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No Combat No Problem

Recently, my gaming group has been trying out Cortex Prime [1]. We made our own setting, a sci-fi setting where super-geniuses travel around the galaxy preventing disasters and helping people (think Scorpion meets Thunderbirds), called Aux. As we were creating the skill list for the characters, we made a very specific decision. We decided not to put in a combat skill, and with that removed the idea of combat from our game. 

In my nearly 40 years of playing, so few of the games I have run or played did not have some amount of combat. As I began to prep for this game, I started to think about telling stories without combat, but also how to run a game where combat is not an option. 

Why No Combat? 

Don’t misunderstand me, I have run hundreds of games with combat rules from the very simple, to the quite complex. I enjoy a good combat scene from either side of the screen. I also have enjoyed games where combat was a very small part of the game, such as Tales from the Loop. 

In the case of my group, it was thematic. We wanted to play a game about being super-geniuses going around solving problems, building machines, and helping people, and we wanted the game to be very positive and very hopeful. The premise of the game wasn’t about fighting things. It could have been had we wanted it, but the idea was to have a game about solving things with intelligence and not brawn. 

This brings up an important point. Most RPGs are designed for combat/violence. This means that most groups go into a game with the assumption that some part of the game is going to be about combat. If you want to run a game that does not have combat, you should have that discussion with your group, as you are pitching the game, and get their buy-in. Don’t surprise them with a setting that lacks violence. Make sure everyone is in for that style of play. 

Initially, when we were creating the list of skills, I had put Fighting in there as a broad skill, for the use of combat. It was one of the players who suggested we just take it out and not have combat as an option in the game. Everyone else was in agreement and we removed the skill from our skill list. 

The Absence of Combat…

It’s an interesting challenge for both the GM and Player. For the GM, you still need to challenge the players, create tension, etc, but you cannot just “Have ninjas kick in the door” to make things exciting. Likewise, the players cannot resort to violence when they run out of other options. 

You can choose not to resort to violence/combat in any game that has a combat system. You can just choose not to use it, and in turn, use other methods to resolve conflicts. That is a choice that you as a table can make, but if things get desperate, the option exists to use combat to solve the problem. It becomes a temptation since in many cases resorting to violence is a simpler option.

When that option does not exist mechanically, it does not exist in play. Someone can still do harm without using violence, but it requires some creativity. It causes the players to have to think about how to deal with issues in other ways, socially, with technology, etc. 

Regardless if you are choosing not to use combat or it does not exist in your game, the absence of combat… 

… Is not the Absence of Excitement

At the same time, an RPG without combat still needs to be exciting. There still need to be challenges to overcome, otherwise, the game may be a bit bland. As a GM you need to think about what the challenges are that will make up the game. What becomes the conflict in your game? Will it be social intrigue, mysteries, relationships, heists?

As we were building our Cortex Prime game, we used an example of a firecane (a hurricane made of combustible gasses) bearing down on a wedding. How would the characters stop a firecane and make sure that the wedding went off? Our conflicts would be things like disasters, but also solving problems, like how to find an officiant for a wedding in the path of a firecane.

 Once you know what the conflicts are going to be in your game, you need to figure out how those are going to be mechanically represented in the game. 

Once you know what the conflicts are going to be in your game, you need to figure out how those are going to be mechanically represented in the game. If every challenge was a single skill check to resolve, it might not be that exciting. This is a place where mechanics like clocks, skill challenges, etc help to create excitement and tension. In some games, these mechanics exist and require no modifications, while in others you may have to make some house rules to make this work.

One of the activities in creating your Cortex Prime game is to pick rule mods (addons) that help you tailor the game to what you need. There was already a mod for creating natural disasters (Crisis Pool), and the core rules also had mechanics for Timed Tests, that would allow me to create challenges that raced against the clock. 

Not every game is going to be great at this. If a game is highly focused on combat, either by the setting and situation (what the players do) or sometimes denoted by the page count of the combat system in the rulebook, then not using the combat system is, in essence, turning off a big chunk of the game. You will want to look to make sure that the rules that are left still make for interesting play. 

Other games take a more abstract look at combat, treating it as a form of conflict, while having rules for conflicts, rather than specifically for combat. Fate was one of the first games I played that was like this. There can be combat in Fate, but the rules you use in Fate for hand-to-hand combat are the same rules used for a vigorous debate, with slightly different mechanical outcomes and very different narrative outcomes. Games that abstract out conflicts are prime candidates for removing combat and putting the emphasis on another kind of challenge since you will likely be able to use most of the mechanics of the game. 

Cortex Prime is another game that has a more generic system for conflicts. With the core rules and the mods you select you can make that conflict anything from crossing swords to racing cars, to building energy shields in time to protect against a firecane. 

How is it going? 

Before I wrote this article, I wanted to get the game to the table to see if it really worked. Good news…it works great. Cortex Prime is a great system for this game. We were able to build the game to do what we wanted it to do. In addition, one of the three settings that come with the core rulebook, Hammerheads, is about a near-modern disaster response team, and it had additional rules and tips for how to create and use Crisis Pools for disasters. 

I had concerns before we started playing about how a game without combat would work, but the gameplay was exciting. The use of the Crisis Pools and Timed Tests did a great job modeling an impending disaster and created a good kind of tension that kept everyone engaged.

Lay Down Those Arms

From their origins in wargames, RPGs have been synonymous with combat. We swing swords at dragons, fire shots at enemy agents, punch supervillains through walls, and lock phasers on targets. There is 100% a place for combat in RPGs, but there are also settings for games where combat is not needed, where the excitement of play comes from racing against the clock, solving problems, and facing nature. Those games should be as exciting as the ones with combat. 

With some consent from your players and a thoughtful look at the rules of the game you are playing, you can make a campaign that has no combat but has all the excitement. 

What about you? Are you running a game that is low-to-no combat? Have you ever thought about it? Or do you think you would not enjoy it? 

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "No Combat No Problem"

#1 Comment By Mike On February 18, 2022 @ 8:45 am

This is why Cortex Prime needs more attention and love as a system. Simple, deep, and cool mechanics that let you build the game you want to play in a balanced way.

#2 Comment By griffon8 On February 18, 2022 @ 10:29 am

I haven’t tried a game where there is no combat. The closest I’ve ever come is a GURPS game, simply because we felt combat was so complicated that nobody was interested in slogging through it.

But I have had an idea for writing a science fiction book, and I’ve just realized the premise might be amenable to having no combat. We’ll see.

#3 Comment By Mike On February 21, 2022 @ 4:20 pm

I think this is simultaneously an interesting concept and an entire false premise. It’s interesting to think about that game and where it goes, but as an example of how rules guide play, not as an example of a “combatless game.” Because this isn’t a boardgame — just because there’s no “skill” for something doesn’t mean your character can’t DO it. This same sort of weird conceit sometimes get leveled a PbtA games, where someone will look at the sheet of moves and say “There’s no move for X! Does that mean I can’t do it? That’s stupid!” and the answer is “Correct, there’s no move for X, but that DOESN’T mean you can’t do it, it just means you don’t roll.”

So that, really, is what you are looking at here. It’s not the absence of a “Fighting skill” that makes this a combatless game, it’s the agreement of the players at the table.