Combat – System or Story Based

Have you ever sat down to play an RPG, only to dread the Game Master saying “Roll for Initiative”? Or perhaps those are the words you’ve been waiting to hear for the last 3 hours! Each person has a preferred amount, and even type of combat.When it comes to Combat, there are many different ideas as to how to do it right. Do you use a map? How about a rigid turn order with a set list of actions you can take? Can you use any skill in your arsenal to make an attack? These are all factors that can shape how combat takes form.

Likewise, how Roleplay should be handled is also a personal preference. Do you feel comfortable making a different voice for you character? Do you like long in character discussions filled with intrigue?

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Roleplay and Combat – The wrong Metric

There’s been a long running conversation on Combat vs Roleplay (RP) in tabletop RPG games, however, I believe this is the wrong way of asking this question. RP and Combat are not mutually exclusive, they are both separate aspects of the same game. Give a GM a week to think about it, and they’ll find a way to turn playing Chess into a battle and resolution system for their group. The RP can remain intact exactly as it was before, but the combat is handled entirely differently.

Instead we should be asking, what are the different kinds of combat that can be used in different RPG’s. There are two major sides of this scale System Focused Combat, which specializes on tactics, strategy and balance, and Story Focused Combat with an emphasis on free-form rules and fast resolution.

System-Based Combat

When you think of system-based combat, you should think of war games, minis, and a thick rule book of actions that you can take in combat. These systems likely have more stats designated for combat, and are more technical in nature. Normally this means that combat takes longer to play and set up. There are more clearly defined rules in system-based combat leading to more of a “let the dice fall where they may” attitude. However there are techniques that you can take to make system-based combat more story focused such as Combat by Scene.

When you talk about system-based combat, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition always has high up on the list of most system-based. The combat was incredibly technical, with clearly defined actions that were unique to each class, and rigorous balancing. Other examples system-based combat RPG’s are Star Wars d20, A Song of Ice and Fire RP, Pathfinder and D&D 3.5e.

Knights Battling

Story-Based Combat

Alternatively, story-focused combat tends to be more free-form. Instead of clearly defined actions that can be taken, the player must determine what they want to accomplish from each action, and the best way to take that action. With the more streamlined rules, it may be easier for new players to pick it up. Fast resolution is a staple with story-based systems with less grinding of hit-points, and allows more freedom to the actions that are taken. 


One of the most popular story-based combat systems out there is FATE. FATE Core and Accelerated Editions are an incredibly simple system that you can try for free. Powered by The Apocalypse and Lasers and Feelings are two more popular choices as well.

Which one is right for me?

No system is 100% system-based or story base


d, but instead lies more in a gradient of one to the other. For example, the wildly popular Dungeons & Dragons 5e exists somewhere in the middle of story- and system-based combat, appealing to both styles of play, without sacrificing too much of the other side.

But which one is better? That’s a loaded question! It actually depends on a number of things, but I think the biggest one is, which style of play does your group like the most? Our group, personally, leans to the story-focused side since we rarely ever use an actual battle-map. However, I was a part of a long-running 4e campaign and loved that as well. The second question you have to ask is which system fits my setting the best. Want a swashbuckling pirate adventure game? Take your pick from 7th Sea or Airship Pirates, they’ll likely fit the tone, and pacing of your adventure better than other systems because that is what they were made for!


What is your favorite Combat System? Any good examples of a system-based or story-based game? Let us know in the comments below!