Last weekend, we finally wrapped up our long-overdue mini-campaign of High Plains Samurai. And when I say long-overdue, I mean a game that’s required almost four years to complete. From its initial inception using Killshot‘s mechanics to the inspiration for ScreenPlay mixed in with the assorted delays of real life and numerous revisions, our tale came to an end with Grandfather of Hunan’s reign coming to an explosive end. Great times and while I’m happy to know we finally made it to the end, I’m also finding myself wondering if this game is performing exactly as I had hoped.
So I went back to my inspiration for damn near every major design of the past few years: Ong Bak 2. Despite others opinions on this movie compared to other Tony Jaa films, this one has some of the most dynamic fight scenes captured on film and I’ll defend it like Jim McClure with Legend of the Five Rings – vigorously and passionately. These fight scenes were fundamental to ScreenPlay/High Plains Samurai‘s mechanics and whenever I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track, it was simply a matter of slipping in the DVD and skipping to all the ass-kicking scenes.
Honestly, the mechanics themselves – descriptions, outcomes, Stamina, all that, is functional. But something’s off. What happens at the table is not exactly what you see in the movies and that’s what I want with HPS. So I choose one scene in particular and started tearing it apart looking for where I’ve gone wrong or what needs to be tweaked to fit this style. Let’s watch, shall we?
The rest of this post is going to direct the mechanics behind ScreenPlay/High Plains Samurai to see what works 100%, what’s running shy of the goal, and what’s way the fuck off. Crack your knuckles and get ready because this post took a couple days to put together. It’s that thorough.
What I’ve provided below is not the only way this scene could play out using ScreenPlay/High Plains Samurai, but it’s the one that pops into my head as I watch. This scene features four characters: Jaa (played by Tony Jaa) as the lead, two Elite Warriors, built as Director-controlled supporting characters, and a few Masked Warriors built as extras. Character stats (as I imagine them) are provided below. Seeing as there’s no end to the number of challenges possible from earlier scenes, I’m not going to have a starting number and will simple spend them as if the Director has enough to go around.
Cast of Characters
Before getting into the fight, we have to know who we’re dealing with. For simplicity’s sake, I’m simply going to refer to Tony Jaa by his stage name and not his character’s name in the movie (mainly because I always mix it up with his name in The Protector… or some other movie of his). This is how I would build these characters in the scene and I’m not going to bother with the Mysterious Warrior because he is nothing more than background material and motivation for Jaa to punch and kick his way through this scene. I’m also going to avoid bumping Jaa up to more than 15 Stamina as the vast majority of characters played with ScreenPlay/High Plains Samurai to date have been at this “level.”
Master of All the Deadly Arts (d8/5/3)
Leader of Bandits (d6/3/2)
Angry Like the Hulk (d6/3/2)
Trained by the Best Warriors (+1 steps)
Elbows and Kneecaps of Steel (+1 damage)
Awareness (+1 steps)
Tattoo Face & Masked Warrior
Needs No Weapon (d8/5/3)
Fears No One (d6/3/2)
Martial Arts Training (+1 damage)
Element of Surprise (+1 steps)
Stamina 7 each
Trained to Fight (d6/3/2)
Weapons (+1 steps)
Stamina 3 each
Ready, Set… Fight!
Below is a turn-by-turn description of the fight scene broken down into segments of the above fight scene. I’m not going to bother with a list of possible dice rolls because this is a backwards build. There are a couple times where I use absolutes (the highest value on a die roll) based on the impact of a given attack in the scene, but that’s about it.
0:01 to 0:08 (The Opening Shot)
While only two minutes in length and part of a much larger climax, this fight scene is exactly that – a scene. And this is the opening shot. Jaa spots his enemy on a rooftop, baiting him with nothing more than his stance. As he leaps closer and closer to this figure, Jaa is suddenly confronted by a trio of Anonymous Goons. While extras can be handled as a group, it’s not mandatory and if you really want to give someone like Jaa a run for their money, you treat each Anonymous Goons as their own character with individual descriptions and complication rolls. Catching Jaa off-guard, the Director finished the opening shot with the first Anonymous Goon moving in with a swipe of his weapon, missing and being pushed back by Jaa as the others enter the fray. Combat begins!
0:09 to 0:13 (The Second Anonymous Goon Attacks)
The Director spends 1 challenge to allow one of the Anonymous Goons to start the scene with a description: a volley of strikes quickly blocked by Jaa’s rapid fire blocks. The Goon’s description provide a series of attempts (each one its own detail) that is blocked by Jaa before the roll is attempted and becomes ineffective. Once again, Jaa gets to choose a complication for the second Anonymous Goon and goes with damage, pushing him back against the nearby rock to knock him right out.
0:15 to 0:21 (Now It’s The First Goon’s Turn)
Weilding a pair of katar, the first Goon steps in swinging with deadly 360 degree swipes at Jaa’s jugular. Rather than waiting for the resulting die roll, Jaa spends 1 Stamina and interrupts at the last minute with a complication roll of his own. It’s effective and he uses the Goon’s own katar to slit his throat (a damage complication), killing him.
0:22 to 0:24 (And Then There Was Three…)
Even with the first Goon dead, control still remains up to the Director and he plays up the third extra in play with a set of metal claws for weapons. When the dice hit the table, Jaa once again provides a high enough Difficulty to make the complication roll ineffective and instead places a Grappled restriction complication on him.
0:25 to 0:28 (Jaa Takes On The Claws)
There are no more extras in play in this scene and so it’s now Jaa’s turn. Using his Master of All the Deadly Arts potential, he begins to bat this extra around like a toy with each detail adding on an extra flourish to demonstrate how he keeps his opponent’s deadly weapons at a safe distance. For the key detail, Jaa attempts to break the Goon’s arm… and the roll is ineffective. Instead, the Anonymous Goon gets to place a complication on Jaa and it’s Pinned With My Claws (a restriction).
The first round is now over.
0:29 to 0:36 (Jaa Finishes the Third Goon Off)
As he was the last character to act in the previous round, Jaa gets to choose who starts the next one and he selects himself. Good thing, because after using 1 Stamina to remove the Pinned With My Claws complication with a single detail, he still has 2 remaining to describe how one claw is tossed aside like paper before rolling to deal the killing blow to this extra: a damage complication digging the Masked Warrior’s remaining claw into his own throat, dropping him to 0 Stamina. The Director even adds in a little touch of the flying claw blocked by the observing Mysterious Warrior from the opening shot.
0:37 to 0:50 (Enter the Masked Warrior)
Leaping into the fray is the Masked Warrior and now that Jaa’s done for the round, all he can do is defend. A rush of punches and kicks from this combatant sporting spikes on his palms forces Jaa to step back more and more until they approach a raised platform and that’s where the Masked Warrior uses his key detail to make an effective complication roll. The complication? Tag Team, a penalty complication created as the Masked Warrior spends 1 Stamina to inflict a -1 step penalty on Jaa.
0:51 to 0:57 (Tattoo Face Steps In)
Tattoo Face makes his move and begins to assault Jaa with a few knees and elbows, easily blocked. Attempting a complication roll doesn’t work, but Tattoo Face rolls an even number and decides to have nothing happen. That’s what you get when you roll evens on an ineffective complication roll, but now Jaa is surrounded. The Director has no plans for the Mysterious Warrior to do anything (yet) and so the second round ends.
0:58 to 1:09 (Keeping Them At Bay)
Looking to use up Jaa’s turn at the start of the third round, the Director chooses our lone hero. Jaa spends 1 Stamina to remove the penalty with a the first detail, followed by a series of distracting attacks towards one opponent while actually directing it towards the other to keep either from pressing their advantage. It all culminates on the key detail: leaping off Tattoo Face to deliver a kick to Masked Warrior’s face. The dice drop and Jaa rolls an even number, only to have it dropped to an odd number when his target spends 1 Stamina. The Masked Warrior gets to choose the complication and turns what would have been damage to Knocked Down (a restriction complication).
1:10 to 1:15 (While The Masked Warrior Is Down)
The Director’s two supporting characters are the only ones available in the round starts by saving the Masked Warrior’s Stamina as is, removing the Knocked Down complication with a full description. That leaves Tattoo Face to offer a barrage of upper body blows, none of them capable of breaching Jaa’s blocks. When the dice hit the table, the tables have in fact turned and Jaa gets to place a complication on his opponent’s ineffective complication and so he goes with Stepping Stool to force him down onto his knees to perfect the next attack as the third round comes to an end.
1:16 to 1:22 (Slow Motion Knee to the Face)
Let’s say the Director planned to start the fourth round with Masked Warrior, but Jaa won’t let that happen. Instead, he spends 1 Stamina to interrupt and with the Stepping Stone complication keeping Tattoo Face on all fours, he is described leaping off that one’s back and connecting his battle-hardened knee straight to the Masked Warrior’s face. And the dice like it, rolling an absolute on a d10 against a Difficulty of 7 for 3 damage.
1:23 to 1:37 (A Weakened Masked Warrior Steps Up and Goes Back Down)
At this point, Jaa is down to 10 Stamina and risks starting the next scene with less than his maximum of 15 at the next scene and there’s still half an army to go. The Masked Warrior is down to 2 Stamina, but Tattoo Face still has a healthy 6 Stamina remaining. He needs to conserve his strength as much as possible. As the Masked Warrior takes a turn and lashes out with an almost never-ending parade of strikes, Jaa’s impressive Difficulty of 7 against his opponent’s d8 makes it too hard. Hoping the volley itself will wear our hero down, it only ends up ineffective and Jaa gets to place a complication on him: Back You Get! forces him to fall back once more as Tattoo Face’s turn is next.
1:38 to 1:42 (Tattoo Face Doesn’t Fare Any Better)
Spending 1 Stamina to ditch the Stepping Stool complication, the next one steps up to try and bring Jaa down, he does not better than his ally. Offering up a slew of blows, the complication roll nets the same result as the first’s, so Jaa gives him the exact same complication and knocks him to the ground. The fourth round is over.
1:43 to 2:05 (Tag Team!)
Flanked by his opponents, Jaa must now find a way to bounce back and forth between them so they cannot gang up on him. Rather than a turn-by-turn breakdown, this sequence can basically work as three rounds mixing up damage (particularly if Jaa rolls an absolute) and applying complications like Pushed Back or anything else requiring his enemies to remove before they can approach him for their next strike. Already running low on Stamina, the Masked Warrior cannot afford to spend any more to remove complications quickly and must spend turns each round to get back up again. This allows Jaa to focus his actual turns on the healthier Tattoo Face and using the other’s ineffective rolls to push him back and hold him off. For now.
2:06 to 2:12 (Time to End This!)
Either by waiting for his turn or using 1 Stamina to interrupt, Jaa makes an effective complication roll against both opponents (even with a -1 step penalty for doing so). He rolls an absolute of 8 against their Difficulties of 5. No one can shift that down and Jas is going to beat the shit out of them with it. On Tattoo Face, he places a choke hold. This is nothing more than a minor detail to explain how Jaa will handle them one by one. The first feels the full wrath of Jaa’s fury with damage that drops him down to 0 Stamina. Hence the slow motion effect as a kick to the face sends the Masked Warrior falling out of frame, defeated.
2:13 to 2:16 (One More Left)
At this point, Tattoo Face has only 4 Stamina remaining compared to Jaa’s 10 Stamina. He goes to make a move with a simple, single detail of a kick to the jaw and the dice are still not in his favour. Jaa responds by placing his choice of complications, Stunned, as he delivers a knee to the face.
2:17 to 2:23 (The Finishing Move)
The final round begins and ends with Jaa spending 1 last Stamina to interrupt and ensure he can strike before Tattoo Face can get up – and it’s another absolute with the d10. Against the Stunned opponent’s Difficulty of 3 (as the Director finds it hard for a martial artist to apply a martial arts-based potential when someone is Stunned), that’s 7 damage! More enough to finish him off, and so Jaa provides the means by which Tattoo Face leaves the scene: he lifts his opponent into the air by only a foot and launches both elbows into his chest, sending him flying back ten feet through a nearby ladder.
The scene concludes and Jaa will gain 4 Stamina back to start the next scene with 14 Stamina (9 + half of the current total = 14).
Breaking It All Down
Number of Rounds = 8
Amount of Stamina Jaa Lost = 6
Number of Complications Against Jaa = 2
Number of Complications Against Enemies (not including damage) = 9
While I may have fudged a few dice roll here and there, all of this played out as if it was a real session of High Plains Samurai. At no point and time did I feel the need to bend either the events of the actual fight scene or the rules to make it work. Would an actual game work out the same? Can a single lead character with 15 Stamina hold his own against five opponents totally 23 Stamina? In my experience, yes, it can totally happen.
What Didn’t Work?
If you do a direct comparison of blows in the movie compared to actual dice rolls, they don’t quite match up. Using ScreenPlay directly as written, many of these attacks are extra details thrown in as flourishes to make the fight far more dynamic than the dice roll. Now here’s the big thing: no one plays that way. It’s something they have to be taught. For example, many of these flourishes involve accepting your opponent will block most of them and it’s only the key details – or the key attack, if you will – that stands a shot of breaking through and getting something done. But the rest of it assumes a good defence from your opponent. No one who’s played High Plains Samurai to date has done so; their enemies will always get smacked around until the dice say otherwise.
That’s something I want to fix. Not with mechanics or a reward for “playing nice with your enemies,” but through guidelines and recommendations on how to play. A sidebar. But really it comes down to how everyone wants their own version of the fight to play out. It’s actually something to demonstrate in the outcome because while the outcome is supposed to indicate the end result of a description, there’s nothing stopping anyone from going into how a character reacts during the description and then what happens after the complication is applied.
Fuck me, this works! This experiment’s taken me three days to write and while it’s cost me precious time working on my other projects, the relief I’m feeling right now makes the effort totally worth it. Does this mean this example automatically equals perfection in every possible movie fight scene? Not necessarily… but I’m game to try another experiment. What do you think? Any other fight scenes out there you’d recommend? If you do, comment below or share it on Twitter with the hashtag #HPSfightscene and I’ll choose another one to test against the High Plains Samurai mechanics.