Two fights and an observation

Recently I was running a game of the RPG Over the Edge, and an interesting thing happened. Well, two things. I was struck by the contrast.

A couple of Player Characters were working for the Neutralizers, an organization that locates and, well, neutralizes Supernatural threats (it’s a game of modern-day surreal conspiracies).They were tracking down a double agent who’d been exposed and fled.

So James (played by Ben), with a couple of backup agents lay in wait for the traitor Isis in her apartment hideout, while Phillip (played by Sheldon), watched the outside from across the street with another flunky. As cover, his player had Phillip stock up on pamphlets for a wacky religion that reveres a rock singer, and stood on the corner air-guitaring and proselytizing.

So, Fight Number One: A couple of Satanist gang-bangers whose turf it is approach Phil and hassle him. Phil, unruffled, waves flyers in their face and asks if they’ve “heard the good tunes.” The Satanists’ rebuttal is something along the lines of “hail Satan!” and is delivered with brass knuckles. The fight is on!

And on it went, round after round. Sheldon’s designed Phillip with special traits for defensive reflexes and the ability to take a punch. Which means the big bad Satanists can hardly lay a finger on ‘im, but neither can he lay a solid hit on them. His Neutralizer henchman, played by me, backs him up, the weaker gangbanger flees, and the henchman after many rounds of deadlocked sparring, finally gets in a good shot with his knife that drops the Satanist.

The incident started out enjoyable enough. But it drug on and on and on as I rolled die after die, everyone hoping each roll would give a conclusive and satisfying result so we could all go home and get some sleep.

Now, Fight Number Two: next week, we reconvene and begin the action with James and his agents, waiting indoors. Sure enough, Isis shows up, but pegs Phil and his pal as Neutralizers and sneaks past them. Knowing she’s been expected, she feints–pulling open the apartment door but then doubling around and crashing through the window! Fight on!

Everyone leaps into action! James shoots a deadly wrist crossbow at her, but! she twists catlike out of the way and fells him with a heat-beam. Phil and his pal hear the clash from outside and come running. One agent goes to toe with her while the other rushes to get James on his feet with an adrenalin shot. James and his agents frantically grab or shoot at Isis, but! she ducks and weaves as she makes a desperate lunge for her secret escape hatch. She’s almost out and in the clear-the hatch is wired with explosives for any who follow–but! she turns to try to cow her attackers with her freaky power: an inhumanly compelling voice. But! the Neutralizers are ready for that: James has arranged to pump white noise through their earpieces to cancel it out. Isis is shocked at the power’s failure, and James drops her with a poison crossbow bolt. Isis is near-dead and captured just as Phil and his cohort burst frantically in the door.

So what was the difference between these two scenes? They both used the same rules, the same group of players, and similar sorts of action. The difference was relentless forward motion.

In the first case, the action was static. No characters had any particular purpose beyond “stand here and trade blows until the other guy falls down.” There was nothing particularly at stake for the participants (though I could have created a personal stake by say, having the fight jeopardize the mission. But stupid me, I didn’t.) It was just, y’know, a fight, and we all just waited for it to end so we continue with the action that really mattered.

In the second battle, everything was moving all the time! With every action in that cramped apartment, the situation changed dramatically. The characters had purpose: Escape vs. Capture, Kill vs. Survival, and on each turn someone was acting toward that purpose in response to the ever-changing needs of the moment. It was exciting!

Now, there were some specific contributing factors, such as Phillip’s defensive abilities which were great for avoiding injury but lousy for resolving the situation. Or the devastating nature of close-quarters weapons fire under the rules, which made the second fight much more decisive. But the bottom line was that forward motion. Failure at any given point didn’t mean “ho-hum, try again,” it meant “Oh shit! Now she’s getting away/turning her nasty powers on us/shooting me in the chest!”

Forward motion, it strikes me, is the first and foundational ingredient of Story By the Throat. All else follows and is made possible by this.




12 Responses to “Two fights and an observation”

  1. August 30, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    In the first fight, you had die rolls (i.e. “He swings, and misses, and therefore nothing changes”) that could lead to boring outcomes.

    Die rolls should never lead to boring outcomes.

  2. 2 storybythethroat
    August 30, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Yes, exactly!

    Note how in the second example, everyone wants something that hangs on a razor’s edge. It can’t drag on, because a missed shot means (f’rinstance) Isis reaches her goal. It would seem that in a game where the die rolls do not by default resolve only non-boring things, it’s crucial to attach a dynamic intent to each resolution roll.

  3. 3 Niv-Mizzet
    August 31, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I think it would be a mistake to say that every encounter needs to have high stakes, but surely whenever there’s a physical conflict there aught to be SOMETHING at stake. If you consider real-life, for the most part people will avoid a physical confrontation at just about any cost (as they point out rather hilariously in Fight Club).

    Perhaps in the above example, as you say, taking too long fighting the Satanists could have resulted in blowing the team’s cover, or making the outside team unable to assist in the capture. Or maybe some more Satanists might’ve show up to help their buddies. Although making a boring fight that no one’s interested in last even longer is probably a mistake. That makes one wonder what the point was in the first place. Maybe some other kind of scenario would have been even better. Perhaps another kind of distraction that wouldn’t have resulted in combat at all could have been less time-consuming, but just as, if not more interesting.

  4. 4 storybythethroat
    August 31, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Yeah, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. It doesn’t need to be “the fate of the world hangs in the balance” type stuff, just. . .something that’s a going concern for the participants, and which is fundamentally unstable–they can’t just twiddle their thumbs and have their interests remain safe.

    Now sure, a simple brawl in “unstable” in the sense that if you just stand there you’ll get hurt or killed. But since there was nothing at stake outside the win/lose alive/dead states, it becomes a mere annoyance, a hurdle to pass.

    What happened was, I got lazy: I’m used to throwing the Satanists in as punching bags to liven up a game, and faced with this character evangelizing in Satanist territory the best I could think of was, “these gang members come by to beat him up for evangelizing.” Yaaaawn. I should’ve either cut the brawl or made it affect what’s really at stake.

  5. September 1, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Generally, I’m in favor of murdering the status quo dead, dead, dead at most every moment of a game.

    Your status quo: You’re outside, watching the interior, getting ready to participate in a capture.

    Boom! Satanists! The status quo is DEAD! You’re not undercover any more. The target is spooked and on the move: You’re fighting to have a chance to get in on the capture at ALL. Every round you fight, the target is on the move, the guys inside are scrambling to make things work, and you’re still tussling with some damned street-thugs.

    I like that kind of thing much better than a fight to return to the status quo. Gotta be careful that you don’t railroad your players to a level they find uncomfortable, though.

  6. 6 storybythethroat
    September 1, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Yeah, I think the key to avoiding the railroad here is to have a healthy give-and-take where everything is a reaction to each others’ input. Like, I didn’t have a Satanist attack in mind from the start; Sheldon’s chosen cover was simply a natural provocation to the gang. The hangup was just a lack of imagination and complete failure to integrate the new input into the total situation.

  7. 7 Susano-wo
    September 1, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Yeah, I think a lot of the situation (though I was absent that session) has to do with the whittling nature of even On the Edge’s fast paced-y system, as well ac the Glorios Lords as Orcs problem [of course, note that the fast combat was with the vicious OtE ranged rules]. (and I should get a bonus die for suggesting the idea that one of them should ask for a pamphlet :D) Of course the fast paced-yness of the system itself is a problem. Whether for ‘realistic’ or cinematic gameplay there are too many grind situations of -1hp, -3hp. then the realism/cinematic aspect takes a hit from the HP grinding of the near misses. Aside from working around the rules into situational suspense, etc. About all you can do it fiddle with HP/Damage ratios. Though I did just have inspiration: Some sort of escalation factor. It can be story-based, feel-based(as in what feel you are going for), or even just interest based. After X rounds, as determined either on the spot(you know, this is dragging, lets start escalating), or before hand (ok, this is going to last for while, so for pacing purposes, lets start escalating after 2/4 etc rounds *or* ok, this is climactic fight, so why don’t we start escalating right away), and it would increase success factors. So, lets say, you’re racing away from an opponent, and its been determined that three consecutive marginal sucesses (however you figure that) will net you a win–catch or escape. You start escalating on turn 4. so on turn 4 a marginal basically counts as two, and by turn 5 *someone* will win. As for combat, you can begin increasing damage, either by upping the multiplier, or increasing the margin.

    As far as murdering the status quo, I would definitely tone that stance down :P Its great when things start to get bungled and the situation becomes frantic, but it doesn’t need to happen every time. A lot of tension can be maintained and fun had while the operation goes off like clockwork (which also lets your badasses feel like, well badasses, instead of lvl 5s in an ‘epic’ world :P–um, “throat” knows what I am talking about)

  8. 8 storybythethroat
    September 1, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    One of my music teachers liked to say (well he still does, he ain’t dead) “Sing or play LOUD, the conductor can always wave at you to back off.” I think it’s a matter of what side the group is erring on; if everything was balls-to-the-wall OMG POWER LEVEL 9000 chaos! then it might be time to recalibrate in the direction of “OK, could we have, like, just one job that goes smoothly, for a change?” But since what we DO have is a tedious pace with humdrum action–the choir’s singing timidly and the tempo’s dragging–I’d say “OK, how should I kill this status quo DEAD?” should be the first question on my mental list each week.

    The periphery issues like “let badasses be badasses” are important in their own right, but I think they can all be tuned to taste once the dynamics of play are stretched taut and quivering (heh). It is upon that bowstring that characters prove their mettle. (And mix their metaphors, apparently.)

  9. 9 Grey
    September 2, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Hey Tharr, author. Sheldon here.

    First of all, sorry for the lack of participation. I’m not much of a blogger attendee. I can barely write mine own, and I find I don’t have much interest in reading others.

    But how can I turn down participating in a conversation about a fight I participated in? I can’t! That’s how.

    I have to agree that the satanist fight didnt have much going for it, and I also agree to the reasons. There wasn’t a point to it beyond being an obstacle, except it wasn’t used as an obstacle. My participation in the fight didn’t seem to hinder the mission at hand at all, except that if I DIED I wouldn’t be there to continue.

    I’d add more, but I think you have it pretty well figured out already : )

  10. 10 storybythethroat
    September 2, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Hey, Shel, thanks for comin’. Yeah, sounds like we’re on the same page; too bad we managed to say it all ‘fore you showed up. But them’s the breaks! You’re ahead of the game; Ben hasn’t even read my messages telling him about the blog yet. :P

    But feel free to poke around, now that you’re here; nothing’s really too old to be resurrected yet. While I’ll continue to do these ‘reports from the field” as they happen and feel relevant, there’s a whole larger conversation surrounding ’em.

    My recommendation: head over to the front page & hit Tony’s ¡Muy Macho! It’s muy bueno.

  11. 11 Snokupps
    September 29, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Hello. Ben here. I agree that the satanist fight should have changed the overall situation a bit more, especially because of how long it took and how much potential attention it could have brought to the people posted outside. It was torture watching it go down like that. If it was me I would have removed the first guys throat and asked the second guy if he “wanted a little.” but thats just how I roll. Even looking back on it now, though, I couldnt tell you how it “should” have gone down, but I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to choices and consequences. play the hand you’re given, let the chips fall where they may, etc.

  12. 12 storybythethroat
    October 5, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for comin’ ’round, Ben. I think you’re on the right track in avoiding a stance on how something “should” have happened. I think all too often we roleplayers get all hung up (I certainly do!) on what we want to see happen, for a character, for a situation, for whatever, and get straight-jacketed into pushing for that exact thing, or in the case of long-term planning, waiting. for everything to line up so the thing can take place. And thus you end up going through the motions, and it’s dull as dirt. Or frustrating if things won’t line up right.

    I’d rather have everything zero in on the present moment, and see what happens RIGHT NOW, with these characters in THIS mess they’re in. I want to find out who this character is and what he does NOW, not what he’ll inevitably do at the end of his ‘arc,” or what he might do someday, if the stars are right, if we get around to it. Which means playing characters as essentially changeable, where their choices matter. Running simple fights like this one in a dynamic way is a first step toward that.

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