If you enjoy anime, you may have noticed that sometimes people are in a duel with one another and they spend most of their time talking. A significant portion of time will sometimes be spent with a close up on one character, while their inner monologue provides an in depth analysis of their opponent. When done effectively, this is enjoyable because it shifts the genre slightly away from action and into either drama or mystery. In an action story it is largely arbitrary who wins. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is mostly psychological the action scene ends up being shifted towards a drama, and character development becomes the means by which the combat is decided. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is part of their tools or combat style, it becomes a mystery. Many stories use both, simultaneously.
The director and writer have a difficult task in keeping the audience interested. Often the dialogue during the fight is actually about the protagonist finding sufficient motivation and obtaining sufficient status (the theater concept of status, not the sociological one) to fight without restriction. This is the kind of battle where the main participants often have philosophical discussions during the fight. Lets call this a drama-fight.
This can largely be contrasted with the “mystery fights.” Here the director and writer have the difficult task of pacing the delivery of information about an opponents fighting style, powers, and tools. The information must be relayed quickly enough that the audience can make educated guesses about how the protagonist will defeat the enemy, and the information must be relayed subtly enough that it doesn’t become overly obvious what the writer’s intent is. This is the same challenges that confront mystery movies. The role of detective in these stories tends to be replaced by a martial artist. The climax where the detective reveals what happened is replaced with the martial artist explaining how they’re defeating the opponent. This mystery-fight is resolved much more quickly than a normal mystery, as the story relies more on the spectacle of the resolution after the climax than the gradual increase in tension prior to the climax. This makes sense: martial arts stories have a lengthy and amusing martial art battle that ends the story, and mystery stories have a long and stressful investigation with a short resolution.
For extreme ways to incorporate these into games, look at these: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/alternative-types-of-action/
Less Extreme Example: My Mage Game
While initially my mage game used a lot of “trump battles,” once I decided to start incorporating damage and health values it ended up being exactly the same as standard M:tA combat. This happened largely because white wolf is a minimalist system. My mage game now uses no house rules that pertain to combat, but I turn every battle into a “mystery-fight.” This change happened largely by accident, and it is quite enjoyable.
This is accomplished by making the enemy much stronger than the players, but making it so that all their powers fit into a narrow theme. As soon as the players figure out what that theme is, they can start to turn the tide of battle. To figure out what the theme is, the players make a variety of attacks and seeing how the enemy defends themself, and analyze how the enemy attacks them.
This works because, in M:tA, magic operates under (minimal restrictions) that vary from mage to mage: paradigm and focus. These are largely narrative restrictions, and largely designate what a mage needs to be able to do magic. There are also the thematic focus I put on the magic as the GM, and the game mechanics of spheres. It might sound abstract, but that’s Mage for you. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.
The most recent example is a fight against a Void Engineer (a statement that means nothing unless you are one of the few M:tA players still out there). The more important part is that this character had the power to understand the location of people and things with a degree of precision that is positively superheroic, and manipulate them with an equal degree of precision. The theme was precision in space. Their magic was all “correspondence 3,” which means they could sense and manipulate the location of themselves and other things. Their paradigm only allowed them to use magic if it could be explained away by luck or skill, and their main foci are observation or large movement. The fight was in a cramped office.
The void engineer’s opening move was to dive over a counter and kick a display table of fliers, in such a way that the fliers spray up into a perfect wall that obscures vision perfectly for just one second. He then launches a surprise attack from behind this cover. During this moment of brief invisibility, one player used luck magic to shoot him anyway, and the other PC uses life magic to transform into some kind of hulking, bulletproof muscleman, and attempt to grab the void engineer. The void engineers second move was to dodge to the side in such a way that a PC ended up “falling” into another PCs line of fire. The PCs, having figured out that this guy was just too darn mobile, decided they needed to stop him from moving so much. One of the PCs is a time mage, so he decided to slow down time the next time the void engineer attempts one of their fancy magical maneuvers. A different PC decided it was time to try and wrestle and pin the void engineer to the ground. The void engineer was going to try and escape outside where, with a gun in hand and lots of space, he would have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, time slowed just as he attempted to make a break for it, and then he was pinned to the ground.
Note how all the actions were pretty normal combat actions for a game of Mage, but by providing a powerful but narrow theme to the enemy’s magic it was possible to treat it like a mystery to solve. Once the players figure it out, the problem is really easy to solve. This makes it quite different to play than a “trump battle,” where it plays more like a puzzle.