RPGs Equal Combat

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Your experience with death has given me the ability to swing my sword harder


When a video game is described as having “RPG Elements,” you generally don't expect that to mean a branching story path with lots of opportunities for you to decide how the character acts. That's more like an Adventure Game. No, it usually just means that you kill enemies, take their stuff, and Level Up.

Of course, the way that character choice is expressed in rules-heavy RPGs is through your choice of character exerting a direct influence on how you are, and aren't, able to play the game. Since most computer games are primarily about combat, that character customization naturally boils down to choosing between different ways to kill things.

This is exacerbated if combat is the primary or sole source of Experience Points, money, or other resources, so that Violence Is the Only Option. But that's no problem, since there are Monsters Everywhere. However, it is possible that it is an actual legitimate RPG; it's just that everyone considers the plot a side benefit at best.

So many RPGs do this, it's easier just to list the aversions.

Where other genres are concerned, this leads into RPG Elements, which usually work exactly the same.

Examples of RPGs Equal Combat include:

Aversions in Video Games

First-Person Shooter

  • Deus Ex, which almost always had multiple ways to proceed through any given part of a level, only some of which involve killing anyone. In fact, you don't get cash or XP for fighting people, as all XP is doled out by prescripted locational triggers.
  • Strife was one of the first First-person Shooters to include RPG Elements, but managed to avert this trope. In addition to being able to enhance the player character's abilities, it also included NPCs that you could talk to, as well as Multiple Endings. And even then, ability upgrades weren't obtained by killing enemies for Experience Points, but instead were obtained over the course of the story.
  • The Precursors, unusually for a game that is partly First-Person Shooter, allows you to complete most missions with diplomacy or stealth. You can even kind of not-kill enemies in Space Battles, they usually run away when low on health.

Role-Playing Game

  • In the Fallout CRPG series, it is possible to gain a great deal of XP and even complete the game just by talking to people, sneaking around, messing with machines, or stealing stuff.
    • This holds true even for New Vegas. 10 INT and 10 CHR is just as much as a Game Breaker as carrying around 20 Epic weapons, and a good portion of the stuff you find has non-combat value.
    • Bonus points for finishing climactic scenes of the main quests only through diplomacy.
  • Planescape: Torment, where there are exactly two people that absolutely have to be fought and one of those is part of the tutorial.
  • Mass Effect gives you XP for not just mowing down hordes of Mecha-Mooks, but for talking to people, successfully picking locks and hacking computers, finding things, and even looking at points of interest.
    • Although most of the XP you get comes from mowing down the mooks, and actually advancing through the plot pretty much requires it. Though you can still gain 10+ levels on the Citadel, where the vast majority of missions are talking and diplomacy-based.
      • Not to mention the fact that enemies give a far greater proportion of your EXP than anything else, and avoiding enemies with negotiation does not get you the same EXP as killing them (in one notable example, there was a base filled with fairly easily killed enemies. They were peaceful unless you couldn't come to an agreement with their leader or shot them… but you could still talk to the leader after shooting them (and get no Renegade points, which are supposed to be what you get for being impulsive and using violence over persuasion). So the most EXP was acquired by killing everybody in a base, and then convincing their leader that you didn't want to hurt anybody.
      • This is an easy pitfall for those RPGs that promise alternatives to fighting to solve problems. It's tough to balance the XP of fighting and not-fighting in a way that doesn't encourage people to double-dip and also doesn't come off as Railroading.
        • Such a problem is supposed to be dealt with through the imposition of practical skill and level-based character build requirements on both combat and non-combat, so that there's only enough XP around for the player character to be capable of fully exploiting one path through the game.
    • Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, doesn't give any XP for killing enemies; all experience is gained by completing quests. However, this doesn't make much of a difference in practice since, like the previous game, most quests involve killing large amounts of enemies.
  • Ultima VII; while the early games in the series were essentially the Trope Maker, The Black Gate focuses so much on dialogue and puzzle-solving that you can play 6–7 hours in before even encountering any combat, and then discover you have no idea how combat works in the game.
  • While not an aversion, the second Knights of the Old Republic game turned this trope into a plot point: the Jedi masters see the Exile grow stronger in the Force by killing people, and claim this to be proof that the Exile has been turned into a walking wound in the Force.
  • Might and Magic games tend to play this trope very straight, but you could top level ten or so in the final installment without getting in a single fight. This, of course, was unintentional.
  • Geneforge, while strongly combat-oriented, isn't exactly combat-focused. The fourth game even allows for a Pacifist Run, though it's described as unreasonably difficult. It's either less or more straight because there's no way to Level Grind, so if you miss opportunities to level up by killing everything that moves, it'll be harder to kill the enemies in the next, tougher area of the game if you do resort to combat.
    • The series also has branching story paths in each game, and the player character has a strong impact on the course of the game.
  • Elvira II: Jaws of Cerberus also gives you experience for casting spells and visiting previously unseen map squares.
  • Alpha Protocol gave you a good amount of EXP for sneaking past enemies, and also gave you EXP for hacking, lockpicking, and circuit breaking. There are also many bonuses and allies to be gained by besting a foe in combat but choosing to spare their life, though the game has been criticized for lulling players of pacifist or stealthy characters into a false sense of security prior to surprising them when these elements evaporate upon the introduction of unavoidable boss battles.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines tried to avert this, it really did; both experience and money is gained through plot triggers and quest solving rather than fighting. Several quests give you more XP for being stealthy or non-violent. However, sometimes most of the time you've just gotta throw down and kill something to complete the quest, and the last stages of the game are straight-up brawlfests complete with evil bosses who will crush a non-combat character.
  • In Rune Factory 3, while you still only gain experience towards leveling up from combat, everything else you do in the game also has a direct effect on your stats, be it fishing, farming, mining, cooking... even walking and sleeping will power you up in some way.
  • Jade Empire gives you experience points for reading the book stands and scrolls found all over the game world. The yield from each read increases the more you've read before, with some prodigious sums at the end. There's even a gem you can equip that increases the bonus you get. You can essentially get massive levels from light reading. Most of the time it not even essential information, just background setting material.
  • The Elder Scrolls games subvert this trope by tying all EXP gain to the use of skills and rewarding levels after a certain number of player-chosen "primary" skills level up. What this means in practice is that a Warrior character who smashes everything that moves with an axe, a Mage who makes extensive use of charms to make others do his dirty work for him, and a Thief who sneaks around and robs people blind will all level up at roughly the same rate.
  • Recettear completely averts this in the core game aspect of running the store. Your Merchant level increases based on sucessful sales, nothing else. Played straight for the Dungeon-crawling aspect.
    • Its inspiration, the Atelier, also holds true to this. The point of the games are to successfully operate an alchemy lab, and you basically dungeon crawl solely to get ingredients or field-test creations (direct combat is left up to the overpowered mercenaries you can hire for protection.) A couple of games in the series reversed this for a standard "save the world" plot, but they were the exceptions rather than the norm.
  • Embric of Wulfhammers Castle feels far more like an Adventure Game, or a Tabletop Game in video game form, than anything else. Combat is limited to certain scenarios that are only unlocked later in the game; experience is mostly earned through interaction with the game's many characters. To drive the point home, any actual fights are introduced with the message, "Negotiations have failed!"

Other Examples

Tabletop Games

  • While the monstrously popular D&D largely plays this straight, many new indie RPGs have been trying to avert it in claimed contrast with Dungeons & Dragons. In recent years, there's been an RPG described as “reverse D&D” and one where you help people in order to regrow your lost soul. Ironically, Dungeons & Dragons itself has had experience rewards for non-combative actions since the 1980s, longer than almost all of its competitors have even existed (though they typically only existed through the intervention of Rule Zero.)
    • The original editions of D&D only gave you experience for the treasure you successfully collected, regardless of whether or not you defeated the monster. Fights were actually things to avoid, as they expended your resources with no direct reward.
    • The 3.5 rulebook even gives another example - if your goal is to get a minotaur's treasure, then obtaining the treasure means that you have overcome the challenge, regardless of whether you did this by killing the minotaur or by sneaking past it. Either way, you earn the same amount of XP.
    • And in 4th Edition, there are even explicit rules for gaining XP for solving Skill Challenges - roughly speaking, skill tests that are particularly important to progress in an adventure. There are also guidelines for how much XP the GM should award for completed quests.
    • The party also gains experience for overcoming traps. This may mean disabling it, finding an alternate route, or setting it off and somehow surviving it.
    • In reality, it's only because of console and computer gaming that the concept of experience-only-as-reward-for-monster-killing exists, as the limits of a computer program are still heavily trumped by human imagination and ingenuity.
  • Averted in Risus. The majority of the rulebook describes the all-important combat rules, and the Risus RPG really does equal combat. However, combat doesn't necessarily equal violence - possible combats described include playing chess, getting an unreliable vending machine to work, beating rush-hour traffic to stop the Big Bad
  • The Dark Eye had experience gains for killing, but most points come from finishing the adventure (Not finishing it alive, but solving it). In the 3rd edition, most creatures had no experience rewards anymore, and in the 4th edition, players only get experience for seeing or dealing with a creature for the first time (like it's a new experience). The first edition was released in 1983.
  • Subverted in Rifts, of all things. The experience tables list rewards for accomplishing goals or neutralizing threats, with no direct correlation between enemies killed and XP gained.
  • In The Riddle of Steel, characters have special stats called Spiritual Attributes. Five of these are selected at character creations, with the details filled out by the player (for instance, one Spiritual Attribute may be Drive: To rescue his daughter). Whenever an action contributes to the goal, temperament or ethics of a Spiritual Attribute, that Spiritual Attribute grows. They can be used to ways:
    • They can be used in-game temporarily to contribute to rolls that are relevant to the Spiritual Attribute. From the example above, the character would get bonus dice equal to his Drive for any task related to saving his daughter.
    • They can be spent permanently at the end of a game session to include regular attributes, weapon proficiencies and so on and so forth. The only way to level up is to roleplay.