Recently I was running a game of the RPG Over the Edge, and an interesting thing happened. Well, two things. I was struck by the contrast.
A couple of Player Characters were working for the Neutralizers, an organization that locates and, well, neutralizes Supernatural threats (it’s a game of modern-day surreal conspiracies).They were tracking down a double agent who’d been exposed and fled.
So James (played by Ben), with a couple of backup agents lay in wait for the traitor Isis in her apartment hideout, while Phillip (played by Sheldon), watched the outside from across the street with another flunky. As cover, his player had Phillip stock up on pamphlets for a wacky religion that reveres a rock singer, and stood on the corner air-guitaring and proselytizing.
So, Fight Number One: A couple of Satanist gang-bangers whose turf it is approach Phil and hassle him. Phil, unruffled, waves flyers in their face and asks if they’ve “heard the good tunes.” The Satanists’ rebuttal is something along the lines of “hail Satan!” and is delivered with brass knuckles. The fight is on!
And on it went, round after round. Sheldon’s designed Phillip with special traits for defensive reflexes and the ability to take a punch. Which means the big bad Satanists can hardly lay a finger on ‘im, but neither can he lay a solid hit on them. His Neutralizer henchman, played by me, backs him up, the weaker gangbanger flees, and the henchman after many rounds of deadlocked sparring, finally gets in a good shot with his knife that drops the Satanist.
The incident started out enjoyable enough. But it drug on and on and on as I rolled die after die, everyone hoping each roll would give a conclusive and satisfying result so we could all go home and get some sleep.
Now, Fight Number Two: next week, we reconvene and begin the action with James and his agents, waiting indoors. Sure enough, Isis shows up, but pegs Phil and his pal as Neutralizers and sneaks past them. Knowing she’s been expected, she feints–pulling open the apartment door but then doubling around and crashing through the window! Fight on!
Everyone leaps into action! James shoots a deadly wrist crossbow at her, but! she twists catlike out of the way and fells him with a heat-beam. Phil and his pal hear the clash from outside and come running. One agent goes to toe with her while the other rushes to get James on his feet with an adrenalin shot. James and his agents frantically grab or shoot at Isis, but! she ducks and weaves as she makes a desperate lunge for her secret escape hatch. She’s almost out and in the clear-the hatch is wired with explosives for any who follow–but! she turns to try to cow her attackers with her freaky power: an inhumanly compelling voice. But! the Neutralizers are ready for that: James has arranged to pump white noise through their earpieces to cancel it out. Isis is shocked at the power’s failure, and James drops her with a poison crossbow bolt. Isis is near-dead and captured just as Phil and his cohort burst frantically in the door.
So what was the difference between these two scenes? They both used the same rules, the same group of players, and similar sorts of action. The difference was relentless forward motion.
In the first case, the action was static. No characters had any particular purpose beyond “stand here and trade blows until the other guy falls down.” There was nothing particularly at stake for the participants (though I could have created a personal stake by say, having the fight jeopardize the mission. But stupid me, I didn’t.) It was just, y’know, a fight, and we all just waited for it to end so we continue with the action that really mattered.
In the second battle, everything was moving all the time! With every action in that cramped apartment, the situation changed dramatically. The characters had purpose: Escape vs. Capture, Kill vs. Survival, and on each turn someone was acting toward that purpose in response to the ever-changing needs of the moment. It was exciting!
Now, there were some specific contributing factors, such as Phillip’s defensive abilities which were great for avoiding injury but lousy for resolving the situation. Or the devastating nature of close-quarters weapons fire under the rules, which made the second fight much more decisive. But the bottom line was that forward motion. Failure at any given point didn’t mean “ho-hum, try again,” it meant “Oh shit! Now she’s getting away/turning her nasty powers on us/shooting me in the chest!”
Forward motion, it strikes me, is the first and foundational ingredient of Story By the Throat. All else follows and is made possible by this.