The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…

The obvious question for me is “How do you role play combat?” I suspect the key to an effective fight scene in a game is to match style of combat to the genre being played and the expectations of that milieu. If one is playing low fantasy in the Conan-style, brutal but over the top descriptions that delight in the gore being created seems appropriate; high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings has a more nuanced approach, where good and evil are important, as is your intent. The violence could be brutal or not, but how it reflects the intent of the characters, and hence affects them in the aftermath is something to think about.

For a setting like Enlightenment-era swashbucklers — musketeers or pirates — the combat should be fun and elegant, the descriptions should be more about the fancy maneuvers and how they use their environment. Do you swing from chandeliers? Use the ratlines to avoid the stabs of that gap-toothed buccaneer? How do the opponents speak to each other — this is the period of respect for your enemy, repartee while fencing, not unfairly blasting your opponent with a pistol when swords have been offered. Similarly, Victorian-period games lend themselves to fisticuffs and swordplay over guns (unless you’re in the West…then strap up, greenhorn!)

For pulp games — the era that brought us the trope of masked avengers who use their fists and gadgets over guns (Batman, Daredevil, etc…they’re all the watered down version of the more vicious Shadow or Doc Savage.) These should be fights with strange opponents from Oriental martial arts and mystics, to torturous Nazis, or Thompson-weilding gangsters. While dangerous, that shot to the shoulder never has the hero worrying about an irreparable shattering of the shoulder ball, or a permanent tear to the innerspinatal rotator cuff, or a gushing, torn brachial or subclavian artery. Shoulders were ready made for bullet catching. Same with thighs — the femoral artery does not come into play.

But a military game set in one of the great wars, or fighting terrorists in contemporary times might be better suited to more graphic and realistic portrayals of violence, where theres little honor in surviving, bullets do either incredible damage or surprisingly small amounts, but lordy you really don’t want to get stabbed. (I have. Trust me.) Dealing with the horror and stress of combat might be an excellent driver for the characters to grapple with, and graphic descriptions of the damage done to the opposition (or to your character) might enhance the verisimilitude of the setting. Here, guns aren’t magic…they have an effective range, limited ammunition, and double gunning it while jumping across a room screaming “aaaaargh!” isn’t advisable. You might break something when you land. Body armor’s only so good, and injuries can be with you for multiple sessions.

For science fiction games, again, the tone of the setting is important to keep in mind. I don’t know how many groups I’ve seen playing Star Trek want to turn it into some version of Aliens or Starship Troopers. You stun you enemies in Trek…or try. You might punch out a Klingon, but there’s usually some soliloquy to working together that has to be delivered before you go get your tunic’s shoulder sewed back together. Babylon 5 might similarly require the good guys to try and favor honor over expediency, but in Battlestar Galactica that’s kinda stupid, since the toasters aren’t going to play fair, are they?

How about superhero games? There’s a tendency for some GMs to want to go “realistic” with people that can tear down a building with their hands. Think about that for a sec… Realistic with a character like Batman, Green Arrow, or Daredevil (seriously, check out the Netflix show — it’s amazingly good!) is doable. The character might get chewed up, but either they have an excellent medic cum butler, magic herbs, or jut go back into the fray badly injured. Dark and rainy, noir settings (neon, people…neon), and moral ambiguity work well with these settings — they are the descendants of the Shadow, after all.

This does not work for four-color heroes like Superman (talking to you, DC!) Good and evil might have some shades of gray, but the heroes are good, and the bad guys are bad. You might destroy a city block in a fight, but you’re probably being applauded by the public and the real estate companies, not sued by the insurance companies or on trial for reckless endangerment. You can cut a fine line with a campaign that draws from the likes of The Incredibles, but the tone is still a light one, not some brooding, angsty screed. Four color heroes fight in the day, over the city, where people can exclaim, or in a secret base or in space; they aren’t kicking some random criminal’s ass in an steam-filled alleyway.

For the combat experience you want, you have to know the tone of your game, your setting, and more importantly, your players and their expectations. If the characters are expecting a gritty sic-fi setting, talking uplifted otters might not (although they are unquestionable awesome!) If you are the scions of a society dedicated to rationality and peace, whipping out the blaster and burning down your enemies shouldn’t be something encouraged but doing so should entail a funky sound effect and a person that disappears neatly (Star Trek), or collapses in an amazingly bloodless heap (Babylon 5.) If you’re storming Normandy beach in your WWII game, body parts and blood, terror and deafness from noise, a confused description of the battlefield that involves confusing the players, just as their characters would be is perfectly acceptable.

Genre, however, isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. Player expectations are equally important and the players and their characters don’t have to have the same “experience.” Are your players squeamish? Maybe a detailed inspection of their opponents entrails they just slipped on isn’t the way to go. Are your players expecting their players to do incredible things while they fight crime in the underbelly of 1930s Shanghai? Realistic combat where they don’t mow through hordes of books might be disappointing, and there better bloody be some chop socky going on. Even if terrible things have happened to nice people, unless necessary to the tone and expectations of the players, you can alway just tell them they are horrified by the carnage they have just witnesses, or inform them the women are lamenting volubly.