While working on the other post Blood on the Deck: Combat in RPGs, I had a paragraph I later pulled to tighten the focus of the article, but something about it stuck with me. Blood on the Deck talks about the centrality of combat in many RPGs and their adventures. That leads to the paragraph in question:
…[M]ost RPGs are analogous to action movies. There can be philosophy, and deep character growth, and political or social commentary, but in the end the monster is going to kill folks/the protagonist is going to throw down with the bad guy/the heroes are going to have to overcome the [pick your disaster]/or the crew is going to pull of that “one last job…” Depending on what the denouement is, that should be the focus of the rolling and the description in the game.
Action movies are about action. You dogfight the evil galactic empire. You find and kill the monster (and steal its treasure.) You find the big bad and throw down, preferably in a secret volcano base. But they’re not always about fighting, and neither do your games need to be.
If you are exploring, the big denouement can be climbing a mountain or escaping the avalanche. You could be navigating your ship through a particularly nasty maneuver near Jupiter. It could be the heist (with or without fighting) requiring climbing and sneaking and safecracking. It could be a car/horse/airplane/boat chase. This is the focus of the adventure
The focus is where the game should move in, get close to the characters emotionally, but also this should be where the most time is spent. The buildup to the focus can be interesting, but these are the things that — unless tied to the finale — can be glossed over with a “did you succeed or no” sort of roll. An excellent example of this in a movie is the recent The Man from UNCLE, which made some really intriguing choices in the action sequences. Most of the focus is on the character interaction, the action is mostly handled quickly unless it ties to the characters’ motivations. There is a sneak and peak scene at the Vinciguerra Yards. They need to find evidence of a nuclear bomb. Most of the action is to show the strengths and weaknesses of the skills and character of the two leads — Solo and Kuryakin. Once they find the bit of evidence, it’s a quick escape, followed by a boat chase/fight that we see mostly in reflections on the window of a truck after Solo has fallen off the boat and swam to shore. It’s funny and shows Solo moving from casual indifference to the people he’s working with to a grudging respect and desire to do the right thing. The fight is just there to help him get from Point A to B.
This might have been well emulated with a few tests to show the two PC’s skills: a stealth roll, a roll to defeat the fence, the door; a test to knock out the guard; a test to overcome the safe. A few tests to run away and exchange some shots with guards, then a some kind of discipline or willpower test for Solo while watching Kuryakin’s boat getting sunk.
By comparison, the raid on the bad guy castle is handled in quick, ’60s split screen that could have been handled with a single test to overcome the guards defenses. It’s not about the characters; they are part of a bigger action piece. It’s over very quickly, and the action slows and focuses of the two once they find evidence of the bomb and have to rescue Gabrielle, their MI6 partner. It’s about the people. In a game, you might run the basic raid as a contest of Tactics or a combat skill to lead the commandos, then slow down to do a few investigation-style tests, before launching on the bike/ATV vs. Jeep scene, where you would want multiple rolls to emulate the need to use the terrain to try and close on the escaping bad guy.
What’s the focus in your game or adventure? That’s where the players should be rolling to heighten suspense and give them chances to shine by doing things their characters would do. Is it a heist? A quick sneak test to climb the wall, get through the window, and past the guards unseen might do…but if the point is to rob the place, you should have tests that show that: a climbing test — oh, crap! the rain gutter is corroded!, another to open the window three stories up without falling, another to incapacitate or slip past the guard, another to crack the safe…
Is the character a “driver” — the final “fight” should be a car chase, using the environment to battle each other until the good guy escapes or best the other driver. Is the final objective for the character’s socialite to best her rival in verbal combat at a dinner and win the affection of Lord Stuffinpants? You get the picture — focus on the point of the story, and let the other stuff take a back seat.