On Interesting Fights
© 3 Nov 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Action scenes in film and RPGs


Fighting on Film

Over the past few years I’ve developed an appreciation for action films. To enjoy an action film, think of it as a special effects demo reel interleaved with a short story. Being of the analysis mindset, I find myself analyzing action scenes and trying to guess what emotion the director hoped the scene would evoke. A few categories I’ve noticed so far:


Whether cowboy stare-downs or flashy swordplay, some action scenes are backdrops for conversation or character exposé.


Often characterized by a narrow camera angle that moves more than the combatants, some fight scenes are designed to make you feel that everything’s a bit chaotic and dangerous. The point: stop thinking and let the adrenaline flow.

Peon Massacre

Named character meets small army. Small army doesn’t stand a chance. Moral: don’t mess with named character.

Serial Smack-down

A punches B so hard B smashes through a cement wall. B lifts fifteen-ton piece of rubble and breaks it over A’s head. And on, and on, ad nauseum. Message: these brutes are so out of your league, puny human; oh, and look at all our special effects!

Watch This

Like the serial smack-down, except instead of superiority being manifest by the set being destroyed it’s exemplified in impossible flips and parries. Message: these paragons are so out of your league, puny human; oh, and look at all our special effects!

Triangle Wins

A quick in-and-out combat with just enough fighting to convey how inevitable or surprising the win was. The fight was just a tool to get from one scene to the next.

Rube Goldberg

One (or, more rarely, both) sides use complicated chain reactions, feints, and other “‍brainy‍” solutions to beat the other side, instead of simple brawn. Message: evil people are never as resourceful as heroes.

I suspect there are other tropes I’ll notice over time, but one of the things that struck me was that there are a variety of story messages behind fight scenes. While they often remain largely special effects delivery vehicles, they can also be used in various ways to further the story.

Roleplaying Battles

I am currently running a table-top role-playing game (RPG) and preparing for the climactic battle sequence. This caused me to think about the relative purpose of battle in games as opposed to film. The contrast is quite stark. There’s no special effects, things move in a slow and methodical fashion, and you can’t script in much storytelling.

There are three kinds of RPG battles I’ve heard players praise. The first surprises the players by exercising unusual rules. The second leaves many hooks for non-combat decisions in the fight. The third has the players think their characters are doomed and then rally.

I’ve found that I get bored by most RPG combat. Following are a few ideas I’ve had that seem to make things more interesting.


One way of spicing up combat scenes is to place the combat in a location where the violence is noticeable and odd. Chasing a foe through a busy market, having villains burst into and out of city houses, tramping through children’s bedrooms and busting down doors to create an advantageous battleground. Such designs keep the battle grounded in the story world.

Glass World

While most special effects are not really doable in RPGs, it is quite possible to have the serial smack-down style destruction of everything except the combatants. As a game master, adding this in is as simple as asking yourself after every action, “‍what could that bust?‍” Missing a foe with an axe might bring down a tree branch. Getting knocked down might break a container of lamp oil, which later might ignite in a stray fireball. Etc.

Whose team are you on?

The simplest version of this has three teams, each trying to defeat the other two. Trolls and goblins fighting over the right to eat the heroes, for example. Combine this with the chatterbox, though, and it is quite possible that the conversation will cause people to switch sides multiple times as new ideas are sprouted.


Never ever stop talking, and not about the fight itself. Maybe the villains are so self assured they carry one smalltalk during the fight, or they never stop trying to convince the players to stop fighting. There are plenty of reasons to roleplay during a fight: “‍Well if you’re going to kill me, will you at least tell me…‍” “‍Slay me and you shall still lose! Let me tell you why…‍” “‍This reminds me of this one fight I was in, where…‍”

The Clock is Ticking

For whatever reason—someone went for reinforcements, perhaps—there’s a time limit on a successful outcome, and the players know it. There’s all kinds of other definitions of success possible too: maybe the fight needs to be quiet, or the players have to ensure no one escapes, or the real goal is to reach something behind the foes.


Something I’ve thought about but not yet attempted is having the environment be deadly to the unwary. Traps, pendulums, carnivorous plants; battles on tightropes, wet ice, or magma… I’ve thought it would be interesting to have both teams need to move carefully and pull punches to stay in safe territory.

One of my earliest rhymes, written as an alternate lyric to Weazer’s In the Garage, ran

Your longsword does 1d10
  +3 ’cause you’re extra strong.
Except that you missed again!
  You tossed the d20 all wrong.

Your rapier was quick and sharp;
  His chain mail was no defense.
You thrust him through to the heart
  And he has been dead ever since.

The battle scenes are awfully dull
As corpses pile in the hall
So I’m skipping them today,
I much prefer when we roleplay
Let’s just role-pla-a-ay
If that’s O-kay

There’s a part of me that still agrees with that sentiment, but I’ve also learned that combat isn’t just dull hack-and-slash. It can also be part of a tale worth telling.

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