Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.
This article was originally written for the RPG Blog Alliance Carnival. The host for this round was Sam at RPG Alchemy. The chosen theme for this month was the combat experience.
As regular readers of Tales of a GM know, I run a narrative-style game. This principle applies to combat, just as much as all other parts of the game. I have run enough RPGs to know narrative combat differs from traditional combat. The freedom offered by the narrative approach allows me to run short, exciting combats. This essay explores the advantages I found through adopting this approach.
HeroQuest 2 Combat
But first, a quick overview of the way HeroQuest handles combat. The rules divide all contests into two categories: simple or extended. The difference between the two revolves around the importance of the contest to the story. The mechanics do not care whether the issue is a fight to the death, or the struggle to read a complex scroll.
The extended contests are closer in style to the traditional RPG combats, so I shall focus on this part of the rules. In HeroQuest, an extended contest is a series of opposed ability rolls. The winner of each roll inflicts a number of Resolution Points on the loser, according to the level of success achieved. After five or more RP are sustained, the recipient is knocked out of the contest.
Generally, this means five or more rounds in an extended contest. However, better rolls can take out an opponent faster. We have found enough detail here to recreate the back-and-forth of a film action scene, without the process dragging out too long.
Freedom of Action
The first great benefit of adopting narrative combat has been the freedom of action it allows. Firstly, HeroQuest works the same whichever abilities are being used. If it can make sense in the narrative, then Players are free to use any ability they choose. Physical, mental, magical and social abilities can all be used in a contest run with the same mechanics.
This mix-and-match approach ensures the combat is run by the story, not the mechanics. If it makes sense for the Hero to overcome the enraged warrior with caustic wit, then HeroQuest can moderate this contest. The power of an insult to defeat a warrior is a powerful theme in Celtic tales, yet not something easily resolved in many game systems.
The no-holds-barred approach of narrative combat can be reflected in the dynamic descriptions we use in the game. If a Player can imagine something, and it would make sense in the story, then it could happen. Many of the flamboyant, stylish actions of Wuxia films easily translate into narrative combat.
I know it is not the only way to run a combat in an RPG, but I want the action scenes in my games to resemble the action scenes I enjoy in a film. Let us consider one of the greatest genre fight scenes: the duel between Westley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.
At its core, the scene is two men fighting with rapiers. But, do they stand still, trading blows in turn? No, it is a balletic dance around the ruins, exchanging witty banter and switching rapiers from one hand to another. The progress of the duel reveals more about the characters, and does not end with the death of either combatant.
Could this only be run as a narrative combat? Clearly not, but a more simulationist approach would probably miss some of the finer details. Aside form the fundamental difference that the fight was not a duel to the death, there are other parts of the duel which, I believe, work better using a narrative approach.
First there is the witty banter. Is this just trash talk, or a separate form of attack, running parallel to the glittering swordplay? I believe it is the latter, and the overall progress of the duel should take into account this verbal interplay. Next, there is the competitive acrobatics. A traditional RPG has a way to model these physical actions, but could struggle with wrapping the outcomes into the overarching duel.
Finally, the duel ends with Westley knocking out Inigo with the pommel of his sword. This could be portrayed as non-lethal damage, but needs to be tied to the overall progress of the fight. This glittering duel involves swordplay, wit, acrobatics and finally non-lethal damage. It would take a narrative game to smoothly combine all of these as a single process.
Consideration of the classic duel in The Princess Bride leads me to what is probably the greatest asset of a narrative combat system: the variation in outcomes. So many simulationist combat systems are geared towards the binary outcomes of win or die.
Some add a morale system, adding flee or surrender into the mix. It is my experience that very few Players would accept either of these options. Given such a “death-or-glory” attitude from the Heroes, it is no surprise that TPK is such a widely known acronym.
Taking a broader look at combat in RPGs in general, they represent a crisis in the story. An escalation of events to a point where decisive action must be taken by the Heroes. This gives them the status of a branching point in the story, for why take such decisive action if the plot cannot be changed by these extreme measures.
So, if combat is such a branching point, then why are there only two outcomes for the Players? Once combat is joined, typically either the Players die, or win by killing everyone else in the room. Would you accept any other part of the story to only ever have two outcomes? Is this not a rather narrow approach?
The beauty of a narrative combat, in contrast, is the broad range of result it offers. Just as there is huge freedom in choosing how to fight the combat, so too are the outcomes equally varied. This is especially true for a system such as HeroQuest, which has graded results built into the mechanics.
If an extended contest, not just combat, is the highlight of a story, then it ought to have multiple possible outcomes. This should reflect the abilities used by the Heroes to overcome the obstacle. If an opponent was defeated by social skills, then a social penalty should result.
In a game about story, such as an RPG, then the freedoms found in a narrative approach to combat keep the options open throughout the process. Not only are the Heroes free to choose which abilities to use during the combat, so too is the GM free to narrate an appropriate result.
Have you tried to run a narrative combat? How did this affect the way the Players engaged with the story? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.