Dec 182009

I just finished reading Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, a sort-of sequel to his The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings), in that it’s set in the same world.

I like grim fantasy (at least in some varieties).  The horrible things that happen to characters in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are right up my alley (though I’ve stopped reading that series until the author finishes).  Glen Cook’s work ala The Black Company also sits right in my sweet spot.  It’s not that I hate heroes — I don’t — but I really relish the explosion of chaos when a plan goes pear-shaped, and the sudden, bracing losses that happen to the people in these books.  I suppose it feels real, or at least not-Hollywood.  I like my Hollywood stories, but I also love it when those conventions get torpedoed merrily.

That said, Abercrombie has pushed me with the books in The First Law.  My little inner Hollywood got hit with a mega-quake and slid right off into the ocean.  Things end so poorly for several characters in the books, and things are so brutal along the way, that I had to put a little effort into shaking it off.  But on the balance, after I while I found myself thinking that was pretty frickin’ cool.

Naturally, my thoughts then turned to gaming.

In between the fights in Abercrombie’s fiction, there’s a lot of purposeful striving and “Things Fall Apart”-ing.  The deeper you get into the plot, the more the latter.  Of all the authors I spend time with, I think Abercrombie ranks first or close to it for mercilessly inflicting unintended consequences on the protagonists.  And his protagonists are all deeply, horiffically flawed in some way.  This is a pretty exciting (if occasionally exhausting) climate because very few of a reader’s classic assumptions can be trusted to pan out.  The bad guy might get the girl.  The good guy might murder an innocent.   The world in general is firmly, darkly gray — and feels damned real for it, like the roots of all the monstrousness that exists in it are all too understandable.

This would be a difficult world to run for players who’ve come to the table expecting some consistent joys of heroism to win out, but I gotta say there’s a part of me that really craves that experience — and craves it in a way that a bad run of the dice just can’t produce.  You play D&D and spend all night rolling single digits on your d20, that’s bad luck, and a bummer.  But it’s not a product of the world really being out to get you, of circumstances spiraling beyond your control, and of getting trapped in a prison of your own inevitable consequences.

Abercrombie’s fiction abounds with examples of characters who achieve some of what they want, but aren’t sure they like it once they’ve gotten it.  It’s entertaining in fiction, but it’d be a real knife’s edge to achieve in gaming.  I’m not sure it can be done.  There might be plenty of GMs out there who could be the kind of dick it takes to make things that rough on the players’ characters, but it’s a very rare breed that could be that and be entertaining enough to avoid a voluntary jettisoning of all his players within three sessions.  But I crave that game, oh, how I crave it.  Which is not to say I want a game where success is impossible.  Far from it.  I just want it to be really, truly hard to get to the goal line unscathed.  I want successes, rewarding when they’re achieved, but mitigated by the awful compromises it took to get there.

Then there are the fights.  Pulse-pounding and utterly fall-apart messy affairs.  Nobody really wants a fight when it comes down to it; they just have to fight because that’s how the cards fell. Many of Abercrombie’s “heroes” are incredibly adept at killing — they’d have to be to last long in his world — but there’s never a single fight they get into that you don’t end up wondering whether or not they’ll survive. Abercrombie’s portrayal of violence is so visceral that I find myself wincing and looking away from the page on occasion. It’s bloody, awful, terrifying, and exhilarating when someone survives.  So with this, too, I wonder if it can’t be made to happen in a game, without getting into the complexity of something like Rolemaster.  (And really, the fights in Abercrombie’s stuff read like someone got drunk, looked at the crit tables for Rolemaster, and decided they were for pansies.)

If I were looking at modeling the violence done in his fiction, I’d probably structure the phases of combat like so (in fact, I wouldn’t be inclined to call this a combat system so much as a violence system, or perhaps simply call it bloody f–king murder):

  • Desperate Measures: Someone’s gonna get horribly, horribly hurt. It could be you. A fight begins by taking measures to make sure it’s not you. Will they be enough?  This might manifest as setting up a surprise attack, taking sudden action to kick the lead foe in the fruits, or trading some sword and shield action without landing a solid blow.  Whatever you’re gonna do, you’re gonna ache afterwards; win or lose, the fight itself always kicks your ass. But sooner or later, someone’s gonna have the firm upper hand, and the guy that doesn’t is screwed. Mechanically, I’d suggest this is all about accumulating enough advantage over the other guy to push on to the next phase (or is structured as a race to a particular finish line, last one there is a dead egg).  The desperate measures could be short or long, and honestly it’s where most combat systems live anyway, though few of them ever manage to feel well and truly desperate.  In Abercrombie’s world, by contrast, no fights fail to feel desperate: the reader’s never sure when one of the core characters is going to bite it, and the characters themselves are always terrified (whether or not they show it), with scant few exceptions.
  • Stark Horror: The guy with the upper hand lands the decisive blow on the guy who lacks it.  The loser is either killed outright, in which case the fight’s over. Alternatively, and often, the loser is instead horribly maimed and may die shortly.  This phase is solely about determining whether the loser is: maimed and living, maimed and dying, or frickin’ dead.
  • Pleas and Reversals: The (maimed) loser takes the lead here, tries some final desperate gambit, maybe pleading for his life while getting a dagger ready, or simply going for an I’ll-take-you-with-me lunge at the victor.  If he’s maimed and living, this might even end “amicably”, with the loser allowed to live (assuming he doesn’t try to harm the victor).  If he’s maimed and dying, well, it’s either about dignity or a last gasp of revenge.  (Sidebar: that makes me think that the “and” part of maimed, when it comes up, should be revealed secretly to the victim if possible, so the victor has no idea if the loser genuinely has a chance of survival.) Regardless, the loser can either make that last attempt, or not; in most cases it’ll simply fail but there’s always a slim and palpable chance the victor might face a little Stark Horror of his own.  Abercrombie is pretty fond of the “slow ride to death” that this phase offers: cocky mercenary now is missing half of his sword arm, staggers back screaming “wait! wait!” — he’s fumbling for his dagger, but just ends up with the victor’s boot in his face. And scene.
  • Scars and Consequences: For those that survive the fight, something is going to linger, whether it’s in the flesh or in the circumstances. Nobody walks away from a fight clean of what they’ve done and had done. Whatever it is, it will haunt the character for the rest of his story.  Each fight a character gets in changes him to the core. That’s violence for you. Who you are is what gets violated.  Only the mildest of altercations might leave a man or woman unchanged.

So maybe there’s a game out there that could do this, or a game that could be made that would handle all of it, whether through the skill of the folks at the table or in the elements of system brought to the table.  But really, at the end of it, I have to wonder if anyone would actually enjoy playing it.

Besides me.


  28 Responses to “Brutal”

  1. To a degree, yes. I try to make my games about making decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions. About choosing to pay a price, and suffer the damage. I’d love a system that deals with particularly the Scars and Consequences concepts.

    The other three interest me less. Probably because they are too physical conflict focused at the moment (and I’m doing 3 other things to apply them to other conflicts).

  2. Haven’t read his stuff yet, but it’s “in my queue”. Clearly I need to get cracking. As you know, this sounds like it shares a lot of DNA with the John Rain books (different genre of course) and, by extension Tokyo Rain, whose tagline, incidentally, is: Killing is the easy part.

  3. Well I sure would. I kept pushing Jim in his WFRP game to do his worst to my black sheep of the family character, Piter, who had a death wish and an unbalanced moral center. Somehow, Piter kept living, but with mounting consequences both to him and to his siblings. In many ways I think that last part of the combat you describe is the most important, because in any grim fantasy story the scars are the real tragedy. The dead people don’t have to worry about those.

  4. Uh.

    I might enjoy playing something like this.

    And I wonder if the Beast Hunters system (with it’s back-and-forth of advantage before someone attempts to land a blow) would be a interesting starting point for creating something like this.

  5. There’s one hitch in that system, and that’s the old bugaboo of character death. To make it grim, the possibility of death has to be very real, and largely random. You have to go into every fight, even a common bar brawl, as if it could be your last.

    But, that potential breeds one of two responses in most gamers. Some gamers will become cavalier about death, and will refuse to become connected to their characters. Because those characters likely won’t be around long enough to actually accomplish anything. Others will become overly cautious, and will avoid combat, and by extension any risk, as much as possible. Craven cowards rarely make for good gritty fantasy.

    What you need is a case where the players care about the characters enough to feel the impact of their deaths. But, also care enough about what the characters are trying to achieve that they are willing to risk death to get it. If you can nail that, then the rest is just a matter of setting the dials and flavor text. Unfortunately, all the system in the world can’t make players care.

    (Though, in all fairness, the “generate the prequels” chargen method in SotC is definitely on the right track. You have some investment in both your own character and a couple of the others at the table before you actually start play.)

    • Yep. It’s a very difficult row to hoe: you must breed investment rapidly, and then be willing to squander it on a chance at (revenge, glory, whatever).

    • @Lugh, I think the art of that is, as you note, giving your character generation something that provides for the emotional attachment. And like several game systems – start the characters at a fairly moderate-to-high level of skill. These books that we reference are rarely doing the Zero to Hero route, but are generally, and more commonly dealing with people fairly advanced on that route.

      That way while a bar fight MIGHT be a threat, it isn’t necessarily a threat.

  6. I haven’t played Burning Wheel, but I understand that it does brutal, vicious combat pretty well.

    • Yeah, it’s a good point. But there’s something about the intricacies of Burning Wheel that doesn’t click for me. Though that may be a bad first impression issue: I played in a big one-shot at DexCon a few years back, and many people at the table were more system-savvy than I. I was bewildered whenever it got engaged, couldn’t make sense of what I had on my sheet in a way that could motivate my play, etc.

    • You beat me to it, Gamera. I was just about to mention Burning Wheel.

      It’s not perfect, but I feel that a lot of the moving parts of BW work really well towards a brutal game. Wounds don’t magically go away, Fight! combat is bloody and because you choose three actions at a time, you can really get messed up. Putting Superficial wounds on an opponent is quite debilitating, which lends itself to figuring out how to work things to your advantage. Especially within a fight, playing to your and your friends Beliefs and Traits help both mechanically (in terms of added dice and artha) and emotionally (because you’re hitting parts of the characters you know the players specifically said they care about).

      *shrugs* But I’ve not read these books, so I don’t know if Burning Wheel is right for it. If I do ever read them though, I’ld like to try it out.


  7. I’m right there with ya, Fred, both in your assessment of the First Law books and in the thought of roleplaying that sort of thing. I’ve got to go get Best Served Cold soon. Maybe with Christmas money.

    From what I’ve experienced with playing this type of brutality, the most important element has been player trust. Trust that people won’t think you’ve got an inner serial-killer in your soul. Trust that boundaries can be pushed but not shattered. Trust that everyone can pull back from the brutal when it is clear that someone is being taken too far beyond the comfort zone.

    I have been incredibly brutal in playing the Naomi Bishop character in Lady Blackbird. I’ve gone places I could never have gone with most other groups. The other night Naomi beat the living daylights out of Kale Arkham (played by Daniel Perez) and everyone was all “wow, that scene went dark! but it was magnificent!” And I think I’ve just realized that really, all I was doing was allowing my character to be a Joe Abercrombie character. I was channeling Ferro and Daniel was being VERY Bayaz in his portrayal and I just went ahead and acted on it. Beat the manipulative prick to within an inch of his life, then walk away. Naomi will suffer consequences for it, I have no doubt. But it felt real, in much the same way that Abercrombie’s world feels real. And by the way, I’m firmly of the opinion that there are FAR worse consequences for a character than mere death. Death is easy and kinda undramatic compared to many of the things that the First Law characters went through, and the same has always been true of characters I’ve played.

    Similar stuff has happened in our GenCon Star Wars sessions, and that’s PTA-driven. As Paul Tevis likes to say, “Every episode is Empire Strikes Back”. It gets pretty brutal. And I suspect before it is over, that’ll ramp up even further.

    But all that is to say, for me, it is about who you’re playing with and how much trust permeates the room.

  8. Personally I find this sort of combat works best when you abandon a hit point system and work purely in wounds caused by the weapon. I think a good example of this is the original Albedo RPG (Thoughts & Images/Chessex), where weapons inflicted a wound, and the wound’s effects then affected play. It handled cumulative damage by Fatigue loss caused by the wound (which could be continuing in the case of actual wounds rather than grazes and bruises, and which was exacerbated if you attempted to use the damaged part). Nothing says combat isn’t fun like having your blood leaking out of you. And if you survive, you have a scar to show and a story of how you got it.

    Like Runequest without magical healing however, this often results in a sensible avoidance of combat. We didn’t nickname the game “Limbquest,” for nothing. Which may not be in the spirit of the game you are trying to emulate.

    [Although the game you are describing seems to follow the extended challenge rules for Heroquest/Hero Wars (although I haven’t looked at the second edition yet), with the addendum that the winner also takes consequence from the lost AP. Mechanically speaking anyway; personally I found the Heroquest system too mechanically abstract to be satisfying.]

  9. “You play D&D and spend all night rolling single digits on your d20, that’s bad luck, and a bummer. ”

    Is this Zargon or Ulu?

    Oh, and I think the brutal game you’re looking for is called UNKNOWN ARMIES.

    • Oddly enough, when he was talking about the scars and consequences there at the end, my mind did jump immediately to UA. But, I think you’d need to significantly tweak some other parts of the system. I think the madness meters would be a good addition to any brutal game, though.

  10. I’m not sure if Burning Wheel (or my original thought, The Riddle of Steel) are quite right. The mindspace that you end up in is more strategic, I think, and less desperate.

    Now, I’m no expert on either game, so perhaps I’m missing something.

  11. I would enjoy playing it.

    UA could get there, but I think you can do it easier by tweaking In A Wicked Age. Add some FATE-style phased character generation, scale up the die size mechanics so that there’s more room for crunchy exhaustion/maiming/shaming, and maybe expanding the Owe List to define the particular stressful experience or consequence that the player is owed for…like Scars in DRYH.

    Has anyone tried making a The First Law oracle?

  12. I’ve been scribbling copious notes on doing stuff like this with the experience of violence for, oh, a long time. We should definitely have a geek-out session soon, when we both have time.

    • Yeah, absolutely. It’d be interesting to offer up something that modeled this as a “combat option” in Fate, though I think Fate has mechanics which might actively resist some of the intended effects.

    • Okay, I’ve been pretty successful in my recent “gritty” games making stuff like this work through good narration and player trust, as I mentioned, rather than through overt mechanical stuff. Nevertheless, I am geeked out by the thought of some of the mechanical ideas you’ve hinted at, and to figure out a way to emulate it as an option in Fate would be awesome.

    • Fred: I meant in general, not Fate-specific.

      But now that you mention it… I see an option there too.


  13. Like Tim Jensen, my mind went immediately toward modding IAWA. I think the key thing that has to go, though, is the negotiation system. You keep the Owe List and Best Interests – now players are hooked and have a reason to get into trouble. And as I wrote in the Lumpley Games forum recently, IAWA combat is god damned chancy – in a one-on-one, you rarely start a fight with so much advantage that you can count on winning it. And you write like it’s primarily inter-PC conflict you’re envisioning.

    Negotiation has to go because it kills the surprise. Instead you need combatants to make *secret* Fallout-type rolls right quick at the end of a conflict and abide by them. (You roll your own fallout. Now you know if you’re maimed and living or maimed and dying.) As a first pass, every time your opponent wins an advantage die, it’s a Fallout die for you. So at the end of combat, both of you could be rolling Fallout.

    • Adding, of course, once negotiations go, you need some way to determine whether players have achieved their intent, since in vanilla IAWA, the ONLY way that happens is via negotiation.

  14. I haven’t read the First Law trilogy yet (because you can’t get it on Kindle in the US), but I read Best Served Cold and loved it. Loved it. I loved the horrific realization at the end and the way the whole thing came crashing down

    I totally want to play that game. Please feed me pain.

    • It’s true, I nearly wrote “Besides me and Lydia.” as the last sentence of this.

      You should get your hands on the First Law stuff in non-kindle form. They’re good enough and definitely right in your wheelhouse. 🙂

  15. So long as I know what I’m getting up front, I could go for that sort of game once in a while, and certainly as a one shot con run. I doubt I could run it.

    As a reader… I think I’ll give these books a miss. Rosemary Sutcliff did a fine reversal in Eagle of the Ninth and is far more my style. Kenneth Brannagh’s Henry V with the muck and grime did work for me. So did Parke Godwin’s Firelord. But, all of them have characters that are sympathetic (though I’m very mixed on Prince Hal) and that don’t have the world constantly kicking them yet again to remind them and the reader that life is not fair.

    But, I’m an old fashioned Tolkien fan, so, of course, I would say that.

  16. Okay, here’s some cool synchronicity.

    Joe Abercrombie HIZZOWNSELF posted on his blog just last Wednesday about how he loves playing Dragon Age because it’s right up his gritty-brutal alley. He’s talking about the video game – but since Rob has been blooging a lot about Green Ronin’s upcoming tabletop version, wouldn’t it be cool if the Dragon Age rpg turned out to be the perfect vehicle for emulating Abercrombie-style brutality?

    Just sayin’.

  17. One trick that might work: death is never dealt by the dice. You don’t get death, even when you want it. You just get heinous consequences.

  18. Hi! Great post! I’m not familiar with the fiction genre you mentioned, but I’ve been hunting for a physical copy of A Game of Thrones for a while.

    I was thinking about the phases you posted, and it reminded me of the ‘Burning Wheel’/’Burning Empires’/’Mouse Guard RPG’ combat systems. There is a first, ‘positioning’ phase, which essentially determines your ‘health track’ for the combat ahead. Next there comes a series of combat exchanges in simultanous volleys, and the thing is the player doesn’t know what the opponent is going to do next until the exchanges are revealed and resolved, simultanously.

    I have experience only with MG, but I think something along those lines may be what you’re looking for…



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