Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Lessons from Retirement

The most fascinating thing happened to me after a few years of playing World of Darkness. Over time, I began to hate combat. Like fire-in-the-soul, singing the world-ripper melody of vengeful dead gods level of hate. I took my katana and trenchcoat and just hung them up in my dingy undercity apartment, never to look at them again. I was hesitant to give it up at first, mystified as I was by this development, but my loathing grew stronger and purer with every minute we spent killing some asshole’s mooks.

After a time, I realized that there was a genre clash. When playing Mage, a game about transcendence and the malleability of reality itself, I found I was really just playing a super hero in a setting that was mechanically unfit for it. When playing Vampire, I had the same problem. The game’s fiction was laden with these cool ideas and highfalutin concepts, but somehow we spent hours just trying to hurt some guys with our katanas and Desert Eagles. Where was all that intellectual conflict? From what I’ve heard of a lot of WoD games, this is not uncommon. Part of this problem is rooted in a confusion within the source material—at no point in Mage: the Ascension are we told what Mages do with their time. The War is over, the Technocracy won by any meaningful definition of the word, and the spirit realm is basically off-limits. Ascension is not a goal that has a mechanic, or is even explicitly attainable. And if it was attainable, ἀρετή, the stat governing your Ascension, was utterly opaque, meant to be a kind of platonic-ideal-world understanding of the entire universe-as-a-whole that was impossible to play. Combine that with the still-extant threat of the Mage-Hunting Technocracy and you have a cocktail for aimless HITMark kill quests and zombie-survival-but-with-magic games.

Combat itself is fundamentally not for all settings and not for all games. In Mage, where the stakes are the shape of reality itself, a Mage has everything to lose by going Rambo on other supernaturals. This is true to a slightly lesser extent in Vampire as well, as these dark existential creatures are immortal unless acted upon by an outside force. Why would either of these creatures ever engage in violence? The latter have the Beast to blame, but it’s not like players tend to use that as an excuse even when they remember the rules for it. In part, I feel that combat in my early games was inspired by the very existence of combat rules in these settings, and partially a symptom of not being given anything else to do within the setting. This is where games like Promethean: the Created really shine—a nonviolent goal that has well-defined mechanics! Sure there are mooks, in the form of creepy crawlies that want to eat your soul, but I can imagine a game without them quite easily.

Now, after I realized that I hated combat, I designed Mages and Vampires that had zero combat survivability. They did their mystical things in a corner, and moved stories by force of personality and by generous GM conceits that allowed me to bypass the tedium. But after that, an interesting thing happened. I realized that if I wanted to control when and where I was subjected to this utter head-desking tedium, I would need  to be recognized as a primary combatant. Someone without whom combat would not work for the party. That way, combat could happen only when I was on board. After this revelation, my Hunters were using the incredibly suspect Gun Fighting style. My Exalts were melee powerhouses. And combat, when it happened, was relatively brief and usually spotlighted my character in an interesting way. This being said, I would still have preferred that these games contained exactly zero combat. But since combat was inevitable, I thought, why not control it?

It wasn’t perfect. The absolute best solution, though, is found in Buffy. In Joss’ series, it is not the case (typically) that Giles, Xander and Willow are a meaningful part of combat. The action centers around Buffy and her prolific badassery. Other characters do other things that are important, and things which are not combat, and if you have things go down this way then your combats in-play are much briefer. The player who doesn’t know the rules doesn’t have to, the player who hates combat can get a snack or something, and the whole experience is shortened by a massive amount of time because it’s one PC versus a reasonable number of opponents. And further, combat becomes a defining ability of one character, something that makes them unique among the group and adds dimension to their character’s personality.

4 responses to “Lessons from Retirement”

  1. This dovetails with a phenomena I’ve seen a few times. There are basically two reasons why you want your character to be the ultimate badass – Either because you love fights and want to fight all the time, or because you hate fights, and want to just be able to skip past them. Radically different priorities, and man do things get messed up if the GM can’t sort out which is which.

    -Rob D.

    1. What you say makes me think about the idea of flags, and how flags aren’t necessarily unambiguous. I’ve gotta think on that more, but it’s an interesting point.

      How much do you think that this applies to things other than combat? I’ve never seen someone make a snake-oil con man because they don’t want to con people.

    2. Hmm… I think I love-hate fights and therefore like deciding which fights to skip and which fights to relish.

      — Alex

  2. I’ve never played Mage, but I’ve been playing Vampire for a few months now, and we’ve been following that “best solution” without even realizing. I’m playing an entirely social non-combatant, completely fragile, and the other player is a Gangrel with maxed out strength. We almost never get into fights, and the few we do get into are generally over really fast, cause she can tear to shreds pretty much anything we run into that we don’t run and hide from instead.

    Hadn’t thought about it that way though, so thanks for the insight!