Saturday, April 27, 2013

Action Vs. Reaction: A discussion about martial arts mechanics in RPG's

Recently, as part of my Howard and Lovecraft. Timeless horror through ages undreamt of project, I have been thinking about some hacks I want to do the the Savage Worlds combat system. I wanted things to be a little more bloody and realistic. Not really knowing about fighting (really with me it's a lot of head butting and punching wildly) I decided to go to one of my trusted friends +Kay Sakaue who is not only a Karate instructor but has been training in Kendo for quite some time. My conversation ended up being so fascinating that I decided to edit it into a blog entry. There is a lot of philosophy and other ranting in this discussion so be wary, but it is damn interesting. This is by no means the end of this conversation.

+X2A: I have a question for you sir. As a martial artist, how much would you say that Karate or Kendo focuses on reaction vs. action? Meaning, out of all of the moves, training and drilling how much of it is focused on taking advantage of an attackers move to open up areas for attack and are the forms geared towards offense or defense as a focus.

Kay: Jim... this is a great question. However, this is something that is very hard to explain, even to blackbelts, unless you have trained in either art so bear with me. It’s funny that you chose to look at Karate and Kendo. I’m assuming because I am a practitioner of both... but I’ll be talking about them separately because the way they look at reaction/action is also completely different. One this is certain, due to Kendo being developed before Karate, you will notice some similarities behind their philosophies.

  • Kendo 
    • Action vs. Reaction 
    • Kendo is primarily an offensive “martial” (martial = warlike; aggressive; etc.) 
    • Mainly focusing on that “one true cut/strike.” 
    • Rarely will they teach you to react to your opponent. Kenshi train to act first, to “steal” attack opportunities from their opponents. 
    • While Kendo is looked at from mainly a “safe” competitive aspect... however it goes deeper than people realize. A good sensei will keep getting you to attack and will teach you to create openings with your attacks. It is truly an active way of looking at combat. 一心一剣translates into “1 soul 1 blade.” This philosophy translates well with 一期一会 which translates to “treasure each meeting, for it will never recur.” This is important because while we think that being “active” or initiating equates to being haste, kenshi are just the opposite… they are patient with the intent of striking first and striking last… one shot one kill. 
    • While kendo is an “active/action” rather than “reactive/reaction” martial art… there are points, seldom, where technique is not preemptive… most of the time it is reacting off of missed techniques… but in general there are hardly any techniques where it is reactionary. 


Example of High Speed Kendo and how their technique is broken down real time vs slow motion.
  • Karate 
    • Action vs. Reaction 
    • Karate should be a “reactive” martial art. While due to movies and the promotion of Mixed Martial Arts, it’s becoming more and more of an Offensive rather than a Defensive art. Most of the techniques were developed to react against an aggressor rather than to preemptively attacking one. 
    • Karate was developed to block or deflect that “one true cut/strike” and then counter. To protect oneself was the main goal of a karateka. In the old days in Okinawa, I was told that even though karateka were taught how to strike and kick, they were never allowed to use it unless their life was in danger. They protected offensive techniques as much as they could however with modern day competition and entertainment they have gone away from that. 

(4:40 Kakie Training... reacting to opponent and taking advantage. This show is actually a comedy show… but it was to show how effective karate was if they were not a practitioner. Beat Takeshi has a couple of shows where he does this. Haha)

I guess for your question we can look at it two different ways… armed close combat and non-armed close combat to start with. I always had trouble with gaming systems because I always thought that they never took into consideration continuation of technique. Like you mentioned… you roll initiative, wait for your action, take your action, wash and repeat.

For Armed Close Combat I don’t agree with resetting initiative unless both opponents disengage. Most of the time if you are in close combat with a weapon, after the first attack you either reset because one of you miss or you are clashing with your opponent to see who gets the upper hand. In these kinds of instances, initiative should be decided who has the stronger mind and fit body… the x-factor would be spirit. Initiative should be based on physical and mental conditions alone… not training. Training should be an enhancer once initiative is determined. I’ve seen people who are not trained but naturally faster, smarter and nimbler give black belts a run for their money. But initiative can be negated when the trained individuals training kicks in. I look at initiative as an instinctual function rather than a trained one. A good fighter with good instinct and good training is what all martial artists aspire to become… but it’s something that is not always attainable.

For non-armed close combat, the biggest issue I have is the fact that player characters do not think about continuation of technique. And GMs allow PCs to attempt techniques that do not correspond to the technique beforehand. When going through my Trial of Position during our Mechwarrior Clan back in the day… that is one thing that I wanted to keep real when working it out with Mitch. I didn’t want to do anything that would not make sense. For example, If I lunge punch after my opponent and then follow-up with a thrust kick this would make sense especially if I have initiative over my opponent. The GM would have to realize that if this case I have my character pushing back my opponent so at that point my opponent would be in a retreating posture unless we were acting together (simultaneous). If my opponent is in a retreating posture, most likely he would need to be defensive… any instinctual fighter would be in a parry/blocking posture trying to find an instance where he can counterstrike or move to takedown. In the back of my head I was always miffed because game mechanics, again as you said… wash and repeat, would re-establish initiative. In a real life situation, initiative can change even in change of spirit or even a doubt in one’s mind.

+X2A: Thank you for your insights. There is an impressive amount of knowledge in your short dissertation, especially since it was meant for a total laymen such as myself. The few times I have been forced to fight, it was anything but pretty and technical.

To me it seems that in Kendo there is little defensive posturing, but instead analysis of position and decision on direct and fast attack. I am inclined to think that much of the art is a contest within yourself to focus on being the fastest to come to the most correct decisive action possible, then relying on muscle memory to execute the act with the utmost technical accuracy.

To translate this into a game, I think it would be more accurate to have players take passes on achieving a "Decisive Maneuver" most quickly in respects to finding the most correct action most quickly and then striking. Taking into account elements of physical, mental and spiritual keenness for finding the correct action quickly and then training to execute that action properly.

Would that be a more correct translation of the combat action?

Kay: Sorry it was a bunch of rambling… and I can talk about this kind of stuff for hours and hours.

+X2A: Not at all. Please do ramble on.

Kay: I wouldn’t say that there is no defensive posturing. That is why kenshi focus on establishing and developing their “zanshin” (literal translation is where the heart remains). Think of zanshin as situational awareness but with extreme focus. Posturing in kendo works in conjunction with one’s zanshin. If you zanshin is weak then your posturing is weak. As a kendo novice, my experience has shown me that no matter how big you are or how small you are it doesn’t matter.

I’ve had moments where I can’t act against my sensei because I can’t find an opening (analysis paralysis maybe?) At that point, my opponent has already stolen the initiative. Knowing this… sometimes I’ll rush into a technique where in turn I get rocked because in my haste I leave key areas open for my opponent to take advantage of (many of sensei have kicked my ass because of this).

Lower level practitioners will not be able to take advantage of these kind of situations… and hence they will turn to defensive parrying… but at this time it is certain that the person in retreat will most likely not have a chance to strike and would most likely have to tie up with the attacker or be in constant retreat.

Higher level kenshi will turn their offensive posture to maintain their defense… their posture or their guard (kamae) is their defense. A kamae can be used as a deterrent. The way they hold their sword and how they stand and use their footwork is how kenshi maintain their defense while maintaining their offensive mindset. 6th, 7th, and 8th degree masters have developed their own posturing and if you have a non-practitioner or a novice like me go against a high level kenshi… they can strike you at the instance you move. I’ve walked out of a dojo with bruised wrists because my sensei was trying to show me that I can’t strike if my arms are gone. True story… my uncle’s specialty. I think he made his point.

In game terms… It’s been really hard for me to combine elements that could really mimic or bring actual conditions into a game system. While most of the time the GM can set the tone during and encounter it’s hard to simulate the difference between a 1 on 1 (straight up duel) or 1 on many (Kill Bill Tea House) or a furball chambara (13 Assassins). But in any sense… yes… the elements of physical capability, mental strength and ingenuity including instinct (which I believe is both mental and physical due to it being a part of our natural/wild nature… understanding your zanshin or situational awareness), and spiritual development which includes combined physical and mental control… not only that but it covers control of all your emotions… in combat mostly your fear and anger. I think this drives a “decisive maneuver.”

How do you cover all of these elements that a combatant needs to have under control? I’m not sure where to start. It’s not that easy in the real world and sometime I always think during game that man it would be so much easier if real life combat were that simple. You know something like a small smirk can disrupt that split second you need to act on that “decisive maneuver.” Haha… I get it all the time when I practice with my old man. He has this grin on his face that pisses me off. This grin is the only thing holding me back because every time I need to make that crucial decision I have to question my … but when I ask myself and I ask him why it bothers me… he always replies that because I know deep inside that he’s taught me all I know; but in reality he hasn’t taught me all he knows. The only way to get around this issue I have with my old man is to surpass my old man myself.

I think you are heading in the right direction… sorry for the long winded responses.

+X2A: I always thought that initiative should be interpreted better as situational awareness. The order of combat doesn’t really matter, what does matter is who makes the correct decision first. A bunch of misses and fumbles are irrelevant. What is relevant is how well the character has analyzed the tactical situation and in turn what information he has available to make the correct Decisive Action.

Another element of initiative is pace. Deciding who directs the pace of the combat gives you initiative. So in essence a correct initiative mechanic would determine:

A) Who has the best situational awareness to come to the correct Decisive Action.
B) Once that action is initiated, if not immediately deadly will determine the pace of the follow up maneuver.
C) Once that pace is set, a logical follow up maneuver should be initiated by the player that controls the pace giving the opponent fewer options because they find themselves in a defensive posture.

As you indicated earlier, there needs to be a mechanic that determines the types of maneuvers that can be initiated after a first maneuver in a “combo” is initiated. The person with the initiative should simply have more options than the defender. Once the attacker runs out of options or the defender manages to lock or outmaneuver the attacker there should be a tactical reset.

This is part of situational awareness. Finding an opening in an opponent’s kamae is crucial to determining whether you can take Decisive Action. The thing about it is that here is where a Knowledge Kendo roll can be extremely useful in a combat situation simply because you know the kamae stances and sword grips and know what they mean tactically.

There should be something in the mechanic that will allow a player to make a Decisive Action roll even when they do not have superior situational awareness at an extreme penalty. It could very well turn into a strategy for a player with better stats.

I think that in a lot of ways this concept is abstracted to the point where it is unclear as to what exactly is represented. I always thought of Dungeons and Dragons combat not really being attack hit repeat. I always thought of the HP system as an abstraction of “Battle Mind” and the exchanges back and forth are not really attacks but the two opponents chipping away at weaknesses, psychologically faking each other out and fatiguing each other until someone got the master stroke. Really it’s a poker game. There is a buildup and only you know what cards you hold and there comes a time to show or fold.

Do you think that the one man versus 20 situation is a winnable one for even a master swordsman? I always find this type of scenario to be completely fantastic and should be mostly narrated than rolled out.

I have always defined instinct as the ability for the subconscious to absorb, parse out and organize sensory input in such a way that reaction becomes instantaneous without the need for rational thought. That is to say that it’s a program running in your brains background that alerts one to danger and reacts through muscle memory. It’s something that only comes from being in dangerous or strenuous situations over and over again, training the mind to react without thought. I think that many people who have claimed to have ESP simply have a greatly developed instinct that taps into a far greater variety of subconscious inputs than normal people. The trick is to not be interrupted by imagined sensory input that could be brought about by emotions like fear, self-doubt and rage.

Focus should also be an element and should have something like Bluff or Acting to counter. Being able to psyche out your opponent is a very tangible element to combat.

Or surpass the emotions that come with being a student. Perhaps the only thing that he hasn’t taught you is the knowledge in your own heart that will lead you to the fact that you in fact do know everything he does but cannot accept the change in roles between you and your father. Kinda hurts your head if you think about it too much.

Kay: I can agree on your interpretation of initiative. However initiative is determined by situational awareness through the ability to act by means of the physical body, mental readiness, and spiritual development. Relevance is the tactical situation… while order of combat might not matter in game terms it matters in real life as a split second can mean a clean strike, a clean block, or even a clash. The other thing is that even though a correct decision is made… it is not guaranteed that it will be the correct one. This is due to technique fluidity and instinct. There is a chaotic aspect of instantly acting upon the instinctual action or reaction that can affect motion and action. Simply… not everyone has the same cookie cutter technique. Also… while working on the concept of zanshin… while in combat your focus should be there… there should be penalties (because in real life if your zanshin lacks or you lose zanshin in the middle of combat you can get really hurt… I mean really hurt). Things where PC interaction in character or things that may blow their concentration… it is very important. As a kenshi and karateka… I develop my zanshin through situational discipline, meditation, and kata. Keeping focus for a period of time is not an easy feat.

The combatant that decides the pace of a combat absolutely has initiative. I never understood why in game if I had the technical upper hand, why I would have to wash, rinse, and repeat! It’s so frustrating when thinking about momentum. You can trade jabs… or trade exchanges… but the fun begins when you actually land techniques and see the effects on your opponent. This is what creates openings for your offense allowing you to keep the momentum. (also… find ways to evaluate their weaknesses to keep them on move and keeping you one step ahead.)

Yes your whole goal is to give your opponent few options meaning that technique should be manifested from a defensive posture. This is my specialization in Karate. My black belts hate it because I don’t mind being put in this position. I’ve learned to fight from this aspect from the get go… so my situational awareness is usually one step ahead of one who is offensively minded. Simply… I’ve learned to fight from that defensive posture for 1) this is what Karate should be about… its defensive minded and 2) I can lull them into a false sense of confidence because they are on a offensive posture. In game terms… a person who does not understand this and is at the mercy of the pace of the controller will have to find a way to block and parry or takedown the opponent to stop the momentum. Killing momentum is the primary objective in that kind of a situation.

When an attacker runs out of options the combat stalemates. This is what I call a “reset” when teaching kumite to my students. There are times when you rush into an attack because you see an opportunity… but that doesn’t mean you are going to be successful. Once the momentum is severed then a reset is validated. When I see my students getting into this situation I always let them know it’s not a bad idea to move to a defensive distance without turning your back to your opponent (my goodness… you should see some of the interpretations of this) and find a way to regain momentum. This distance factor is very important to this. It’s called ma-ai in Japanese. Every fighter should know the effective radius of their techniques. Again… there is no cookie cutter technique.

Technically finding an opening in an opponent’s kamae does technically lead to you being able to formulate a good attack. However there is a whole another aspect to this we don’t see. Just because we understand the kamae stances doesn’t mean that we’ll find openings in the individuals kamae. While a Knowledge Kendo roll should give the information about what the kamae can do and how to defend against them, we are overlooking a big thing about the situation. There are kenshi who practice a certain kamae because they feel it to be invincible. They know the ins and outs of this and train to be “invincible.” Miyamoto Musashi was one who mastered from all levels which is why he is so famous. Again… even in my limited experience, I’ve stood in front of a sensei and have frozen in place because I did not know where or how to move. It is the most frustrating thing in the world. You stand toe to toe with your opponent and analyze your situation knowing that any move you make you will be your last.

Having traits like overconfidence, etc. are often a good way to represent combatants that will misinterpret the timing of a decisive maneuver. Things like bluffing or psyching people out is another thing that should be played off of some traits to enhance or penalize depending on the situation.

I really never looked at D&D that way. It is an interesting rationalization of the system.

These kind of massive 20 on one combats in reality… maybe in a Chinese Kung Fu novel. Has it ever happened? Most likely not. On the battlefield… a little different. For game… I agree this could be followed in the sense of storytelling like the old Chinese Kung Fu novels. I’ve simulated 1 vs 2 and 1 vs 3 but nothing like Isreali Krav Maga 1 vs your Platoon. For training it is ok… but for a real life scenario… I think the master swordsman is not that stupid… he’ll look to be executed or look forward to seppuku. Western ideals would be to say the hell with it and go out blazing. Either way it leads to good storytelling.

Your interpretation on instinct is where the Japanese talk about mu-shin… or the classic no mind philosophy. Because of the rigorous training and building muscle memory, they let that sensory instinct and the natural/wild instinct take over. I used to coach football with an old Master Sergeant in the Marines who was at Iwo and he told me the most amazing WWII story. His unit was called in as reinforcements to the first landing and immediately his unit was enveloped in fire. Over the next 3 days he has no recollection of how he survived or managed to get off the island. It was only his radio operator and himself that got off Iwo. I thought about it a lot… but the only thing I can think of was mu-shin. All his basic training and his will to survive got him through that experience.
Haha…. Yeah that is my realization about me and my father too. I’ve also realized that I’ve come to a point that I need to take what I’ve learned and make it my own. Lately I’ve been working on my “karate” and have been developing it further and further. It’s funny… it’s like a sculptor… you always start out with the big chisel and the big hammer… and then you work your way down to a smaller chisel and a smaller hammer to the point where you start refining and until you just work on detail. My karate is the same way. My foundation is based upon many different philosophies… I will not grow until I have surpassed what I have taken to learn and make it my own. Again… there are no cookie cutter techniques.

Haha… I’m glad. Let me know if I lost you.

+X2A: I think I am keeping pace OK, but I will let you know if I get confused.

The matters in timing, execution, environmental elements, your opponent, the several attributes involved in executing technique/situational awareness and the general chaos created by the myriad different things that incorporate into combat are reflected in the randomness of dice rolls and the “opposed roll”.
All combat mechanics in games are abstractions of the real thing. I find that they key to making a convincing yet fluid mechanic is being able to identify the specifics that you want represented and to leave the abstraction to things that will ultimately be randomized due to the application chaos and random chance.

Therefore we need to identify and quantify certain things and develop a formula that takes these variables into account to produce a satisfying yet somewhat random set of results, while applying a certain structure to the variable elements of the formula that account for skill and natural talent to a greater degree than random chance.

These key elements and correct me if I am wrong here are “physical body, mental readiness, and spiritual development” which are in general terms abstract concepts, but concepts that can be quantified to a certain extent. If they weren’t this whole exercise would be moot.

You and I share a general frustration then about constantly loosing the upper hand to turn resets. I always thought that in combat once someone lands a move or generally gets an upper hand, the ability to follow through was generally limited.

When dealing with this mechanically we can go one of two ways in my opinion. The more complex option is something like Exalted. Several trees of maneuvers that link and have different effects to simulate “chains” of maneuvers. I find this method to be a little top heavy and overly complex. Alternatively, a system that develops modifiers for situations can be simpler, but you have to construct a formula to allow for the momentum of combat. It’s much more difficult to create since it is more abstracted and requires better narration to apply realistically.

This really gets me thinking about having momentum as a variable in the system as well as Defensive and Offensive posture. Sort of a stance mechanic that can be modified by combat as a way to damage an opponent without applying damage but instead changing their posture by enforcing your Initiative.

It reminds me of Italian/Spanish fencing that focuses on the concept of circles that represent your area of effectiveness and working within these circles as they intersect with others from different angles of attack/defense. I think that this can easily be represented in some kind of threshold within the momentum system that I was talking about. Once that threshold is reached it would cause a reset. Once again we need to identify the specific factors for the following.

1) How does follow through for a follow up maneuver affect that next maneuver and the kind of maneuver your opponent is forced to make.
2) How do we determine when a combat stalemates and needs to be reset.

I think that the no win situation is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts for some to understand. It’s a form of Kobayashi Maru don’t you think? The Know Kendo roll can very well just come up and tell you that there is no way to win. This would cause a rational character to try to find another solution, like fight it out and know you are going to die or run like a half crazed jackrabbit.

I have a few strong opinions about game mechanics. One of those is, if you don’t want to simulate something real, then don’t roll dice. There are two kinds of RPG’s, I call them Physics Driven RPG’s and Narrative Driven RPG’s.

In a Physics RPG, the goal is to create a decent simulation of environmental effects for the purpose of creating tension and drama from things like falling down, getting hit by a bullet or dodging a punch. They generate a relationship between your game persona and the physical world they live in.

A Narrative Driven RPG on the other hand provides limited tools to simulate “reality” pretty much delegating that to common sense. For example if a character is “Good” at jumping the GM narrates a jumping task and decides whether you have to be “Average”, “Good” or “Fucking Awesome” at jumping to generally pull that off. There is no, it’s a ten foot gorge and your Strength + Athletics is…. Generally something like this example wouldn’t even matter if it weren’t critical to the Narrative. The purpose of these games mechanics is to give you just enough feedback to write a story. If part of the story is Superduperheroguy goes into a room and a dozen schmucks with clubs attack him, he is “Fucking Awesome” at fighting and the mooks are “Average”. Just explain what happens in the fight and you got it. If it’s not reasonably possible, just narrate it instead of wasting everyone’s time with justifying it with endless dice rolls.

I very deeply believe in the concept of mu-shin. The speeds at which one needs to react to survive have to come from a place in the brain that can’t think in If/Then commands. I don’t know if it can really be represented in a game mechanic, but it could be some form of high level technique.
In Native American belief the Bear Totem is often depicted as a stylized bear with an arrow leading from its mouth into the center of the body. The basic philosophy is that all of the wisdom in the cosmos can be found internally through knowledge of self. The second lesson of the bear is that creation comes from the consumption of knowledge and the transformation of that knowledge through the self, thus creating personal truth and wisdom. You are following the path of the Bear and didn’t even know it.

Kay: Yes. physical body, mental readiness, and spiritual development should be the core of a combat attribute set.

I’ve been wrecking my head over this for years… but just food for thought. Momentum and Momentum Break… these are two categories we can lump these chains of maneuvers in.

We’ll have to talk more deeply about this… things can be interpreted in different ways. As for follow through on maneuver chains we’ll have to walk through some real life scenarios to flush it out… this can be based off of instinct. Again we’ll have to talk through this one as well. Stalemates and momentum resets are key so there has to be a mechanic that allows us to see when momentum ends or a momentum break.

I think of the no win situation to be an interesting aspect to 1v1 combat, don’t you think?

Being able to interpret RPG systems like that is one of your talents.

Mu-shin takes a lifetime and one still cannot master.

Go American Indian philosophy! Off tangent… funny… when I was young they used to call me the “bear killer” due to defeating this huge guy that growled like a bear. I watched him throughout prelims and wondered who this guy was. I eventually met him in the finals and was determined to defeat the guy regardless of his size. Put it this way… I was big and solid… he was bigger and more solid… must have had six inches on me. We met up in the ring and when the judge pulled the ropes I out growled the MF and countered everything this guy threw at me. The fact that I out growled the MF threw him for a loop and it hit me… he used his size and intimidation to beat his opponents… his offensive nature was his downfall… its one of those defining moments. When you brought up the bear… it triggered this memory… haha.