Of Mooks, Plot Armor, and ttRPGs

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Is a problem with emulating a lot of popular fiction using many ttRPGs that the main characters in the fiction typically have massive plot armor and most bad guys are mooks and go down easily - but the folks playing the game might not like having that be too obvious?

What about movies, comics, TV shows, and novels let's us get past that? What lets me ignore that Marshall Dillon will certainly live to be in the next episode of Gunsmoke, or that the entire 4077 won't be wiped out before the next episode of MASH. Does it need other stakes? Does it need to give enough other plot to to distract me? Does having a big character go down fairly early help (lots in GoT, once in a while in Black Company, Boromir in LotR, most people in the Silmarillion)? If main character death isn't a thing in the fiction, what makes the combat interesting? Does easy raise dead in D&D map to how unseriously super hero death in the comics is?

For IRL heroes, is it just that we're doing things in reverse. They're heroes we're reading about because we already know how it turned out? So, what makes us watch a story about a war hero where we know how it ends? Can one even have a historical emulation game where it is guaranteed to end with success in a similar manner to the original, or is there no game there?
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
For IRL heroes, is it just that we're doing things in reverse. They're heroes we're reading about because we already know how it turned out? So, what makes us watch a story about a war hero where we know how it ends? Can one even have a historical emulation game where it is guaranteed to end with success in a similar manner to the original, or is there no game there?

I think you identified the issue at the end.

The difference is that when you are consuming a pierce of entertainment, you are engaged with the fiction- because it is a fiction! It is a story.

However, when you are playing a game, it is generally the case that there must be stakes in the game. If you are playing a "sports game" then you will win or lose (or, in imaginary non-'Murikan countries, "draw" ... but still have the possibility of winning and losing). The whole enjoyment of games is that you can do better, or worse. Here's something for the olds-

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports... the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat... the human drama of athletic competition... This is "ABC's Wide World of Sports!"

This doesn't mean, necessarily, that the stakes have to be death in a game. Certainly I would be more judicious in my choice of pickup basketball if that was the case. However, it does mean that there will be something profoundly unsatisfying to many people in a game if they begin to believe that their choices are rendered meaningless- in other words, there are no stakes. If they "lose" a combat, it is not a defeat at all.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
If main character death isn't a thing in the fiction, what makes the combat interesting?

Because sometimes the interesting part is the journey, not the destination.

Let us consider a reasonably popular TV show that also has a TTRPG: Leverage. In the TV show, we have the "hitter" character, Elliot. Elliot gets into a fight in every show. We know for sure he's not gonna die. And the vast majority of the time, he wins the fight. So, what makes it fun to watch?

It is fun in large part because the actor, Christian Kane, is good at his job and the fight choreography has elements we don't expect, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And, because, even though we know Elliot isn't going to buy the farm, the way the fight turns out may very well impact how the overall story unfolds - Leverage is a poster child for "success with complications"

So, what makes us watch a story about a war hero where we know how it ends?

You know how the tactical situation, for lack of a better term, ends. But is that the only element of the story? What about the character's emotional journey?

We know, by historical report, that the musicians aboard the Titanic played while passengers were boarding lifeboats, to help keep people a bit more calm, for as long as they could. We know every one of these men died. But we don't know about their feelings or thoughts about it all. We don't know what would make a person sacrifice their lives in this way.

So, what's their story? Is it about that final moment, or is it about how they approached it?
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Because sometimes the interesting part is the journey, not the destination.

Let us consider a reasonably popular TV show that also has a TTRPG: Leverage. In the TV show, we have the "hitter" character, Elliot. Elliot gets into a fight in every show. We know for sure he's not gonna die. And the vast majority of the time, he wins the fight. So, what makes it fun to watch?

It is fun in large part because the actor, Christian Kane, is good at his job and the fight choreography has elements we don't expect, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And, because, even though we know Elliot isn't going to buy the farm, the way the fight turns out may very well impact how the overall story unfolds - Leverage is a poster child for "success with consequences"

You know how the tactical situation, for lack of a better term, ends. But is that the only element of the story? What about the character's emotional journey?

We know, by historical report, that the musicians aboard the Titanic played while passengers were boarding lifeboats, to help keep people a bit more calm, for as long as they could. We know every one of these men died. But we don't know about their feelings or thoughts about it all. We don't know what would make a person sacrifice their lives in this way.

So, what's their story? Is it about that final moment, or is it about how they approached it?

I think I'm good with everything you said there - and completely agree (I mean, a lot of the shows I watch have that).

How does that mix with the game elements in a game with a lot of combat?

Are these two questions kind of opposed to each other: (1) Is ttRPG combat fun if you (essentially) know you're going to win? (2) Can you emulate the genres where the heroes always win (in the end) if you don't almost always win the ttRPG combat?

More personally, thinking about the games I run and play in: In practice, is a lot of D&D combat basically resource management before you get there and not doing anything too silly - and without many consequences? If that seems to be happening, what are some good resources for advice on adding more to the lead-up and aftermath, and maybe streamlining the actual fight more? Or is the trick just not thinking about it if you're having fun?
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Is a problem with emulating a lot of popular fiction using many ttRPGs that the main characters in the fiction typically have massive plot armor and most bad guys are mooks and go down easily - but the folks playing the game might not like having that be too obvious?

What about movies, comics, TV shows, and novels let's us get past that? What lets me ignore that Marshall Dillon will certainly live to be in the next episode of Gunsmoke, or that the entire 4077 won't be wiped out before the next episode of MASH. Does it need other stakes? Does it need to give enough other plot to to distract me? Does having a big character go down fairly early help (lots in GoT, once in a while in Black Company, Boromir in LotR, most people in the Silmarillion)? If main character death isn't a thing in the fiction, what makes the combat interesting? Does easy raise dead in D&D map to how unseriously super hero death in the comics is?

For IRL heroes, is it just that we're doing things in reverse. They're heroes we're reading about because we already know how it turned out? So, what makes us watch a story about a war hero where we know how it ends? Can one even have a historical emulation game where it is guaranteed to end with success in a similar manner to the original, or is there no game there?
Exactly. There's no game to play if there are no meaningful choices for the players to make. But it's also about expectations and the unique qualities of those kinds of entertainment.

To me it largely comes down to the difference between active vs passive entertainment. In games you actively participate in your own entertainment. You get to make choices, your choices matter, etc. If you don't, you're not playing a game (active), you're being told a story (passive). When you're watching a film, TV show, sporting event, or reading a story*, you passively participate in your own entertainment. You do not get to make choices, your choices don't matter, etc. If you did, you'd be playing a game (active), not watching or reading a story (passive)**.

They're each interesting in their own right because, importantly, we have wildly different sets of expectations with each kind of entertainment. You know sitting down to read a novel that this is passive entertainment. Your only choice is whether to keep reading or not, no matter how much you yell or scream, the story will unfold exactly how the author wrote it. Nothing you do matters. And you expect that to be the case. Conversely, when you sit down to a game, you expect the opposite, you expect active entertainment. Your choices are infinite, or nearly so, and you expect them to matter. Which is why when players sit down to a railroad game, they're always disappointed. Because the referee is telling them a story and forcing the players to be passive when they expected active entertainment.

RPGs are not TV shows, or movies, or novels, or short stories. They're not passive entertainment. When people try to force them to be those things, or emulate those things, they miss the wonderful and unique thing that RPGs are so they can poorly ape other, difference types of entertainment. The referee isn't a storyteller. Whatever story the game has is a result of the game's rules, the referee's prep, the players' choices, and the roll of the dice. It's entirely emergent.

* Reading is more "active" for your brain in that it requires more thought to process. You have to imagine the situations and characters, etc. So it's not entirely passive.

** And of course there are interactive stories where the story is largely set but you get to make minor choices in a preset story, like a Choose Your Own Adventure story or similar, but those are still 99% passive.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I think I'm good with everything you said there - and completely agree (I mean, a lot of the shows I watch have that).

How does that mix with the game elements in a game with a lot of combat?

Are these two questions kind of opposed to each other: (1) Is ttRPG combat fun if you (essentially) know you're going to win? (2) Can you emulate the genres where the heroes always win (in the end) if you don't almost always win the ttRPG combat?

Well, note that the focus here is on "win/loss". At the moment, we are focused on whether the PC "wins", without recognizing that winning and losing are not the only possible outcomes of a conflict. Yes, the bad guy is down, flat out on the pavement - the PC won the fight. But what else happened? Did the hero take wounds that will impact them later? How far did the timer on the bomb set to destroy the Statue of Liberty tick down? And so on.


More personally, thinking about the games I run and play in: In practice, is a lot of D&D combat basically resource management before you get there and not doing anything too silly - and without many consequences?

Yep. I expect this is a fairly common experience.

If that seems to be happening, what are some good resources for advice on adding more to the lead-up and aftermath, and maybe streamlining the actual fight more? Or is the trick just not thinking about it if you're having fun?

Well, there is the old point of, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." There's probably lots of folks who are well-entertained by having fights be a series of individual tactical scenarios, the real consequences of which are limited to resource depletion. There is nothing wrong with that kind of play - indeed, it has a simplicity that makes it easy to engage with, such that it probably ought to be present in the toolbox for most games.

But, let us say there's some dissatisfaction at the table - what resources are available? Excellent question. To be honest, I can't think of any sizable works that take this as their primary subject matter. So, we are left looking at various sources from which we can glean tidbits.

I'm not a big follower of the guy, but I kind of expect Matt Coville is apt to touch on this kind of thing now and again in his various advice videos.

Monte Cook wrote/edited a book called Your Best Game Ever, which isn't primarily focused on combat, but many of the precepts and suggestions in it are applicable to combat.

You can also look to the designs of games in which death is rare, never happens, or only happens by specific choice to see what they do when the shift the focus away from that very basic form of win/loss.
 


I think you identified the issue at the end.

The difference is that when you are consuming a pierce of entertainment, you are engaged with the fiction- because it is a fiction! It is a story.

However, when you are playing a game, it is generally the case that there must be stakes in the game. If you are playing a "sports game" then you will win or lose (or, in imaginary non-'Murikan countries, "draw" ... but still have the possibility of winning and losing). The whole enjoyment of games is that you can do better, or worse. Here's something for the olds-

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports... the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat... the human drama of athletic competition... This is "ABC's Wide World of Sports!"

This doesn't mean, necessarily, that the stakes have to be death in a game. Certainly I would be more judicious in my choice of pickup basketball if that was the case. However, it does mean that there will be something profoundly unsatisfying to many people in a game if they begin to believe that their choices are rendered meaningless- in other words, there are no stakes. If they "lose" a combat, it is not a defeat at all.
Well I am relatively confident you don't mean that my infamous 'death station' Traveller game where all the PCs die at the end isn't a game. How about Paranoia, where the GM is literally supposed to wipe out the characters no matter what they do?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Well I am relatively confident you don't mean that my infamous 'death station' Traveller game where all the PCs die at the end isn't a game.

tumblr_m338lutKgE1qa32meo1_r1_500.gif
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Well I am relatively confident you don't mean that my infamous 'death station' Traveller game where all the PCs die at the end isn't a game. How about Paranoia, where the GM is literally supposed to wipe out the characters no matter what they do?

Thank you for making me think about what the play goals are in the doomed to die games!
 

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