Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Thought Experiment

This is a little thought experiment that I like to apply to games I'm playing or running. It's just a simple question, but it ends up highlighting a lot of useful things, at least for me. It consists of asking one thing:

If the players could resolve every fight quickly and trivially (such as with a single roll), what would the game look like?

The purpose of this is not to theorize what your players would do if they were the worlds foremost ass kickers,[1] rather it is to ask how much your game depends on fight scenes to hang together. It reveals whether fight scenes are a complementary component of your game, or if they're really the only reason you play.

There's not a wrong answer to this. If you're running a 4e game that is basically all fight scenes with a little connective tissue, then that's fine so long as you're aware that you're doing it. It's very easy to get sucked into a nicely produced adventure or a meticulously handcrafted dungeon and think that the framework of walls and doors is actually creating something satisfying.

It also makes a good reality check for your pacing. Stopping and thinking about what happens if fights are much shorter forces you to think about how many fights you get in a session and how much time they take up. When I stopped and looked at this in my D&D 3e game it was clear that sessions were falling into a "plot sandwich" model, which is to say that I'd get in 1 or two fight scenes, with a clear pattern of plot-fight-plot or fight-plot-fight. Knowing this, in turn, helped me plan more satisfying sessions for everyone because I had a realistic sense of how much ground we could actually cover in a session.

Now, some games have an easy answer to this, because hey, no fight scenes at all. That's all well and good, but the question is worth considering if only to alter to suit your game. If fights aren't a cornerstone of your game, think of something else that is, and ask what happens if it's abbreviated. Doing so is not a proposal that you actually remove the element, rather, it's to see what thoughts and ideas its absence (and possibly the horrible mess it creates) suggests.

1 - Though that is also a fantastic question.


  1. "Fight scenes" in Smallville can be resolved with one roll. Each Contest is a series of escalating rolls on either side, and you might decide you can't beat the opponent, so you Give In. Or your opponent might beat you by 5 or more, Stressing you Out automatically. So it can happen.

  2. This is coupled with the idea of what is valuable to the players.

    In a lot of traditional roleplaying games the thing that is of most value is the character itself, which is one of the reasons that an abbreviated combat sequence is less satisfying to the player.

    Treasure and status aren't generally as important to the player; after all, the character can always get more of these. But the character is effectively irreplaceable.*

    Which is why the old save or die paradigms are highly unsatisfying for most players (even if you adjust them to give a more normalized distribution). But many players will be quite happy to gamble all or nothing on other aspects of their character.

    Even if the end result is guaranteed to be the same, if it concerns the character's potential death, then most players naturally prefer to go the long route.

    Anyway that's what I tend to find, anyway.

    [* Well, not always. But I've encountered people (generally gamemasters) who are vehemently against reversing death, because they feel it cheats. Which is probably this idea in reverse. ]

  3. Many of my thoughts on gaming right now are centered on the not-LARP that I and my friends accidentally helped start. (By 'not-LARP', I mean that, once the game has 13-18 people in one room, constantly moving around, I'm not sure if it's still a table-top game.)

    We're playing the 'Necessary Evil' Savage Worlds campaign using Mutants and Masterminds as a system. The Big Fight Scene has, so far, been a major moment in the session, but its importance to the campaign is probably complementary, as it's just one of the ways to show 'how competent is this character'?

    Not all of the characters necessarily need to fight to show off their awesomeness. The masterminds can come up with strategies, the spies and assassins can sneak around, the mentalists can mess with the enemy's minions, the mad scientists can invent some on-the-fly gadgets to get them through trouble, and the shark man can track down whatever needs to be found. But, 1)some characters exist mainly to be combat monsters (and there's nothing wrong with that), and 2)the fight scene allows for everything to go off at once, letting the characters show competence through death rays, martial arts, mind-control, and a shark man eating people.

    This could, I suppose, probably be handled by simple, one-roll contests, and come out about the same. However, from a pacing perspective, I think having the players focus a good amount of their time on the fight scene keeps the GM from being overwhelmed by players plotting at-game.


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