Further combat thoughts

So, further to my last article. I have been thinking about this a bit. I think that many of the criteria I set out are, fundamentally, compatible with each other. But I darkly suspect that my first and second criteria (Drama; and Colour and Impact) may not be entirely compatible with my third (Tactical Depth). This is because tactics implies detail and precision on positioning (whether spatial, temporal or otherwise within the fictional space) and, importantly, time to carefully consider combat decisions. Shall I attack this opponent, or that one? Shall I use this combat move, or this other one? All of this makes the fight more interesting from a strategy/gaming perspective, but crushes any sense of atmosphere and pace.

On a related note, I have been doing a bit of thinking about how fight scenes are portrayed in books and movies, and how this differs from the way it typically works in RPGs. One big thing that I notice is how <i>bitty</i> RPG combat is. It’s all “your turn, now my turn, now Bob’s turn” and nobody gets to build up a flow. A really dramatic fight scene in a book or movie is more likely to focus on a single character or small knot of fighting for a comparatively extended period, like a paragraph or two, and so we’re on the edge of our seats as that fight develops and we wonder who will live and who will die. We never build up that sense of anticipation in an RPG because when Bob is down to his last hit point we have to wait for everyone else to take their turn before we find out what happens to him. This is another area where incorporating this insight into an RPG system would tend to push us away from a tactics-focused system, because if we’re focused on one small part of the fight scene for a longer period, there’s less chance for other combatants to make tactical choices to break off what they’re doing elsewhere in the scene to intervene.

So, question for any system designer: which of these do you most care about? Drama or tactics? It isn’t like they are totally incompatible; you can have a sort of “summing up” phase after all the gubbins of tactical decision-making have been sorted to bring back the rich description of the action, or you can blend a kind of light-weight tactical system in with an otherwise more freeform affair. But there is a limit to this, and trade-offs to be made. I think there has been a lot of work in the first space (heavy focus on tactics, with description sort of crowbarred in), but less in the second – combat systems (as opposed to generic systems, remember) focused on drama, with less focus on tactics.

Whenever I think about operating in that second space, I start to get worried about descending into the generic. What I mean by that is: combat starts to feel like it doesn’t matter what decisions you are taking, as they are all mechanically the same. Does it matter whether I’m trying to kill this person or KO them, capture them, drive them off? It feels like it should. But in order to keep things simple and pacy, I find myself starting to design out those distinctions. I end up with “roll the dice, if you succeed impose a condition – give it a name, move on”.

I really want my fight scenes to feel dramatic. Grinding through a tactical battle scene can be fun – I enjoy war games, after all – but I’d like to be able to breathe life into fight scenes so they really feel edge-of-the-seat.

What games have you played that gave you a real sense of the excitement of a fight scene?

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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