What Makes Combat Fun?

Posted by on Oct 11, 2011 in Design, Musing, Question, RPGs, Websites | 3 Comments

Here’s another thing that’s been open in my browser for a while: Mike Birkhead, via Gamasutra, asking “What makes combat fun?”

I love reading this kind of article. Birkhead gets into details in this piece, breaking down what combat actually is in a game and how we engage it. It’s tricky to capture and define fun, but Birkhead gives it a good go:

Combat is at its best when you provide the player with multiple valid Intentions and Action Sequences, and then constrain them through the situational context of their Goals, their Environment, and their Opponents. It sounds simple, when you read it, but we both know that it is not.

It seems to me that threads pop up at RPGnet and Story Games with some frequency asking about RPGs that rely on things other than outright combat to derive their thrills. Lots of games are about non-violent conflicts like racing, exploration, bidding, and so on, but violence seems to be the stock activity in so many games, from RPGs to (duh) shooters.

(I have a nascent RPG in some stage of development that’s about what happens after combat, as a response to this idea.)

Why is something so dreadful and frightening in real life the crux of so much of our fun? What makes it fun? When does it stop being fun?

What do you think?


  1. Seth
    October 11, 2011

    This week’s episode/podcast of This American Life was all about the concept of “Adventure”

    There’s an interesting segment in the middle concerning a Chinese prison that reminds me of this discussion.



  2. Simon Rogers
    October 11, 2011

    Fighting is something we rarely if ever do, but that we are wired to be prepared for and fascinated by. It kicks us into a heightened state of awareness, and pumps of full of yummy chemicals. Combine that with our ability to play out scenes in our heads, imagine the consequences of tactics, and then make it even more engaging with rules, systems and choices, and you have a potent mix.

    In games, we can experience some of that heightened state without any of the consequences. It stops being fun when there are too many choices, too few choices, or the speed differential between a real fight and the made up one is too much.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    October 13, 2011

    Good link, Seth. I’m way behind on TAL, somehow.

    Simon, any opinions on the real grain of it? What determines when the number of choices crosses the line into too many or too few? What’s the right speed differential for what kinds of games? Some people like real-time (with or without sarcastic quotation marks, I can’t decide) combat while others like to scratch their beards and sip their whisky between turns.

    How many of the details, inputs, and consequences of real combat need to be modeled for the thrill to emerge, do you think?

    I realize, yes, that every combat-inclusive game is potentially a different answer to these questions. So it goes. I’m just curious—what do YOU like?


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