Sunday, 9 October 2011

Redpill Diary #2: Real Men Use Their Fists

I am the Warden and I am Canadian!!

Go Habs! Go Jets! The clock ticks down to 4PM where the NHL finally restores some Canadian pride as Winnipeg has its first home opener in 15 years against my team of choice, the Habs. What does this have to do with the Matrix? Nothing, other than my eye darts to the clock every now and then to make sure I won't miss a beat.

The quintessential battle of wills between Neo and Agent Smith.
But I digress. Today, I want to talk about combat in Redpill (and every other other possible inception of the Optional System, for that matter). Specifically, hand-to-hand martial combat versus unloading a machine gun on the son of a bitch. During my first Redpill playtest (originally known as Matrix: Restoration), the players loaded themselves up with every firearm they could conceive of, including grenades and grenade launchers. Looking over their character sheets today, I noticed none of them prepared any Brawling skills or made any effort to prepare themselves for melee combat. They were expecting to enter the Matrix with guns blazing and nothing more.

I'm a huge fan of martial arts flicks, though I would not call myself knowledgeable by any definition. One of the striking features of the Matrix films was the fight sequences and how they incorporated the act of hacking into the Matrix to combat. In short, it was okay for Neo to suddenly turn around and pop a guy in the head without establishing eye contact first because he could see the opponent in the Matrix. Brilliant. Martial arts is a major component of the films, yet here were players with little to no interest engaging their enemies in a fist fight.

Guns vs. Fists
Guns have their role to play as well, don't get me wrong. What this established was a hurdle I would have to overcome if I wanted to set up martial arts and melee combat as a big player in Redpill. The Optional System was built as a martial arts RPG first, then extended to include guns, explosions, car chases, and more. As I'm sure I've stated before, I didn't want to create exceptional guidelines for allowing any character to throw punches effectively - a good punch can be just as effective as a hollow-point bullet if you roll high enough.

And therein lies the hurdle. What requires a devastating attack through melee combat is nothing more than 2 hits with a lethal weapon such as a gun. A devastating attack from a gun will kill your average hero, whereas you'd need to roll 90 points higher than your opponent to kill him with just one punch. When given the choice, players will shoot their problems away. It's faster and deadlier. Common sense dictates shooting first and resorting to melee when you run out of bullets.

Then how does melee combat regain its luster and appeal to players? There cannot be one answer to solve this equation. Such a concept does not help a roleplaying game intended to handle any situation for any group. We need multiple solutions for this single issue.

  • Flexibility. Guns require ammo, ammo need reloading, reloading needs a Quick option, and a Quick option uses up one of your Team's core options. In short, reloading cuts down on your Team's flexibility. Martial combat never requires your character to pull out a weapon or reload; you simply engage your opponents as is and can drop any equipment (including an empty pistol) on the ground at no cost. So long as you keep connecting those kicks and punches, there's no end to how long your character can keep going.
  • Variety. A bullet strikes the opponent square in the chest and does damage. It may be lethal damage, but guns do not include reactions. After a while, this can become boring and makes combat no different than the majority of publishing RPGs already on the market. Martial combat allows for reactions, even without training points, to push, trip, break bones, and tear a guy's arm out of his socket.
  • Immunity. Technology increased the power of guns over the years and provided protection against those advances. Bullet proof vests, kevlar, metal plates, and more can negate the power of a gun to grant lethal immunity. Combined with armor ratings, guns can be reduced to a minor annoyance with the right villain. Which brings us back to reactions; without any reactions, a gun just fails to do damage on a well-armored opponent.
These measures do not guarantee your own players will drop their weapons and strike a pose. If anything, these practices will entice players already interested in performing martial arts to do so regularly and fall back to their weapons. It won't be enough to alter the opinion of a gun lover. So we need to step it up a notch.

More Than Combat
Serif said it best in Matrix: Reloaded. "You do not truly know someone until you fight them." Bingo! Engaging an opponent in martial combat is more than a contest of physical ability and training, it allows two characters to interact in a truly metaphysical match where their codes interact with each other. Your character can learn something about that opponent through this interaction, though how that works will depend on your character's training and experience. Want to learn where the Keymaker is? Fight the program holding all the secrets and you can hack into their files to gain the information without asking a single question.

That's the beauty of this setting and the inspiration gained from the original films. What you see masks a deeper context, a physical representation of an internal struggle to overcome the odds and defeat a greater threat. Accessing this truth requires a truly hands on approach you cannot obtain with guns. Pull the trigger as much as you like; you'll never truly learn your purpose. It is purpose that drives and motivates us. Without purpose, we are nothing.