Archive for the 'Brutal Poet' Category

Chen-Style Taiji Fist

2009 Mar 19

Unless you’re a martial arts dork, you probably haven’t seen Chen-style taiji (taichi) before. Unlike the dominant Yang-style, Chen style requires you to build up tension in your muscles during some points in the form (as if you’re doing a harder style like kungfu) and release it in little spasmy flurries of quick actions. This is really hard, because the rest of the form is flowing and has very little tension.

Check out this ten-year-old kid doing the basic Chen form, which I used to do in high school. I was never anywhere close to this good, of course. He’s ridiculous.

A Lexicon of Fight, Part 2: Against All Odds

2009 Feb 18

Check out Part 1: Battle Carnage.

Against All Odds are situations where one or more named characters are fighting a group of nameless characters. By all rights, they should be dispatched easily by the larger group, but that’s not usually what happens. Against All Odds fights can be subdivided into the following components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Spotlights, and
  • Mook Rotation.

Not all of these are present in all fights, but, often, stronger and more narrative fights — such as those choreographed by Yuen Wooping — contain all these elements.

Here’s a few example fights we can talk about:

  1. Ninja fight from Mortal Kombat (from about 4:00-5:00 in this clip)
  2. Dojo fight from Fist of Legend (from the beginning until about 2:15)
  3. Vampire Chateau fight from the Matrix Reloaded (same choreographer as Fist of Legend, Yuen Wooping)
  4. The Death of Ga-Nam from Musa (the ground fight happens between about 2:00 and 5:20)
  5. Bar fight from Rumble in the Bronx (starts as a Showdown but turns into a mook fight around 0:55)

You could also throw in the bar fight from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the open field battle with those bizarre spear-shield guys in House of Flying Daggers.

Now, one might be tempted to look at fight #4 and say, “How is that not Battle Carnage?” There are guys on horses and most of the other fights in Musa are Battle Carnage. What makes this a mook battle? My sense is this: Against All Odds happens within a clear sense of location and unity between the efforts of characters on both sides. In fight #4, you have a sense that the combat is happening in a single location, even though that doesn’t really make sense (how does Ga-Nam manage to join the fight before its over, since he’s running from the fortress?). Also, the three protagonist characters are clearly working together against the Mongol mooks. The slave and the general even do that back-to-back thing, signaling their allied intentions for the first time in the entire movie. In constrast, the other examples of Battle Carnage are usually montages of different locations and characters. Part of what makes Battle Carnage chaotic is the sense that things are happening all over the place. That said, there’s not always a clear distinction between fight types. These are categories that I’m making up to help spur discussion about fights; they don’t actually exist.

Getting into the meat of things, Foreplay can vary quite a bit in Against All Odds fights and sets the tone of the encounter. In fight #1, the characters consider the ninjas to be an annoyance, not anything scary. However, the second group of ninjas that arrive at the end of the fight seem to pose more of a threat. In fights #2 & #3, Chen Zhen and Neo are very confident that they will beat the shit out of everyone in the room. However, in fight #4, the three protagonists dash off to fight the Mongols fully intending to perish. In fight #5, however, Jackie — though clearly a badass — actually seems unsure of the outcome, as if he’s sincerely worried that the swarm of mooks is going to beat them to a pulp. That’s a standard trait of the better Jackie Chan films — Jackie is always freaking out — and is really effective in gaining the audience’s sympathy and engagement. “Oh no, Jackie! Look out!” In fact, I would argue that the Vampire Chateau fight, like all of the Neo fights in the Matrix sequels, actually loses a lot of punch because there’s never any doubt that Neo St. Übermensch is going to triumph, without a scratch even. Compared to the anxiety that builds up whenever anyone else is fighting agents — including sub-Über Neo in the first film — the contrast is pretty clear.

Individual spotlights in Against All Odds aren’t much different from individual spotlights in Battle Carnage, so I’ll skip those, even though they probably make up 1/2 to 2/3 of most Against All Odds fights. Mook fights are generally chances for the protagonists to show off, so they’re in the spotlight a lot. In fights where there’s more than one protagonist you also get shared spotlights. You also have these in Battle Carnage, but I forgot to mention them. The back-to-back thing I mentioned above is one, as is Johnny Blaze throwing that final ninja into Sonya’s closeline. Shared spotlights reaffirm or establish a relationship between characters during a fight. These will be even more important in Showdowns, where the relationship between the fighters is even more important.

Mook Rotation is how Against All Odds fights maintain freshness and excitement when you’re basically showing one to three people beating the shit out of 50 others in quick succession. In order to make this interesting for 1-3 minutes worth of action (and 3 minutes is a long fight, actually), you have to rotate your mooks and there are a few different ways to do this.

  • Show different mooks stepping up or more mooks arriving (Crazy 88s fight in Kill Bill Part 1; also fights #2 and #5)
  • Show some mooks or a protagonist getting hurt, focusing on the pain or injury (this happens a bunch in fight #2, showing the mooks clutching their shins or nuts)
  • Show the mooks switching tactics (grabbing weapons off the wall in fight #3; in fight #2, the types of moves the karate students use change in more subtle ways, check it out; in fight #5, every mook has a new tactic)
  • Have the fight change location, which in turn causes the fighters to change tactics (fight #3 has this all over the place, as does fight #5)

A Lexicon of Fight, Part 1: Battle Carnage

2009 Feb 16

Roleplaying games typically treat all fights as the same, which is a bit crazy. Here’s the beginning of a breakdown of different kinds of fights, techniques for depicting them, and why you might want to use them.

In movies, fights can be broken down into several different varieties, with individual sequences of choreographed violence frequently shifting between them over the course of a single “fight.” Each variety has its own visual language and cinematic vocabulary, through they clearly share some traits as well. The varieties I want to talk about are:

  • Battle Carnage,
  • Against All Odds, and
  • the Showdown.

Battle Carnage is when you have sizable opposing forces engaging each other, as in a military battle or a large street brawl. Battles can be broken down into the following general components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Carnage, and
  • Spotlights.

Foreplay is the critical part before or during the battle where there is no violence but the film builds anticipation and hints at what is going to happen. Remember all that stuff before swords start swinging in the first moments of Gladiator? That’s foreplay. While foreplay is usually battle formations and speeches and saying goodbye to each other and reaffirming relationships between soldiers, foreplay can even involve folks getting killed, as in cases where a single arrow shot starts a battle (Helm’s Deep). Foreplay often happens between phases of a battle as well, or when the battle is about to switch to another kind of fight (Against All Odds or the Showdown).

Carnage makes up about 1/3 of most battle footage. Generally, we don’t really care about the specific characters that triumph or die during the Carnage but it’s important in that it gives the audience a sense of being in the battle and shows how the battle in general is going. If the camera shows soldiers from one side dying more often than soldiers from another side dying, you know the battle is going poorly for them. You can do this a few different ways: altering back and forth between one side and another doing well or poorly, to show an evenly matched battle or the beginning of a conflict, and then swinging things heavily to one side to show a transition or the end of a conflict. Carnage generally depicts nameless characters fighting and killing other nameless characters. If a named character is involved, you’ve moved into the last subgroup of battle footage, Spotlights.

Spotlights are places amidst a battle where the camera shows the actions of specific characters that we care about. Often these are the formally named protagonists and antagonists of the film, but sometimes these are characters that are simply “named” by the attention given to them by the camera. Remember the crazy clawed cat woman from The Gangs of New York who rips that guy’s ear off? We know nothing about her but the camera sure wants to make us care about her (and mostly fails, I think, but that’s a subjective assessment). Spotlights generally involve named characters fighting and killing nameless characters. For a confrontation between named characters, frequently the fight will shift to the Showdown. However, that’s not always the case. The opening of Gangs of New York and the final battle of Musa: The Warriors are examples of fights where main characters are killed in the Spotlight sections of battles. These are quick, brutal, and dirty deaths, not drawn-out confrontations between evenly matched opponents.

Dance Movies

2008 Oct 31

So I just watched Step Up 2 The Streets, the ultimate Halloween movie. And I was thinking, you could totally do this in Mist-Robed Gate. Whenever someone doesn’t want to make a choice, you have a dance fight. Now, most roleplayers probably aren’t used to describing dancing as well as they’re used to describing crazy attacks and defenses, but, with a little practice, I bet folks could turn out some wicked dance descriptions.

Also: Bollywood. Oh, yeah.

Evolving Interaction Methods

2008 Jul 18

Cross-posted from Story Games.

I feel like there could be a really potent mechanic that combines ritual negotiation (like the blade method or Polaris‘ ritual phrases or Mridangam or Waiting/Tea or Kazemaki Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan) and character evolution (like Keys in TSOY), but I haven’t quite put my finger on how that might work yet. Like, how cool would it be if each player could develop their own ritual negotiation method and have it change and grow over time, as a metaphor for developing your character’s fighting style and learning from others through training or fighting with them? Figuring out how different negotiation methods could interact would be the hardest part, but that would be totally boss. If we could do something like that, it would open up a world of different design and play possibilities…

Car Chase Stories, Part 1

2008 May 4

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 making them into competitive, strategic battles between different players. Movie fights aren’t competitive; instead, the people involved (director, actors, choreographer, cinematographer) are collaborating to tell the story of a fight. I think we should be able to do this too, but I wanted to try it out first on something a bit more simpler than a martial arts fight.

So I just bought some Hot Wheels cars.

Elements of Good Car Chases

1. The cars are perceived to be traveling really fast, but can always accelerate further or slam on the brakes, changing speed significantly.

2. There are constant near fatalities and close calls, but the cars (and their passengers) can get seriously banged up and will still keep going, generally until the cars fall apart or (more commonly) explode.

3. The cars are maneuvering a lot, not just traveling in a straight line. There are obstacles and complications in the route, which are overcome in exciting, unusual, and clever ways.

4. The protagonists’ car will never crash for a lame or predictable reason, such as driving in the oncoming lane (the other cars will swerve around them), but pursuers may be gradually eliminated in this fashion, since a lame death sometimes suits a lame antagonist. Cooler antagonists will have to be eliminated in an appropriately badass fashion.

5. The audience always has a sense of the relative positioning of both a) the cars involved in the chase and b) potential obstacles, including the cars of innocent bystanders. In this way, what happens should make “sense,” though the exact rules of reality and timing are often bent or broken.

6. There is ultimately some form of resolution; generally, the pursuers are left behind, the pursuers can no longer continue pursuit (they’ve crashed bad), or the protagonists have left the vehicle (perhaps after crashing themselves) and the drama continues on foot.

Now to start playing around with my toy cars…

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.