The Art of Non-War

In most class-based fantasy RPGs, there’s a default expectation that your character should be pretty good at beating other creatures up — even if that’s not part of what you want your character to be good at, and even if you’re playing a campaign where you want avoiding fights to be just as much fun as getting into fights. 

In CORE20, combat maneuvers are an attempt to help deal with both those issues.

Chapter 9 Excerpt — Combat Maneuvers

One of the best things about D&D is that despite its roots in wargaming, despite the epic fantasy baseline of evil creatures doing evil things and needing to be dealt with by the forces of good and their friends who just want to get rich, the game offers plenty of ways to avoid combat. There’s negotiation and trickery, obfuscation and illusion, and so many other options in between. As a player, I love being able to think of ways to defuse a conflict that doesn’t need to end in bloodshed. As a DM, I love when the players decide to avoid direct conflict with two factions of antagonists by figuring out novel ways to get those factions to fight each other.

That said, though, once D&D combat begins, it tends to follow a specific pattern of the characters trying to beat their foes into physical submission, and vice versa. D&D effectively becomes the war game it started out as once initiative is rolled, with everyone focusing on committing grievous assault with weapons and magic. As a fairly old-school player, I like combat in D&D. I like the underlying model of heroic fantasy that sets up the game as a war story, wherein combat acumen counts as an important part of a characters’ ability to stand up for what they believe in — whether those beliefs involve the need to fight otherworldly evil, or being driven to save the people around you from political corruption, or even just noting how much ancient treasure is just lying around in forgotten monster-haunted vaults so maybe someone should go grab it.

But given how the foundation of any RPG is the idea that characters should be able to do anything they want, I long wondered to myself why D&D combat couldn’t also cover options beyond the characters beating their foes into unconsciousness the same way, each and every fight? And what if there were a way to make not killing monsters just as much fun as killing monsters?

Combat maneuvers in CORE20 are an attempt to make fights in the game more interesting for players looking for options beyond baseline fantasy violence. Maneuvers are very much about combat, as the name suggests. But they provide characters with some different approaches to dealing with enemies, building on the existing foundations of nonweapon combat (primarily in the form of grappling rules) that’s always been part of the game. They’re a set of actions that your character can take with the intent of not hurting your opponent, but rather of messing with that opponent’s ability to hurt you. Whether you’re tripping a foe up, slowing them down, messing with their timing, or making them second-guess their own willingness to fight, combat maneuvers let you try to control the flow of a fight to your own benefit.

Combat maneuvers can be entirely useful as an adjunct to beating down one’s foes if that fits a character’s combat style. Throwing an enemy off balance or sending them prone to set up your next attack — or the follow-up attack of an ally — is a great way to gain an edge in a fight. But maneuvers also allow characters to get out of fights they don’t want to be part of, or to create a nonlethal buffer of a few rounds in which to try to talk a furious foe out of fighting. And within the context of CORE20 allowing you to freely choose everything your character is good at, maneuvers are a perfect way to build a character who doesn’t ever want to go toe-to-toe and blade-to-blade with their enemies — but who needs to be able to handle themself if they’re jumped unexpectedly, and to quickly and safely get out of a fight they didn’t start.

(Art by Jackie Musto —