Sometimes when you’re running a game, you want to emulate a novel or movie. Being unscripted, though, a game is a different sort of animal: the gamemaster may be the main storyteller, but he doesn’t have control over the protagonists. This can lead to disconnects between the way heroes act in the “source” fiction and the way the PCs act in game. One of the most common examples of this disconnect appears in combat. In the novels and movies, the heroes charge bravely in, performing risky cinematic stunts. They take chances. They risk death in order to end a fight more quickly so they can get on to their ultimate goals. They’re not necessarily foolish, but they aren’t cautious by any realistic standard.
In a campaign, PCs often act the opposite way in combat. They proceed with great caution, looking for every possible piece of cover or other advantage. They don’t use maneuvers that would cause them too many penalties. They minimize risk in any way possible.
Depending on your game, of course, this might be perfectly appropriate. Many horror games encourage cautious play; in fact, heroic action sequences are out of place in many of them. Games sometimes focus on surviving a dangerous expedition and returning alive, preferably with loot; a lot of old-school-style D&D campaign run that way. Even superhero games have their grim survivalist variants, often “street-level” games based on heroes like Batman or antiheroes like The Punisher.
One of the easiest ways of doing this is to institute a “fate points” or “luck” mechanic, to take some of the sting out of bad die rolls. If your game already has such a mechanic, you may wish to be more generous with these points than usual; for instance, in 4e, you could allow Action Points to be used in new ways. In Savage Worlds, you could hand out extra bennies for taking appropriately cinematic actions. In the HERO system, you could give each character a free die or two of Luck that applies only to actions you, as GM, deem appropriately dramatic — or you could assign separate fate points to allow rerolls, or both.
It’s also important to look at die roll modifiers. Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that holds a player back from attempting a cinematic feat. In one of the Lord of the Rings movies, Legolas runs up onto an oliphaunt’s head and fires a point-blank arrow, killing it. But imagine this act in a 3e game, where the GM ruled that the player had to roll Jump and Balance, with penalties, to pull it off — and then, since he’d moved, he could fire only one arrow, for normal damage. Alternatively, the player could choose to stand still on the ground and make a full attack, firing three arrows, potentially causing three times the damage.
Why on earth would the player choose the flashy move? The boring one is clearly far more effective.
In order to incentivize the risky move, the GM has to make it pay off for the player if it succeeds. The greater the risk of failure is, the more effective a success would need to be. If the GM wants his players to be doing such things, he might rule that the maneuver required a single check — say, Balance at -2. On a failure, the PC would still get his single attack. On a success, perhaps the PC automatically scores a critical if his attack hits. He might even gain a morale bonus to his attack the following round, or grant a bonus to his allies who witnessed the feat.
Alternatively, the GM might dispense with the check altogether, and allow a flat attack and damage bonus for making the maneuver. Without the check, there’s less risk here, so the reward isn’t as great — but it’s still significant. The player isn’t placing his character at a complete disadvantage by attempting a cinematic maneuver. If the oliphaunt is a hard enough target, it’s still “worth” giving up the two extra attacks the player would otherwise get.
The other important aspect of encouraging riskier play is to tone down some of the fear of death. The threat of death needs to be part of the campaign, of course; there’s not much thrill in pulling off these grand stunts if the players are invincible. The trick is to make death a possible consequence, but not a likely one. The addition of fate points already helps to make a character death less likely, but as the GM, you can go further by giving the enemies a motivation other than outright murder. Perhaps the villains choose to capture the defeated heroes instead of killing them. After they’re beaten by that band of kobolds, they wake up black and blue and stripped of all their valuables — now they have to survive, make it back to civilization, restock, and come back for revenge. The contemptuous villain sneers at their weakness and walks off, leaving his minions to “finish them off” — and the heroes overcome them. They’re left for dead, but a helpful NPC manages to patch them up. The villain bargains for their lives — he wants them to perform a service for him. The villain doesn’t care about killing the heroes; after beating them, he warns them to stay out of his way in the future.
Reward a successful risk; mitigate the penalties of failure; lessen the risk of outright death. Keep those three things in mind, and you’ll soon find your players less reluctant to take cinematic actions.
- Heroic Effort
- Launching a Campaign: The Ground Rules Sheet
- Hacking Skill Challenges
- Dramatic Timing: The Action Cache
- The Lighter Side
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