Man, one thing leads to another, so here’s another sidebar about mook rules.

This was inspired by my reading of the new webcomic, Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, which is basically “Greg Rucka’s the Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies Webcomic” (which is a pretty cool thing). It hasn’t been going very long but the most recent strip reminded me very clearly of why I don’t like mook rules.

Aside if you’re unfamiliar: Mook rules are rules for handling the “nameless extras” in a fight, allowing large numbers of opponents to be put in play but be casually cut down by the hero. The term comes from Feng Shui, which is the daddy of this. Some people claim the less-than-1HD rules from AD&D are the basis of this, but the similarity is – to my mind – shallow and cosmetic.

You can go read it is you like – there are only 8 comics or so at this point – but to sum up, this is the point where we see the heroine kick the asses of multiple badguys at once without breaking a sweat. This is, theoretically, supposed to impress us with just how intensely badass and awesome the protagonist is, but in practice it tends to fall a little flat. Partly because it’s so blatant, partly because it’s so overused, it tends to feel like the author going “See! See!” more than anything which tells me about the character (which is, I note, an interesting contrast to the page before, which is both badass and says something).

There’s a trick that bad writers use to make a character seem smart – they make everyone around them stupid. This is a terrible, lame, dissatisfying trick and mooks tend to be the badass equivalent of it. By making the opposition so trivial that they are casually knocked down, you don’t make your protagonist look awesome, you just underscore how lame everything is.

This is not to say that mooks can’t be done well, it’s just that they’re often not. One of the magnificent things about Hong Kong cinema was that it made fights with lots of guys seem awesome when compared to the same number of guys fighting John Rambo. There’s a balance to strike – the opposition needs to seem dangerous enough that the protagonist’s triumph does not seem inevitable. This same is true of games.

Games use mook rules for a variety of reasons, but there are three big ones: Genre simulation, Bookkeeping, and reinforcing awesome. Now, I have no real beef with the first two. If you want to model Hong Kong cinema, you need rules to model the big fights. Similarly, if you’re playing a system where tracking a lot of lesser adversaries is cumbersome, a system for aggregating them can be a lifesaver. The problem is the last.

Mook rules rarely illustrate character awesome for the same reasons they can fail in fiction. Unless there’s a sense of real opposition, then it’s just a stylish pantomime. If that’s what you’re really looking for, then that’s fine, but I point out that you’re making a tradeoff to do it. Mook rules tend to do a great job of reinforcing the lethality of a system – hundreds of peopel get shot or cut down, after all! – but they often do so in direct contradiction to the way the rest of the system works. This is not a bad thing in its own right, but you need to realize that there is a cognitive cost in introducing such a clearly meta-gaming rule, and when there’s a cost, you better make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Now, Chad Underkoffler challenged me to say how you handle Zorro, Inigo Montoya and Batman without Mook rules, and I think those are GREAT examples of other ways to think of th e problem.

First, Batman’s an oddball because there’s some question of which batman you’re talking about. Grant Morrison writing JLA Batman could fight a million ninjas and win but he wouldn’t have too because he’s ALREADY BEATEN THEM, but that’s the extreme case. Going with something like the Animated series, Batman can take on 3 or 4 thugs at once, but he’ll have a hard time of it. With that in mind, the only time he ends up in that kind of fight is when he’s the one getting ambushed. If he’s in control of the fight, he isolates enemies and takes them down one at a time (something easily handled by rules that handle difference in skill + surprise). If he’s outnumbered, he’ll try to break the fight up so he’s taking on few people at a time.

Zorro follows almost exactly the same pattern (and, in fact, has the same question – lots of Zorros out there) which is no surprise given the connection between Batman and Zorro. The main difference is one of flash – Zorro may face large numbers of opponents, but a lot of the whole swashbuckling, umping around, swinging on things and so on is that it keeps him from ever being in one place where he has to fight them all at once. The exceptions to this tend to be the cheesiest, lamest of fight sequences (such as when Zorro, surrounded by men with drawn blades, sings his blade in a wide arc, hitting all their swords and – by some dark magic – knocking all his opponents back.)

Inigo is the most interesting case. He can explicitly take on 10 guys (Maybe 20 – it’s been a while) because he’s just that awesome, though we could only guess what that would look like. The problem is, it’s clear he really sees that as a stretch – this is something that’s really freaking hard, possible only because of his awesome level of skill. He’s not casually dismissing the guards. Now, this doesn’t rule out mook rules – you could do it with mooks that are reasonably dangerous – but it doesn’t necessitate them. The same logic that we’ve applied to Zorro probably is equally applicable here.

Now, this does reveal something interesting – in all of these examples we’re really talking less about the actual fight and more about controlling the situation. It’s a somewhat different focus, and one that not all games necessarily support, but I think it’s a powerful perspective.

16 thoughts on “Mooks

  1. unitled

    Slightly related, the Deathwatch Warhammer 40,000 RPG uses Horde rules instead of mook rules. Instead of fighting lots of weaker enemies, it rolls up all the mooks into one strong stat block and the relative strength of each member of the horde can be varied as appropriate to the fight.

    It also allows normal human enemies to pose a threat even to mighty Space Marines; a couple of separate humans have little or no chance of actually damaging them, a group of 50 does, and this systems removes the headache using 50 ‘minion’ type creatrues would cause.

  2. highbulp (aka, Joel)

    I’ve also found that “squad” rules work out pretty well in practice (at least in the Star Wars game that uses them), at least for my group. Squads are dangerous enough (since they’re equivalent, even tougher, than a “normal” enemy), but can be used to say that we’re fighting 10 guys instead of 3 without slowing things down. The fact that you change tactics when fighting them (using area attacks instead of single target) is also kind of a neat effect.

    I’ve love to hear your thoughts on hordes/squads Rob 🙂

  3. senatorhatty

    So, I do agree that differences in skill (depending somewhat on game system) can easily account for Batman vs. 5 thugs. The problem for me has been that dicing out Batman vs. 5 thugs can be somewhat time consuming (and possibly boring), whereas aggregation seems abstract and lacks a certain visceral thrill.

    Perhaps both of these can be addressed by attempts on part of GM ad players to make fights more descriptive. Or perhaps I need to check out squad rules as suggested by other commenters.

  4. samhaine

    A friend of mine described the problem as, “I feel like I’m fighting a horde of very realistic balloons.” 🙂

    The problem seems similar to the “Suppression Fire” issue. Lots of games have complicated rules to do a maneuver to suppress the enemy. In the real world, it’s simple: I’m shooting wildly over there so if they leave cover they might get shot and, thus, get hurt or die. When you have enough avoidance/mitigation that you’re not really worried about taking fire for a round to get to the shooter, suddenly you need weird rules to force the target to stay put despite “charge the shooter” being the optimal tactic under the normal rules.

    Mook dissonance is related: we believe it in movies because one good hit with a gun or sword really does seem like it would do for most people. Non-mook threats in film stay out of the way, parry like madmen, and are lucky as hell. But we rarely get the impression that a solid hit, if our hero could land one, wouldn’t do for them just as well as it did for their mooks.

    So it’s really just a side effect of your early post on this subject: the consequence of making fights take long enough to be interesting is that you need special case rules to make certain elements of a fight *not* take very long. And I’m not sure there’s a way to get a reliably long exchange with some enemies and a reliably short exchange with others without creating some kind of implicit major difference in the physics of their combat prowess.

  5. Chad Underkoffler

    Nice summary; I think you’re onto something.

    “Now, this does reveal something interesting – in all of these examples we’re really talking less about the actual fight and more about controlling the situation.”

    As I mentioned yesterday on Twitter, I think two of the issues are sequencing and keeping track of “what’s a turn or exchange?”.

    For most Batman/Zorro issues, it looks like they get more turns/exchanges from high skill. This reinforces PC awesome without necessarily turfing NPC awesome.

    If you add in Bruce Lee/The Bride from Kill Bill type stuff — i.e., one at a time attacks vs. the hero — it makes sense.

    This method might also work with Inigo, but he’s the ur-case for the “take out 4 guys in 1 exchange” (aka, parry quarte, run like hell) ideas behind most mook rules, IMAO.

    “The exceptions to this tend to be the cheesiest, lamest of fight sequences (such as when Zorro, surrounded by men with drawn blades, sings his blade in a wide arc, hitting all their swords and – by some dark magic – knocking all his opponents back.)”

    The only example of this in MASK OF ZORRO I can think of is that there were only two soldiers there, and he was leaping over a table directly at them at the same time.

    How do you think the first overwhelming Alejandro fight — stealing Tornado 2: Electric Boogaloo — worked out? The soldiers still seem pretty threatening. (Also note: most of them get back up after being knocked down.)

    The two times in that fight Zorro is surrounded by swords, he immobilizes/binds them rather than knocking them away (the gate with iron bars, and then the wheel of bound blades).

    So, do the soldiers in that scene count as mooks or not?

    Contrast that fight with the one later with soldiers, Love, and Montero… Definitely more “mooky” there, I think.

  6. Marshall Smith

    Lots of what samhaine said there.

    But, also, I don’t look for mook rules primarily to handle big combats. I look for them to allow the PCs to take out minor, nameless NPCs rapidly and easily, often one at a time. Rather than mimicking the classic “horde of ninjas”, I’m looking to mimic the classic “take out the guard with a single chop to the neck”.

    I feel reasonably certain that your system doesn’t actually need mook rules. Just giving the rank and file a 1D combat ability would do the same thing. And, given your earlier statements regarding combat involving multiple opponents, I imagine you’d want a squad of 5 to present a serious threat to any PC.

  7. Patrick

    I agree that typical mook rules don’t enforce awesome on the protagonists. I think it might be more likely they force awesome on the non-mook antagonists. If Spider-Man can handle 4-6 common crooks at once (super common back in the 60s) how awesome does that make Doc Ock or the Lizard where Spidey can now barely handle one guy.

    I’ll also point out that along the book-keeping axis that you can have mook rules that really do threaten PCs. The key (for the ones that work) seems to be making their attacks matter. Them being taken out in a single hit (or even a few a round for a talented PC) is fine, but the PC needs to care if they hit. (and they need to have a genre appropriate chance to do so). Reign is really good here. enough Unworthies get 14 dice. That’s a minimum of 4 dice with a match. Scary stuff for ORE Pcs.

    @samahaine There are some “Suppressive Fire” rules that revolve around “how bad to you get hit if you ignore the suppression” those make a lot of sense. That way Suppressive Fire sends Batman behind something, while Superman just strolls across the field of fire until the bad guy futilely throws the gun.

  8. Uncle Dark

    I’ve found that rules for ganging up on a target somewhat mitigates the nerfing effects of the Inverse Ninja Law. That is, the hero is surrounded by half a dozen mooks. Sure, he can take each one out with a punch. But the mooks all have +6 to hit him until he does. Then +5 on the next round, and so on. The mooks, in the aggregate, are dangerous. They’re just a threat that doesn’t last long.

  9. Reverance Pavane

    Actually I think the first instance of a mook rule was in Bushido, which defined characters as Professionals (with a level), Professional Rabble (sort of cut rate members of the non-magical professional classes that might be dangerous en masse; the equivalent of mooks in many other systems), Rabble (mooks that didn’t belong to a particular profession; extremely cut-rate mooks), and Extras (generally innocent bystanders that got cut down as you made your way to the important opponents).

    For an indication of their abilities, the mass combat system for large battles featuring the character generally resolved an encounter with any sort of rabble as the character collecting 1d6 or 2d6 of heads during that battle turn.

    [Since Bushido used a combination of level and skills the main distinction between Professional Rabble and normal Rabble was they were at least trained, sort of like Level 0 characters.]

  10. Reverance Pavane

    {Apologies if I just posted this multiple time, but it doesn’t seem to be posting and not telling me why. Time to split it up ]

    I do like Greg Gorden’s approach in Torg and the Mayfair DC Heroes in that the multi-action table worked both ways. That is if multiple people are working together on an action they get a boost to their combined power (ability and effect), and if one person is attacking multiple people they get a penalty to their ability (and effect).

    It also worked for things that do multiple actions in and of themselves. For example an SMG firing autofire is effectively treated as if it were a number of people firing at once.

    However in both these cases you are dealing with a logarithmic system, so that (a) characters with higher abilities were markedly better, and (b) multiplication is inherently additive. And they are both, in essence, superhero games, so you often need to create a situation where mobs can be dangerous.

    In a linear system you can assume that the percentage of the group that succeeds at any given task is equal to their percentage skill and that they will roll double the damage in doing so (unless you really want to get into the combinatorial maths). Don’t forget to test for any remainder though (again with double damage or alternatively, double the remainder for a single damage roll). This was a trick used by many of the early wargames rules such as Swords & Sorcery [D&D Supplemet 5].

    [Speaking of which, when you think about it, normal humans are the mooks in the D&D universe. They just look like the rest of us at first level.]

  11. Reverance Pavane

    [Continued from before]

    But this all assumes that the tactical situation is irrelevant. In real life there are two very important considerations when fighting a group of people, especially in melee. [In ranged combat incoming fire has right of way, so get under cover and remain pinned while they flank you…]

    The first consideration is whether or not your opponents are trained to work together cooperatively. [This is often the difference between soldiers and warriors.] If they are they will maneuver to pin and flank you and not get in each others way doing so. If they are not then it is often possible to maneuver them so that you can deal with them one at a time. And you are encouraged to do it as effectively as possibly for the morale impact.

    The second consideration is psychological and whether or not they are willing to get hurt taking you down. In small groups people are usually thinking “let the other guy get hit first and I’ll hit him while he is distracted.” As they hesitate this will give you room to maneuver, especially if you’ve already made a psychological impact. However be warned that this maneuver reverses when the group gets large enough and mob psychology takes over (in which case the thinking is “I’m safe because another guy is the one that will get hurt,” at least as much as there is any thinking in a mob).

    But if you lose tactical awareness, lose you ability maneuver and get mobbed, you will discover that quantity really does have a quality of it’s own. As knights in France discovered during Jacquerie rebellions as they were pulled off their warhorses by enraged peasants (and which prompted serious overreaction from the neighbouring nobles).

    It’s why an field officer or NCO on a battlefield should only fire their weapon when their position is being overrun (in self-defence in other words). Their job is to manage the battlefield not to use their weapon.

    The extended battle rules of Pendragon are useful in this regard. The Weapon skill is the very last roll made. It is preceded by a number of Battle rolls by the increasing array of commanders that determine the actual tactical situation for the players. Have your commanders fail enough battle rolls and you will discover that even peasants make bad enemies when you are surrounded and on soggy ground.

    It’s also why a Weapon skill is not just the ability to hit an opponent with the weapon, but the ability to maneuver so as to use the weapon to best effect. Hitting something is easy.

  12. Reverance Pavane

    [Last bit of ramble]

    But that’s real life. In genre there are instances where the rabble are so outclassed that they are no danger to the protagonist. In which case I think the simple method of dealing with them (in game) is to ignore them. that is, their defeat is automatic. Or alternatively if your game system has a fumble system then make an unopposed test and on a fumble you get hit (and of course, kill the mook opponent in revenge).

    For tougher mooks, make a fail keep the mook alive for another turn. For a critical ignore the mooks completely and do whatever you want (you got past them, mislead them, or simply scared them away). This gives the mooks the primary effect in the genre, which is to slow the protagonist down while the main bad guys do their nefarious schemes, or to impress the girl.

    And don’t forget, to borrow the Bushido term, to give extra On for “flashy bladework.”
    [This can also be leveraged into morale effects. Not only is he trouncing us, but he is making us look like idiots when doing so. And mooks should always test morale.]

  13. A.L.

    Amusingly enough, I’m in the final stages of the writing/design/editing of a Batman styled game, and had to face this very same problem. Keeping the threat while keeping the awesome. Play tests seem to show I caught it (at least about right). But no one had expressed the view ou did here. I may have to relook and see where it falls on this.

  14. kenkins

    The earliest mook rules I can think of are AD&D (2nd ed, perhaps?) where a fighter may attack Level creatures of less than 1 hit die per round.

    I never liked the limitation of “less than 1 hit die” because it doesn’t scale. What if it was “hit dice of less than half my level”? If I’m doing (Level / 2) * 4 hp damage per attack, this makes mooks meaningful without being a trivial speed bump.

    That is, I feel that should only on average defeat a mook, or perhaps a reasonably sized group, in one action.

    If I can roll all my attacks vs. all their defenses at one go and tick off the successes in the tally part of the roll, the concept of mooks may be just a part of the natural combat mechanics.

  15. Evan

    Rob, I’m really glad you pointed out the Web Comic, because it is awesome and deserves as much readership as possible. I have some real mixed feelings about mook rules. My first time tripping over them (other than the less than one hit-die rule for AD&D (and how many times does your Myrmadon go slumming to fight Kobolds anyway?) was in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings game. After elaborate detailed character and monster creation and statting, it throws in a section about, hey, for big fights, just make the orcs one or two hit kills. (???) I thought it seemed crazy and sort of “grade inflation” for characters. However, I felt the rules for mooks/minions developed more organically (with better genre support/reflection) in Spirit of the Century and S7S. I think you can have a perfectly credible game with “mooks”, but I think you can also do a disservice to the game and characters by making conflicts too meaningless.

    As an aside, new Lady Sabre today (and I think that Space 1899 and probably 7th Sea were major influences on Greg, with possibly a dash of Castle Falkenstein to create a parallel evolution to S7S) shows that we are not exactly at mook level, in that the two dead guards are dead because they got shot. One began to be disarmed in the last panel of Thursday’s comic. Today, the fight continues, and Lady Sabre is kicking it and taking names, but though she is supremely confident and skilled, it seems the fight could easily be taking place in a world without mooks (although plenty of flashy parry/disarm and very dangerous firearms are clearly supported by the system).


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