Monday, February 16, 2015

The Heat of Combat

I'm co-opting my blog to discuss stuff from my work with New York Jedi. Don't worry, it's relevant to the larpers too. Our conversation was about characters and combat and how the latter needs the former. This is my thinking on the matter.

A fight is rarely just for the sake of fighting. There is always something about it going in, there's always a reason why people are fighting. The phrase 'just for the sake of fighting' doesn't apply because there is something that lead to that thinking. We aren't machines that are programmed just to hit things. We aren't NPCs meant to just stand there and knuckle up. We're Characters, the focus of our stories and the support of other stories. We have motivations, reasons, and methods.

And that's what fighting allows us to do. As a writer, it's always been my belief that fights are a ways to show character without having to say a word. When you're in a situation when something as important as someone's Life is on the line, you're going to see what people will pull out of their metaphorical bags. Even if you're a cold blooded murderer who is used to killing and shows no emotion, that's something that should show.

One of my pet peeves when watching fight choreography is when the fight is mechanically beautiful--the actors and stunt men are all on cue and all--and there is zero characterization going. My major target are the fight scenes in The Star Wars prequels. They are magnificently choreographed and rehearsed, and visually stimulating. However, if you look at the actors in their fight, there is nothing going on there. They are doing a rehearsed dance. There's no emotional content there...and yes, Jedi feel emotion they just aren't bound to it. It's one of the reasons I prefer the Luke vs Vader fights, because there's a game going on there in Empire. Vader is testing and toying with Luke. In Return of the Jedi, Luke is pissed and hauling away. You can cut to that scene, having never known anything about what was going on, and realizing that there are stakes in this fight.

In Revenge of the Sith, two guys take part in a protracted fight amongst a literal lava field. Zero feelings coming off them. The environment is what the emotion, and the only reason why we know there are stakes is because we've know where this fight ends.

The same thing happens in The Matrix films, especially the later one. The most grievous example for this is the Neo/Seraph fight. this:

And that's it. There's nothing really telling us anything about these characters. There's nothing indicating in the fight itself (key word) that this was a test of character or judgment, which is what it is alluded to. It really just seems to be a fight for the sake of having a fight. As a geek who loves shiny things, it's visually appealing. As someone who sees this stuff as research, it's annoying. It feels like porn, where the plot is there only to justify the it were.

You can have a brilliantly choreographed fight while still have character. One of my favorite fights is the Shu Lien vs Jen scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.:

In this fight, you're seeing raw talent and potential against training and experience. Jen, who is a young learner with a powerful sword, is arrogant in her power but can be seen wavering at times when Shu Lien tries something new. Shu Lien has experience with multiple weapons, but she's also clearly getting frustrated as the fight goes on. They don't seem to want to kill each other, if anything it looks like an argument they're having without saying a word.

Fights are tools to bring about dramatic tension. It either is the cause of the tension, or what breaks the tension. It's like a fever breaking, and once it does there is a level of release. Of Catharsis. A good fight in storytelling should bring about an emotional release. The people watching it should care that this fight happens, otherwise you're just there flapping your arms around and serving no one.

Which brings me to Larping. Yes, I hadn't forgotten you, my dear friends. As many of my friends in Mind's Eye Society will tell you is that I hate the combat system. A lot of work went into converting the tabletop rules for the White Wolf games into something that was more convenient for larp. Somewhere, though, it never really translated over. So, whenever combat scenes happened, people would go right back to tabletopping it out. That was never fun for me. We'd go from being these dramatic characters to suddenly playing what was essentially Pokemon with our sheets. That grinds a good RP flow to a halt and kills the mood for me. I've just handed STs my sheet with my information when we realize that the combat is going to last anywhere longer than ten minutes.

Combat only seems to work in Mind's Eye Society when the integrity of the setting is upheld. When I mean Setting in this instance, I mean the physical location your characters are occupying. This is done by making the space you as players are occupying as close an approximation as possible. This is difficult when you're a monthly game low on resources and moving from studio to studio, but with careful planning you can get creative.

One of my favorite combat scenes I ever took part of, I was an NPC, a group of three. The Vampires had us cornered for making them create more Vampires and then mindwiping everyone. The fight happened in a room next to where the main game was being played, so only the people in the fight were actually present. That gave us a whole room to move around in. There was only one exit: The door. The first thing the Vampires did was put someone against the door in case one of the NPCs made a run for it. And we did. There was movement, strategy and thinking that had to be played out relatively live (if somewhat drawn out). It was a lot more dynamic and a lot more dramatic then just sitting in a circle and waiting our turn to attack.

My favorite combat scene in MES that I've ran happened over a MacGuffin. There was a fight over a tape recording left by one of the Mage Leaders from twenty years ago. It had sensitive information for a lot of people. Conflicts arose and a fight broke out. Watching two Mages duke it out physically and magically while one tried to leave the room was refreshing.

Talking with a friend of mine during the writing of this, he made some valid points. The rules in World of Darkness games seem more intent on Killing than Fighting. There is also another point he made: In Larp Combat, it always seems to be a standing fight. No one tends to look for cover. This isn't Final Fantasy and we just stand there until our turns start. If there's a fight, I'm running for fucking cover.

Lately, I've been gravitating towards systems that promote more acting out the actions. I've lately been looking at Dresden Lives, which is currently testing out it's mechanics. The system has both Physical and Mental damage, meaning that there are more ways to deal with a person other than hitting them with a sword. There's also the matter that health pools are a lot less than most games. Death can happen fairly easily in these games. There's less incentive to jump in blindly as a player.

Then there is also the boffer larp games. I mean, there are the 'boffer monkeys' who just go out to hit things, but there's a sense of combat and urgency when you have to play it out. Part of me does notice the scrimmage line style of boffering, two groups meeting face to face like battles of old. I'd love to see more strategy, but then again I need to get out more and experience boffer larps better.

So the question becomes 'how do we make combat more interesting'. I have a few ideas, some are better for the stage, some for larps. All apply.

1) Show, don't tell.
As someone who likes writing grand epics about their characters, allow me to be the first person to say this: I don't really care to hear about your character background. Show me your character, make me want to ask questions.

2) God Mode Is Lazy
Having a character who can't be killed or otherwise defeated is lazy ass storytelling. It's lazy for the stage and it's lazy for larps. Where is the drama or the reward for putting your character through this? What is the incentive for someone to engage with you when the outcome is already known? Which brings me to...

3) A High Stakes Game
Fighting is rarely just for the sake of the fight, even nihilism is reason. People don't just fight each other. So what are the stakes in this fight? Is there a goal, an item, Fate of the City? Your life? What is the cost if you don't win on both a personal and grand scale level.

4) People are Watching
A fight for storytelling is also a fight infront of an audience. They need to be engaged. This is common stage combat 101. If your audience doesn't care, you're not doing something right. This works in larps too, the key is that your audience are also the other players, and the storytelling staff (if you aren't one yourself).

These things go counter to what I believe to be the common US conception of "I hit it with my axe". People sometimes play just to hit things. That's cool, but there's a growing population that enjoy the telling of their story. Fighting is one way to do that. It's one of the reasons I want to make a larp based around it in the form of a martial arts tournament. It's finding the balance between winning and playing that is the trick.


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