Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fights in superhero RPGs

There was a discussion of hit points and alternatives in RPGs over on Facebook, and it got me thinking.

I was thinking about what comic book fights are like, but I am by no means an expert. (And—even if this is what comic book fights are like—fights in an RPG are probably more common than in comic book stories. We'll touch on some of the differences between stories and RPG sessions later.)

In comic book stories, fights feed into the whole "yes, but" and "no, and" mentality of stories. Yes, you win the fight, but the problem is bigger or different than you thought. No, you lost the fight and now you face a death trap or a crisis of confidence or the public loses faith in you. The heroes get into bigger and bigger trouble until the final confrontation, typically in the last quarter of the story. (See also the three try-fail cycles.)

The most common result depends on the opposition. There are fights with minions, fights with villain lieutenants, and fights with villain bosses.

Fights with minions: The heroes almost always win fights with minions. The fights might show that the heroes are badass or tough. From a story point of view, they're a fine example of "yes, but"—yes, you defeat the minions but you still have to track down the next clue/deal with the lieutenant or big boss. Generically, it's "Yes, you win, but the problem is bigger or otherwise than you thought."

If the character loses to the minions, the bigger trouble is usually that the heroes get captured and put into a death trap, or have to deal with the big boss. (Which I guess is a "no, and" situation.)

Basically, your RPG should have a way of dealing with minions, letting the heroes take on many minions, though too many minions or minions with the right equipment could beat them.

Fights with villain lieutenants: Lieutenants can win or lose at any point, because there's the threat of the boss villain behind them. Usually in comic book stories lieutenants win or gets away in the first half of the story.

In some ways, you have the most freedom with lieutenants. (And when the players defeated the boss too swiftly, I have sometimes invented a bigger plot or a bigger boss who controls the villain they just defeated.)

In an RPG, if the bad guy loses in the first half of the adventure, sometimes it's because the bad guy is working for someone else or because the bad guy wanted to lose for some nefarious reason.

Fights with the villain boss: In comic book stories, the villain boss usually wins for the first three quarters of the story. If the villain boss loses in the first half of the adventure, then it's because there's some bigger plot. If the villain boss wins, it seems to me that in stories, that causes a crisis of confidence (for heroes like Spider-Man) or investigation (for heroes of the Golden Age). This is a "no, and" situation again: No, you didn't beat him, and maybe you shouldn't be doing this, or you need to find the next aardvark-themed crime so you can out exactly how to stop this aard-fiend.

Now, how this applies to an RPG depends on what kind of game you like to run or play. So I'll pick two extremes.

If you figure that story is what we cherry-pick out of the events after the game is over, then a standard combat system against bad guys is fine, and story is invented after the fact. Maybe three of the bad guys in a group fall, and the rest of the evening is about dealing with the fourth bad guy and the three replacements he hires specifically to take on the heroes. Generally in an RPG there's a semblance of narrative in that the villains get tougher as the campaign goes along. (This is a side effect of the zero-to-hero thing a lot of fantasy RPGs have.)

If you are more into narrative structuring, then you want to make the "yes, but" and "no, and" systems a bit more explicit, either by making the opposition more intense (the Doom Pool, for instance) or giving the heroes Fate Points when they lose a fight, or something. Narratively, whether the characters win or lose in the first three-quarters of the story, the end result is to get them in more trouble.

*I'm using structure here as defined by Larry Brooks. It's not the only way to tell a story, though Brooks asserts it is, but most comic stories follow it.
  1. The first quarter is set-up, where Something Goes Wrong—like a mysterious crime is committed—and we establish stakes and foreshadow the rest. In a drama, this is the point where we would introduce the interior problems that will keep the heroes from resolving things too soon. In a comic book story, we don't often do that.
  2. The second quarter is response, where the characters act, but they don't really have an idea of the problem. They don't know that the bad guys have a subsonic transducer that makes the victim suggestible.
  3. Then something happens at the half-way point, and they figure out what the problem probably is...but they have the wrong solution in this attack quarter. Maybe their solution is that it's magic, because done of the bad guys has a mystic gem.
  4. Then, in the last quarter, there's a resolution—the heroes recognize the real problem (and solve that pesky internal problem in a drama).
If you're more into tactics (like I am), you want to make sure that the system has the tactical choices to make it more than "oh, it's time for a 'yes, but' fight." (Really, the players should never feel that way.) Some systems try to define "losing" very broadly, so the combat system can be used for social combat as well as physical combat. I appreciate the thought, but the few examples I've seen seem to water down the combat so much that it doesn't seem to me like combat at all—just dice rolling. (Yes, a good GM can overcome these difficulties. When you learn the system from a book, it's sometimes hard to be a good GM.) Here, instant narrative system:
First quarter of the session
Whatever the PCs do, it sets them up for bigger trouble.
  • If the heroes win a fight, they get clues to the real problem.
  • If the heroes lose a fight, the consequences are bad and social.
Second quarter of the session
The characters respond to the situation in the first quarter.
  • If they win a fight, it reveals to them that the problem is bigger or different than they thought.
  • If they lose a fight, they investigate or quit, and suffer social reprimands in either case.
Third quarter of the session
They have some idea of what the problem is, and they attack it...but usually they're not quite right.
  • If they win a fight, it's usually by the skin of their teeth, and the real nature of the problem is demonstrated to them
  • If they lose a fight, they discover that their approach isn't quite right.
Fourth quarter of the session
Armed with this new understanding, they probably resolve the situation.
  • If they win a fight, that's great, and it closes out some problem.
  • If they lose a fight, then you just bought yourself a series...but usually they pull something positive out of it.

I don't really have a point to make here; I'm just thinking out loud. Comments and disagreements welcome.