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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Lock 'N Load - Tips for Fast-Paced, Cinematic Action

by Dan Pond
April 4, 2002  

The Problem

You've got highly trained martial artists and heavily armed gun bunnies straight off the set of a John Woo movie, facing off against a mob of eager, if woefully incompetent thugs. Everyone's ready for a two-fisted, high-caliber fight sequence... then you call for an initiative roll. Then, the player with the highest initiative makes an attack roll, possibly against their target's defense roll. If they hit, it's time to roll for damage. And maybe soak. Finally, wounds need to be recorded, hit points subtracted, injury modifiers calculated, or whatever.

After all that, the next player gets to go. Better slow it down before somebody has fun!

Fortunately, I've spent a few years developing a respectable toolkit of tricks and techniques for speeding up RPG combat and encouraging players to embellish their actions with cinematic flare! This bag o' nifties is filled to bursting, so you might want to take notes...

Solution One: Drop the Dice, Cards are Faster

When you stop and watch role-players at their craft, it should become apparent that one of the biggest drags on a game's pace is having to roll dice. First, everyone has to pick up enough dice, then shake them (Yes, everyone shakes them! I don't know why, they just do.), then roll them. Most of the time, at least one die won't stop spinning for about 20 seconds, or rolls off the table completely, necessitating a large-scale manhunt. These are all mechanical problems with the dice themselves; rules tweaks won't change a thing.

The solution is to use playing cards instead of dice. If you're using 10-siders, just take out the face cards. If you're using 6-siders, take out all the face cards and everything above six (obviously). If you're using some kind of strange, 20-sided die system, just add 10 to all the black cards, now you have two sets of 1-20 cards per deck. Drawing one of these puppies will take about 0.75 seconds, if you're seriously caffeine-deprived. Plus, it's much easier to identify the numbers from across a wide table, and you can easily leave them out for future reference, if an action's result might be important later on.

Now, I know many of you are quite attached to your dice. If you'll just put them down for a minute (maybe stick them in the attic with your your security blanket) and try something different, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. And if you've got a player who's really, truly bothered by the fact that cards are "less random" than dice, combine one or more decks and reshuffle whenever there's a break in the action. (If that doesn't satisfy them, try lithium. It works wonders.)

Solution Two: Ditch Weapon Damage

Variable damage linked to success margin and/or weapon attributes is certainly realistic, if done well, but it adds steps to combat resolution and slows down gameplay. Even if there's no damage roll, you've at least got to do some addition or multiplication to the attack roll. The simple truth is that most people can judge the effects of combat-related injuries on their own (especially if we're talking about "action movie reality") without having to resort to quantifiable rules. Unknown Armies takes excellent advantage of this principle by letting GMs keep player-character "hit point" totals secret. If the GMs says you've had a beer bottle busted over your head, and your vision is filling with colored dots, you should have all the information you need to role-play the injury.

In my own games, I use an "Any attack can take you out of the fight" rule. If any attack beats a target's defense, any attack at all, they're out of commission. (Not necessarily dead, because I hate killing off player-characters, but incapacitated in some way.) I prop this rule up with "Karma points" that players can use to edit the game, bringing them back into action (see Solution Four), but I'm sure hit points and health levels could be converted to a similar purpose. If you got shot, you now have a bullet wound that needs medical attention. If you were beaten unconscious, you've got a lot of tell tale bruises. It's all handled in narrative terms.

This speeds up play by eliminating extra rolls, troublesome mathematics, and other nasty things associated with weapon damage. It also has the side benefit that players don't waste time min/maxing their weapons. It's no longer about picking the biggest, baddest weapon out there... it's about picking weapons that are appropriate to my character. No, it's not "realistic" for an unarmed person to be able to take on an armed opponent without significant disadvantage, but it is much faster and, IMHO, far more fun.

Solution Three: Who Needs Initiative?

Think about it: How often do you really need to know the order in which player actions occur in combat? Most of the time, they're not even fighting the same people, and when they are, the order in which damage is dealt out is usually irrelevant. Besides creating an extra step in the process, initiative also segments play into one-action-per-player chunks that can get tedious fast, especially if all you're doing each round is pulling a trigger.

With a little practice, any GM should be able to switch between players as dramatically appropriate, without letting anyone wait too longer for their moment in the sun. If they're in a duel with 1-2 NPCs, let a single player take multiple turns in a row. It improves the narrative flow of an action scene and promotes creativity by not forcing players to recall things that happened ten minutes ago (or 2-5 seconds ago, in game terms). If someone wants to interrupt another character's action, call for some kind of "quick draw" action (probably using the same stats used to roll initiative) to see who goes first. It's just that simple!

Solution Four: Nothing to Fear but Failure

I think the venerable action movie RPG, Feng Shui, has the right idea when they say that the best way to discourage complex, cinematic stunts is to pile on the modifiers whenever a player tries something cool. In other words, if the best chance of success comes from simple, straight-forward attacks, then that's what your players will attempt. B-O-R-I-N-G.

The solution (big surprise) is to not use lots of modifiers. Failure is the enemy. In fact, others have said on these very forums that, in pulp action games, player characters should never fail an action. (ie. Whenever Indy "fails" something, it just results in an entertaining complication.) Give action characters high chances of success, and don't penalize them for things like swinging from light fixtures, making called shots, attacking multiple opponents, and so forth. Over the Edge, another high quality game, recommends 1-2 levels of bonus/penalty, and I think that's just about perfect. (Beyond those, make actions succeed or fail automatically, as common sense or dramatic necessity dictate.)

Similarly, an often-neglected game mechanic that does a lot to encourage fancy stunts are Fortune/Karma/Drama/Action/Whatever points that players can cash in for auto-successes/re-rolls/bonuses/whatever. They provide a safety net that lets players do stupid, yet entertaining things like jump through windows, charge armed thugs, and pull attractive young women out of traffic with confidence! They also ensure that an unlucky roll of the dice won't ruin their character's Climactic Show Down with their Arch-Nemesis (tm). In short, they encourage rash decisions, which usually make for a more entertaining game.

A Note on Self-Aggrandizement

Most of these ideas were crafted and refined as I developed my first role-playing system: The Nameless RPG. It's a generic, rules-lite system for any game with lots of cinematic action. However, it does have its limits, so I've just recently started another project: Blur. It goes even further than Nameless by giving players a hand of cards and letting them attempt multiple actions by playing many cards at once. It's also online, but far less play-tested, so if anyone wants to try it out and send me feedback, they're more than welcome!

Blur - The Hand is Quicker than the Die (Catchy slogan, eh?)

Next Time: Telepathy as Brain Hacking (or Nifty Psychology Tricks)!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond