Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Running Gun Battles

If you’re running a game in a modern or futuristic setting then chances are that sooner or later you’re going to need get involved in a running gun battle through the streets or special forces raid on an enemy compound or some other scene involving lots of people running about grunting and shooting aimlessly.

How you handle scenes like this does depend very much on the style of your campaign and the importance of the event, but there are few rules of thumb that apply to most styles of play and are worth considering.

There is a tendency in the rules of role-play games to analyse gun conflicts in great detail. You’ll find the ranges of a variety of weapons listed in yards, the ammo capacities, the reload rate, damage per square inch. There’ll be rules of secondary targets, blast radius, ricochets, shrapnel and spaniels. There’ll be tables of HE rounds, WP rounds, caseless and ceaseless and recoilless rounds. Armour and penetration rules including tables of armour values for common objects¹.
That’s a lot of stuff and as a GM you do need to know how it all works. You need to have played through, in the privacy of your own home, a few sample fights using all these rules such that you know how they are applied and what happens when a 10mm HE round hits a melon with an armour value of 0.2 and only 3 hit points.

However, that said, you now need to know that you shouldn’t apply any of these rules.

Errrm… what?

Ok, that was an exaggeration. You will need them now and then. But for the most part, you won’t. For the fluid GM the rules are guidelines to be applied as required rather than legally binding documents that must be followed to the letter. What is important is keeping the flow and the feel.

Because there are so many detail rules regarding the exact ranges and effectiveness of weapons etc there is a tendency of some rules-bound GMs to describe the action in terms of the rules. Many times I’ve heard the scene set in such terms:

“You come out into a corridor that’s 2 yards wide and about 27 yards long. About 14 yards along the left side is a wooden door with an armour value you guess to be about 3.”

Are you fighting on the architect’s blueprints here?

There is also a feeling from the GM perspective that you should be tracking the location of the hostile forces in the area, working out where they are, what they’re doing etc. Maybe you should have a map of the area? Then you can work out running distances and lines of fire. You can plot each movement of the combatants and work out who can see who and the ranges involved. Then you can work out armour modifiers, range bonuses, perception checks and shoelace probabilities.
Meta-gaming comes to the front, characterization disappears and before you know it you’re bogged down in a technical exercise – maybe even moving little plastic figures on a scale map – and suddenly you realize you’re actually playing an over complicated version of Ludo².

How did this happen? Well, the rules took over.

But don’t worry. There are alternatives available.

The trick is to keep it loose. Don’t worry about the exact position of each combatant. Keep the action quick.

“You make your way towards the power plant, winding along the narrow, dimly lit corridors, a left turn, then a right and on along to the edge where you hunker down below the reinforced windows that run along the wall overlooking the internal courtyard.”

Who cares exacly how long each corridor is? If it's not important, don't worry about it.

Make the players roll simple “Combat Tactics” based checks so ensure they’re not exposing themselves to enemy fire. If they pass you can describe the challenges that they spot in simple terms:

“The courtyard is overlooked by a balcony round the other three sides. There’s plenty of hiding places up there for snipers and not enough cover to cross safely.”

Then the players will start to ask questions:

“Are there any other ways round?”
“Would a smoke grenade in the courtyard give sufficient cover?”
“Is there anywhere I can get a better view of the balcony to check for snipers?”
“Can I go to the toilet, please?”

These questions can be often answered without any reference to the rules (but you can always look up the amount of smoke a smoke grenade gives off if you want clarification and aren’t familiar with the technology). How you weigh up the options largely depends on whether you want the heroes to fight their way across the courtyard or sneak round the back and take the snipers by surprise. You may not really mind, it might not be important, and so just let the players take the lead. Let them be sneaky if they want. In other cases you may decide that there is no way round – but, as it happens, there are no snipers either. (Just because there’s plenty of places a sniper could be hiding, doesn’t mean that there are actually any snipers hiding. You’re just messing with their heads – which is fun)

Of course, if the players fail on of these tactics checks then feel free to fire off a few shots at them (or pin them down in a corner they then can’t get out of without getting shot at)

The exact location of the enemies is actually quite often unimportant. The tactics roll is failed – so as they run across the courtyard having failed to notice the possibility of snipers, someone somewhere up in the balcony opens up with a sub-machine gun – you roll a few dice and see if anyone gets hit. It’s important to note that the exact model of gun, range or ammo capacity is almost entirely irrelevant. In fact, if you’re running a lenient game (maybe a kind of Ramboesque action romp) then you may decide to have the sniper fire thirty shots into the area but then roll 3d6 and allocate a hit if a die comes up 6. Alternatively, if it’s about time someone got deadded then you can have the sniper turn out to be quite skilful and roll a more sensible shot³. Assuming there are survivors, the players can then roll to spot the sniper and return fire – or they may just run right through and hide at the other side. A tactics style check can be used to determine if they find a suitable hiding spot where the sniper can’t see their bum sticking out.
The trick, as with all protracted action sequences, is to distil the action down to a few key, pivotal moments and make those moments interesting, detailed and exciting. Plan them ahead of time and think them through so that the decisions that the heroes make are clear-cut and important. The rest is just flow and flavour. They might get pinned down by a machine gun at some point, then shoot a few goons at the next corner and maybe have to hide in a few filing cabinets along the way, but the actual nitty-gritty technical detail is, for the most part, unimportant.

The more familiar you are with the style of combat and the environment involved, the more flavour details you can add to make the event more realistic and vivid. You can describe the brass shell casings pinging across the marble tiles of the penthouse floor, the way the metalwork around the fire door has buckled where the rifle round struck it, the way the foamed padding in the stud-walls has been powdered all over the hallway by the shotgun blast that nearly removed Bob’s dashing good looks. These are the things that the players remember and reminisce about when they look back on how amazingly cool your campaign was⁴.

If you don’t know enough about the area and weapons involved to make up this kind of thing on the fly – simply borrow cool scenic colour from the movies⁵! There are often great action sequences in films that are chock full of nice little details that you can reuse in your descriptions.

In summary:
  • Concentrate on the pace, flow and action (not on the minutia of individual character actions)
  • Don’t worry too much about the rules – rules are there to serve you, not enslave you.
  • Fill in cool details of description whenever you can.

¹ Did you know that an office chair has an armour 0.5 while the filing cabinet is 1.0? Quick, everyone inside the filing cabinet!

² I have a version of Ludo which has a three hundred page rule book and additional Players Guide and about thirty different supplements. It’s boring.

³ It should be noted however – you should be consistent in your level of Ramboness. If you switch from an “Action Movie” feel to an ultra-real “Embassy Siege” mode without warning, your players will be confused and their characters will get killed. They may then set fire to your house in protest.

⁴ Unless of course they’re those weird compulsive types that write down all their rolls so that they can re-play the battle later and see what would have happened if they’d had that +3 for that laser scope that you wouldn’t allow. These are the players that also spend hours trying to explain some cunning move they made in a game of chess by saying things like “… And I had a knight and rook in the corner and so he couldn’t get his queen out because I’d blocked the E file with the bishop and he didn’t have any pawns close enough to…” The only answer is to kill them now before they crack and take the whole street with them. It’s your duty as a responsible citizen.

⁵ Although you do have to pick the right style of movie – sometimes players get upset if buckets of cold water explode in a fireball when you shoot them. Particularly if they happen to be hiding in them.

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