Realism Vs. Awesomeness

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 19 July 2012 Written by Steve

Since this is the first official installment of the blog (the existing articles here were moved over from other categories), I guess a quick introduction is in order. I’m Steve, and I make games. Specifically, I’m the co-creator of QAGS and have created, written, or worked on a bunch of Hex products including Spooky, Roller Girls Vs., and Hobomancer. The title “Cussin’ in Tongues” swiped from Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, whose tune by that name is the only song I’ve ever heard that samples a See N’ Say (check them out--you’ll like them). Since I tend to have a lot of complaints about games and gamers (the “Cussin’” part) and since gaming blogs are mostly incomprehensible to non-gamers (the “in tongues” part), I think it fits. I’ll be posting here at least once a week, but the exact schedule is still in the air (if you add The Death Cookie on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll get announcements when new stuff is added to the site).

Now, on with the blog.

Even though most RPGs are based on other forms of fiction that are filled with crazy stunts and action-packed combat scenes, it can be hard to get players to try the reckless, million-to-one odds stuff. Unlike movie characters who can glibly say “never tell me the odds,” RPG players have the odds right in front of them in the form of game rules and dice probabilities. When jumping from the balcony, swinging across the room by the chandelier, and kicking the bad guy in the face is going to take three actions and incur a penalty on the attack, it’s no surprise that most players go for the safer (and duller) option of “I whack him with my pointy stick.”

Some games recognize this problem and  try to encourage over-the-top action by giving bonuses or bennies for cinematic stunts. Unfortunately, the way most of these incentives are set up often cause players to constantly and gratuitously attempt crazy stunts in order to reap the rewards without any concern for whether or not those stunts are dramatically appropriate. When this happens, the game is more likely to play out like a B-grade action movie that’s trying too hard than an action-packed Robert Rodriguez flick.

Personally, I’ve found that the best way to handle crazy stunts is to base the kind of roll needed on the stakes. I’ve got three general categories:

  • If the stunt is mainly for exposition and fits the character’s concept, don’t even bother rolling. Robin Hood doesn’t have to roll to split his competitor’s arrow during the archery competition in the opening scene because he’s fucking Robin Hood.
  • If the stunt is being attempted purely because it looks cool and isn’t intended to have special effects or resolve plot complications, use a standard roll. I call this the Unnecessary Acrobatics Rule. When Robin Hood wants to shoot the wine glass out of the sheriff of Nottingham’s hand to announce his presence, he makes a normal archery roll. He could have just yelled, but his way’s cooler.
  • If the goal of the stunt is to accomplish something that will appreciably benefit the character, assign Difficulty Numbers and/or penalties. Later on, when Robin needs to cut through the rope Little John’s being hung from with an arrow, he’ll suffer a penalty to the roll or have to beat a Difficulty Number, because a dead Little John would ruin his day.


Since I rarely get the chance to play non-QAGS games these days, I’m sure there are some games I haven’t seen that have neat ways of allowing cool action scenes without letting things get cartoonish or random. If you’ve got any favorites or have your own tricks for maintaining the balance between cinematic action and plausibility, I’d love to hear about them. I bet you can use our new and improved comment system for that.

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©2012 by Hex Games
Realism Vs. Awesomeness.
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