There’s a big question, in games and fiction, of how to include fight scenes that matter. If you go to a movie which has lots of cool fight scenes but no real reason for them to be there, or no real stakes on the line, then it’s ultimately going to be a flat experience. It might make a great music video, but that’s something else entirely. Logic suggests that the same thing should be true of games, but experience suggests otherwise. We have LOTS of fights, often purely for their own sake.
There are a few practical reasons for this. Certainly, most games strive to make fights fun, so theirs some intrinsic reward, but classically, there’s another reason. See, in a movie, the stakes need to come from the story because we are bound by the strictures of storytelling. That is, if the hero is fighting a bad guy halfway through the movie, then the stakes need to be something other than “Will the hero survive?” because of course he will. He’s still got another hour of movie ahead of him.
A lot of the foundational games in the hobby didn’t _need_ to create stakes out of the narrative because death was an option. Lacking the movie star’s immunity to death, the consequences of defeat were enough to make every fight meaningful. In that context, the fact that the fights were arbitrary and gygaxian wasn’t really a bad thing. A coherent narrative _improved_ things, but it wasn’t necessary to create a sense of investment. That investment was already there.
The problem is, of course, that character death creates other problems beyond the immediate emotional impact. It often leaves a player at loose ends while his friends continue to play, especially if generating a new character is cumbersome or punitive (and, arguably, those out-of-character consequences and difficulties increased the emotional punch of death). To minimize this, a lot of games started moving death from its central position, sometimes removing it entirely.
Doing so created a problem. Without the implicit stakes of death, there needed to be other stakes to keep players invested in outcomes. Some games never addressed this, and as a result produced fairly limp experiences. Other games started taking their examples from fiction. The logic was that if characters in a game have some of the same protections as those in a story, then investment in play can be created the same way it is in stories – compelling narrative, explicit stakes, exciting color and so on. Done right, that’s pretty cool.
But it’s not necessarily the only solution. The new Gamma World is chock full of death, but at the same time, death has very little friction because creating and introducing a new character is both fast and fun. There are probably other solutions too, but my point is that these are all different points on the same twisty path – they’re not exclusive. If I were to go back to running Rolemaster tomorrow (because, man, it’s deathy death death), I would not need to discard the lessons from less lethal games.
Ideally, I’d be able to combine them. I could have fights that are viscerally compelling because death is on the line, but which are dramatically compelling because the stakes are high. Obviously, that has always been the goal, but so many games have created so many tools for doing one or the other, what happens when we start doing both?
I’m afraid to find out. But also profoundly curious.