How Much Combat is in D&D?

Every so often (and by that I mean, every few days, it seems) someone starts up THE DISCOURSE about Dungeons & Dragons as a combat-focused game.

Most recently, this flared up in response to an announcement by the studio Cubicle 7 that they would be releasing a variant of their Doctor Who RPG (which they’ve been designing as a separate system for years) that uses 5e D&D mechanics. Apparently, this is inappropriate because Doctor Who isn’t primarily an action-based property (which is true), but D&D *is* and its mechanics are primarily focused on D&D (this is debatable).

And frequently (not universally) this is presented as a pejorative or as “constructive criticism,” typically to prompt people to play a different game that ostensibly “does RP better” or (more likely) is more balanced in its expectations and design. That D&D is a “combat forward” TTRPG whose mechanics are primarily engineered to support battle. That D&D is a game where you “kill things and take their stuff.”

And while I’m not going to convince anyone that isn’t true or isn’t grounded or isn’t a sensible thing to say (I won’t, it is, and I guess), I would like to push back a little on the concept that D&D is ONLY about combat, or (as has sometimes been bandied about) that it’s 90% combat.

And that this interpretation is based in the TEXT. That the text itself prescribes this massive, overwhelming combat focus in the game.

Those heroes look like they’re ready for some combat (c) Wizards of the Coast

Obviously, saying anything is “90%” something is hyperbolic–it’s functionally the same as saying something is “a lot this” or “mostly this,” or concretely that something is 75%+. Also, you know, 67% of statistics are made up on the spot, right (like that one I just made up), so who can say.

But in the spirit of assessing things from a more concrete standpoint, I reacted yesterday to this criticism by saying “how much of D&D really IS combat-oriented?”

Designer Intent vs Result

Let’s back up a little.

The stated intention of Dungeons & Dragons is to meet the so-called three pillars of play, these being:

  1. Combat
  2. Social
  3. Exploration

The game is intended to produce experiences that meet these three styles of play. Of course your own particular balance can vary–it doesn’t have to be a strict 33%/33%/33% split.

That said, the frequent narrative is that the game text itself pushes games toward a heavier emphasis on combat. That D&D lacks robust social/RP and/or exploration mechanics, at least to the same level as combat. And maybe that’s true: you’ll find more text about how to adjudicate attacks and damage than how to adjudicate Persuasion checks.

I’ll have more to say about this later, but for the moment, what I’m going to look at is: IS THIS TRUE? Is more space in the core rulebook devoted to combat than the other pillars of play?

An actual image in the 5e PHB; see what I mean about giving people the impression this game is about fighting? (c) Wizards of the Coast

My Process

The metric I’ve chosen to measure is text in the PHB that refers to combat, either directly (such as by presenting mechanics specifically oriented to combats within the game) or obliquely (a fighter in the example, weaponry/armor, any references to battle or warfare), basically the sort of stuff that would give a reader the impression that the game is oriented toward combat. (I also noted the presence of actual mechanics to differentiate these measures.)

I can’t limit myself to page counts. If that were the case, I could just point out that the combat chapter (chapter 9) is 10 pages, while the backgrounds section is 15 pages, meaning that the backgrounds section alone is 150% the size of the combat section, let alone the rest of the book. But it can’t be as simple as that, because 1) the density of information presented in those chapters isn’t exactly the same (backgrounds has more tables and more art), and (more importantly) 2) combat mechanics are spread all over the book. Some is in the classes section, some in the combat section, etc.

So I went through the PHB, page-by-page, and noted the percentage of each page that is about combat, either directly or obliquely (as defined above). I have also included a survey of art, including instances that depict warriors, warfare, etc. in the “percentage of combat content” measure. The exception here is the spells section–I focused here on the spells themselves and ignored the art, which I think is about 50/50 battle and not.

I consider the following topics to be combat-centric:

  1. Hit Points: While it is possible for hit points to matter outside of a combat situation (such as a fall, a trap, poison, a disease, the DM blasting you with lightning for metagaming, etc), their primary use is in combat. Hit points provide a measure of “the fight left in you,” rather than being a vitality meter or something like that: they’re a messy mixture of vitality, courage, energy, grit, determination, and luck. (Here’s a link to a more in-depth discussion of how I view hit points.)
  2. Attack Rolls: This is pretty obvious. Your DM might call upon you to make an attack roll when you’re not in a combat situation (such as throwing a grapple up onto the roof or attempting to break a window, etc), but most of the time, they support combat, and the mechanics that make you better at attack rolls are almost always related to combat.
  3. Armor Class: Much like hit points, AC is primarily of value in a combat situation, and if something checks against your armor class outside of combat, odds are good you’re about to get in combat. There are certain traps that make attacks against your armor class, and traps are more exploration than combat, IMO (see also saving throws, below).
  4. Armor & Weapons: Generally speaking, these are built for combat, so mechanics for armor and/or weapons can be considered combat-specific mechanics.
  5. Saving Throws: This is the least obvious one, as saving throws can happen at any point during the game, whether you’re in the wild or trying to climb a wall or trying not to fall into a pit trap or interacting with nobles and trying to keep your composure. That said, a LOT of saving throws you’ll be making are against spells and effects in a combat situation, and if someone tries to charm you while you’re negotiating (or vice versa), then it has a good chance of becoming a combat situation straight away.

The following topics I do NOT consider combat-specific:

  1. Ability Scores and Bonuses/Penalties: These are just key to D&D in general, and they support all three tiers of play. You can and will use all six ability scores in combat and outside of combat. That said, there are specific uses of ability scores that are combat-focused, such as how you can use STR or DEX to make attack rolls, DEX enhances AC, CON enhances hit points, concentration checks are almost always relevant in the context of combat, etc.
  2. Darkvision, True Seeing, other Sensory abilities: These can be relevant in any number of situations, not just combat.
  3. Movement: An analysis of the rules surrounding movement suggests that movement SPEED is typically only relevant in combat-specific scenarios. Overland journeys obey a more general “you can get so many miles in a single day,” etc, and the book doesn’t tell you that you have to stick to your specific movement speed during dungeon exploration, etc. That said, movement types can be very relevant to exploration (such as swimming, flying, etc). So I’m going to go with an even split on this one.
  4. Most Equipment that isn’t Weapons/Armor: It could be argued that a lot of equipment in the game SUPPORTS combat, but then again, a lot of equipment in the game supports all kinds of situations. A couple of items (alchemist’s fire, acid, holy water, etc) are primarily relevant to combat, but even that’s not exclusive.

Spellcasting is not inherently combat-focused. Many spells are absolutely combat spells, and that’s fine–I’ll take that into account on a case-by-case basis. You can see my results of analyzing spells for whether they have mostly/only combat applications or if they can be used outside combat for relevant effects.

If a spell has mechanics that aren’t specific to combat, I’ll usually assess it as having a small percentage of non-combat use. For instance, fireball is 90% combat-based, but 10% exploration/non-combat, because it can set things on fire.

Healing and revival spells can come up in a number of situations, so I typically assess those as an even 33%/33%/33% split.

This approach is inherently arbitrary. I don’t have word counts–I didn’t measure specifically how many words are combat-focused and which are not. I used my own experience as a copy editor and layout creator to estimate how much of the page would be taken up with combat-specific stuff, and I tended to err on the side of overestimation–that is, if I wasn’t sure, I went with a higher estimate.

Important caveat: This IS a kind of statistical analysis, but it’s not particularly rigorous. It’s casual. It’s only sort of quantitative–it’s more qualitative. At best, it can provide an estimate, not a hard and fast calculation. I don’t have the time bandwidth to do actual word counts, and even then, it’s still a matter of interpretation. I’m also not a statistician–I’m just a gamer with a lot of experience in D&D across all editions. I have my views and opinions, and I have done my best to assemble a data set, rough as it is.

SOME RESULTS

The Data

Embedded here, you can find my working excel files where I went page-by-page and assessed the content for whether it was combat-focused or not.

Overall, including all 371 spells, I assessed the 5e PHB to contain about 43% combat-related content. That’s including discussions of combat, examples of warriors, art depicting characters in combat or ready for combat, all of that. And remember, that’s me being pretty conservative with my assessment.

If I limit my analysis to mechanics only (that is, pages that have actual mechanics, not just flavor text), then the number jumps to 49% of the content.

49%.

About half.

That’s definitely not ENTIRELY or 90% or even a “vast majority.” It’s not even a majority unless it hits 51%… but “D&D has a plurality of combat mechanics” just doesn’t scan. 🙂

For a second, let’s assume that my analysis is BS, and I’m 10% off. Even 20% off. That’s STILL not the 90% some commentators insist is “what the text supports.”

Some Interesting Aspects:

Feats are unsurprisingly combat-heavy (74.5%). This fits with the legacy/tradition of feats, and sort of matches the concept of ASIs as you level. They are primarily used the way most characters use ASIs–to support key combat abilities.

If you’re looking to build a non-combat character, whose abilities largely support non-combat stuff, it would probably make sense to up your ability scores or take these least combat-focused feats:

Actor, Dungeon Delver, Keen Mind, Linguist, Lucky, Magic Initiate (remember magic isn’t inherently combat-focused), Observant, Ritual Caster, Skilled

Compare that to Warlock Invocations, which are 51.548% combat-focused, 17.677 social/roleplay-focused, and 30.581% exploration-focused.

Warlock–definitely the way to go.

Spellcasting

Per my calculations, spells are 54.398% combat-focused, 18.064% social/roleplay-focused, and 27.231% exploration-focused.

Conclusion?

D&D has a lot of combat mechanics. No one was pretending otherwise.

But we shouldn’t jump from that fact to a more hyperbolic assessment like “D&D is a combat game” or “D&D is 90% about combat.”

We also shouldn’t make the claim that the game as-written predisposes a combat-only or combat-mostly game, and that to do RPing or exploration is “actively working against the game.” The PHB contains plenty of content that isn’t combat-focused. It’s just that the combat system takes up more space because it is more specific/prescriptive than rules for socialization and/or exploration.

Why might that be?

Prescriptive vs. Freeform: Combat Mechanics vs. Social/Exploration Mechanics

Why D&D combat mechanics are more robust and comprehensive compared to D&D social/exploration mechanics is a valuable discussion.

After all, some other games are more balanced in this regard, usually by reducing combat mechanics to a similar level (see Dungeon World or Powered by the Apocalypse games) or by attempting to create more robust social/exploration mechanics to match the combat, such as by instituting a social conflict system (see FFG’s Legend of the Five Rings system, which has stamina and composure mechanics, where damaging an enemy’s calm is a valid strategy comparable with hitting them with a sword).

I think D&D is a bit trapped in the traditions of its past, which tended to emphasize a robust, cohesive combat experience and leave roleplaying basically up in the air to define however each table wanted to do so. D&D comes from wargaming, after all, which is typically more interested in combat than roleplaying (if it has RP at all), and when Arneson worked with Gygax to create TTRPGs where you played a specific, discrete character, inevitably it carried forward that legacy. How to run combat was long established–how to adjudicate RP was much looser. We didn’t even have “non-weapon proficiencies” until 2e D&D, and then a number of them had combat applications anyway. It wasn’t until 1998-2000 with the advent of 3e that “skills” became a significant, mechanical part of the game to rival combat.

Also, not for nothing, if the combat system were looser, it would lead to ongoing, never-ending arguments on every message board ever. D&D players already argue about RAW vs RAI and talk about how they would have done something different–the most specific and prescriptive the combat system, the more coherent and similar two different combat experiences will be. That way, there’s something like an objective answer, and you don’t just throw up your hands and say “whatever you DM decided.” I mean, you probably do, but it takes a little while to get there.

When it comes to RP, it’s a lot less specific, because anything could happen when people are just sitting around a table using their imagination. Combat has rules to keep your experience consistent–RP doesn’t have to do that.

This is not to say that roleplaying was not part of early D&D–my only contention is that it didn’t have as much mechanical backbone, skeleton, and connective tissue as combat did. TSR left RP in the hands of players and DMs. The game preferred to let them decide their own level of RP, rather than force them to conform to a specific expectation. There were (and still are) groups that favor very low or non-existent RP, and there were (and are) groups that were all about RP, where combat barely came up.

I once played in a game where RP was actively discouraged, and the DM would punish players who tried to RP. I stuck around for a while but eventually quit.

It’s the same with exploration, of course, though there you can get a little more mechanically robust without players/DMs feeling like you’re treading on their toes.

I may have a sword, but I have other intriguing qualities (Ilira Nathalan, art by Lori Krell)

Counter Arguments

One can very reasonably argue that this whole paradigm is flawed, because exactly how much of the content is specifically about combat is less important than how those mechanics are designed to SUPPORT combat. For instance, the ability checks section contains mechanics that CAN be used in combat, and they still produce a mechanical sense of how the DM might ask you to make checks in combat, so it can be argued that these sections are still combat-oriented.

Then again, you can turn that on its head and say that these mechanics also support roleplaying or exploration in exactly the same way. And ultimately the conclusion we have to come to is that it depends on what you’re doing with your game–that it’s a playstyle difference–and then we’re getting into begging the question territory, ie., assuming as a premise the very thing we’re trying to prove.

So if you see the majority of the text in the book as being about supporting combat, you should question whether you’re already assuming you’re right that D&D is all about combat.

Further Reading

Morrus’s report at this on ENworld: https://www.enworld.org/threads/is-d-d-90-combat.686169/

Gaming Logic: Hit Points (my discussion of how I view hit points): https://erikscottdebie.com/2017/09/05/gaming-logic-hit-points/

3 thoughts on “How Much Combat is in D&D?

  1. I appreciate the data-analysis here (I looked through the Excel sheet; I respect the amount of detail), but I don’t think it paints a fully accurate picture. The topics you label as “not combat-specific” are still incredibly relevant to combat (I’d argue that Ability Scores are much more relevant to combat), but your final percentage is labeled as measuring “combat related” content. I know this might sound like a semantics nitpick, but this seems like an imprecise label.
    “Feats are unsurprisingly combat-heavy (74.5%). This fits with the legacy/tradition of feats, and sort of matches the concept of ASIs as you level. They are primarily used the way most characters use ASIs–to support key combat abilities.”
    ^This is a good example of why I don’t think Ability Scores should be considered “not combat-specific”. You talk about how ASIs are primarily used to support key combat abilities, and earlier you specifically point out how many combat statistics are based on Ability Scores. They’re overwhelmingly combat-oriented. The other pillars aren’t nearly as dependent on Ability Scores, no matter how relevant skill checks are at your table. This ties back to how much more robust combat is, which you address, but I believe this point still stands even when accounting for that.

    Personally I believe the “game” of D&D, the “game” being defined by the actual rules (which wouldn’t include everything in the PHB), is primarily combat, but the experience you have at the table could focus on elements far less defined by the rules. I’m not sure if simply defining the system as having multiple pillars somehow “expands” what we should consider the actual game to be. There are ways to support and reward roleplay with relatively little mechanics, but D&D makes little effort to do this outside of Inspiration. It’s incredibly difficult to quantify abstract concepts like this, and these discussions never end with concrete answers, but I still really appreciate this writeup. I’m glad that some legitimate discourse came out of this whole “Dr. Who 5e backlash” situation. I only recently got into the TTRPG twitterverse, and I was kinda disappointed with how little back-and-forth there was, lol.

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    • Thank you for your response.

      As I noted, the premise that “D&D is combat-focused” is not a support to the argument that “D&D is combat-focused.” That argument begs the question. So for the purposes of this survey and assessment, I set aside my own beliefs regarding that conclusion and just looked at the actual text as best I could.

      My assessment is that ability score mechanics are PARTLY combat-focused. They also support social/RP and exploration. The uses of ability scores that are entirely combat oriented are very specific, involving STR, DEX, and CON usages. INT, WIS, and CHA are only relevant to combat regarding certain other specific mechanics that cue off them in certain specific cases (such as a monk’s unarmored defense ability), and I prefer to look at those mechanics specifically as “combat-focused” content/mechanics. That’s why I assigned things percentages in my actual survey.

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  2. My point about the ASIs is that players who prefer to select feats rather than ability score bumps are trending toward combat-oriented play, because they are actively seeking out a set of mechanics that are mostly combat-oriented.

    Interestingly, the PHB makes it very clear that feats are an OPTIONAL add-on. The base assumption is that players will choose a mechanic that is neutral/balanced as regards combat/RP/exploration.

    Which is actually evidence in SUPPORT of the game not prescribing a combat-focused playstyle.

    D&D certainly supports combat-focused (or even combat-only) play. It’s easy to do. I’m not arguing otherwise.

    My goal here was to establish whether the text actually prescribes that sort of play, and to debunk claims that the text/books are “90% combat” or some such hyperbolic measure.

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