Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rpg Reflections - Why do rpg systems make fighters boring?

Warriors and Fighters are awesome. They are the quintessential hero of fantasy and mythology, doing feats of extraordinary skill and prowess in the battlefield. In mythology, we have the likes of Heracles, who strangled the Nemean lion; or Bellerophon, who, flying mounted at Pegasus, defeated the Chimera; or the god Susanoo, who fought in a titanic struggle against the giant snake Orochi. In modern fiction, few warriors of fantasy can have a greater fame than Conan, the cimmerian barbarian who fought innumerable foes; but, going beyond sword and sorcery, we may see the Jedi Knights from Star Wars, and also behold the many super heroes comix, filled with great martial artists and fighters – like Batman, Daredevil, Wonder Woman and many others.

And why are warriors awesome? I believe because they touch that primal beat in all of us, the instinct of fighting, of getting on our feet and standing tall against opposition. They fight with steel, flesh, fists and bones, bleeding as they claw their way through their many foes. They may use strength – like Samson – cunning – like Ulysses – or incredible agility – like Zorro – but they take hold of the battlefield with their skill.

However, those amazing stunts and incredible maneuvers are not what normally happen in most rpgs. In fact, playing warriors in most rpgs resume to saying 'I attack' and rolling the dice to see if the enemy was hit and then roll some damage. At most, a player might be allowed to 'try' doing amazing stuff as a fighter, but those actions are just 'mechanical'. If you try doing some awesome thing like swinging down a chandelier while doing a back flip, landing at a table, then spout a quirky line and kick the bad guy to a fireplace, you will probably – in most rpg games – have a ton of penalties to your attack roll. So, instead of doing something awesome, you just stick to the 'boring' basic action and say 'I attack'.

Even D&D (and the OSR systems) – which is a rpg game that tries simulating heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery – doesn't treat warriors very well. Old School D&D have some abstract notions in combat (Rounds are very long time wise, attacks and defenses allow for some open ended narration of strikes), which allow some space for roleplaying. However, there are no encouragements for players to narrate their attacks, because it all boils down to the attack roll against AC, with little to no variation. And new school D&D (3 rd and 4 th editions) may even be worse, because they made every aspect of combat very deterministic. Combat rounds have a very strict set time, each attack represent one strike, everyone has specific actions that can be done, be them attacks or move actions. All those specifics focus much more on the 'game' aspects of combat instead of the 'roleplay' aspects.

That is the main problem with fighters and combat in most rpgs: they don't align 'mechanics' with 'roleplay'. Nevertheless, there are rpg systems that allow a lot of interaction between mechanics and roleplaying. Marvel Heroic Roleplay (MHR) compels the players to roleplay every aspect they want to use during an attack in order to roll them – so, if you have Super Speed and Super Strenght, if you want to use both in an attack, you must narrate how they are being used; you can't just say 'I attack'. The Open Versatile Anime rpg (OVA) also makes clear that actions must be correlated with narration. Maybe the greatest example of all recent rpgs is Dungeon World, from the Apocalypse World Engine rpgs, that has very awesome moves and actions for each character class that are directly tied to in game fiction.

Having narration without mechanical output feels empty and pointless. And having mechanics without narration is cold and distant – in fact, if only for the mechanics, it is much better playing a strategy wargame or a video game (like Dark Souls or Final Fantasy). But Rpgs like Dungeon World, MHR and OVA show us that it is possible to find a middle term between mechanics and narration and make combat (and warriors!) incredible.

Thinking about that, on the next days I will be posting about Combat Stunts and Prowess – ideas to allow warriors to be awesome. To allow warriors to jump on the giant scorpion's back and make it sting itself, pull the fur of a werewolf and wrestle with it in the ground and blind a beholder's eye before it shoots its evil rays.

Until next time,

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