Monday, 13 December 2021

Skinner Box for you and me

(this post is written January 13-2022 and posted back using blogger time machine because this is nothing but personal thoughts)

In recent years I am finding myself in distaste for a combat in RPGs, excessive combat especially. One of the reasons might be playing way too much Pathfinder APs where combat is almost the only time players have to use their brains. The second biggest reason might be because few of the TTRPG combat systems are better than videogames in terms of player's reactions, spectacle, speed, decisions, feedback of the system and intuitively understood rules, so why should I settle for inferior version and spend so much time on a single battle? There is more interactivity in some TTRPG systems, true (swinging from chandeliers and such) that the video games are not programmed for (yet), but it is also true that there are regrettably fewer TTRPG systems where clever thinking or use of tricks and environment is faster, more reliable and less cumbersome than just dealing plain damage; as humans tend to use the path of least resistance the plain damage is still usually the most preferred solution.

Third reason is that results of the combat almost always look to me as a subtraction from the experience. While combat is engrossing process in a moment, trying to solve the situation with other side remaining alive creates a sort of a tapestry of decisions and consequences, of favours rendered and debts owned, of sympathy and antipathy, of more interesting experience long-term instead of short-term satisfaction of the combat. When the other side is quickly rendered to simple corpses, these possibilities and possible further involvement are nullified, and I think playing experience is overall poorer for it.

For players threat of violence and of resulting loss of life can be very effective world-builder and decision-maker – if, for example, players understand that odds of their characters surviving against four ghouls blocking the entrance to cemetery (where they need to go for some reason) are very low, they will treat undead as something more than on-level cannon fodder and probably will look for or invent the ways to get in the cemetery without a battle. Maybe they will build a complicated ladder on the other side of the place? Maybe they will negotiate a passage? Involve a third party to get better chances in battle they think unavoidable? This is what is more of interest to me. 

But in many TTRPGs combat is biased to the benefit of the players. Challenge Rating in DnD 3.0 Edition was first in my memory that 'officiated' the notion of on-level encounter where such encounter should not tax party for more than about 20% of party resources, including hitpoints, and this notion of 'fair' challenge (*) didn't diminish with years, so combat in many systems is often not _really_ a danger to the PCs.

(*) the definition of 'fair' in such cases baffles me because monsters are fated to lose at best taking one of PCs with them and TPKs are happening as bad luck rather than competence; some systems give so much 'system protection' it is almost impossible to PCs to die unless they do so intentionally.

In the systems where combat is 'fair' it is obviously used more often than in RPGs where it is very lethal and thus sparse, and I came to regard 'fair combat' situations as a filler, something to engage the players for an hour or two in its own small bubble of sub-reality – like in early JRPG where battle transitioned to its own battle screen – of detailed rules and slow, round-by-round time. 

And at the end of such combat – which PCs almost predestined to win in some cases – there is loot.

'What about the loot?' is the most common question I've heard after the combat ended and everybody is stable. Allowing oneself to slain beings' possessions by the right of the strongest/victor/survivor in RPGs is an automatic notion that this is _right reward_ for doing/surviving/enduring combat situations, and when it is denied (by the absence or by in-world circumstances that force PCs to give up on it) there is often some resentment. It matters little if the loot is from unthinking automation, barely sentient beast or fully sapient person – loot is expected to happen, and in systems such as DnD and Pathinder (and many others, I am sure) it is often one of the main avenues of character progression of getting better items or enough money to afford the level up, so in such cases it is hard-wired both in a system and players' expectations of growing personal power.

Aside of possible moral implication of robbing the dead, this cycle, in my perspective operates as Skinner Box, especially in games where combat is soft on PCs.

In the words of long-forgotten youtuber Mr. BTongue. "Give somebody a repetitive task and give them irregular or random rewards for completing that task and that someone will keep doing on that task over and over again. [...] Kills some baddies – get some goodies, and once in a while you get an [noticeably better loot.]"

He speaks about Diablo series, which is a video game that rides this idea like an royal elephant, but I am finding this notion quite true for too many TTRPG, in adventures filled with combat encounters, with 'they attack' random tables, with systems that don't tax PCs too much in combats. And unlike videogames where everything is pre-coded by somebody else and you can't really do anything beyond this, in TTRPGs with real people playing the world everything is flexible and more intricate things can exist, yet, these cycles persist and often dominate everything else, and the more I go the more it looks like a waste of my time, something that I've done too many times for rather meaningless outcome. 


  1. For what it's worth, I recall MrBTongue. He did a few prose series as well over at Twenty Sided (see below), but those seem to have dropped off over time.

    1. I often wonder what happened that he stopped posting, because I was finding his videos very insightful. These articles seem more recent yet they are already about four years old. Mr. BTongue certainly had an intention to do more videos, but regretfully it didn't come to be.

    2. He had posts at Twenty Sided into 2020 ( - it's a difficult site to sift through for the guest authors.

      But, as you say, things seem to have stalled even further.

    3. Thank you for the link.
      Pandemic might be a reason, but I do hope he will post more videos and/or texts. Even if analytical videos are dime in dozen nowdays, I still think his perspective is interesting.