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Nov. 14th, 2006 @ 11:44 pm How much Realism will be accepted in an RPG Combat System?
In almost all RPG systems combat, and exspecially weapon damage and PC constitution, is highly unrealistic. Those three times your character was stabbed with a sword? Just scratches. And that shotgun blast to your head was nothing but a graze. Okay, so your character got a beating, and maybe lost some HP/LP/whatever, but he can walk away from combat just fine, even though he almost died from the wounds. And in a few days he will be just fine again.

I am looking at this from the perspective of game-play: if you do not have to worry all that much about your character actually coming out with some form of permanent damage (from being crippled to being killed) you need not be scared from fights, can be brave, and get into plenty of brawls, allowing you to play out all those combat-related feats/skills you bought. And having to deal with month-long recuperation periods from that one fight that went awry can be plain annoying: after all you want to be out in full capacity again.

I personally could see some benefits in a highly realistic system, too, though: since you have to worry about your character being injured, crippled or killed in combat, you will be more inclined to try to avoid fights to the best of your ability (as i personally would assume most of us do in real life as well). I'd claim that the vast majority of storytellers ("GMs") would in general prefer that, since quite often the players willingness to become violent and just risk the fight can make it a lot harder for them. Also, i personally would be inclined to believe that if less focus was put on fights that would likely make many females far more inclined to join an RPG group, since the situations that players elsewhise often like to solve with a fight - a mob of bandits demanding money for letting the players pass over "their" road, some drunkard spewing out obscenities at one of the players romantic interest, conflict sweltering between two neighbouring groups - would preferably call for a different solution than "Kill 'em ALL!!!", like possibly diplomacy, humor, wit or other social skills to limit the fights to the unavoidable ones.

I strongly wonder whether such an approach would be accepted by the players, though. There certainly are some who actually play RPGs mainly because they want the opportunity to ram their blades down the throats of anyone cocky enough to dare incite their wrath. Slashing an opponent to ribbons can be quite fun (well, maybe not much fun in the D20 system, but some fun even there ; - P ). Eliminating the element of combat from an RPG-system entirely would strongly reduce its appeal to the vast majority of players, would seem to me - but how far do you think one can go?

I know how far you can go in the other direction (i have the GURPS supplement detailing the "Silly Combat Rules") but how much realism in a combat system would players be willing to accept in your opinion?
How lethal may combat become?
How realistic recovering periods, or the chance of a crippling or killing injury (which was rather disquietingly high during early medieval times, when a broken bone would lead to permanent damage, and sepsis had a darn high chance of getting you even after the fight was already over)?
And do you think that taking emphasis from combat through making the combat system more lethal and thus disinclining players to seek out fights but rather encourage them to search for other solutions would draw in female players?


Thank you for responding. I would greatly appreciate it if you could also leave me a note on what your opinion is based on: how many groups you played in and for how long, which different game systems you know/have experienced in use and how their different approaches to this impacted the groups, or whether you already designed your own game system that actually implemented an extremely realistic approach and got a surprising response... I look forward to the discussion. : - ]

Pax vobiscum

ShadowDragon
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icewinddragon:
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From:theironjef
Date:November 15th, 2006 12:12 am (UTC)
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You'll have to excuse me if I give a short response first and then retreat to think about it.

I think the D20 system actually is fairly realistic as long as you add a few little details such as debilitating after-effects, shock, and so on. Hit points seem silly? It's because 20 hit points on a fighter don't represent 20 parts of his blood to be spilled, or his body divided neatly into 20 segments.

Instead, they represent his personal capacity to evade injury. The way we play, a character isn't even wounded until he's lost half of his health, he's just winded, banged around a little, still dodging the blows and parrying as needed.

As for how realistic a game can get? I remember playing a D&D session (no more, we're all about Exalted 2.0 now) a few years back with the full on Power-Combat, where rolls over a certain number required one to check a whole list of tables to see which body part was horribly mangled and how badly. The major issue was that it wasn't worth getting attached to your character, since his arms weren't going to be attached to him after the first fight. Realism is great if you have a big ol' stack of character sheets ready to go and are playing "Front line in the civil war: Confederacy Edition" but no fun at all when you're playing something fantasy driven. The moment you introduced a goblin and a wizard you already threw realism out the window, and I always find it odd when people insist on clinging to one element of realism in a largely fantasy-driven world.
From:icewinddragon
Date:November 15th, 2006 11:22 pm (UTC)
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Well - my argument for realism is that it helps people predict what will happen. I don't expect a detonation that can take down a house from a package as big as a cellphone in a time when antimatter simply isn't available yet - but with realism taken out of the picture, that might just be what will happen. You need a ton of well-designed rules that are highly detailed to allow players to predict how things will go when you take a step away from realism. When i was playing D&D for a little while that was also one of the minor issues: i quickly found some loop-holes/creative [ab]uses of magic rules that allowed me to make my lvl 5 char quite overly powerful - after the first session i approached the DM and suggested some rule alterations to take some power away from my chara, because it was simply downright ridiculous.
I want to be allowed to make most out of my chara as far as the rules allow, and i want the game to be fun for everyone. That requires good rules, and those are much easier to make if you stick to realism, because you have a reference model (our reality) that you can check in question. Elsewhise chances are that you will have a ton more paradoxa, and through those, loopholes that can be exploited, than you have in our world.

Your comment about character- and body-limb-attachments was a good one. In my group the players are highly attached to their characters, and invest a lot of time in them, even though combat is quite lethal - they just started to either avoid combat, or make sure that odds are well in their favour before they plunge into battle. From what i could gather that never happened in the groups of the other posters, from what i could gather... I admittedly wonder why - when writing the original post it seemed to me like that would be almost an automatical reaction, but quite obviously i was mistaken.

The idea of interpreting HP differently sounds good... makes sense in a D&D system where you normally don't have a form of active defense i guess. I personally do prefer a system where you do have a form of active defense (which people started introducing after a while in the group where i played D&D 'cause they realized how much they were missing - but the system simply isn't designed for that) since it allows you a lot more tactical options and enriches combat in my eyes, and it makes less sense there... but i guess essentially the wounding system that i am working on now, that goes for penalties rather than any sort of HP-loss kind of runs in the same vein.

I am looking forward to your longer response. : - ] Thank you for commenting.

Pax vobiscum

ShadowDragon
From:mayhawk2004
Date:November 15th, 2006 04:59 am (UTC)
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I've played flavors of D&D since I was 13. At the risk of dating myself, my best friend brought it over to try on a rainy day in the early 80s. I've played ever since.

I run a campaign based in a low-fantasy version of Dark Ages Britain. I was going for a combination of authentic historical flavor, epic legend, and elements of fantasy. Not Conan, mind you, but more of the romantic flavor of King Arthur with a historical feel - and some elements of magic.

I often found that what I was going for clashed with the mentality bred into the typical D&D player. I am not sure if the game attracts a certain mentality or if it builds certain expectations about the way it should be played, but very few players over the years actually got what I was trying to get across.

I have modified rules to all three editions of the D&D game since I started running my Dark Ages campaign nearly 20 years ago, generally to calm down the magic. I have rarely found a need to make the combat rules more realistic. The numbers are really mechanics that represent a combination of luck, skill, and actual fortitude. If everyone at the table can agree on this and the DM is skilled at describing the results of die rolls, it is not too hard to see that you can actually make the mechanics appear very realistic.

That said, there are two gaming systems to which I have been exposed that are brutal in their level of realism. The better of the two is the King Arthur Pendragon system by Greg Stafford. Not only is character mortality likely, it is expected and even built into the game mechanics. You might begin the campaign with a young banneret from Somerset, but if you were successful, at the end of the campaign, you are playing that banneret's grandson. Your character might die of natural causes and pass his coat of arms to the next generation, but it is just as likely that this character might die in an epic battle against the great wyrm of Corbin.

The other game is called Arduin. Its original mechanics were developed over time by Dave Hargrave, but after his death in the late 80s, his closest friends have taken his notes and continued to keep his game published over the years. This game has a very realistic hit point graduation system, and the violence and combat is extremely graphic. This system is the one you're talking about when you point out massive tables depicting arms being lopped off. That said, their basic resolution system is actually pretty simple, even simpler than the d20 system. Each round is resolved with simple opposed checks of battle factors, and then damage is assessed. D&D requires knowledge of numerous variables that define your character's abilities. Arduin boils combat values down to Battle Factors and the amount of damage they do. It's like the picture to the other system's thousand words.

Of course, you'd think that I play and DM King Arthur Pendragon and Arduin. I have never owned the complete ruleset for Arduin, and the King Arthur Pendragon rules were an option I considered at one time, but I was set on proving that D&D rules could manage any setting (and this was before D&D 3rd Edition was even considered for development) - back in 1991, actually.
From:icewinddragon
Date:November 17th, 2006 06:01 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for your input.

In how far does the flavour you were going for clash with the mentalities of the players? Are they too willing to be violent, or too focused on their stats, or which problems do you consider most disrupting?

I read a bit about the rules on the official Green Knight page - they seem indeed rather simple and offer quick resolution of situations. To be limited to "Knights Only" is a tad bit monochrome for me in the long run, but i can easily see how others wouldn't mind all that much.

About D&D-rules being a realistic representation of combat, though - they are anything but that. Even taking the most favourable approach to D&D-rules possible, fact remains that normally someone who had actually participated in half a dozen real fights and survived was a withered veteran, and someone who survived those without serious permanent injuries a reknown hero. Now - how many fights have the people in your campaign already gone through, and how many permanent scars are marked on their character sheets? Recovery from a wound would normally take weeks - in accordance to the D&D rules you will be fully recovered even from almost deadly wounds in days. Now i am not saying that is bad - as i mentioned above, having to wait three months for your character to recover from one single fight and dealing with that the stupid barbarian with the war hammer ended up breaking a bone of your character that will never heal well again often is plain annoying. I am just saying that it is not realistic.

So that was what my question is going towards: how realistic do you think you could make your combat (in terms of actual risk for character and recovery time) without your players considering the game no longer fun? Do you think your players would start to attempt to avoid battles if you made them more dangerous? If not, why? Do you think that if situations were resolved violently less often that this would make the game more appealing for females?

Thank you for your reply.

Pax vobiscum

ShadowDragon
From:mayhawk2004
Date:November 17th, 2006 07:49 pm (UTC)
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I need to divide my response into two parts, since my original response was too long to be posted. I will try to answer the first question about what I considered to be the cause of disruptions first, and then answer the questions about the realism and appeal in the second post.

This is a tough question to boil down to a few words, but I will try my best. I've run across the gamut of what you ask about here from different players, and the general answer when I ask them about their choices after sessions tends to be that they always thought that was what D&D was about: kill the monsters and take their stuff. At times, they do get too hung up over game mechanics and their own stats to the detriment of experiencing the story or the setting, but I try to offset that by providing engaging story situations (though I don't always succeed).

I think the reason I stuck with D&D was that I wanted to run folks from all walks of life, not just knights. The King Arthur Pendragon RPG (owned by White Wolf now) is based on the romances, and the romances, written in the middle ages and early rennaissance, depicted all heroes as knights and villains were either rogue knights or commoners. Only the "Jack tales" of traditional English folklore ever depicted commoners as heroes, and even then they were clever hucksters, not the traditional warrior willing to risk their lives for the good of others.

From:icewinddragon
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
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I think the reason I stuck with D&D was that I wanted to run folks from all walks of life, not just knights.
Yeah, i personally feel the same way because it just enriches the game in my eyes to be able to play all sorts of persons with vastly different backgrounds - but i also know some who stick to one and the same "class" (or adapt characters to be similar to that class in systems that have evolved beyond classes), and are perfectly content with that. To each his own, i say.
From:mayhawk2004
Date:November 17th, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)

RPG Combat Realism, Part II

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The D&D combat system is an abstraction. You have to approach it as such. You are right about PCs coming from fights with nary a scratch after healing is administered, and never do scars show up on characters' sheets. I believe that the game designers leave that to DMs to assess as they see fit, rather than build even more complex mechanics about scars, permanent injuries that hamper mobility, and whatnot. This is where, you as the DM, "make your money," really. As long as whatever permanent injury penalties you assess are fair, I think your players will go along with whatever you say, especially if, in the long run, the flavor you're introducing with your realism is fun and interesting.

A lot of us play RPGs because we like to be involved in stories. Some of us like to pretend we're Conan the Barbarian, with the clout to clobber anyone who looks at us funny (because in our real lives, we don't have that physical ability typically, nor is is socially or legally acceptable to do so). But the bottom line is that the DM uses the rules as guidelines to engage players in this excercise. How real you make your game really depends on an agreement between yourself and your players.

I have done this at the beginning of several campaigns I've run, largely because of the experiences I've had with players integrating into my Dark Ages campaign. I would sit my players down and tell them what I am aiming to present and what kind of social behaviors are acceptable out of character at the game table as well as in character so that players are aware of the setting and how they fit into it. I have found that at times, players have worked contrary to the setting's aims is that they are unaware of how their characters fit. I learned this early on in running my campaign and have since drafted notes for the cultures and laws of the places where characters are likely to travel and provided background to help players integrate their characters into the setting. This has proven to be quite effective at keeping miscommunications down and making players aware of how to interact with the situations I present them with.

Now, back to your original question. I have some mechanics that I have used in my Dark Ages game that have made my game brutally realistic in terms of the behavior of injury, but at the same time, has not made the game unfun or unplayable.

First of all, when you generate your character, you have a Con score. This Con score plus the hit points you start with at 1st level represents your actual vitality. I say that you're lucky, barely evading blows - until you get down to hit points equivalent to your Con score plus your first level of hit points. Then, you're actually taking real shots against your body and risking death.

Standard D&D rules say that you are immobilized at 0 hp and start bleeding out at -1 hp until you reach -10 hp. I have always used a convention wherein you die at a negative that is affected by your Con score. In AD&D days, I let you go to -(half Con), but I have since modified that to -(10-(Con modifier)), such that if you have a +4 Con modifier, you can go to -14 hp before you die, and if you have a -2 Con modifier, you die at -8 hp.

The cure spells turn hit point damage into subdual hit points and must be recovered with rest, for even after magical healing, characters still feel pain until full recovery.

Making combat violent does not necessarily lead to more diplomatic situations by necessity, nor does it make the game more appealing for females. I have run many tables where half my players were females, and they can be just as blood-thirsty as male players. Make most of the situations you present resolvable through intrigue, rather than combat. Sometimes, you'll get players who will jump into combat rather than try to resolve a situation diplomatically, but that is when you, as a DM, should make sure that whatever your players do has a consequence for their characters. Sometimes, it's best to let the dice fall where they may and let the bodies hit the floor. Then, discuss what players could have done differently after the game so that they can generate new characters and try again - now that they know that diplomacy might just be the better option after all.
From:icewinddragon
Date:November 18th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)

Re: RPG Combat Realism, Part II

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This is where, you as the DM, "make your money," really. As long as whatever permanent injury penalties you assess are fair, I think your players will go along with whatever you say, especially if, in the long run, the flavor you're introducing with your realism is fun and interesting.
You must be a far greater storyteller than i am. My players get majorly irked when a character of theirs ends up being permanently injured or even killed - i don't think they would "willingly go along with whatever (i) say" if i end up arbitrarily dishing out permanent injuries to a character. The second point is that for me personally that is where the game system "makes its money" - i as the storyteller normally have a really hard time telling a player that, sorry, his character has just lost a limb/been scarred for life/been killed. I honestly don't like doing that, and i like that the rules force me in certain situations to no longer be merciful - because i myself would often have the tendency to be too soft and in the end give in and let the player survive, even after they made so grave mistakes that the logical consequence would be death.

Sitting down and talking with the players about the flavour of how you would like the campaign to look like is something i do as well, and i have found that to be very useful, too. I think maybe also offering them a story to read might help them to "get in the mood" of the setting, but i have never really had problems with that, so i haven't really bothered to try that yet.

Make most of the situations you present resolvable through intrigue, rather than combat.Sometimes, you'll get players who will jump into combat rather than try to resolve a situation diplomatically, but that is when you, as a DM, should make sure that whatever your players do has a consequence for their characters. Sometimes, it's best to let the dice fall where they may and let the bodies hit the floor. Then, discuss what players could have done differently after the game so that they can generate new characters and try again - now that they know that diplomacy might just be the better option after all.
I do exactly that - and i use a highly realistic rule system for that. I present my situations realistically - and i believe that you will agree that in reality there is barely a situation where you could not find a different method to solve it but through violence. I use a highly realistic combat system to make the players see the consequences of choosing to follow a very violent path - plus in many of my campaign worlds violent behaviour will have long term consequences, which might be legal, or someone from the community of the ones who were slain seeking retribution.
All that worked great in my group - the players still get their fights, but they pick them carefully and are more creative in searching out different solutions. For some reason that i am still wondering about this seems not to have worked so well in dreadmouses or theironjefs group. I am curious as to why - maybe it is a group constellation thing, or there was some difference in how the storyteller approached it... i don't know.
I was just interested in the metagaming question in itself - you know, theoretical speculation. Quite frankly, i like some part of violence in my games, and my group occasionally plays in very, very violent settings. I am just one interested in the theoretical possibilities and exploring the boundaries of what can be done, and how those boundaries can be reached.

Pax vobiscum

IcewindDragon
From:mayhawk2004
Date:November 18th, 2006 07:52 pm (UTC)

Re: RPG Combat Realism, Part II

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I would never make such a claim. All of us GMs are merely trying to share stories we think are cool. I've never railroaded players into their characters meeting their deaths. That said, I've always had a policy of allowing the dice to determine the outcomes of player character and NPC actions. I've always felt that taking a policy of fudging die rolls to preserve PCs cheapens PCs' decision when they do the right thing. The numbers stack the way they do in part to simulate conditions set for the world or setting (not always perfectly, however). If players figure out that you always fudge your NPCs' die rolls, they'll feel like they can make any stupid decision possible and still come out looking good.

The sort of heroic fantasy we portray in our games does lend itself ultimately to resolving conflict through combat. You're not going to convince the evil undead Overlord to leave the kingdom alone and be nice from now on, right?

I have had the same issues you have with players not accepting their PCs' deaths. In one instance, I went so far as to let the player walk around as though nothing happened to him. When he got back to town, he discovered that he was transformed into a ghoul. It was a little extreme and heavy-handed, but I happen to believe, and this might not make me very popular among some game judges who have different points of view, that character death is character death. Although we get attached to our characters, when it happens let's think about whether or not that death was heroic and worthy of chronicle or song to be used by bards in future campaigns.

As for the game system, well, I happen to believe that the game system is there to be modified as needed. If something is not there that you need to get across what you want, generate it and put it in place. If what is there doesn't work, it's time to consider alternatives. When it comes to mechanics, I used to create the mechanics and spring it on players (in my early days), but they objected to that (and rightly so). Nowadays, I allow players to review mechanics, discuss them, and even tweak them until we all agree on what is fair.

I think that is the real bottom line, isn't it? It's not so much that a brutal combat system is what it is, it is whether players feel that they were treated fairly and had a chance to succeed. I've always felt that was the best policy: to be fair and even-handed, whether the dice were cruel or kind, and whether players did the right thing or not.
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From:foxsable
Date:November 15th, 2006 01:47 pm (UTC)
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In many campaigns you have ridiculous magical healing, ressurections, regeneration etc. Being injured or killed is really only a setback.

However, epic battles where every hp counts and you just want to be able to survive the battle is kind of fun. Especially when you get to very high levels. Let me tell you, when my vampire lord fought the pyroclastic dragon, it was insane. He was getting chopped up and destroyed all while regenerating like friggin' Wolverine.

In any case, i think the above poster mentioned the hp represents the ability to avoid dangerous injury.

If you want really realistic combat, let me direct you towards Shadowrun. THat is the MOST dangerous and intense combat ever. Most battles last about 30 seconds, and you can die very quickly. Every so much damage you take (and it's not much) and then every roll you make gets a -1, -3, -10! Shadowrun, while cyberpunk is incredibly gritty that way.

As far as female gamers go, one of the two I have is pleasant and nice and sweet and loves running her greatsword through opponents. Sometimes "the female of the species is more deadly than the male"!

In any case, a game can have very little combat already and be fine, it's all about how violent your players choose to be.
From:icewinddragon
Date:November 15th, 2006 11:47 pm (UTC)
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Let me tell you, when my vampire lord fought the pyroclastic dragon, it was insane. He was getting chopped up and destroyed all while regenerating like friggin' Wolverine.
Sounds like great fun. : - )

Nice thing about Shadowrun is that as long as there's something left of you (in particular spine and brain), the meds will in general be able to fix you up again - provided you have that precious gold card, that is. Same could be done in fantasy games by healer-mages/priests... kind of just makes the game more graphically violent without really increasing the real danger of combat (the ultimate possibility of permanent damage/death), no? I guess that does not apply if the charas all are too short on money/too eager spending their money on other niceties than insurance.
Do you think that if the risk of combat was significantly increased in your group, people would start to become more careful after a few sessions/wasted charas, or would they just start moping? How far do you believe you could increase the risk without them starting to complain (too much)?

I most definitely would agree that there are quite some violent girl-gamers, too. I've had a female gamer who had the somewhat nasty habit of cancelling her flights in mid air... preferrably when over rocky ground. Call me sexist, though, but i have the impression that the majority of girls are more in the style of Pallas Athene, though: they will try to avoid fighting as long as possible, and when they decide that avoiding the fight no longer is possible they will rip their opponents to shreds by any means possible. Some people uttered that the casual [ab]use of violence might be something that turns away quite some girls - do you think that is correct? Do you think that - on average, there is an exception to every rule - if the amount/frequency of violent clashes would be reduced in RPGs, girls would be more inclined to join, or do you think that is just an incorrect stereotype and/or that there are other reasons that are far more compelling why the majority of gamers is male?

Pax vobiscum

ShadowDragon
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From:dreadmouse
Date:November 15th, 2006 02:34 pm (UTC)
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Way back in the Dark Ages of high school I tried "Recon," a Vietnam War RPG. Our group only played a couple of sessions before we got sick of the game because the combat system was so realistic. Spending an hour or two on character gen only to lose your PC in the first turn of combat due to a sniper bullet through the forehead just wasn't fun, at least for our group.

I've tried many semi-realistic combat systems since then and found the overall mood of players to be quite similar; the more likely character death or disfigurement becomes the less players identify with their characters. The thought pattern behind it seems to be "Why should I invest time and effort in a character who I probably won't be playing next session?"
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From:foxsable
Date:November 15th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC)
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*devils advocate*

I think the OP is saying that if combat is more dangerous, characters will attempt to find alternative ways around it, and focus on the social aspects of the game.

*/devils advocate*

I agree with you. Just like in movies where your scraped and bruised character escapes by the skin of his teeth, we like danger without real danger. Death is just another opportunity for role playing lol.
From:icewinddragon
Date:November 15th, 2006 10:59 pm (UTC)
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I think the OP is saying that if combat is more dangerous, characters will attempt to find alternative ways around it, and focus on the social aspects of the game.
That kind of was the idea (would not have to be social - they might just sneak by potential hostiles or divert their attention or any other solution), and it worked in my group, even though i would completely agree that this is not what you want to do always: every now and again everyone just wants to enjoy some good old hack'n'slash, and that goes for my group as well. From all i gathered from the replies so far, it seems like that was not what happened in other groups, though. I am wondering right now what the reason for that might be. Players in my group now are immensely attached to their characters, and invest a lot of time in them, and are majorly pissed if any of them dies. Happens occasionally, but after loosing a few chars they learned to make sure that the odds are in their favour before they initiate combat (if i force them into a fight, i, as the storyteller, normally make sure that their chances are fair enough).
Hmmm.... well, i got something to think about now. : - ] Thanks for the input.

Pax vobiscum

ShadowDragon