Violent Resolution – The End of the Revolution

Tuesday , 28, July 2015 3 Comments

This marks the end of the Violent Resolution blog series here on Castalia House. I’d like to thank Jeffro for recommending me, and Castalia House for giving me a shot at publishing this series on the different facets of combat mechanics in my chosen systems.

What did I take away from it all?

Narrative Games Run Like TV Shows/Movies

One of the biggest things that comes out of looking at games like Night’s Black Agents and Fate is that if you approach them from the background and mission of tactical simulations, you’re probably not going to have much fun. “All guns are the same” doesn’t please the set of people that expect their gaming experience to reflect a move-by-move environment, or a gear-intensive experience such as that found in first-person shooter games such as HALO or Borderlands 2, or even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, where kitting out your troops and yard-by-yard careful advances is part of the game experience.

Oh, sure – you can say you’re doing such a move, and even declare that such tactics are part of (in Fate) Creating an Advantage to allow you to get the drop on a foe, or even Overcome an Obstacle to prevent anyone from getting the drop on you. Night’s Black Agents assumes such behavior from the PCs, since they’re all Jason Bourne clones anyway!

No, these games are about screen time, and should probably be played and approached as such. Your store of metagame currency drives spotlight time. Fate Points, stunts, and free invokes for Fate Core, and your pools of Investigative and General Skills for Night’s Black Agents (and any game run off of GUMSHOE). The dominating advantage spending a point for a +2 brings, however, is why you only do them a few times per “show.” Thor does not call lightning and blow everyone up every single scene. Voltron Forms Blazing Sword! once during the big fight. At the end. Because it’s cool.

As far as combat goes, it can – and will – be as exciting and detailed as you let it in a narrative sense. That the mechanics are often coarse doesn’t mean that it’s not engaging. But you won’t be depending on the rules to provide the engagement. It’s up to the players and the GM to work within a deliberately limited set of game-mechanics, and that’s not a bad thing! One is more likely to have the kind of fast-paced thriller emulation when the mechanical approach requires little differentiation to adjudicate.

This is not for everyone.

While I have not played Fate, I have played Trail of Cthulhu, which is based on GUMSHOE, the parent engine of Night’s Black Agents. Until I sat down for an interview with Ken Hite, the author of NBA, I can definitely say I was approaching the game wrong. I was – it’s not too far wrong to say offended, though ‘yanked out of the moment’ would be a better fit – disappointed to find out that after a few uses of my medical skill, i was no better at being a doctor than anyone else. I’d really approached the job and general skill pool as training, rather than moments in the spotlight.

I very much want to try both games out, with experienced GMs and players, to see how things “should” be done. I’d also like to try them out, after that, with less experienced GMs and players, possibly with me being GM, to see if I can swing it. I get the feeling that these games run with the maxim of film in mind: “Nothing appears on film unless the director places it there.”

As an aside, this nearly ruined movies for me, thanks to Dr. Dennis Houston at Rice University. He gave a seminar in the loft of Hanszen College that was no more than an hour or two long, but taught me a huge amount about how to look at a scene in movies and TV. Does the camera pan across the actor’s wedding ring? The director wanted it to be there to tell you he’s married. Anything worth screen time is a message sent to the audience. 

Well, except the stormtrooper bashing his head on the wall in Star Wars Episode IV. That was just funny.

So when playing narrative games, the details that will make or break the game are placed there by the GM and to a certain extent, the players. If you’re used to tactical simulation games, this might rub the wrong way. Since I personally am quite steeped in that style of play, I would like to see how the other side lives, so to speak. I found enough to like in my breakdown of the combat systems that it made me want to try them out.

Despite the Column, It’s Not All About Combat

One of the nice things about both of these games is that the common mechanic is really, really common. There isn’t much out there that privileges combat over chatting with folks. If you want to “win” an argument rather than a gunfight in Fate, you use the same mechanics. Car chase? Same. Gymnastics routine? Yep. You pick from the same menu of four basic choices, which are broad enough to make a basis set similar in tone to the Seven Basic Story Plots.  For Night’s Black Agents, the game is tightly focused around a specific background and tailored to the kind of challenges found therein. And since the genre is about my favorite mashup (guns and monsters), this is a very good thing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the true glory of Night’s Black Agents – and if I seem a Ken Hite aficionado (or raving fanboy: your call), it’s because I have become so – is not to be found in the combat rules. It’s in the fantastic story and plotting advice found within the book. How to make a “Conspiramid” (or Vampyramid, for that matter) in a way that the players can work their way slowly up not-obviously-related plot elements to eventually reach the top dog? That’s story gold, and I’ve mined it for my GURPS games with wild abandon and thankful glee.

Tactics, Tactics Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

The drinking thing is really just to make it all Rime.

GURPS, Savage Worlds, and D&D are tactics focused. To a greater or lesser extent, they are turn-based tactics games where you deploy and exploit game mechanics to defeat your foes.

This is not a bad thing.

Combat in D&D is more or less the default from which all other concepts need to be compared, because something like 80-90% of the market is D&D of one form or another (and according to Steve Jackson, if an asteroid were to hit WotC, please let it hit elsewhere than the collectible card game department that keeps so many gaming stores running!). The latest version of D&D runs fairly smoothly and has some nice mechanics – I’m particularly fond of the advantaged/disadvantaged system, which nicely disposes of a huge number of modifiers and does nice thins to the probability curve of a 1d20 roll. Tactics are important, and how and when to deploy your abilities make up part of the fun of the game. On the down side, fighting can take on a slogging-through-mud feel for those averse to the ablative nature of combat. A high hit-point monster is a war of attrition – your party and their abilities vs. a giant bag of HP (our party a while back went up against a 110HP fighter; an epic battle, but wow it took a while). There are alternate rules out there, such as variants on Massive Damage, which can address this, but it’s built into the game pretty hard.

On the other end, we have GURPS, where one or two hits can usually incapacitate any human, whether this is melee weapons or guns. The trick is getting an effective hit, which means a successful attack where the defender fails to parry, block, or dodge, and any armor worn is penetrated or bypassed. GURPS combat can be done simply – roll 3d6 vs adjusted skill, eschew the optional rules from various books (and even from within some of the Basic Set) for fine-tuning your action, your foe rolls defense, and then damage if you score.

Or, you can turn it up to 11 and resolve an exchange that happens so fast that you need time-lapse video to catch it, and resolve every blow and trigger pull. When you finally make contact, extreme satisfaction. Tune it to taste, as well, with a very strong Dungeon Fantasy sub-line with a lot of support (and more coming). When you want a game where if you can dream it, you can probably exploit existing mechanics to give those choices weight, you can find it in GURPS.

Make no mistake here: I write for GURPS semi-pro, in that I’ve published a bunch in Pyramid and written one book on grappling. Also was lead playtester for a few books. So I come at GURPS with a 25-year history with the system. I like it, I like modifying it, and I like both playing it and running it. The game can and does reward some level of system mastery, but that mastery is about knowing when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em more than it is about a certain combination fo skill, weapon, and kewl powerz that provide an unmatchable damage level. The options available to an experienced player are the nuance of choice. Attack the leg and go for a crippling blow to a less-armored target? Accept a defensive penalty to lunge in an extra yard and also get a bonus to hit? Take the fight to the ground because you’ve invested in the Ground Fighting technique while your foe has not? The possibilities are nearly limitless, though that comes at a price in (usually pre-game) tracking of the things you expect to do.

Savage Worlds is a bit in the middle here. It’s a roll-and-shout system that’s got a tactical focus, but not too much. It’s got Edges and Hindrances with mechanical effect that aren’t as wide open as Fate’s Aspects, but are far fewer in number than GURPS’ list of Advantages and Disadvantages. Combat is pretty broad brush – Fighting and Shooting rather than Broadsword or Guns (Pistol) – and the somewhat lower differentiation pushes the resolution more towards the narrative style while still remaining a tactically-driven game explicitly meant to play out on a mapboard.

Finish Him

I do play D&D and GURPS. I would like to play – or at least try – Fate and Night’s Black Agents.

Savage Worlds doesn’t hit my sweet spot; the very middle ground that proponents tout doesn’t inspire me to play based on the rules alone. Of course, the giant pile of well supported game material with what looks to be very good production values helps the Savage Worlds case rather a lot . . . and the (original?) Deadlands setting that spawned the rules is quite cool. Plus . . . while I’ve not entirely decided on it, exploding dice are an elegant way to get a large maximum roll without precluding a minimum one. Ultimately, while my interest is less, how it plays at the table is the ultimate test, one which I’d like to try.

I’m glad I took on this project – it got me familiar with games in ways and with a level of depth and focus that were a lot of fun (and a lot of work, I must note).

But when push comes to shove, it’s all really about whether the rules and the game help you have the fun you want to have.

Thanks for playing!

3 Comments
  • VD says:

    Thanks, Douglas. The series was very well-researched and always interesting. Your labors have been much appreciated.

  • tweell says:

    Ditto VD comment. The way different games approach combat is fascinating. Being another long-time D&D gamer, it’s hard to take another viewpoint and see where another system is coming from. Thanks again!

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