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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

by Steve Dempsey

In which the author offers some advice on making action scenes a lot more than just mere dice rolls


The chariots come crashing round the corner locked wheel to wheel. Jahangir the Brave just gets the whip on his lead horse, urging it forward as Little Mo leaps across the divide between the two teams. As Jahangir pulls away, Mo undershoots and falls from the high terrace into the street below, where her fall is broken by Evil Michael, who has taken the lower path. He takes rather unkindly to his new passenger, taking his reins in one hand, he reaches for his mace to finish her off whilst she lies stunned from the fall. Unfortunately this diverts his gaze from the crowded street and he ploughs straight into a melon stall sending the fruit cascading down the hill to be looted by urchins. He is out of the race and the stallholder is now beating him with a broom and demanding reparation.

Well, it might sound improbable, but this did happen in one of my games. The next time you see a good action film like Die Hard or Braindead, this is just the sort of scene that you'll get. Fast action, unlikely stunts, a smattering of humour and the good guys win. And yet it's something we see rarely in RPGs, at least, not at this level of quality. Here then is a quick guide on how to write good action scenes for roleplaying games. I'll talk about the three elements to consider for a good action scene: the rules, style and structure and the content. First though, what you need is a Good Idea.

The Good Idea is the basis for the action sequence. It can be as simple as The Chariot Race or The Big Fight. You might elaborate to The Chariot Race Through The Streets or The Big Fight With The Giant's Mum, but whatever you choose, you need to get this down on paper before you can start to fit in the pieces that will make it work in a game. It just needs to be some exciting mode for the action to take place within. This could be determined by the location, the environment, the scenario, the adversary, the timing, the physical constraints - anything that makes this scene different.

As always with RPG writing, if you are stuck for an idea, steal one from somebody else. Even better steal two. So Ben Hur + The Italian Job = Chariot Race through some crowded streets, and Beowulf + Jaws = The Big Fight with the Shark's Mum. In Hollywood, this appropriation is called the Big Concept. It works for them and it can work for you too.

Getting the Good Idea is usually the hardest part. Once you have it, you can then work out how to incorporate this into your game. As I said above, there are three factors to consider in doing this: the rules, the content, and style and structure.

The Rules

Action scenes involve fighting, and as such will require the rules to play a big part. Thus they are important in deciding what you are going to do; your rules of choice must be suited to your scene. If the rules are all about the finer points of the tea ceremony or the sort which only cover combat then you may be in trouble.

But do not despair. I wrote the above scene for AD&D when it was still purely a hack and slash game. All I did was bolt on some rough rules about chariot racing, and improvised the rest. I introduced the new rules in a training session that the PCs had with an expert charioteer so that they could get a chance to understand and appreciate the balance of the rules, and realise that they would be heavily outclassed by a skilled driver. This set up the tension for the race scene.

This also leads us to a key point about the rules: whichever system you do use, make sure that actions can be resolved quickly and that the rules can be bent. This is to make sure that pace can be maintained and that the outcome of the action scene is interesting. A strict adherence to the rules generally results in non-dramatic elements which are impossible to get out of. The Chariot Race would not have got very far if Jahangir had bent his chariot around the first lamp-post because of a bad roll. So my Chariot Race rules involved throws against dexterity, plus some ad hoc modifier that I determined after the dice were rolled. That way, if necessary, I could force the outcome and keep the action going.

The Content

The second point I want to consider is the content. This covers what actually happens in the action scene. Regardless of what sort of Good Idea you are using, no matter what the setting or scenario, there are things that are always present in good action: danger, knocks, maneuvers and the unexpected.

Danger is the essence of action. If there is no danger involved you might as well be having tea and biscuits on the patio. Danger provides most of the tension and drives the action forward. But danger should be used subtly: do not throw everything at the players at once. Keep the worst danger for the end. Try building to a crescendo and then relaxing, then hitting them again. Tease your players. In the best action scenes, just when you think it is all over, it gets worse. Recall in Alien where Ripley thinks she has safely escaped, only to find out that the action is far from over: the alien is in in the pod with her!

Jahangir stepped back from the slain creature, gasping for breath. Troll-biter had once again triumphed and Grendel lay dead on the cave floor. Suddenly, a massive scream rose up in the cavern! Turning, Jahangir realised that that wasn't a boulder in the shadows at the back of the cave, but the recumbent form of Grendel's mother! And she wanted blood payment for her dead son!

Inherent to the idea of danger is the fact that the players should take some knocks. If they don't then it just wasn't dangerous. Even the immediate risk of danger has less sting then an actual injury, it is tangible and thus much more real. Whittle away at their life-force until, as they reach the finale, it is only the bandages that are holding them together.

This is where the thorny question of character death arises. I don't like it much, but it should occasionally happen to prove to the players that they aren't immortal. If they don't fear death, they won't feel in danger when they take their knocks. If you really don't want to kill any PCs then you can still make it clear that the enemy is capable of killing, and thus dangerous. Simply bump off a few trusty retainers, friends or maybe even the princess herself.

Once more, Jahangir stood victorious. Grendel's mother's legs gave way beneath her fat body and she fell backwards, stone dead, and crashed down with a sickening squelch. Confused, Jahangir looked round. It wasn't the troll that had squelched; her huge carcass had fallen on the sleeping body of the kidnapped Princess Aurora! Alas, all his efforts had been in vain!

A good dramatic combat will also feature some amazing maneuvers. If your players are feeling creative, they'll come up with these on their own. But if not, you can use the content to encourage them. If you happen to mention the perfectly placed chandelier, they might be more likely to swing from it. Better still is to have your enemies lead by example. Players hate to be outclassed, so if your villain starts turning somersaults, your players will start trying to out-do them. And when it comes to maneuvers, be creative - the more outlandish the better. The swashbuckling swing from the chandelier is good but the swashbuckling swing on the Dragon's tail is better.

The mummy groaned and hauled itself up on to the lid of the sarcophagus, blocking the only way out. With a mighty cry, Jahangir leapt forward onto the protuding other end of the stone slab, catapulting the creature over his head and against the far wall. The way was now clear: they were free!

Finally, you should never forget to include the unexpected. To keep the tension going and the players on their toes, you have to surprise them occasionally. Otherwise they fall too quickly into relying on one idea. A sudden change in the situation will force them to rethink and react quickly. It will also keep them disoriented and paranoid about what else you could be about to change. The classic example is the good guy turning out to be a villain, or the villain turning out to be your father/brother/guy you sat next to in second grade and who has always hated you for breaking his crayons. But there are plenty of other surprises out there - what if your enemy was suddenly to reveal he was not left-handed?

OF course, like everything, the unexpected must be used carefully. Do it too often and they will lose interest as nothing will be taken for granted anymore. Sometimes things should be exactly as they seem...

Style and Structure

Even if your content is good, an action scene can still fall flat. This is because content is translated through the style that has been chosen and constrained by the structure of the events laid out. Unless the style and structure are right, the action won't work. It is these elements that direct the action, getting the players to interact with the content and produce the dramatic elements.

There are three main parts to the structure of an action scene. These are the beginning, the middle and the end.

The Beginning

The Beginning is where the action is introduced. This should be done dramatically, as this will set the tone for the whole event. There are several ways to do this, but three I find particularly useful are the surprise, the slow build-up and foreshadowing.

Surprise is easy. Just don't let the players not know what is about to hit them - no warnings, no hints, nothing. But make sure they understand they have been hit by an enemy - you don't want them wondering if they should be offering a hand of peace when they should be hacking and slaying.

You slowly walk into the grand entrance hall of the mansion when suddenly every window explodes inwards, the floor erupts and a score of zombies lunge for you!

The slow build up, on the other hand introduces the elements gradually. The players know that something is about to happen, but they don't know what exactly. They will get gradually more jumpy as their fate draws nearer.

You slowly walk into the grand entrance hall of the mansion. You hear faint groans, and as you continue, you see the walls start to run with a strange ooze. You enter the main hall, where sits a hooded figure on an ancient throne. 'Begone from here, Humans!' it cries in a croaky voice. Though gripped by fear, you continue on. Then the figure beckons and from the shadows on either side of the throne emerge a score of zombies, ready to spill your blood.

Foreshadowing reverses this idea. Rather than the players knowing that something is about to happen but not what will happen, with foreshadowing they have a fair idea what will happen, but not when or how. This is especially good if you want a dark, fatalistic feel to your game, and can really make your players paranoid. The only trick is giving the characters the information. You can use dreams, mad old women uttering strange dire warnings, dying men struggling up to them and uttering a few mysterious words, or obscure notes in letters or diary entries by the person who recently disappeared. A good idea is to use important NPCs, past characters or people well known to the PCs for cameo roles in such scenes. This will give their message much more effect, especially if they end up getting killed before they can really explain things.

Jahangir woke in the middle of the night with a piercing scream, 'Zombies! All around us! No escape! Must warn...' Mo looked at him in a funny way. 'You've been dreaming again, Jay', she laughed. But then the look on his face silenced her, for it seemed to say that it was no dream but something far more sinister. Jahangir shuddered as he now understood the fate that would befall them in the mansion...and wondered if he could change the outcome. Sleep now impossible, he roused his friend, and the two walked slowly up the hill towards the mansion.

All three methods are useful, but I find the last one especially introduces tension into the game. It must, however, be used in moderation as too much foreknowledge will remove any suspense. Likewise, overusing surprise will quickly dull its effects, till it becomes useless.

The Middle

After the Beginning comes (surprise, surprise) the Middle. Now that you have introduced the enemy and the situation, the bulk of the action now takes place. This is where our heroes get to test themselves against everything the world can throw at them. The structure here will generally be determined by the players, but style is very important. There are several elements of style that have to be considered here: pace, plotting, realism and humour.

In your typical cinema action scenes, the pace is a break-neck, full-on, pedal-to-the-metal in-yer-face voom. This is done to keep the audience connecting with the action, to convey the tension in the protagonists by making the audience tense. The relentless stream of events keeps the audience constantly confused and excited, and also less likely to notice any plot flaws.

Similarly, there are very good reasons to maintain this breathless pace in a game. Speed doesn't give the players time to think through the full consequences of their actions. Not only does this accurately represent real danger situations, it encourages characters to be less careful and more dramatic, and it allows you much more leeway in describing the outcome of their rolls. Why didn't they notice that their missed blaster shot might accidentally hit that munitions factory? Well, because they were in the thick of the battle, of course.

One of my friend's favourite gambits for an action scene is to simply say 'You see a muzzle flash'. If a player's first reaction isn't 'I duck' then they are likely to end up with a large hole in their head (or, if he's feeling uncharacteristically generous, shoulder). Then all hell breaks loose. The threat of such sudden character death will have your players scrambling to do anything to stop their attackers.

Keep the pressure on and the clock ticking. Get players to declare their actions only seconds before they act. Do not give them a second chance, or time to think it over. If they change their minds, or hesitate too long, then they just stand there for a round. Only give them partial information to act upon, because with so much happening, they cannot possibly take it all in. They might get mad at you at first for springing things on them, but if it builds the drama, they'll thank you in the end.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be a good idea to vary the pace. This gives people a bit of a breather and steels them for even more punishment. It throws the previous action into sharp contrast and increases the awareness of danger. Let them think they have killed the Great White Shark only to have its Mum come looking for them. Or have the combatants trapped and separated by energy fields in the middle of a titanic lightsaber battle.

Now, to plotting the Middle of the scene. Plotting is the part where the GM decides if what is going to happen is fixed or not, and if fixed, when it should occur. In a linear style scene such as a chariot race, it is easy to decide in what order events will happen.

Jahangir always looked back with smile on his victory in the race. The mad stampede at the start, that first tight bend where the assassins had waited on the roof tops, the part where Mo took out Evil Michael, the horrific crash as the way narrowed to a single chariot's width on the bridge, and the final terrifying cliff top race to the finish.

Sometimes, however, a better style is to create events but not to fix them in any particular order. Such events are sometimes known as "Nuggets". In the zombie attack scenario mentioned above, you might decide to have a zombie leader appear with a chaos chainsaw, some bats swooping down the stairs, a fiendish trap, a surprise attack from beneath the floors and perhaps eventually the encounter with the Zombie Master. These events are not placed chronologically, but are ready to be used when necessary. This allows for more flexibility; you can introduce events when they are most appropriate to maintain the pace and tension of the scene.

The other method is the most flexible but is the hardest to run: pure ad libbing. Here, the scene is set, the protagonists are there, but exactly what happens is decided on the fly, as befits to the situation. The danger with this is that you might run out of ideas and the whole thing will fall flat. On the other hand, a good ref who can pull this off can create a really memorable game. All the same, my preference is to at least write down a few pointers beforehand, if only so as not to forget any good ideas that I want to include in the session.

The third factor to consider in the middle is that of realism, and how much of it you want to have. In the film Platoon, the action sequences are realistic, and hence gritty and ugly. Anyone who tries to be heroic is shot and killed. While in Starship Troopers, our heroes pull through despite overwhelming odds and only being armed with a bent bit of coathanger. Since most RPGs tend to model Starship Troopers more than Platoon, the lesson here is that the degree of reality you work with must be tailored to your scene. Make it too real and you will not have much scope for action and drama. People are just too fragile in the real world. Bend the rules a bit and give the players what they want. And don't listen to any rules lawyers claiming that that last maneuver wasn't "realistic".

Realism is closely related to humour. Most of the best action scenes have some humour, some outrageous visual stunt, slapstick routine or pun. This contrasts with the danger just like varying the pace does, and works as a good balance to the carnage surrounding your players. Again, it should only be used in moderation; you don't want the farcical elements to detract from the drama. But if the Zombie Master treads on the Persian rug, you should occasionally let Jahangir rip it out from under him and send him tumbling. This kind of inventiveness can really make a scene stand out, and the players love them.

The End

Finally, the End of the action scene. There are two phases to the end stage. The first is the grand finale, that final set piece or confrontation with the ultimate evil or the most difficult stretch of the circuit, or the only other trooper left standing. The other phase is the wind down, when the dust settles, the costs counted and a winner is declared.

In the grand finale, make something completely over the top happen. Think big and think extra nasty. You want the players to suffer, to face something truly awful, dangerous or nigh-impossible You want them walking barefoot over broken glass like Bruce Willis in Die Hard; you want them to find out the self-destruct sequence is irreversible when the alien blocking the only way to the escape hatch; you want them hanging helpless from an exhaust pipe with Darth Maul looming above.

Don't worry too much about the logic or realism - go for the big cinematic effects. The great thing is that you will not have to justify yourself too hard after the game. In all the excitement, the players are bound to have missed something and in most cases all they will remember is their triumph. But if the action was too easy, the victory will be likewise diminished. They should win, but only barely.

The final scene as our heroes pick over the spoils should not be dwelt upon. Just let the dust settle, wrap up the loose ends with narration, and close the curtains. Let them divvy out the treasure and lick their wounds later. This leaves your players feeling that the climactic battle was just that - climactic, the most important thing in the story, and this will highlight there victory. This can also be used to leave things hanging, thus leading into a sequel. Closure is important, but never let the effects of the victory seem more important than the personal victory of the characters.

And that's what it all about really. Letting the characters (and players) feel the triumph of victory against terrible odds, that they faced certain death in dangerous conditions and won the day, thanks to their cunning, skill and dashing swashbuckling style. And the more dramatic and exciting the battle was, the better they'll feel. So try and make that next action scene one they'll never forget.


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