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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


* * *

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.