Friday, February 24, 2012

War Versus Sport... and A Game of Thrones




Bronn has just killed Ser Vardis Egen in a duel, and thrown him out of the Moon Door.  The Lady of the castle, Lysa Arryn, is furious.
Lysa Arryn: You don't fight with honor!
Bronn turns to face Lysa, smiling mockingly
Bronn: No...
Bronn points to the open Moon Door
Bronn: ...he did.

There was an idea that spread through the blogs a few weeks ago; a useful way to differentiate new school from old school play styles is to use a metaphor of War versus Sport.  (The idea started on an Enworld thread here:  Combat as sport vs Combat as war).

War:
There is no such thing as a fair fight.  Melee fighting is a last resort, and when it happens, players are expected to use every way possible to get an advantage and stack the odds in their favor.  The DM is under no obligation to provide balanced encounters, so survival is contingent on the players sizing up threats and responding accordingly, including running.  In game terms, Save or Die effects and level drains emphasize the dangers of casual combat.

Sport:
Later editions create the expectation that fights are essentially fair.  Elements like the challenge rating, encounter level, or encounter experience budget allow and encourage the DM to build combat encounters at or slightly above the group's power level, and the underlying game systems assume opponents are evenly matched.  Players can engage in combat with more confidence of victory, and more time is spent working through intricate tactics within the scope of a tactical combat, instead of figuring out ways outside of the combat to skew the results, as in the "War" approach.

Wow!  Every time I think about the difference between those two approaches to combat, I think of Bronn and last season's A Game of Thrones on HBO.  Bronn is a low-born, scrappy mercenary, who survives in a world of powerful, armored knights, through wits and strategy.

In the scene from above, he sees an opportunity for profit by agreeing to fight Sir Vardis in a trial by combat.  The loser will be thrown out of the Moon Door, an open hole over a yawning abyss; the castle is perched on a mountainside.  Ser Vardis expects a straight up duel, a fair fight; Bronn runs away, throwing obstacles in the knight's path like torches and candelabras, he makes the knight chase him up and down some stairs, even using the crowd as a barrier.  As Ser Vardis tires out, Bronn hits him in the hamstring from behind, limiting his mobility even further.  Then it's all over.

Bronn is OLD SCHOOL.

Season 2, chronicling the events of A Clash of Kings, should be right around the corner - I think it starts April 1st here in the US.  Rock on.  If you missed Season 1, it's worth catching online or on-demand... I read the books years ago, but found the TV series an enjoyable romp.  It provides a game master lots of inspiration for power politics in a fantasy game.