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.