Why Anime Conflict is Hard

I called this out as too long for twitters, so here it is.

In Everway, Jonathan Tweet laid out a model for resolution of uncertainty in RPGs that’s been pretty foundational to a lot of thinking. Basically, when faced with a moment of uncertainty (such as a conflict) there are three factors that play into resolving it.

The first (Karma) could broadly be described as capability, which can include situational elements in the fiction (you’re attacking someone from surprise) or mechanical differentiators (You have a higher sword skill than the guy you’re fighting.). Basically, it’s rules + situation.

The second (Fortune) is luck, generally represented by dice, but sometimes by other approaches.

The last (Drama) is a question of what would be the most _interesting_ outcome of this situation, according to whatever priorities are in play (Most commonly, “what would make a better story?”)

There’s no right answer to how these should be combined and prioritized – the categories are just useful for discussing what different systems take advantage of.

Now, a certain kind of anime throws this for a loop, specifically, the broad swath of anime centered around fights. I’ve touched on this, but I want to call it out specifically – the bulk of anime fights _look_ like they’re determined by Karma (in the form of strength and cool powers) or maybe drama (because the hero has to win eventually) but their specific frame is about Will. The hero wins because his will to win is strongest. This might be an avenue for revealing things about the character (such as why they need to fight) or valuable lessons (I’m fighting for my friends, that gives me strength) but nothing demands that be the case.

This is kind of messed up. It’s got a slightly creepy will to power vibe coupled with what is a kind of immature idea that whoever wants it more gets it, not because that want has made them work harder or prepare better, but simply because they want it more.

On a practical level, this is really problematic in play because while players can conceive of a failure in capability, it is very hard for them to conceive of a failure of will. Yes, there are exceptions, but the player willing to say “My character gives up” is a rare thing. It also makes inter-party conflict kind of lame.

Now, yes, you can mechanize will, make it a pool, blah blah blah, but doing so misses the point of why this is viscerally appealing. We like the idea that sheer gumption can carry the day. It’s kind of like lottery thinking, since it’s a path to victory without the boring stuff, like work, and games are about avoiding the boring stuff, right?

Well, yes. In general. But the absence of pushback, resistance and other “boring” things makes for a kind of unsatisfying game.

All of which is to say, that fighty anime remains a great source for inspiration. I’d love to try powers systems as colorful and elegant as many of those I see on the screen. But emulating it is much harder than it looks at first glance.

(QUALIFIER: As with all anime, all generalizations fail. I tried to address this by narrowing scope, but if you need to pick that nit, pretend that I have explicitly been talking about Bleach, and frame your critiques in that context.)

18 thoughts on “Why Anime Conflict is Hard

  1. Rickard

    This is the basics of conflict resolution. You roll to see who’s will that’s stronger. Who is going to determine the result of the outcome?

    What you roll against (if you roll) can differ. Skill, equipment, compassion … whatever. It’s who’s more determined to win that matters. Which one is going to forfill it’s goal? You or me?

    This is the basic of many Forge games out there. Traditional rpgs are more about looking at the characters skill to overcome a problem, not the person’s drive.

  2. Greg Sanders

    I did once have a BESM character that had a will based force field mechanic. That system had body, mind, and soul as stats and in essence she could redirect attacks that penetrated the field as soul damage instead. I then tried to play here as kind of mopey and wishy-washy as she recovered. I think that specific mechanic may have been a homebrew but it helped that it was in an anime system to begin with.

    I’m generally not big on stat drain or even necessarily tied to stats in and of themselves, but it did get the feel of sacrificing a part of herself to protect her friends. That said, I’m not sure any of the other players necessarily noticed the soul stat damage, so maybe it mostly worked for me.

  3. A.L.

    I think cutting out the hard work is a mistake in a sense. All the battle animes I’ve seen, while will is a key determinant in victory and how far you can go in a fight, the characters have also still worked hard and trained. Training scenes/arcs are a staple in the fighting manga/anime, as well as the sports manga/anime scenes. there are also plenty of stories where the opponent has the better reasons for victory but the ‘hero’ still wins.

    You might be able to pull off the feel with a combination of hacking Marvel and the flashback mechanic from Leverage. Instead of affiliation have something like “Reason for power” with choices along the lines of “protect my friends” “overcome obstacles” and “personal pursuit of power” this gives the situation the fight is in a key role in how the person goes into it. Sure, the player still has SOME control, but you can also set it up as a GM for certain ways.

    Then, let the player spend plot points to narrate flashbacks for why they /need/ to win. If the table agrees it is valid, the person gets a boost. The only rule though is you can’t flashback to the same thing twice…ever. This gives villains more power as their life story is unknown, while the PCs have to keep finding new reasons and inspirations to push on since they will define their entire history in short order looking to add dice to their next roll.

  4. Mrigashirsha

    Scattered thoughts…

    First, this is a drama-focused conflict. It’s just not necessarily the same kind of specific dramatic priorities. But we recognize that Macbeth, Charlie of “Flowers for Algernon”, and Cheradenine Zakalwe (of Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons) are all tragic in different ways, and for that matter that characters in Dogs in the Vineyard, Monsterhearts, and Mountain Witch are all dramatic in different ways.

    Second, I think there are a bunch of tools in gaming already that are good for this. We’ve got ways of measuring and ranking multiple values, commitments, and attachments. We’ve also got ways of buying a victory for one aim at cost to others. I think the rest is a matter of Just Plain Getting It in a useful way – the way that makes bystanders go “I wouldn’t have seen that on my own, but now that you point it out, yes, this is the/a way to go for it”.

  5. Arashi

    As others have mentioned – Bleach is all about the training. You survive and and strive for your friends, but your potential is what allows you major success; otherwise, Orihime and Chad would be more useful. Without the untapped Potential, the Will to stay in the fight is meaningless – you have to have both to be one of the successful fighters.

  6. Jim

    Rob, this seems similar to the unsolved problem of making walking the Pattern gameable.

    “If you stop you die.”

    “I don’t stop.”

    “You’re really tired.”

    “I don’t stop.”

    “The Third Veil is almost impossible to push through.”

    “I don’t stop.”


  7. Josh W

    First off this reminds me of a hack to “in a wicked age” I came up with; basically the same “emotional tone” resolution mechanism, but with a big matrix of “excuses” between different types of character, that you add to when you create a new type, or sometimes during a conflict when it starts to get too large. This then helps you justify in the fiction why one character has an advantage over another. In a more anime game that could be focused on power sources, elemental stuff etc.

    The dice don’t determine that you failed to want it, only that the other person wanted it more, and this was expressed in training, chi energy, whatever.

    It also strongly reminds me of rustbelt, in that will is always implicit, and more important is the costs that it has. What you decide to overcome in order to continue.

    As a twist to the system, you’d have to take out explicit measuring of the costs, (blood sweat tears) and instead have a bottomless well of pyrotechnics, side effects and gurning, to replace it. Taking out that central measuring stick breaks the essence of the game, but whatever.

    Course, you could get more radical and put dice rolls in the place of advocacy. In other words, players always want their characters to succeed right? Well how about rolling to see if you’re playing him to win or loose in this conflict; GMs do it all the time with NPCs, play them to loose gracefully.

    So players have to find ways for their character to bow out of conflicts, be defeated etc. This would also need some way to stretch conflicts out, stop them telescoping into the final resolution, but you could do this for rolling for turnarounds; actually this isn’t the final scene after all! Roll again, maybe you’ll win! And perhaps some oracular/inspiration mechanic to help you to think up reasons for the turnaround.

    Making that stretchyness relate to the way people played their characters could allow you to pace those scenes in an interesting way.

  8. Josh W

    That’s interesting, I didn’t think of smallville as the same kind of game as in a wicked age, that makes me wonder about hybridisation..

  9. Paul

    I’m not attempting to nitpick, but, rather, get to the heart of how to model anime conflict. To that point, I don’t think what you describe is what Bleach depicts. In fact, in Bleach, characters often lose their battles and have to train and/or get saved. And those events are not about learning to have more force of will.

    Sure, will is an ingredient, which I think is basically played out in two ways in Bleach: 1. will is part of enduring punishment, and 2. will is renewed by values – in the case of Bleach, friendship.

    However, what the battles are really about is the ability to endure a problem for long enough to solve it. It’s endurance vs. learning. Ishida is a foil to Ichigo in this way. Ishida can’t endure a lot of punishment, but he can learn very quickly. Ichigo tackles things head-on and loses – until he wins.

    In D&D, such combats would revolve around a complex skill challenge. Ichigo has crap for skills, but a ridiculous amount of HP and/or defenses. He’ll get through it eventually, and he’s sort of magical in that he’s equally effective against all obstacles. Ishida has low HP and/or defenses and has good skills. In order for him to survive, he has to win quickly, because he cannot play a game of attrition. This becomes interesting when Ishida has a few skills at which he excels and a few that are just solid to good. Because then he’s the wildcard that must be saved because he’s a mere specialist or can make the encounter go smoothly due to his acute problem-solving skills.

    Simplified, you have four outcomes: 1. You won because you were tough/had the will to endure long enough to learn. 2. You won because you were smart and solved the problem before you took too much punishment. 3. You lost and now you have to fix your flaw. 4. You lost but a friend saved you.

    Notice that the win conditions are more about the game and problem solving, while the loss conditions are a bit more story-centric. That’s not an insignificant quality of anime like this.

  10. Marcos "Salsa" Bolton

    Rob I think the generalization you were looking for is toward the Shonen genre and of course not Anime per se. Endurance (in every way), Friendship and Willpower are the main aspects it teaches.

    I’m trying to create a hack for Saint Seiya using Marvel Heroic but I found it quite difficult when it came to the Affiliations. The main reason being the fact that it isn’t comics it’s shonen manga. They are 95% of the time in 1v1 fights, rarely in 2vX fights and hardly ever in 3+vX fights. So almost every character I wrote a “datafile” was leaning toward Solo d10. I did consider the fact that the main character usually gets beaten real hard to finally succeed thanks to his friendship/love/will and then that sort of character usually gets a D6 Solo (he gets more in trouble than normal).

  11. Paul

    I thought about this some more and I realized that while I might disagree about what Bleach’s fights are about, or even what any given shonen is about, the question of willpower as a mechanic-that-plays-like-it-feels is interesting and, in retrospect, is what I should have addressed as the core, here.

    I showed this article to a non-rpg friend who immediately joked about a staring contest, which made me think about a game of chicken. In order for willpower to work, it has to be at some cost or gamble. In keeping with the Bleach theme, perhaps choosing to prevail would put you in some kind of a dramatic/friend debt so that you can now be compelled into involvement.

    Mouse Guard’s trait system works this way in reverse. You can use your traits to make things harder on yourself to gain actions on the players’ turn. You choose to fail or endanger yourself in order to get freedom. As long as you can make choices interesting or complicated, a system that revolves around choices will work – and that includes one that’s about willpower. The choices made available by the game tell us what willpower is about, though. Why does Hero A have it and Hero B or The Villain doesn’t? Because you need X or Y (friendship or hope) in order to be the kind of guy with such force of will.

  12. Rob

    I’m late to this party, so I’ll be brief.

    Couldn’t you use willingness to lose other things to stay in the fight as an indicator of will?

    So, to use the D&D model for example.

    GM: You’re out of HP.
    Player: How much can I get back if the attack shatters my magic armor instead?

    The fight could go on and on with the player losing more valuable things to stay in the fight for just one more round. Next his weapon. Then taking a negative level. Then permanent ability damage.

    Granted, you’d have to play a game where everyone was comfortable with the consequences really sticking, but I think that could produce some great drama.


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