Thursday, July 15, 2010

Grit and Cinema

So, last night Jason Marker made a post where he talked about the kind of game he likes to play. I'm not going to go over the whole thing here, you should click the link and read his words from him (you should be reading Motor City Gamewerks anyhow!) but I did want to talk about what he brought up.

Mr. Marker, in his post, says that he likes his game to be challenging. He wants consequences, he wants danger, he wants damage to punch through armor and make his character (or your character) hurt. He likes when bad things happen, he likes the cost of failure to be present because it makes the taste of victory oh so sweet. He wants to be forced to think through situations, or have to use brains and wits as well as his brawn to solve problems, otherwise it will be bad times for the characters. He thinks this is fun. Honestly, I couldn't agree more.

I've talked about it before. Victory tastes sweeter when you know defeat. The fact players will start to lose interest if they just win all the time, and there is no threat for them losing. Something earned is greater than something given. All that fun stuff. I agree, I like those games, I enjoy being a part of them, and I enjoy running them. It's when you push your players right to the lip of the volcano that you start getting some of the best and most desperate hair brained schemes you are ever going to get. It is also where you'll get those deliciously panicked looks as a player looks to you and responds in that quiet whisper "I don't know...." when you ask what they're doing this round.

However, I didn't start this post just to agree with the esteemed Mr. Marker. (I really like calling him that, and it is meant with full respect btw!) There is one point where I disagree with him, and it is not something he explicitly states either. But his post leads me to believe that you can't have those feelings and still have a cinematic campaign, and to that I disagree.

My proof? Look at Star Wars (yep, again). Throughout the entire trilogy there are only three (serious) instances where someone gets hit with a weapon and doesn't immediately die or have their vehicle crash. One per movie in fact. In A New Hope, Wedge's X-Wing gets hit and doesn't explode, granted he's only grazed and it is enough that he has to drop out of the trench run. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke hits Vader in the arm with his lightsaber and Vader keeps his arm (bit weird but Vader's armor is set up to protect against lightsabers apparently). Then in Return of the Jedi, Leia gets shot in the arm and goes down but uses it to sneak attack the arresting storm troopers. Thats it, out of all the people who shoot guns at and around people in the three movies, only three instances where someone doesn't get killed immediately from it.

The same is true in the first Matrix movie, where for everything that the main characters do, a single gun shot from any source is enough to take them out. That is a real part of the drama in the lobby scene, is that they are doing something that shouldn't be possible. They are using balls and brains and trying desperately to achieve that which ought not be achievable. It works too, mostly because of how absurd it is.

In both of these, the reason why this grit doesn't just gack the game right off isn't because the system isn't lethal, but because of the different power levels in the characters. Essentially Mooks versus PCs. But that doesn't mean there is no threat. you take 10 Storm Trooper mooks, and see how long it takes you to roll a natural 20 on a hit roll. However, the focus comes off of this grit and onto the more cinematic view we're given. We aren't shown all the shots of people getting dropped left right and center when they do get hit (unless they're bad guys), we get the hero running untouched through a hail of blaster fire.

Basically, what I'm trying to say, is that you can have both. You can have that high lethality and threat that makes the players have to think, and still have a cinematic experience. Now, everyone's mileage on this may vary (Mr. Marker says this too btw) so there could be other elements of the cinematic joy that puts you off the game. But it is possible to be there, and in my opinion it is necessary for that lethality to be there in a cinematic game. Who wants to empty 3 clips into someone and have them still standing when trying to feel heroic?

I guess the question is then. What do you think?


  1. As a huge fan of Star Wars gaming (and a GM of it since 1988), I have to agree. You can have grit and emotion and challenge and still have cinematics. I say this even though my own game is very forgiving in terms of lethality. This is odd, since one of the things I like the most about the D6 system (my preferred system) is that even the mightiest character can be taken out by the lowliest blaster with one shot—if they roll bad enough (it has happened to enough of my NPC villains, I can tell you that *grumble*).

    That having been said, in my own games, folks get injured quite a bit, even those in armor. I'd say they get injured a lot more than we see in the movies. But then, my folks tend to get in a lot more 'stand up fights' than we saw the heroes in Star Wars get into (remember, we were just seeing three of the movie heroes adventures, not their entire career in the Rebellion).

    As far as the mooks vs. PCs thing goes, it is true on an individual basis, but once you throw combined fire into the mix (another mechanic I love from D6) all bets are off. My players have a healthy respect for a squad of stormtroopers. You do NOT want to get involed in a 1 vs. 10 gunbattle with even grunt troops.

  2. One of my great regrets is I never got to play in more than a one shot of D6 Star wars, and that when I was so young I don't even count it as having played it. I hope to fix this someday.

    Lethality is a fun issue, and something I meant to say in the post but forgot is that 2 of the most cinematic games I've ever been in were started with the intent of being down, dirty, gritty, and very lethal. The problem with keeping it gritty and "dark" was that the PCs kept rolling critical successes, and the NPCs fumbles. The inherent grit of the world backfired on the NPCs against the PCs who (as said) couldn't stop rolling incredible success after incredible success.