[RPG] How did D&D end up so focused on fighting, when its inspirations weren’t


There are a lot of systems around nowadays that don't focus on combat, and that's great.

But I was struck recently by the fact that D&D has always been, and remains, heavily oriented toward fighting when a reading of its inspirations would suggest the opposite.

Consider: the fantasy literature most commonly cited as being inspirations for the game include the works of Tolkien, Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard. However the first two are driven far more by character, narrative and imagination than combat, and while there's plenty of fighting in Conan, it tends to take second place to stealth, exploration and adventure. Many other inspirations are explicitly listed in the AD&D 1e DMG's Appendix N, and a large chunk of that list isn't "all fights all the time."

Furthermore, fluff in the early editions of the game were often at pains to emphasise the imaginative and characterful aspects of the game rather than the militaristic ones, even if the actual rules suggested otherwise.

I know the original rules came out of a wargame, Chainmail, but given that D&D is a standalone product inspired by relatively combat-light fantasy narratives, there should have been ample opportunity to develop non-combat aspects of the game as it was being designed.

So is there any information suggesting how the rules ended up so heavily focused on fighing? Was it just what the designers and playtesters enjoyed most, in spite of intentions otherwise? Or is there more to it than that?

Best Answer

I suspect you're underestimating the effects of the wargaming roots, both on D&D specifically and on role-playing games in general, which, in those early days, were all but synonymous.

The cover of the original edition of D&D, published in 1974, described it as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames". Although it included various non-wargaming elements, and sometimes took pains to emphasize them, the background this emphasis should be viewed against is that of traditional wargaming, which is what its designers and target audience would've been familiar with. After all, before D&D took off, there was no separate role-playing game community or tradition to draw on — early D&D, like Chainmail, was designed by wargamers, and for wargamers.

Both Chainmail and early D&D grew from wargames through an essentially evolutionary process: the rules, as published, are basically tidied-up snapshots of the house rules that Gygax and Arneson developed for their gaming groups, as they gradually mixed in new elements (such as magic, individual heroes and non-combat challenges) into what was still, at its roots, a wargame, albeit a somewhat oddball one.

The heavy emphasis that early editions of D&D sometimes placed on non-combat elements should thus be seen as an attempt to get the players, assumed to be familiar with traditional wargames, to include any non-combat elements in their games at all. Of course, as the rules were still rather combat-centric, the general effectiveness of these measures is debatable, but at least they did encourage others to continue the exploration of non-combat elements in "fantasy wargames" — now increasingly called "role-playing games", to differentiate the emerging new genre and community from traditional wargames — that Gygax and Arneson had started.

Much of this evolution took the form of other game systems, published in the wake of D&D's success, and often diverging further from D&D's wargaming roots. Thus, D&D itself came to be regarded as a "traditionalist" game, a term often regarded as synonymous with "combat-heavy", while other games experimented with alternative concepts like simplified, less crunchy combat systems, or even eliminating combat entirely.

(For D&D specifically, this reputation was certainly not reduced by the fact that, among the various iterations of D&D reinventing itself, the fourth edition, in particular, took a major step back towards its combat-heavy wargaming roots, perhaps in part to differentiate it from the many competing systems at the time that tried to de-emphasize combat. However, regardless of edition, D&D has always been a rather crunchy and combat-focused system, and that's arguably part of its core identity — take away the combat mechanics, or replace them with something completely different, and many would say that what's left would no longer be D&D in anything but name only.)

So, to sum up, the reason D&D is so focused on fighting is that, originally, it's a wargame with fantasy and role-playing elements mixed in, not a fantasy story-telling game with combat elements mixed in. Furthermore, the history of D&D is inextricably linked with the history of RPGs as a concept, such that, in many ways, D&D can be seen as a "living fossil" of what the whole genre of "role-playing games" originally started from. If D&D today seems combat-heavy, it's only because we're looking at it from a modern perspective, and comparing it to the many other game systems which took the ideas pioneered by D&D and ran with them much faster and further than D&D itself ever did.