Rob’s comments on my fighting shonen manga post, coupled with this thread on S-G have me thinking more about fighty manga and RPGs in general. I think in manga especially, fights are less about combat power, or even who wins or loses per se, and more about the costs and consequences that flow out of those things. Stories, especially melodramatic shonen manga type stories, have a certain flow to them, and a game that really wants to simulate them needs to be less about hitting or missing, and more about what kinds of consequences flow out of succeeding or failing.
I have no doubt whatsoever that there are people who like game-y combat in their role-playing (I mean, D&D. Yeah.), but while running my current campaign with OVA, I’m finding that the consequences of a given conflict are the more interesting part, for me at least. If a bad guy shows up and gets offed with little trouble, he might as well not have come at all. When the ship’s AI turned on the crew, and left Aleph severely damaged, Caden with one arm, Nameli with two out of five children dread, and everyone homeless and generally shaken up, it was what will likely be one of the more memorable moments of our involvement in the hobby. Whatever the outcome, the process of rolling to hit and to dodge and figuring damage and such just doesn’t interest me all that much, especially when it holds the threat of PC death. Danger can and often does make things more interesting, but in terms of playing a game around the table, having a dead PC is more often than not one of the most boring things that can befall a player, since (as noted in Nathan Paoletta’s recent blog post) the player’s input into the game drops to zero. Conflicts with fallout have less worry about deprotagonization and the incentive of making characters more interesting and (for this genre) possibly more powerful. (Plus fighting shonen manga characters hardly ever get around to dying for whatever reason).
Although it’s tempting to conclude that in anime a hero with sufficient motivation can accomplish just about anything, at least in the fighting shonen manga mode it’s more than a character has to have his motivations properly lined up in order to use his full power, and that power is what lets him turn his passions and principles into reality. As over-the-top and melodramatic as it is, the characters in Naruto have to find ways to use guile, cleverness, and sometimes sheer boldness to have any chance against what it otherwise a superior foe. However much Naruto wants to beat Neji for Hinata’s sake, just wanting to do it really badly isn’t enough. He has to put everything on the line, risk using the power of the Kitsune, and pull off something incredible with the Kage-Bunshin no Jutusu.
This means I’m starting to really see the shape of the system I want. In a conflict you would compare power levels, and commence a back-and-forth to try to push the advantage to one side’s favor or the other. The relative power levels determines “Standing,” which can go anywhere from a deadlock to a crushing defeat/overwhelming victory. In the end, both sides have to face a possibility of some kind of fallout, which can in turn create plot complications, from simple injuries to broken swords to a lengthy quest to prepare for a rematch. I’m thinking the final difference in power levels would become a pool of points that the two sides take turns spending on complications. (So that it’s in the player’s interests to come up with big but interesting complications so the other side has less to spend).
Characters would have a Resolve rating that could be helpful or harmful if it gets too high or too low, but its influence would be small compared to actual ability (unless a fighter’s Resolve gets completely broken and he loses the will to fight). I haven’t gotten far enough to decide on whether or not to use dice, but I know that randomness won’t intrude on the core of conflicts. There might be dice rolls for, say, trying to affect the opponent’s Resolve, but even that doesn’t feel quite right to me. I’m thinking there should be some kind of currency, as it would be helpful for moderating the flow of meta-game effects and character growth.
That still leaves a lot to figure out in terms of how to structure gameplay, how characters advance (for this genre they’ve got to be able to make major jumps in power level at times), and of course how to handle things that aren’t epic conflicts. And a name for the game itself. But I do think I’ve now passed the single biggest conceptual hurdle.