Having just finished a mini-campaign with the Exalted system which was action-oriented and preparing to run a long-term campaign with BESM 3.0 that will be action-packed, I have been ruminating on the challenges of executing exciting action scenes in a role-playing game. In my opinion accomplishing intense, believable, action can be one of the most difficult things to attempt as a GM. Most other scenes require less preparation and less precision to pull off. This is because there are so many factors that go into making a good action sequence. Lets look at them.
At the heart of an action scene is some kind of overt danger. Whether it is a crumbling cavern floor or a horde of ravenous cockroaches, once you’ve arrived at an action sequence the danger is no longer subtle or hidden, but right out in the open. If you’ve done your job as a GM you’ve given the players all sorts of hints about the upcoming danger already so they are primed for the action to start, tense and nervous. Even when an encounter is an ambush or surprise, the players should have a sense that danger is on the horizon though they’re not sure what the danger consists of. This kind of foreshadowing is part of the key to getting player “buy in” which we’ll talk about below.
Once the action is going though, the foreshadowing is over. Now you have to characterize the danger explicitly enough to convince the players it is real. Danger must be dangerous! It might seem obvious, but this is harder to accomplish than it sounds. Most players know the GM’s dirty secret, which is that she is invested in the characters completing the story too. So you have to convince the players that despite your bias for their survival the danger is real. This brings me to a set of critical propositions I believe about action and danger:
Danger should be rare. What qualifies as “rare” can vary, but the more often your players narrowly escape a dangerous situation the less likely they are to believe it. Vary the intensity of your action scenes and use plentiful down time to make the action more meaningful when it occurs.
Characters should pay a price for being in danger. Part of making the danger seem real is the cost it inflicts. If the party always emerges unscathed from every dangerous situation they won’t believe the danger. The cost needs to be real, so if you’re in a setting or world with plentiful healing then the cost should be something more than just injury. Damaging equipment, losing items, exhausting resources, killing companions, friendly NPC’s, familiars etc… are all ways of making the danger costly.
Danger must be carefully balanced. Perhaps the hardest part about getting the danger right is making it dangerous enough, without being too dangerous. The more rigid your system is the more difficult this will be. I advise GM’s to intentionally design encounters with an open ended component. The crumbling floor can crumble faster or slower depending on how the scene is progressing. It doesn’t matter if the dragon has 200hp or 150hp. It matters more that the dragon gets wounded or dies at the right moment. Players will stop caring if the danger is so overwhelming they lose any hope of success (or begin to expect a deus ex machina).
Danger should be scaled. You’re telling a story with the danger so save the biggest danger for the climactic moments and build up to it. If you keep upping the stakes slowly the tension will be high by the time you reach the climax. If you are erratic or start at too intense of a level right away then there will be no build and no pay off.
Most of the job for creating good action is the GM’s. You have to convince your players that the danger is real, but ultimately you can’t do it without their help. Players have to willingly suspend disbelief for action to really work. After all, most of the time in an action sequence we are doing unbelievable things (fighting dragons, jumping chasms, running up walls, dodging bullets etc…). Thus it is perfectly in line for you just to tell them that you want a game with plentiful action and it will help if they are on board.
There are a couple ways you can encourage player buy in.
Foreshadowing. Already mentioned above, this is the subtle version of just telling players to expect action. It is a way of prepping them for the scene, and it works well because it often functions on a subconscious level.
Action tied to characters. Perhaps the best way to get player buy in is to have the action be related to character goals or backgrounds. Wandering Monster encounters are never interesting. Avoid them. If however, the monster is the very same grizzled ogre that ate one of the character’s siblings as a child, then you’ve got buy in. Make the action matter for the result of the story. Make it impact the character’s lives in ways they can’t ignore and the players will be invested in it.
Keep every character involved. Any player that gets left out of an action scene will automatically not buy in. Furthermore, they will be more reticent to buy in to other action scenes the more often this happens. Not everyone will build combat-monkeys so your action should not all come in the form of combat. The best tactic is to make action scenes multi-valent (the raiding orcs have set fire to the town so some people are fighting orcs while others are trying to put out the fire). Choose events which will get every character involved in what is going on.
Rewards. I’m not really talking about experience points, since I find they are rarely a satisfactory motivation for players. I’m talking about making the action itself rewarding. Most players love an opportunity for their character to “look cool” doing something and action provides that opportunity. Players feel rewarded if the action scene provided them chances to use abilities, or pull off feats that they wouldn’t get to otherwise. As a GM intentionally build into your action sequences situations which are designed for individual characters to excel. Change these moments up and make sure you are rewarding the players equally, but by providing these moments to shine you virtually ensure player buy in.
Another immensely challenging aspect of action is its pacing. Action is quick. Combats, earthquakes, elaborate mechanical traps, wildebeest stampedes – they all last mere moments in real time. In roleplaying games this gets stretched out to minutes, sometimes hours. This lengthening of time has the effect of draining the energy from the scene. So to keep things exciting you have to fight against the lag.
Keep Description Brief. To be clear, I am not saying cut description out. Good description is the only way your players have to get into the imaginative world you are creating. However, in the middle of an action sequence you should have a preference toward short, punchy, verb-heavy, description. “The orc roars like a lion as he charges!” is better than “Raising his axe into the air and opening his mouth wide the orc lets out the infamous battlecry of his tribe ‘ulla mathoc gerog!’ before rushing headlong down the hill shaking his terrible weapon at his foes.” This might seem to go against your instincts since normally more description is better for a GM. However, when the whole scene lasts 15minutes instead of 30minutes or an hour, your players will notice the difference in the speed.
Don’t Spend Longer Than One Minute Per Player. This is just a guideline, but one way to keep the pacing up is to make sure you are always getting around the table quickly. To accomplish this require your players to have made their decisions by the time you get to them or set a timer and if they haven’t made up their mind they stand still in shock for a round. It is okay to put this kind of pressure on your players – it is part of making the action tense. Moving at this pace will also keep your players from devolving into conversation while you are resolving another player’s actions, which can be one of the biggest killers of buy in. Frankly, in this regard some systems are your enemy. D20 is horrible at higher levels for being able to resolve actions quickly. Whatever system you are using, make sure you are very familiar with it and develop shortcuts to help you keep the ball rolling.
Script Your Action Sequences. I like to think of actions sequences very much like scenes in a movie. In order to help build tension and ensure player involvement etc… I plot out how the major events will unfold. Obviously, these must be flexible because you cannot predict how your players will respond and how their actions may change the scene, but within a certain margin of error you can prepare a scene in advance. A good way to do it is in three stages: encounter, complication, resolution. During the encounter stage the danger becomes explicit and characters begin to respond (the fellowship is being chased through Mordor by goblins). During the complication something happens which makes the action more acute or changes the parameters somewhat (the Balrog shows up). During the resolution the danger is avoided or beaten at a cost (Gandalf saves the fellowship but tumbles into the abyss with the Balrog). With a script you can control the pacing by choosing when to introduce the complication and when to move to resolution. The players will sense these movements even without knowing that you’ve scripted it this way and they will respond appropriately.
Without question, Action is tough to accomplish in a game and yet so many RPG’s are built with it as a key component. Combat and danger form key aspects of almost every RPG out there so it is important for GM’s to think through their management of action in order for it to be satisfying for everyone involved. When it works everyone will be talking about it for a long time afterwards.