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Friday, 21 May 2021

Cut and thrust

Assuming your roleplaying campaign involves combat, how long should fights go on? In Sagas of the Icelanders, a fight is usually just one dice roll, which is just how quickly it would be resolved in the sagas:
"A great sheet of ice had been thrown up by the flood on the other side of the river as smooth and slippery as glass, and there Thrain and his men stood in the midst of the sheet. Skarphedinn took a spring into the air, and leapt over the stream between the ice banks, and did not check his course, but rushed onwards with a slide. The sheet of ice was very slippery, and so he went as fast as a bird flies. Thrain was just about to put his helm on his head. Skarphedinn bore down on him and hewed at Thrain with his axe Rimmugýgur, the 'battle-witch', and smote him on the head, and clove him down to the teeth, so that his jaw-teeth fell out on the ice. This feat was done with such a quick sleight that no one could get a blow at him; he glided away from them at once at full speed. Tjorvi, indeed, threw his shield before him on the ice, but he leapt over it, and still kept his feet, and slid quite to the end of the sheet of ice."
Contrast that with games of Runequest (I'm talking about v2 here; more recent editions may have fixed it) where battles between two reasonably skilled fighters became a case of slash, parry, slash, parry, and rinse and repeat until eventually somebody fumbled. And in GURPS a combat is like a slow game of county cricket. (Imagine replicating Skarpedinn's feat at the frozen river using GURPS 4e -- we'd still be here next Christmas.)

How long should fights go on? As long as suits the setting and the players. Sagas of the Icelanders is true to the literary reality of the original stories. For all I know, the presumably saga-length combats in RQ Vikings are nearer to how they played out in reality. If you're playing a game that's trying to recreate the feel of a kung fu movie, you'd feel cheated if every fight was over in a single strike. And even when it is, the manoeuvring beforehand tells a story in its own right:

A combat should be a little story, with a beginning, middle and end. But it's only worth playing out the beats of those mini-stories if they're going to be interestingly different each time. We'll tolerate combat mechanics that take longer to resolve if they generate dramatic outcomes. I've found Tirikelu hits the sweet spot, being both quick and cinematic, but after all it would be pretty surprising if I wasn't satisfied by a system I devised. You'll have to judge it for yourself.

Tekumel is a good place to look for the emergent story possibilities of combat. One-on-one fights are often formal duels held under the terms of the Manifesto of Nobel Deliverance. The beginning of the story is the quarrel or insult that instigates the duel. The middle is the negotiation between the seconds as to the form of the duel. And, as in any good story, the decisions made at that stage almost always set up the denouement which is the fight itself.

Duels make for interesting fights because the stakes are clear (honour, sometimes life too) and there are all kinds of ways it can turn out. Somebody might win by resorting to inelegant or even dirty tactics (use of Warrior skill rather than just Weapon skill, in Tirikelu). In pistol duels, one of the combatants might choose to fire in the air, or otherwise pull something unexpected; look at the duels in Scaramouche or The Duellists for inspiration.

If combat is frequent in your games and simply functions as an obstacle you throw in front of the players to prevent them from smoothly achieving their goals -- hordes of orcs in a dungeon, say -- then a single roll to decide the fight is probably enough. If the characters are samurai, Spartans, musketeers, or kuruthūniyal, then it's quite likely that the minutiae of each battle comprise a significant part of their story. Gun battles in a noir setting will be decisively shorter than in special ops adventure. The rules should put the focus on whatever matters in the campaign, and generate just enough blow-by-blow detail to fuel the kind of stories you want to emerge.

1 comment:

  1. Stalwart reader John Jones points out that sometimes the most satisfying fights are minimalist, like this one between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul. It's really a great character interaction, in which the combat is just incidental: