Postgame Analysis of “Death in Fort Defiance” and Pacing Dissonance in RPG Action Scenes

Firstly, this is a postgame analysis of my recent Conan 2d20: Death in Fort Defiance. But it has resulted in some observations that I believe apply almost equally to all other rpgs. I don’t believe that this second insight is original to me, by any means, but, for me, consideration of this fairly prevalent feature in all RPGs through the lens of the 2d20 system provides some sharp and useful focus.

Last night was my first roll-out of this new original scenario, which is inspired by Henry Whitehead’s “Black Tancrede” and (now I can say it without giving anything away) Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand.” I had two players, which, personally, is my sweet spot for 2d20, because force of numbers among PCs is unnecessary in 2d20, and fewer players obviously consequently receive more time to expand and dominate the screen, which is an essential aspect of the source fictions. As was my experience with Conan 2d20: Servants of the Charnel God, for “Death,” roleplaying in the first act was fantastic. In fact, my players sort of intimidated me with how seriously and sincerely they settled into conducting an investigation into who slew Mendoza, the Master of Discipline, sometime in the night, before the commencement of the adventure.

My prior offering, “Servants,” had felt to me to have a fairly leisurely first and second act and a somewhat rushed third act. “Death,” in contrast, had a mostly robust first and second act only; it could have employed a third act, but I was alert enough to keep an eye on the clock and know that I had to introduce and accelerate elements in the second act that, for me, worked out in a suitably satisfying way.

Both “Servants” and “Death” have been intentioned attempts at providing well-rounded adventures to be completed in a single session. Most of my experience has had the privilege of multiple sessions that allow the adventures to breathe, if need be, to wrap up loose ends or to explore unanticipated avenues. In a home game, “Death” could be allowed to fill two or three sessions, easy.

For one-shots, I feel that the first act of an adventure tends to develop rightfully slowly. Usually, in a one-shot, I haven’t gamed with these players before. We all need the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with each others’ personalities and to establish a table culture. The first act is also the time wherein many “sidebars” are made to explain the rules or to articulate nuances or granularity in the mechanics. Despite this, I find the first (and second) acts of one-shots to be very rich and immersive roleplaying experiences: dice are rolled infrequently and sometimes with little more reason than to demonstrate how a mechanic works; at the same time GM and players alike are discovering each others’ play styles and the emerging narrative, and the two features seem to coalesce.

But then the action happens. If roleplaying is a form of oral storytelling, if our vtts are, in some measure, the crackling flames of a fire about which we all sit while we contribute our individual pieces to unfolding tales, it really feels like, in the moment of action, that the one who mostly is in possession of the story stick holds it up and says, “Hold on. All of you come over here. Grab some pebbles for figures. I’m going to draw out a grid here in the dirt.”

This isn’t a complaint. This is a feature of the discourse. Roleplaying is a game as well as storytelling. But what I think is evident in rpgs—especially when it comes to combat, because life or death resolutions are the most important—is that the narrative s-l-o-w-s w-a-y d-o-w-n precisely at the moment that it should be its most adrenal and visceral. When we play rpgs, it’s almost as if all our action movies start filming every scene in slow motion, or as if all of our sword & sorcery writers use pages of description to evoke a barbarian raising a blade to parry a blow.

My players last night were gracious enough to hang around for a few minutes, postgame, to offer some impressions about the adventure and chat rpgs in general. @huscarl recommended that I use the Foundry combat tracker. @jim reminded me of our mutual love of Swords & Wizardry. I suppose it’s alarming that the “best” game still might be the Original Game.

But… I’m still not convinced that more reductive tools are the answer. Conan should be allowed to parry, to shield-bash, to duck and weave and leap. I understand the argument for abstraction and simplicity (again, love LOVE :heart: Swords & Wizardry, see above), but I don’t think that method properly emulates the fiction that Conan 2d20 is going for. My point is that pulp style sword & sorcery gaming should be tactical and nuanced, but it also, somehow, should play fast.

Before we cue “you should check out [fill in the blank],” let me point out what I absolutely love about Conan 2d20 and why, for now, I’m absolutely sticking with it. I love its rich and inspiring character creation. I love the Momentum system, how great successes are not gone to waste simply because either the system is basically pass/fail or because excess accomplishment doesn’t have functional use for the specific moment at hand. I love the tactical choices, the many resources that the players have at their command, though it’s understandable if players and GMs are overwhelmed (and they are) with the wealth of possibilities. In short, there is so much game in the 2d20 game, and, to me, these are optimal tools for collaborative, collective story-making.

I have thought of some “hacks.” There are many 2d20 games, and some employ innovations I could employ. John Carter of Mars (also D&D 4e, or so I hear) allows a Minion to be dropped with a single hit (rather than the Harm, which usually is occasioned by taking 4 or 5 Vigor, that the standard game uses). I have considered theoretical systems that simply give heroes and their adversaries individual pools of resources that they must spend as they take actions; once one or the other is out of resources, any intended actions resolve, and the process starts again. My significant other recommended something like dealt hands of cards. The cards define actions; specific PCs may often be holding permanent, specific cards (based on their abilities).

Finally, I know I am overdue for a long and careful look at Barbarians of Lemuria. I’m looking forward to it!

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I do not have much experience with one-shots and it was maybe the 3rd or 4th one that I have played in. My mind often works in GM mode and at some point Gabe’s enthusiasm and narration style made me forget to analyze and just play. The game was great and very fun!

@jim and I worked well together because Gabe gave us freedom to explore, but he also deftly turned up the heat in several instances that introduced tension and made us feel like uh oh…we better get our shit together and figure this out.

This was my first time playing 2d20 and Gabe explained things well. I bought Star Trek last summer with the intention to run it, but the organization of the rule book is terrible and that fact soured me some on the system. I think that Conan is better organized and gives me some hope for running Star Trek. It was great to see Momentum and Threat/Doom in action and I like the flavor it brings to an RPG.

My critique about combat is probably relevant to most rpg games with rules and mechanics that a thorough understanding of the rules by everyone can mitigate, but that is often not the case. One of the things that a VTT or well designed spreadsheet can provide is automation. Automation can remove the crunch to create more fluid narration and action. Gabe points out that when the action starts the narration slows. I have been trying to figure out how to undo this in the games I run and haven’t always been successful.

If Gabe runs Conan 2d20 again, I recommend that all BSers try to get in on it. You will not be disappointed.

Hoos

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Aw, you’re too kind.

As I told Huscarl last night, I’m eagerly awaiting the Conan 2d20 system in development for Foundry. That certainly should assist with some of the mechanical lift.

Love the introspection here, @Gabe. I for one am really looking forward to playing in one of your 2d20 Conan games – I adore that style of sword and sorcery, have heard nothing but good things about you and the games you run, and like a lot of the ideas that 2d20 systems encapsulate.

Like @huscarl, I don’t have much experience with one-shots, other than as a player at cons and such. They are kind of a unique animal, and in the end I’m finding I’m a much bigger fan of short (3-8 sessions) campaigns, as I think I recently mentioned elsewhere in the G&BSverse. I don’t love pregens, as I think RPGs play better when people are invested, even a little, in their characters… so that usually steers me towards lighter games for one-shots so character generation can happen in the first 30 minutes or so of the session. But it sounds like what you’re doing is having people arrive with PC in hand, built beforehand? That also works – dig that approach. Back to short campaigns, I have noticed that people seem to hit a groove on a new game, system-wise, about 3-4 sessions in.

Since you’re not looking for ideas on different games to play that might address some of the stuff you raise, Gabe, I’ll pluck out a few of your comments and respond to them.

When we play rpgs, it’s almost as if all our action movies start filming every scene in slow motion, or as if all of our sword & sorcery writers use pages of description to evoke a barbarian raising a blade to parry a blow.

Agreed. And it’s 100% why I shifted from GURPS to lighter and more narrative games. Moved from blow-by-blow to cinematic action. Related to this:

Conan should be allowed to parry, to shield-bash, to duck and weave and leap.

100%. But I would argue you need mechanics for exactly none of that. Describe intent, roll, describe result can handle all of that, though I understand it might not handle it in the way that you want. Note that I’m not necessarily talking about bare-bones systems like, say, The Black Hack or Tiny Dungeon. Plenty of systems offer different grades of success or ‘bonus actions,’ and those are the ones you can easily narrate around. The deed die in DCC, great successes in Low Fantasy Gaming, Success with Style in Fate, additional successes in the YZE games. Some of these translate more directly to tactical action, and there are a couple of systems that IMHO, excel at it.

Eric Bloat’s Blackest of Deaths has a cool mechanic where you always roll a d6 with the d20. The d6 is like a fate die – think of it as an “and” or “but” die. You can miss, but if you roll a 6 on the d6, something good happened. You can roll a 19, but that 1 on the d6 means something went awry.

The other mechanic I love in this regard is the core 2d6 mechanic at the heart of most PbtA games. Results are either boo (6-), mixed (7-9), or yay (10+). There’s a surprising amount of stuff you can pack into those outcomes, even with the lighter games that don’t specify what happens in each case.

Not trying to sway you off 2d20 here, btw, but I do think there are things to pick up and take with you from these other systems. The ones that work best are, IMO, the ones with flexible frameworks that can be applied to every corner case of grappling, disarming, dodging, flinging sand in someone’s eyes, etc. They allow the GM to improvise, and sometimes have specific tools that help with that. I think 2d20 has all the parts and pieces in place to support this style of play. I mean – it definitely does, as it drew from all over gamedom to assemble all the pieces you mention liking. My only beef with it – an ignorant one, as I haven’t played it – is that they included too many cool features. STA, at least, needed another editing pass or two.

I understand the argument for abstraction and simplicity (again, love LOVE :heart: Swords & Wizardry, see above), but I don’t think that method properly emulates the fiction that Conan 2d20 is going for. My point is that pulp style sword & sorcery gaming should be tactical and nuanced, but it also, somehow, should play fast.

The personal tripwire here for me is the word ‘tactical.’ I’m not so sure fluid, fast and narratively interesting fights won’t bog down every time if there’s a lot of tactical crunch – approaches to take, decisions to make, rules to consult, bonuses to add. Like huscarl says, it makes a huge difference if everyone at the table knows the rules deeply, but I still have a sense you might be looking to eat your cake and have it too. (I prefer that order for this idiom since once your cake is eaten, it’s gone. You can’t have it!)

I love the tactical choices, the many resources that the players have at their command, though it’s understandable if players and GMs are overwhelmed (and they are) with the wealth of possibilities. In short, there is so much game in the 2d20 game, and, to me, these are optimal tools for collaborative, collective story-making.

I think that’s your rub, right there: it’s a lot of game. But I see no issue with just houseruling some stuff and trimming down the game where it makes sense to do so – at it’s heart, it’s a very simple and elegant system. I’d be happy to play with you and offer more thoughts after seeing it in action first-hand.

And we need to play Barbarians of Lemuria!

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Trying to keep any RPG session moving at the same pace as an action movie is always doomed to fail because we’re holding ourselves to an impossible standard. Because it’s not the same medium. It’s why direct translations of books and TV series don’t translate the same to movies and active efforts to replicate the pacing of another medium is likely trying to fly a car.

The irony is that the length and depth required to play action scenes in RPGs is very much like fight choreography. Careful consideration into every move, reaction, effect, angles, and even re-shoots. We just don’t have an editor to present a polished version of all that work.

Personally, I try to maintain an equivalent visceral reaction to replicate the experience. In other words, did it “feel” fast-paced for the medium of RPGs? There’s a few ways I’ve tried this in the past, from allowing characters to make additional narrative-only attacks that build up to the die roll determining success or failure (aka the one doing damage) to placing an egg timer in the middle of the table. This last technique involves placing a small 2-minute hourglass in the middle of the table. When combat starts, the first player has to finish their turn before the sand runs out BUT the next player has to work with the amount of sand remaining when it’s turned over. So if the first player took 1.5 minutes, that next player has 30 seconds to wrap up their turn. If the timer runs out, that player finishes their turn and one of the NPCs takes their turn next then we start fresh for the next player. In my home group, they quickly learned to pace their turn to a 1-minute average. It’s not a solution for every game (very much the narrative-based games @Akodoken mentioned above) but it was fun as the GM to watch my players pick up the pace AND (shocker) plan their moves BEFORE their turn.

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I previously shared a technique I’ve used for pacing - a 90 second “theme” clip for each character (chosen by the player) - in a mix with other combat music. If your turn happens during your theme playing, +1 to a die roll. The sequence is fixed and known so people move through their turns quickly to allow others to get +1.

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Oooh, I like this one.

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