The Tightrope of Peril

I’ve been working on a roleplaying game design alongside Insomniacs that’s either going to be a Star Wars heartbreaker or some sort of pulp action game. It might end up diverging into both.

What Even Is Pulp Action?

Action-adventure as a genre is far too broad, but the influences I’m talking about are cornerstones of it. It’s the “people hanging off ledges while looking for treasure” genre – Indiana Jones, Uncharted, The Mummy, the recent Tomb Raider games, Sahara, and so on. I want it to handle car chases, daring feats, and desperate struggles against the environment as well as villains.

Scene Currency

The idea of having subsystems for different types of scene isn’t new. I’m inspired by Burning Empires here, and from there I learned about The King is Dead and Firebrands, which use minigames and strong scene framing. I also like the idea of the type of scene being up for grabs somehow, letting players steer or steal the scene type from the GM. Think Indy shooting the swordsman in the market.

Resource Management vs. Push Your Luck

Push your luck and risk vs. reward mechanics fit the genre better than resource management does. It’s why I don’t feel Fate and its cousins are the right fit for me. That said, I’m current enamored of having some sort of resource to help your character overcome their obstacles. The twist is, if you succeed too much or too often, that strength can express itself as a flaw and realize my risk vs. reward goal. I want to tune things so you’re dangling from that ledge, barely dodging the bad guys, and at the point of exhaustion.

Strengths and Flaws

I’m pulling heavily from Fate Accelerated’s approaches, since despite my misgivings about how appropriate it is for this as a whole, its approaches fit what’s in my head really well. Currently, the idea is that your character would have this special style that would help them get things done, but their flaw expresses itself when they’re too reliant on it.

  • Daring (Flashy from FAE) would become Recklessness
  • Aggression (Forceful) would become Bloodlust
  • Cunning (Clever) would become Arrogance
  • Precision (Careful) would become Hesitance

I’m still working through nomenclature, of course. The idea of attributes flip-flopping or degrading got more traction after reading Douglas Underhill’s blog post on the same.

Competition

One of the biggest differences between pulp action and Star Wars is that the kind of action-adventure touchstones I’m talking about feature exemplary solo protagonists with a supporting cast, while Star Wars has always been more of an ensemble with different specialties. What if you ended up with Lara Croft and Nathan Drake in the same gaming group?

Also, Star Wars has spaceships.

Action: Visceral, not Tactical

RPGs do tactical combat really well. You could run a perfectly fine pulp action game with Savage Worlds but I think it’d fall down once you left the set-piece battles for more obstacle- and environment-driven challenges. For this game, I want each die to be a leap, a slide, a shot, a punch, flurries or exchanges of action, little vignettes produced procedurally through the mechanics. I want the game to help the GM and players to describe the action. Without description, any rpg is still just comparing numbers. As a system’s handling effort grows, the less mental space you have for things like snappy banter or descriptions. “The system gets out of the way” makes me think “then what’s the point?” I want the system to walk beside me, not lurk in the corner.

I also expect just about everything in this post to be rendered completely false by the time this gets to a playable state.

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