Knowing your Unnhh from your Arrghh
Posted by Ron Edwards
I do like it when creative comics talk and role-playing design talk can use the same words. Let’s narrow it down to one of my three current supers design projects, Champions Now, and talk about the fights. There are three interrelated points: what happens and knowing why; the damage, pain, hurtin’, including the two famous gutturals in the post title; and why the characters are even there and fighting at all.
I certainly have changed-up my views on comic book superhero fighting over the years, several times. During my big return to reading them in the mid-80s, and resulting return to role-playing as well, I’d probably have conformed to John Byrne’s criticism of Chris Claremont (as quoted in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story):
“Chris’ idea of a perfect issue of The X-Men,” Byrne once said, “would be 22 pages of them walking around in the Village or at Scott’s apartment or something like that, where they sit around, out of costume, in jeans and t-shirts, and just talk.” Claremont, for his part, said that all he cared about was the emotional relationships. “To me,” he told an interviewer, “the fights are bullshit.” [quotes are dated 1980 and 1979, respectively]
Now, I love them. One of the derisive Comics Journal expy characters in Box Office Poison proudly describes completing the “next volume” of his book(s) on superhero fights, and I experienced a fine example of misplaced fandom in kind of wanting to see such a thing.
A bit part of the enjoyment comes from the action being spatial and causal. Here’s Miller in 1982, in which he was inspired by careful study of Gil Kane:
Not all the panels have backgrounds, and not all the backgrounds are complete and complex. However, with 35 panels in four pages (!), you only need a threshold number for the immediate location to seem “mapped,” and for the panels that don’t, the body movements are easily tracked from the previous panel. So it’s absolutely clear where every action happens, and how the opponents get from one place to another. Also, crucially, each character’s actions include in-the-moment decisions.
Compare that with Miller also in 1982, in one of the worst technical works of his career:
Don’t get me wrong, I generally like chambara, but not this one. There’s no terrain at all, so it will only make sense if all the bodies’ placement and movements make sense among one another. However, the characters’ positions have almost no relation to where they were in the previous panel, as the opponents appear out of nowhere and disappear once they’re hit. It’s so non-causal that many of the panels could be rearranged. Maybe they were – how else to figure why Wolverine inexplicably lies down again in the transition from page to page.
When I point out that the opponents charge at him chest-first, closing to his range despite their longer weapons, I’m not snarking, but instead, saying that this highlights that they have no relationship to him, no reason for fighting anyone can care about or understand. Such a thing in the Bullseye fight would instantly invalidate it as a reading experience.
It doesn’t matter that it’s a mook fight. Check out the sequence in The Authority where Apollo fights the Brit-Empire Dimension guys on horseback – that’s a mook fight too, but you know what the mooks want, and you can understand exactly where everyone is, what they do, and why. Plus the impact and effects of a one-man fight against charging horses are fully in play, no matter how strong he is; he doesn’t just knock’em down, he has to use his powers in order to win.
Back to the 80s, here’s a page I’ve referenced before (see the Dynamic mechanics link below), which you might call a cheat but wins on the virtue of actually working.
Where the characters are, and what they can and cannot do, isn’t set up visually but is instead established retroactively into the gutters by what they just did, e.g., Colossus grabbing a girder, Nightcrawler’s first teleport to the bystanders. It feels like the whole thing is backgrounded even when it’s not. (It’s a toss-up whether John Romita Jr. was working this angle carefully or Claremont saved the sequence via scripting onto it, but I’m not inclined to be critical; it was a pleasure to watch this artist develop through this period.)
Then there’s the outright violent trauma – it’s all for nothing without pain, stress, and defeat. A hero’s gotta get hit, gotta get hurt, gotta struggle through. See it there on Romita Sr.’s Kingpin page.
Even with… my Spidey-strength… I can’t… take much more… of this!! Have to do something… anything… fast!!
How characters take their lumps, how bad it is, and what they must or can’t do because of it, all arrive and flow with dizzying speed from panel to panel, aided by the famous stretchy-time of the medium (the third panel on that page is an eyeblink, dialogue notwithstanding, whereas the fourth represents a considerable amount, with the Kingpin standing up and Spider-Man wearing out). With a nod back to recently curb-stomping Man Mountain Marko, Spidey underestimates the Kingpin’s capacity for punishment, speed, and strength, and pays for it with a serious risk, possibly with losing the whole fight.
This is a core feature of Spider-Man during the Lee years, regardless of artist, that at any single panel, you know exactly how much Peter is ahead or behind in the conflict, and how momentarily rocked, genuinely shaken, or close to defeat he might be. Each combatant is trying to set up and deliver a closing hit, every single time. In the Bullseye and Kingpin fights, you can tell that the outcome might very well have gone differently – there is no “who can beat whom” among primary opponents; everyone can potentially beat everyone else, given the better position and some luck.
It’s right in there with boxing as drama, pro wrestling as opera, and the duel as moment-of-truth: the mix of staged fighting for which genuine tissue trauma is not really going to happen, but it is invoked as experience and for this encounter’s immediate consequence. The pain isn’t just selling it, it has to be real, as an event in the fiction.
Now I can explain the standard vocal code, such that unnhh! means you’ve been clipped, you felt it, it matters, but arrghh! means it really hurt, you’ve lost some options, and you’re at a disadvantage. Somebody else will have to do the donkey-work of parsing whether and when the former gets a “g” and whether and when the latter loses its “g,” and until they show it merely reflected whether the letterer had his coffee yet, I cling to my naive young reader’s perception that those actually mattered for content too.
[Quick detour: contrast this precise feature with how action movies lost their protagonists’ trauma right about 1984, usually via sequels (e.g. the plot/characterization role of injuries to the protagonists in Die Hard and First Blood vs. their purely cosmetic role each one’s chain of sequels). Not long afterwards, American film borrowed immensely from Hong Kong 80s cinema except for this exact feature, the genuine injury to the protagonist, retaining instead the no-sell as an indicator of toughness, and making early hits irrelevant to outcomes. Another detour: contrast what I’m describing in Spider-Man, very human wincing injury, with the mortification of the flesh as exalted drama, e.g. Miller’s Daredevil and Windsor-Smith’s Wolverine, and the slippery slope from there into gorn.]
The danger also ties into what the fight is about, i.e., the characters’ priorities. Let’s set aside those filler fights, a side-effect of serial fiction scheduling, which we don’t have to worry about for role-playing. Instead, consider the genuine motivation to stop or to hurt someone, as well as things you want to do that the fight is interrupting or preventing. The best arrives when all these concepts interact: the locations & movement, super-physics, and the danger & goals inherent in a fight.
OK, switching focus to role-playing, specifically the raft of 80s games I wrote about extensively last year: Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, Marvel Super Heroes, DC Heroes, and GURPS: Supers. All of them break ground in the hobby’s design space regarding stunning, getting rattled, being halfway to, or more likely to lose. They also stumble around on that newly-broken ground, due to juggling three layers of immediate outcomes: getting momentarily stunned, getting knocked out by the numbers, getting tired, and getting life-threatening-type injured. It’s very difficult to derive a linear, causal system for generating both injury/impact that’s consequential in the moment and the kind of toughing it out or making it count that wins fights in a dramatically satisfying way.
You see, standard fiction-creation cheats. Fights are built backwards from their outcomes, not forwards through their events. An early hit is shoehorned into the chronology of the fight to set up the hero’s eventual loss, or to provide a context for him or her to struggle out from under. It’s always “sold” as an indicator of the opponent’s surprising degree of threat, villainous cunning, or bad luck, never as the hero simply getting beaten – in other words, this isn’t any kind of “can the Kingpin beat Spider-Man in a fair fight” question, any more than “can Roddy Piper beat Moon Dog Mayne” ever was. Instead, it’s “oh no, bad deeds or bad lucks have brought our hero low, will he come to grief or manage to soldier on,” with either outcome situated for maximum nail-biting in the larger arc this fight is part of.
Whereas role-playing – here considered as its own medium for creating fiction, not as a peculiarly-quantitative and labor-intensive fanfic processor – uses location, causality, damage, et cetera, as material, and uses in-fiction time in a slightly more constrained linear fashion, if not absolutely so. Without reviewing the extremely wide range of how it’s been done, and deliberately setting aside the “oh just resolve the basics and talk out the rest” option, which has always been an alternative, let’s stay with the Champions context of moment to moment actions, decisions, and immediate outcomes. I’ll focus mostly on the damage issue here, specifically the common kind, called Stun, and on the character scores that involve withstanding it or being reduced by it.
The functional design concept I’m aiming at is the immediate consequences of being hit, in terms of exactly what can happen next. So that even early in the fight, it can “go against you” pretty badly, and the next general concern is who that’s happened to across everyone involved. Then, there arrives the question of whether this downturn was fatal (in terms of defeat) or if you can get out from under and still prevail.
How does that fit into the larger character picture? There are three significant sets of mechanics for Champions characters, forming the chassis upon which all the powers and their details reside.
- One of them is based on Dexterity and its derived value Speed, governing the number of actions relative to everyone else, the ordering of actions when characters’ “places” in the order coincide, and the probable chance of success of physical attacks and the physical skills like Acrobatics. It’s the simplest of the three sets, and is the least dynamic (changeable) during play.
- Another is based on Ego, Intelligence, and Presence – the first two govern the attacks and extent of all the mental powers, as well as a variety of perception-and-realization events; the third governs emotional communication and impact. This set is a little more complex because these different aspects of a situation layer onto each other in play, but mechanically, it’s not hard, because all three are base characteristics, i.e., bought directly, with few derived values.
- The third set is based on Constitution, Strength, and Body, which is the topic of concern right now, and I advise mixing a drink and then returning, because it’s a beast.
Here’s the math: you buy up Strength, Constitution, and Body as base characteristics (usually leaving the third at 10 for zero points), and from there, you derive a multitude of sins:
- Strength sets the damage of raw physical attacks (1d6 per 5 points of Strength) and obviously, the approximate amounts for lifting, throwing, and similar mayhem
- Physical Defense (Strength/5) and Energy Defense (Constitution/5), used as “soak” defense vs. their respective attack types
- Endurance (Constitution x 2), used up by actions; at 0, you have to start dipping into Stun to get things done
- Stun (Strength/2 + Constitution/2 + Body), knocked down by damage, resulting in unconsciouness at 0 (this is the unnghh!! note the “g” and multiple exclamation marks)
- Recovery (Strength/5 + Constitution/5), the amount of Stun and Endurance regained at the end of each twelve-segment round, as well as during a voluntary recovery action.
- Finally, Body and Constitution are also used directly, the first as the classic hit points concerning genuinely lethal injuries (this is the arrghh!), and the second as the threshold for momentary stunning, when you take damage (this is the minimal unnhh!).
I put Constitution in bold because it’s obviously the most applied value throughout. This is even more the case in the current Champions Now design in progress, as I’ve junked the distinction between Physical and Energy Defense and based that value, now just “Defense,” on Constitution alone.
My trouble is threefold: I want to preserve most of these functions separately in play, I want to recast their derivation into a more elegant and usable form, and I want to preserve their role in a relatively fine-grained point-spending structure for a character as a whole. The original rules have the virtue of genuine function built from extensive play, but all the downsides of jury-rigged and humpbacked design including a couple of hidden flaws. Rather than junking it all and designing a completely different game, I am more or less in the position of looking at a British M1 rifle sometime around 1940, wanting to invent a Kalashnikov, and future-knowing that other attempts ended with an M-16 instead.
The interesting thing? Constitution itself as a value isn’t all that important. I could use Body instead as the basis for the majority of those functions, with Defense pulled away from the characteristics entirely. It’s my first major step toward more elegant design and more explicit, available form for the desired functions. I need to keep playtesting the current version first, which is only one light design step away from the original, but when that proceeds further, this is the route I’ll be taking. The goal being to bring the hurt into the moments of play, so that being momentarily stunned matters right then, and so that a genuine no-sell like the Kingpin shows us in panel 3 is a rare and frightening event.
Next: Vigil, no joke
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on July 3, 2018, in Supers role-playing and tagged arrghh, Bullseye, Champions Now, Chris Claremont, Daredevil, Frank Miller, gorn, John Romita Jr., Kingpin, unnhh, Wolverine, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.