Why should the pace of gameplay be held hostage by combat mechanics?
Anything else we can take or leave – we can assume success on any skill roll and get straight to the results. But combat? No – not unless we hand victories to the players on a platter.
In part one of this series, I reduced attack rolls – regardless of game system – to a single d20 roll; and in part two, I showed how to abstract damage mechanics – again, no matter how complex the game system – to a single d10 roll. Between them, these sacrifice granularity and precision of result for speed of play and a focus on gameplay instead of game mechanics when that is particularly beneficial.
I call this sort of thing Cinematic Combat because it’s more focused on drama, action, and pace, than it is on precisely simulating every blow and movement.
Cinematic Combat isn’t my own term; others have used it before, and it has acquired a somewhat negative reputation as a result. Not everyone defines the term to mean the same thing, and some of the applications to which it has been put have been more successful than others. In particular, some people use the term to refer to diceless play, or to combat completely devoid of game mechanics – pure narrative.
Of course, in theory, if more abstract, faster combat mechanics are good, the complete absence of mechanics to interrupt the narrative is even better; but it hardly ever seems to work out that way. See, for example, the comments of Hungry at Ravenous Roleplaying in discussing the first part of this series:
When someone breaks out the statement, “Let’s play a cinematic game!” I always cringe. This (in my experience) usually equates to, “I want to play a character where the rules don’t apply to me!” *sigh* I know that’s not the case. However, it’s happened to me too many times that the phrase still hurts me. I guess when I try to limit someone’s actions with a reasonable obstacle or circumstance, the player response has been, “I thought this was supposed to be cinematic?” Ugh.
I think the place to start is where I think Hungry – and others – have gone wrong. Going Sans Mechanics doesn’t mean that there are no game mechanics in place and it certainly doesn’t mean that there are no rules; it simply means that the combat situation is such that the game mechanics will hinder more than they will help for this particular battle and have been set aside for that reason. I’ll get into the how of doing that a little later.
Playing the game without combat mechanics simply means that narrative replaces a strict interpretation, and that the Game Master chooses for the players to interface with the game situation without the barrier of mechanics so that both sides can concentrate on what is taking place in-game and the players can remain more deeply in character.
When to go Sans Mechanics
When to go without game mechanics is all tied up in why. There are two reasons why a GM might choose to do so:
- The combat situation is so complex that it’s going to take all of everyone’s concentration just to keep track of who’s where doing what; this situation occurs a lot less frequently if miniatures and battlemats can be employed, but even then, the occasional circumstance can demand this option.
- The other circumstance that might prompt going Sans Mechanics is when the combat situation is such that the actual battle poses no danger to the PCs taking part, and indeed, would be either boring or would consume lots of game time for no discernible benefit.
When either of these conditions apply, you should at least consider doing without the game mechanics for the battle. But before you can make that decision, there is one final option to consider: Cinematic Combat of the type described in parts one and two. This isn’t something that should be regarded as a compromise between full mechanics and no mechanics; instead, it should be the default option when you choose Cinematic Combat. Going completely Sans Mechanics should be reserved for those rare occasions when even this default option doesn’t go far enough.
There are several reasons for this.
- The first is that the players need to be completely convinced of the GM’s fairness, and specifically confident that he isn’t making this choice in order to force an outcome that wouldn’t be possible if full mechanics were in place. If this is not the case, the players will feel like the GM is “cheating” to ensure an outcome.
- The second is that it can be far more difficult for the GM than he is expecting, and if his descriptive skills or detail of imagination falls short, the whole game can collapse.
- The third is that even the limited mechanics of the Abstract System provide a rules-based foundation for gameplay; players can go over the top or try to achieve too much at once when freed from this constraint, and so can a GM who’s not used to what he’s doing.
- Fourth, the pace of the game can be too fast for the GM to keep up with, or – occasionally – for the players.
- The fifth – as if that lot weren’t enough – is that the situation might not be as interesting to the players as the GM expects it to be, and the GM is pinning the entire enjoyment of the game on that entertainment value.
- Finally, there are some players who derive the bulk of their entertainment from combat, and not from roleplay; those players can feel that the GM is picking on them and deliberately excluding them from enjoying the game. If there are some mechanics, no matter how abbreviated, the player can still focus on the tactical situation and enjoy his part of the adventure.
None of those reasons is sufficient to preclude going Sans Mechanics – but they are all good reasons to think very carefully about the alternatives before doing so, if you really are justified in the choice.
Game Flow Sans Mechanics
A decision that requires serious consideration as soon as the GM decides to go Sans Mechanics is how he is going to handle Game Flow. I’ve listed the two techniques that I normally use in separate sections below, but there may be others that I have not thought of.
Standard Combat Timing
ne alternative that some might consider an option is to employ standard combat timing – which means that you employ the standard initiative or combat sequence mechanics, and let each character have their full allocation of actions. You might think that this at least acknowledges the standard mechanics in a way that would mollify players disgruntled for one of the reasons listed previously.
I can’t advise against this approach strongly enough. Not only does the logic fail to stand up in reality, but it throws away a substantial degree of the benefit of going with combat mechanics. Players who are unhappy about being completely subject to the GMs interpretation of circumstances and attempted actions will still be unhappy, and the endless drag of turn-by-turn actions completely undoes the simplification of the situation or the bypassing of tedium – whichever motivation led to the choice of foregoing mechanics in the first place, it is totally undermined. On top of that, it unevenly divides screen time amongst the players. While there may be other options than those I’ve listed below, as I suggested a moment ago, this isn’t one of them.
N Subplots, Synchronized
Practical Option number one is to consider everything that’s going on to be a series of subplots being conducted virtually simultaneously – it might be one subplot per character, or two or more characters may be involved in a single subplot. It doesn’t matter if they are all taking place in the same location as long as they are doing separate things, or even combating separate opponents.
Go Around The Table
Practical Option number two is similar, but is player-based instead of character-based. You go around the table, giving each player identical screen time as measured in character actions or interactions. The recipe might be two exchanges of dialogue between a PC and an NPC, or one skill action, or a 30′ movement, or casting one spell, or a minute of fighting.
The time frame also needs thought when implementing this choice. Too long an interval and players will lose interest because for every occasion when their characters get to act, there is four times as much dead time while the others are acting. Too short an interval, and people won’t get the chance to do enough to advance their “subplot” significantly.
I recommend a maximum of three minutes, and a minimum of 30 seconds, but I have violated both those limits when the occasion seemed to warrant. Sometimes I’ve used a trigger condition – the conversation continues until “X” point comes out, then each of the other players gets a similar amount of screen time, and then it’s on to the next tour of the table; this means that the length of each circuit may be different, but each tour divides screen time evenly amongst the players.
This can be helped by not following the exact same sequence of players with each tour. You can select the player whose subplot is likely to be the next to reach a decisive moment first, and use that as your yardstick – which shows that one of the key benefits that you gain by leaving out the combat mechanics is flexibility.
What both players and GM have to understand about combat without game mechanics is that the game mechanics still exist within the mind of the GM. He can abstract them as much as necessary, but he still uses them as a guideline to the narrative that he delivers and the interaction that the PCs have with events.
He probably won’t break things down into round-by-round action-by-action specifics, but will deal with such things in a more holistic manner, ascertaining what each PC is trying to do, determining how long it will be before success or failure become apparent, and describing the events and outcomes of each such intention, in exactly the same way that he would if he were GMing a conversation between a PC and an NPC.
When events reach the point at which he must describe an outcome, he determines the result on the informed basis of knowing both the mechanics and the interlocking intentions of both PC and NPC, describes the events in the form of narrative, and then prompts the player for a new intention based on that outcome – and the conflict then continues from that point.
The mechanics are still there – they are simply removed from directly interfacing with the players, leaving them to roleplay without mechanics to hide behind.
One of my favorite techniques for implementing mental mechanics is to use imaginary die rolls. These don’t specifically relate to attacks or skills or anything else, instead they synopsize the general trend of events for or against the PCs. Nor are they random; instead they follow one of two general trends, modified for PC and NPC intentions. The two general trends are the “Oscillating Trend”, and the “Roll-And-Reverse” Technique.
The Oscillating Trend
When one of the two factions starts out as dominant, and especially when the shape of the intended narrative casts the PCs as the underdogs, the technique to use is “The Oscillating Trend”.
At the start of Cinematic Combat (Phase 1), the PCs are underdogs, and everything seems to go their enemy’s way, though little by little things improve for the PCs. In Phase 2, things make a pronounced swing in the PCs’ favor. During Phase 3, the PCs are dominant and look like achieving a hard-won victory against the odds, but in Phase 4, the enemy begin to fight back, striking a serious blow to the PCs’ hopes in Phase 5, and recovering to such an extent that in Phase 6 the outcome is in the balance. In Phase 7, momentum in the battle again shifts in the PCs’ favor until finally victory is achieved.
The number of times the battle swings this way or that, how long it stays to the advantage of one side or another, how quickly things change – these are all up to the GM. It might be that in a different battle, the PCs start out on top, and can reasonably anticipate an easy victory – but things don’t go their way, and the enemy reaches the point of almost total success before the PCs snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, having underestimated their opponents.
There is a narrative structure inherent in both these examples, and the idea is that the success of maneuvers, the success of attacks, the damage done – it is all synopsized by this trend line. Anything and everything that can affect the flow of combat is dictated by the trend, whether it is surprises or luck or the arrival of reinforcements to one side or the revelation of unexpected allies or betrayals or even a falling out between allies.
Of course, these trends are influenced by what the characters on the battlefield are trying to achieve. In particular, characters who try to work with the trend and adjust their immediate goals accordingly – seeking smaller gains when things turn against them and chasing loftier goals when things are going their way – should prosper and eventually succeed. Trying for the spectacular, against-the-odds twist of fate when things are going against you tends to expose you to a higher likelihood of failure, and all you can hope to do is minimize the damage and hold out for the inevitable swing to your advantage.
Of course, the PCs aren’t going to be the only ones with immediate goals to try and achieve; the enemy will also have priorities and things that they want to achieve. The trend is obviously going to be modified by the likelihood of success of these immediate ambitions and actions in combat – attempt something that you would normally achieve easily, and the trend will likely begin to turn in your favor. Best of all is when both the PCs immediate ambitions and those of the enemy can be achieved because they don’t directly conflict; that’s when intentions are a wash and whatever trend there was continues. The tactical situation can be completely transformed without affecting the balance of advantage in the slightest.
The Roll-and-Reverse technique
When there is no obvious superiority between the forces and the circumstances of combat, I employ what I call the “Roll-and-Reverse” technique. This essentially means that for battle action #1, an imaginary die roll that is either at the 1/4 or 3/4 mark – eg 5 or 15 on d20 – dictates the balance of momentum (as described in “Oscillating Trend”, while in the next, the opposite value is used, so that a 5 follows a 15 and vice-versa. This continues until one side or the other establishes a clear superiority, when the “Oscillating Trend” becomes the pattern.
It might seem that this can’t happen if you continue to implement a policy of swapping 5’s and 15’s as the guideline to the action, but that impression fails to take into account intention interpretation. When the advantage is swapping back and forth at great rapidity, pursuing small, strategic, easily-achieved advantages accumulates an advantage with certainty – though a grand gesture when things are going in your favor can be decisive in terms of the initial advantage, too. Once again, it’s the combination of what the different participants try to achieve that eventually produces something decisive.
You might decide that the gain of a small advantage shifts things in the PCs favor by 1 in 20 – not a big improvement, but it means that the 15 becomes a 16, and the 5, a six. Repeat twice more, and it’s 18 and 8, and even when things are going against the PCs, an 8 means that they aren’t losing much ground – so the balance has shifted decisively to the PCs, and the GM can shift to trend oscillation. But, before that happens, if the enemy had tried something big when the trend was in their favor, the opposite could be true.
One point that should be made is that the enemy automatically have an advantage – they are controlled by the GM knows when chance is in their favor. That means that more often than not, the initial advantage will swing in their direction. Balancing against this are two advantages that the PCs have: because they are controlled by multiple players against the one GM, they can think about several different things at once; and secondly, players can be unpredictable at times. Surprise works in their favor. It is that double advantage that keeps the technique fair despite the advantage inherent in being an NPC under the circumstance.
Narrative & Interaction are Paramount
A point that was made earlier but bears both repetition and closer scrutiny is the importance of Narrative and Interaction. Narrative is when the GM is describing things to the players; Interaction is when he (in the role of an NPC) is conversing with a PC. When you forgo combat mechanics, these are what should take their place.
That means that they have to be good enough to justify their prioritization over standard gameplay. You can’t afford to waffle, or be vague, or bland; your delivery has to be rich and full of vivid imagery and character.
I know some people who think that doing away with combat mechanics is a lazy solution for the GM who is pressed for time, because generating mechanics-ready NPCs takes an effort. People who hold that opinion are usually the ones who come a cropper when they attempt Cinematic Combat because – to do it properly – Cinematic Combat, and especially Cinematic Combat Sans Mechanics, requires more prep and not less.
Such prep involves the careful characterization of NPCs, working on ways that characterization can manifest as actions and verbal cues, creating sub-paragraphs of prepared text that can be wrapped in a framing sentence and inserted at appropriate moments, practicing with voices and accents, picturing settings and locations from different positions – anything and everything that you can think of. On top of that, some of this prep can’t be done properly without having constructed the character to a sufficient extent that you could run a combat with full mechanics.
Combat Sans Mechanics
There is no bible to dictate how you should go about running a combat without the supporting game mechanics. Most game rules will, in fact, assume that you will always use the mechanics as written, barring the occasion tweak for unusual conditions. You may get some pointers from LARP-oriented game rulebooks, but that’s just an assumption on my part – I’ve never read one and certainly have never played a LARP, so I can’t speak from experience.
All that being said, I have evolved my own process, which I describe in following sections. I doubt this is the only way to do it, but it’s a technique that I have developed and utilized in campaigns from multiple genres and based on distinctly different game systems. It might not be the only solution, but it is one that works.
Step one is to always know who is going to act next. You have near-infinite flexibility; your guides have to be what works best for the overall narrative flow, and fairness in allocating screen time amongst the players. One of the easiest ways of representing one side or another being on top is to bunch their actions; this almost guarantees that the other side will then get the opportunity to swing the course of events their way.
One thing that you do have to be wary of is the combination of a “Call and response” pattern coupled with the Roll-and-reverse technique. It’s no good alternating “5 and 15″ if the “5” is always one faction and the “15” the other.
I sometimes attempt to second-guess the PCs, thinking at the start of each series of actions about what each character is most likely to want to achieve in the course of that round, based on the existing situation within the battle; then about how likely that is to succeed, and what the overall impact on the course of battle will be in the event of success or failure; and then using those results to decide the sequence that will be most entertaining/interesting for all concerned, and that will follow the intended overall narrative arc that I have in mind.
If the character plays it safe, they will probably succeed in what they are trying to do, but may not get much benefit or reward from it. If they are more ambitious, more interesting, they have a greater risk of failure – but will gain a greater benefit or advantage if they succeed. But there is also going to be some changes in plan as each character reacts to what has gone before, and players are sometimes unpredictable, so you can never be sure when you start what will happen. It takes only seconds for the battle to take on a direction and life of its own. I revise the action rota as I go, based on who is in the best position to react to whatever has just happened, bearing in mind the basic guidelines.
However you do it, the first decision is always who to throw the spotlight on first.
Once you know who the first character to act is going to be, next you need to decide what they are going to try and accomplish while the spotlight is on them.
What is reasonable?
Once you know what they are trying to accomplish, you can decide whether or not their current share of the spotlight is enough to see that task to the point of resolution, the alternative being for them to start it/continue it and get back to them the next time around. It’s also necessary at this point to start thinking about whether or not what they are attempting is reasonable at all; if it’s not, and I think the character is aware enough to realize that, I will let them start and then inform the player that they may have bitten off more than they can chew, giving them a clear choice to consider before their next spotlight time of whether they want to continue, or want to try something else.
Allowing For Conditions
You always have to make allowance for conditions. Often, the game mechanics serve as a checklist of sorts, a safety net that is no longer available to you; that makes it doubly important that you keep mental track of the combat situation at all times, and factor the current circumstances into your assessment of what is reasonable and what isn’t.
Part of those circumstances is the mental “trend indicator”; when things are going your way, difficult and challenging tasks can seem easy, and when things are going against you, even simple tasks can be too hard.
While analyzing the stated intention of the character, I always have part of my attention focused on how I can describe both what is being attempted, what success or failure will “look” like, and what the consequences will be. This is because there’s not much that’s worse than waiting patiently for your turn of the spotlight only for the story to be “You’re still doing [X]” and the GM moving on to the next character. It’s not enough simply to “check in” on the character and signpost a continuing activity; this is unacceptable narrative. Each time you check in on the character, you want to be able to describe in specifics what they have done and what remains to do. You need to advance their “subplot” to a substantial degree before moving on to the next character.
When characters try too hard
Sometimes players will try to be general about what they are doing, either to get a large task done in one “hit” or because they don’t want to bog down in minutia. “I get the Grav-sled running”, or “I take out all the stormtroopers” or “I rescue the hostages”. When this happens, you have to give the player a direct choice – start task X knowing that they won’t get it finished in this “operating round”, or break the task down into a series of smaller bites. If the player chooses the first, and they have not specified how they are going to achieve the task, you can either prompt them for details of how they intend to go about it (unless you already know) or they have to accept your interpretation of how they will go about achieve their goal.
One thing that can quickly become confused in Cinematic Combat is where everybody is, and this can lead to colossal misjudgments. Not only should the GM make clear anything that the PC needs to know in terms of who is where in the course of a pre-intentions narrative, but he should be particularly vigilant for such errors, and permit sensible changes of intentions where that’s appropriate.
To assist with this, I will sometimes use battlemaps and miniatures to show the situation as it develops, and sometimes use the quick pencil-and-paper maps that I described and demonstrated in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly. Everyone has enough to concentrate on already, so unless the situation is completely straightforward and certain to stay that way these are just as useful in cinematic combat as they are at any other time.
Succeed Or Fail
Once I’ve got my head around what people are trying to do, and what the current circumstances are, I will determine whether or not they succeed or fail based on the relative difficulty of what they are attempting and the current trend indication – unless the task is going to take longer than this slice of spotlight time, in which event I will describe how far they have gotten and any problems or unexpected successes along the way.
- “You get the first tumbler more easily than you expected, and have moved on to the second, which is proving a little harder; the lock is old and corroded internally, and this one seems rusted into place – either that, or you haven’t hit the sweet spot yet with your lock-picks.”
- “With a splutter and a cough, the engine roars into life before it again coughs and cuts out. A cloud of thick black smoke erupts from the tailpipe and you smell the scent of gasoline. Running back to the vehicle’s cabin, you advance the choke a little further before returning to the crank and again grasp the handle firmly, preparing for a second attempt.”
- “You tear pages out of the book five and ten at a time, throwing the sensitive data into the fire. It’s touch-and-go whether or not you’ll be finished before your position is overrun.”
- “You leap from the second-story landing and reach out for the chandelier, grabbing hold of it firmly and swinging across the room. A creak from the timbers to which it is secured sends shivers down your spine, it’s a long way down. Carefully you check the angle of your swing and begin to adjust it to let you leap onto the fleeing courier before he reaches the door. At the last possible moment, you release your grasp and hurtle through the air! Meanwhile…”
That last “Meanwhile…” is a very important cue; that, and other similar phrases, indicate that the spotlight has moved on, and you’ll get back to the player the next time it’s his character’s turn to act.
Effects & Consequences
The other thing that the above examples also demonstrated was how to present the effects and consequences of the action, complete or not, and of success or failure. There are three possible statuses of a task: Success (so far), Failure (so far), and Continuing, too soon to tell. This status should be made clear by the narrative you provide.
Unless they are completely unaware of it, other characters involved in the combat should react to the success or failure, possibly amending their intended but unstated actions as a result.
With that character’s action complete for this period of spotlight time, move on to the next. If the outcome of the last action significantly changed the circumstances, those characters who have not yet had their current turn in the spotlight act, but usually not in the order I initially determined; instead, I will rank those eligible according to their capability to react to the changed situation. This often means whoever is closest to the character who has just succeeded, then whoever is next closest, and so on.
Use “Off-camera” to your dramatic advantage
I often think of myself as a television or movie director when running Cinematic Combat, thinking about how best to show the course of events in a suitably dramatic fashion. This prompts me to use “off-camera” strategically.
For example, Character A begins to negotiate with an NPC for his assistance. So far as the player of the character is concerned, this action is unresolved; but before he gets his next action, the NPC with whom he was negotiating appears on the field of combat, the PC in tow. Clearly, the character has succeeded, but rather than actually showing the moment of success, I reveal the result by way of the consequences.
And so the pattern continues until the combat reaches a decisive conclusion.
An Even More Extreme Option
Cinematic Combat doesn’t have to stop there. You can compress events still more by having each PC declare what they are trying to do next all at the same time and then interpreting the trend as an indicator of the group’s overall success/failure; that means that on a more-or-less even value, roughly 50% of what they try will work and 50% won’t, and for every cataclysmic failure thrown in by the GM to liven things up, someone else will have an equally stupendous success.
In many ways, this is the easiest form of cinematic combat, despite the need for some closer attention to prep (as previously described). The conflict is distilled into a straightforward us-vs-them tug-of-war, or at least to something for which that is a metaphor! Things update for everyone all at once, smothering bureaucratic delays. You can even nuance in some acknowledgement that one character has more actions/attacks than others by letting them do a little more – remember, the mechanics are still there, they have simply been hidden behind a curtain that conveniently obscures them, some more than others.
And, to be honest and up-front about it, this is the variant of cinematic combat that I employ most frequently. Simple, robust, and direct – the players tell me what their PCs are trying to do, I decide what the NPCs are trying to do, and we roleplay for a bit. What could be simpler?
Cinematic Combat: The Wrap-up
Cinematic Combat is not something to be apprehensive about; it’s a tool that should be in every GM’s toolkit. When applied sparingly and at appropriate times, it can greatly benefit an adventure and a campaign. This series has hopefully given readers the instruction needed to do so with confidence and success!
This article wraps up the series on Cinematic Combat, but just as importantly, it celebrates the milestone that was announced a couple of weeks ago – Yesterday at about 1:45 PM local time, Campaign Mastery received it’s 1,000,000th page view!
This Blog would not exist without its readers, so on behalf of everyone whose words have been published here, I offer my sincere thanks!! The next milestone: 7th Birthday, 750 posts, and Xmas 2015 – all at about the same time!