Fight scenes are some of the most exciting scenes in movies, books, and games. They are both dramatic and captivating. However, fights in rpgs tend to degenerate into “dice fests” where people, even the die hard roleplayers, use the heavier mechanics to move their little chessman across the board and ignore much of the roleplaying we drive for. That is a pity. The excitement should not be the “winning or losing” of the battle, but should be generated by the very actions in the fight scene.
Fight scene are perfect chances to roleplay. I am not talking the witty banter and one off lines that are found in Bond Films or less realistic action scenes. What a character does in a fight says volumes about it.
A fight scene in’t just about people exchanging blows. Each move says something about the character; how the character is participating in the world, how they view themselves, and where they come from. This silent roleplaying is much more effective gaming device, as it falls into the “show don’t tell” aspect of gaming.
If the character is involved in the environment, they will use it to their advantage (moving around or grabbing things to use). Is the character something of a strategist, then they should have carefully planned moveds and results, each one setting up the next move. Is the character militarily trained; then they will be straight foreward and practical in their approach. If the character is afraid or hesitant in combat, they will be defensive and avoid the confrontational attacks. If the characters are they young and idealistic, then their moves should be flashy and impressive… showing the confidence that they feel. You can “see” this action easily in videos. However, it can also be captured in a novel or story, with just the right amount of description. You can do it in games as well.
Now in a game, you don’t get the chance to ponder and rewrite your scenes. Gamer’s scenes are done “live” with one take. While you might have a brilliant moment during a combat scene every now and again, there is now way to ensure that you can pull it off.
All it takes is a little work ahead of time. The GM is investing a great deal of time to prepare for the fight/ game. Players should invest just a bit of time and effort as well. This “work” mostly involves thinking about the character and what it would do in a given circumstance. This process is called Riffing.
Players should riff on their character or a character they might want to play when they have free time. When they’re in the car or shopping or in the shower, they can think of situations the character might be in. Determine what they would do in the situation. They can think about the dialog, the feelings, the actions, and the responses towards others in that situation. These riffs will help them better define their characters and give them “prepared” responses. Riffing is often done for roleplaying and other actions, but it is perfectly applicable for combat… if not easier when done for combat.
Think about the character in combat. What kind of moves do you think the character might do? Do they charge or feint, swing high or drop low and do a thrust, or is it a precise ballet of death or a wild mashing of targets? And there is more than just attacking, there is defensive actions, movement, and odd stunts they might do. Think about your character in terms of a movie action scene, what cool thing would the fight coreographer might set up for your character. Heck borrow things from action scenes you have seen.
Once you have done all this riffing work, you still might forget these things during the game. That is why, after you riff, you should make cue card. Taken from its television roots, the cue card is a note card that tells you what to say in a given situation. Usable by GMs or players, the cue card provide “notes” on things. When in the appropriate situation, you pull it out, rattle off the description/ dialog/ action, and move on.
When you come up with a number of things a character (or just one really good one), write them down on a 3x5 card - a cue card. Most action bits should be quite short and easy to include. In addition to description, write down the page number of any special mechanics that might be used (or the mechanics themself if short) and determine the character’s basic rolls for it. Viola, you now have a combat cue card.
Durring combat, thumb through them while waiting for your action. Select the best one for the situation and use it. Make sure to adjust your basic rolls for your current fatigue/ wound/ other modifiers.
Players will often write cards for how they take a hit, and a GM should have a generic slush pile for them to help inspire in game description. In fact, the GM should have a slush pile of attacks and combat actions as well. That way their troupe of opponents can be almost as colorful as the PCs.
Please remember that combat still needs to run quickly. Do not write a novel on the cue card, just a line or three of description will normally do. It will give you all the color and action without slowing the game down.
This is a live game. You never just read your cue card cold, you need to act it out… to roleplay it with as much skill as you can muster. You need to give it life, rather than just going through it with a monotone response. Once you start applying Cue Cards on a regular basis, this won’t be a problem. In fact, after a while, once you get into the habit of riffing and cue carding, you will eventually no longer have to use the cue cards. You will have all your cards memorized and ready at the tip of your tongue. However, this usually happen after you have a huge number of cards and an organizational system to keep tracking of them.
As a GM, you must reward good play. Give your players additional experience points/ karma/ skill checks if they add to the game and in this case, the combat experience. If the GM does not want to modify the experience reward, they can always give additional modifier to their player who truly plays combat. They can tack on an additional +1 to +4 MOD for great actions they describe. If you, the GM, properly reward the kind of play you want, you will get the kind of play you want. Make sure the reward is immediate and directed, so players know why they got extra rewards.
One final note. You, the GM, should also set the example for quality and action in your game as well. If you don’t do it, the players won’t see the point of additional description. With the entire troupe working together, the quality and excitement of the fight scenes will increase as well.