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Thoughts on an intensely fast combat...

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Thoughts on an intensely fast combat...

Hello,

I’m not sure if this is the correct forum for posting this but I think it might be an appropriate one. This will be a type of an Actual Play post. I’m not sure of the purpose of the post so I guess I’ll call it an info dump. Maybe by the end I will have found the reason I felt compelled to share it.

About two weeks ago I was given a new character to play. As anyone who has followed my postings over the years know that we play with a folio of characters. In my folio I had about 10 characters that had only been played once or twice, several completely unrolled and not one played in the last 10 years. My GM asked if I was willing to go through my folder and pull any characters that I wouldn’t mind losing as he was stressing about all these characters that were not involved in any current stories for various reasons. He said he would compensate me for both helping him and trusting him to do well by me. The characters I chose, as mentioned above, were long forgotten and were not particularly special. For most, if not all, I could recall nothing about them so I saw this as win/win. I turned in some 10 or so characters and in return I received an "assassin" type character that is a mash up of a Ninja and Assassin’s Creed plus a few twists thrown in. I didn’t roll a single die during character creation but I did not suffer for that. My Attributes and secondaries were outstanding. At “1st” level he is extremely lethal and phenomenally skilled. As this all happened on a game day my backstory was just a quick couple of sentences. I imagine that in the future there will be back story play sessions or I may just seize the opportunity to create my own. The basics were that I was left as a newborn on the door step of a hermit who happened to be a master assassin who had “retired” to live a life of quiet. Not knowing how to raise a child he didn’t raise me as so much as train me. The gist being that if I didn’t know how to make the world fear me then the world would crush me. Enough info to start play and lots of room to create the character. So…..off to the adventure and the combat of which I am here to write about.

Every once in a while we stretch out legs a bit and get the itch for an old fashion dungeon crawl. Middle Earth as a whole doesn’t really support this so when we do play a crawl we do so in an area that is a long away from the North West part of ME, typically somewhere in the deep south - like south of the Far Harad. We still keep the same general flavor of monsters that we use for typical middle earth we don’t veer off to the wilds of Beholders, Rust Monsters and Mind Flayers. This doesn’t mean there aren’t terrifying things that slither in the dark.

We go in to the structure and we have a few encounters with cultists. In the chaos of one combat the party is split when some fell off a ledge into an underground stream. The stream was moving at such a speed that in seconds the fallen individuals were out of sight. The group I’m with finds the treasure room and just as we are close to opening the “vault” the horse sized three headed dragon-like stature came to lethal life. (Yes all we players suspected that the statue was likely to be a problem not one single PC had any experiences that would justify any suspicion.) We tried to engage but the party was sundered. Our Giant of Kor, standing at around 10,’ was knocked out of the combat early. The fire breathing was terrible and its bite was crushing. I tumbled out of the room avoiding a flame blast and fell about 30’ down a stairwell. I was met by the party barbarian and we both agreed that it looked hopeless and we set about leaving. Near the entrance/exit we encountered the two main bodyguards of the “necromancer/enchanter”. Each of them was our opposite. We square off - barbarian vs barbarian; “assassin” vs “assassin.” The barbarians by unspoken agreement square off against each other as they are both physically large and each appears to be the more dangerous foe to each other. After they separate from their respective lesser, we “assassins”, commence our combat.

For 15 minutes the GM and I are miming hand to hand combat at the best speed we can manage. Best real world physical speed, not the best speed as per mechanics. During this 15 minutes of combat I rolled about a total of about 5 rolls to hit before the GM broke off the combat to run the barbarian combat. (After his 15 or so minutes the combat returned to me until its conclusion whereupon it returns for the conclusion of the barbarian combat). I am no longer a young man but even so I was folded over with hands on knees heavily winded for 5 minutes. I was sweating buckets…and it was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had in years. I was so focused that I had no idea that players at the table were cheering during the combat. I had completely given myself over to the moment and tunnel visioned utterly into surviving the combat. There were no other extraneous thoughts that I can recall as I just didn’t have time. There was no discussion ahead of time how we were going to handle this or whatnot. The GM described (and mimed) the other “assassin” pulling a sword, I pulled out my "knife" and we went straight to it. It was a blast…and completely exhausting!

I’m not sure what point, if any, that I’m trying to share with this post. I suppose on one level it is an example of the idea I’ve been trying to put forth that deterministic mechanics are not only not necessary to mythic/bricolage/Sim play but that the experience of the event was made more intense, more vivid, more real because of the absolutely minimal number of interruptions caused by mechanics. I also want to shine a light on how all the information I was receiving was from the SIS and not a resolution system. What we were saying and doing in the SIS was of paramount importance and the resolution mechanics were brought in only very occasionally given the speed of events in the combat. Now that I think back on it, those times that I was asked to roll felt like interruptions and the effect was jarring. Hmmm…

Apologies for rambling.

Best,

Jay

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That was an awesome story, and I thank you for sharing it.
I will not be doing any leaping around, but it's fun to read about. :-)

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I struggled for a long time

I struggled for a long time to fully understand how this style of combat could work. The real breakthrough for me was realizing how physical action serves as a communication tool. I only understood after having seen some videos of the process in action.

Here's my own read on how this combat system works. Jay, you can correct me if I am mistaken about anything. I'm also interested to hear if there are aspects of this that you think were different in the extremely fast combat you are talking about, aside from using fewer dice rolls.

1. There is constant communication between the player and the GM about exactly what is happening. It's all about keeping the details of the SIS as clear as possible. For an intense one-on-one combat like this, that includes not just general positioning but specific details about the body positions of the two combatants, the angle they are swinging their swords, and so on.

2. It's not in real time. You won't see the players swinging the toy swords around wildly. If they did, it would become unclear what had happened and the whole combat would dissolve into confusion. The combat is more like slow motion. The player mimes an attack slowly (e.g., swinging the sword around to the left) while keeping eye contact with the GM and waiting for the action to be acknowledged. I would use the analogy of scrubbing slowly forward through a film in slow motion, pausing every few frames to look closely at what's going on.

3. The action doesn't proceed until the communication is clear. Everything is back and forth -- the player indicates an action, and watches for signs from the GM that the action is understood. The GM communicates the result back. If the GM thinks the player has misunderstood something, the GM will repeat and elaborate on what happened before continuing on. Likewise the player will interrupt the GM and clarify their intent if the GM seems to misunderstand. In my film analogy, aside from pause and restart there is a lot of rewinding back a few frames to replay something and make sure everyone agrees.

4. This process of clarification happens extremely quickly and informally, using the kind of informal clarification and correction that happens naturally in verbal communication. If one were to try to transcribe it, it would look something like:
- "I do..." (miming action)
- "OK, so you..." (miming action)
- "No, more like..." (miming action)
- "Yes, but he..." (miming action)
It happens so fast that you unless you deliberately slow down to analyze what is happening, you are left only with the result of the communication - the understanding of what is happening in the SIS.

5. The information that is communicated through the non-verbal action could in principle be communicated verbally, but it would be extremely slow and cumbersome, and would destroy the intensity of the scene. The above example would end up looking something like:
- "I take a half step forwards and swing my sword at him from the left, trying to duck under his guard and then twist it upwards to aim at his chest."
- "OK, so you are trying to circle around him and strike him on the left side while avoiding his retaliatory blow."
- "No, more like I am coming at him from the front with my sword raised, and then at the last moment swooping down underneath his attack. I'm not moving to the left, but I'm twisting in from the left to strike at his chest."
- "Yes, but he is holding his sword out in front of him so it will be very difficult for you to approach from that angle..."
Trying to run the combat verbally like this would kill the momentum and turn it into an analytical exercise. I can't really think of any way to achieve the same effect without the non-verbal miming of action. The toy swords are more optional but make the miming clearer and improve the communication quality.

6. The level of detail at which the combat happens is way higher than in D&D. D&D achieves fast combat through abstraction:
- "I swing at him. 15."
- "You hit, roll damage."
The nonverbal-style combat is actually slower than D&D*, in total amount of time to resolve a comparable fight. But the level of detail is so much higher that it feels faster. There's a lot more information being exchanged per minute, and a lot more decisions required before someone is hit and takes damage.

7. The sweating and feeling of exertion is not just from physical action (the players aren't chasing each other around the room with swords to the point of exhaustion). It is from the stress of having to make many decisions quickly, and from emotional investment in what is happening. The DM encourages this by assuming a role something like a football coach, practically shouting at the players as he tells them what is going on and demands the next action.

*Caveat: Some groups do run extremely slow combat in D&D, either because they don't know the rules or they agonize too much over their actions, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm thinking of my own group, where we can grind through a combat pretty darn fast if everyone is executing their standard tactics and attack routines.

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No major complaints

Hi Billy,

I thank you for the break down of the combat cycle. I've been doing it soooooo long that I have no perspective given how first person it is and all the furious thinking that goes on during the actual combat itself.

I find that the more interesting combats have less of that correcting going on that you so aptly described. IOW the clearer and smoother we can communicate the more intense the feeling of the battle. If we can get as close to that ballet of battle with no words as possible the more exciting it becomes.

...and that is what happened that was different in the particular battle in the OP. There was almost no adjusting or clarification. I might have doubled down by describing, in one or two word phrases, my intent but that was it. The fight started with weapons, my opponent had a "scimitar/katana" type of weapon and I had a fighting knife. I knew tactically that I had to get rid of his sword so first part of the fight was very defensive with me physically in the real world stepping/dodging/leaning back/twisting my body out of the way of the blows until I could get initiative and attempt a disarm. All those avoids were pretty much done entirely mute or by saying on the first avoid, "avoid" and nothing more from then on while avoid that sequence of attacks. I really had to watch his attacks as there were very few if any time slowing "verbal adjustments". If I remember rightly if I tried to explain an adjustment it was mostly ignored or uncommented upon so the feedback to my actions was almost entirely visual. As fast as he was swinging I was dodging or parrying. If we matched proper actions my defensive action was successful. Now that I'm spending time recalling this, he never once called out a stamina loss so there was no stopping for bookkeeping on my part. I did get hit in the arm once but he didn't abstract that to numbers. There was no stopping other than the GM saying, "He drives his knife into your forearm." No Stamina or PBP numbers given, he just left that to me to role play out and the combat continued. I continued playing using a "weakened" and slower left arm trying to avoid using it when I could.

While we kept some distance so as not to physically strike each other we were throwing blows in succession as fast as we could (being old men IRL), especially when it went hand to hand. Here it became even more exhausting as I was conveying power of the strike physically - not in slow motion but in speed of strike. (I will say that you just can't help yourself shouting out sound effects when you land a blow - so that "verbal (aural) communication" was used to try and sell the success of the strike.) That meant I had to physically act putting everything I had in the blows. Thus this was a nearly non-verbal fight even by our standards. Because I had to read his physical actions directly with little or no verbal cuing it meant the cognition load was much higher. This meant I had to physically respond that much faster, less "thinking" and more reacting. I was getting so winded during the fight that I actually worked moves into the fight that would separate us so I could spend literally 3-5 seconds breathing and thinking what to do next as we reset. The few times I rolled was when it was "physically" obvious that I had slipped his defense and gotten in to try and land killing blows - usually a shot to the throat. But I never rolled for damage once. I rolled the number, didn't even add in my "hand to hand" skill and he would physically react - there was no description.

What was interesting was if our intentions were not totally understood then it fell to us to move on and assume that we had missed the blow or it landed improperly. This was what helped make it more exhilarating. The pacing was truly, not subjectively, fast. We communicated our actions once, almost totally kinetically, and took our cues from each other visually. Truly the exhaustion was not just the tension and the thinking, we were pushing ourselves physically at the speed of a sprint for 10 to 15 minutes. That amount of time of the combat was not my subjective guess but what was learned from the other players. I was tired, I was winded and I was sweaty. Embarrassing as it is to say I physically hurt for the next 2 days from the exertion.

The freedom of total abandonment to the moment (with very few verbal clarifications and mechanical interruptions) plus the real adrenaline flowing is what helped make this combat less like our usual combat and dialed up the intensity so much more.

Best,

Jay

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Sounds incredible! I may be

Sounds incredible! I may be back with more questions or comments, but meanwhile thank you for all the added detail.

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Interesting play

Thanks for the report.

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