Mooks Gone Haywire

This is related to the Smart Everyman thing, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious.
If you haven’t seen it, Steven Soderburgh’s Haywire is a great movie. As with Mamet’s Spartan it’s an action movie by a very talented director (and writer, in Mamet’s case) who does not normally delve into the action genre. The result is something that feels very different than the standard action flick because it does not proceed fromt he same assumptions.
Now, whether you think that’s a good or bad thing is going to hinge on several issues of taste, but if you’re as inclined to overanalysis as I am, these views on common things through an unfamiliar lense is utterly compelling.
Numerous elements of Haywire are noteworthy (the chases, in particular, are awesome) but the fights are what really caught my eye from the perspective of gaming. They were great fights, mostly hand to hand, that were brutal, intense and very engaging, but they were also where some of the biggest deviations from the traditional action formula could be observed[1]. Two if them in particular have stuck with me, guns and mooks, and today I’m going to talk about mooks.
In Haywire, there were no mooks. Every fight was dangerous and intense, but even faceless opponents were dangerous. Fights against them were quicker, but still involved several exchanges.
In a standard action game, this would be weird. Feng Shui’s mook rules have become a de facto standard for genre[2] emulation, but that becomes a problem when you want to tweak or grow the genre. Removing them from film hilights what removing them from play might suggest – more danger and more attention.
Attention’s an interesting one. Mooks do not just emulate genre, they speed gameplay, and it’s taken as a given that this is a good thing, but the reality is a bit more complicated. Consider, let’s say you think combat’s should take a half hour. Mook rules let you squeeze more into that half hour without increasing the time and bookeeping required, and that’s a win. However, if you’re not pushing for any kind of structure, then mook rules can just mean faster and less interesting fights.
Less interesting fights is a fascinating point to get snagged on, because there’s so much implicit assumption in RPGs that fights are (provided they’re well run) intrinsically interesting. That is to say, we (usually) do not complain about “too many fights” in D&D because fights are a large part of the expected experience. The fight is supposed to be fun.
But heavy use of mook rules allow for fights that end up at approximately the same level of engagement as picking a lock. That’s not automatically bad, but it requires more work on the GM’s part to create extrinsic engagement because it’s nto intrinsically rewarding.
However, there’s a flipside – if there are no mook rules, every fight can be a potential drag on play, especially lopsided ones. There comes a point in many bad D&D fights where it’s clear how its goign to go, but the fight can’t end until the party has finished “grinding down” the opponenent’s hit points. No one wants to get in that situation either. There are mechanical tweaks that can address that, but more broadly it really depends on the fight having genuine tension, and havign that tension be maintained consistently.
This is a pretty complex topic, and the reality is that it does not have a simple lesson. Mook rules can be super useful, but can also be problematic – there’s no one right solution that fits all situations. But it does reveal something critical and fragile – If you rely on fights being intrinsically engaging, then you are walking a very fine line, and it’s easy to slip off. If, on the other hand, you are ALSO making sure that fights have some external reason to maintain tension and engagement, the rest of these potential problems tend to evaporate.
In a purely mechanical sense, this idea ended up in the Tempo rules with the idea that a single hit takedown[3] is VERY hard on the intial exchange, but becomes much easier after you have established an advantage. In theory, this allows a highly skilled character to take down an opponent quickly, but usually requires at least a single exchange to establish advantage. Still needs more testing, of course, but I’ll be curious if it captures that Haywire kind of feel.
1 – At this point it’s also worth calling out that a lot of the fight quality also came from Gina Carano‘s ability to sell the fights convincingly. She was fantastic.

2 – Super nerdy aside – there are a lot of fine gradations of genre which I am casually ignoring here, but which are actually relevant to the conversation.  Action is a wide umbrella, but the nature of threat and violence actually varies greatly across the range, from the virtually superheroic highs of James Bond and gun ballets to intensely grim, lethal stuff.  Most action movies tend towards the former, but its worth noting that a lot of action-in-context films (which includes a large swath of espionage) are further down the spectrum.  Haywire is nominally a spy movie, so it’s no surprise it leans gritty, but that’s also no guarantee, since spies also bring us James Bond.
3 – As an aside, if a game has a high stealth component, single hit/mook rules can be applied situationally to relfect that. That is, targets caught unawares are treated as mooks. This is a simple way to capture the feel of certain games like Dishonored or Deus Ex.

6 thoughts on “Mooks Gone Haywire

  1. Cam_Banks

    Gina being a champion MMA fighter and kickboxer probably helped a lot in setting that intense tone to the fight choreography. But even Ewan MacGregor looked pretty convincing as “guy who does not want to be killed by Gina.”

    By the way, 90% of the issue between mook vs. standard fights in this movie seemed addressed by the pacing and the need for conflict. No fight seemed extraneous or unnecessary. The director didn’t just have doors open and bad guys pour through to be fought.

  2. Unknown

    Hm. Going back to Feng Shui — mooks weren’t intended to speed up combat as much as they were intended to make players feel bad-ass. (I think 4e altered that and used minions as a way to make fights more interesting, conversely.) One of the clever things Soderbergh did in Haywire was avoiding that trope, in any case. Carano is always in some danger, which has the nice side effect of building our opinion of her badassery by putting her against real foes.

    I haven’t yet tested, but based on my Trail of Cthulhu experience I’m willing to bet Night’s Black Agents fights get the Haywire feel. When you and your opponent both have pool points to spend, almost every attack can be a hit and this puts tremendous pressure on the PCs to a) work to gain advantages and b) finish things quick. There’s some great stuff in NBA to encourage (a) as well.

  3. Anonymous

    For gritty games, one answer tweek your mooks by giving them some offensive more firepower but relatively glass jaws.

    In a system like savage worlds boost fight or shooting skills to appropriate levels while keeping the one wound rule for mooks. Mooks/henchmen that can hit hard and smart are enough to scare a PC silly, forcing the PCs to use their brains and tactics but (the mooks) still go down quickly enough to keep things moving. PCs with the extra wounds 3 plus a shaken and bennies should be able to survive the encounter.

    Sure these beefed up mooks are no longer really mooks. They are NPCs, the antogonist’s allies and challenges in their own right. Defeatable but scary.

  4. Pat Gamblin

    Hm, this really got my brain going. I should really be sleeping, but here’s what my brain decided to work on instead. Judging from your Tempo Lives post, this may be similar to what you’re working on already.

    Each character has a combat threshold, representing their dramatic importance, more or less. Background characters and ‘mooks’ may have a threshold that’s very low, one or two, whereas PCs and boss villains would be significantly higher, maybe 6 or 8.

    There’s no damage roll. If an attack hits, the target takes a Loss token (needs a better name). If the attack hits well, or the attacker is strong, or they’re using a really big gun, the target takes more than one Loss token. If the attack puts their accumulated Loss tokens over their combat threshold, they’re taken out. So far it’s like Hit Points, on a smaller scale.

    I’m thinking of several important differences, though:
    – Loss tokens go away at the end of a combat. They don’t represent damage, they represent being outmanoeuvered (I think that’s the Canadian spelling, but spellcheck is flagging it) or set up. Similarly, if a character goes a full round without being attacked or chased, they discard all their Loss tokens as they ready themselves again.

    – What happens when a target is taken out depends solely on the attack that took them out. If they were beaten by nonlethal attacks and finished off with a handgun, they’re dead. If they were shot at until someone got close and punched them out, they’re KO’d. Taking a Loss token doesn’t necessarily mean that the attack hit, just that it put you off-balance.*

    – Player characters and boss-like villains aren’t taken out if their combat threshold is overcome. Instead, they take an Injury, some sort of lasting effect, then they discard their Loss tokens. How many times they can do this depends on the grittiness level of the game. In Cyberpunk, maybe they can do it once. In a pulp game maybe four or five times. Something like that. Might fix the problem I have when 5 PCs get to gang up on one villain. Or it might not.

    – Armour would probably reduce the Loss tokens taken by 1 if the attack did more than one. Players might be able to trash the armour to discard several tokens (but at that point the armour is useless against further attacks). Maybe for PCs armour could turn Lethal attacks into Nonlethal or something.

    – Looking at the Tempo Lives post, maybe you could choose to spend some of the target’s Loss tokens to get a specific effect, like “Attack: Dazing Punch: Reduce the target’s Loss tokens by 2 to daze them. A dazed target cannot move, take actions, or defend themselves this round.”

    – You could work it into other abilities too: “Berserker: If your character has gone berserk, your attacks add 1 more Loss token and are lethal, but you take 1 extra Loss token if hit. Ignore the effects of Injuries until the end of this combat.”

    – Weapons would not have a damage rating, just Lethal or Nonlethal. Dramatically big/important weapons could maybe do an extra Loss token if they hit.

    – Sneak attacks could do double the normal amount of Loss tokens. Or maybe just penalize the defense, which could allow more Loss tokens based on how much you beat them by. Or both.

    I don’t think I’m going to be getting any sleep for a bit. I need to think this through more.

    Thanks for making me think.

    Pat Gamblin

    * It could still represent you being hit, in the same way Indy always gets beat up, but at the end of a fight is able to (mostly) shrug it off and get back to stealing antiquities.


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