Combat as Skill – Part 2, Problem Solving

This is part two of my three part series on treating combat in TTRPGs as a skill. In Part 1, which you should read if you haven’t already, I proposed that combat is treated as a skill in other mediums (e.g. video games), and that combat represents one part of RPGs that players definitely want to win. And if they want to win, they should be able to get better at the game so they are more likely to win. Buuuut, dice get in the way of this, big time.

Ultimately I propose that combat in RPGs should be treated like a puzzle. Puzzles have solutions. They can have multiple paths to approaching them. And very, very rarely are puzzles dictated by randomness, chance, or luck. They are things that test your abilities, and those abilities get better through practice as you move towards expertise.

Part three of all this is going to be the practical advice, how I propose that we do this. But in order to do that, we need to talk about puzzles, and problem solving broadly. And to do that, we need to talk about psychology.

Buckle up, the rest of this post is a lot of psychological theory about problem solving.

Let’s start by explaining why I’m going this direction, and my qualifications. I am a psychologist, and specifically I got my PhD in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is about information process and thinking. Broadly it covers topics like memory, language, creativity, decision making, and the topic for today, problem solving. I teach this stuff all the time in the classroom, and even do so in Psych of RPGs/Games classes every semester. Ok, that’s my CV, onto the theory.

What is problem solving? Problem solving is decision making, with an obstacle. You want to move towards a goal, but something is stopping you from getting there. In the case of puzzles, the goal state is the completed puzzle, and all the pieces, rules, restrictions, etc. are the obstacles in your path.

Let’s add another important defition. We talk about problems as being either “well” or “ill” defined.

Well defined problems are great. The goal is clear, you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. Not only that, but the rules are also very clear. Not a lot of room for interpretation. You aren’t scratching your head wondering “can I do this?” as you consider your options. Crosswords and Sudoku puzzles are examples of this. They are very well defined. There are correct answers/goal states, and the rules are rigid.

Ill defined problems are trickier! They get a little blurry. Sometimes that’s in the goal. You aren’t exactly sure what the end state looks like. You have a vague sense of what you are trying to accomplish, but you might not being able to picture what it looks like in your head. Or, the rules are wonky. They are loose, open to interpretation, not providing you guidance on how to move forward. Here are is an example:

This is a matchstick insight problem. In it, you need to move one (and only one) matchstick to change this false math problem into a true one. It’s an insight problem because if you solve it, you’ll probably have a moment of insight, that “ah ha!” moment when you figure it out.

It’s also ill defined. You know you need to make a true math problem. But how many of those are there? Literally infinity. The rules are relatively straight forward, but still open to a little wiggle room and interpretation.

Let’s stop and think about these two problems and how they are related to RPGs. When we just consider actual puzzles we put in games, you probably already use a combination of the two in your games. Well defined problems with very specific solutions you have in mind. Ill defined problems for those situations where you put a problem in front of the players and wait for them to come up with a solution where you go “uhhh yeah, that’s it, you figure it out!”

But I’m not talking about puzzles in dungeons in this series. I’m talking about combat. And if combat is a puzzle, which kind is it? Well, that depends on the game!

Well defined combat puzzles would be situations where the rules for what you can and can’t do are very clear. There isn’t a lot of interpretation, and the goal for each fight is obvious. Most tactical games live in this space.

Ill defined combat puzzles would be games where what your character is able to do on their turn has a lot of interpretation. Victory in the fight can look like a lot of different things, and you might not realize it until you find it. PbtA games immediately come to mind for this type of framework.

Both of these work, and you should use both! Neither is better than the other. But it’s important we understand how they affect how people try to “solve” the puzzle of combat.

This brings us to the second main point of this post. From a cognitive perspective, we typically talk about three major strategies for problem solving. Let’s talk about those strategies, and how they might be connected to RPGs broadly. Then, in Part 3, we’ll bring this all to concrete terms for combats in RPGs.

First, let’s get an example puzzle. I’m going to use the Tower of Hanoi, seen below.

In this puzzle, your goal is to move all the discs from the left most peg, to the right most peg. There are some rules though. First, you need to get the discs in the same order on the right peg, meaning the biggest disc is on the bottom and the smallest on top. Second, you can only move the top most disc of a peg at a time. This means we must start by moving the small disc on the left peg. Finally, you can’t put a bigger disc on top of a smaller disc. Otherwise this would be super easy, move all the discs from the left to the middle, then flop them over to the right. Ok, got it? Get them in the same order on the right, top disc only, can’t put bigger discs on top of smaller discs.

Before we talk strategies, take a minute to think about how you would solve it. Take some notes, think it out. What is your first instinct? Is it working? Where can you see roadblocks to solving the problem.

Ok, time for strategies.

Let’s start with the most direct: hill climbing. Hill climbing is a strategy that involves taking the shortest possible path towards your goal. If there are multiple options in front of you, you always choose the one that moves you towards the end solution rather than taking a more circuitous path.

In the Tower of Hanoi, you have two options for your opening move. Take the top disc and put it on the middle peg, or the right peg. People who use hill climbing will always put it on the right peg. Why? Well, it looks the most like the end goal state (all discs on the right peg).

Hill climbing is great for smaller and simpler problems, but inevitably gets you in trouble for denser problem spaces. From a combat perspective, hill climbing is always try to do the most amount of damage to a foe, since the goal is to kill them. Even though doing other things might make that simpler (rending their armor, smashing that crystal of empowerment, etc.), those are not the direct path up the hill.

The means-end strategy is one focused on making sub-goals out of the problem space. You know what you want to accomplish, but you can’t see the path. And barreling up the hill will get you into trouble. But what are some mini objectives you can accomplish? In creating and achieving these, you compare your current state with the goal, and ensure that each sub-goal is progressing you towards the solution.

In the Tower of Hanoi, what are some of the sub-goals? Well you know the discs need to be in ascending order on the right peg, so you need to lay down the biggest disc first. Your first sub-goal might be to make that happen. Once it’s done, you assess the situation, and create your next point of progress.

The more well defined the problem space, the easier it is to use means-end. From a combat perspective, this strategy is about thinking about all the things you can accomplish that will make the act of defeating your foe a possibility, or easier than if you just smashed your sword against them again and again. MMORPG bosses are all about this. Phases and objectives you need to accomplish before you get into that damage phase and really lay into them.

Finally there is working backwards. Imagine what the end goal state looks like in your head, and then reverse engineer it. What is the step just before solution? And the step before that. And the step before that. It’s a nice strategy, but only possible with well defined problems, since you oftentimes can’t even imagine what the solution looks like in ill defined problems, so there is no moving backwards from there.

In the Tower of Hanoi, you know what the solved puzzle looks like. What could the previous step look like? And the step before that? Again and again.

This one is tricky in combat! You generally know what the goal state is: kill all the baddies. So how do you work backwards from there? It’s possible, but requires both structured combat, and a lot of points of progress that the players can look for.

Ok, this is getting quite long, so we’re going to wrap up. What’s the take away here? Well, I think that combat in RPGs should be treated like puzzle solving. And in order to do that, I’m going to lean on my background as a cognitive psychologist to use what I know about problem solving to make that happen.

An important take away for these strategies, and problem solving as a whole, is that it is a skill you can get better at. There are good and bad strategies for each situation. Expertise comes with knowing which strategies to pick for which puzzles. And so, I want players in my RPGs, from a combat perspective, to be able to reach that level of expertise and show off that they know exactly how to take down their foe.

Which means Part 3 is going to be all about that! It’s the last part of this series (I think), and in it I’m going to take the stuff I talked about in the first two parts, and ground them into concrete ideas and actions for combat in RPGs. I’ll be talking about my own games, and games I’m working on.

I hope you’ve found this interesting, and stay tuned for Part 3!

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