Friday, June 24, 2016

Creating a soundtrack for your RPG

Music is powerful. 

It's been a part of my life in many ways since I was young. I spent the better part of six years performing it, promoting it, eating1, breathing and sleeping it. During my first go-round in college - before taking those aforementioned six years - I was a theatre student, focused on sound design. I studied the impact that music can have on a dramatic scene, the way it could elevate a mood, increase tension, or accentuate tone. Especially in "black box" theatre, an awful lot is left up to the audience's imagination, and music is a great way to excite and enhance that.

I don't know if I was ever good as a sound designer. There was a lot of praise, and I worked on some award-nominated stuff, but it's not like I set the world on fire as a college student.

But!

I definitely tried to learn as much as I could. Live sound, studying pro audio at the Recording Workshop, and dozens of little projects here and there. I'd like to think that I picked some things up along the way.

Is it any wonder that as I became more and more involved with RPGs, that I'd try to apply what I'd learned?

Lovely album all the way 'round, and full of great "intro themes."

So, what are we doing here?

Soundtracking your RPG sessions can be a great way to enhance the experience for everyone. Not unlike live theatre or written fiction, there's a lot that your imagination needs to fill in to complete the scene. Visuals, emotions, physical posture - so much of what's going on in a scene can be intuited through a soundtrack.

It can also be a great big distraction if handled indelicately.

We're not going to delve too deeply into communication theory2, but there's some basic concepts that are important:

The Tone, or how the mood of music will inform the mood of the scene
The Association of a particular sound cue with some story element
The Practical Realities of adding additional sounds to a sound-based medium

These aren't scientific terms, just some things we should keep in mind.

Tone

This is what most people think of when we talk about soundtracks - the excellent use of musical score in Game of Thrones, or the Mass Effect games is a great example of this - emotional content underscored by appropriate music. Sad scenes can be punctuated by appropriately melancholic or sorrowful melodies, and a pulse-pounding action scene certainly benefits from a complimentary score.

Association

This requires some forethought, but linked elements can provide consistency. Instruments, composers, and specific songs can all form associations that you can use later. If a certain song plays when an antagonist is introduced, it can not only highlight elements of their character you want to emphasize, but can help accentuate those traits in later scenes.

Needless to say, you'll want to avoid anything that your table already has a strong association with. If everybody's played Mass Effect, don't use its most memorable songs in your soundtrack; that'll conjure up memories of the other property3 distracting from your game.

I tend to emphasize associations for situations rather than characters, as too much micro-managing while GMing leads to a disjointed experience. Speaking of!

Practical Realities

RPGs are a primarily auditory medium - information is conferred via the spoken word more than anything else. Music can be a powerful tool to fill in conceptual gaps, but it's also more noise; you want it to enhance your game, not distract your table. Some things to keep in mind:

First, volume levels. Ever step into a bar, and you can't hear your friends over the chatter and music? That's partially due to what we call a Sound Floor - basically, the ambient noise level you have to talk over in order to be heard. Your music should be loud enough to be audible, and to provide enjoyment in its own right, but not so loud that you need to talk over it. It's not a bad guideline to set it to a level that feels about right, then walk it back a little. You can always turn it up later.

Secondly, frequency. Not as in how often something happens, but rather the frequency it vibrates at. Human speech tends to hang out in the 150hz-500hz range, so you'll want to cut that by a couple decibels for gaming purposes. The idea is to carve out some sonic real estate for people's voices, give them room so they're not fighting with the score.

In other words, don't EQ your soundtrack to sound great by itself; it's a supporting actor, there to make the stars look good.
More like HANDSOME Zimmer, amirite?
(Please don't get a restraining order, I just like your work.)

Thirdly, you don't want anything that's too busy. Epic Trailer Music like Audiomachine or Two Steps From Hell can be lovely, but there's usually so much going on that it can get distracting, and detract from the game. Likewise - and I know this might sound strange and heretical - but that film soundtrack you love so much, the one that would be perfect for your RPG?

Don't use it. Ever.

Look, I love Hans Zimmer as much as the next guy, possibly even more. But his music is designed for films, which are timed down to the frame. Long quiet stretches are interspersed with sudden, dramatic crescendos. In the film, they tie in perfectly to the action. 

In an RPG, they come out of nowhere - they draw attention away from the story, and put it on the weirdly sudden burst of French horns and violas. Don't do it.

Finally, you want to avoid anything with lyrics in a language anyone speaks, and probably altogether (remember that bit about making space for the human voice? Competing human voices don't help.) It can work great in film, anime, even some video games - but ours is an auditory medium, and it's just too much information in the same channel.

Where do I get it from?


It bears repeating: not all music is going to work for these purposes. In fact, music that you like - because it's interesting - may not work so well. Because it's interesting

Stay away from anything designed for a symphonic orchestra - while this is some of the most beautiful music imaginable, it runs directly counter to our purposes. And while film scores tend to be pretty bad, video game soundtracks can be downright amazing for our purposes. They're designed to be more dynamic. Events don't happen at a set pace in games; your score needs to support myriad options in order to be successful. This, by the way, is exactly what we want. Beyond that, the New Age genre has some delightful contributions, as do many electronic "chillout" artists. 
Recommendations could - and soon will! - take up an entire post by themselves. But the key to remember is that you want something that's less dynamic than most music. Is there something you like, but find boring? Now's the time to bust it out.

Putting it All Together


So now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about actually putting together a soundtrack for your game. What follows is how I do it - it's not the One True Way, but it is A Way I Guess, which capitalises just as nicely.

When I'm getting ready to start a new campaign, I put together a couple playlists. I use Google Play, but anything that lets you assemble playlists is fine. I generally want a couple playlists ready to go:

  • A "Chill" playlist. This is my default, it sets the tone, but mostly provides ambiance
  • An "Action" playlist. Fight scenes, parkour chases, starship battles. Something more uptempo that delineates these scenes from normal play
  • A "Suspense" or "Investigation" playlist. Nothing too intense, but more downtempo, minor key stuff. 
  • An "Emotional" playlist, that's appropriate for sad, tragic, melancholic scenes.
And those are my big four. I'll usually have more - often lots more - but that should get me through most games I run. If you're less intent on dancing on your players' heartstringsthen you could probably get away without the last one. Typically, I'll want the "Chill" playlist to be pretty long - something that covers the length of the game session, if I can help it. That way, if I want to just set it and forget it, I can do so without worrying that it'll cut out at an inopportune moment.

I personally like to stream music from a tablet to a bluetooth receiver - this way I've got my finger on the volume if I need it, and I can switch playlists with ease. When it comes time to switch, I'll often cue up the playlist I want to play next, so there's no jarring transitions.

Of course, sometimes I want jarring transitions. "Boss Fight Music" is a time-honored tradition, and one that I make extensive use of.

I also tend to make "pre-show" playlists. These are an artifact from my theatre days, where you want some music to play while people are making their way in. I've found that this is a good place for more involved compositions that I really like, but are probably too busy or dynamic to use during play.

I tend to think of this as "opening credits" music; it sets the tone while people are making their way in, getting snacks, catching up. I also like to open each game with the same piece of music, as I've found that to be wonderful for setting the tone of the game, as well as transitioning out of "social time" into "game time."

In Conclusion

Music is awesome. It's added so, so, so much to my games. I sincerely hope this can help you gain some of the same benefits that I have.

Rock on! Just, y'know, quietly and in the background :P

~Killstring


* * *

1 - Good thing too, as it didn't pay me enough to eat much else ;)

2 - Though if you are interested, this plays off concept like the Elaboration Likelihood Model's concept of Peripheral Routes, Framing Theory, Priming Theory, and every advertising technique in history. If you're interested in the topic, Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition (affiliate link) is a super accessible resource. 

If I ever teach university again, I want to do a persuasion class called "Defense Against the Dark Arts." Influence will be required reading.

3 - When do you break this rule? When that's what you want! I ran a Mass Effect game to great success - my players hadn't played the series, but I had. It made a difference for me, and that influenced my descriptions. 

Incedentally, they're playing the video games now, and getting associations from our tabletop! 

4 - Hi players! How are your hopes and dreams this fine day? :D

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Table For One, Party of Twelve: Large, Small, and Single-Player RPGs

When we think about tabletop roleplaying games, we often conjure up images of a group of friends sitting around a table. Or kicking it on couches, if you're like me.

I have not gamed on Air Force One, with the President GMing. Otherwise, my games often look like this.
Either way, RPGs are an inherently social activity. So much of the discussion surrounding them touches on group communication dynamics, social contracts, and spotlight management1,which is as it should be; if your group dynamics are out of whack, your game will follow. But differently-sized groups will have different dynamics, and that topic is a little underexplored. If they talk about it at all, most RPGs tend to assume 3-4 players and one GM, defined as the "sweet spot," and leave it at that.

In reality, things can work out differently. Maybe you've got a friend who wants to play, is there room in the game? Maybe you have a lot of friends who want to play - is that still going to be ok?  What if you only have a couple folks who can make it. What if you've only got one? Is that ok? What's that going to do to the RPG dynamic?

Lots of unanswered questions.

The way I see it2, groups make games. Change the group, change the game. That's not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing, but it is a real thing and it can have a real effect. Some game concepts are less suited to one group size, and some play styles are advantaged differently. So let's take a look!

The Aforementioned "Sweet Spot"

So let's start out talking about the standard assumption. The roots of our hobby go back to the Roguelike Dungeon Crawls of early D&D3, and a lot of the baseline starts there. And in this case, we can see a pretty clear link: a "standard" D&D party consists of a Fighter, a Rogue, a Wizard and a Cleric. If you don't have one of those roles covered (beefcake, traps, arcane and divine magic, respectively,) you're going to have a rough time in that kind of game. 

And here we have the default assumption of four players with a GM. It can go up or down a little, but this is our baseline, a group of 4-6 people. Most RPGs are built with this in mind, and for good reason; there's a lot to advantage a group this size. 

Pros:

  • Manageable group size - people are unlikely to get lost, or feel overwhelmed
  • Enough people to foster inter-party discussion
  • Spotlight rotation only needs to balance between 3-5 players; there's more pie to go around

Cons:

  • Not quite enough people for real-time side conversations to break out
  • Sometimes you bring in people that are a poor fit to hit this threshold
  • Sometimes you exclude people who are a good fit to hit this threshold
In general, this is our baseline, the standard everything else gets compared to. It's used a lot, and despite its origins, it's quite versatile. 

Large Games

But what if you've got friends who want to game with you? What if you also want to game with them? Many games find themselves in this category quite by accident - my inaugural game for my university's RPG group wound up with a hefty ten players4 - because, you know, we get excited. That can be a good thing!

But I cannot recommend GMing for that many players unless you've got a specific game plan.

It can be a bit daunting.

For these purposes, I'm considering a "Large Game" to be anything with six or more players, as by that point, the mid-group dynamics just aren't there anymore.

Pros:

  • Inclusivity - you don't have to tell your homies there's no room at the tavern
  • Characters can probably cover just about any circumstance thrown at them
  • Enough players to run breakout scenes when the spotlight's elsewhere

Cons:

  • Spotlight management becomes increasingly difficult, players can feel marginalized
  • Telling a story with too many protagonists is a daunting task; can feel disjointed
  • Boredom and distraction is a constant risk.
If you find yourself with ten players, I heartily recommend looking into splitting into two smaller games. Having said that, large games can absolutely work - and they can even be stronger for their size - but there are some changes you'll want to look at.

Firstly is time. If you have three players, and you are perfect at mathematical spotlight balancing, then each of them gets 33% of the spotlight. Cool. Six players gets you 17%, seven means 14% and so on. And this can be ok if your group is good at interacting with scenes as a group, and keeping everybody involved - but it's work for everybody to do so. The players have a lot of responsibility to make that work.

Combat, or other structured activities, can become a real drag. Let's say that in the system you're using, combat turns take about three minutes. With a seven-person party, this can mean it take 20 minutes or more before your turn comes back around, and that's not accounting for anything the GM's doing. My personal guideline is that I want a lighter weight of system when running a larger game.

Interest just cannot survive that much down time. And in my experience, someone else's turn in a higher weight system usually feels like down time to players.

Additionally, if your gaming space can provide enough physical room for separate conversations to occur, this can turn a weakness into a strength. My favorite trick is to give information - usually in handouts, or at character creation - to different players, giving their characters different pieces of a puzzle they all want to see. They break off, put their pieces together, and often come up with theories about what it all means, where things are going, etc.

As a GM, I pay close attention to this stuff. That can be solid gold content.

Now, if you're thinking this sounds awfully close to a LARP, you'd be entirely correct. There simply isn't enough GM to go around with larger groups, and without the players' assistance, interest has a tendency to wane.

"One Car Games"

Named by one of my favorite GMs, who defines this as the entire game being able to fit in a car to go pick up dinner. Given that she drove a small 2-door at the time, this is a hard cap. Two or three players, one GM, and a tight focus. 

Pros:

  • A tight, concise experience. There's plenty of spotlight to go around
  • An unfolding narrative that can focus on a few leads without stretching too thing
  • Much easier to maintain focus

Cons:

  • Exclusivity - you may find yourself turning people away
  • Increasingly vulnerable to absentee players
  • Shy players might feel like they're not holding up their end of the bargain
Especially for groups that like a more intense storytelling experience, this can be even sweeter than the so-called sweet spot. If exploring crunchier rules is desired, the reduced time between turns can make that much more feasible. There's more time for in-depth character exploration, without the nagging sensation that you're hogging the spotlight too much, and being unfair to your fellow players.

It's got a lot to recommend it!

It also means that you might have to make some tough choices, and hurt feelings can absolutely be a casualty of this process. In games like D&D or Shadowrun, you might not have enough players to cover all your bases - this can lead to prominent NPCs coming along for the ride, which is frankly not every GM's strength. 

The reduced number of players has many effects - not the least of which being an increased workload for the GM - but it becomes even more pronounced in our next category.

Single-Player Games

So, I've probably logged more hours GMing this type of game than any other; not a small number over the years. They can be incredibly rewarding, highly demanding, and allow for massive amounts of detail, exactly where the player wants it.
You post-apocalyptic snowflake, you.

Pros:

  • No spotlight to split
  • You can tailor system, plot, genre, etc. uncompromisingly
  • Facilitates in-depth exploration

Cons:

  • Exhausting to run - the GM rarely gets to catch their breath
  • Highly exclusive
  • Limits available perspective
This allows a method actor to really, really dig into their character. A tactically-focused player might want to control several characters in combat, alleviating many of the issues of large battles and complicated rules. Someone who's really into political intrigue can just buckle down and chase it, without worrying that they're ruining the game for anyone else.

And of course, you get to be the hero. There's a reason why so much fiction has a sole protagonist; it's much easier to tell a story through one character's eyes.

Single player games have produced some of the most intense. memorable experiences in my gaming career. They also once stressed me out to the point where I was having serious anxiety issues. Like I said above, they can be intellectually and emotionally draining to prepare and run.

They're clearly not for everyone. But they can be incredibly vivid experiences.

In Conclusion: Talk About It

Group size has some noticeable effects on roleplaying games. The strengths and weaknesses above are by no means rules - you can have amazing games of all types throughout the spectrum; I certainly have - but it's worth thinking about the impact this'll have on your game. 

Talk about it as a group, and figure out what you're going to prioritize. If you want everybody to be able to play, go with something that plays to the strengths of a big group. If you've got a specific thing you want to do, maybe consider doing a smaller game with a subset of the group; especially if some folks are excited, and other's aren't.  And if you've got the time and opportunity, a single-player game offers a unique and distinct perspective that's worth experiencing.

Communication about what you want to do - before you get started - can go a long way towards a happy, healthy gaming environment. 

Which, you know, that's something I want at least. 

Cheers!
~Killstring

***

1 - For those unfamiliar, Spotlight is a term often used to describe where the focus is in an RPG. Think of it like the spotlight on a stage, or the camera's focus on screen - it's a way to talk about where the focus of the story is, and where it's been. Spotlight Management refers to the juggling act that is making sure that gets spread around all the players, so nobody's left out. 

It's hard! But it's a big part of the job (for both players and GMs.)

2 - There's a lot of great scholarly work done on group communication dynamics; most of it looks at business applications, but a lot of the observations are applicable any time you have a group of people coming together for a structured activity - like RPGs.  

If you're interested, there's some great work that's been done on the topic, though it can be a bit of a dry read. But if you're up for it, check out Symbolic Convergence Theory (its focus on "Shared Fantasy" is pretty applicable to gaming groups) and Structuration Theory if you want to think about how structure determines group behavior.

I love Structuration Theory. And I had a hell of a time wrapping my head around it in graduate school, so no worries if you want to pass.

3 - To be certain, this isn't the only thing that people have done with D&D, even back then. But it was what the early game was designed to do - later editions have done their own thing in different ways, and that's cool. But the roots are what we'd call a roguelike today, and that shows in many ways. :)

4 - And it worked out ok! I wouldn't recommend it, but we had a lot of shy first-timers, and everybody was supportive of the group dynamic. It eventually whittled itself down to a much more sane 6-player party. Still large! But much more manageable.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Killstring's Fight Scene Checklist!


This is a continuation of an idea first put forth here. For access to a printable version of the checklist in Google Docs, go Here. To see a completed version, based on an actual game, go here!

Killstring's Fight Scene Checklist

Hi everybody! I'd planned on writing a post to day about life as a freelancer, and how to be successful in this field. One of the major themes is keeping your promises, and delivering by deadlines. 

As it turns out, I promised to hit a couple quick deadlines yesterday, so today's post should be pretty brief. Ah, stop cheering, I can hear you y'know1.

Anyway, here's the worksheet to go with the last post. This can be incredibly useful if you have an idea in your head, and not much time to prep. Additionally, if you're using a more narative game, many of your answers can be come game mechanics without much work.

Heck, if you're playing Fate, you can treat every answer you jot down as an aspect! Otherwise, brisk notes will do - if it seems like there's not a lot of room to scribble, that's by design - keep it nice and concise.

Anyway, I hope this proves useful - it sure has for me.


From AMC's excellent Into The Badlands. Fight!

A Checklist for you!


High Concept

What is this scene’s Elevator Pitch?


What is this fight about?


Environment

Where is the fight taking place?


How can the players interact with the environment? The antagonists?


Participants

Who’s participating in this fight?


Is there anyone who isn’t, but happens to be there anyway?


Goals

What are the players trying to accomplish?


What are the antagonists trying to accomplish?


Stakes

What do the players stand to lose?


What do the antagonists stand to lose?


Challenge

How difficult is this fight supposed to be?


What’s going to make it that way?


Feel

What emotion(s) should the fight elicit?


What kind of pace should it have?


Style

What are some key sensory elements?


What tone should it have?






And that's it!

May all your action scenes be delightful
~Killstring

* * *
1 - This moment brought to you by the NSA.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Preparing for a Fight Scene


We've talked a fair bit about Fight Scenes in RPGs and fiction over the past couple posts, most recently last time, when we talked about what we can all learn from Pro Wrestling about fight scenes. Following up on that, I put together a checklist for myself when creating a meaningful action sequence. We'll focus again on RPGs here, but I use this in fiction too.

Disclaimer: It's worth noting that not every combat needs to be a big set piece, especially if your group runs multiple combats in the same session. But for fights that should feel meaningful, they benefit from a bit more forethought.1

So, let's put in some forethought. What follows are some elements to consider when putting together your fight scenes. What follows that is a brief checklist of these prompts.

However this ends, it will be colorful.


High Concept

What is this fight about Pretty straightforward, but worth putting some thought into. Some examples might be:

  • Mooks ambush the heroes, who mop the floor with them in entertaining fashion, but doing so takes time
  • Climactic final confrontation with the villain, who's trying to summon a demon atop the Statue of Liberty (currently weeping tears of blood), with two demon armies clashing, as the heroes race against time
  • After a chase scene through a crowded city, the heroes have caught up with their rivals, who try to force them to make hard decisions - save civilians, or subdue their foes?
  • Fighting waves of Orks on an Ice Bridge. REASONS.
This doesn' have to be complex or intricate; just put some thought into what purpose the scene serves. The answer can be "my players love to fight stuff, and a good romp is what they want right now" is a perfectly fine reason. Just know what you're doing, and why you're doing it - and then do that. 

Environment

The place your battles occur is more than just scenery. Where is his fight taking place? Is there anything interesting about the surrounding terrain that could play a part in the conflict? Think in three dimensions - are there multiple planes of elevation going on?

The genre of game you're playing, combined with the mechanical representation of the system you're using will strongly influence what you do here: modern spies infiltrating a warehouse in Fate -using zones and Theatre of the Mind - will feel very different than wizards and mythic warriors fighting demons in a renaissance-era city square, using wargame terrain, minis and measuring tape in HERO system.
3D terrain can be fun to play with, but takes a lot of work. (Shout-out to my S/O for letting me keep this in the living room)
Either way, terrain can really shape a fight. Are there chokepoints? Good ambush spots? How's line-of-sight? Perhaps most relevant, will the characters be able to interact with the environment in an interesting and meaningful fashion?

The key isn't to have a bunch of stuff, but to have what your scene needs. Give characters opportunity to express themselves. Have a bunch of mobile, stealthy characters? Give'm stuff to climb on, opportunities to stay hidden until they strike, etc. Got a savvy ranged combatant? Give'm interesting sight lines, bountiful cover opportunities (hello chest-high walls, my old friend...), and plenty of distance with which to work. Have a crowd-controlling warrior who loves the idea of "tanking?"

Give them a choke point to hold.

There's an old aphorism in D&D: "the most boring thing is a fight in a 5x5 room." So maybe let's not do that.

Participants


Okay, there's a fight. Who shows up to it? Your heroes, obviously. This is the part of fight setup that most classic RPGs emphasize - and your game of choice probably has some guidelines for "Encounter Design." 

Even if you've done it a hundred times, it's worth going over and thinking about the opposition. Who's there, and what effect is that going to have on the scene? Tying into the last point, it's a great time to think about your protagonists, and make sure they've got some interesting folks to pummel, and be pummeled by.

Perhaps more pressingly, are there other people about? A fight scene in a crowded metropolis replete with innocent bystanders is very different from two super-people knocking each other through mesas in the lonely desert. 


There are a couple ways to handle this, but you'll want to think about the role of civilian bystanders in your fight scenes, as there's no faster way to establish tone and expectations. Do civilians always get out of the way, or manage to survive trapped under rubble? Or do entire buildings get blown up with people trapped inside? Nothing will establish your tone on the light-dark spectrum faster than the fate of innocent bystanders.

So, y'know. Know what you want. And do that on purpose. 

It's also worth thinking about third parties who might not be content to stand by and watch. 

Starting a tavern brawl in an establishment frequented by mercenary companies is unlikely to stay an isolated affair.

Goals


What are we fighting for?

No, really. What are we fighting for?

Combatants have motivations. Those could be as simple as "I am a people-eating monster, out on my lunch hour. Hey look, take-out!" They could be something more nuanced, like a sometimes-rival, sometimes-love interest ambushes the heroes, with the intent not to harm them, but to stall them just long enough to arrive after the bomb goes off. 

They of course, can't tell the heroes this. Reasons.

In addition, there's a structural element that bears mention, based off an aphorism that bears repeating: 

"Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve."
Now, if you've got a more gameplay-focused RPG group, you can ease up on that. A little. But not too much, because "two sides fight until one can't move no more" is far less interesting than a pitched conflict with different objectives. 

So figure out what everybody wants. An example combat from an Urban Fantasy action-mystery game might include hero goals like:
  • Protect the owner of the coffee shop from physical harm
  • Protect the coffee shop from being leveled - we like it here
  • Get a piece of critical information
  • Stop the werewolf who attacked your friends from getting away
This gives us a couple things to do, and introduces meaningful suspense. No, it's not likely that our heroes are going to die here. But they might have to choose between their goals - maybe they can't stop the werewolf, and protect the coffee shop, and get that clue. 

Or maybe they can!

But the point is, there's a lot more going on here, and that gives all the characters plenty of stuff to do.

Stakes


What's at stake here? This often a question of genre as much as circumstance, but there's always going to be some wiggle room. 

Are the combatants fighting to the death? Is this a "beat someone up and leave" situation? What goals (see above) are on the line? What

What happens if the heroes lose?

Note: many RPGs have an abysmal time answering this question. It's a historical problem, because Loss was assumed to equal Death, which could feel cheap or meaningless, and even if it didn't, required an entirely new lens for the player/audience to experience the story through.

Loss does not need to equate death in RPGs. If the only interesting answer is "the heroes win," that robs the story of any real suspense - you either win, or things are kind of lame.
We can, and are doing, better than this.

There are plenty of valid things that can happen besides death, and plenty of newer games provide support for this reality. Not just the ones I make, though definitely those.

Either way, his is an antiquated notion. Let's do better, and allow character death to be a meaningful thing in our stories2.

Challenge


How much of an obstacle should this fight be? In RPGs, this can surprise you - swingy dice rolls, unexpected choices, and unaccounted-for plans can dramatically shift this in both directions.

That's fine. That's good! RPGs are supposed to be dynamic.

But in general, you should have an idea of how challenging this fight is supposed to be. If it's not going that way, you can always tweak things mid-fight, but be careful of this: you don't want to rob players of their hard-earned victories.

You also want those victories to feel meaningful.

This is a good thing to ask about after the game session, before people go their seperate ways. Was the fight challenging enough? Too challenging? Other feedback is good too, but this is one you'll really want to dynamically tailor.

Be Agile!

Feel


A wholly qualitative point, but an important one: what should this fight feel like? Should it be a fun, light romp with plenty of comedic beats? A thrilling, fast-paced sequence that feels ripped from a big-budget action film? Maybe it should be a gritty, ground-and-pound slugfest beneath broken streetlights.

Or maybe it's an epic, final confrontation. Maybe it should feel huge. 

Think about the tone. If this were (or is) a film, what kind of music would be playing? If you use music while GMing (I do, extensively,) what music do you want to cue up for the scene? 

The "Stairwell Scene" from Daredevil season two has a very different feel than a Jackie Chan film which is very different from the first Matrix film. And a lot goes into those differences - but think about how those scenes felt distinct. 

Then when planning your own scenes, think about the feel you want to achieve.

Style

Into The Badlands has plenty of style in its fight scenes. And variety in their feel! And Daniel Wu, so bonus points there.

Another pretty qualitative category; think about the sensory information in the scene. What are the key visual elements - are there parked cars, streetlights, rainfall? Blue skies, open space, a cool breeze? Make sure to account for different senses - the humid feel in the air before rainfall, the sound of distant sirens, the scent of gasoline and ashes - as this can bring your scene to life.

Don't overdo it, though. Gamers have been in far too many stinky dungeons over the years, we get it.

What tone is present? Is it bright, cool, dark, or something else? If you were lighting this scene, what would it look like? 

Every scene has its own sensory flair. Jotting down a few quick notes - again, emphasis on quick - can go a long way.

In conclusion


I don't know how to write short posts.

In additional conclusion


So! Plenty of things to think about. I'll try to cook up a worksheet/checklist thing over the next couple of days, but in the meantime, that list is:

  • High Concept
  • Environment
  • Participants
  • Goals
  • Stakes 
  • Challenge
  • Feel
  • Style

8 steps toward a fulfilling fight scene. I promise you, it takes less time to use this checklist (edit: which is now available in convenient online glory) than it did to read this article.Now, go knock the crap out of each other!

Stylishly, and with meaningful context.

~Killstring

* * *

1- A friend of mine has a GM who treats every fight scene like a video game boss battle. That's a good model! Also, probably a good subject for future posts.

2 - Because let's be clear - I love to go all Game of Thrones when running games. But those gut punches should feel like punches. To the gut. 

...

Hi players! I know you read this. :D

3 - And a hell of a lot less time than it took to write it, haha.