Interrobang Diaries: Action Sequences and Fight Scenes

When things start happening in a way that is fast and furious, the tempo of the game changes a bit. When this happens, it's called an action sequence. A fight breaking out is often an action sequence, but not every action sequence will involve combat. An action sequence just means that things are happening quickly enough that PCs only have time for a single action each before the situation evolves. This could be because they are involved in a chase, trying to escape an exploding factory, falling to their eventual doom, or yes, fighting their enemies.

How much the action system will come into play in your game will vary wildly. Some short, one-shot scenarios with a small number of players and taking place in a limited environment may be best treated as one extended action scenario, as this helps ensure that everybody has a chance to act and the stakes in such a scenario may be present from moment to moment. A more reflective game may never involve an action sequence, on the other hand.

For these reasons, this section of the game might seem sketchy and vague in places. More so than the general rules, you should expect the action and fighting rules to be subject to variation with setting and genre.

The Action Round

Action sequences are divided up into rounds, during which each character involved can attempt one action.

A round can cover a period of time from a single split second to several seconds (say about five, maybe six). Very quick rounds are normally for extremely dangerous situations that are developing rapidly, such as being flung off a roof or having a bomb go off. If the action sequence lasts longer than several seconds, it'll generally be divided up into rounds of about 5 seconds. If it's shorter than that, it's treated as one short round.

Regardless of the length being covered, the amount of things you can accomplish remains the same. How can this be? Eh. Chalk it up to adrenaline and the fact that part of the delay between your actions is the necessity of getting your feet under you and taking stock of the new situation. So the first round is essentially a freebie, and then the other rounds are paced out over periods of about five seconds.

The rhythm of the game during an action sequence is the same as ever, with the Storyweaver describing the situation and the players responding. When the player characters are facing enemies, the general assumption is that what they're doing -- what they're attempting to do -- is part of the situation as the Storyweaver describes it. However, nothing actually happens until every player has declared their intended action (which might be deciding to do nothing), and then everything is resolved more or less at once.

What counts as an action?

An action is something you could do (or try to do), if sufficiently motivated, within about 5 seconds. An action should generally be something you can describe in a fairly simple sentence, and it can have up to three distinct parts. "I run at the enemy captain, draw my baton, and smite them verily about the brow." would be an example of an action with three parts.

In that example, the necessity of moving closer to the enemy and drawing a weapon are dictated by the circumstances of the story. If you were already in close quarters or had your weapon drawn, you could do other things instead, of those things, or focus on your attack.

An action may involve multiple gambits. For instance, if you are facing an invisible foe, your action may be, "I listen for where the intruder is and then try to shoot them." If an earlier part fails, it's up to you whether or not to push forward with the later parts, if circumstances still allow it. You also have some limited ability to change course entirely through reactions, as described below.

Focused Actions

If your action is simple enough to be described with a single part, you can choose to focus. This gives you the equivalent of a level of extra time for any gambit involved, or -- if it seems plausible you could do a rush job under pressure -- lets you attempt something that would normally take a minute or two in the few seconds the round lasts. 

Yes, this is more generous than the rules used for time outside of action sequences. What can we say? Danger is a heck of a motivator.

Action Order

During an action sequence, things happen "all at once, in the order they need to." 

The Storyweaver takes the various actions the players propose and weaves them into a narrative of what happens during that round, directing players to roll for their gambits as they come up. It's not necessary to pin down the exact order of events (it can be a lot of "meanwhile") except when one action would be affected by another.

A character whose action depends on another action being done will obviously perform their action after. There's no need to determine a "turn order" for one character to hand another a bomb and the second character to throw it as far as they can... those two actions happen in the only order they can.

If two characters are have contradictory goals where completing one would affect the other, the one with a higher result on their gambit wins, with ties meaning they happen simultaneously. If one or both character didn't need to roll a gambit, the Storyweaver will direct them to roll one anyway just to determine how quick they were. There is no difficulty for this gambit so it can't fail, only be too slow.

Focused actions can be assumed to "go off" after non-focused actions, regardless of the rolls, as they represent a character taking the whole round to do one thing. For this reason, if you're trying to beat an enemy to the punch, it can be wise to forego focusing, even if you're doing a simple action.

It's possible -- given a complicated enough set of circumstances or a novice Storyweaver -- that you'll wind up with a tangled sequence of events that it seems impossible to make sense of who was where and doing what at what point during the round.

This is fine! There's no point in stopping the game and drawing a map and timeline to make sense of it. In a situation that hectic, it's possible no one involved has a clear idea of how it actually went down. Fog of war, heat of the moment, etc. Just roll with it and run with it.

Reactions

Each character can take one reaction per round, as the Storyweaver is laying out the results. A reaction is a simple action taken in response to the way things actually unfold as the round is resolved.

You might choose to take a reaction in any of the following circumstances:

  • What you were attempting to do doesn't work out.

  • Something bad is happening to you and you'd like to prevent it.

A reaction is not an "extra" action. At the point you take your reaction, whatever else you were trying to do for the round is interrupted. However, if you roll well enough, you can also interrupt whatever motivated you to react. For instance, in a sword fight, if your opponent outrolls you and is about to strike you a potentially bothersome blow, you can use your reaction to try to parry it. This lets you attempt to roll a new gambit, which if it meets or beats the attacker's will successfully block it.

The usual injunction against simply trying the exact same thing again applies, though, so your reaction can't just be to try harder to strike first.

FIGHT SCENES

A fight scene may be thought of as a special case of an action sequence. Depending on the type of story and the play experience desired, fight scenes may come with special rules to make gameplay more of a series of tactical choices, creating a game within a game that the players can win or lose with consequences for the story... or the fight may just be another part of the story, with challenges like "the sniper has the drop on you" or "two burly lizard people block your path with spears leveled" treated as just another set of obstacles to overcome with creative use of your character's abilities.

Narrative Combat

Some games won't need rules for fighting because fighting happens rarely. 

Others may have frequent fight scenes but in a style that's better handled through storytelling than tracking hits and counting points. In these cases, you can freely treat a fight scene as basically just an action sequence. 

Game conventions like "hit points" and "life meters" aside, the number of knife wounds, gunshots, arrow wounds, or cracks on the head needed to kill or incapacitate a human being is actually one, as long as it's the right one. In real life, a sharp dagger is not actually one third as deadly as a big claymore sword. They're just applied differently.

So it's fine to declare that an NPC opponent is taken out of combat by any successful gambit that players devise that, in real life (or in the sort of story you're telling) would reasonably take the opponent out of combat. Obviously if the reverse is true, then it's likely to be a short and deadly game. We'll talk more about how to resolve negative results for players when you're not using any special rules for combat when we get deeper into Storyweaving. 

A simple way is to use the rules for tracking hits (presented below) but only applying them for the PCs and certain other important or formidable NPCs.

Tracking Hits: Stress and Damage

An outcome of an action that has the potential to take a character out of combat is called a hit. Hits are the result of one character attacking another directly, but also environmental factors like falling rocks, deadly traps, explosions, and so on. 

We start with the assumption that larger-than-life characters such as the PCs have a certain ability to avoid or mitigate harm. What this means in in-story terms will depend on the character and the circumstances. If we imagine a plasma blast fired from a high tech space rifle is coming at your character, a very fast character may twist out of the way of the blast, while a tougher one might take a superficial burn across the arm, avoiding serious harm and shrugging off the pain and shock. A character who is far less of a combatant may shriek and drop out of the way, or avoid it through a protective spell.

When a character does this, it's called tanking a hit.

However the effects of tanking may be described, this kind of last-second avoidance is separate from any gambit made to avoid the harm. It's effectively a deeper reflex than a reaction, and it does not affect the action sequence at all. However, doing it is assumed to cost the character something in the form of willpower, stamina, pain tolerance, readiness, etc., so each time a character takes a hit in combat and then negates it, they accumulate a point of Stress.

Every character in the game has a Character Rank (or CR), which might be thought of as a measure of their "level" and also their importance in the story world. For most characters, this rank is 0. Your CR is how many points of Stress you can handle. The fact that most of the various mooks and minions you fight in most games can be taken out with a single good gambit is actually a reflection of the fact that they have a CR of 0.

The CR that Player Characters begin with will vary from game to game. A good guideline is for the starting CR to equal the number of points players have for weighting their aspects, as that's a good proxy for how capable and larger-than-life the characters are, but if the genre conventions call for heroes that are squishier or more durable than their overall power level would indicate, this may not hold true.

Once a character has accumulated Stress equal to their Character Rank, they can't tank a hit anymore. The next hit that comes their way will take an average character out of action.

Player characters are usually above average, though, and can take damage even past their capability of avoiding hits. Each time you take a hit, you can mark a point of damage underneath the sphere that it corresponds to, which in most games will either be Physical or Mental. The concept of Social damage might apply in some genres, though!

You can sustain one point of damage for each point you have in the appropriate sphere. Any hit you take that would inflict a point of damage further instead takes you out of action.

A point of physical damage doesn't mean the same thing as a full-on gunshot wound or what have you, though it is more substantial than a hit that is tanked completely. All tanked hits are generally recovered at the end of the scene in which they're inflicted, while damage is recovered more slowly.

Out of Action

What "out of action" means will depend on what the last good hit consists of. Being hit with some kind of net gun means you're bound up in a net. Having a heavy stone block dropped on you means being crushed by it. Genre conventions and the nature of the game still apply here! In a game meant to emulate light, cartoony action-adventure, the heroes may be assumed to still somewhat tank that last hit, in a way that leaves them alive and recoverable, but at the very least incapacitated for purposes of the remainder of the action sequence. A more deadly game may have more serious stakes. Vanilla Interrobang does not provide actual rules for character death, though, as they're not universally applicable.

There may be circumstances were you decide to let yourself be taken out of the action rather than tanking a hit or taking damage. For instance, if an enemy is throwing a net over you, you might prefer that fate to taking another point of damage avoiding it, even if you'd be able to keep fighting.

Whether you can be returned to the action mid-scene after being taken out of action can be a tricky question. As a general rule, you can't simply extricate yourself from whatever fate has befallen you at least until the scene is over. However, the exact story circumstances and genre conventions may come into play in a way that allows an ally to rescue you, or inspire you to get back up and keep fighting. 

Our next diary will deal with more detailed rules for resolving combat, including attacking, defending, and maneuvering around foes.


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