Interlude: Brutal Poetry

2008 Feb 28

Crossposted from Story Games, because it’s closely related to the “style sheet” developments.

Fights come in all styles. If you’re interesting in recreating the feel of movie fights, it’s important to recognize that most American action movies are really different from the Bruce Lee / Shaw Brothers tradition, which is, in turn, pretty different from the Yuan Brothers / Tony Ching tradition, which is pretty different from Japanese samurai films, which is pretty different from the awesome shit Jeff Imada put together for The Bourne Ultimatum, which is pretty different than what they did in The Lord of the Rings. Personally, I find it really hard to talk about “what makes a good fight” unless I know what kind of fight you’re trying to go for. Different kinds of fights require different elements.

One weakness I think many American movies and games have is in clarity and pacing. In some of my favorite fight scenes, like those by Yuan Heping or the big fight in Bourne Ultimatum, there is never a shot within which nothing happens, but the blows are not relentless, an endless flurry of punches and kicks. Things happen. Someone gets knocked down and has to get back up, strengthening their determination or showing a sign of weakness. Each section of the fight is punctuated by a change in the emotional or physical status of one of the characters, so the audience knows which way the fight is going. Also, the physical actions within the fight are not murky or too quick to really follow. Rather, even if the camera is shakey (as in the Bourne 3 fight) or cuts quickly between a variety of different angles (like in a Yuan Heping fight), the choreographer ensures that the audience can tell exactly what is going on. This makes the actions of the characters meaningful and significant, instead of seeming to be so much flailing. I think both of these can be replicated in roleplaying, but it takes some practice and skill. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, but I don’t think most game systems do a good job of supporting that kind of fight.

Best systems for these kinds of fights: The Riddle of Steel and Dogs in the Vineyard. If someone could combine the speed and attention to fight detail that Riddle has with the back-and-forth, give-and-take of Dogs conflicts, with escalation and bringing in reserve traits and all that, I would play the shit out of it.

Here’s another reason I think a lot of roleplaying fights suck: they’re competitive when they shouldn’t necessarily be.

Think of the competitive fights you’ve watched: boxing, ultimate fighter, fencing, wrestling, fights at your local karate dojo. All times where one person was trying to humiliate or beat the crap of another person.

Now think of the cooperative, staged fights that you’ve watched: all movie fights ever. In movies, the fighters are cooperating to tell the story of a fight, which is way different than actually competing to win. This actually came up in the giant shark game I ran last night. I didn’t make it clear to the players that their role in the story was to be actors in a giant shark movie, which often required them to willingly put their characters in danger or die in really interesting ways. Instead, they like kept trying to survive and stuff, just like anyone would if they were faced with giant sharks. It was a very “duh” moment for me as a game designer and player.

So, yeah, we’re basically really bad at narrativist fights or even creating the expectation that conflict should be expressive and not about survival or winning. Issues surrounding hit points are just the tip of that very large iceberg.

Here’s another issue: in all of roleplaying, but especially in fights, we’re really focused on delivering pictures when what we’re got are words. We’re not video game designers or movie directors, and, unless you’re working with miniatures, our visual tools for illustrating what’s occurring are very few (even with miniatures, the visual vocabulary is still pretty limited). I can say, “I pull off a butterfly kick that lands on the top of his head and tips him backwards into the vat of acid,” but that takes WAY longer to say than it does to watch on a movie screen, which robs roleplaying fights of a lot of the pacing and clarity that I mentioned earlier. Also, since the moves in a roleplaying fight are generally described on the spot, not prepared beforehand, it can be hard to pull that crazy ultra-awesome kick description out of your brain. You can see it in your head, but can you describe it like a brutal poet on command? Probably not consistently. (Also, I hereby declare my copyright on Brutal Poet as the name of a future fight game). Unless we can figure out a way to develop a verbal vocabulary of fight, one that’s not an imperfect rendering of the pictures in our heads, then descriptions of fights will always be a pale imitation of the visual media we wish we were partaking in.

12 Responses to “Interlude: Brutal Poetry”

  1. ptevis Says:

    You’re totally in my head today, Jonathan.

  2. Brennan Says:

    I love “Brutal Poet.”

  3. Paul: Awesome. This is a fun place to be.

    Brennan: Me too! Now I just need a game to go with it.

  4. Meserach Says:

    This game must be made, Jonathan. It sings to me.

  5. Okay, after Geiger, Transantiago, and 108 Bravos, though. I’m pondering what it’s going to be. I think it might be a game that’s all fights, like the Street Fighter-inspired game that Rich Forest was working on, with just some framing explanation between fights, like: “Okay, after you beat the location of your father’s killer out of the local brotherhood leader (previous fight), you manage to track him down in a dock-side bar. The locals clear a space for you to throwdown. What’s your initial move?” Because the plot is always secondary in a fight movie, yeah?

  6. misuba Says:

    Roadhouse: the RPG and Resource Book

    But seriously: I’d love to see this idea attached to the positional-RPG idea you talked about over at Fair Game.

  7. When you want to kickstart Brutal Poet, I’ll dig up my (thus-fair-borken) notes on a Wushu++ hack that I’ve been trying, on and off.

  8. Misuba: Positioning will definitely be important, no doubt. Right now I’m imagining two piles of cards, placed side by side, with pictures of fighters on them. The players would play cards down on top of their own pile in (near) real time, causing a “flip book” effect that would make the fighter punch / kick / block etc. But you wouldn’t always just play one card at a time. You might play a three card combo, like maybe a butterfly kick would take 3-cards to pull off (setup, jump, kick), but would have more impact. And the player decks would be created beforehand, so you’d just draw and play cards immediately, without choice, and the way the figures interacted would describe the fight. But, like I said, just my initial thoughts.

    Dev: Sounds great. I’d love to see what you’re working on.

  9. Leigh Walton Says:

    We would always get up and demonstrate. Descriptions of fight moves are usually half verbal and half gestural — either pretending to do it with your own body, or using your hands to simulate your character’s body, or using a highly-articulated action figure (or several) to demonstrate what you have in mind.

    The shark “preservation” problem seems like a much more general issue of narrativism vs. simulation, or severing the player/character identity. Right? Not so much an issue specific to fighting.

  10. Meserach Says:

    Here’s what I keep thinking about – if you could come up with a formal linkage between types of fighting moves and moods/intentions/personalities, and then, so doing, make fighting like a metaphor for argument.

    I see it as using cards, too: there’d be a variety of techniques, broadly described, to serve as inspiration fuel, with metaphorical names that meant both a physical action and an emotional one: like “Twist the Knife”, “Higher Ground” or “Flee from Danger”, and then as you played each one, you’d be narrating both what you character says (advancing the argument) and what they do (advancing the fight).

  11. […] is writing about “Brutal Poetry” and what for makes for a good fight, particularly in the context of story-game. I want to share my […]

  12. […] Chase Stories, Part 1 A while back I talked about telling the story of a fight and how we’re really bad at it. We don’t really know how to narrate fights without […]

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