Thursday, April 7, 2011

1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For?

There's a big question, in games and fiction, of how to include fight scenes that matter. If you go to a movie which has lots of cool fight scenes but no real reason for them to be there, or no real stakes on the line, then it's ultimately going to be a flat experience. It might make a great music video, but that's something else entirely. Logic suggests that the same thing should be true of games, but experience suggests otherwise. We have LOTS of fights, often purely for their own sake.

There are a few practical reasons for this. Certainly, most games strive to make fights fun, so theirs some intrinsic reward, but classically, there's another reason. See, in a movie, the stakes need to come from the story because we are bound by the strictures of storytelling. That is, if the hero is fighting a bad guy halfway through the movie, then the stakes need to be something other than "Will the hero survive?" because of course he will. He's still got another hour of movie ahead of him.

A lot of the foundational games in the hobby didn't _need_ to create stakes out of the narrative because death was an option. Lacking the movie star's immunity to death, the consequences of defeat were enough to make every fight meaningful. In that context, the fact that the fights were arbitrary and gygaxian wasn't really a bad thing. A coherent narrative _improved_ things, but it wasn't necessary to create a sense of investment. That investment was already there.

The problem is, of course, that character death creates other problems beyond the immediate emotional impact. It often leaves a player at loose ends while his friends continue to play, especially if generating a new character is cumbersome or punitive (and, arguably, those out-of-character consequences and difficulties increased the emotional punch of death). To minimize this, a lot of games started moving death from its central position, sometimes removing it entirely.

Doing so created a problem. Without the implicit stakes of death, there needed to be other stakes to keep players invested in outcomes. Some games never addressed this, and as a result produced fairly limp experiences. Other games started taking their examples from fiction. The logic was that if characters in a game have some of the same protections as those in a story, then investment in play can be created the same way it is in stories - compelling narrative, explicit stakes, exciting color and so on. Done right, that's pretty cool.

But it's not necessarily the only solution. The new Gamma World is chock full of death, but at the same time, death has very little friction because creating and introducing a new character is both fast and fun. There are probably other solutions too, but my point is that these are all different points on the same twisty path - they're not exclusive. If I were to go back to running Rolemaster tomorrow (because, man, it's deathy death death), I would not need to discard the lessons from less lethal games.

Ideally, I'd be able to combine them. I could have fights that are viscerally compelling because death is on the line, but which are dramatically compelling because the stakes are high. Obviously, that has always been the goal, but so many games have created so many tools for doing one or the other, what happens when we start doing both?

I'm afraid to find out. But also profoundly curious.


  1. I'll be honest. I am kind of a Santa Claus GM, as Tracy Hickman once said about my good friend Clark Valentine. I hate the idea of player character death. It makes me anxious. Having a PC die from a random series of rolls is no fun for me, even when it isn't my PC.

    To my mind, the player has to consciously set it on the line, knowing there's a chance of death. Knowing the potential for failure is there and agreed to by the player, it's a little easier. Yet, I like to build in or rely on rescue options, like Fate/Hero/Plot Points, or "you're not dead, just captured" etc.

    My recent game designs have thrown out hit point tracks because they represent that dwindling resource that ends in death. Even the game I am running at the moment, Pendragon, has been house-ruled by my group to allow for spending a token to get a Get Out Of Death Free move.

    I don't agree that there's some game contract that says, "well if it's D&D, your risk is implicit just by being an adventurer." Random death is weak sauce. Tanis being stabbed in the back and dying in a random fight in Dragons of Summer Flame was weak sauce. Even Wash's death in Serenity was.

    How, then, do we move to a point where a player can say, "I know what's at stake. I know what sacrifices must be made. I know what the cost could be." Then, I think, I might be as excited by this dangerous potential as some people already are when they play RPGS with death as a real outcome.

  2. @Cam I think the contract certainly _was_ that capricious death in old games. I don't think that's necessarily the assumption any more, but it hasn't necessarily been well-replaced.

    That said, I'll speak form experience that the chance of random death was somethign that made my Rolemaster games REALLY enjoyable, if only because it changed the nature of fights from "Something you do for fun" to "Something that happens when you have no other choices, so you better damn well cheat". The palpable risk is, in fact, a very compelling sauce. But it definitely comes at a price. Random death is weak narrative, but it can be a powerful _experience_.

    The problem, I think, is that no one's really come up with a way to makes stakes as clear and implicit as death. If they're clear, it often seems artificial (as in the case of games with explicit stake setting) and if they're implicit, they're often muddled, uncertain or lacking in real investment. PDQ has a little bit of it with punching you in the girlfriend, but it's still a bit too fuzzy.

    No easy fix, I admit, but a fascinating problem.

    -Rob D.

  3. The likelihood of PC death ties into the game or genre. In a heroic game like 7th Sea, you've got layers and layers of safety belts. But in a game like Cthulhu, I think people expect an ignominous death. Even in, say, Deadlands, where character creation is clunky.

    In general, I tend to subscribe to the idea that Death is Boring. Captured, turned, tortured, watching innocent NPCs die because of them is just as affecting. IT also mirrors cinematic style a bit more - the hero can’t die, but soon enough there's a likeable secondary character that comes alone that can be killed to show how Things Just Got Real.

    Having said that, I waive that rule when we get closer to the end of the campaign.

  4. One random note: Abrupt lethality has come up for me much more often in terms of players dealing with opponents, often in the form of unexpectedly easy wins or accidentally eviscerating a guy you just wanted to rough up. These things have usually lead to play-enhancing consequences.

  5. On Fighting: This reminds me of a comment I once read on the old Dr Strange comics, which stuck with me because it was so very true. They stated that whilst the comic did follow the standard Marvel formula of the time, of having a fight in each issue, the creators of the comic often made this fight effectively a metaphysical affair. This meant that the fight almost always had some direct consequences for the character, rather than simply imprisoning yet another villain.

    And this was why the early Dr Strange was so different from the rest of the Marvel canon, and to my mind, much more powerful.

  6. On Death: Almost all of the games that I run where death is a strong possibility are sandbox campaign games where the player characters are distinguished by their actions, rather than by the fact that they are the player characters. This removes the idea of narrative immunity from play, because there will always be another group of player characters able to pick up the various plots and stories scattered throughout the campaign. It also means that the players know death can be a real possibility, so they have to be careful in what they do. They also realise that it is perfectly acceptable to run away and try again another day, because I'm not forced to railroad them to the next fight/encounter.

    The problem is often the fact that there is little a player has to risk, other than their character. Risks to the character, especially when they are part of a party (and therefore you know that the actual risk is minimal), don't invoke the same visceral player response.

    Role-playing games are not novels or films. There must always be the possibility of the planned narrative of the GM being subverted by the players or the roll of the dice (although the dice should only be invoked where necessary).

    Where is the glory in Pendragon or Bushido without the risk of death? Even if it is not a glorious death. A pile of heroes around the dragon's den just makes the story of the hero that succeeds all the more glorious.

    [Death and narrative immunity are genre/game specific things. This discussion assumes those games/genres where fights with lethal weaponry are common in genre.]


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