Do you need a reliable formula for an action packed role-playing session? Well look no further than the hallowed annals of antiquity, combined with a tried-and -tested cinema format…
Just throw the PCs into a situation that is beyond them, and have them fight their way out!
Yes, it’s that simple. This fight-your-way–out formula is totally derivative- I’ve ripped it straight out of the film makers playbook. It works in the cinema and by golly it works in role playing games too!
Soooo, what’s the formula?
Remember that awesome sci-fi action film Aliens? Sequel to the classic sci-fi horror film Alien. Both great films, but it’s the action movie sequel we are interested in: The marines land on an outpost to search for the missing colonists. Spoiler alert…the insidious alien life forms have impregnated/killed all the colonists. The critters ambush the marines who must then fight their way out and get off the planet before the damaged terraforming plant goes atomic. Great film and the inspiration for many an adventure I’ve run in diverse gaming systems.
Walter Hill seems to have kicked off this format directing the film The Warriors: a cult film released in 1979 about a street gang escaping from dozens of other gangs out to kill them for a crime they didn’t commit. The plot-line of The Warriors is loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabasis and the story of The Ten Thousand, wherein an army of Greek Mercenaries in 401 BC are stranded deep in Persia and have to march and fight their way out through many miles of hostile territory. Walter Hill went on to be involved in films with similar story-lines such as Southern Comfort, Aliens, Prometheus, Alien vs Predator, Alien Resurrection, all in the same “fight your way out of trouble” vein. Now sure, some of these aren’t great films, but as a format for an action RPG adventure they can be absolute gold.
I have successfully used the “fight-your-way-out” format for several different RPG systems including Call of Cthulhu, Dungeons and Dragons, and Traveller. Essentially the GM dumps/pushes/lures the players into a situation. The PCs are attacked and discover the opponents will soon overpower them if they don’t withdraw. So the players pull back out of immediate danger only to find their planned method of exit is gone. Cue the dramatic solutions and more climactic encounters as the PC’s battle to escape.
A more detailed run through of the film school of “fight-your-way-out” adventure gaming goes as follows…
- Insert characters into situation +discover some clues.
- The ambush …FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!!
- Escalating problem that the PC’s can see they cannot beat…retreat!! (coming to this realisation can be momentous for many players).
- Fighting withdrawal. – the action continues, hopefully with some strategizing!!
- Upping the Stakes –the PC’s survive initial attack and regroup only to find that their original evac route is gone AND/OR something catastrophic is also happening.
- The Plan…PC’c scheme to overcome the obstacles.
- Last Stand / Running fight to the escape point …another action sequence either defending a redoubt and/or fighting on the run. There is danger from opponents and situational danger (ie. falling off the vehicle/ into the lava etc)
- Sudden Change of Plans…rescue the princess/item/key etc (something precious and /or vital to the escape plan). This may involve going back to previous visited danger zones or going into even more dangerous areas.
- Big Boss battle to escape (heroics/ casualties/ tough decisions/ lots of action).
- Escape with a twist …the sticky situation has been avoided but now a final surprise awaits the players: perhaps something nasty hitched a ride/a final extra battle with a 3rd party/ surprise baddie/betrayal.
Of course this format can be switched around and tweaked to fit your own needs. By making the game about the players escaping you totally move the adventure away from the boring “open the door, kill the monster, take the treasure” routine.
Conducting a “fight your way out” adventure usually takes a bit longer than one session of gaming. I suggest two to three sessions perhaps with cliff-hanger/twist endings at Upping the Stakes and Sudden Change of Plans. You could try and do an abbreviated single session version like the 5 room dungeon concept (1= ambush, 2= upping the stakes, 3= running fight, 4=big battle to escape, 5= surprise baddie at end), but from experience several evenings allow extended action, scheming and fully milking the setup.
Important things to remember.
The Ambush/ Escalating Problem needs to be survivable but at the same time the players must understand they cannot win if they stand their ground and fight at this point. This may require: a gradual increase in number or quality of opponents; an NPC advising retreat; intelligence rolls indicating withdrawal is the best option; a contingency big baddy upgrade (think Orcs up to Balrog here) if the PCs still don’t get the hint.
The Upping the Stakes phase, whilst not essential, really adds “another room to this dungeon”. It can be something as simple as the entry tunnel has collapsed, to the bridge off the spooky island has been destroyed. But don’t just leave it at that, add in another layer to the problem. Eg. The entry tunnel has collapsed AND the horde of orcs that are chasing them are really fleeing from an insane earth elemental. Or the bridge is out AND the water is full of deep ones and there is a hungry shoggoth loose on the island too! For a filmic reference to Upping the Stakes think “all the colonists have been eaten/ impregnated by face-huggers AND the terraforming plant is going to explode in a few hours.”
Sudden Change of Plans is an optional extra but definitely keeps the players on their toes whilst avoiding the look of this being a linear adventure. Basically the GM makes something happen that alters the expected chain of events. This could be something along the lines of one of the party being taken captive by the baddies. Or perhaps the baddies have unexpectedly stolen the key piece of the puzzle that will allow escape.
An alternate variation of the sudden change is to have the PC’s discover a way to neutralise the Upped Stakes. This could be in the form of a risky mission to disarm the bomb/ or learning the location of a radio to call in the airstrike/finding explosives that will potentially divert the flood/ or side-tracking to release an efreeti that could counter-spell the evil/ or the player must sneak past the hordes of nasties and repair the lethal problem.
Think of the “fight your way out” formula as dungeoneering on the run – the players should be able to cover a lot of ground trading parting shots and hasty blows rather than getting bogged down listening at doors or in drawn out slug fests. Have dramatic music playing. Emphasise the hurried nature – make players come to decisions quickly (eg. give them 5 seconds). Remind them of the noise of pursuing enemies/ the screams of NPCs who were too slow being torn apart/ the barricaded doors buckling under pressure. Give them a jump scare by running headfirst into some baddies.
As with any form of roleplaying, the GM should be ready to adapt when the players do the unexpected/ go off the reservation. High level magic or advanced tech oft ruins the best laid plans so be ready with your plausible excuses or better still, nip clever player solutions in the bud before they happen.
That said, sometimes very clever player solutions should be accommodated, lest you risk ruining the illusion of choice, or worse, having your dungeon being labelled “impervio”. Thus it is handy to have another layer to your “fight your way out” dungeon ready to go. ie. “We use that teleport spell to go right back to the inn in Safetown”. “Good thinking, you arrive in the smoking ruins of Safetown, it’s overrun with demons too!”
If the PCs ideas catch the DM totally flat footed, don’t be shy about calling a premature end to the session -it will give you time to plot out the next bit!
Need a few more unique riffs to your action movie rip-off RPG? Try inserting the following plot twists & tropes…
-The crooked employer (can be combined with turncoat companion) (will betray the PCs for a larger objective)
-The turncoat companion (an evil robot, demonic possession, doppelganger, spy, assassin, thief etc)
– The annoying or cowardly NPC you must protect (but may later redeem themselves/turn out to be useful)
– The half insane NPC who makes creepy pronouncements that turn out to be prophetic or red herrings.
– The schism between players over who is in charge (leader killed in first ambush) or over the best way to escape. (this can be driven by notes from the GM to certain players)
– The old “return to where we got our ass kicked yesterday” trope. The key to escaping is back in the ‘hornet’s nest’. Typical of war movies “We are going back to Planet P”, “Back to where Sergeant Elias bought it…”
– Sprained ankle: if the PCs are getting away too easily, someone or something needs to get injured or develop a fault, thus keeping the pursuit in close contact
-Can’t use your best weapons: your gauss rifles will damage the nuclear power plant/ the nega-demons are immune to magic weaponry/ the town guards confiscated all your cool toys/ “Using firearms on a hydrogen filled zeppelin- are you crazy?!!”/ extra dimensional entities that ignore kinetic energy (and the laws of physics).
-The sudden switch from running battle to finding a defensible spot and holding your ground/weathering the storm.
Further ideas for your Action Movie RPG Game
Upping the Stakes suggestions: (apart from “our ride home is gone, and the baddies are still coming” you need something else to really make them wanna get out)
The island is sinking; The volcano is going to erupt; Falling towards a gas giant/ sun/ black hole; The sun is going supernova; The pyramid/dungeon/ castle is going to collapse; The cavern is flooding; The plane/ zeppelin is running out of fuel; The oxygen is running out; The bomb is going off in less than an hour; The space station orbit is declining; Your employer/lord/owner insists you remain in the danger zone; Poisonous gas leak; Blizzard/ hurricane/avalanche/tsunami about to hit; The bridge/causeway/tunnel is destroyed; An EMP has destroyed all electronics/comms/air support etc.
Running battle ideas: (apart from the standard running-down-dark-corridors which works just fine, or the last stand/defend at all costs which also is neat)
Freight/ passenger train; Paddle steamer; Space station (in a failing orbit?); Space ship(s); Zeppelin; Barge shooting the rapids; Massive factory production line; Horse/Car/bike/truck chase; Stagecoach; Canoe chase; WW1 dreadnought; Mining railway cars (with earthquake/dam burst/ lava follow up).
Films for inspiration
Aliens, Southern Comfort, Predator, Alien vs Predator, Predators, The Warriors, Alien Resurrection, Prometheus, Alien- Covenant, Deliverance, Starship Troopers, Platoon.
Sample Adventure Ideas
Cthulhu…investigate a house on an isthmus near Innsmouth. The basement connects to a sea cave and yep, it’s crawling with deep ones (and a shoggoth if the players need a bigger hint to flee). The monsters begin to hunt the players who soon find that the causeway bridge has been destroyed. Do they stunt jump their sports car over the gap? Pilot the rickety motor boat across the murky waters? Turn the lighthouse into a fortress and signal for help?
D&D…Ambushed in a dungeon by a host of cunning orcs/gnolls/bugbears etc. Return to the entrance to find a green dragon/arch mage gassing the cave for her own nefarious purposes. Fight your way back through the humanoids whilst the dungeon is filling with behind you with poisonous gas. Exit via a fast flowing underground river on rafts/canoes whilst fending off baddies, or go back and stop the gas.
Fantasy … Enter the Golem Master’s tower to rescue the princess. The place is full of statues, which the mage animates to kill the players. The princess is imprisoned with a head encasing iron mask. Kill the mage to disable the stone golems, and get the key to the princess’s mask…yep she’s a gorgon/medusa and you is stoned. And, now that the mage is dead, the castle begins to collapse…
Sci-Fi … a salvage operation on a derelict spacecraft. The PCs accidentally reactivate the ship which is full of malfunctioning kill bots. Cue the unstable warp drive that mis-jumps the ship into a gravity well and then proceeds to go critical. Escape/slay the robots and exit/repair the ship in the nick of time.
Post Apocalypse … enter an earthquake prone dead-city only to be ambushed by more and more cannibal gangs. Escape on an old bus/truck pursued by a motley horde of vehicles down the collapsing city streets and onto a highway through raging grass fires and tornadoes.
If you found this format useful, then obviously don’t just stop at using fight-your-way-out movies for inspiration. Many different sorts of films have excellent ideas for roleplaying scenarios…
Haunted House/ Trapped with a Monster : Alien, The Shining, The Thing, The Descent, Cabin in the Woods
Pressure Cooker: The Abyss, Jaws
Perilous Journey: Lord of the Rings, Mad Max Fury Road
Last Stand: Zulu, Mad Max 2
Doomed Detective: Bladerunner, Angel Heart