Thursday 20 July 2017

Held Kinetic Energy in Old School Combat Arenas

So you're running an old-school game and you want a set-piece fight. The rule-set doesn't like that.

The complexity is dumped into set design, chunky monster actions (like picking people up and throwing them, putting them in strange altered states) and whatever parts of the meta-text might show up in the fight (one monster is special friends with another and gets upset when they die, there are factions within the fight who want slightly seperate things).

A lot of the 'set design' of set-piece Old School fights come down to the stored kinetic energy hidden in elements of the environment.

A PC has to be able to do something to the environment that will unleash stored kinetic energy and hopefully act upon a seperate part of the battle space in a predictable yet unexpected way

Two fictional examples here;

The first is John McTiernan movies, especially the attack on the rebel base in Predator;

If you look at that long scene you'll notice that many of the times when a member of the main cast performs an action to alter the environment, it has an effect which is witnessed, usually by another main character, in a different part of the environment, and which often directly affects it. So the space of the scene is stitched together by this river of movement and action, the characters are connected to each other by kinetic effects which escape their frame of origin.

Die Hard has a bit of this as well, The Hunt for Red October. Not sure about the rest.

And the second is all Pirate Movies;

Thinking about it, its astonishing how much effect the kinetic qualities of a large sailing ship have on the general aspect of Pirate Movies.

(I am looking at the pseudo-kinesis of a heightened fictional pirate movie rather than age-of-sail movies. In real life rope costs money and you want to avoid it being cut, and there are limits to what physics can do.)

A ship as a whole is an environment under complex kinetic pressures, it is an engine designed to harness movement-energy from the sky. It has almost everything we would want from an old-school set-piece battle.

Multi Dimensionality - you can be up in the sails, on the deck, down in the ship itself, or in the sea. All completely different environments, all connected to each other in intuitively obvious ways.

Kinesis - all the ropes are under strain and there is always rope, you can climb up or down, cut ropes and have them pull you up, drop sails or ride them down, swing pretty much anywhere and, most important, almost always tie things to other things.

Meta Elements - a ships crew already has a hierarchy, there are specialist rules, you can see who is in charge, a decapitation strike on the captain or a last-minute negotiation is always a possibility. You are a complex, visible and intuitively graspable social system which the DM doesn't have to spend a lot of time having to explain.

The Pirate Ship even has a built-in 'not-dead-but-largely-out-of-the-fight' status with someone being knocked off the ship.

And the environment as a whole is doing something as you fight on and in it. Several things. The first of which is that it is floating, and if it stops doing that then you are in fucking trouble.


There must be some kind of i

If we were to work backwards, stating that we want kinetically complex and interconnected environments, could we create a kind of ideal concept generator for OSR set-piece fight scenes? What would we get?

Windmills and Watermills - they have the blades or wheel and they have an inside with lots of stuff moving about that could be interrupted and messed about with. They have a big grinding thing you can chuck someone in and ruin the corn. The watermill has a river nearby.

Forges or anything based around fire. Large scale metalworking has those big contained crucibles that can be tipped, possibly channels of molten metal that can be diverted. The annoying ending to the last Hobbit movie had a lot of that.

Actually the 'We're just smelting a giant statue here and its nearly, _right this moment_, finished so don't have a fight here' scene is a good idea. Especially if the giant statue is eeeevil.

Dams or anything holding back a large pressure. Complex lock gates could work as well, though they are rather slow. This is non-optimal as it seems to reduce everything to one disastrous action, but that could be interesting in its own way.

Anything with a living process at its core that has its own logic and could get out of control, or where control of it could be manipulated. Maybe a chemical process like a brewery?

The shipyard with the ship about to launch. You've got the whole business with the rigging, the ship escaping into the water and whatever happens after.

The building site, especially if they are building something tall and *heavy*, things to fall, drop, cut, release, swing on and cause to interact with each other.

Mass transport scenes, especially with = big round barrels that can tip and roll, teams of horses that are straining on things, ropes holding things that can be cut, cranes hoisting things. usually this will happen at a margin between two environments or/and two social patterns, so the nomads of the sand ocean can be shouting at the river-thanes while the giant tortoise gets lose and the glue barrels roll from its back. Giant Animals are a kind of sub-ship only available in high fantasy. Now instead of worrying about the wind or whatever you are thinking about how this big animal is going to react to whatever is going on around it.

A traffic jam in an urban environment might be an interesting space for a big fight.

Of course I've nearly forgotten the parade, which shows up in so many action movies. A huge, moving para-reality acting adjacent to the main one, with its own costumes, roles and its own giant complex objects that it is moving about.

I don't think I've ever seen a D&D scene or fantasy action sequence in a giant protest, with crowds of protesters and law enforcement and all the crap they throw about, even though we have those all the time.

PORTALS! Like every Derping Age (early-21stC) action movie. Someone has opened a portal, and possibly there is more than one, so now we can hop about between the portals and things can fall in and out of them with ridiculous physics affects. Up on one portal side is down or across on another so leaping across _into_ one leads to you falling down out of another

Magic of course lets you replace ropes and tackle with almost any kind of element. Maybe the poetic chanting of the verse monks is keeping this kinetically complex temple/object up in its position and if you interrupt or _change_ the chants then its configuration will shift. Maybe the virgin sacrifice you are here to stop is whats keeping the silver tower spinning in place, but you can only stop it from inside the silver tower.

And I nearly forgot the classic Rope Bridge.

Any more...?

(I throw this one open to the floor.)

Oh, and all this crap is still going on; (FREE BLATHER AT THE BOTTOM IF YOU READ ALL THE WAY DOWN, AGAIN)


Rob Monroe
Sean McCoy
Reece Carter


A. Miles Davis (Anson Davis)

Are all up for Judges in 2017

Best Adventure

Kiel is up with 'Blood in the Chocolate'

You can see my review of that here.

Best Cartography

Jez is up for 'The Cursed Chateau'

Best Electronic Book

Paul Baldowski was nice to me at a Con so vote for;

The Cthulhu Hack: The Haunter of the Dark

Best Free Product

'Santa is Dead' by In Search Of Games, is up.

This has a lot of OSR collaborators and fellow-travellers in it.

And Veins of the Earth by Scrap and I is up for;

Best Monster/Adversary

Best Rules

Best Writing


Product of the Year





(Scrap gives no fucks about this but I do.)

Here's the big voting button, click it to go vote;


specifically - are you using maps or not
and if you are, are they sketch maps or gridded

playing IRL makes it a lot easier to use a map, you are more likely to use a gridded one but its rare for an IRL game, even without a map pre-arranged, not to generate a sketch map. If the DM doesn't create one, just simply to answer a basic tactical question, then one of the players can and, even if the DM doesn't help, the players can just generate and maintain it themselves.

If playing online, then map use depends on your comfort with and regular use of different videoconferencing software. There is Roll20 and I would imagine, various other programmes. Even if running a straight hangouts game there used to be  mutual-planning sites that the attendees could go to and sketch a map together. I've seen these used, but never used them in a game I ran*

Focusing on the kinds of game I _do_ run.

I want a reasonably simple ruleset (effectively I max out at 5e), and I sometimes want to have big fuckoff set-piece fights which that ruleset is _not_specifically designed for.

So here I am trying to describe a complex, multiply-interacting tactical environment, without a map, without any digital artefacts, using only the voice, and possibly hand movements.

Some tactics that seem to be in constant use in resolving this problem;

- Continual re-statement. In each seperate individual initiative segment, re-describe where the PC is physically, what they can see and sense, and what they know, from thier perspective, about the situation, especially the active, living elements in it.

- The investigative/negotiated either/or choice.

This is where someone is asking you questions about the situation, trying to understand what it happening around them and also trying to work out what is possible for their character to do

the really interesting thing about this conversation is its dual nature, its both a calm neutral description of a simulated physical reality and also a negotiation about the possibilities of that reality. The Player is in some way trying to discover unexpected gaps, possibilities or opportunities in the world the DM is describing, the DM is trying to create create a complex of events that _makes sense_ as a simulated world and in which the PC can't just do whatever they like 

so the player and DM are simultaneously in a kind of conflict of invention and description with each other and also in a state of generative co-operation with each other.

And this generally comes down to YES you can do that thing you want, BUT there will be a thing


You can do THIS thing you want OR this OTHER thing, but you have to choose



*I'm not sure why that is. My resistance to extra layers, tools, options, modules, layovers and all kinds of potentially-useful but to-me-frustrating methods is inchoate, wordless. It's a sense of frustration, alienation. The knotted feeling you get when seeing a picture frame out of joint but amplified and intensified.

It seems to be locked deep within my cognitive style, or cognitive limitations. I am _bad_ at using these things. It's difficult to tell where and how being good or bad at something, and liking or disliking it overlap

Certainly we tend to do the things we like more, and become good at them, and if we are notably good at something then we are more likely to do it more. Its painful to be bad at something so we do it less, the less we do something the less able we are at it compared to others who do it more.

The Peter principal, reinforced in both directions.

(I'm mildly curious how many people actively choose to do things they know they are bad at for pleasure? Usually its stuff like cooking, dancing, drawing, playing an instrument. And perhaps there is a mirror-world of unfollowed skills and potential talents that people know they might have but which they allow to wither for various complex reasons.)


  1. My mind went instantly to the fistfight atop the tank in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. An army convoy is only of course a mass transportation scene with more things to explode, but a fight in some sort of great siege engine may have something to recommend it.

    The inverse of the siege engine might be the defensive emplacement; hardly inventive as environments go, but if one were to emphasize the vastness and vital purpose of the bunker or silo or what have you, this may be a decent twist - the difference between storming a machine gun nest and mounting an assault on The Guns of Navarone.

  2. Assembly line fights/pursuits are great. Nothing better than someone accidentally getting shrinkwrapped and put in a box!
    The general principle being that there are a bunch of oblivious though autonomous robots just trying to get their work done. In fantasy they'd be zombies or drugged slaves rather than robots, unless you want to get funky of course.

  3. There is a protestare scene in a B-serie module adventure (b6 the veiled societ, iirc). The whole becmi thing is full of nice stuff, but somewise neglected by osr (not here in italy: here becmi IS the Old School, and a big part of ad&d was never translated)

  4. Another great one I've seen in several movies that could work is the fight inside a clocktower or other large clockwork mechanism.

  5. I've had my ten-years share of set-piece battles with Star Wars Paizo-style 3.5. Not for me anymore. When stuff naturally evolves that way, it can still be very powerful, so there is that.

  6. As this is your most recent VoTE entry, I ask this here:

    How did you choose the XP awarded by VoTE monsters? This doesn't follow the LotFP rules.

    For instance, Alkalion is a 7 Hit Dice monster that grants 3,000 XP. However, according the XP table from LotFP, would be the award for killing a 17 HD monster. A 7 HD monster would only give 500 XP.

    Other LotFP books I have (just a few) never mentions XP in the monsters stats, so I follow regular rules. If this is a "house" rule for VoTE, where is it explained?

    1. The XP awards a pumped up partly due to the various special powers, like for the Alkalion its acid and spores, partly because of the environment, the Alkalion will usually be encountered in a salt labyrinth which it knows and the players don't, and partly because of the increased danger of the everything in the Veins where its assumed its a lot easier to fall (thats a big one) starve, go insane, where you have to dump most heavy armour while you are there.

      Essentially its situational - if you saw one in a Zoo above ground and fought it in its cage then it would probably be worth less.

    2. Makes sense. Thank you.

      Keep the good work (I haven't taken VoTE to the table yet, but it's been pretty useful as inspiration in a short story I'm writing at the moment.)

  7. I like the idea of the landscape that moves and can be interacted with, possibly influence, but not stopped... largely indifererent to your conflict
    (i recall the first-person vids of a tsunami hitting a hotel, the wave looked like a black rubbish and scrap metal pile ... nothing Hokkusai about it)

    The reverse of a dungeon explore concept... it moves and you have to react and fight, and also avoid some terminal situation...
    So e.g.
    on a landslide or avalance
    in the midst of rapid tidal in-flow
    inside a stampede (not unlke the parade, but more dangerous)
    Inside a larger battle or a collosii battle
    Sinking ship (posiedon or titanic)
    Forest fire
    Collapsing building
    Moving icefloe

  8. Massive sporting event like or Ki-o-Rahi or maybe a gladiatorial or mock-battle, something where lots of pumped people are likely to get angry or pleased if the result is affected or the fun disrupted, or the PCs might get mistaken for participants that are subject to the rules of the sporting event.

  9. Medieval feast: open flames, spit roasts, huge tureens of scalding stew, flambé, sharp knives precariously balanced, meat mincing / sausage making machines. Jugglers, fire-eaters, minstrels rammed together on a raised stage. Servers, Waiters, overhead trays of large rounds of ale, drunken nobles networking, ladies in infeasibly inconvenient and inflammable dresses, dogs/boys running underfoot for scraps. Tables and benches (resting on handy fulcrums), chandeliers/candelabras, heavy coats of arms and decorative weapons suspended above. A raised throne for the lord of course, and certain death for offending someone of a higher social status. Those of (perceived) lower status will of course be happy to help. You won’t mind just showing your invitation of course, will you?