Monday, March 8, 2010

Narrative Combat

For the opening sequence of the campaign, as I stated before, I wanted to start off the game In Media Res. I had this idea of starting everything off with a grand space battle. Plenty of space operas start off this way. Star Wars. The recent Star Trek movie. Even Mass Effect 2.

The problem with doing this, however, is that I've learned that if you throw the PCs into a very intense, climatic situation with lots of action, lots of new rules, and lots of decisions to be made, it tends to be overwhelming.

So what I did instead of using the space combat rules was to create a series of decision trees for each of the ship's stations. These decision trees would determine what exactly happened in the flashback scene.

For example, for the Void Master specifically, his decision tree looked like this:

As you pilot the ship in this grand combat, what is your general approach?
  1. Fly aggressively, bearing down on enemy vessels.
  2. Fly evasively, making sure your ship doesn't get hit.
  3. Attempt to outflank your opponents, finding weak spots in their defenses.
After the PC made his choice, I then had him make a piloting check. For each choice, there were different results for success and failure.

Aggressive Flying
Success: One of the ork ships is destroyed, but the ship gets damaged
Failure: An ork ship is heavily damaged or even rendered useless - but the PCs ship will get heavily damaged as well.

Evasive Flying
Success: Indicates that an entire squadron of ork fighter craft are destroyed but the ship is damaged
Failure: The fighter craft are still destroyed but at the cost of the ship getting heavily damaged

Outflanking Maneuver
Success: Ship avoids damage and engagements entirely.
Failure: The ship draws a number of other enemy vessels towards it.

In this way, the players' choices had a real and concrete impact on the story. If the Void Master chooses Evasive flying, then there is a whole sequence with ork fighters. If the Void Master goes for Aggressive flying, then the scene becomes more about ships trading broadsides.

One more important thing that made this scene a success - I had all of the players make their rolls ahead of time. Before the scene even began, I simply told them that they were going to be in a giant space battle and then I presented their choices before them. Thereafter, they knew ahead of time whether they were going to be successful or not.

This allowed the players to craft their own narrative in the scene. For example, the Void Master in question actually failed his roll, but I allowed him to narrate his own failure and to direct the scene, since there was an agreement ahead of time as to what the result would be.

All in all, it was an experiment that I will definitely use again. I ripped off the idea from 4th Edition's Skill Challenges, which were refined and explained a bit more in the recent Galaxy of Intrigue book for Star Wars SAGA.


  1. What about "fly casually"? You know, keeping your distance but not looking like you're keeping your distance?

  2. I really like the idea of giving the players more narrative control over a scene like this. I think it probably helped them to feel invested in the backstory without overwhelming them with mechanics. And I'm glad to see that Star Wars is making a favourable comparison to 40K (wasn't sure if it might be taboo for whatever reason). When "In Media Res" was mentioned, I couldn't help but think of the advice given in the old WEG D6 game.