Yesterday there was a post on Mythic Fantasy about the idea that “combat is a fail state” is nonsense. Sadly it’s not possible to comment there directly without a Google Account, but now Necropraxis also picked it up so let’s make this a proper discussion.
“Combat means that the players have failed” is wrong, I agree with that. But I think this is just an oversimplification resulting from years of careless repetition, about an actually significant observation.
As I see it, it’s not that “combat means the party failed their task of stealing treasure undetected”. For ease of use by people who assumed everyone already knew what they were talking about, critical details were no longer mentioned in the ongoing discussion of the subject. But what I think it really means is that “unprepared combat in an environment not of their chosing means the party failed their task of maximizing their odds of survivial”. Combat is always an option. It’s a tool in the toolbox and one of the original classes was specifically made for this job. But swords are only one tool and not meant to be used alone. You don’t just walk through doors, put your hands into holes, make a lot of noise, and see what happens. Because then the opponents prepare for a fight and pick a battlefield of their choice. When this happens and the players chose to stand their ground and fight under the conditions their enemies want them to, then they have failed.
If they die in a fight that isn’t stacked in their favor, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. They have plenty of options to scout the environment and the numbers and positions of potential threats, to plan for retreats and set ambushes, to protect themselves with spells and potions, and to prepare a battlefield by setting or clearing onstacles. If they don’t make use of these tools, they failed in playing the game right. Which they might not know, so it is one of the GM’s duties to show the players that these options do exist and to set up dungeons in which they can be applied. You don’t need to tell them what to do in a fight, but to players who are not familiar with such games, it is not obvious that your allowed options are not restricted to their character sheets.
And also: Just because something is stupid doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. There are lots of reasons why players might want to create situations they know could have been avoided. I think most of us don’t play for a score, but for excitement. RPGs are not meant to be an optimization exercise but an adventure.