I'm bored of killing people. Not necessarily bored of having people killed, but certainly of doing my own dirty work. After a couple of years of great RPGs—The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Pillars of Eternity, Fallout 4, and even South Park: The Stick of Truth—I need a break from fighting. This isn't a hot take: I'm not about to decry RPG combat in its entirety. This is my problem, and it's up to me—not the industry at large—to find a solution.
The solution, it turns out, is Age of Decadence. Officially released last year after a time in early access, it's still a bit rough and unpolished. Nonetheless, it's a wilfully uncompromising RPG. There is combat, and it's extremely difficult, but, depending on the choices that you make, engaging in it can be optional.
In Age of Decadence, you're given a choice of professions, each promising a markedly different experience. A mercenary is going to get hilt deep in some jerks—it's a part of the job description. But other builds promise other ways to play. I chose a merchant, partly because it's a non-combat option, but also because, if this is truly an age of decadence, I assume having a lot of money will help.
It works because the setting favours politics and greed, rather than sword-'n'-board heroism. Because of this, I go for an extremely specific, high-risk build. My combat fatigue manifests in a character with no points in any of the combat skills. Of my dagger ability, the game bluntly states that I should "put it down before you poke an eye out." (Wouldn't poking someone's eye out be an extremely effective use of a dagger? I suppose it depends whose eye.)
Instead, I'm a master at doing words at people—more so than this sentence would imply. My primary stats are trading, persuasion and 'streetwise,' and it's interesting just how much these skills matter. I've played for a few hours, and, so far, Age of Decadence has mitigated its early linearity through contextual events and dialogue. At multiple points I'm given the option for actions that rely on my (appalling) dexterity, or conversation choices that require my (amazing) persuasion. But these options don't magically solve problems.
In one instance, a man tries to lure me into an abandoned house. This feels dodgy, and, thanks to my streetwise skill, I'm informed in-game that something suspicious is afoot. I decide to follow anyway, and am immediately set upon by muggers. This triggers a combat encounter and I die almost instantly. Even in the merchant campaign, combat can happen. As the player, it's my job to recognise dangerous scenarios and avoid them. I'd say it's a lot like life in that regards, but nobody has ever attempted to lure me through a mystical Roman-esque town into a run-down house full of jerks. Not that it couldn't happen. I live in Bath, after all.
I'm not far into Age of Decadence, certainly not enough to make any strong pronouncements of its overall quality. But the resolution to my last mission did fill me with hope. The merchants guild are a political organisation, and a recurring theme has been negotiating tactical murders through the assassin's guild. In the latest instance, our organisation's desired target was deemed too hot to handle, and so it's up to me to find a solution. That means seeing the town's ruling lord, but getting an audience requires solving some problems with two enemy camps outside of town.
One of these camps, filled with bandits, lets me stroll right in. My job is to negotiate the release of a hostage they've kidnapped. I talk them down to half their original price, and, returning to the lord's house, persuade the steward to pay full price. The difference? It goes straight in my pocket. It was a satisfying and profitable solution to a problem with many potential outcomes.
It's notable that the lack of combat hasn't stopped the tension. There's always the risk that I'll say the wrong thing or make a stupid decision that will get me killed. It's happened to me twice so far, either because I wasn't paying attention, or because I was overconfident in my abilities. It's a dangerous world, and the non-combat option requires to me carefully negotiate a deadly path. That in itself is satisfying—it feels like I'm profiting from this world despite its hostility.
It's something I'd like to see more RPGs tackle, because it feels like roleplaying in a more fundamental sense than we often mean when we invoke the genre. In Age of Decadence the only number that matters is the amount of money I have. Beyond that, it's a game about actually playing a role. My character is so weak that he'd be killed by an inn's basement rats. And yet, despite—perhaps even because of his deficiencies—it's a role that I'm starting to enjoy.