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Action Scenes!

Action Scene: Zero-Gravity Martial Arts

by Dan Bayn
Jan 05,2004


Action Scene: Zero-Gravity Martial Arts

The star ship has obviously been deserted for quite some time, yet the Jedi could clearly sense life forms huddled in the cargo bay. The Gunslinger draws a pair of slugthrowers while his compatriot ignites his lightsaber and opens the door. Two grey-skinned aliens lay near the outer doors, their spindly limbs tangled together in a heap. The Jedi approach cautiously, senses attuned to every molecule in the room. The air hums with danger.

Suddenly, the aliens spring to life! Whipcords lash out from their hands and wrap around parts of the cargo bay walls. The artificial gravity shuts down as the main doors roar to life. Before even the Jedi can react, they're being blown out into cold, weightless vacuum...

An entire genre of movies, books, and role-playing games has grown up around the concept of space travel. Yet, most science-fiction writers go to great lengths to make life in space feel just like home. Chief among the contrivances they employ to this end is artificial gravity. The human body is evolved to employ the force of gravity, relying on it for everything from circulation to locomotion. Though you may not realize it, we also rely on gravity when we fight.

Balance and power are the cornerstone of every Earthly martial art. The former comes from controlling one's center of gravity, while the latter comes from channeling one's force through a properly anchored base. When these cornerstones are removed, everything else comes tumbling down. Fighting in zero-g is as alien to us as breathing water. That's not just bad news for fighters in hard sci-fi games; characters in any sci-fi setting can find themselves facing foes inside a ship whose gravity has been broken, sabotaged, or intentionally shut-down.

When you can't rely on your own weight to provide traction, Newton's third law becomes personally relevant. Every kick, punch, and pimp slap sends you spinning back the way you came. However, this can be a blessing. Free from gravity, a 0-G martial artist can indulge in all kinds of otherwise "unrealistic" wire-fu stunts: Kick a guy and turn the counter-spin into a backwards somersault that plants your heel in another guy's face. Put a mook in an arm lock, flip 'em upside down, and deliver a punch that sends 'em sailing across the room. Long-distance leaps go without saying.

Blocking is a somewhat more complicated affair. Without traction, there's very little you can do to prevent the force of an attack from being converted into motion, your motion. It can be hard to counter-attack while moving rapidly away from your adversary. The solution is to turn every block into a grappling move, redirecting your opponent's momentum (i.e. a throw) or pulling them towards you to add power to your counter-attack.

A word on guns: Recoil. Unless you can brace yourself against a wall (which may often be the case, what with the need for cover and what not), every gunshot is going to push you backwards like a miniature rocket. If you want serious speed (enough to help you dodge enemy fire, for instance), you'll need a grotesquely high caliber weapon or an SMG with a clip you don't mind emptying. Otherwise, you're just in for some moderately annoying backwards rotation.

The second way to deal with zero-g fighting is to incorporate a tether into your martial arts. Batman-style grappling ropes are the best option, especially if they have a magnetic or gravitic anchoring mechanism on the end. You might want to fight with one in each hand; that way, you can swing from one to the other (a la Spider-man) or swing from one while using the other as a weapon. My personal favorite is something I call a "whipcord." It's a smart-whip that can extend, retract, and wrap itself around objects on command. My NPCs attach razor blades to the ends of theirs, for slicin' and dicin' fun.

The Genre Mash

Obviously, this is a sci-fi gimmick. Modern and fantasy games that set any scene on a space ship, much less a fight scene, are few and far between. On the other hand, you can get much the same effect out of free fall, which occurs in modern settings any time your characters see fit to jump out of a plane or send one into a suicidal nose dive. (In other words, all the time.) Zero-g fights could work in a fantasy game if the NPCs have some kind of anti-gravity spell up their collective sleeve. It's not a half-bad ambush tactic (see below).

Hostile Tactics

Assuming your NPCs know their Zero-Fu, their best tactic is to shut off the gravity right before they strike! It'll put the PCs off balance and force them to fight on their enemies' turf. GMs should feel free to double up penalties for surprise and hostile terrain. As in this month's example, I like to combine this tactic with some violent decompression. It's good, clean fun.

Conversely, you can do some more damage by suddenly switching the gravity back on in the middle of a fight. If you've been battling in one of those classic Star Wars environments (i.e. an anomalously gargantuan tube without any railings or other OSHA-approved safety features), this trick can serve as a segue into the Clinging to the Side of a Building fight.

In zero-g, what goes up very rarely comes down. Blood and other liquids pool into floating globes. Broken glass and other debris drift through the air like clouds of chaff. In fact, melee fighters could probably level the playing field against gun-toting foes by filling the air with some kind of chaff. Blades and fists can push their way through many things that are big and heavy enough to deflect bullets. The chaff doesn't have to stop bullets cold, just knock them off course.

Lights, Camera...

The Jedi projects his will through the Force and reverses the bay door controls. He and his partner slam into bulwark as it seals shut. The Gunslinger leaps back into the center of the room, firing sideways, but the recoil sends him into a slow spin, ruining his aim. One of the aliens wraps a whipcord around the Jedi's sword arm and pulls them towards each other. His other whipcord snaps forward, knocking the lightsaber away just as he delivers a devastating kick to the human's head.

Alien the Second takes advantage of the Gunslinger's predicament by wrapping one whipcord around his neck and the other around his legs. He swings around behind him, avoiding a pair of wild gunshots, plants his feet in the Gunslinger's back... and pulls. Only the power of the Force prevents his spine from snapping in twain.

The Jedi and his adversary rush away from each other as the latter kicks the former hard in the chest. He then sends his whipcords into the walls on either side, to reverse his backwards momentum, and kicks the Jedi again as he bounces off the bay doors. This time, he pulls his whipcords in and tucks into a backwards somersault, dodging stray bullets as he whirls across the room.

Pain rapidly clearing his mind, the Gunslinger reaches out with the Force and senses the lines of trajectory that weave through the cargo bay. He closes his eyes and fires two shots. The first ricochets off the floor and some power cables before biting into the whipcord around his throat, severing it. The second rebounds around the far corner of the room and slices through the second whipcord. He and his adversary tumble away from each other.

The Jedi calls upon the Force to steady himself and brings his lightsaber into guard position. He tracks the alien as he swings around the room. The weightless monkey veers towards him and snaps his free whipcord, sending its razor tip straight for the Jedi's eyes. The Force comes to his aid, pushing the blade out of harm's way so he can sever the alien's tether. As his enemy tumbles forward, the Jedi lets go of his weapon and catches him in a head lock. Thus entangled, they free fall towards the ceiling.

Learning from past mistakes, the Gunslinger positions himself to shoot past his own feet, using the recoil to propel himself towards the back wall. The alien has already hit the floor and leapt back into the center of the room. He grabs the business end of one of his broken whipcords, kicks off the ceiling, and spins towards his enemy like Death's industrial-sized weed whacker. The Gunslinger bumps into the wall, anchors himself on the exposed pipes, and unloads his remaining bullets into the alien's chest. Unfortunately, death does not cause his body to come to rest. The whipcord bites into his shoulder and the corpse slams the Gunslinger's head into the wall. Floating globes of alien blood drift across his vision before he loses consciousness.

Alien the First lands a few kidney punches as he and the Jedi tumble towards the ceiling. The Jedi releases his head lock just before impact and pushes off his opponent, propelling himself down and bouncing the alien off the ceiling. Hard. The latter recovers quickly, tucking into a forward roll as he drifts towards the Jedi. Meanwhile, the Jedi lands in a hand stand and, as he flips back onto his feet, he summons his lightsaber back into his hand. The alien unfolds his body, planning to hammer his heels into his foe's face, but the Jedi's weapon cuts a brilliant blue arc through the air, bisecting him. A sheet of alien blood washes over him as cadaver halves fall to either side.

Next Month: Razing a Restaurant!

Loath Your Fellow Man

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