Friday, May 27, 2016

Unorthodox Inspiration 3: What we can learn about Fight Scenes from Pro Wrestling

Part of a series Continuing the conversation that began here, and continued here. Inverting things a little, this might be of more use to fiction writers than GMs, but since I seem to be much more Mr. RPG Man these days, I'm not going to stop.

Can't stop, won't stop. Not sure how to stop. Help?


Fight scenes. Our stories are full of them, our RPGs often feature them, and by this point, we've seen a whole lot of them. Fun fact: many of them are bad! Between odd pacing, an emphasis on spectacle over storytelling, and meaningless stakes, a lot of fight scenes can wind up as basically filler.

I mean, c'mon. We saw the trailers. We know the Hero doesn't die in the first 15 minutes of the film; there's no suspense here. 

Which is exactly the problem.

This has been addressed in loving detail by the inimitable John Rodgers over on his blog - and anyone looking to write an action scene owes it to themselves to check that out - but the brief summary is actually pretty straightforward:
Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve. 
Now, we can - and probably will! -  go into that concept in much more depth here on the Blog of Doom, but for now, we're going to continue with our liberal theft from an unlikely source.

That's right, cats and kittens: more 'rasslers.


Tonight, in this very Blog!

So, you've got some fight scenes coming up. Somebody has reached a point where civil conversation just won't cut it, and it's about to get real. So, what does that mean, exactly? In RPGs, too often the answer is that two sides are going to pound each other until people stop moving. In narrative media, too often the answer is not dissimilar. Acros media, there's a problem where some people we don't know, and don't care about, are attacking some people we do, ostensibly to kill them. 

This is the most boring possible setup for a fight.

And you know what? Plenty of other factors can still make that interesting. But there's no stakes, no drama - no storytelling. 

And a good fight is all about storytelling.

This is why we're here; because Pro Wrestlers are storytellers by trade. A straight-up competition between two sides, with a binary outcome? MMA, boxing, competitive fencing - these are the places to catch that kind of action. And it can be great, and entertaining, but it is fundamentally about competition, not storytelling. 

So let's steal some storytelling techniques from the nice people in the garish costumes

Every fight scene has its own, internal, three-act structure

A simple point, but one we'll build on. A fight scene is dynamic, and involves a lot more than people clobbering each other. A basic fight structure1 might look like:
  1. Instigation of conflict, establishment of foes as evenly matched
  2. Villain uses underhanded means to gain advantage, leading to dire straits for the hero
  3. On their last legs, the hero digs deep, and finds a way to overcome the odds
Pretty simple, right? Still, there's movement and drama there. Storytelling, in fact. And that's what we're going for here.

Characters express their personality through their combat style

This might seem elementary, but it's so easy to miss. Beyond the obvious archetypes (big strong behemoth, small quick rogue, savvy patient archer), there's a wealth of opportunity in how a character fights, not just what they do. 

A quick RPG-style example.

Ogre #3 attacks Paul's ninja - who succeeds at dodging. The GM nods. "He takes a huge swing at you, but you manage to get out of the way." Paul smiles. "Yeah, tuck and roll through his legs, and pop up on the other side of him, ready to go."

Okay, nothing wrong with that, and it's nice and brisk. But it doesn't really tell us that much about that particular Ogre. And that's fine, maybe that's not what we want right now2. But what if it is? Let's take another swing at that same situation
 Ogre #3 attacks Paul's ninja - who succeeds at dodging. The GM nods. "Well, that's not going to hit. What do you do to evade?" Paul smiles. "I'm going to tuck and roll through his legs, and pop up on the other side of him." The GM laughs. "Yeah, ok, he raises his club up high, and you tumble through his legs. His club comes down hard - the impact actually shakes the ground under you as you tumble away, and pop up. The Ogre whips around, confused, and sees you already on your feet." 
"I blow him a kiss." 
Ok, now we've got a bit more going on here - Paul's ninja is showing a cheeky personality, and the Ogre feels like more of a threat.

But what if we wanted to go even further? (Note: this assumes a lot of GM-Player trust, otherwise it could seem dickish. Writers, do what thou wilt.)

Ogre #3 attacks Paul's ninja - who succeeds at dodging. The GM nods. "Well, you're not taking any damage." He pauses for a second. "May I?" Paul nods his assent. 
"Ok.  The Ogre brings his club down like a bolt of thunder right at your head." 
"Shit! I'm going to tuck and roll through his legs, coming out the other side." 
The GM nods. "His club comes down hard, cracking the ground as you pop up on the other side, but he shoulder checks you before you can get a clean shot at his back, and sends you flying towards a tree."
"Well, I'm still a ninja. I rotate and plant on the tree, then spring back at him." 
The GM smiles. "Nice! You dash back into range, and the big brute's stunned. He's deceptively fast, but you're a whisper on the wind. He blinks in disbelief." 
"I blow him a kiss."
Now, in most RPGs, you wouldn't have that kind of back-and-forth, or if you did, it would be 100% player description. But that scene is a lot more dynamic than two characters trading blows. It showcases the power of the ogre, the preternatural grace of the ninja, and tells us about this ongoing dynamic between the two.

And it didn't take many words to get there.

Now just imagine if you had a fight between two rivals, or a hero and their nemesis. That brings us to the next point.

Lay the damn pipe. 

"Laying pipe3" is a screenwriter's aphorism; it basically refers to laying the narrative groundwork for later payoff. Exposition, clues to the audience. Ingredients for what comes later. Normally, this is something you want to keep quiet and off to the side, as unobtrusive as possible.

Another way to go about things is with foreshadowing; Chekhov's gun, and all that. The idea that if something is in the story, it's essential and important; if you say that a gun is on the mantle, it needs to be fired by the end of your tale.

This is Chekhov's Table. Get acquainted.
Wrestling is actually pretty good with both of these.

People don't generally fight for no reason, or just to win - they develop rivalries, establish personalities and feuds, and they have signature elements.

Elements which their enemies love to subvert, it should be noted.

But specifically in the course of a fight, the pipe-laying doesn't stop - in fact, it's placed (literally) center stage. Maybe one character has an injury (in the storyline, not real life) - if so, you can expect their opponent to try to wear down that leg they're favoring, especially if they need it for their signature finishing moves. This introduces an element of suspense - can the Hero still pull this off? - as well as telling a more dynamic story.

Another classic is the introduction of props. In wrestling, that seems to be ladders and card tables, all of which follow Checkhov's law to the letter: if you see something set up, you can bet it has a role to play. The stranger the setup, the more likely it's going to prove pivotal. So characters set up props to deal game-changing damage to their foes, if everything goes according to plan.

Now, in RPGs - an inherently improvisational medium - you might think that this is a waste of time - who knows what's going to happen, right? 

Well, yes, there's no guarantee that the character who sets up a trap gets to use it. RPGs are dynamic, and you can't count on things going according to plan. Spoiler alert: in a scripted story, this doesn't mean that things go according to the characters' plan anyway. People are probably hoist by their own petard as often as not - but before the scuffle's over, somebody is jumping off that ladder, or going through that table, possibly both.

C'mon, GMs. Tell me that your players wouldn't shove a villain into their own death trap. 

Players. Tell me that you wouldn't love to shove a villain into their own death trap

And if nothing happens, avoiding said trap is still a story element in itself, and adds to the spectacle of the whole thing. Speaking of...

It's not about Spectacle. But Spectacle can be awesome.

Big spots take a long time to set up, but can be incredibly memorable
We've spent a lot of time talking about how a fight scene is more than just a bunch of cool scenes. But if you've told a compelling story, those cool scenes can have incredible impact when they do happen. Especially in RPGs where elements might not get used, that can actually increase their narrative performance. If one of the characters is constantly trying - and failing - to kick somebody out a window, their first successful defenestration isn't just a big spot, it becomes a character moment.

In conclusion

Look, the fight scene isn't going away any time soon. And not every fight needs to be a Big Dealtm that uses all of these techniques. But if you take time to 

  • Create suspense scenes that require action to resolve
  • Remember that a fight scene has its own internal 3-act structure
  • Express characterization through combat style
  • Lay pipe
  • Don't rely on spectacle, but don't be afraid of it either

...then you're well on your way to some damn memorable fight scenes.

Thanks, wrestlers!


1 - It is, in fact, the structure of every Hulk Hogan or John Cena match in pretty much ever, to the point of being groan-worthy to some fans, likely due to overexposure. Doesn't mean you can't use it.

2 - More isn't always better! Groups can fall into the trap of trying to make everything a Big Meaningful Moment, and that can absolutely kill a game's pacing and flow. Sometimes, you just need to resolve things quickly; a brisk beat, then the action continues. 

This is completely ok. Pacing. It matters.

3- So named because it's like the plumbing in a building - it keeps everything running smoothly, it's necessary, but I don't want to watch you installing it. The implication is to keep it as invisible as possible.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Workflow: Infinity

Warning! This is absolutely a "how the sausage is made"-type post, where I'll be blathering on about workflow and the like. If that bores you, worry not - I'll have more stuff on how to liberally crib ideas from Pro Wrestling really soon - but for now, we're about to dive into some examples from my own work. 

Cool? Cool.

Writing Adversaries for the Infinity Roleplaying Game

Adversaries! They're adversarial.

For those who don't know, Infinity is a rich sci-fi property, popularized by a rather clever tabletop skirmish game. It's a pretty fleshed-out setting - the core product has two books in a slip cover, one for rules and another for setting exploration - that originally grew out of the creators' homebrew RPG world. Things have come full-circle now, and after a top-5 grossing RPG Kickstarter (top 3 when it funded), there's an RPG that should be coming out quite soon.

At least, if I have anything to say about it.

You see, I was a Kickstarter backer for this bad boy. Then after some time, I signed on as a freelancer to help get the core book content complete, which was a thrill and a half, let me tell you what! As both fan and developer, I've got extra incentive to make something awesome, as I not only take pride in my work, but fully intend to use it to run my own games. I want to be accountable to the legions of great fans - because I'm one of them. 

And the rest of us know where to find me online. So if I make something that doesn't live up the standards already set, you best believe they'll let me know about it. 

All of that goes into my process. 

The Assignment

But before any work gets started, you need something to work on. In the case of Infinity, our line developer - who has a freaking phenomenal blog over at, by the by - sends out some assignments, and we get to work. For writing adversaries - the NPCs who will provide opposition to players in Infinity - my schedule's pretty much been as follows:

Step One: Research

In a game like Infinity, there's already been a lot of ink spilled about anything you might be writing; an extant body of literature, if you will. You might think that makes things easier, and in some ways, you'd be correct; there's a lot to work with. On the other hand, that means there's a lot of information to digest, and some of it will be ridiculously specific. Already being pretty familiar with the Infinity setting in general, I still wanted to get a robust understanding of each unit before I started writing anything. This usually included:
  • Reading any unit writeups in existing books (not time-consuming)
  • Checking the mechanical writeups in existing books (quick, and a good relative reference)
  • Cross-referencing any mentions of the unit in existing books (CTRL+F is your friend)
  • Getting a good look at the miniature unit, in
    • Official Paint Schemes (Infinity has an official painter, his blog is amazing)
    • Unofficial Paint Schemes (Go Go Gadget Google)
    • Concept Art, if available
    • In-book Art
    • Fan Art (because sometimes people really love something)
    • Cosplay (because sometimes people really love something)
  • Conversation with gamers of various stripes on how the unit plays (gamers are opinionated)
  • Lurking through different forums to find how a given unit is perceived (looking for trends)
  • And in the case of real-world references, any pertinent details that relate to the unit (important)
Sometimes I'd do less, sometimes, I'd do a whole lot more, but hopefully you get the idea. During this process, I'd take down notes of anything that jumped out at me - text I wanted to reflect in my writeup, how a given unit tends to be used, and my thoughts on how applicable (or not) that is to the RPG context, and anything else that springs to mind.

Basically, I vomit ideas into a Google Doc, to be referenced later. Pleasant!

Step Two: Base Mechanics

Based on my research, I'd then try to figure out the unit's mechanics in the 2d20 system. For those unfamiliar, 2d20 groups adversaries into three distinct groups: 
  • Troopers, who are your mooks and cannon fodder. They're comparatively easy to take down
  • Elites, who represent more of a challenge, both in capabilities and toughness
  • And Nemeses, who are roughly as capable as a PC in most respects
Adversaries are represented a bit more abstractly than Player Characters, which makes things easier on GMs, but they otherwise work pretty much the same, and are sorted into these roles1 for the GM's convenience. A take on this system shows up in the excellent Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition, and you can see some of the inspiration in Jay Little's last game, Fantasy Flight's  Star Wars Edge of The Empire RPG.

Goodness, do I love both those games. Anyway.

For doing this, my first bit of translation comes in. What kind of role does the unit play in an RPG? This goes beyond classification. A mediocre troop in a wargame can become an unholy terror given a different context, and the Infinity RPG is about much more than people trying to whack each other2, and that makes a real difference in the role of a given character type.

Additionally, there might be stuff from their overall description that doesn't quite jive with how the mechanics represent them, or with how players tend to use them. Regardless, I try to find a role for them within the context of the RPG. Maybe somebody's a great mid-distance foe, hacking the PCs' gear, making trouble for them just outside of reach. Maybe somebody's a scary up close and personal berserker, but they lack staying power. Another might be best suited to head up a squad of mooks, who become much less of a problem without their leadership, kind of like a video game boss.
Cyberpunk Achilles is a Special Snowflake
I didn't do his writeup. But he looks cool.

Whatever shape that takes, I try to think about where they might show up, what they're like, and how they interact with PCs.

Step Three: Unique Mechanics

A continuation of the last step, most units have special skills, much like a PC. Unlike a PC, we want to keep these to an relative minimum, so that GMs have less stuff to keep track of. Sometimes these skills are less powerful than a PCs nearest equivalent, sometimes they're stronger, but the point is always to give the GM something that really expresses the character in a clean, mechanical way.

This is where the units' distinctiveness can really come into play mechanically. (Note: the following shouldn't be considered a preview or anything - this is all off the top of my head. I don't talk about things that haven't been released to the public, as a rule. The Adversaries chapter should be coming soon, I'm sure!)

So in our above example, maybe that hacker gets a bonus to avoid detection, leaving the PCs scrambling to find out who's messing with them - the PCs need to get their hands on'm. Maybe that melee berserker gets a damage bonus, but only at close range - the PCs might want to keep them at a distance. Maybe that commander gives a bonus to Troopers grouped up with them - the PCs should strongly consider cutting off the head of the serpent.

The idea here is to use mechanics to give each unite a niche to fill. They should feel different, and different strategies should yield different results. Also, if a given character has an in-world reputation - like say, masters of hand-to-hand combat - then the unit should feel appropriate when players encounter them3.

I'm also lumping Gear into this category - what weapon loadouts, gadgets, and random crap people have on them is a great way to differentiate units, so long as I don't get carried away. Give the GM too much to keep track of, and you run the risk of things being forgotten or missed entirely once play begins. Concise, and useful - that's the goal.

Mechanics inform play. And they inform character besides. Which is why this step comes before the next one, which is...

Step Four: Actually Writing the Blurb

About 100-150 words of description, which sounds a lot easier than it is. On one hand, I accidentally puke out 150 words before I even introduce most topics, and I've probably got at least a thousand from my notes. On the other hand, I have so much information I want to pack in, and 150 words isn't much to do it in. RPG manuals are already huge, and you don't want to bloat up the page count, and give GMs an ocean of text to wade through.

Clear. Concise. To the point.

Sometimes people ask me what I learned in college. There are many answers to that, but from a freelancer's perspective, one of the most useful was how to write small. I came into journalism school able to write a pretty evocative 1,000-word article. I had just a hell of a time condensing that down into 400 words, let me tell you.

But that was good for me. And it comes in real handy with assignments like this.

So yes. Capturing the essence of the character's role in society, showcasing their distinct style and "feel," giving the GM some idea as to where they might use this kind of character, and some idea of how they operate differently from "tough mook #3," and maintaining a respectful nod or three to their legacy and description from the tabletop game.

In a hundred words.

This is the fourth step in my process for a reason, as I find it very useful to build on everything that's come before. Of course, that does tie into the next step.

Step Five: This is an Agile Process, There Aren't Actually Sequential Steps

Maybe I'll come up with something that's true about the unit's behavior in step four, but it'd be better expressed as a special ability. Maybe I'm trying to express a given background through the unit's skills, and I realize there's an opportunity for a nice bit of writeup. Maybe I realize that I haven't done nearly enough research, and spend a couple hours learning about a new religion.

Maybe I look at everything I've done in the writeup, and realize that my base mechanics are flat-out wrong for this incarnation of the unit, and I need to redo them, nevermind that it's going to be a little different than the tabletop game. The RPG is its own thing, and it needs to be. Maybe I gave a particular unit short shrift, because they're just not that big a deal in the tabletop world, but that's just not true of them in this context. Maybe I emphasized the wrong thing based on their description, or maybe their model really begs me to create a custom weapon that's not in the existing rules, but is a huge part of their visual style.

Maybe everything I wrote is crap, and needs to be burned to the ground.

Point being, these points all feed into each other, I don't treat it as a discreet process. Although the next step is an exception; it needs to come at this point, when I'm essentially content complete.

Step Six: Take a Dang Break

For real. Step away from the Word Document, possibly the computer, and give the work some time to ripen. If possible, I go to sleep during this period.

Step Seven: Editing, Rewriting, and Making Sure I Have Not Made a Terrible Mistake or Seventeen

This content is terrible! CUT IT.

Sanity check time! Spelling, grammar, format - all important stuff. Then I read the damn things, front to back, forcing myself not to skip. Often, I read it aloud - that changes things! - to try and get the feel of each unit description as its own thing. RPG books are as much technical manual as fiction, and people both need to get unit info by skimming, and a more detailed representation when planning.

I'll change things here, rewrite whole chunks that sounded pretty great at the time, I swear (they're hot garbage.) Sanity check again to see if I'm missing anything.

Read it again.

Walk away. Again.

Come back, give it a last read-through in casual fashion, just to see if anything jumps out.

Deep breath.

Submit file.

Exhale. Probably whoop, because 6 years of university and 2 years of professional freelancing has taught me many things, but none of them have convinced me not to bust some moves when I finish a project.


Step Eight: Sometimes You Write Revisions and That's Okay

Sometimes my editor sends stuff back. This makes sense, as my word-to-comment ratio is probably something like 2 to 1, and some of those comments become conversations, which in turn become changes. This is a good thing! I cannot stress that enough; editors are supposed to edit, that is literally their job (though not all of it). I once had a student, brilliant writer, smart person, great taste in music. They were interning at a popular music magazine, and had been given the opportunity to submit an article.

They were incredibly down about it.

When I asked why, they informed me that they'd gotten their article back, covered in red pen with proposed corrections.

"They think I can't write," they said.

I smiled. "They know you can."

At a high  level, writing is as much about re-writing as anything else. Also, frankly, there's a reason why even professional copy editors get other people to edit their work - there are some things that another pair of eyes is just flat-out better at catching.

Trust me, as someone who's taken their share of red pen to articles, more marks isn't a bad thing - if something sucks, I'm not putting in the effort to critique every line. Thanks for coming, here's your crappy grade for putting in the minimum amount of effort on this assignment, I look forward to you arguing about how this shouldn't have been a C come finals week4 , please enjoy your day.

Anyway. Revisions come, and I try to get them knocked out same-day. Being reliable and hitting deadlines will get you pretty far in life, and while I always strive for excellence in all I do, I pride myself on hitting my damn deadlines. So I try to prioritize rewrites whenever they come my way, as they're usually expected ASAP.

Step Nine: Drink Coffee, remember you have a blog

Mmmm, coffee. Hey! I have a blog. Better update that.


* * *

1 - By sheer coincidence, subconscious impulse, or my tendency to see everything in threes, this lines up kind of nicely with the categories of Enhancement Talent, Rivals, and Nemeses that I put forward in the last post.. Handy!

2- In fairness, so is the tabletop game, which has hacking objectives, terrain control, and all sorts of stuff that isn't just about killin' somebody's doods. I highly recommend it for people looking for a different sort of wargame.

Having said that, it's still a wargame. You have two sides, and at the end, you have a winner. RPGs have exponentially broader contexts to consider.

3 - Much of the existing Infinity stuff is written from an In-Character perspective, so some judicious skepticism is useful here. When much of the descriptive text for a given unit is, quite literally, military propaganda, you have to balance that against more realistic expectations. This is another situation where a more holistic approach to the setting becomes really important - if every light infantry unit is described an invulnerable war machine with nerves of steel who never retreat, you need some more information.

Wargames are great at both creating this problem, and giving the tools to address it. Not only does the setting have a long history of military conflicts, but you can also find after reports of tournaments and such. 

Thus do the performances of wargamers enter back into the setting's zeitgeist, completing the circle and creating new myths. Hot damn do I like how that sounds.

4 - This happened a lot. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes sad, and about an even split between overachievers and people who attended three classes all semester.  As a teacher, I'm always down to discuss where grades come from, and if I make a mistake, I want to fix it. 

But sometimes there's an attitude of "you'll change my grade, because I'm really likable, right?" Nope! I'll happily help you identify the flaws in your work and correct them, but I do not care about how wide you smile, sorry!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Knowing one's role: what writers and GMs can learn about villains from Pro Wrestling

Part of a series. (The introduction can be found here) Originally, this post was written solely from the perspective of RPG GMs, but after writing it I realized how much I liked these structures for fiction writing as well. YMMV, but I found the concepts unexpectedly useful.

Tonight, in this very ring... blatant and unrepentant theft!

So, last time we got together, I promised that we'd be shamelessly stealing drawing inspiration from shamelessly stealing some of the ideas and constructs from professional wrestling, and applying them to roleplaying games. 

Let it not be said that I left you hanging (all like, nine of you who were interested in this.)

So, let's get started! Are you ready? Let's get ready to ruminate!

This man is rrrready to rrrrumintate.

Knowing your role

Not you - you're the GM. You're the creative department, a tiny god, overseeing this fictional realm. But your characters, the NPCs, as well as the PCs it's them we're going to talk about. 

There's some criticism in wrestling circles about pandering to certain main eventers, at the expense of other workers, and occasionally the audience. Fortunately, this is an RPG; the PCs are a nice combination of main character and audience already. You should be defining everything around them, because this story is about them. By definition, really1. So let's talk roles.

Enhancement talent

Jobbers, carpenters, whatever you call them, these people have but one goal: to make your PCs look awesome. This can be as mooks, with mobs of them falling before the heroes' kung fu, or a more significant procedural challenge, that really shows the protagonist overcoming a meaningful challenge.

Knowing what role you want your opposition to fill beforehand is a great way to keep things running smoothly, and avoid "filler" content. It also lets you prioritize when surprises come up - if you have a mook-filled ambush set up, ask yourself: what's the point of this fight? Because if it's simply to showcase what badasses the heroes are, it's no big deal if they bypass it, right? The clever heroes outwitted the stupid mooks, good for them. 

Of course, if it's supposed to be a more meaningful challenge, the urge to negate the PCs success can be real - but think about what this gets you. There are always more challenges to be had - we'll get to rivals, nemeses, things like that in a bit - but if they're just there to provide a platform to show the PCs overcoming challenges, don't negate the main characters' accomplishments for the sake of enhancement talent.

On the flip side, sometimes your expectations aren't met in the other direction; and it can be rough for a player when their competent character is having trouble with a lowly minion. 

You, however, know an opportunity when you see it. This little mook just stepped up the ladder to become serious enhancement talent - they're not like other mooks - and these encounters can be solid gold for in-fight drama. Your description is going to be a big part of this; action heroes tear through mooks like tissue paper, this is part of how we show how awesome said heroes are. But when someone reveals themselves to be made of sterner stuff, roll with that.

3rd goblin from the left becomes Gr'nash, flesh-render. Give him a line about the last opponent who underestimated them, may they rest in peace. Describe a cool scar, or notches on their blade, but single them out as being more of a big deal than their fellows. 

And if they die in the next round, that's fine. Have them spit out a death curse, or have their death break the morale of the rest of the mooks, sending them running. After all, if Gr'nash fell, what hope do they have? 

Just like that, you've turned a potentially annoying quirk of the dice into a (hopefully) memorable little moment, just by presentation. As long as you don't overdo this, it's a neat trick. And it also leads into our next category.


The role of a rival is a much longer-term deal. They get into storylines - often called "feuds" - with your protagonists, and that takes much longer to resolve. In the end, they're still a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but they're big stones that take a while to climb.

There's often a rhythm to these angles, a structure. Face is blindsided by heels, face tries to get even but heels get away, heels lie, cheat, and sabotage their way through life, Face finally gets a chance to face them on their terms, Face wins clean. 

Given how freaking difficultit is to keep villains alive when RPG protagonists are in the same room with them, there's a lot to take away from this. Firstly, a rival has genre savvy - they know that if they're ever in a fair fight with the heroes, they're mincemeat. So they do everything in their power to avoid that fair fight. They take cheap shots when the heroes are fighting someone else. They spread nasty lies about the heroes when they're not around. They use cheap, dirty tricks to run away from a situation they'd have to fight their way out of, because they know how this is going to end.

Then, when they're finally cornered, they fight with the ferocity of an animal with its back against the wall. They - and by extension, the writers - know this is their last gasp, and they're going to give it their all. Make room for a moment mid-conflict where the rival starts thinking that maybe, just maybe, they're going to pull this out after all. Give them a moment to gloat, as they realize all that running maybe wasn't necessary after all. 

It'll make that moment when the PCs prove that yes, it was absolutely necessary, so much sweeter. 

Rivals are great, because they're annoying little turds, dishonourable jerks that really make the PCs want to get their hands on them, and the fact that this takes a while makes it much more gratifying when it finally comes around.


Ohhhh, these guys. These freaking guys. If Enhancement Talent is there to show the competency of our heroes, and Rivals are there to provide a meaningful challenge (and satisfying crunch) on the way to the top of the mountain, Nemeses are the people waiting for them at the summit. Because they've been there for a while, and they don't intend on leaving.

And they don't like this newcomer.

A feud with a nemesis can be career-defining in wrestling, partially because while the Enhancement Talent is busy enhancing new talent, and the old rivals aren't a problem anymore, a nemesis tends to stick around for a long time, often permanently. A solid nemesis isn't easily dispatched, and can be a thorn in the heroes' side for their entire careers.

The relationship is also different. Even when they hate each other, Nemeses tend to treat one another with a kind of respect, even when there's no love lost between them. After all, each side recognizes that the other is, in most practical regards, more or less an equal. Nobody gives you trouble like your nemesis.

So how do you do this in an RPG, when PCs tend to violently put down anything that opposes them?

It's a good question, and a hell of a lot of digital ink has been spilled on the topic of recurring villains in RPGs, namely, how difficult they are to pull off. But specifically in wrestling, which is where we're pulling inspiration from today, Nemeses stick around for some pretty specific reasons. Namely, they're tough to beat, they don't go away when they're beat, and sometimes they win. Let's break that down.

A Nemesis is tough to beat

This one is easy. Mechanical challenge in a fight or other physical challenge, robust support in political conflicts, and someone insufferably difficult to budge in social interactions. GMs have been making tough opposition for years; frankly, I trust y'all to get this one right without my help.

A Nemesis doesn't go away when you beat them

Now we're talking. How do you do this, and keep it believable? Well, you'll want a plan for what happens when - not if, when - the PCs beat the ever-loving crap out of your villain, and you'll want that plan sooner rather than later. PCs love to beat up their enemies, regardless of context, and you should be prepared for that to happen early and often.

So how does that work?

The first - and in my opinion, most important - part of all this is the social contract. Let people know beforehand that you'd like to work with some recurring villains, and ask if that's something they're interested in. Chances are, they're quite interested in that, and that can turn into goodwill when you bull some bullshit in their nemesis surviving. Nobody likes having their successes invalidated, so handle this carefully - if the PCs feel like you're depriving them of a hard-earned victory, you're going to erode trust pretty quickly. 

So to that end, make sure that when your PCs come into conflict with a nemesis, you've got at least some of the following going for you:
  • A conflict over something besides the PCs or Nemesis dying
  • A believable escape route for either side
  • Some way for defeat to mean something other than an exit from the story 
  • A method of illustrating how both sides are on relatively equal footing
There are a couple of ways to handle this. Firstly, if you've already established the convention that defeated =/= dead in combat, you're golden. If you're playing a system like Fate, then the rules already support conceding a conflict without anybody dying baked in. 

If you're using a more traditional gamist RPG, or you feel like the above might come off as contrived, then you need a way to cheat death. 

If the conflict is less physical, then this doesn't need to be literal. Beat somebody in a race, they'll race you again, sure. Beat someone in a tense negotiation, they come back later, nobody's surprised. Beat someone in a swordfight, it might strain credulity if they show up the next day. Thankfully, there's a couple ways to go about this.

Firstly, there's the "Nasty Scar Method." If you don't have heroes who make sure to disembowel and decapitate everyone they fight, then having someone survive a nasty wound happens all the time in real life, and more importantly, in fiction. Having someone fall from a great height is a trope for a reason, so don't expect to use it twice, but having someone go down - only to be conspicuously absent when the dust clears - might prove more reliable. 

Of course, they'll probably want to make sure they stay dead the next time. Which brings us to the "Lich Method." Basically, this person can't be killed by conventional means, possibly at all. Undead sorcerers in fantasy can resurrect themselves, AIs or "uploaded" people in sci-fi can just reload from their last backup, and angels or demons tend not to "die" so much as "go home for a while." Of course, D&D has relatively affordable resurrection available on tap, so just make sure your nemesis is well-funded, and has an estate that likes them, and you're golden.

Another, which borrows some ideas from the Rival, is the "Untouchable Method." Maybe they're a prince, or the beloved friend of a megacorp CEO; the details will vary by setting. But the important part is that the PCs are strongly disincentivized against taking their nemeses out of commission permanently, as the repercussions would be far more than they're worth. 

Until, of course, they're not. But that makes for a hell of a story in its own right.

Anyway, the role of a nemesis is that of a foil; a mirror to the heroes. Some great storylines can (and have) come from something that requires nemeses to work together, however begrudgingly, to overcome. Nothing provides a feeling of gravity like seeing a hated rival fighting alongside you, because what you're up against is that bad. 

Also, hell. Nemeses become quasi-allies all the time in fiction, and that can make for some great stories. The important takeaway here is that nemeses are around for the long haul; they're often defining elements of a story, and the metric by which protagonists are measured.

In summary: your (characters') role. Know it.

I tried really hard not to use The Rock in this post. I, of course, failed.
Thanks for reading! There's more to glean from this topic, but that's a subject for another day.

Some pro wrestling RPGs. Because reasons!

More Lucha love from me. If you ever wanted to be
El Santo, this is your jam.
A pretty awesome, modern PbtA game.
You put on shows, it's quite fun.

* * *

1 - This doesn't mean that the story is about the PCs becoming the most powerful and important characters in the setting, just that the story is about what happens to them, and what they cause to happen. If you and your players are happy telling the tale of how Swordy McStabface became the god of destruction, bending planets to their will, that's awesome. But it's in no way required.

2 - A term first popularized by (I think) Arn Anderson, this is a way more respectful term for "enhancement talent," somebody who's there to make the main eventer look good. Like a carpenter, they build something that can last. The pro wrestling historical society has a neat little article on the concept.


4 - This deserves (and will eventually receive) its own post, but for now it's worth noting that this is good advice for writing conflicts in general - if the only suspense is whether the hero lives or dies, and it's not the last scene of the story, there's not any suspense. Or conversely (in RPGs), sometimes the Hero dies for a stupid reason, and it becomes difficult to maintain continuity in narrative. Either way, it's lazy writing, and we can do better.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Unorthodox Inspiration: Professional Wrestling, part 1

Continuing the conversation that began here, we continue our dive into unorthodox sources of inspiration by taking a serious look at the world of professional wrestling.

Yes, really.

While the annals of professional wrestling are filled with terrible storylines, bad acting, cheesy concepts and embarrassingly offensive stereotypes, it's also a fascinating collection of structures. It's got rules it plays by, methods it prefers, and a collaborative, audience-centric approach that has a surprising amount to offer creators of fiction, especially GMs.

It also has Luachadores, which are just the strongest example of running with a genre convention I can think of.

They live, love, solve crimes and get married. All without taking off those masks.

Learning the ropes, and the turnbuckles that connect them

Before we get started, let's break down some of the structures that Professional Wrestling inhabits.

You have a collection of characters - who are varying degrees of well-thought out and acted - who compete for limited opportunity by pounding the crap out of each other. Usually, two sides will clash repeatedly, with multiple minor skirmishes of various sorts, until a climactic battle either escalates the conflict even further, or finally brings it to a close. These stories of conflict are told on a recurring basis - often weekly - with plot arcs coming to a head in big events about once a month.

Everybody knows it's scripted. The point is to be entertaining.

So without further ado, let's introduce some concepts, and then we'll talk about what we can do with them.

Concept 1: Faces, Heels, and the Turn

You've seen this before, even if not in so many words. A "Babyface," or just Face, is your good-guy character. Maybe they're heroic, or maybe they're a scary vigilante anti-hero, but the role of the Face is simple: give the audience someone to root for in a conflict.

Conversely, you have the Heel. The mirror image of the face, these cats are the antagonists of the wrestling world, and they exist so that the audience has someone to boo, or at the very least, to provide a foil for the Face. 

A lesser-used variant is the "Tweener," who splits the difference, sometimes in the same program. This is usually reserved for long-running, beloved characters who've been both Heel and Face in their careers, and carve out a sort of "Antihero" niche, where they live in shades of grey. 

This is essentially the alignment matrix of the Wrestling world, and it is entirely malleable. TV tropes has some great articles on the turn, but the basic idea is simple: in a particularly dramatic moment, a given character switches their alignment, often in violent fashion in the middle of a conflict.

Alignment isn't treated as some innate property in Pro Wrestling; Face and Heel are booking decisions. The important takeaway is that these are their role in the story, and sometimes switching that around is exactly what a given story needs to really "pop."  

Concept 2: Heat, and Overness

Heat is a pretty simple concept; it measures audience reaction to a given character, storyline, match - everything that happens is evaluated in terms of Heat. Note that Heat isn't intrinsically positive or negative - it's about strength of reaction, not direction (more on that in a second.) If someone gets booed or cheered, they've got Heat. If people are quiet, or start chanting "this is boring" or whatever, there's no Heat there. But if they go nuts - sometimes known as "a pop" - when something starts, well, you've got Heat.

Let's be clear: nobody likes this guy.
Overness is how popular someone/thing is, plain and simple. People might go nuts for a certain type of match, angle (storyline element, basically), wrestler or whatever. This can get into some interesting dynamics; let's say that you have a Heel who's crazy over. They come out to a chorus of boos, but frankly, the crowd's eating it up, the Heel's egging them on, and they're loving it. 

There's an innate acceptance that yeah, this is entertainment, and what's happening is entertaining. So, people go nuts for the villain, while genuinely hoping they fail. A great non-wrestling example is Littlefinger from Game of Thrones1. He's a great villain, and many viewers look forward to him getting screen time; he's wickedly entertaining.

That doesn't mean that they like him, and it certainly doesn't mean they want him to succeed in his goals. Indeed, part of what makes the character so compelling is how absolutely dreadful he is. Even so, he's a joy to watch.

That leads us into the final concept I want to talk about to day, which is a philosophical approach:

Concept 3: Booking for Emotion, not Elation

As put forward by the eloquent Greg DeMarco for, promoters often book for emotion, not elation. Elation is nice, sure, but it's only one strong emotion among many. If you're tired of stories where "the good guys always win," you're in luck - Pro Wrestling has been doing things specifically to upset its fan base for as long as it has been a recognizable entity.Everybody's hopes and dreams are riding on the scrappy underdog beating the odds? Everybody's on the edge of their seat, hoping that good will triumph over evil?

That's just as likely to end with evil's triumph as not. Possibly more likely. 

Bringing it all together

At the end of the day, what we have here are structures that are decidedly audience-facing. Everything, and I mean everything, is evaluated in terms of how it's affecting - or might affect - the audience. It's incredibly dynamic. It's also able to turn on a dime when something clearly isn't working, and traditionally unafraid to do so. If your hero's boring, might they work as a villain? If a character's being misused, what situation would better suit them?

Stories don't work without conflict. But they also don't work without audience investment.

Maybe prioritizing the audience's interest shouldn't be a novel approach. But it is, and it has a lot to recommend it as an approach. Now, the flip side of this - as wrestling has certainly shown over the years3 - is that it's easy to fall prey to the practice of throwing a bunch of ideas against a wall, seeing what sticks, and changing what doesn't. Sometimes a good idea requires time to really take root. Shutting things down before they have a chance to find their footing can cause plenty of problems. Although, there's certainly something to be said for recognizing that what you're doing doesn't work, and altering your course accordingly.

This is getting kind of long

I know, I know. We'll get into some much more practical applications of this stuff, specifically as regards RPGs and fiction in general, in subsequent entries. Pro Wrestling has a lot of insider language, and to play with these concepts, we first need to understand them. 

So up next: playing. 

Till then!


* * *

1 - Really, GoT is a great example of these concepts in a different context. George RR Martin has  deep and abiding love of the Heel Turn, and Mr. Balish executes it brilliantly by the end of  book/season one. 

2 - Not to belabor the point, but Mr. R.R. Martin certainly has some familiarity with this approach as well.

3 - It's worth noting that Pro Wrestling has featured some incredibly hateful, bigotry-fueled stereotypes over the years. It's inexcusable, disgusting, and certainly not something that The Blog of Doom endorses. It's also featured Evil Dentists, numerous Singing Cowboys, and middle-aged, pudgy guys in glitter-covered stormtrooper helmets

Friday, May 6, 2016

Using MICE to get your RPG on the same page

In any collaborative effort, it's important to get everybody on the same page. This is especially true in RPGs, where radically different expectations can exist, and there isn't always an obvious way to communicate that. Nobody likes having their expectations violated.

It is in fact, a core component of not liking things.

A few years back, Christopher Chinn created an excellent little survey called The Same Page Tool that does a great job of asking some of these questions more explicitly. This is good! Communication is good.2  And while I definitely recommend tweaking Chinn's instrument to suit your specific needs, that's not an indictment; I recommend doing that with pretty much everything. The important part is that we're talking about what the game will be before it starts.


they look so happy oh my gods i want one
It's hard not to use people on Segways as a segue. Note my failure in this regard.
So, my fascination with Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient is pretty well-documented at this point, as is my desire to apply it to the field of Role-Playing Games. So it should come as no surprise that it's now intersected with my passion for group communication in the form of a survey for your gaming group.

I mean, come on. It's the title of the post. I really hope it's not a surprise.

Actually though, it's two surveys. Reasons!

And good reasons at that. These different paradigms are absolutely compatible - they can, and often will, exist side-by-side in the same game - but in this case, what we don't know can absolutely hurt us.3  There's two surveys here, one each for GMs and players. I haven't robustly tested this survey instrument, and there are a couple things possibly being conflated here.4 Since this is a discussion tool, and not an instrument of empirical measurement, I figure that's probably ok.

So, here are our surveys! There will be a key at the bottom, but the basic idea is simple: rank your agreement with each statement on a scale of 1-5, with 1 = Strongly Disagree, and 5 = Strongly Agree. Don't worry about "getting it right," or "what a given question is supposed to mean," just go with what seems appropriate.

Your score in a given category equals the sum of your answers, minus the score of the reverse-coded question (again, they'll be pointed out in the key afterward, but you can probably spot them.) This generates a score from 0-15 in each dimension, which is primarily of use when compared to the other dimensions.

Again, it's a discussion tool. Make sure to discuss.

If people are interested, I can do a more objective version of this, which doesn't flagrantly advertise what it's asking you about, but I figured this format was fine for a discussion tool.

Anyway, that's enough explanation. Let's talk about MICE!

These little guys are ready for some serious action. And so are we!


  1. I have prepared a lot of detail about the world, and I’m excited for the players to see it
  2. You could call this a “discovery campaign,” where PCs find out about the setting
  3. The quirks, details, and minutiae of the setting are unimportant to this game
  4. A plot arc ends when there’s nothing left to see where the PCs are
  1. You could call this an “episodic campaign;” where the PCs solve a series of problems
  2. I expect the PCs to investigate mysteries, complete quests, and fix things
  3. A plot arc ends when the PCs have gotten to the bottom of things
  4. Challenges like puzzles and mysteries are not a big part of my plans
  1. I have prepared, or expect to create, lots of interesting NPCs for this game
  2. You could call this a “dramatic campaign,” where characters grapple with their emotions
  3. I’m more interested in what happens than the people it’s happening to
  4. A plot arc ends when somebody’s resolved their emotional/relationship conflict

  1. I’ve prepared a conflict that places the world in jeopardy, it’s up to the PCs to set that right
  2. There’s no one “big bad,” and the PCs are not out to save the world
  3. You could call this an “epic campaign,” where characters fix an imbalance in the setting
  4. A plot arc ends when a major wrong in the setting is made right


  1. I’m excited to explore the setting
  2. You could call my character an explorer
  3. I care about what’s happening in the setting, not the setting itself
  4. A plot arc ends when there’s nothing left for the characters to discover here

  1. I’m excited to solve mysteries
  2. You could call my character an investigator
  3. I’d rather gloss over puzzles, investigations and the like
  4. A plot arc ends when we’ve gotten to the bottom of things

  1. I’m more interested in the plot than characters’ relationships/motivation
  2. I’m excited to explore my character
  3. You could say that my character has a personal plot arc they’ll be going through
  4. A plot arc ends when somebody has meaningfully changed

  1. I’m excited to save the world
  2. I’m not really interested in the overall plot; other aspects are more compelling
  3. You could call my character a hero
  4. A plot arc ends when we’ve addressed a meaningful threat to the setting

The key 


Milieu Score = 1+2+4-3
Idea Score = 1+2+4-3
Character Score = 1+2+4-3
Event Score = 1+3+4-2


Milieu Score = 1+2+4-3
Idea Score = 1+2+3-4
Character Score = 2+3+4-1
Event Score = 1+3+4-2

And that's it!

Hopefully this can spark some useful discussion, which leads to some awesome games.



1 - Expectation Violation Theory is really interesting, and worth looking into further.

2 - Communicates the guy with advanced communication degrees, in a blog about communicating

3 - Seriously, has the phrase "what they don't know won't hurt them" ever been true? About anything? Definitely not in fiction, at least; it's less foreshadowing, and more flat-out telling you "this person not knowing this thing can absolutely hurt them, and you can know with  100% certainty that it will by the end of the story. Probably at a dramatically appropriate moment.  

So what I'm saying is, if  you find yourself using the above phrase, recognize that Checkov's gun has been loaded, and placed center stage. Act accordingly. :)

4 - Specifically, the concepts of "episodic" games (as opposed to "long-term" games) has gotten a little conflated with the Idea paradigm. I left it this way, because I'm not certain that an Idea story can be sustained over a long campaign without becoming an Event story. I could be incorrect on this - we're treading on unfamiliar ground here - but on the whole, I believe it achieves the instrument's aim, which is to get people defining what they want to do a little better, then talking about that.