stevekenson: (go-play)
[personal profile] stevekenson

(I almost used the subtitle “Threat or Menace?” but that wouldn’t quite be accurate.)

One criticism often leveled against Champions (the superhero configuration and ancestor of the Hero System RPG engine) is that combat is too slow. Take your pick of the various jokes about being able to take bathroom breaks, go out and pick up pizza, or other things you can do between your turns in Champions. One of my favorites was about how someone should design another game you can play while you’re waiting to take your turn playing Champions.

But is stretching out a relatively short fight to cover a lot of game time—complete with lots of focus on tactics—really a flaw when it comes to the superhero genre or is it a feature?

I’ve looked at a lot of superhero source material—comics, animated series, movies—when it comes to designing for superhero games and there are some interesting elements to the flow of superheroic combat:

One is that the combats are generally all the same length regardless of the number of participants involved. This is a limitation of the media: given that an issue of a comic or an episode of a TV series is the same length, a fight has to take up a certain amount of space, whether it involves two combatants or a dozen or a hundred.

Thus the number of individual actions of characters involved in a fight are inversely proportionate to the number of characters involved: that is, the more people in the fight, the fewer things they each get to do. Many team-on-team fights of a half-dozen or more heroes against a similar number of villains only last the equivalent of two or three turns in game terms, sometimes as little as a single turn with each character getting to act once! A fight with fewer combatants tends to last longer, with both sides really slugging it out, particularly when you come down to just two characters.

Add to that the fact that the typical RPG game session tends to be a good deal longer than the typical superhero cartoon or comic book. In three to four hours, you can cover a lot of ground compared to just 30–60 minutes. To make up the difference, you either need more plot or game activities that fill some of that time.

That’s where longer combats can be a plus. To some degree, superhero stories are arguably about combat: heroes fighting villains (or each other!). Certainly most RPGs are focused on the activity of fighting; look at the combat chapter of most games as compared to the rest of their action resolution rules. For that matter, look at the fact that most RPGs have a chapter for resolving all actions except combat, which gets its own chapter/section. Even when those sections are mixed, I’ll wager the majority of actions covered are in some way connected to fighting.
So if combat is what it is primarily about, why shouldn’t the game focus on it in greater detail and take more time working it out? Are superhero games that allow combats to end too quickly too “light” for the genre?

Of course, even more detailed, and therefore slower, combat systems don’t necessarily “telescope” to reflect the number of combatants or the importance of the combat; a Champions fight between ten characters is no different than one between just two in terms of the characters’ capabilities. It’s just to take just as many attacks to down the characters, meaning the team fight takes much longer than the one-on-one.
Truth & Justice (using the PDQ system) offers a useful take on this by dividing situations into simple, complicated, and conflict categories. Now, technically, any fight would seem to be a conflict situation, but there’s nothing stopping the GM from deciding that some fights are actually complicated or even simple situations.  Certainly, Batman taking on some run-of-the-mill thugs is more of a simple situation; it’s not even worth bothering to roll the dice most of the time. Games that offer thug or minion rules, like Mutants & Masterminds, take a similar tack for some situations to speed up some combats.

Still, fights can sometimes be too fast for some players in some superhero systems. After all, no RPG is going to combine the visual spectacle of superhero action from a film or cartoon with quick and decisive action. By definition, tabletop RPGs need room for players and GMs to paint a picture of what is going on, using both description and the medium of the game system. The nature of the medium seems more given to a “slo-mo” or “bullet time” approach to combat.

That narrative space doesn’t have to come from the pauses where other players count up their dice or refigure their modifiers, but it can, in which case the perceived weakness of a slower tactical approach can be turned into a strength.

Date: 2010-11-18 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Do you know about the academic field of narratology? One of their distinctions is between discourse time and story time, or the time it takes to experience a narrative and the time it takes in the narrative for its events to occur. That has obvious applications to rpgs. You can find a good outline of the field at this location ( if you want one.

I think that the rpgs I've seen have three main temporal resolutions. You have fast forward, as in "three weeks later you arrive at the Hall of the Troll King"; that's used for journeys, training, resource accumulation, and that sort of thing. You have one for one; that's used predominantly for conversation and character interaction. And you have slow-mo, where it can take fifteen minutes to describe the actions of one second in exhaustive details; that's used above all for combat. I don't think that's accidental. Which is pretty much what you said, isn't it?

Date: 2010-11-18 06:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, pretty much, Bill. I suspect a lot of the debate over "pacing" in RPGs is over the degree of "slow motion" in the action sequences (and the related "resolution" or descriptiveness of the actions). Still mulling it over. Thanks for the link!

Date: 2010-11-18 06:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'd out 'one for one' in quotes: "one for one", because the kind of interaction that represents: there's probably a special indie term for it, but I think of it as "look at me actually playing my character and roleplaying" doesn't necessarily map one-to-one game time into realtime. In two ways in my experience:

- I think that players interchangeably use "'Give me the dog, Lothar!'" and "I tell Lothar to give me the dog!" to the point where "look at me roleplaying" interactions between players and GMs quite often use both of these forms to the same purpose. The second one of these forms, because it abstracts, can easily run the time clock at a different rate, sometimes vastly different: "I wait until Lothar seems ripe for the plucking, and then I demand that he give me the dog!".

- Dialog uttered back and forth, even in the direct mode of "'Give me the dog, Lothar!'" rarerly gets paired with the actual, physical business that also plays a part of that interaction, and this either compresses or stretches out the relation of game-time to real-time. Using the indirect "look at me roleplay" form copes better with incorporation of description of the physical business, but it also makes it much easier to explicitly control the skewing of this scaling.

Date: 2010-11-18 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't deny that, but I didn't intend "one for one" to be taken as mathematically exact and didn't suppose anyone would. As Aristotle says, we must not expect a greater precision than the subject matter will admit. Really, what I'm saying is that when you're doing character interaction, it mostly tends to feel "real time," meaning it's not off by a big factor. A little speedup or slowdown is trivial compared to the fight where you spend three hours playing out a conflict that's resolved in a fraction of a minute, or the journey where you pass off a day or a month of travel with the GM saying, "Okay, you're there," or "Roll to see if there were any problems on the trip."

Date: 2010-11-18 06:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Funny, I've been thinking about this very same thing. I've been working on a swashbuckling combat system for FUDGE, and I've been thinking for exactly this reason that it's a bit too slow.

Date: 2010-11-19 04:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Like anywhere else, "flaw" or "feature" is in the eye of the user/GM/player. Despite what Microsoft's marketing department seems to think.

I think you already knew this, AND everything that follows, but I'll happily be the one to say it. There are different games with different combat pacing for a reason. Different player styles require different adaptations of the same source genre. (Also different examples in the source genre require different pacing.)

What you guys do so thoughtfully is try to pick an combat system that goes with the overall feel you're trying to build into the game you're designing. Which is of course great, but in the end all you're achieving is internal consistency, which does indeed contribute to good game design and increases the chances it will be enjoyed, but the end result will always be subjective to not only the player's feelings, but how the players feel AT THAT MOMENT.

So judge flaw or feature according to what you're going for in the particular game, as it can't be judged in general. Leave it to the players to decide what game they like on any given evening.

And now a question of my own:

Some games include various styles of play, like GURPS with Cinematic, vs. Realistic. Do you think this helps a game sell better? I guess with a game that's supposed to be flexible and generic it makes sense, but have any others done well with it?



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