Show-Pieces

In the past few days, I’ve been watching RWBY, an anime-style cartoon series…and during the final episode of the second season, I had an epiphany about something to do in Dungeons & Dragons, and in role-playing games in general.

The episode features a show-piece fight, where all the important characters get to strut their stuff. I recommend that you watch the fight before reading what I say about it. Even if you aren’t familiar with the series, you should have no trouble following the action; monsters are loose in the city, and students at a school for monster-hunters have no choice but to fight them.

Here’s the YouTube link. The fight lasts from 2:24 to 8:47.

This sort of show-piece fight happens near the end of many a movie or TV season. The music starts (whether it’s the James Bond theme or driving heavy metal) and for a time, the heroes are invincible. They never miss; they can’t be hurt; and the enemies are always perfectly arranged for the heroes to put them down with clever moves. Each character gets to use their abilities in some distinctive fashion, and they all prove they’re bad-ass.

It’s fabulous. So how can we do the same in D&D?

D&D combat can be nail-biting, but it isn’t Metal. There’s too much time spent rolling dice. “I hit AC 14. Does that hit? No, I was aiming for the ogre, not the owlbear. Okay, I’ll roll damage. I role a 12. And then I’ll duck out of sight before it hits me back.”

Not. Metal.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I’m thinking and what I intend to do in one of the campaigns I run: once in a while at an appropriate moment—maybe every four months—I’ll declare, “This isn’t a combat, it’s a show-piece.”

Put away the dice. Put away the rulebooks. Just be bad-ass.

Each character has as many opponents as they want: exactly the right number, lined up in a perfect configuration for whatever the character is going to do. Every attack hits. Every skill attempt succeeds without rolling. The enemies always miss, or if (for dramatic reasons) they connect, they don’t actually do damage. Each enemy goes down when you want it to…so if you want to take off its head with a single kick, that’s what happens. If you want to slash it twenty times in a second with your sword, and have its hacked-up pieces fall to the ground…done and done.

You can shoot five arrows simultaneously and pin an enemy to the wall. You can leap onto a monster’s back and use a dagger in each hand to dig into the creature’s hide and climb to the monster’s head. You can shoot a fireball down a monster’s throat, slam its mouth closed, and watch its entire body explode.

No dice rolls. No game mechanics. You don’t count how many spell slots you’re using, or how many ki points you spend. This isn’t combat; the player characters are putting on a show, because you’ve reached a point in the story where kick-ass mayhem ought to happen. The goal is to make your fellow players go, “Woah.”

I haven’t tried this yet in an actual game, but I plan on giving each player maybe three minutes to devise a showoff sequence: multiple actions against multiple enemies, all in a row. I wouldn’t want the sequence to take more than a minute to describe; this isn’t done in combat rounds. Player A describes their whole sequence; then Player B describes theirs; and so on.

Each sequence should use the abilities the character has right now—a wizard can’t suddenly know new spells—but everyone has unlimited uses of their powers. A wizard who knows Fireball can throw seventeen of them in a row, provided it’s bad-ass and not just repetitive.

I suspect some of you may still need guidance, so here are more thoughts:

  • The point is to show off, not to do math.
  • You can go into slo-mo when you want. Get that moment when you leap into the air and fire ten arrows before you land again.
  • Ridiculous flukes of luck are encouraged.
  • Monsters may roar, but they only attack when you want them to. This means you have time to deliver whatever dialogue fits. (See the RWBY clip for examples.)
  • Gravity is merely cosmetic. You can leap off something very high and swing your ax as you fall, cleaving a monster in two and not hurting yourself at all when you hit the ground.

Once each character has had a chance to strut, why not go through the order again, but this time in pairs on tougher enemies? Characters will team up (e.g. for Fastball Specials) to take on bigger badder opponents. Again, each pair of players will be given time to figure out a show-piece: using their abilities to beat something exceptionally scary. Maybe go through the order a second time with different pairs…and then one final super-boss-level enemy that all the characters unite to take out in some imaginative fashion.

I recommend ending with a slow-motion walk and stuff blowing up in the background.

Just remember the mantra: this isn’t combat, it’s a show. No dice, no rules. The player characters always succeed, and their enemies always fail…

…at least, as long as the show continues. Because in movies, these set-pieces often end when the real boss shows up. The wall bursts open, and in comes a monster just as bad-ass as the player characters. Suddenly, the DM puts the rules back in force, and it’s not a show, it’s by-the-book combat.

I offer this to D&D DMs (and GMs in other RPGs) as an occasional break from the ordinary, especially at dramatically appropriate moments. I intend to try it sometime soon. If anyone else tries it too, let me know how it goes!

Sharing, May 7, 2019

Links? I got ’em.

Convention: When Words Collide, Aug 9-11, 2019, in Calgary
For a long time, I’ve loved the concept of When Words Collidge. It’s a convention specifically aimed at genre diversity: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and more. It’s a great way of expanding your horizons beyond your favourite niches…and this year, I’m going to be one of the guests of honour! Yay! So come out, say hi, and enjoy the convention.
Role-Playing: A New Dungeons & Dragons Campaign
I’ve been talked into running a new D&D campaign for a group from my kung fu school. I didn’t take much persuading…and now I’ve been cackling to myself for more than a week as I design the arc of the campaign, with a whole bunch of surprises built in. I can’t give details, of course—at least one of the players reads this blog. But starting any new tale gets my juices flowing, whether it’s a novel, a short story, or a campaign. [*Insert sinister laugh here.*]
Season: Spring
Today, most of the trees on my street suddenly acquired leaf buds. Within a week, the trees may actually look like trees. About damned time! And it means that I can get out and start running (okay, jogging) again.

 

 

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.

 

Models: Multiplicity

In a previous post, I talked about science being all about making models. You observe a lot of phenomena, then you try to make a model that represents your observations. By creating a model, you make a generalization that (you hope) will apply to things you haven’t seen as well as the things you have.

But there’s a huge caveat that applies here: sometimes different models can be used to represent the same phenomena.

Most famously, light can be modeled as a wave or a particle. (Light is also modeled as a ray in Geometrical Optics.) It’s important to stress that these are models. We’re sometimes sloppy and say that light is a wave or a particle, but that’s going too far. Light is light. Waves and particles are models that help us predict how light will behave, and although they’re excellent models, they’re abstractions. We can’t say they’re real.

Another famous example of models are the different ways to represent the solar system, specifically the Copernican and Ptolemaic models. It’s well known that the Ptolemaic system used to fit observational data better than the Copernican model did, at least to begin with. Ptolemy’s system of multiple spheres had so many fudge factors that it could be adjusted to match reality pretty closely, whereas Copernicus had problems because he tried to use circular orbits instead of ellipses. But in the long run, the Copernican model was modified to become more accurate, and it “won” because it was much much simpler than Ptolemy’s spheres.

As another example, think of maps. Maps are models: abstractions of actual landscapes. We have road maps, topographical maps, numerous kinds of geological maps, and much more. Each can be based on the same terrain; the difference depends on what you choose to include and exclude.

Let me emphasize exclusion. The whole point of a map is that you leave things out for the sake of simplicity. Maps only show a tiny subset of what’s actually on the ground. They may also exaggerate the size of some geographical objects so they’re easier to see; a road map, for example, shows roads much wider than they would be if they were actually drawn to scale. We might say that maps are deliberately wrong—they deliberately hide some things and distort others in order to make certain information more comprehensible.

The same is true of economic models. The actual economy is hopelessly complex; it consists of a huge number of transactions between people, companies, governments, and other organizations. No model could possibly capture so much complexity. As a result, economic models make enormous simplifications—they ignore almost everything that actually happens.

We all know how that can lead to problems. Different economic models arise from ignoring different things, and what you ignore may be precisely what bites you in the ass during a financial crisis.

But my favorite example of multiplicity in models is what we see in role-playing games. Every RPG contains a system for representing characters: often a list of numbers and abilities aimed at modeling human beings (or human-like entities). Different games use different models…and while some game systems are moderately similar to one another, others are wildly divergent.

Even more interestingly, slight differences in models can lead to substantially different gaming experiences. The Call of Cthulhu character model, for example, is pretty close to a lot of other models, except for a single number: a ranking of your sanity. That SAN rating takes on an overwhelming importance as you play the game. Sanity considerations can affect every action taken by individuals and by entire groups. It gives the game a much different ambiance from games that might otherwise be similar.

My point is that models are chosen, and often by selectively omitting or exaggerating details. Models often impose and reinforce a view of what is and isn’t important. This has consequences…and in the next installment of this series, I’ll take a look at what those might be.

[Picture of Cthulhu by Alexander Liptak. Image used with permission under Creative Commons repository. Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.]

Sharing: June 6, 2018

Things I’ve enjoyed recently.

Article: There Are No Laws of Physics. There’s Only the Landscape
A good introduction to the concept of “the landscape” in modern physics, and why it has physicists both excited and disappointed.
Book: Gothicka by Victoria Nelson
A survey of recent developments in Gothic fiction. To a first approximation, Gothic fiction used to be synonymous with supernatural horror, but in recent years, not so much. Classic monsters like vampires and werewolves are more likely to be heroes than villains these days, as in the entire genre of urban fantasy. Why did this happen and what does it mean? I don’t agree with Nelson on numerous points, and she gets a few specifics wrong (especially when it comes to comic books), but there’s lots of food for thought.
Computer Game: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (I recommend the Game of the Year edition containing all the DLC)
It took me a while to get around to The Witcher 3, partly because I got super-annoyed with technical glitches in The Witcher 1 and partly because the creators said ill-informed things when taken to task for the game’s lack of diversity. But as Anita Sarkeesian often says in Feminist Frequency videos, it’s possible to both enjoy a game and be aware of its problematic aspects.
The Witcher 3 is too male-gaze-y and lacks people of color, yet it’s the most inventive computer role-playing game I’ve ever played. It has many great story arcs, long and short, great game-play, and plenty of surprises. Over and over, I found myself encountering things I’d never seen in any other game…and even though it’s now several years old, nothing since has ever come close to its level of variety and story-telling. After more than 200 hours of play, I’ve started it again from the beginning and am still enjoying it a lot.