The general consensus is that modern RP is all about character-driven drama and the motivations of the players. But let’s be honest, sometimes you just wanna blow stuff up and fight all the enemies in widescreen sprawling combats that define your character as a complete and total ass-kicker. That’s okay too. To be perfectly honest, the two aren’t even mutually exclusive.
There’s tons of advice in GM columns about spicing up combat or making it feel smoother so this isn’t a column about that. It will include elements of that but we’re going to look more generally at how to make the thing feel like an action movie. Yes, I am about to sacrifice roughly 20 months of intellectual content in order to profess my love for big dumb pointless action movies. With my reputation at stake and possibly arguing that there’s a point to Micheal Bay movies, I realise I’ve already raised the stakes.
The Action Hero is not a new concept; It’s been around ever since Buster Keaton jumped from a moving train. But for sake of this article we need to cut through the first thirty or so years of proto-hero. We’ve already talked about a lot of iterations of the action movie, from noir to pulp to war to westerns to the cop. To get to the most healthy era of the action movie we have to sort of begin with a weird period of disenchantment with authority in America. In the mid 70’s, many of the American people had been through the ringer with regards to authority. Then Dirty Harry Shambled onto the stage. Full of insane violence for the time, an authority figure that manages to be anti-establishment at the same time as being exactly what was wrong with those in power, Harry’s blend of individual power and hardline viewpoint really made people sit up and take notice, the modern template for damaged action hero was born. The line from Dirty Harry to First Blood and then to Commando can be traced easily, catapulting violence and explosions into fully mainstream territory.
For some time the action movie reigned supreme. It was easy to pretend that all our problems could be solved by heroic people punching and shooting things, easy to ignore the fact that violence often begets violence. It was comforting to have our morality drawn in black and white. And that was okay because it’s only a fantasy.
Then 9/11 and its fallout happened. Suddenly terrorists weren’t an easy go-to bad guy that you could just shove in a film. That became a statement of intent. In the wake of that, American stalemates in Afghanistan and Iraq forces us to look at the content of our long wars and as a whole, the west became disenfranchised with righteous war. It became clear that the word ‘bad guy’ was a complicated term and the myths of our modern society, reflected in cinema, began to change to reflect this. The action move had to be grimmer or more self-aware. Taking them at face value now seems naïve.
Soon, our fantasies of easy conflict moved further away from our reality. We began adding men in mecha suits or Asgardian Gods to our action. It was safer to examine this conflict in a world that wasn’t too close to our own. The Aristotelian mirror hardened. In today’s post-superhero society, the love for the standard action movie has waned. We say that they’re formulaic and often predictable and our main other reason – spectacle – has been flattened by bigger CGI work in other films. But it’s also to do with our discomfort with the purity of their outlook.
But somewhere deep down we all just want to punch a bad guy in the face and yell a quippy line. Maybe RPGs are the place for that.
Examples In RPGs
Action happens in most RPGs but here’s a pair of games that really embrace the concept
Feng Shui/Feng Shui 2: Either version of this game challenge you to go big or go home. While it’s based around Hong Kong action movies mostly, there’s also influences of the Western tradition in there too. Expect stuff to get destroyed.
Action Movie World: PBTA’s attempt at the action genre, it is a really fun deconstructivist take where the world is made in a world that supports action movies but you’re also aware that you are playing an actor and that nobody really dies. Fun if you can get your head around it.
Here’s some tips to embracing widescreen action.
Black And White Morality
It’s easier to be excited about punching someone in the face if you can believe they deserve it. All that stuff about creating sympathetic villains? Leave it at the door. In the action movie tone, your villains need to be scumbags. It makes it easier to blow them up. Talking Of Which…
Blow Stuff Up
Describe collateral damage at any opportunity. Take any excuse to make something explode in the background. Damage property. Give attacks unexpected area damage. Have vehicles and buildings detonate and collapse in unexpected ways. It all about momentum, never let up because you are looking to…
The classic moment in an action movie a is set piece that starts out relatively low key but starts a sequence of consequences that act as a pile of dominoes. These problems mutate and cascade throughout the sequence, causing the action or fight to change location, priority and narrative. Once you can see a consequence come up, put a dice on the table to create a sort of ticking clock until the next problem. Have a few of these running at once. You need to present multiple fronts, each happening at the same time. Split up players and make them take simultaneous actions in different locations and challenges, switching back and forth as you go. For that, you are going to need…
Henchman & Villains
Action movies have a classic sequence of multiple henchmen you need to go through to get to the main guys, each with their own set of special skills and methods of execution. Go watch Cliffhanger for an example of this, the villains are two-dimensional but you can tell them apart. The players need a bad guy to hang each explosive moment around, who will probably end up dead by the end of the sequence unless they are the main bad guy. Why do we need a high kill count? It’s all about…
Allowing The Players To Be Cool
Unironically let the players be ass-kickers, especially when killing henchmen. It means that when they face a big bad guy, they’ll know that they can’t just dispose of them. But also allow them to get in good lines while punching and do unexpected insane things that fly in the face of physics. It’s about them punching the air in victory. You Need to really love this idea because you’re gonna have to…
Play It Straight
Yep, that’ right. It doesn’t work unless you, as the GM, believe in it. Yes, it’s daft. But don’t knowing squint at us about it. The players will do that after. But a good action movie is not self-referential, even though it’s really popular to do so nowadays. Believe in the action and the players will go with you.
Anybody else tired? I’m tired. I’m going to have a lie down for a while. When Genre Police returns, we’ll take a look at some sub-genres that bleed off from the action genre. That right, terrible sequels!
What are your thoughts? Strike up a discussion and leave a comment below.