dnd 5e – What do players and GMs like about combat?

What exactly is it that people are looking for out of RPG combat? I’m talking about their deep-down psychological motivations and desires.

If we’re going to assume a game being played, let’s assume D&D 5e, because I have some examples and some player-type buzzwords that we can all relate to. However, I can only speculate. I would love to see someone more qualified answer this.

My friend, first time DM, did a good job running Curse of Strahd. He was receptive to feedback throughout. After the campaign, I asked him some pointed questions as feedback (playing devil’s advocate). I was wondering what he thought his next step was for improving his GMing. He said something like “Combat could always be improved”, “ok, how so?” (he did an AMAZING job with running combats and literally knows all the rules very close to 100% accuracy), “Encounters could be a bit more balanced”, “ok, why do they need to be balanced?”, “I don’t know, you don’t want combat being too easy, and not too hard” (red flag, this is showing lack of intention in his game)

I went on to analyzing all the players at the table, which I determined none of them cared about “combat balance”:

  • 2 players just want the dungeon-crawl feeling of looting and gaining power through gear
  • 1 player is only interested in seeing all the interactions play out – the damage types, resistances, critical/fumble table rolls, counterspelling a counterspell, effects of being prone+grappled+blind+swallowed+unconscious+exhausted, etc.
  • 1 player likes the low-RP and spending time together at the table, and kicking-ass together

I pointed this all out to the DM, which to me looks like our table would benefit from having more “easy” encounters that pump us up, but all he could respond with was “Well, combat is a big pillar in D&D. Too easy, and it’s not a lot of fun. Same thing with being too hard”. There were plenty of red-flags in his responses over the entire conversation, all of them indicating a need to defend D&D and the D&D mentality at all costs instead of identifying things that could improve his game and GMing.

My takeaway from that text conversation was a theory – an idea that maybe most players don’t care about combat, and rather that they like some other aspect stemming from combat. In the case of the DM, it looked like his enjoyment of playing and running both stemmed from exercising control. As a DM, he naturally has control. As a player, he’s a power-gamer, trying to gain control by gaming any advantage possible out of the rules or out of his back-story, sometimes adversarially. Deep-down inside, this DM has a psychological need to exercise control to protect his poor self-confidence and insecurities. It’s sad, but it’s a reality that I want to explore and understand better.

It makes me sad to see player insecurities manifest negatively at the table, especially since I do so much to promote an environment free of judgement.