by John Kim
This is one of a series of essays on techniques for emulating common genre conventions in RPGs. My assumption here is that you have a given genre -- such as "superhero comic book" or "period martial arts movie" -- and you want to adapt it from its original medium into the medium of RPGs. This is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. For more on the meaning of genre in RPGs, see my essay on "Understanding Genre in Roleplaying".
A key element of any action scene (combat, chase, etc.) is the pacing. Many RPG fights have the pacing of a random walk: i.e. two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, etc. In most dramatic genres of other media, such scenes have a distinct pacing structure. For example, a fight might have the hero slowly but surely overwhelmed by increasing numbers -- only to be turned around at a crucial point when he discovers the weakness of the enemy. Most commonly, an action scene will have at least an initial direction, a turning point, then an escalation leading to a climax. It is possible for there to be more than one turning point, but in general there will not be more than two or three back and forth shifts.
There are a few central issues to consider here:
How to combine the above elements depends on exactly what you are looking for. A common example is the action genre structure mentioned earlier: an initial direction, a turning point, then escalation leading to a climax. In terms of randomness (#1), fights should tend towards inevitability. However, there should be absolutely no death spiral. Ideally, the hero should wait for a lucky roll or circumstance which would be the turning point. However, if things go badly for him (lucky roll or just straight average and a tough enemy), then he can spend Hero Points to win in the end even though he is heavily damaged.
Most of these ideas should speak for themselves, but I would add in an afterwards. Many GMs and game designs miss the simple effects that mechanics have on dramatic pacing. This applies not just to the rules, but also to the usage. As a trivial example, if the GM designs opponents who have high defenses compared to attacks, then combats will tend to go on for a long time. This is not just a wargaming issue of stats and numbers -- it affects the dramatic pacing of the story. Many games introduce mechanics intended to generically emphasize "story" or "drama". However, frequently these actually run counter to the genre they are trying to emulate -- such as introducting "death spiral" mechanics into a game of heroic action.