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Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Thu Nov 21, 2013 5:55 am
by Ares
I have an odd question for all you writers out here: What do you think about when writing a combat scene?

I know that the actual answer is going to be specific to the characters and context of the scene. I'm not looking for help writing a combat scene per-se, but for references about what the experience of writing one is like. Personal anecdotes about the writing process for particular scenes (in any medium) would be awesome. General advice is fine too, of course.

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sat Nov 23, 2013 4:19 am
by elgeonmb
I attempt to put myself into the relevant character's shoes. Characters usually have a reason to fight each other, so I try to reflect that reason in the scene through both diction and through how the fight plays out. As for anecdotes, I've got this really great fight scene where the protagonist just really utterly loathes her opponent, so there's a lot of extremely overdone and viscious attacks and the diction is full of short, punchy words. Another scene has an ornate ritualized duel, with flowery diction and special attention payed to each character's fighting style. So, essentially, it just depends on the character.

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sat Nov 23, 2013 8:11 am
by Ares
So the way the What and How get told depends on the Why and the Who and the When. That makes a lot of sense and I feel silly for needing to be told that, but it does help. Thank you. The answer isn't quite so easy for me to implement as I was hoping, but nothing ever is.

Now that I have an answer, I'll go ahead and explain why I asked. I'm writing a tabletop RPG, and one of top level design goals is that I want the game to be able to tell a coming-of-age story without contrivances by the players or GM. I noticed that a combat in my game felt very different from fight scenes in any good story, which meant my combat system wasn't doing its job. Since I'm a pretty awful writer and don't actually understand how stories "work," I wanted to pick the brains of those more talented than myself to come up with design goals.

From your answer, I get the following upper-level design goals for my combat system:
-Combat should not require players to break character. If a player has to ask if their character can or cannot do something, my combat system has forced them to break the immersion of everyone at the table.
-Combat should be emotional, rather than intellectual. While most of this is going to be up to the GM, my system has to encourage players to make decisions emotionally and in-the-moment, rather than dictate actions to them by tactical necessity.
(Unfortunately, the third important goal of "Combat should be used sparingly and only for effect, not filler" is completely out of my hands as a designer, beyond having the rulebook suggest it to prospective GMs)

And with that all on the table now, do you have any other advice before I run off and try to do that?

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sat Nov 23, 2013 10:22 pm
by elgeonmb
The only problem with using combat as filler is that you're going to wind up pitting them against faceless mooks that they don't really feel the need to kill so much. But if, say, the character was hunting down the cabal of evil witches that killed her mother, or something, each one of those witches could be an emotionally cathartic battle, potentially.

I like the way GURPS does combat, with each player given approximately a second to decide which of several set manuevers they're going to attempt, so it's fast-paced and frantic. Perhaps not second-to-second realism (otherwise it'd be really hard to have one of those flowery and ornate duels!) but imposing a bit of a time limit on how long it takes a player to chose what they're going to do makes it play as less of a wargame in microcosm and more of a truely heroic adventure.

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sun Nov 24, 2013 8:17 am
by Ares
I agree completely about combat-as-filler. Using combat as filler leads to emotionally dead fights, which undermine the impact of the fights that would actually matter.

I already have a sort of soft time limit on my turns: if the number for your action comes up and you don't say anything, it passes you by and you lose your action. Defense skills, too, are all "interrupts" so if you don't decide to use one when you get attacked, the attack just goes straight through. There's no explicit time limit, but taking a turn or avoiding damage is an active thing that players have to do, rather than waiting for the GM to call on them.

I got "fast paced and frantic" verbatum from my playtesters when I asked them to describe how combat felt, so I'm alright on that front. It still wasn't accomplishing my objective, though, because as you pointed out, fast-paced and frantic isn't the only emotional note combat should be able to hit. Certainly any fight where your life is at stake is going to be frantic, but combat should be able to be about more than just staying alive.

If you'd like to get into the nitty-gritty systems stuff, the current draft of my rulebook is here. The combat system I have up currently is the old one; I'm not sure how much of it I'll keep. (Don't mind the copyright notice; my school requires it for anything I turn in for credit, and I don't actually care who owns my stuff as long as I'm still allowed to work on it.)

Any feedback you'd like to provide would be awesome, especially if there's some hole in the rules where you can't play it; as someone who knows intimately how the game is "supposed" to be work, that's my blind spot - and the playtest group I have right now learned the system from me, rather than from the rulebook. If you are able to (and are willing to) play it, I'm keenly interested in how the game feels to play, moment-to-moment. If a situation comes up where the game kills the story, I want to know so I can fix it. If a situation comes up where the game helps to tell a really awesome story, I want to know so I can get a warm fuzzy feeling. :wink:

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sun Nov 24, 2013 8:53 pm
by elgeonmb
Alas, the odds of my group playing this successfully and actually having fun approach nil. They're so disorganized and inattentive that the NPCs would just beat them to a fine paste while they constantly missed their initiative.

Also, they're complain because this isn't Pathfinder or Paranoia. Sorry!

The combat system seems fine. To get a sort of emotionally cathartic response from the players, you just need to portray a really good villain that they have cause to hate. And, judging by my group, the best way to get them to hate a villain is to have that villain steal something from them. The villain can murder puppies and the whole group's moms and they won't hate him as much as if he steals their +1 Sword of Smiting.

Re: Writing Combat Scenes

Posted: Sun Nov 24, 2013 11:32 pm
by Ares
That's alright.

Thank you for the feedback you provided. Literally every single word anyone says about it helps me to understand where I am and where I need to be.