[GMing] The Value of Imparting Context to Combat

Posted: January 8, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
Tags: ,

Today we take a look at Combat in RPGs, and the importance of imparting context to physical conflict. At first glance, it seems rather obvious. After all, who just gets into fights for no good reason?

Surprisingly, a lot of RPG characters do. However, with the exception of the beer-and-pretzels approach to gaming, combat shouldn’t exist for its own sake.

If anything, every conflict should come with the context for it. This lends gravitas to the battle, and enhances the urgency and importance of actually winning. Sure living to see the next day is a powerful motivation, but there are higher goals to be had.

When framing confict, it’s important to ask the following questions:

How / Why are the players involved?

Combat doesn’t just happen. Most of the time, there is an escalation from a social confrontation to someone deciding to escalate into physical conflict. Are the players the ultimate target, or will killing them be a stepping stone to a greater goal? Players will respond better to a fight knowing why they’re being attacked even if their characters are still relatively clueless.

What is at stake for the winners / losers?

People enter conflict because they are motivated to win. They are supposed to gain something. Influence, love, riches, there are countless possible motivations for entering combat.  Likewise, losing means that they forfeit more than just their health and welfare. The destruction of their families, their society and way of life or their ideals might be at stake as well.

What effect does this actually have on a game? Well for one thing, fights start to matter more. Combat becomes more personal, more meaningful. In addition, combat becomes the highlight it deserves to be in a session. No matter what genre is involved, from Space Opera to High Fantasy and even Superheros, combat is meant to be special rather than rote and mundane.

  1. Tonight my CP2020 game has its first real combat encounter. There have been a coupe of minor scuffles, ended after a punch or two was landed, but this time we have multiple combatants, in three distinct gangs, each with their own agenda, and lots of fire arms.

    It’s actually quite unusual for me to leave it so long into a game to get to a fight – even a simple one – that involves the whole group, as I think it can be a great way for people to learn what is usually the most complex rules for the system being used. Because this game has been run at the pace set by the players though, it’s been different from the get go, and this fight is the culmination of weeks of build up. Everyone knows why they’re fighting, and has a goal in mind whatever the result, but are fighting for a very good reason. Even the talky character who’s trying to defuse the situation knows that it’s an almost forgone conclusion that violence will happen.

    If I had just run a basic fight scene first/second week, it would not be anywhere near as intense or nerve wracking as the fight that’s about to kick off, so on top of your advice, I would just add that that letting it come to a head naturally can really add to the tension in a lot of ways.

    • Hi Shortymonster

      That sounds awesome, and I have to agree with your addition. Letting conflicts escalate organically rather than reducing combat encounters to “Oh look, orcs!” is always a good way to build tension.

  2. cokesakto says:

    I find that in framing action scenes, film theory helps a lot. One of the basic things they tell you is that framing action and fight scenes, in all levels (script, cinematography, choreography, blocking, color choice, shot method, angle, perspective) is one of the hardest things for any director to do (which is why the 2nd unit exists).

    As you said, it must be clear to the audience what drives the participants in an action scene to do what they do. Every action must communicate, be economical. This doesn’t mean that every punch or every sharp angle car turn has to carry character thematics, but it must mean that the fight must communicate something about the characters. Action and fighting after all, is two characters communicating through another method. The trick is in conveying these in movement (in the case of RP, with the description of movement) and choreography, fast, like actual combat, but understandable, in a way that the audience can grasp. With the union of purpose (stakes, like you said, perfectly establish purpose) and communication and speed (even in RP, combat must constantly progress), framed well, you have the basics of a good action scene.

    I know it sounds completely obtuse to study film for inspiration for GMing fight scenes, but it’s helped me out more than you might think. I could expound on this all day, but someone better than me already has. Check out FILMCRITHULK’s columns on action scenes. They are seriously good: http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/hulk-explain-action-scenes-with-special-guest-tom-townend-day-1-of-3/

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