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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Non-Combat Actions in Combat-Focused Games

by Dan Bayn
Dec 04,2002


Non-Combat Actions in Combat-Focused Games

The Problem

I write action games. It's what I do. Even the most combat-oriented games, however, sometimes involve a little (get ready for it...) talking. Talking to NPCs, to be specific. Or maybe some computer hacking, to use the vernacular, or a bit of clandestine sneaking around. None of these are particularly action-packing roller coasters of role-playing chills and thrills, but that doesn't mean our action-packed game systems can't handle them. Even the most pacifist scenes can benefit from the tricks we use to liven up our fight scenes.

The Solution: Pornographic Detail

The key is to reward players for describing their actions in almost pornographic detail. To put it another way (probably a better way), you have to encourage your players to embellish creatively. "I attack him with my sword," for example, is not nearly as evocative as, "The sun glints off my blade as I slash down across the villain's torso, adjusting the angle at the last second to deflect his next attack." I've suggested rules mechanics for encouraging just this kind of play in a few of my past articles. With the right approach, they can also be applied to non-combat actions.

The more rewards you can offer players for coming up with these kinds of details, the more entertaining your game session will be. If your system hands out modifiers for tactical details like weapon size and flanking, hand out those same modifiers for dramatic and technical details. If it awards points for role-playing a character's flaws or motivation, award the same points for getting the group to laugh or cheer with an entertaining description. In Blur, each card played from your hand corresponds to a combat maneuver; for non-combat action, each card should be played with an embellishment of some kind (see below). In Wushu (formerly "Stunt Dice"), the size of a dice pool depends on how many embellishments a player can come up with, whether combat-related or otherwise.

Interrogation of NPCs is a classic example. Players may just want to use their Intimidation Skill (or whatever), but merely rolling the dice shortchanges what could otherwise be a dramatic scene. So, you encourage a little embellishment. Most people have seen enough cop shows and movies to know the basic tricks. Have two PCs play Good Cop, Bad Cop: One threatens the suspect with incarceration or violence (1), and then the other "protects" the NPC by pulling the Bad Cop away (1) and asking the NPC nicely (1). Add those rewards up (3) and then let one of the players make a roll.

Details, details, details. Technical folks are good with details, or so I hear, and technical actions can certainly benefit from some creative embellishment. If you're running a modern game with players who really know their characters' areas of expertise, let them add some gritty details to their descriptions. Brand names, acronyms, and metric measurements are all good candidates. If you're running a sci-fi game, take a page from the Star Trek Episode Writer's Handbook and start making up all the wackyon particles and phoneyon fields you can stand!

Well, that's how I go about it, anyway. If you've ever played the high quality card game Lunch Money, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't played it, what the Hell are you still sitting at that computer for? Go find a deck and try it out! Move!

A Note on Parsimony

Reading over this, it all seems profoundly simple. Hopefully, it won't elicit too much slapping of foreheads. If it does, make sure you have an ice pack handy and check for concussions. I apologize for any memory loss.

Next Time: Making magic more scientific!

Bayn.org - Loath Your Fellow Man

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond