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Combat, Diplomacy, Stealth

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The soldier, the diplomat, and the spy

"There is a locked door and your goal lies on the other side. What do you do?"
1. Smash the door down.
2. Try and pick the lock.

A form of gameplay non-linearity, found mostly in Role-Playing Games, especially Western RPGs, wherein the player can beat individual levels or subquests (or sometimes even the entire game) by sticking largely to one of the three playing styles:

This trope is about having to choose between these three approaches, not about having a specialist for each in the Player Party (though they usually do — for that, see Cast Speciation).

Subtrope to Three Approach System. Compare Fighter, Mage, Thief. Contrast RPGs Equal Combat, where no (meaningful) non-combat options are provided, and Useless Useful Non-Combat Abilities, where non-combat paths are available in theory but rendered useless by the game design.


General examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • The DC Universe's Trinity - Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. Superman is the most powerful of the three, Wonder Woman while no stranger to combat is the Ambadassador of the Amazon people to the rest of the world and the most politically and socially active of the three and Batman is a Stealth Expert. Superman and Wonder Woman can interchangeably serve in the Diplomat and Combat role with Diana being the best combatant among her people while Superman has been known to be a diplomat of sorts for Kryptonians to Earth.

  • The Fan Convention Otakon LARP allows any of the three styles, but due to the large shonen genre population, it is most commonly completed with Combat. The climax of the LARP has been ended with one or two players using Diplomacy on uncommon occasions.

  • Shallan's three Alternate Selves in The Stormlight Archive: "Veil" specializes in stealth and spywork, "Radiant" in swordplay and combat, and "Shallan" in social interaction.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Played with regarding the main POV Stark siblings. Jon (skilled swordsman) is primarily a fighter, Sansa (lady of the court) is a diplomat, and Arya (street urchin turned assassin-in-training) uses stealth. However, both Jon and Arya also develop skills in diplomacy, with Jon managing complex negotiations, relationships and back-room deals as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and Arya getting up-close with Northern politics at Harrenhal, learning how to manipulate people as a Faceless Man and known for being able to make friends with anyone. Meanwhile, the fourth Stark sibling Bran starts out wanting to be a knight (combat), goes on to serve as Lord of Winterfell (diplomacy), and is currently learning to operate an omniscient magical spy network (stealth).

    Live Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: Three of the main Stark siblings, Jon, Sansa and Arya develop into this. Jon as a member of the Night's Watch is a master swordsman and battle commander; Sansa in the back-biting royal court becomes a shrewd politician; and Arya, living amongst commoners and later assassins, learns skills in observation, trickery and stealth. This is a more basic version compared to their book counterparts, where Jon, Arya and the fourth sibling Bran all have a wider range of diplomatic and spy skills.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Especially when discussing 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast defines the "three pillars" of Dungeons & Dragons as Combat, Exploration and Interaction.
  • Blades in the Dark explicitly supports all three types of play, in both its crew types and its playbooks. The Bravos crew, the Cutter, and the Hound represent the combat-heavy play; the Hawkers and, to a lesser extent, the Cult crews, the Slide, and the Spider cover the diplomacy side; while the Assassins, the Shadows, the Smugglers, and the Lurk playbook are largely about stealth. It also avoids Useless Useful Non-Combat Abilities because, mechanically, all action checks work the same way, so the usefulness of each rating depends mainly on the type of the campaign a group is playing, rather than on the system itself.

  • Girl Genius has two different groups that fall into this.
    • Agatha and her companions: Zeetha is The Big Girl who is incredibly strong, Agatha uses her role as the Heterodyne to get through bad situations and is much more personable than the others, and Violetta is a Smoke Knight.
    • Agatha and her love interests are this in a more political and social sense: Gil is very agressive and strong and usually resorts to threats or violence in a pinch, Agatha is friendly and personable, and Tavrek is sly and resorts to underhanded methods to get what he wants.
  • In Oceanfalls, whenever the main character Nino enters a Random Encounter, he is offered a choice between these three options.

Video game examples:

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  • Dreamfall: The Longest Journey occasionally offers you the choice of talking, fighting, or sneaking around, especially when playing as Zoe (the other two protagonists are more action-oriented). However, the faulty implementation of the combat and stealth gameplay results in these options being generally harder to follow through.

    Action Game 
  • E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy most storyline mission involving human characters can solved with either speech (often by bribing or accepting another sidequest), combat, or stealth/combat.
  • In the Hitman series, most missions/conflicts give you the options of run-and-gunning (at the risk of killing civilians), disguises (which sometimes let you access areas or talk to people whom you couldn't otherwise), or avoiding or evading conflict in the first place via stealth. However, as you are a Professional Killer, you will be expected to kill people at some point.
  • The No One Lives Forever series generally encourages you to stay stealthy but the penalties for breaking stealth with guns blazing are not as high as in other stealth games, and at some points you are outright forced into open combat. All diplomacy is, however, delegated to cutscenes.

    Immersive Sim 
  • In Deus Ex (and its sequels) you have the option of sneaking past enemies or fighting them and can often bypass areas by saying the right thing to the right people.
  • Dishonored lets players choose between High Chaos and Low Chaos runs: the former means going into missions guns-blazing and sword-swinging and leaving a trail of corpses in Corvo's wake, while the latter is all about stealth and non-lethal takedowns. Diplomacy, however, is not an option, since Corvo is both a pariah/enemy of the state and a Silent Protagonist.

    RPG — Western 
  • The Fallout series was among the first games to have offered all three paths in most quests. The playstyles are later referred to as Combat Boy, Science Boy, and Stealth Boy. The three pre-set characters in the first game also fit: you have a musclebound meathead, a Russian Femme Fatale who is good at spy stuff, and a charismatic smooth-talker who probably would have been a lawyer if he was born in the pre-War world.
  • In Planescape: Torment, Diplomacy is king, but Combat and Stealth are also available, because your starting class is always the Fighter but you can switch to Thief later on to bypass most of the fights. Notable for the possibility of finishing the entire game with only a handful of unavoidable combat scenarios.
  • Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura has the three playing styles mentioned above, plus Magick and Technology, which allows your character to either cast spells or build and maintain items that complement those playstyles.
  • Most quests in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines offer just stealth and combat paths, but diplomatic skills (including seduction, subterfuge, intimidation and supernatural powers of Domination) earn you a lot of other nifty bonuses, as do hacking and security skills. Right up until the last levels where all your fancy skills become useless in endless dungeon crawls filled to the brim with enemies.
  • Present but downplayed in The Elder Scrolls series. Mechanically, the series offers these options, with "Diplomacy" skills (the Speechcraft and Mercantile) rolled into Stealth. In practice, resolving most quests requires someone dying with the option of sometimes sneaking past. As such, pure Diplomacy isn't really a viable option. Stealth is more useful, but still tends toward Combat (using sneak attacks to get Critical Hits and Backstabs for bonus damage). Diplomacy is also present in Mage builds via the Illusion school of magic, such as using spells to turn you into a temporary Charm Person. However, these spells are generally ineffective against targets which lack a mind (constructs, many forms of undead), so tend to be less useful than pure offensive spells.
  • A Dance with Rogues usually offers all three paths, though stealth is preferred to combat (because you can only play as a rogue) and attempts at diplomacy more often than not inevitably lead to Sex for Services.
  • One quest in Drakensang: The River of Time has you deal with a group of not-completely-evil pirates who plan to raid the local elven village. The Elves ask you to find a way to get rid of them—non-lethally if possible. Your three companions offer three solutions: kill the pirates (you get to loot all their stuff but the elves won't speak with you anymore), deceive them (the fastest and easiest way, requires a lot of charisma) and finally, negotiate with the elves (the longest but ultimately the most advantageous alternative).
  • Comes up in the Geneforge series quite often. The diplomacy and stealth options often blur together and usually include use of the Mechanics skill to disable or subvert devices and pick locks, but there is almost always a way around combat for plotline quests and many sidequests.
  • Divinity: Original Sin often offers the choice of sneaking past enemies who don't let you talk your way out of fighting them. However, combat is still the biggest source of XP in the game, and you will need those character levels for the endgame bosses.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition literally applies this trope in the form of the Inquisitor's War Table Advisers. The ex-Templar Commander Cullen Rutherford serves as Commander of the Inquisition, Lady Josephine Montilyet serves as Ambassador of the Inquisition, and the Left Hand of the Divine, Leliana, serves as the Inquisition's Spymaster. You can complete missions on the War Table by choosing an adviser to handle each one. Each one takes a different amount of time to complete a particular mission, and potentially can have different outcomes.
  • Alpha Protocol usually allows either stealth or combat-oriented playstyles. Diplomacy can help with either, but Talking the Monster to Death is rarely an option; good social skills are much more useful for getting help with missions.
  • In page quote provider Knights of the Old Republic, this option shows up throughout the game, most noticeably during a mission where the player has to infiltrate the Sith base on Manaan; the player can either raid a Sith landing bay and steal a shuttle to get in (Combat), interrogate a Sith prisoner to obtain a passcode (Diplomacy), or forge a key card in order to sneak into the base (Stealth).


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