Action movies are cool! I like them a lot. Dungeon crawls and other action focused RPGs tend to bore me. At the start of a campaign, they play like board games. I like a lot of board games. Over time, the same board game over and over again tends to become predictable and a bit dull.
So let’s change it up. I’m going to talk about how to turn a combat into a puzzle or acting/roleplaying scene. I’m also going to talk about action movies that use the threat of violence, as opposed to actual violence, to create the conflict that drives the story.
The Trump Puzzle:
A Trump Puzzle changes the way a combat works to make it more about open-ended, creative problem solving.
At the start of combat, the GM defines some of the enemies’ abilities that are dangerous to the PCs. The goal of the PCs is to find a way to trump the enemies’ special ability. Often, the PCs will only be able to impose their own threat in response. The idea is to create a back and forth as the PCs slowly accrue advantages and escalate the conflict, and the villains likewise attempt to regain the advantages they are losing.
The first rule is that no one gets to kill anyone else. Anything that would kill people instead forces a particular response. If the bad guys open up with machine gun fire, the PCs dive behind some crates and can’t get out again. These are called threats. A person subjected to a threat may immediately think of an action that allows them to avoid the threat, even if it’s not their turn. A player may not respond to a threat with a threat of their own; the goal of this puzzle is not to create a Mexican standoff.
The second rule is that no actions can be taken without somehow circumventing earlier threats. For example, if the PCs are pinned by machine gun fire, a PC might think of using stealth or acrobatics to reach a flanking position and thus force the other enemy to fall to a defensive position where they can’t impose cover fire.
The third rule is that failures result in disadvantages, not injury. A player has to make sure that their next action is consistent with the disadvantage imposed, or else they need to do something else. If the acrobatic character manages to get hit by a bullet while dodging and weaving to a flanking position, they don’t take damage to HP. They instead might have a wound to the leg, and now they cannot do flips, climb, or run fast.
Once a player or the GM is able to impose a threat in such a way that the other can’t think of a response, the combat is over and the threatening character won. This is when they’ve trumped their opponents threats.
This kind of action-puzzle will make substantial use of competitive skill checks. It would work in GURPS, for example, because of Quick Contest rules. It would make use of many opposed checks in a D20 game. A system that does not allow for this is not suitable.
For my favourite example of this in action, lets look at a classic type of fist fight in a movie: the mad scramble for a pistol.
It starts with an NPC drawing a pistol on a PC, which is a threat. The PC must respond, so they knock the gun to the floor with a quick karate chop. Lets say the PC fails their check. They manage to deflect the gun to the side, but suffer a disadvantage: a superficial gun wound to the shoulder that makes their left arm useless. The gun drops to the floor, and now they are in a fist fight. Neither has the initial threat (the gun), but if either get it could be a trump. The villain has another idea about a fight winning threat, though: he kicks the gun to the far right, so that when the player turns to grab it their shoulder wound is exposed. I wouldn’t require a roll to kick something across the floor. This action imposes a new threat on the player: if the player goes for the gun they get attacked at their weak point and lose the fight. The player responds by tackling the guy who kicked the gun, and succeeds at the check. The villain is now on the ground struggling while the PC starts trying to pin them. The villain tries to escape by bucking the PC off of them, but fails their check. The disadvantage is that they are now in a pin. The PC goes for a choke hold, and the villain can’t do anything to respond. Victory by submission.
Playing Status Instead of Fighting
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about the theater concept of Status and how it can be used in an RPG through what I called “the status game.” Lets adjust this a bit so that it can be a replacement for combat.
First, lets talk about how status is used to resolve combat. The goal is to have an opponent go from high status to low status, so that they are now submissive to the PCs. If all the PCs are low status, they are forced to retreat or submit. When all the villains are low status, they will acquiesce to a demand to surrender.
High status characters can change other character’s status by interacting with them. They can make a low status character high status by behaving in an inspiring, supportive, or helpful way towards them. This will never require a check of some kind with most game systems. They can make an enemy high status character become low status by being intimidating, deceptive, or persuasive. This will require some kind of check.
Low status characters can use skills or checks that demonstrate that they are useful in combat (weapon skills, for example) to raise their status on their own, but only by targetting low status opponents. If they attempt to attack high status characters directly, the high status characters are simply able to defend themselves.
Any character may use any kind of skill that pertains to fighting to prevent a single low status character from becoming high status again. This is to make sure that the status game doesn’t go on forever.
A PC must roleplay every action they take. The goal is to replace tactical gameplay with acting.
Half of the PCs start with high status, and half of their opponents start with high status. The PCs can decide who gets high status themselves, and the GM decides which of the opponents start with high status. First each of the high status characters go, then all the low status characters go, and then the cycle repeats. Roll initiative if necessary, but since this is supposed to emphasize acting skills hopefully players will take the initiative when it is appropriate.
Here’s a good example of this kind of action scene: a western standoff.
The PCs are bounty hunters facing off against 2 gun-toting bandits. They are all staring each other down. One PC and one NPC can’t hack it, and avert their gaze. They begin with low status. One PC and one NPC retain high status, and continue to stare each other down. The high status player says to their ally “keep your hands steady, pilgrim. These fellows aren’t any different than any other bandits we’ve fought.” The low status PC now has their status raised to high status.
“We’re a little different… We have a third man in the hills, and he’s as good a shot as they come.” the NPC bluffs. He succeeds on his check, and the PC is reduced to low status again.
The low status PC points his gun at the low status bandit. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to…” he swallows nervously, then thinks he sees the bandit’s finger twitch and shoots at him in a fit of panick! He succeeds on the roll, the NPC bandit falls to the ground with a minor arm wound, and can’t gain high status.
The low status character says “You son of a gun! I’m bleeding all over.” and shoots in response. He succeeds at his check also, so the low status PC also has a superficial wound and may not be raised to high status for the fight. But then a Player interjects and says “But Mr. GM, the bandits statement doesn’t sound low status.” The GM says “Oh shoot, you’re right. I should have said “Oh god, oh no, I don’t want to die!” but instead I acted in a high status fashion.” The Bandit fails the check, on account of poor roleplaying.
The first PC says “get yourself together.” This brings the low status PC into high status. The high status bandit says “Die, you lily livered law man scum! I’m surprised you could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight. Then again, I’m surprised I could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight.” and shoots at the first PC. However, because he is high status his check is for the taunt, not the shooting. The insult stings as bad as the bullets, so even though the shots narrowly miss the PC’s head he is now low status.
The second PC now has a chance to go, and uses their high status to get the bandit to admit defeat. “There’s two of us and only one of you. Surrender, and we’ll make sure you get a fair trial. Your chances are better with the jury than with us.” The second PC succeeds on their check, and the remaining bandit drops to low status.
Now that he must act in a low status fashion, the bandits most obvious course of action is to surrender.
The Threat of Violence
In a bunch of action movies, the threat of violence is used to create tension. Some great films that do this are High Noon, Shane, and taxi driver. In the modern day, some people might not even think of these films as action movies, because of how little action is in them. In these films, the threat forces the players to prepare in some way for an imminent violent confrontation, or forces them to work very hard to find peaceful resolutions that delay the violent confrontation.
This has a notable characterization advantage: if the PCs are trying to find a peaceful solution to a problem then they are almost certainly the good guys. It doesn’t matter if their raiders, warlocks, or con-men; they are on the side of peace.
However, it means that each scene can’t be a combat scene. It means the PCs will go through a series of roleplaying/acting challenges and open-ended puzzles in the hopes of delaying violence or gaining allies. The longer they delay the violence, or the more help they win, the easier the battle is in the end.
This means that the players need to understand that the confrontation is not one they are all expected to walk away from. It may also be a good idea to tie bonus XP to the encounter for each PC that survives the battle, if the PCs are trying to get into a fight as soon as possible.
Most systems are not designed with providing incentives for delaying combat. However, it is not hard to do.
Mutants and Masterminds has a few built in methods to delay a final confrontation with the super-villain. The villains will almost always threaten innocent lives when they’re staging their crime and escaping. The PCs gain Hero Points for when they save innocent lives, even if it’s at the expense of a criminal saving. This means the villain will keep on getting away, while the PCs roleplay and solve puzzles to save innocent lives. When the PCs have enough hero points, they’ll be able to use the hero points to rapidly defeat the villain next time they present themselves.
All you need is any expendable resource that can be given for delaying the fight for a bit. This could be “bonus uses” of good luck or serendipity in GURPS. It could be Action Points in D&D. It could be willpower in a white wolf game (although quintessence, rage, conviction, or blood would probably be more motivating).
My Secret Motive
With luck, this broadening of how combat can be played can make action stories a bit more flexible. I have a secret goal for these also. I want ways to resolve combats that can fit better with dramatic structures, or could be used when a party is split. I think these will work. I think with only one PC, a Trump combat will take 5 minutes at most. I think 5 minutes/PC seems fair if the PCs are split up. I’ll need to test this hypothesis, mind you, and make sure I can keep it moving that fast.
Regardless of how well it addresses my secret motive, it seems to work okay for my first set of objectives.