The trump battle was an effort to replace combat with open ended puzzles. I also felt it would better emulate TV action. Here’s the post it’s from:
I’ve been using it in my most recent campaign. Lets look at how it played out, and what I learned from them.
Example 1: The Burning Ghost
In the middle of the night, in the ruins of a burned down house, two mages were preparing a seance. They were attempting to contact a particular ghost named Jennifer. She started the fire that burned down the aforementioned house, she manifested in a local bar to tell them to stop their investigation, and they suspected that she was responsible for her (still living) husbands’ near death experience. As it turns out, the mages were right.
The ghost’s set of powers are: insubstantiality, materialization, and create/control fire. Arguably insubstantially and materialization are just two ways of describing the same power, but if you bother arguing about that you are a nerd. Like me.
An Angry, Ghost causes fires to start up in the material world. This imposes a threat that the players need tor espond to.
Mage #1 sets up a ward to keep them safe from the fire.
Mage #2 uses some spirit magic to let them both see into the spirit world, and thus see the ghost that’s attacking them. A useful effect.
Mage #1 takes control of the fire, and blasts the ghost with it. The ghost is in the spirit world, though, so it’s unaffected by this.
Mage #2 uses some spirit magic to send his knife into the spirit world while stabbing at the ghost. This forces a response from the ghost.
The Angry Ghost’s fire power is currently under the control of Mage #1, so Jennifer’s only real option is to use her materialization to leave the spirit world. But the material world is filled with fire because Mage #1 took control of it.
Sucks to be Jennifer. I decided to have her die by fiery explosion, because it seemed quicker and less brutal than being stabbed to death. Well, she was already dead… Whatever happens to ghosts when they are obliviated.
Then the mages speculated about what happens to ghosts when they “die” and concluded that ghosts probably can’t “die.” They assumed she would be back, some day. Sometimes the players just throw the GM a bone, am I right?
Example 2: the Wendigo and the Serpent
Some hikers went missing in a freak storm, so some mages went to investigate. The mages found the hikers unconscious, out in the open, half buried in snow. However, when they loaded up the unconscious hikers into their bus they were confronted by two supernatural creatures: a big-foot like creature and a giant snake. The big foot like creature could control the weather, was super strong, and wanted to eat human flesh. Due to its fondness for human flesh I called it a Wendigo. The giant snake was in the spirit world, and could only be heard because it was underground. Both of them wanted to take the hikers, and they did not get along.
Mage #1 slammed on the gas, and tried to escape. The Wendigo grabbed onto the back of the van and held it in place with it’s incredible strength!
Mage #2: used spirit magic to thicken the barrier between worlds. It was actually much more clever than that, but the details would only be appreciated by Mage players. This will keep the serpent stuck in the spirit world.
Mage #3 tried to use some psychic powers to make the wendigo very impressionable, and then boss the wendigo around. Unfortunately, Mage #3 failed their rolls.
The Wendigo hit the van with a lightning bolt. One of the mages got a ward up just in time.
The Serpent tried to break into the material world, but was unable to do so. Mage #2 felt very good about himself.
Mage #1 suddenly switched the van into reserse, and tried to run over the Wendigo (or at least knock it off balance). It didn’t work again, because the Wendigo is too strong.
Mage #2 strengthened the barrier between worlds even more. That serpent was not getting into our world!
Mage #3 took control of the lightning with magic and tried to hit the Wendigo. The wendigo was able to defend itself, however, by fighting for control of the lightning.
The Wendigo tried to tip the van over. However, its attempt to do so was interrupted when Mage #2 threw a rock into it’s face, stunning it for a second.
The Serpent was getting really frustrated at being stuck in the spirit world. It was unable to do anything.
Mage #2 threw a jerrycan at the Wendigo, and lit it on fire with the lightning. The wendigo, in response, used its great strength and massive arms to shield itself from the explosion. Unfortunately for the Wendigo, this meant that the Van was no longer being held in place. As such, Mage #1s threat was no longer being responded to, so mage #1 ran over the Wendigo, and escaped. The wendigo got up, apparently still unharmed, and futilely chased them before giving up.
The players escaped with the hitch hikers.
Things I Learned
I predicted it would be very important when doing this to make the threats persist through the scene even when the threatening action is over, so long as it is possible to repeat the action. With these Trump Battles I learned it’s just as important to make the counters persistent throughout the scene. If its a gunfight and gunfire forces someone to hide behind cover, if they ever ignore the need to avoid the cover fire they will get shot. That is a persistent threat. So long as it is still possible for the shooter to return to making those shots the threat has to be acknowledged, regardless of how many rounds have gone by in which the shooter was not shooting. If this is not done, the fight goes on forever. Conversely, once the player does something to protect themselves from the gunfire on their turn, they no longer need to worry about being shot. Suppose the character leaves cover while flipping and spinning to dodge bullets, like in a Gun Fu action movie. Now, they no longer need to worry about being shot unless the shooter can do something about the flipping and spinning. This is a persistent counter to the threat.
I figured this out at the beginning of Round 3. My initial instinct was to deflect the jerry can with a gust of wind, but it occurred to me that the storm had already been subverted by the players. The players never said they wanted their magical effects to have duration, but I realized if I don’t assume the counter persists the fight would last a very long time.
I know that controlling lightning is not the same thing as controlling wind, so taking control of the lightning should still leave the wind under the Wendigo’s control. From this point of view, I supposed I made a mistake having the Wendigo defend itself with its beastly arms. Next time I will want to remember that some abilities are more open-ended than others, and will require multiple effects from the players to fully counter. This could potentially drag out fights over very long periods of time. I think a reasonable limitation is that the GM should decide a finite number of things a power can be used for at a time. Since the game is about magi, in this campaign I would call this the Concentration Number. In other games I might call it something more generic. I’ll go with Conservation of Detail Index, as the higher the number, the less novel features will need to accompany a given opponent. Something about that term I find funny.
Player Feedback on Trump Battles
One player expressed that the combat was much more tense than a normal RPG battle. It felt like every decision and every roll mattered, because there was no HP to protect them from their own errors. This surprised me, because I was concerned that avoiding normal combat would make players feel like nothing was at risk.
One player expressed that it was very immersive, and gave room for ample role-playing opportunities during battle.
One player said he liked it. When asked to express why he said “same as them.”
No one offered any criticism. I think I need to play with my friends who prefer 4e DnD if I want someone to find every single problem with this system.