A couple of things have me thinking about combat lately. I've been reading a lot of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. I really admire the way he handles the fight scenes. They're more than just the hacking of limbs and gouts of blood. The battles grow naturally from the plot and support the theme and atmosphere of the story.
Meanwhile, I went ahead and purchased the new 4ed D&D books. I know, I know. I'll write more about them once I make my way through the books, but let me say this up front. They are incredibly tactically focused--more so than 3.0/3.5, if you can believe that's possible. I'm not sure I could run a story-focused game given these rules. It would be incredibly hard to run combat without maps and miniatures on the table.
OK, one more comment. It's interesting how many of the ideas from the indie/story games worlds have made their way into the 4ed books, but they have been badly warped towards this purely tactical paradigm.
Anyway, between these two, I've been thinking a lot about the cross section of combat and stories.
Combat has long been the default source of conflict in role playing games. In part, combat is just too easy. You don't need to spend a lot of time plotting out motivations. You don't need to lay the proper groundwork with clues and foreshadowing. One side simply pulls out knives, and then tries to cut pieces out of the other. Voila, instant conflict.
Combat also emphasizes the tactical/gameist side of role playing games. Building tactically interesting combat encounters is often quite easy, and tactical play can be quite enjoyable.
But, building good story content into a combat scene is incredibly difficult.
I've addressed the basic rules before. Each scene should do at least two things. Don't just have combat for combat's sake. The fight should reveal vital information about the character's opposition. Or it should fulfill a promise made earlier in the game.
Also, players should be less concerned with winning the combat, and focus more on the result of the combat. How will the scene effect the story? What does losing really mean for the characters? What does winning mean?
For example, in "The Scarlet Tower", Conan's army is smashed through betrayal and trickery. He finds himself on foot and injured, his back to a mound of dead horses and men, as his enemies circle around him. He has lost the combat--but that's just the beginning of the story.
Indeed, the tactical difficulty of a fight is often unrelated to the fight's story content. The characters may win or lose easily. But the fight itself doesn't matter, it's the emotional after-effects that drive the story forward.
However, tactically challenging scenes can also build the story.
I think this is an area that is too-often ignored by many story-focused gamers. At least, I'm guilty of this.
A lot of stories rely on action to drive the story forward. Oh, they aren't exclusively about action--but the raw challenge of hero vs. villain definitely shapes the plot.
The rules I listed above still apply. The scene should be about more than just a simple fight. But, few things get my blood pumping more than honest fear for my character's survival. Threats to life and limb have a way of grabbing a player's attention, forcing them to engage with the story.
Indeed, the best combats have the same features of other scenes. The characters must be forced to make hard decisions. Do I press my luck and try to take out the ogre? or do I retreat and drink a healing potion? The wrong choice might doom my friends or myself. They're no less important to the story, just because they're tactical decisions.
It seems to me, there is a place where the tactical elements and the story elements meet. A place where having a good tactical challenge can produce good stories.
This does present problems, however. In general, I want my players to de-emphasize the immediate result of combat, and focus on the combat's effect on the story itself. If they are defeated, they will be knocked unconscious or taken prisoner or saved by the cops or something. Players often know that they will live to fight another day. So, how do I project that, in this particular fight, the immediate results really do matter?
One option is to set the expectations explicitly. A lot of games build this into the mechanics themselves, where players explicitly set the stakes at the beginning of each combat. However, I'm not a big fan of this approach. I feel it somewhat neuters the conflict, by setting limits at the beginning. I prefer systems that allow you to increasingly up the ante as the conflict evolves.
You can sometimes imply the stakes by having the bad guys kill off an important NPC. Or have one of them bad guys pull back to strike a PC who has surrendered or who is incapacitated, and then let the others have a chance to react and interrupt the action. But, it's not always possible to weave these clues into the story in a way that is both obvious to the players without being too heavy handed.
Also, what do you do if a character dies? The story might be able to move forward, with the memory of the fallen friend driving the other characters onwards. However, what do you do if the character is vital to the main plot? Or if a large portion of the party dies?
For action scenes to work, the players must believe the threat is real. Of course, loss does not necessarily mean a loss of life.
If a thug leaves you bleeding in an alleyway, you won't make it home in time to prevent Jimmy-One-Hand from throwing your sister from your third-story window. Here, the emotional result of combat largely mirrors the tactical result. If you can make the players feel real pain in their defeat, both the players and the characters will remain fully engaged in any combat scenes. Seems to me, that's the best of both worlds.