Friday, August 16, 2019

Martial Arts as Power-Ups: Retrospective

So, over this week I discussed an alternate take, or really a more detailed way to organize them, for certain games.  I came up with the idea while working on my force swordsmanship styles for Psi-Wars, and I thought I'd pitch it to the community and see what they thought.  So, let's see what you had to say.

This reminds me of how cool and detailed GURPS can be in its nitty-gritty combat. But in all my GURPS experience (with 5-6 players) you really have to skip over most of the details, making most enemies simple ‘mooks’ that go down in 1-2 hits. - Scott Mclean
This generated an entire conversation over on facebook about the ins and outs of handling martial arts detail.  If I can sum up for everyone here: 

If you want to run a good martial arts game, I find it best to focus pretty strictly on the detail you want and to make sure combat flows quickly.  Try to eliminate all rule-hunting mid-game, or long, complicated discussions about what the character wants to do. Instead, create cheat-sheets (trademark moves go a long way to helping with that) so all the complex work is done ahead of time and you just have to reference your trademark move.  As a GM, I also recommend what I call the "5 second" rule, which is if you don't say what you're going to do in 5 seconds of your turn, then you do nothing.

A lot of problems that I see with GURPS newbies is that they often come from games like D&D where a "turn" is conceived of as a unit of "work" rather than a unit of "time."  A turn, in the D&D context, is enough time to do something meaningful.  For example, in D&D, the idea (as I understand it) is that you're doing all kinds of things, but the action you actually take is the only meaningful thing that happens in your turn.  This means that ever turn, something should happen.

By contrast, GURPS is more about the flow of time, so you might stand around doing nothing for a second, or you might be drawing your gun, or you might be aiming. If you're used to D&D-style turns, it feels like you're wasting turns, and the idea that a fight might go on for 30 turns is just too horrible to contemplate ("That would take all day").  However, if you understand that a GURPS turn is like reducing an action film to a slideshow, then it makes sense that there are seconds when not much happens.  But to make that work, you need to keep more-or-less everyone taking a minimum amount of real-world time, hence my advice on keeping turns flowing.  If one player can kill three NPCs in the time it takes you to draw your weapon, he's really really fast, and probably paid a premium for the privilege.

I could probably talk all day about this topic, and I have, but I'll pause here.  Nonetheless, I find it an interesting topic; given some of the responses, perhaps I should revisit a generic martial arts setting at some point and discuss how to build it.

All three of your posts are helping me tremendously with my martial arts game world that I am creating. -Andre Troch
A few people commented on how "eye-opening" or how much of a "game-changer" these articles were for them.  Great!  I had hoped the design ideas would assist people.  Incidentally, if you'd like to get more help or advice, I have a Discord here you can check out if you'd like to talk to me or the Psi-Wars community, who seem pretty helpful chaps.

Did you ever consider style talents as part of this article? -Wiggles
I did not.  In fact, I had to go hunting around to even figure out what that meant, and I couldn't find a reference.  My best guess here is that Wiggles is referring to a custom talent that applies to a single style, similar to a Wildcard Skill for a style.  I actually have a few issues with these, and I think it can be boiled down to my shortlived time playing with Christopher Rice: I had taken a Wildcard Skill as a style, and he kept hedging on what it could do, because it was unclear and he was erring on the side of not letting it be too "overpowered," while I tend to feel that Wildcard Skills tend to be pretty marginal anyway, so you should really give them the benefit of the doubt.  The point here is not who is right, but the fact that such things lend themselves to ambiguities like this.

A talent wouldn't have to be the same.  Power-Ups 3: Talents actually has a side bar on defaults, which is that you handle the defaults without the talent, and then apply the bonus; that is, if you normally have a Karate of 14 and a Jeet Kun Do talent of +4, and you want to Elbow Strike someone (Karate -1), you work out the base level (13) and then add the talent (13+4 = 17).  It feels like a convoluted way of saying "Just apply the default normally, but the talent doesn't give you some double-dipped benefit).  Okay, simple enough: a Style Talent would be a very small talent (5 points, I'm guessing) that adds to the skills of that Style and the techniques of that style only.  So, for example, if your Jeet Kun Do guy has Jeet Kun Do Talent +4, he gets a +4 to his Elbow Strike (which is a JKD technique) but not to Choke Hold (which is not a JKD technique).

I think such a talent would look a lot like "I'm good at X skills within a talent, but only with some of the techniques, making this worse than just being talented at Karate or Judo."  It also tends to mean that you're better off improving your talent rather than your techniques, which means your facility with a style becomes your level of talent.  It also leads to a proliferation of talents (every style you learn becomes a talent).

This is not necessarily a problem, though.  It doesn't fit what I'm trying to do, but imagine a game with 20 styles that your character can learn, but you just buy them in talent blocks, like "I know JKD at +4, and Jujutsu at +1!" it might be a decent way to simplify the styles, though I don't know how much it would simplify in practice, and if your players would appreciate the simplification.

 Don’t worry about “real practitioners complaining a fundamental piece of an art is missing.”  MA book already does that for at least a few. -Mao
I want to clarify my statement on this a little.  My intention is not to say "Those crabby martial artists are always complaining," but to point out a problem with this approach and real-world martial arts.  This sort of approach tends to simplify a style down to a set of a handful of moves and forces you to approach the martial art in a particular way. This has the benefit of making the martial art really bold and distinct, but loses a lot of subtlety.

To use Smasha as an example, we had quite a discussion on the Clinch perk, with some people defending its inclusion.  One thing that struck me as I worked more with Smasha is that its strange construction makes more sense in the standard MA format if you see it as three interlocking styles: if you buy Boxing (A) DX+4 [16], Brawling (E) DX [1], Wrestling (A) DX-1 [1], then you're really a brutal boxer and you'll focus on the boxing techniques, and some people argued that Clinch makes sense in this context (I dunno, I feel like "Spend that point in Wrestling to get it up to DX and you'll get way more bang for your buck).  You can do the same spread but with different skills (16 points in Brawling, one in the rest, 16 in Wrestling, one in the rest), and you have three different fighters who all use the same style, but use it in completely different ways and have different relationships with the style.  This is not wrong, and it's the sort of thing that I suspect happens out in the martial art world (and, taken to extreme, explains sub-styles and how styles evolve over time; if Western orcs constantly focus on the Wrestling side, you may eventually get Western Smasha as some sort of Combat Wrestling variant that becomes its own distinct style).  I think it's a real and legit expression of martial arts too, but it's something that my approach doesn't handle that well.  Thus, you gain something, but you lose something else.

I've had some people point this out, and what I'd recommend for people who prefer the old approach is to keep the original martial art around, sort of how DF has its templates, but also a discussion of appropriate traits, as the latter allows you to make your own character  your way.  If you have a Smasha player that wants to build his own move (say, a Trademark Punch to the Vitals, which has great synergy with Secrets of the Ripperjack), they can.

Should you allow that, though?  Well, that's an answer I leave to you.  I would argue it's the same sort of debate DF people have over whether or not templates should be strict. On the one hand, those templates force people to be sufficiently flexible while having necessary core traits, they protect niches, and they help the players explore the world that DF itself is setting out for them.  On the other hand, sometimes people want to do their own thing and they're not hurting anything by it... most of the time.  I think there are reasons to go with either approach, and it depends on the sort of game you want.


... - Peter Dell'Orto

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