Nov 022011

I like the hobby of RP gaming, partly because I get to hang out with friends, but mostly because I get to experience what it’s like to be in an action movie, fighting ‘real’ bad guys (and sometimes good guys). However…

In the beginning, my combat turn went something like this:

  1. I attack the orc.
  2. I rolled a 19. Does that hit?
  3. I rolled 12 damage.

Later, I moved on to games that added cool combat options and maneuvers – games that painted a more defined visual of what happens in the combat round. They added a tactical element to the game that was exciting and rewarding. But, I was looking for something a bit different, something that really helped tell the story in the combat round.

I love action movies, especially those movies with dynamic combat sequences (watch Equilibrium, Ultraviolet, Bloodsport, or Gladiator). I want my combat rounds to look like that. Well, after going through several different types of games, I’ve found that the game or system is not really going to deliver that (not to my satisfaction, anyway). So, why not create that experience on our own?

Two examples…

I was running a game in which orcs were fighting the PCs in cramped conditions. Everyone was adjacent to two or three others, and the fight was pretty hectic. One orc in particular tried to hit a PC three times, and failed each of those times. On his fourth attack, I opened up by saying, “The orc is freaking pissed off because he hasn’t been able to hit you, and you keep jabbing him for little bits of damage. He’s clearly enraged, howls an awfully angry growl, and swings at you with his axe – which you block. He then immediately follows up with an elbow across your face, busting your nose and spraying some blood on the cleric. You reel back, and the orc plants his foot into your chest, sending you back into the wall, to which you fall to one knee and drop your sword. As you look up, you see the blood-angry orc towering over you, overhanding his battle-axe downward toward your head with reckless force. Let’s see how well he attacks…”

That painted a fantastic picture, adding so much grit and realism to the combat. The player knew that regardless of what I said happened, nothing mechanical happened until I actually rolled to hit (and in fact, the orc missed for a fourth time). The player totally got into it at that point, getting angry over his busted nose and dropped sword. He said, “He missed? Ok, that’s because as his battle axe is coming down for my head, I grab his legs. He falls on his back and I end up on top of his chest. I swiftly pull out my dagger and go for the throat. I rolled a…”

Another cool visual, right? What really happened: The player simply made a normal attack using his sword, but his dynamic role-playing was so much better. Remember, nothing mechanical changes. Sure, I said that the PC dropped his sword, and the PC said he then pulled out his dagger. At no point would I allow anyone else access to his sword, unless the player wanted it that way. At any point the PC would be able to pick up his sword, even if he were a few squares away, because nothing mechanical has changed. And the orc, fallen on his back? He can get up without spending any actions, even free actions. He’s not even technically prone (unless I, as the GM, feel the player deserves this).

* * *

My Shadar-kai swordmage was able to teleport occasionally as a reaction. In combat, he liked to make charge attacks. So, whenever he did make a charge attack, I might say, “I disappear for a moment, then reappear suddenly right in front of his face. As the soldier flinches back from the surprise (giving me a +1 bonus to hit), I swing my two-handed sword up his chin with only one hand.”

Sometimes I would fluff it up by saying that I actually teleported above the target, hitting him on the way down. Of course, this is all simply a charge attack, which normally gives me a +1 bonus. The GM could veto my rendition of my PC’s attack, especially if he had something that could interrupt my charge, but that almost never happened. In the end, what matters is that we don’t skirt the system; simply follow the rules, but with your own fluff explanation. Also, I don’t do this with every action of every round of every character, but just enough to make the scene memorable, tense, and exciting.

* * *

I’ve been gaming for awhile now, and I think we (as gamers) will eventually either evolve, or simply change. Well, I’ve changed, and it’s definitely been for the better. I wanted to punch up my experience at the table, and one way I’ve done that is by transitioning into a dynamic roleplayer. I roleplay events and actions; not just my characters. And that is my secret weapon to getting that action movie feel.

Thanks for reading.

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Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  6 Responses to “My secret weapon to getting that action movie feel”

  1. It is an interesting idea, and one that some groups will love and other groups definitely won’t. Some GMs almost seem hardwired against it at times, while others can be fine for it.

    Divorcing narrative from mechanics is one of the keys to making combat feel more dynamic, and in exactly the way you say. There can be some issues with things – a player whose character is focused on his appearance might balk at the orc crushing his nose, even if there is no mechanical penalty involved, because it ruins the feel he is going for, – but in general, I feel it can be a good way to go.

  2. I see what you are going for but I am definitely in the camp that does not want my mechanics divorced (significantly) from my narrative.

    –for example: in your sample where the guy drops his sword, you say you won’t allow anyone else access to his sword, and you would let him retrieve it because mechanically he “still has it” but I’d much prefer, if someone says they dropped their sword “in-world” that I actually could then pick up that sword “in-world” or my immersion is blown worse than when someone says “I roll to attack. I got a 19.”

    And I’m sure that you already know this but whenever someone divorces narrative from mechanics it can impact the value of those mechanics. Most games have mechanics for “prone” and for “grappling” and in your example the PC and Monster are (potentially) both prone and grappling but you are “mechanically” ignoring that in favor of narrative. Which makes the narrative unreliable in contrast to the mechanics. You tell me Steve is prone and so is the orc? On my turn I expect them to be prone “mechanically” as well as narratively. Again, when the two don’t mesh, that’s my game immersion just gone.

    As Anthony says, this will work great for some groups, but as a player I know I’d be more frustrated by it than helped.

  3. It’s funny. Anthony, I hear you about the player who doesn’t like the GM arbitrarily breaking his character’s nose without a rule to back it up, Rhetorical, I hear you that many groups might not be on board with my idea of dynamic role-playing, and I want to say to both of you, “But, but but…”

    But, you’re both right. It simply wont’ jive with all gamers. I am again humbly reminded that people are different – this gaming tool is simply not for everyone. Different strokes for different folks, right?

    Hopefully this article will finds its way to those gamers that would benefit from it. It works for me!

    In the meantime, here’s another example from my last session. It speaks more to how I take my action, as opposed to how it affects other characters or NPCs…

    “Hey GM, mechanically, I’m making a melee charge attack with my hammer, but in the game I overhand chuck the great hammer across the courtyard, striking the orc. I charge after him and bash him with my elbow, rolling off the ground and picking my hammer back up.”

    Simple charge attack, but it seems more interesting to me this way. I don’t feel that the mechanics have divorced narrative too much.

  4. I like it. Reminds me of one of the sidebars from the DCA Hero’s Handbook – suggesting that attacks be handled like so:

    GM: You hit, hard enough that he’s dazed. What happens?
    Player: I punch him three times in rapid succession, following up with an uppercut to the chin that sends him reeling backward. I close in to press the advantage next round…

    And so on. It also encourages the GM to have players describe their misses the same way. Our 4E group is using this approach to combat and it’s working pretty well so far – I finally went the extra mile and just flat assumed that my vampire almost never actually SWINGS if he would miss – and even if he does, he still hits (and likely breaks) something. Like the wall. I just started describing accordingly and it’s worked wonders. Even if I hit a natural 1, I just fluff it into broken wall, dented trees, or just plain “he decided that there wasn’t an opening, and opted to wait.” (Note that this only works if your DM ISN’T using some kind of critical fumble chart.)

    I like this approach, though – I’m going to send it to my DM, see what he thinks. 🙂

  5. I’m one of those annoying players that when it comes to combat actually gets up. I’ve been known to choreograph my moves showing where hands go as I’m breaking noses and the like. I will say though that I’ve been fortunate enough to play with GMs who want to see that sort of thing.

  6. @ Jonathan – I completely dig your vampire noble. I can definitely see him in combat.

    @ Darktouch – You seem like you’d fit in well with my group!

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