Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Three Fight Scenes

The other day I talked about the three-fight-scene scenario design method, and it raised a question or two, so I'm going to delve into it a little bit more.

First, let me be clear that this method is blatantly and shamelessly stolen from the ever-brilliant Robin Laws, who wrote it up for Feng Shui. Feng Shui captures the range of 90's Hong Kong cinema, from two-gun wielding assassins on a road to redemption to sinister imperial eunuch wizards to kung fu roosters (sort of)[1]. It's not a game of subtlety or nuance;it's a game of wonderful fight scenes and general badassness. As such, a simple method of creating scenarios that played to its strengths was an important tool for the GM to have.

The idea is simple: since the centerpiece of the game is cool fight scenes, you start planning a scenario by picking three different places which would make for great fight scenes. This step is very simple, but only if you really buy into it. The trick is to think like a movie director, look at a location and think "What kind of awesome things could someone do if they were fighting a hundred zombie ninjas in here?"[2] Are there chandeliers to swing from? Escalators to run the wrong direction on? Giant pieces of machinery to crash and blow up? Huge windows to smash?[3] If you could answer that to your satisfaction with three locations you were pretty much good to go, because at that point, all you needed was to come up with a reason to get the characters to all three locations.

"But wait," you say, "you say that like it's simple, but that's the hard part!"

But the trick is this: it's really not. If you had to come up with the connective material first, then yes, that would absolutely be hard to pull together. But you've got three hard points to work with, and that simplifies the whole process. I know that's kind of counter-intuitive, but this is one of those "constraint breeds creativity" things. It really works.

Of course, part of the reason it works is that these things follow certain patterns. The first fight reveals a danger (A stock NPC is attacked, players are ambushed, a friend asks for help) and points to something that must be done/stopped/gotten at the location of fight two. Fight two reveals the real problem which must be stopped at fight three. Done. You could make a mad libs of it.

Now, this is totally a fight-centric approach to scenario creation, and for fight centric games, it rocks. This formula works beautifully for D&D, especially 4e, and I have always found it much more satisfying (and much more likely to finish in a sitting) than any dungeon crawl you can name. But not every game is quite so fight-centric.

For those games, the underlying model still holds up, but where I say 'fight scene' you really want to think 'set piece'. A fight scene is a kind of set piece, but more broadly a set piece is a location, a cast of characters, and something happening that the players must engage. It could be a social event, or a chase, or an investigation. The trick is you need to give it the same kind of thinking that you put into the fight scenes - that is to say, you need to ask yourself, "How can this scene be awesome?"

This is not always easy to do with non-fight scenes[4]. Coming through a plate glass window with a shotgun in each hand is much more straightforward than wowing the crowd at a party with your wit. Still, this is the kind of game you signed up for, so screw up your courage and take a look at your player's sheets. Stunts, skills, aspects, beliefs, powers...look at them all while asking yourself how you could give the player a chance to actually use this thing.[5] If none of this provides you any inspiration, then stop and consider. You are running a scene in which none of your players get to do anything cool. Ask yourself: do you hate them? Have they wronged you in some way?

If the only place a scene is awesome in in your head, it has no place at the table.

Anyway, once you've got the three scenes mapped out, then you just need to tie them together. This is, seriously, no harder than it is with fight scenes. Once again the gimmick hinges on you having the set pieces done. That lets the connections suggest themselves organically. If you try to tie them together when you've only got half an idea for the scene, then it's going to be a crapshoot how well it all hangs together.

By the by, there is nothing particularly sacred about three, except for the fact that it's got all that magical mojo. If three is too many for your game, there's no harm in going for one or two. If it's too few, then go for more. The purpose of this approach is not to limit what you can do.

See, the hope is this: if you have three really solid set-pieces ready to go, the rest of your game will take care of itself. It's not that those will be the only scenes in your game, it's that they give you a solid foundation under your feet, so you feel confident enough to handle the assorted scenes which may spring up on the fly between them. Having that confidence is a powerful tool, both psychologically and practically. Psychologically, you know you can let things go for as long as they're fun because you have something to gravitate back towards. Practically, you have a concrete sense of the pacing of the adventure, based on where things are relative to the set pieces.

I'm aware that I'm making some broad assertions here about what is easy and isn't, but I do so out of genuine enthusiasm. These are things which are more complicated on paper than they are to just do. If you haven't tried this method before, I strongly encourage you to actually do it. Sit down with pencil and paper and sketch up a three-part scenario for your next game. I think you'll find that it's easy, satisfying, and makes it much easier to tie your characters into.

Personally, I have used this trick more times than I can count, and I consider it a lifesaver. I have encountered very few pieces of game advice as practical as this one, and even if Robin Laws had not also done dozens of other brilliant things, he would deserve a place in the pantheon[7] for this one[8].

1 - Feng Shui is one of my favorite games of all time, and to this day I have yet to see another setting that was so perfectly well designed for gaming. The premise was easily recognizable, had clear goals (over which you could fight), a clear role for PCs, colorful villains and could support an unbelievable range of character concepts without any trouble.

2 - In other games you might need to think about who your opposition might be, but in Feng Shui that pretty much just took care of itself. In this case, for example, it's obvious the Thorns of the Lotus or, if they're techno-ninjas, Architects of the Flesh.
For your game, the answer is equally easy: whoever will make the fight interesting. Interesting might be people the players know, or it might mean enemies who are mechanically interesting, as is often the case in 4e. Hell, it might be you've got a really cool mini you want to show off. It's all fair game, just try to make the enemy something other than faceless.

3 - Doing this, by the way, adds an extra layer of fun to travel and tourism. You start looking at new places, from restaurants to monuments to train stations to anything else through this lens. You unconsciously scout for locations, and as a result, the locations for your fights are even more fantastic, becaus eyou've got all the little details that give them the ring of truth.

4 - Here's a tip: never let the scenes be static. Something should be happening or about to happen. Players can shape events and engage the scene, but don't make it entirely inert until they do something. Of course, you need to also make it clear to them that they
can do something - the purpose of making something happen is not to create a situation for the players to watch, it is to create a situation for them to engage.

5 - Seriously. Especially that thing you never let him use because you think it makes things to easy? That social control power, or teleportation trick or whatever. You know. The cheesy one. He bought it for a reason and he's totally sick of you blocking him at every turn[6]. I know you think you're being subtle, but trust me. He knows.

6 - Yes, this totally includes using 4e powers in creative ways.

7 - Obscure Joke.

8 - As such, any failings in describing this model are entirely mine, not Robin's. I am sure I have not done it justice.


  1. Feng Shui literally changed my gaming life. I think stealing it for use with Amber was one of your finest moments, and borrowing it for a Golden Age heroes game was one of my favorite memories of the Bay Area scene pre-kids.

    And yes, I got the obscure joke. Not sure what that says about me.

  2. Tangentially, given its obvious and oft-attested influence on pretty much everyone, why do you suppose Feng Shui didn't perform better in the marketplace?

  3. Great post, and exactly how I put together one-shots. Campaign play can be more difficult to fit like this, since the PCs build up so many options as to what they might pursue it can be hard to predict.

    Getting good at improvising set-pieces is a useful skill.

    There's a certain mindset around "What opportunities am I providing for my PLAYERS to do cool things," as opposed to "What cool stuff am I going to show my players" that needs to be internalized for this to really work. Great set pieces emerge from POTENTIAL coolness.

  4. @Jeff this is cynical, but I think there were two things. First there was some natural resistance to what could be seen as a spinoff of a second-tier ccg. How much support could you *really* expect?

    Second, it was an ugly cover on a cheap-feeling book. The cover image was striking, but to this day i don't get what it was trying to convey
    The interior was lovely and colorful, but the glossy pages felt weirdly magazine-like. Unfair, because the paper wasn't the problem.

    I think those two things made for a game that needed word of mouth to really sell (to say nothing of the fact that it sometimes took a lot of luck to *find* a copy) and it came out a few years too early to benefit from internet growth, and by the time Atlas re-issued it, the lessons from it had already gotten into other designs, so it lost some of it's unique selling proposition.

    Alternately, maybe Feng Shui is like pulp - loved by designers far more than the public.

  5. One of the things I always found interesting was the "Marvel Formula" of pre-1984 [when I stopped collecting Marvel]. This was where every issue of a comic had to have a fight in it, by editorial mandate, and which effectively defined the issue. For example Rom vs The Amazing Spiderman etc.

    One of the Marvel comics I did collect at the time, while still following that formula, had a quite different feel. And that was Dr Strange. Because it frequently made the fight a mystical conflict, often between ideas and concepts, sometimes anthropomorphised but often not.

    But it was a really good lesson on how to create a conflict situation without engaging in actual conflict.

    Of course it was always a lot easier to create a suitable scene with the many worlds of reality available to the Sorceror Supreme.

    Personally I think that the player's ability to interact with and control the scene(ry) often makes a great session. It's the bit that players tend to remember in their recollections, rather the exact maneuvers [eg "I swung down on the chandelier," or "leaped on top of the table," etc.]

    [@Jeff: And Feng Shui didn't do itself any favours by producing a really ugly black & white book in later Daedelus printings (by using the colour masters!). Very unreadable and ugly. And just at the time it was getting some renown too. Worst idea ever in publishing.]

  6. Ultimately, I think the RPG ran into some of the same problems the CCG did, in that its conceit was difficult to categorize, at least for a non-Asian market. You subtract the wuxia-savvy or whatever from the audience set, and I think you end up with a lot of people squinting at it and wondering if it wasn't just a kung-fu version of Rifts.

  7. "Pantheon".


    You're a bad man. :-)

  8. Where is the markup for [6]? I find the footnote, but not what it refers to.


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