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Last year, a YouTuber named Kyle Hinckley finished a playthrough of the RPG Fallout 4 on Survival Mode (before it was revamped to be harder) without killing a single character. This entire adventure was documented as a Let’s Play Challenge, and got some mainstream attention on sites like PC Gamer for the achievement. Hinckley did this in part for the challenge, but also to prove a point regarding how the game can be played.

“I’m a little disappointed in the lack of diplomatic solutions in this game, it’s a lonely departure from the rest of the Fallout series,” said Hinckley in an interview with Kotaku. “My version of pacifism isn’t really diplomatic, it’s more exploitative of the game mechanics to achieve a zero-kill record. In other [Fallout] games, you had a lot of alternatives for bypassing the combat, whether it was with sneaking, speech checks, or a back door opened with lockpicking and hacking.”

This is an impressive achievement regardless, as Fallout 4 as a game more or less forces combat as one of the primary mechanics. This is an issue Hinckley dealt with through save-scumming, exploiting perks and glitches, and doing everything in his power to stay fully pacifist. The run is not perfect by any means—using mines and the Wasteland Whisperer perk to take down one of the main villain’s mid-way through the game took 5 hours to complete—but the ultimate reward is a verifiable no kill count in his entire playthrough.

The idea of pacifism in a role-playing game is one that is rarely explored, primarily due to the reliance on combat in the games. Some RPGs are built solely around combat, from dungeon crawlers like Diablo or Dark Souls, to Tactical strategy games like Fire Emblem or Jagged Alliance. We also tend to define RPGs based on their combat mechanics, including the “WRPG/JRPG” labels. Todd Howard, the Game Director of Fallout 4, is quoted as saying “You can avoid [killing] a lot. I can’t tell you that you can play the whole game without violence—that’s not necessarily a goal of ours—but we want to support different play styles as much as we can.” But from this, an interesting question arises; how necessary is combat in an RPG if that is the case?

Well, the answer is actually complex, because it mostly stems from design philosophy and personal preference. Tabletop games have had a long battle with this question for decades. In his work The Evolution of Fantasy Role Playing Games, author Michael Tresca notes that Gary Gygax himself identified three elements that were important to all role-playing games: combat, battle, and conflict. “‘Combat’ involves nonlethal and lethal varieties, ‘battle’ covers larger-scale combat, and ‘conflict’ is like any other form of non physical contest between groups,” states Tresca. He also notes that Gygax believed that games that rely too heavily on combat and battle “may actually be wargames.”

This distinction between different types of tests for the player has sparked constant debate over the nature of combat and conflict in particular. While combat in an RPG is a part of the game, even Gygax warns that too much combat (and to a lesser extent battle) is a problem that RPGs tend to face. Tabletop games are diverse enough in design and mechanical implementation where some focus on conflict over combat entirely; titles such as Fiasco, Burning Wheel, or the FATE system focus more on party and NPC conflict and storytelling over hard crunch dice mechanics to resolve combat situations. This is done through many mechanical choices; combat, for example, is exceedingly deadly in such games, so careful attention to your characters is needed play. Others, like Fiasco, rely entirely on storytelling by the whole group to role-play a scenario, often with little dice rolls. Combat is still a part of these games, but they are de-emphasized completely by the design of these games to focus on other forms of conflict.

For video games, however, combat is a primary motivator for their initial designs, while conflict often took a backseat to the gameplay that was created. This was done mostly out of necessity; most early computer role-playing games were dungeon crawlers, as previously discussed, with few exceptions to them, so conflict was limited to one of its most tangible forms with combat. The Ultima series in fact is one of the first role-playing series to include puzzle solving and social scenarios as much as combat itself; a feat that made the Ultima games unique at the time of their release. In particular is Ultima 3: Exodus, where the player had to solve a game-long puzzle to figure out how to defeat the major antagonist, Exodus, who cannot be killed by the party directly. Others PC games attempted this back then, such as Betrayal at Krondor and the SSI Goldbox titles, but the full brunt of the gameplay was always regulated to combat in some form.

Is that just the way it is? Some believe so, especially when it comes to video game RPGs and their use of combat as part of the game mechanics. NicheGamer’s Carl Batchelor in his editorial The Big Battle Theory: Why Combat is Required in an RPG, argues dice roll mechanics in a role-playing video game are what deserve the RPG label, believing that removing the use of dice mechanics removes any form of strategy or planning in a game. He also takes a purist perspective, arguing that because of the roots of tabletop games stemming from war gaming, combat is important to the evolution of RPGs in general. “It was these tabletop wargames that acted as the basis for pen and paper RPGs,” argues Batchelor “which in turn acted as the inspiration for early digital RPGs like Rogue and Wizardry. Simply put, combat is at the very core of an RPG and to remove it means to take the engine out of a car and yet continue calling it an automobile.”

The opposite of Batchelor, and the reason for his article, stems from a piece from PC Gamer writer Jody McGegor, titled Why too Much Combat Hurts Great RPGs. In the piece, McGregor criticizes Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity for having too much combat in the game, despite de-emphasizing it through its mechanics, believing that the over-reliance on combat in a narrative-driven game weakens the experience as a whole. “Narrative games,” states McGregor, “the ambitious kind that expend effort making us interested in their locations and people in them, do themselves no favors by awkwardly marrying the two with the promise of experience points as a dowry.” 

Both articles make interesting points on the perspective of combat but are not without flaws. McGregor argued that the current glut of combat-driven games will be looked back on as an “inexplicable artifact of the time,” insisting that RPGs are over-relying on combat. This is an unfounded claim when looking at the game mechanics of modern, narrative-driven titles, such as CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher or BioWare’s Dragon Age series. For those games, combat is de-emphasized through narrative interactivity, bucking against the role-playing trends that McGregor is claiming to be problematic, with many quests in both series emphasizing character moments over sword and sorcery gameplay.

Batchelor’s also ignores recent trends of role-playing games, but stemming from the opposite point of view, demonizing games that de-emphasize combat, and more troubling, the players who may enjoy them. In his editorial, he argues that players interested in RPGs should “come correct” and accept that role-playing games follow a specific paradigm, believing that “new RPG fans” are as much of a problem as their demands for shorter, simpler titles. Batchelor states, “This is a hobby for the person who memorizes 500 pages of rules and spends years learning how to exploit them. This is a genre for gamers that play in 18 hour spurts and wake up to go to work without having slept…This isn’t a genre for half-hearted bandwagon jumpers that want to be seen as one of the cool kids.”

Batchelor’s stance may be problematic, but he is correct in one respect; games without combat may have a hard time being considered an RPG. Combat is one of the easiest forms of conflict in a game; it is immediate, instantly gratifying, challenging and personal, allowing the player to transplant themselves in a life or death situation and fight it out to the next objective.

In contrast to this, conflict by its very nature can be a mental or emotional drain, as well as a physical one. It is less gratifying because it can be long term over short term, and often encompasses higher narrative design in most games. Video Games as a whole, however, have conflict baked into their mechanics even without combat attached to them. Take a puzzle game like Tetris, where the conflict is to beat the timer as it begins to count faster, or adventure games where the conflict is to solve an obstacle blocking your way.  There is no combat in Tetris by design, but there is conflict, and since it is a puzzle game, the conflict is based on score chasing and increasing challenge.

Looking at the history of RPGs as a video game genre, however, shows that conflict becomes a primary focus, with combat being a way to express that conflict. Remember, RPGs have several different influences attached to them outside of the tabletop realm, most notably the contributions of Japanese visual novel games and classic adventure titles that emphasized story and puzzle solving progression. Both genres had direct impact on the growth of RPGs and continue to maintain a foothold in the genre in other ways. For example, it is not uncommon for titles like Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda or Telltale’s The Walking Dead, both of which exhibit the traits of action and adventure titles first and foremost, to be seen or labeled as role-playing games in some form.

Now, the slippery slope argument that all games can be RPGs of course is prominent in this too and is often cited as why there is a need for strict definition of mechanics for role-playing games. The problem, however, stems from RPGs never having a fully defined system attached to them, hence why the mechanics of an RPG are fully diversified compared to other video game genres. After all, there are RPGs where the conflict becomes the emphasis over the combat.

A screenshot of Puzzle Quest 2, showing how combat is morphed into using puzzle gameplay, creating unique conflict in the process.

A screenshot of Puzzle Quest 2, showing how combat is morphed into using puzzle gameplay, creating unique conflict in the process.

Some that come to mind as role-playing titles include Puzzle Quest, To the Moon, and UndertaleUndertale does have combat in the game, but it is done for emphasis of story and is not a primary mechanic. The other two games are role-playing games that emphasize puzzles not only as a primary mechanic, but as a means to engage the player in conflict without using combat in the game at all. Puzzle Quest in particular is a unique title; it turns its combat into puzzle games to resolve fights, making it very atypical as an RPG.

This is nothing new, mind you. There are hundreds of role-playing games that are atypical, but they are still role-playing games nonetheless because of their implementation of mechanics. Two other examples of this include Rune Factory and Harvest Moon by Natsume. Both are similar in theme but tackle the subject differently. Rune Factory focuses on a more traditional fantasy approach, while Harvest Moon is contemporary, where the player must build up a farm and make it successful again. The emphasis on simulation is what sets them apart; there is very little combat involved in Rune Factory and none at all in Harvest Moon.

In fact, a lot of simulation or survival titles have been touted as pseudo-role-playing games as well, emphasizing conflict through survival. Minecraft and Terraria, of course, are two major starting points, and while combat is a part of those games, it is arguably the focus of the title. Other titles take it deeper, such as The Long Dark, Stranded Deep, or Don’t Starve. Technically, all of these games are survival games, which is a separate sub genre of the action/adventure title, making the claim of them being RPGs dubious at best. They are not role-playing games in the sense that we would classify them as such, but it is arguable, much like The Legend of Zelda, that all of these titles exhibit traits of a role-playing game through its mechanics.

Combat becomes fights for survival, hunting and killing wild animals for sustenance or defense. Building shelters and scavenging equipment for the right loadout for the job becomes your questlines. Inventory management and tactical thinking in life or death situations are the hallmark of good survival games, applying conflict into the game without overly relying on combat. The role-play experience in these mechanics, i.e. the choices a player makes for their playthrough, are emphasized based on their skills, equipment, desire for exploration, and even understanding statistical information—all traits that are part of the mechanical framework of a given RPG.

Even if one dismisses these games as actual role-playing experiences, traditional RPGs can de-emphasize combat completely through its own mechanics. The aforementioned story about Fallout 4 is not unusual for the series; previous titles in the series, such as Fallout 2 and especially Fallout: New Vegas, famously had players play through as a pacifist, and thanks to the role-playing mechanics used for the title, it can be done without exploitation.

In fact, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls titles are popular for pacifist runs because the game allows it through mechanics, be it through exploits or not, making it a viable option for most of the Elder Scrolls series. Other games have also de-emphasized combat in favor of social conflict; Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, or Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura are primary examples of offering more options for social interaction than for combat scenarios.

It seems to me it is conflict, not combat, that drives an RPG and its mechanics. Many of the games mentioned above that de-emphasize combat emphasize personal choice and narrative focus, and this lends to conflict in many different forms, from social interaction, mental or psychological strain, or challenges against an environment, over an opponent. We identify RPGs based on the mechanics of combat, but RPGs are more than just their combat: the sum of their parts is what makes them fully RPG, the conflict within it and how it synergizes with the other mechanical implementations found in a game.

As Todd Howard stated in the run-up for Fallout 4, you can avoid killing if you really wanted to. Hinckley did so and more, breaking the game where killing is necessary, showing that even in an RPG that has a focus on combat, the conflict can sometimes be how not to engage in combat entirely as a choice by the player.  

To put it another way, combat is a part of the role-playing experience, but it is not the most important aspect tied to it. Mechanically, it is the most recognizable and immediate part of the game. Overall though, RPGs can de-emphasize combat in favor of different forms of conflict both big and small, to offer the same challenge and choice to the player, and often with more gratifying results.

This is not to say one is better over the other, but that combat itself can take many forms when stemming from conflict. The conflict should be the overarching mechanics of a role-playing game. The choice in how you resolve that conflict its mechanical calling-card. You can fight these bandits, but why not parley with them. Or how about sneak past them? Or simply ambush them to scare them. This freedom of choice is more of a hallmark of an RPG than is the reliance of combat in mechanics, and while many RPGs will use combat as a necessary part of their game, the combat itself is not what makes them distinctly an RPG.

I hope you guys enjoyed this latest entry in the Playing Roles series. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me a message on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you all next time. 

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.