Details & Narrative Combat
over 1 year ago
– Wed, May 31, 2017 at 07:01:38 AM
Before I get started with the first of an ongoing series on what makes High Plains Samurai work, huuuuuuge thanks to the Misdirected Mark podcast for the fantastic opportunity to talk about this topic in greater detail. To hear me ramble about it in great detail with Chris, Phil, and Bob, check it out.
I'm a game mechanics junkie. Building a game from scratch has become an obsession of mine for a few years now and it's a process that takes years to lock down. For example, this game has been in the works for four years with significantly different systems. If I nailed down one major goal in creating the mechanics for High Plains Samurai, it would be creating crazy, martial arts scenes played out with an incredibly simple, yet versatile, dice resolution system. One of the ways this happens is by creating a game driven entirely by a shared player narrative and that bleeds into the action by using narrative combat.
Narrative combat is when players translate the game's mechanics to create a series of detailed, blow-by-blow accounts of an action sequence. This style of play is very common in story games, such as Dungeon World, but can be applied in any roleplaying game. It's about using the dice as a kind of shout-out from the audience during an improv game; the rest is up to the players' imaginations. You may only roll your dice once per turn but narrative combat is when you turn it into a sweeping kick to knock some of your opponents aside before pivoting your body into a spinning handstand with your feet clocking the rest of those goons across the face!
In the early playtests, combat was always loads of fun. Lots of imagination went into the exciting fight scenes to allow the lead characters to come across as heroic, as they appear in countless action films, while allowing for some tense moments. (If you haven't listened to the Comic Strip AP of HPS, there's a perfect example in the final episode where Lu is hovering at 1 Stamina when he defeats the BBG.) What was needed to fit what I had envisioned for this system was a little extra flourish in the descriptions. Everyone cut straight to the chase and only provided one punch, kick, or shot to the chest with each description. Nothing wrong with that, it just wasn't quite what I was hoping for. Then I dug through the original notes for the ScreenPlay system and discovered a long deleted optional rule. A rule that is now a fundamental part of this game.
In High Plains Samurai, all characters have to use a potential to shape their description. Each potential has a maximum number of details to go with their dice value and Defense. The only way to use their potential's maximum dice value is to use their maximum number of details. Think of these as the number of actions built into an individual description (or turn). They are moments that actively move the character/story/action forward. So if your character has 3 details with their No One Gets In My Way potential, that means you can only roll the d8 if you incorporate that many details into your description. If you only provide 2 details, you can only roll a d6. This is known as building your potential and has solved that “short-and-sweet” style in game play ever since. By restricting the die type you can roll based on how much narration you add to your description, players have really embraced this intended style of play and made their fights all the better for it.
In addition to those recommendations and guidelines discussed on Misdirected Mark, these are some ways you can build that into your group's rendition of High Plains Samurai.
- Play up on the “wire-fu” style of play. By that, I mean tell gravity to take the night off. The ultimate reference to this is, was, and always shall be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is not something you need a qi power to do – everyone in the One Land can do it!
- Frame your details off your chosen potential. All descriptions require a potential, so this is important when creating yours. You want to have potentials that can handle a wide range of problems, character quirks, and more, but a good frame of reference is to look at them as ways your character approaches combat. HPS is a combat-heavy game and your potentials should always be able to help you out in a fight.
- You can incorporate elements into your description that may sound like complications so long as they are not your key detail. For example, you could describe pushing your opponent back a few feet as you perform a barrel roll into a kick to their torso as one of your details. Because dice were not rolled, your opponent can easily step back into Melee range without applying one of their details.
There's no wrong way to apply narration into your combat descriptions. Players never need to know the exact names of a type of backwards spin kick or have any specific references to martial arts movies when describing your characters in a fight scene. Do what feels natural and work off the material provided earlier. Everyone else at the table will do the same and these descriptions will flow faster and wilder as the game progresses. Have fun with it! It's the best part of playing HPS.
For more advice on incorporating narrative combat into your story, listen to episode 260 of the Misdirected Mark podcast.