate role-playing game community or tradition to draw on — early D&D, like Chainmail, was designed by wargamers, and for wargamers.

Both Chainmail and early D&D grew from wargames through an essentially evolutionary process: the rules, as published, are basically tidied-up snapshots of the house rules that Gygax and Arneson developed for their gaming groups, as they gradually mixed in new elements (such as magic, individual heroes and non-combat challenges) into what was still, at its roots, a wargame, albeit a somewhat oddball one.

The heavy emphasis that early editions of D&D sometimes placed on non-combat elements should thus be seen as an attempt to get the players, assumed to be familiar with traditional wargames, to include any non-combat elements in their games at all. Of course, as the rules were still rather combat-centric, the general effectiveness of these measures is debatable, but at least they did encourage others to continue the exploration of non-combat elements in "fantasy wargames" — now increasingly called "role-playing games", to differentiate the emerging new genre and community from traditional wargames — that Gygax and Arneson had started.

Much of this evolution took the form of other game systems, published in the wake of D&D's success, and often diverging further from D&D's wargaming roots. Thus, D&D itself came to be regarded as a "traditionalist" game, a term often regarded as synonymous with "combat-heavy", while other games experimented with alternative concepts like simplified, less crunchy combat systems, or even eliminating combat entirely.

(For D&D specifically, this reputation was certainly not reduced by the fact that, among the various iterations of D&D reinventing itself, the fourth edition, in particular, took a major step back towards its combat-heavy wargaming roots, perhaps in part to differentiate it from the many competing systems at the time that tried to de-emphasize combat. However, regardless of edition, D&D has always been a rather crunchy and combat-focused system, and that's arguably part of its core identity — take away the combat mechanics, or replace them with something completely different, and many would say that what's left would no longer be D&D in anything but name only.)

So, to sum up, the reason D&D is so focused on fighting is that, originally, it's a wargame with fantasy and role-playing elements mixed in, not a fantasy story-telling game with combat elements mixed in. Furthermore, the history of D&D is inextricably linked with the history of RPGs as a concept, such that, in many ways, D&D can be seen as a "living fossil" of what the whole genre of "role-playing games" originally started from. If D&D today seems combat-heavy, it's only because we're looking at it from a modern perspective, and comparing it to the many other game systems which took the ideas pioneered by D&D and ran with them much faster and further than D&D itself ever did.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Rob Kuntz is about to publish a book that will render this answer (perhaps) obsolete. I have the "teaser" of four essays that he put out, and will comment further once I've read his book. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 4 '17 at 19:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast poke: any movement on Rob's book? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Feb 12 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I got his first one - a short form of the longer work he is doing, and establishes the analytical framework Kuntz is using to support his thesis on what made RPGs so novel/unique/different. He apparently (based on what I'm checking on at three line) is getting a bit more ambitious for the longer tome/work. I don't have a chance to pre order yet. I actually ended up with two copies of the first one, I can send it to you if you are interested. Also, Svenson and company are putting out a film of "the original game" from the Twin cities area, and I have backed Kickstarter. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 12 at 16:18
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The original editions' rules were not so heavily focused on combat; Gygax specifically says in the DMG that "It is not in the best interests of an adventure game, however, to delve too deeply into cut and thrust, parry and riposte. The location of a hit or wound, the sort of damage done, sprains, breaks, and dislocate"

Likewise, much more experience was earned for a typical adventure via treasure than from defeating opponents - typically in the region of 4:1. And experience was given for defeating, not simply killing. Thus, the PHB's introduction to the game states: "Superior players will not fight everything they meet, for they realize that wit is as good a weapon as the sword or the spell."

Combat, especially at low levels, is very very lethal in AD&D and OD&D but against this, monsters had morale scores which resulted in many combats ending with the opponents fleeing rather than slugging it out toe-to-toe until death.

All these factors combined to mean that in AD&D at least, the proportion of time spent on combat was a good deal less than on exploration.

The amount of rules on combat - which are far less than those on magic - simply reflect the fact that combat can kill a character and there is a desire for an absolute framework to ensure fairness. Gygax several times criticises more complex combat systems because their "realism" has to be artificially balanced by favouring the PCs. The design intent of AD&D was that PCs and their opponents were on a level playing field where favouritism by the DM should be obvious (in either direction, although there are few players who actually objected to giveaway campaigns, whatever the edition).

AD&D is very much focused on getting gold and fame (through magic items even moreso than slaying monsters) and while combat is a factor, the game is not about combat and there is no need for battleboard or even miniatures (indeed, I find miniature harmful to play by encouraging static thinking by both players and DM).

The subtitle to OD&D (Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames...) is marketing. In fact, OD&D was not intended for such use on its own, and the so-called "alternative" (non-Chainmail) combat system was the only one actually used by the game's originators. The Chainmail-compatibility was a reflection of the creators' expected audience (wargamers) and when they realised they'd found a new audience, it was quietly dropped.

Gygax talks briefly but very specifically on that subject in “Q&A with Gary Gigax, Part II” on the Dragonsfoot forums (starting at the 5th post down). Other original players and designers have supported this view too. It wasn't until supplement V (Swords and Spells) at the very end of the product run for OD&D that there was a genuinely D&D-compatible set of mass-combat rules for fantasy battles.

Once the game's name was owned by other people, they could put it on any ruleset they liked, and have. I don't know much about their design goals, but it's a fact of life that profit is an important motive for any game and, frankly, combat sells miniatures - especially if you make combat detailed and strongly suggest that a board is used with figures to represent the combatants.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The trouble with this answer is that the part most pertinent to the question is given just one paragraph of guess and implication without substantiation, spending most of its words on laying out a historical context that is never leveraged to answer the question. It comes off as something between tangential discussion and low-level rant. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 15 '14 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was trying to address the OP's point that the early edition rules appear to spend a lot of text on combat. That's true but misleading. I'm aware that it's a partial answer but the full answer is really only known to the designers of the later editions, who have (mostly) not been very open about their decisions. Sometimes you have to patch the truth together from multiple sources or just clues. \$\endgroup\$ – Nagora Sep 15 '14 at 21:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ For a longer text with the same point about combat rules in early D&D, you may want to refer to revolution21days.blogspot.dk/2012/01/… \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Apr 13 '18 at 6:15
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I don’t think D&D was so focused on combat.

The original D&D booklets do say to use Chainmail for combat...at least as an option. Arneson said he abandoned Chainmail for Blackmoor early, and Gygax said he never used it with Greyhawk. Compare the “alternative” combat system to Chainmail and you will find it is very minimal.

Likewise, once D&D stopped recommending Chainmail in the Holmes Basic* and Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic and Expert sets, the combat system presented is, again, minimal compared to contemporary wargames.

(*OK...I don’t know Holmes that well, but I don’t recall it referencing Chainmail.)

Then take a good look at the original D&D booklets and those Basic and Expert booklets. There are an awful lot of rules covering things other than combat. The combat sections do not dominate those texts.

It’s also worth mentioning that the people who developed D&D only made rules for things that they found they wanted to handle with rules. They didn’t see the need to have their role-playing covered by rules. So they did not create those kind of rules.

There’s no doubt that many groups have played D&D in a combat-heavy fashion, but that was never universal, even if it grew out of the wargaming community.

(Also, the games played in the wargaming community were more diverse than the “wargaming” moniker might suggest. In fact, they recognized that and occasionally used other terms. The original D&D itself references Outdoor Survival. Diplomacy was a big influence on the emergence of role-playing in wargames. Just to cite a couple of “wargames” that had little to no combat.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It’s also worth mentioning that the people who developed D&D only made rules for things that they found they wanted to handle with rules. They didn’t see the need to have their role-playing covered by rules. So they did not create those kind of rules. The original D&D itself references Outdoor Survival. Diplomacy was a big influence on the emergence of role-playing in wargames. Just to cite a couple of “wargames” that had little to no combat I played Diplomacy, AH and SSI board games, and miniatures before I ever played D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 4 '17 at 19:36
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Consider: the fantasy literature most commonly cited as being inspirations for the game include the works of Tolkien, Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard. However the first two are driven far more by character, narrative and imagination than combat, and while there's plenty of fighting in Conan, it tends to take second place to stealth, exploration and adventure. Many other inspirations are explicitly listed in the AD&D 1e DMG's Appendix N, and a large chunk of that list isn't "all fights all the time."

Combat may be more prominent in D&D than in its fantasy literature inspirations, but fantasy literature, in general, has a well-earned reputation for involving a lot of violence -- more than literature in general, anyway, aside from other descendants of pulp fiction genres.

As I look at that list from the 1st Edition DMG appendix, it strikes me there are two titles with "sword" in the name, one with "crusade" in the name (a kind of war), and two titles by Michael Moorcock, one of which is the name of specific sword, "Stormbringer", and another which is an epithet for that same sword.

It's certainly true that the stories of Tolkien, Vance, and Howard aren't "all fights all the time". However, there is a lot of fighting. The Lord of the Rings is, in large part, an epic story about a war; The Hobbit includes several descriptions of combat, and reaches a climax with a classic dragon-slaying, followed by an enormously complicated battle.

On the other hand, at least in my experience, D&D is not, in practice, "all fights all the time", either. I've not seen a published D&D module that didn't have a fair amount of "stealth, exploration and adventure", and in fact that's most of the page count. Usually, when I've been at the table, "stealth, exploration and adventure" are a large proportion of what we're doing, even in a combat-heavy session. Combat takes a fair amount of time to play out, so it does often seem to dominate a session, however.

One thing I'd suggest bearing in mind is that D&D has been around long enough, and has had enough cultural influence, that you have to consider the results of interactions between D&D, computer games, and fantasy literature, which share audiences and authors.

For instance, one of the things I remember about the experience of reading (and re-reading) Tolkien's books was that most often, Gandalf's use of magic seems deliberately restrained (actually an important thematic point), and that while it's mentioned a few times that he uses it in combat, it's described somewhat indirectly. So I was surprised, watching Peter Jackson's film version of The Two Towers, to see Gandalf and Saruman blasting each other with magical bolts of energy. I was more surprised to talk to a friend of mine, who hadn't read the books first, express surprise that Gandalf didn't use magic more overtly in combat in the movie.

That is, the norms of D&D and computer games, and shifting norms of literature and visual media, which feature combat more prominently, have made older works that inspired them seem less concerned with combat in contrast.

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I'll try to answer by giving elements that are, I suspect, responsible to a certain extent about that. But I doubt there is an official text about why choices were made toward what we have now, so all in all, my answer is quite opinion-based.

First steps from wargame

As you said D&D was at first some kind of spin-off from Chainmail, think like Mordheim for Warhammer Battle if you are not old enough. Even if you have common fantasy literature inspiration, the wargame influence is stronger than you assume in your question. Hell, it is "Dungeon & Dragons, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures", it even assumed that the players got their own chainmail figurines and knew its rules (basic information on the wikipedia page). At this point, D&D was, in my opinion, more like a support rule to adapt your wargame to smaller scale, not a standalone product and no universe was described in the basic rules (important for later).

Wizards of the Coast

Now, it could have evolved toward more roleplay focused rules like some RPG did. I think that this path was not taken because of WOTC. Let's have a close look to their products, we can see that they publish the books for the most popular universe for D&D. Actually, for D&D3.5, the three core books didn't provide universe descriptions, but rather advertised more books to describe these universe, with their own change in rules. They also still relied on using figurines, which WOTC can also provide. So, here again, great wargame component.

Let's go back on the books, they became the main source of inspiration for how D&D evolved, and books such as Dragonlance or those in the forgotten realm have a heavy combat component (more than less RPG-tied books), they evolved along D&D and exerted a mutual influence. D&D is now totally influenced by WOTC-edited books rather than any other fantasy book, in fact, they are part of the same 'product'. EDIT: it did not started with WOTC buying TSR, it in fact started before, but WOTC bought it all, probably as part of the D&D product.

I think that WOTC intended D&D to become some sort of common RPG resource to play a lot of product they would edit, d20 system tend to confirm this right? So, they provided what people needed the most as core, fighting rules. Roleplay and social interaction being too much universe-tied to fit in this format.

At that point, another challenger appeared: video games. Games such as Baldur's Gate, or later Neverwinter Nights became popular and used the 3rd version of D&D, they featured way more fights than a classical pen&paper campaign. In 2006, we even had D&D online. Then D&D4 was released in 2008, and it took inspiration of all these video games back from where it came. A lot of people indeed said that D&D 4 was clearly a video game on paper, I'm not sure about the true goal of WOTC, but it was clearly designed to provide a simpler set of rules, and a lot of tricks for everyone to have fun in fights (warrior's special powers and so on), so that young gamers who never heard about pen&paper RPG could easily access it. Video games, just like wargames before, heavily influenced the evolution of D&D.

So that's it, I mainly think that D&D became more and more combat oriented because of commercial intents. In my opinion, it's also easier to sell combat-oriented add-on, look at how much they published for D&D 3 and 4, compare the number of lore rulebooks (Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide) to power gaming (guide of the complete ultimate warrior/rogue/bard/whatever... of doom). Power gaming has this thing, linked to the need to get more material, that compel players to buy stuff, whereas more narrative/roleplay players tend to come up with their own home-made stuff. You could compare to this very Stack Exchange, a lot of question are fight related, or system related, fewer are purely roleplay related, I think the reason is simply that when you do narrative roleplay, you find your own answers as a group rather than seeking the arbitration of an official rulebook.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Skipping straight from the earliest published version of D&D, to 3rd Edition, skips over many years of D&D's rising cultural influence. By the time 3rd Edition was published, D&D was already an enormous influence on fantasy fiction and computer games, and had been for decades. \$\endgroup\$ – bgvaughan Feb 27 '18 at 18:33
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Way I see it is the rest is mostly storytelling, the rules focus so much on the combat aspect because that's the complicated part to get the most fidelity out of your simulation. How heavy in combat or how light in combat the game ends up being is largely up to the DM. Personally, I enjoy a good battle, particularly in the fast paced 5E. And not everyone, well most people actually aren't terribly good at role-playing, especially since I think most of the time my players are new to newish.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Other games have demonstrated social stuff can be equally complex. In any case, good answers here should probably be researched and cite sources to demonstrate historical facts. This does not do that. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Sep 15 '14 at 13:17

protected by mxyzplk Sep 15 '14 at 17:10

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