Techniques for Action Pacing

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".

Action Pacing

         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:

  1. How frequently are rolls made, and how much impact do they have on the overall progress of a conflict?
    In some games, rolls tend to average out, and the side with the systematic advantage will inexorably win. In other games, a few lucky rolls can allow a disadvantaged opponent to win. Open-ended rolls, critical hits, and a small number of rounds will favor randomness. Bell curve rolls, large modifiers, and a large number of rounds will favor inevitability.
  2. How does an early success affect the chances of future success?
    Some games use a wound track system, where wounds will cause a permanent penalty to all rolls. This results in a positive feedback, also known as a "death spiral". An early success results in a wound that gives a penalty to later rolls. This increases the likelihood of another success. Soon there in an inexorable progression to victory. Some systems use temporary penalties, such as 1-turn Pain penalties in GURPS. This has a similar effect but at least reduces the inexorability since if the wounded fighter can make it through the penalty period they are again on an even footing. The third alternative is no penalty: like Hit Point in D&D or Life Points in Eden's Unisystem.
  3. What resources can be expended to change things?
    Many games have Hero Point systems, which allow players to spend from a pool of points to gain successes or negate damage. There are also other sorts of resource expenditure, like sacrificing fatigue for extra effort, or using up magic points in casting spells. Resource spending in theory allows the pacing of combat to be controlled, if the players spend points a success is dramatically called for. However, it can also have the opposite effect. Many games, especially those with "death spiral" mechanics, reward spending resources early. i.e. You drop several Hero Points to take out a key enemy with your first shot, and the remainder of the fight is an anti-climactic mopping up operation.

         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.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun Apr 20 23:38:24 2003