The Train Combat

This is a sample diceless combat, run over email as an example of Theatrix. David Berkman is the GM (written in italics) and Charley Morrison is the player (written in roman type).

Here's the situation:

You are on top of a train. You have the physique and fighting ability of Bruce Willis from Die Hard. That is, you're one tough guy, in damn good shape, and you know some martial arts, and a lot of dirty brawling techniques. You are also one heck of a shot with a gun. You have .38 in a shoulder holster. You are wearing an undershirt, a pair of jeans, and Doc Martin's shoes. You've obviously pissed off a lot of people, because you've got a huge (I mean really, really big) brute, right in your face. You've got a helicopter following the train, with a man taking pot shots at you from the helicopter. Right now, he's not shooting because he doesn't want to hit his own guy (the brute) by accident. You've also got a whole bunch o' generic thugs heading from train to train, in the cars beneath you, coming your way. You don't know quite where they are right now.

What are you doing?

I suppose I will bring my Doc Martin's down on the brute's kneecap, to see if I can't pop it. I want him to go down, but not entirely off the train (so the helicopter guy will refrain from taking my head off).

Is this enough detail, or should I write more about my actions?

You decide. The more you give me, the less I have to ask, and the quicker this goes.

How defensive/offensive are you being. Where are your hands, and what are they doing/guarding? What is your body posture, and where are you looking?

Since this guy is much bigger than me, I suppose I'm being more defensive. I have my left hand open, near my right shoulder, to ward off any blows to the upper body. My right hand is near my waist, to block any low attacks. I'm looking the guy right in the eye (if I'm as good as you say I am, his eyes should tell me where and when he is planning to attack). I'm slightly crouched, standing with my right side to him so as not to expose the front of my body and to limit his range of attacks. My ears are open (though I'm sure the train is pretty loud), straining to hear if there are any footfalls behind me. So, does my "pop his kneecap" attack work?

Good description. With the sound of thr train you can't hear any footfalls, but the helecopter is to the right of you, and picking up speed, moving behind you. The brutes eye's are right into yours, probing for the moment of your attack. He's obviously not just a strong arm man. His stance is relaxed, upright, with his hands in a boxers guard, his right side just slightly more forward then the left, and a small smile playing at the edge of his mouth. He seems terribly confident.

Normally, I would ask you if you still wanted to make that attack, but for time's sake, I'll assume yes.

You strike. His left leg comes forward and up, like lightning, hooking your striking leg and bringing it up, while you go off-balance, forced to lean too far back, and almost forced to remain upright. His Right hand grabs your right ankle in a vice like grip, and his whole body falls into a kneeling stance, left leg up, with your right leg caught by that hand on your ankle, your knee forced over his upright left leg, and his left arm comes down in an elbow strike, fist raised to the sky, onto your thigh. Pain shoots through your body, and it's hard to see anything for a moment. Your are still on your feet, balanced awkwardly on one leg.

NOTE: Wow, no chance to dodge, parry, or counterattack anywhere in here?

No. He's that good. It happens that fast. And you are thrown off-balance that quickly. The whole move and counter move took maybe 3 seconds, maybe.

If you want a chance to dodge or parry, that was given to you. You didn't. I assumed you were trying. You now have a chance to counter-attack. If you wanted a better chance to dodge or parry, you might have tried some probing maneuvers first. A knee-break is a fast finish maneuver, which is risky against an opponent who might be better than you, and martial arts trained. Maybe a defensive fast punch or two, to test him out, would have had better results. They are tried and true. Knee breaks are slower, leave you less balance, and are hard to get right.

You're good. Now you know how good he is.

That helecopter is moving somewhere behind you to the right.
The brute smiles openly and says 'Eagle Claw Fan Tzu. You're gonna' hurt'.

What are you doing?

Other than cursing? I'm going to distract him with a feint punch to the face (not overextending myself, just a quick feint and pull back) hoping to draw away his one remaining free arm to block, then I'm going to punch the bastard in the balls for all I'm worth with my other hand, shouting, "Eat s@#%, mother*&@#$%!"

You are standing up, off balance, and back, with one leg (the right) held in your kneeling opponent's grip. He has a grip on your ankle, your leg is across his forward leg (he's kneeling), and his left arm has come down upon your thigh. His head is maybe at your chest level, and only because he's so big. Do you wish to continue with the above course of action?

There is no way you can even reach his balls in your present position.

All right, I thought I was closer to the man's groin. I should be able to reach his head in this position, though, if I understand it correctly. He can't block both arms (he's only got one free, and that one's just come down on my knee, right?), so whichever one I can get through I'd like to rake my fingernails across his eyeballs to blind him.

Oh, and balance should not be a problem if I've spent any time in the dojo.

You're a tough New York City cop. Dojo? You don't even like to eat japanese food.

You lash out with your fingernails, and he doesn't even attempt a block. His head does turn a bit, and you miss actually removing the eyeball from the socket. He's got some nasty gouges across his face, and they are already bleeding. You have that sick sensation of someone else's skin under your fingernails. The brutes left I is already swollen. Looks like you caught the corner of it. You had to lean forward to make that blow, balanced on you back leg, while this guy us still holding your other one. It is not the most graceful position. This guy looks almost stunned that you would try such a maneuver. He also looks pissed. His face has gone all red with anger, just like in a cartoon, but you don't have much time to enjoy the metaphor.

What are you doing just after that strike?

NOTE: The helecopter has hardly changed position in the time this took (what, a second maybe).

Maybe, but that helicopter is going to "fast-finish" me if I don't do something quick. But this maneuver isn't quite as risky as you make it out to be, and certainly much more difficult to counter-attack in the manner you've described (instead of merely side-step), but hey, I'm the player here, so I'll accept the ruling.

Yes, I used that counter attack to help express just how nasty this guy is. He's that good. You are in that much trouble. And, I wanted you thinking in a new way. This is an example after all.

I put the helicopter in for a reason. This is a tough situation. But you are not helpless. Remeber, you are on a train. It is possible to move in way that makes you hard to hit. There are places to go where you are safe from gunfire. Your first move could have been, 'I duck, and dodge, trying to keep the big guy between me and the helecopter, and head for the joing between this train and the next.' You could have pulled that gun hanging at your side, taken whatever the bug guy was going to give, and tried to get far enough away to shoot the guy on the copter (yoiu are pretty damn good with a gun). There are many options.

I did not go for my gun because I figured (and here I believe I was right) that the big guy would mangle me the moment I moved to draw it.

This is the basic difference between diced play and diceless. In diced play, you aren't used to creating your own openings. You can't, because it's hard to rely on your performance from one moment to the next, which is not realistic (O.K., you can, but not with any great consistency, and the movement and phase rules often interfere with this kind of thinking as well). In diceless play, the openings are all over the place, and all you have to do is use your character, be creative, and make them. That's what I've been talking about. Maybe I'm crazy, and diced play does this sort of thing just fine, but I've never experienced it. In diceless play, it is very present and immediate.

Well ... I guess it depends on the GM. I myself have been extremely lazy in this regard (as your example amply illustrates) but I don't think it's a matter of diced vs. diceless. In one martial arts game I ran a while ago (diced), the combats were very involved and detailed, even moreso than in this exchange. Why? Because that's the type of game it was. I suppose I could have run it diceless, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference at all. I'll concede the point in fantasy games, however, because I think you are right on here. Combat is extremely boring for me to GM in fantasy games, because it mostly consists of "I attack," and "Nope, the monster parried." "Well, I attack again." Agonizing, but more my fault as a GM for not asking for more detail and modifying the dice roll accordingly than as an inherent flaw in diced games. What you've shown me here with this diceless example is that it's possible to mix the two and come up with a result more satisfying, I think, than either one alone. That, however, is just IMHO.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Dec 11 08:16:01 CST 1996