Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things I Learned From Champions: Sometimes you just want to fight

It's no secret that the RPG hobby had its roots in wargaming. While, in the intervening years there've been great strides through gaming advice and gaming mechanics to help stimulate the story side of RPGs, there's also been some denigration of the combat aspect of RPGs across all genres.

This is different from people who critique combat systems in games (too long, too short, too complicated, too simple), as these types of concerns also appeared -- and continue to appear -- in board games and war games. No, these comments concerning combat as an activity itself in RPGs seem to be arguing that any games that require combat are somehow a lesser, inferior type of RPG play.

To them I say: sometimes, you just wanna fight. For the tactical challenge, for the stress release, for the curiosity, and for the incidental geekery that would erupt in the process.

And choosing a superheroic RPG -- a genre that tends toward that activity in the popular titles, that tends toward rewarding highly anticipated throw downs between individuals and teams, that tends to manage to avoid permanently killing most characters despite the frequency of these altercations -- is one of the places you're likely to see it happen.

But who would you fight? In our old games, there were several favorites types of opposition for an all-combat gaming session.

Other Players' Player Characters


Yes. I approve.
This came up occasionally in our games -- sometimes with a player wanting to test their new build against another PC to: a) see if their build was as effective as they wanted; b) prove that their build was as kick-ass as they claimed; c) find out how long they could last against a highly-experienced combat monster.

We could rationalize them as stunts for charity, as those unmentioned run-ins between heroes that lead up to misunderstandings, or some other flimsy excuse.

For us, it was often fun, even for the spectators, and allowed for kibbitzing and advice that sometimes came in useful in actual games.

And in our youth, a lot of these battles 'really happened' in our canon, leading to a few unfortunate deaths of PCs -- like the one-shot death of Shaka Jesus. Don't ask.

These are different from the incidents when a player brings in a character despite the warnings of other players that they would "-- kill that abomination the second my character encounters it in play." Tragic. Well, not really.

A super-villain team

We're fighting who? I'm out.
Ah, a classic dust-up. Super-hero team vs. super-villain team! Who gets knocked down or out? Who goes the distance until the decisive end? What interesting tactical decisions and match ups take place?

This is of greatest interest to me, because of (1) the roleplaying dynamic sometimes at odds with the tactical dynamic (just like in comics); and (2) the spectacular teamwork that sometimes takes place when everyone is on the same page.

There's actually quite a bit of variety in this kind of clash:
  • an "arena" set up, meaning that both teams are kind of in an open space and arrive at the same time to the battle;
  • the PCs don't even know where all the villains are and have to proceed cautiously (or sneakily) to triumph;
  • the villains are fewer in number than the heroic team (less headache for the GM), but are greater in power level on a per character basis;
  • the villains are greater in number than the heroes, but are lower in power level on a per-character basis;
  • the villains are all agents, usually greater in number, more fragile, but with surprising combinations of gadgets, tactics and teamwork that have wiped the smug smile off of some complacent super-heroes;
  • and so on.

A super-hero team


We're fighting who?
I said: I'm out.
In my old group, there was seldom any thrill in going up against another super-heroic team in the same universe. If, however, you were talking about a team from the DC or Marvel Universe, it was a different story. You wanted to see how you'd handle them (and how you'd ultimately be taken out).

To this day, I remember one of our early clashes with some members of the X-men (Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Rogue, de-powered mohawk-wearing Storm, and Colossus). We were outnumbered: my character was an armored martial artist, my teammate was a sharpshooter with a pair of laser pistols. We did quite well, with me running interference on the physical characters while my partner took out Nightcrawler (who could lay us out in two phases with his No Normal Defense multi-teleport stun attack) and Cyclops (the other ranged attack guy). Then Rogue grabbed me and pulled me out of position, while Colossus got a lucky punch in on my partner and laid him out cold.

Great fun, great stories.

And you can geek out about what you should've done, and how the super-heroes should really be built in the system.

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That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.