Monday 29 June 2020

Exciting Shonen Fight Scenes

OK so, a problem I have with a lot of the systems used to resolve violence in RPGs is that attrition is not particularly exciting. Often, each side has a pool of HP, and take it in turns to make attacks against the other, slowly wearing down that pool until one side or the other has none left, and loses.
I don't find this particularly exciting.
I'm taking inspiration from anime here, and how shonen fighting shows (or at least, the good ones) often handle fights. Essentially, each fight is a puzzle. Each side brings their own techniques and advantages, and the other side has to work out how to negate those methods to bring their own to bear. A fight tends to swing one way and then the other, as one side sets a challenge and the other has to find a solution or be defeated; once a solution is found, then the fight swings the other way until the losing side finds a solution of their own, until once side gains a decisive advantage that the other simple can't answer, and is forced into defeat.
Ultimately a fight is won by wits, creativity and adaptability; the ability to formulate a plan that your enemy can't find a counter to.
This is the dynamic I want to capture.

Here's a system to do that.
It doesn't care much about the numbers on your character sheet, and is instead driven by what's happening in the game-fiction. Negotiating and defining what's happening in the fiction is how you win.

Determine the stakes of the fight. What will happen to each side if they lose; death, capture, humiliation, injury, whatever.

Determine the capabilities of each fighter. If you're bolting this onto an existing system, this might be easy. Looking at a system like D&D 5e or VtM, a character probably has some clues as to their capabilities and powers on their sheet; just pick out what the key elements are.
If you're not bolting this onto an existing game, you can instead determine your fighter's capabilities quite simply. You get to state three advantages they have. These might be:
-A weapon they use, and its quirks.
-A supernatural power they have.
-A wildly impractical stunt or maneuver they've learned, and can pull off reliably.
-A broad fighting-style they're skilled in.
They can get two more such advantages, but for each extra one you have to state a weakness they suffer from.

The Winning-O-Meter:
Who's winning is measured on the winning-o-meter, a sliding scale from -3 to +3. When it reaches +3, one side wins, when it reaches -3 the other side wins. It starts at 0. Over the course of the fight, the winning-o-meter will go up and down depending on who's dominating.
EG: Alice wins at -3, Bob wins at +3.

Control determines who's currently setting the stakes for the fight. The character with control is the one who has set up a situation that the other must find a solution to, or be defeated.
Which character begins with control is a judgement call. It will probably be the character who's overall stronger, attacking from an advantageous position, striking from surprise, and so on.
EG: Bob started the fight, so he begins in control.

The Exchange:
The fight is divided into Exchanges. When an Exchange begins, the player who's character is in Control gets to state a fact about the fight and why it gives them the advantage over their enemy. The character not in Control must attempt Gambles until they overcome this, which ends the Exchange.
EG: Bob might state "My spear easily out-reaches your sword, meaning you can't get close enough to hurt me while I can attack you with impunity".

The Gamble:
To make a Gamble, the player not in Control states what their character does, and how it will overcome their enemy's advantage.
EG: Alice might state "I'm going to feint to one side and dash past your spear-tip, so I'm in sword's-reach of you and too close to easily attack with your spear."
To resolve the gambit, roll a d10. The base chance of success is 5-in-10. Circumstances may modify that base chance, but it can't get worse than 1-in-10 or better than 9-in-10.
The chance is 1 better for each of the following:
-The  gamble is totally unexpected.
-The gamble takes advantage of the enemy's weaknesses.
-The gamble leverages one of the character's strengths.
-The gamble uses the environment to its advantage.
-The gamble turns the apparent strengths of the enemy's technique against them.
The chance is 1 worse for each of the following:
-The gamble was easily predictable.
-The enemy has taken counter-measures against this sort of attack.
-They've used a similar gamble already.
-The gamble is hindered by environmental factors.
-The gamble is unusually risky.
It's a judgement call which of these apply, of course.
If a gamble won't realistically be able to overcome the character in control's advantages, it can't be attempted at all.

If a Gamble Fails:
The exchange continues. The player in control gets to state another fact about the fight, and the subsequent gambles must overcome that advantage too. Further, the winning-o-meter shifts one point in favour of the player still in control.
EG: the gamble fails, so the winning-o-meter shifts from 0 to +1, and bob is 1 step closer to winning when it reaches +3. Bob then states a new fact: "not only do I have a reach advantage, but you've been knocked to the floor."

If a Gamble Succeeds:
That exchange ends. Control flips to the player whose gamble just succeeded, and the winning-o-meter shifts one point in their favour.
The facts established for the exchange so far are negated by the successful gamble, and the player newly in control starts a new exchange, stating a fact of their own and why it gives them the advantage.
EG: the gamble succeeds, so that Alice gains control, and the winning-o-meter shifts one point in her favour, from 0 to -1, bringing her one step closer to victory. A new exchange begins, and Alice states her advantage: "From my diving attack along the ground, I've cut your hamstring, hugely reducing your ability to maneuver or even stand properly".

The fight is over when the winning-o-meter reaches +3 or -3.

The player in control can, rather than stating a fact about the fight to give them an advantage, state that they've safely withdrawn from the fight.

Adjusting the Winning-O-Meter.
You can make a fight shorter and more brutal by making the winning-o-meter range from -2 to +2. Likewise a fight can be made longer and more complex by extending it to perhaps -5 to +5 or even more.
A particularly one-sided fight, perhaps where one fighter is much stronger than the other, or an ambush, might be asymmetric. Perhaps it ranges from -2 to +4, giving one side far less room to fail and the other much more wiggle-room.


  1. That sounds like an exciting narrative dueling system. Would you use this for skirmishes with multiple actors or large scale battles?

    1. I can absolutely see it working with a team on each side rather than a single combatant.

  2. i like it, Reminds me of the way figthing works in ironsworn.

  3. Does the winning-o-meter count as an advantage? As in, is the -3 to +3 used as part of the gamble, or is it just a score tracker?

  4. I like this a lot, but how would you handle the situation when someone is very badly losing a fight but then their theme music starts playing and they say a catchphrase and reveal they were in control the whole time?
    How many points on the Winning-O-Meter is "Yare Yare Daze" worth?

    1. That sounds to me like part of an outcome of a gambit, not something that precedes the resolution of the gambit. So the gambit is: "Even thought I'm disarmed and grappled, I now reveal that I've been holding a small knife in my hand the whole time!" Roll to resolve, and if you're successful, you can get your theme music and catch phrase before you stab your opponent. If you're not successful, your opponent manages to grab your wrist and head-butt you before you're able to use the knife. Or whatever.

    2. Fair, but in a lot of shonen, that moment would typically end a fight dramatically, but a gambit here would only shift to "still losing but not as badly."
      It's an edge case, but I know a lot of players would want that epic shift from -2 to +3 immediately, and I'm not sure how to accomplish that.

      To be clear, this isn't a criticism, my comment was meant to push harder on a really good system and see how far it can go.

    3. I mean i think it depends on the show. Plenty of the ones I've got really into (jojos, for example) will have a LOT of twists and turns like described before a side decisively wins.

    4. You can take a cue from Last Word, an RPG Maker game. It uses the similar scale tracker, except it goes, IIRC, from -10 to +10. You have a couple of abilities that can move the marker 1-3 spaces, plus have additional effects that aren't relevant now.

      Importantly, the characters also have a stat which name I don't remember. Let's call it heat. Heat starts at 0, but you can increase the heat of the opponent with your actions up to 5 and decrease your own if you have the right perks for it.

      Opponent's heat adds directly to the number of spaces the marker moves when you use an ability.

      The end result is that the fights start slow, with the marker moving just a couple of spaces back and forth, but as it progresses, it starts swinging wildly from one side of the scale to the other.

      Something along those lines can be used to make the fights more swingy or represent advantages so devastating, they can turn the whole fight around by themselves, though it would most likely require a more crunchy system than presented.

  5. I like this a lot. Others have pointed out Ironsworn a having a similar system (the "initiative" system). I'll also throw in the "upper hand" dueling system from the Fate System Toolkit as another similar mechanic.

    I believe that the "Bringing Down the Pain" system from The Shadow of Yesterday also had a similar dynamic: each round, somebody had the prerogative of declaring the stakes and being in control of that "round", and it was up to their opponent to react to try to seize control.

    1. Oh, and one more precedent from Fate: one of the core resolution methods in Fate, Contests, works using a "balance tracker" system like your win-o-meter. It's used for things like chases, etc: once you build up 3 net victories, you [get away / catch the other guy / win the contest]. Doesn't D&D in some later editions also have a skill challenge mechanic like this, e.g. for climbing a wall?

    2. Also, using a Contest with 2 independent tracks to fill (instead of a single back-and-forth one), you can avoid a possibly situation in which the two (almost) equal skilled opponent keep going from -1 to +1, dragging a combat scene forever, surrounded by the understandable boredom of the rest of the table.

  6. I love it too. :) My son is an shonen anime fan and this is nice. I can also see tailoring the gambles based on the setting you want to imitate. For example, in my Hero Academia it is all about teamwork and friendship. So if you involve a friend or recall a scene with them add one to your Gamble roll. You get the idea.

    Super fun! :D

  7. This is so cool! If I used this, I'd probably change it so a successful gamble, instead of shifting the meter, changes the polarity of the number. So a failed gamble always pushes the fight closer to its end, but a successful gamble is a true reversal, and the stakes only ever get higher as the fight goes on.

    I'm not super well versed in shonen anime, but this would do a lot to model the kinds of fights from comics, etc. that I love, where a hero is down on the ropes, but is able to turn the tide decisively with a clever move at the right moment and then quickly finish their opponent off.

  8. For best results, declare your advantages and gambles through the voices of side characters spectating, a la Joey Wheeler, Sakura, Brock and Misty, or Krillin.

  9. Thanks for this. I really, really hate combat in most rpgs these days, but as a GM I feel like the players expect and desire it. PbtA games helped me enjoy physical conflict again, and I'd love to try something like this.

  10. This is pretty excellent, and would slot effortlessly into Rhapsody of Blood's boss fights.