“Pops” vs. “Booms”

The setting is a sun-bleached street in a southwestern US town. Some men flee from a dilapidated building, across a dusty strip of pavement, and rush into a waiting car. As it jolts into motion, squealing rubber against asphalt, a hard-jawed man exits the same building brandishing a pistol. He squints in the harsh sunlight and draws a bead on the departing vehicle.

We know we’re in action movie territory now, so you can guess what comes next. The question is, how many times is he going to pull the trigger before the car blows up*?

In a recent post on the House of Cards blog, I wrestled with my conceptualization of the action system for that game. Part of the feedback I got from players at Gen Con regarded how combat works in the game, and in thinking about how to articulate what the system is set up to emulate (for lack of a better word), I’ve been mulling over how the idea applies to actions in general.

I like fight choreography in films a lot, because it can convey things about character and tension if done skillfully, but fight choreography is also very difficult to map to the largely verbal milieu of tabletop role-playing because so much gets lost in translation. This is even more true when you have to factor in any level of randomness: in a visual medium, whether we witness a character having to swing multiple times to hit an opponent or landing a blow on the first seemingly effortless try, that conveys information about the relative skill levels of the opponents. When an allegedly formidable combatant whiffs a few times against the enemy, there emerges a dissonance between what we’re told and what we see as observers (a trait TV Tropes wryly refers to as Informed Ability, in that the audience has to be told about a character’s talent because we’re not seeing evidence of it for ourselves).

To give possible answers to the question that lead this post, then, if the gunman has to squeeze his trigger a few times rapidly in succession, one of the details that could communicate to us is that he’s not especially good at shooting, whereas if he snaps off one round and finds his mark, his skill is very clearly reinforced for the audience.

What I find far more effective in the medium of tabletop gaming is the idea that only the significant actions are narrated. The days in which I could stand an hour-long mechanically-fraught combat in an RPG are long past. I don’t feel the need to follow the fight swing by swing (and particularly miss by miss). For our imaginary filmmaker shooting the scene that opens this entry, only a second or two of film need be spent on those preliminary pulls on the trigger, but if you’re talking about a role-playing game, then each miss becomes a more significant chunk of time eaten away from the gaming session, varying depending on your system of choice. My current design philosophy holds that you don’t need to know how many times the guy shooting his pistol at the fleeing car fires, or which shots miss/strike a non-explodey part of the car/etc. – you only need to know about the one that makes the car blow up, or perhaps that it doesn’t blow up at all. The shorthand for this is that I don’t need to hear the pops of the individual shots; I only need to hear the boom of the one that hits the gas tank.

The application of this philosophy to House of Cards, to bring us back to the subject, has a few distinct advantages:
1) Genre emulation. In fairy tales, confrontations are usually covered in a sentence: the wolf eats Red Riding Hood; Hansel and Gretel throw the witch in the oven. We are not treated to the tension of comparing the wolf’s initiative value versus the girl’s, or descriptions of Hansel or Gretel’s half-dozen failed attempts to grapple the witch before finding purchase. Nor should we be. Even in more modern urban fantasy of the type House of Cards aims toward, such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, one is likely to encounter foes that simply cannot or should not be fought directly, and success comes from cleverness as often as anything. Bearers, by comparison, are even more empowered: as long as they have their Archetype or their Motivations to back them up, they automatically succeed at tasks at the level corresponding to the card they throw down.
2) Design consistency. Following from the above, if Hansel or Gretel were Bearers, and they had to spend cards on individual attempts to snare the witch so they could throw her in her own oven, they would likely be depleted rather quickly, unless they’re lucky enough to have put in their correspondences some kind of anti-witch, kitchen-related, or wrestling-oriented language. House of Cards aims to reward characters more for being themselves and solving problems with the resources at hand than for making everything a slugfest; the rules ought to reflect that sensibility. (Interestingly, also on the topic of consistency, we do not in most games** assume that we must play out every line of an in-character debate with mechanical support, throwing a card with each line or retort: instead, the character presents a case, its relative strength or flimsiness and the audience’s receptiveness influences the chance of success, and the action is resolved. We can hold martial combat to the same standard.)
3) Streamlining. This can actually mean several things: it keeps game sessions concise by making the usually most time-consuming task (running a combat) fade into the background and merge seamlessly into the plot, and it unifies the rules for all task resolution and makes for a more focused set of rules.

Thus, in House of Cards, it is fruitful to remember that your actions should be meaningful (not just in the technical game design sense, but in the narrative sense: your actions should be something that one would add as a detail when recounting the narrative formed in play).

*Before you comment on this: yes, I know it doesn’t work that way in reality, but it’s a familiar media trope.
**Exalted being one well-known exception to this. Its mapping social combat to the framework of its physical combat rules was a clever idea, but most players have not seemed especially enamored of the implementation, it should be said.