Ingredients of Combat Spark

Yesterday, I talked about how combat spark, the peculiar quality of a fight scene and the maneuvers therein, is comprised of a number of component elements. What are these elements, and how do they help?

Combat spark is a trait that seems to act more on actions than on overall sequences, particularly in RPGs, though a fight with a lot of sparky moves will likely come across as having a lot of spark itself. For each move, then, combat spark comes from the interaction of flash and substance, meaning that it boils down to questions involving each. It might be results-first: “what do I need to do, and what do I have to do to make it work?” On the other hand, it might be image-first: “what would look cool, and what would best let me execute it?” With only flash, the action looks silly, overdone—as my friends and I put it when watching a particularly over-the-top action in a movie or show, “just doing it for the stunt dice”–and if it never succeeds, it loses even more of its shine. But efficacy without style doesn’t bring about spark, either; the sequence of events is colorless, so at that point one may as well just be playing a video game.

As a result, one of the greatest foundations of combat spark, and unfortunately one of the most often forgotten, is understanding the character’s capacity, and all the options open to her. After all, spark requires snap decisions, and a willingness to commit quickly to what to do in order to improve how to do it—and yes, this does include written works rather than just games; I’ve found that the best way for me at least to write fight scenes is to just get in the mindset and dash it out all at once. Since a good portion of the spark comes from the effect of the action, choosing the most effective way of achieving whatever needs to be done, not just the most flashy, is important. Without knowing exactly what the character is capable of, the creator often finds herself paralyzed by indecision, or focusing her efforts on the mechanical/metaphysical aspects rather than “How do I make this cool thing possible/this possible thing cool?”

In addition, improvisation and adaptation to the surroundings are vital to combat spark. Without them, the background and opponent may be different, but the fights themselves always look exactly the same. But when you’ve got a battle where terrain matters, where people are incorporating the actions of both friend and foe and exploiting them for every advantage possible, where everything is if not a weapon than at least a prop—that’s sparky.

While your mileage may vary, I find that teamwork is an important promoter of combat spark in a multi-combatant fight. It’s not a Power of Love and Friendship thing, mind you—there’s just something decidedly nifty about people with such a sense of what’s going on and such trust in their teammates that they can seamlessly trade opponents, give their buddies a boost, even use each other as weapons. I see it as an extension of improvising with the other combatants’ tactics—it’s the same principle, only more visibly intentional. (It does help, of course, to know what everyone else is capable of.)

The unexpected and the improbable have their place in combat spark as well. One of the things many people like in their stories is characters surmounting their own limitations—and imagine how much more of an impact it has in the RPG, where there’s a sense in which the player is also surmounting hers. So characters winning the fight in ways that one might not expect, as long as it’s technically possible—that’s awesome and sparky.

Put these elements together, and you get combat spark.


  1. edige23 says:

    I’d be curious about how you see that working in systems with high levels of combat fluff (4e, 3.5) vs. those with low levels (Fudge, BRP). How much do you think those elements promote or hinder spark?

    Your point about teamwork is great- if it comes from good play or even if it comes from mechanical benefits. We played WW’s Scion and it has some general nice mechanics encouraging that. It allowed me to put some really nasty foes against the group. They won purely through coordination and teaming up.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Ended up making a post out of the response to your first question; if it’s not up yet, just wait for tomorrow.

    And yeah–I’ve had groups like that. One of my favorite Exalted games centered around a group of PCs that kept being thrown up against things they probably shouldn’t have had a prayer against, but had good enough teamwork that it didn’t matter quite as much because we could coordinate our way around almost anything.

    Slightly off-topic, does your blog have an option for posting that doesn’t require a pre-existing profile? I wanted to comment on one of your posts, but none of the options work for me.

  3. edige23 says:

    I had it set to avoid anonymous- but I’ve changed that you should be able to comment there more easily now. Thanks for the heads up- I’d set that when I first started the blog and hadn’t changed it. Going to read your new post now.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Much appreciated!

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