The core element of a gamebook is to present you with an interesting situation and let you decide what to do. Playing “The Story Game” with friends required me to adapt (I hate that I called it “The Story Game” and I would not avoid combat with myself if I had a time machine to correct this).
I was not interested in providing a list of choices. I wasn’t a book and I didn’t want to limit the players in the game. Also, it was a lot more fun feeding off of the player’s input, rather than trying to figure out the result of what they could or could not do before they even told me.
That is not to say I was playing the game blind. I had ideas about what would happen if they chose A, B, or C, but any Dungeon Master knows players like to choose D. None of the above. As a Dungeon Master, you have to roll with the punches.
You’re Doing It Right
I would attribute how I learned to Dungeon Master to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. After all, I learned to play inadvertently through Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks*.
Once I got the BX box sets, B2 Keep on the Borderlands and X1 Isle of Dread reinforced this style of play when it came to “real” role-playing games. You present the players with a setting and let them go wild, adjudicating the results of their actions in believable ways.
When it came to the rules of combat, D&D’s abstract paradigm clicked immediately with me. It was just a matter of taking the number and translating it into what actually occurred. A 1 or 20 always deserved more flavor text, while the numbers that fell in between less so.
Huh, Combat Avoidance?
When Ravyn brought up this topic it was difficult for me to narrow down what to cover. The Delvers flee, subdue or otherwise avoid conflict when necessary. Other times they go all out on someone or something that could have been an ally, revealed information, and so forth.
I think what is important for any rpg game, D&D or not, is that combat isn’t avoided because of the game mechanics.
Our D&D Encounters slog fest of the slowest-combat-rounds-ever was painful to bear. The creativity of the combat was shut down with power cards that tell you what you can do and how you do it, so you end up sitting there just naming the move you make.
Minus the girls, I was given odd looks when I used my “free action” to grab an ale off the table and down the cup before making some standard attack on whatever we were fighting at the time (the warlock had used some frost magic thing that covered a table in its blast radius right before my turn, so I claimed the drink was nice and cold).
This feeds into my feelings about 3e as well, with feats and skills.
Stop Picking on WotC
When we played Palladium games, I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t understand the combat mechanics. Damage was easy to grasp (although there was the missile incident I mentioned). Rather than try and decipher the poorly written rules, we just made it up.
In keeping with the theme of the carnival, no matter what system, if your players are avoiding combat your culprit might be the rules themselves. I think flexible game combat mechanics are wonderful. It allows creativity to flow from the players and encourages them to make the fight or flight decision based on immersion, survivability, character personality and the like.
I believe it adds much to the player’s total gaming experience to be free from the grid, from the confinements of can and can nots. Their tactics may not always be successful, or sensible, but the game is always original and surprising, and more often than not, provides entertainment for everyone at the table.