Sunday, June 22, 2008

Action in Games

I just got back, and I've got a lot of essays stored up. This one's on action in games.

If you're like me, you think that action in games is pathetic, even in action-oriented games. The eighteenth time I pull the head off a gorgon by doing extended fireball motions inherited from a game nearly two decades older... it gets dull.

Contrast it to this (which I stumbled across via this).

Now, there are games which can be quite cinematic in the fight sequences. Someone pointed out that Soul Calibre tends to be very slick. But I'm thinking about action sequences from the opposite direction. The feeling of the fight, the choreographic color, is what I'm looking for in this case. It really has nothing to do with the player's actual reflexes. It's more of an RPG kind of setup, I would think.

The idea here is to make a fight as much about being interesting as it is about killing people. This same basic dynamic could also be used for chases, dialog, computer hacking, dancing, extreme fly fishing... to make them less about the mechanics of the thing and more about the drama and choreography.


A fight is implemented as dozens of rules about timing and placement and so forth. Your skill as a fighter is determined by how well you can navigate those rules and defeat your enemy.

Any other system that was implemented would be, from the large view, the same basic idea: a bunch of rules that you navigate. The idea is that instead of trying to capture the rules of physical combat, we can try to capture the rules of interesting choreography and drama.

However, this change is not as skin deep as that makes it seem to be. The point is that in the old rules, you were navigating a closed space of action and reaction, trying to improve your situation while degrading your enemy's. In the drama method, the point is to do the same thing, but it's done by creatively interacting with the environment rather than by simple statistical wanking.

We obviously can't make the rules quite as "sword does 10 damage" as they were before. There needs to be some kind of... story abstraction. Some kind of procedure that lets you do creative things and get an advantage.

These rules are probably largely divorced from the fight itself. There is no reason that carving glowing holes in the wall with your light sabers gives you a physical advantage... but whoever comes up with the idea and plays it should be given an advantage. Because it's very cool.


Here is an example of play that might illustrate what I'm talking about. This is based on an imaginary card-based prototype. It's just a thought experiment. Let's use Jedi.

We control Ulruok, a just-knighted Jedi with a tendency for acrobatics.

The GM is currently controlling Veda, a powerful dark Jedi known for his ability to twist dark force into living things, but also known for his solid sabering skills.

Our characters do not have stats, per say. Ulruok doesn't have 10 strength or 15 sabering skill. He does, however, have notes - "trained in saber fighting", "blue light saber", "acrobatic", etc.

We have a slew of cards, as does the GM. They all have various actions on them, accessible if we have the right notes. The GM also negotiates an overall power difference: it's decided that we, as Ulruok, are at a distinct disadvantage against an older, more experienced swordfighter like Veda.

EDIT: If you're in a feed, you may miss a lot of text due to an aggressive HTML interpreter... better to read local, in this case.

The GM plays his initial card, "furious assault", which means that Veda is battering at our defenses already. The furious assault card reads:

Tension < 10: Add a tension token to the pool if player has any advantage over target. If player is even or at disadvantage, add two tokens to the pool and worsen player disadvantage one step.

Tension >= 10: Duel resolution in favor of advantaged character, player wins ties.

Well, we're getting pushed around, so we decide to play the "sidewall boundary" card, which is when we get into close, tight swordfighting that's mostly pushing against each other's sword. And we carve up the wall. The card reads:

Tension < 6: Add a tension token to the pool, the advantage between fighters shrinks one level. Optional: play a terrain collapse card.

Tension >= 6: Add two tension tokens to the pool, increase the advantage between fighters. Optional: play a terrain collapse card.

This means we've gone from a "significant disadvantage" to a "disadvantage". A bit more work, we might even make it up to "even"! We've got to move pretty quickly, though, because those tension tokens will start to add up and things will start getting serious. There's a "batter" card we know Veda can draw, and he can "spend" six tension tokens from the pot to destroy our lightsaber with it if he still has an advantage at that point...

As an added advantage to this style of play, we can have cards for actions that aren't feasible for a "real" combat played by players with reflexes. For example, seeing into the future, or having the power cut out, or so forth. These are not really things that can be easily put into a game where the rules for the fight actually have anything to do with the physical fight.

But with these other kinds of rules... very interesting things can happen...


Ellipsis said...

Very interesting. It took me a second to see what you had in mind, but with the card example I can see how it becomes interesting.

So within the same framework of rules that can exploited to gain an advantage, you can give dramatic elements a role to play in the mechanics. I'll have to think of other ways it could be put into practice.

It occurs to me that this happens to some extent in Devil May Cry, where your Stylish rating only goes up if you continue to vary the techniques you use, and sometimes goes up quickly at particular triggers - such as interrupting an opponent from using their most lethal attack. The pay off is relatively small in the sense that it doesn't help you win the combat - it just earns you more resources once you do, but it encourages players to be "stylish" and by doing so leads you to play at your most stylish at high difficulties. Similarly, advantages gained through dramatic actions might not have to be combat-breaking to get the players to use them and feel like they've been rewarded.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, I guess it's similar in some ways. I'm just taking it to an extreme.

Personally, I think that doing it like this not only adds spice to the combat - giving it interesting color - it also leads to a more "fairy-tale" style game.

Of course, with a computer you're better off having a stack of stylish elements (perhaps that can be concatenated or combined somehow), while with a tabletop game you're probably better too play it more loosely and allow the player to come up with stylish elements with some guidelines rather than explicit lists...

Either way, you can add in "side effects" to the combat to make it more complex than simply trying to kill the enemy. The "more resources" reward from DMC is a good example, but in a game where you play Jedi, you could get Force rewards or story rewards or a number of other things for being stylish AND light or dark side in the proper fashion...

In fact, it could very easily be that you would be fine with LOSING a combat, simply because you want to spend all your turns gaining non-combat advantages. The ultimate example would be Obi-Wan Kenobi's final technique...

Christopher Weeks said...

In the tabletop RPG, Sorcerer and its decendents you roll pools of dice and get a number of successes. Those successes can be used for immediate action or "rolled into" a future (very often, the immediately following) contest where each success is an extra die in the subsequent contest -- so long as it makes sense. Also, you get bonus dice to your contests when you narrate in such a way that your peers at the table indicate their appreciation of what you're providing dramatically. This chaining of actions for potentially stunning dramatic effects is a great idea (though sometimes falls flat due to dumb luck, in practice) and is I think closely related to what you're describing.

Heroquest does essentially the same thing -- giving bonuses for appropriate past victories and narrative elements that you bring to the table.

And I really like the multiple currencies that you're describing: immediate narative success, tension, force points, karma, non-combat advantage, etc. I wonder how many of these you can have overlapping before they start to suck. I guess a computer game would certainly handle more of them than a table-top game could.

I think a marginally related problem is that so many in-game contests are fatal. Except in pretty rare cases (like Obi-Wan's) players aren't willing to lose a fight because it means they bite it and their narrative ability is diminished. You wrote a couple months ago about social combat. I play games where losing contests is often as desirable as winning (especially Heroquest, where death comes hard and most of our contests are not about physical violence anyway) and I wish more designers were thinking that way. These multiple currencies are, I think, one way to get at that.

Craig Perko said...

I agree... I'm trying to get it to go even further in that direction. Instead of simply adding into your chances, it IS your chances.

I don't much like high-fatality games: I think they cripple the gameplay. I like games that use attrition or you play some kind of resurrecting thing (Nobilis can be a good example of both). I'll have to write more on that at a later time.

As for different resources, I think that the number you can wrangle is actually higher in a tabletop game. While any given player wouldn't want to wrangle more than three or four, each player could be interested in different resources.

This would add a lot of color to who, how, where, and why they fight.