Monday, February 15, 2010

Divers: Quantifying Supernatural Combat

I first came up with the concept for divers back in the fall of '09, hashed out the fictional premise a little, and then put it aside. About half of everything I've written so far has been the material I came up with during that initial brainstorm, with the other half being progress I've made on the concept (through my own work and the input of others) since I got back to work on developing & discussing it in mid-January.

Divers' hibernation ended because of a spontaneous breakthrough. Since it was getting close to midnight, I had decided to watch a couple more action amvs (the good kind that you find by using community sites rather than youtube) before going to bed. In my experience, nothing fuels inspiration better than good fan-made music videos; they combine their songs with the imagery to create potent moods, and at the same time the footage itself provides you with a concentrated stream of ideas. In this case, it was enough to get me thinking about Divers and the kind of supernatural action I was hoping to capture. I opened a new document, and started pausing the videos every time I had a new thought to record or revision to make.

This wound up lasting about five hours.

At first, I was just writing down every supernatural combat ability I thought of (or saw in the videos) that might be worth including. This was very much an intuitive selection process- it could be any form of supernatural fighting ability, so long as it still "felt" like the person themselves was fighting. To put it another way: I wanted the kind of superhuman power that lets Spider-Man lift a car, rather than the kind that lets Superman lift a cruise ship into the stratosphere. The former act of "lifting" is closely related to what we do in reality, and thus resonates with us more deeply. Meanwhile, Superman's just floating in midair with his hands raised. The only way we can see that he's having to make an effort is when he wears a strained expression and starts to sweat; there's more of a spectacle, but less actual substance to his act of "lifting". This was the criteria I was using- that the act of using the supernatural power needed to be something I could still label as "fighting".

I then started focusing more on the actual interactions of these fights- identifying individual "actions" and "reactions" (He launched a bolt of energy, she negated it with a strike of her sword), noting whether these succeeded or failed (Her counter worked, so his attack didn't), and envisioning the parallel-universe scenarios that could occur where someone had chosen a different action or seen that action have a different outcome (She might have tried to dodge the attack, the energy bolt could have been too intense for her sword strike to nullify it, and so on). In other words, I was putting together a coherent view of the underlying "mechanics" for these fights; the parts of the underlying "system" that had the most direct connections to what was going on.

If D&D was somehow being made from scratch using this approach (as opposed to the system I'll eventually have for divers), the equivalent to this point would be a designer watching ren faire swordplay enthusiasts spar. He'd be conceiving each person as having a static value representing how effective their defense was, with their enemy making attempts (which might or might not succeed) to overcome this defense with their own offensive abilities. He'd also have the idea that attacks which did succeed would inflict injuries on the target with varying degrees of severity, and that the total "severity" of your injuries would eventually be enough that you'd stop fighting and die. These would be the very first details he'd come up with for the system- there'd still be a long ways to go before he'd reach clear framework these "attack roll" and "damage" mechanics would fit into, like "rounds" and "initiative". Right now he's just identifying elements of his perspective, the same way I'm coming up with concepts like "attacks" as these oncoming entities which you must choose how to react to.

Once he's identified enough of these potential actions, he can start to look for the underlying factors that dictate their results; the innate qualities that are relevant for both sides. In his case, he'd conclude that after training and experience are taken into account, the remaining factors can be summed up by three concepts of roughly equal value- Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Me? I've got some concepts of my own, but they're dealing with something a little trickier.

This was the last stage I reached with that 5-hour brainstorm; coming up with a set of scores whose concepts covered this spectrum of supernatural fighting abilities I'd laid out- with each getting an even share. Looking back, it was a rather deranged thing to do; I was setting aside the elements of these action sequences that you'd find in realistic fights, and trying to puzzle out the workings of what remained. Directors and animators and choreographers the world over had dreamed up these impossible acts; now I was trying to identify a shared internal logic that all this impossibility had managed to follow, allowing human beings to find these fantasies intuitive and believable.

In the end, I also came up with three scores- the working names were Power, Energy, and Control. Today, the best names I can offer are Intensity, Energy and Skill. We'll see if that's still the case when I get around to writing out these concept's explanations.


Anonymous said...

This is really intresting to read, and I thank you for that. It's really nice to see how someone else gets some designing done.
Also, I suppose I should thank you for showing that there are good AMVs out there too. More or less to the point that they look like professional work.

Verser said...

I just finished reading up on most of your Divers posts, and I thought I'd mention this- it all seems very reminiscent of a game I've read in the past called JAGS Wonderland (at the bottom of this page- ).

Here's a quick rundown of what's similar- In this game, "Wonderland" is the thing that Lewis Carrol based his Alice stories on, but which is in fact much more sinister than he let on. Beneath our own world (Chessboard 0) lies numerous layers of reality. The first few layers down are similar to our own, with subtle sneaking differences, but further down things begin to vary wildly.

It seems to me that you've hit upon some of the same ideas these folks had, so it might be a good idea to check them out. (Unfortunately, the system they used was rather terrible, and a number of their ideas were barely fleshed out. Still, 'tis a good read.)

Dagda said...

Verser: Someone referred me to JAGS back during the initial discussions I had about Divers. The premises certainly had some elements in common, but I didn't see anything I wanted to take away as inspiration. Though I'm afraid I only skimmed through the material, and definitely could have missed something.

Anonymous: Glad to hear you enjoyed it. I'm still dubious about whether my creative methods/process is something worth writing about, but I'd gotten some requests from people who wanted to hear about it and the feedback's certainly been positive in this case.

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