Hello, my name is Michał Solański (mostly known around the web as Solarius Scorch) and this is my second article on Seventh Sanctum. Our benevolent host Steven Savage was kind enough to invite me to open my own article series called “Bag of Tricks”, in which I will suggest a number of plot ideas and, well, tricks for game masters. Each article will cover a different RPG genre by addressing one particular problem or aspect — sometimes central to the genre, sometimes just interesting enough to be discussed. I hope you shall find it useful, or at least entertaining to some extent.
This initial article covers heroic fantasy, though it may be somewhat applicable to other fantasy genres featuring thematic heroes and individual combat.
Shōnen is a very popular manga and anime genre, including such titles as Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Dragon Ball or Fairy Tail (and if you include its close relative, seinen, also series like Ninja Scroll or Basilisk). Shōnen stories usually feature adventures of absurdly powerful warriors, mixed with typical middle school level shenanigans and significant amounts of fanservice. Therefore the shōnen genre appeals to nearly all male teenagers (which means boys 12 to 65 years old), and the characters themselves also attract hordes of fangirls. Fanservice aside, these titles are watched for one major reason: fighting scenes! Most shōnen series are extremely silly, but that’s not the point at all; what counts is fighting with swords (or kunai, naginatas, bare fists — mark your favourite answer if you like these things). And this is what makes them watchable.
As a genre that specializes in martial action, shōnen developed a number of rather interesting means of heating up scenes to the max. Naturally, some of them are just camera work and other audiovisual methods, but since this column is about role-playing games, let’s have a look at plot-related tropes that make shōnen fights unique. After all, the art of game mastering is largely an art of theft, all in order to enrich your players’ experience during the weekly gorefest.
It should be pretty clear by now that this little article is most useful for heroic fantasy games, where player characters can and will fight, fight, fight the power! Call of Cthulhu is unlikely to apply here, but on the other hand my old eyes have seen things I once considered unimaginable…
Some enemies simply cannot be beaten, period. However, their invincibility doesn’t originate simply from their overwhelming might, or “high enough level”, but from some particular property they have — something that gives them the ability to easily and leisurely negate all attacks launched at them. The most straightforward examples of such abilities are defensive powers, like instant dematerialization (rendering the user able to ignore strikes and go through walls), armour that cannot be punctured in battle conditions, or good old total invisibility. More advanced forms of Impassability may be based on pretty much anything, starting with rapid cloning to commanding air currents to the ability to absorb attacks as raw energy. It doesn’t matter how exactly Impassability works, what matters is that this opponent is absolutely impossible to overcome, unless they do something really stupid — and you know they won’t…
How can we use such an opponent in our adventure? Naturally, its main use is to force the players to come up with a plan to win against them despite each normal attack being mercilessly nullified (otherwise it wouldn’t be an Impassable enemy after all). Ideally, in order to bring down this one foe, the characters would have to use their special abilities creatively, but it’s not really necessary — getting them to come up with an interesting, non-obvious idea is what really counts.
Let’s consider a simple example: the opponent has placed a network of magical portals on the battlefield, between which he can freely travel in a blink of the eye, and each teleportation also provides instantaneous healing; moreover, these portals cannot be destroyed without some advanced magic that the party doesn’t have. Such an opponent cannot realistically be vanquished by normal means, unless with one extremely strong and accurate attack that would be way beyond the party’s hopes.
However, understanding the nature of the Impassability and some creative use of combat terrain can still turn the tides of battle: for example, the heroes might succeed in using the portal network for sending a magical discharge which will temporarily stun the enemy (preferably after some diversion). Or perhaps after an appropriately long (and probably painful) observation they will find some sort of weakness in the enemy technique, eg. for a fraction of a second after teleportation he is defenceless? This challenge may prove to be really difficult to your players, but remember that nothing compares to the wonderful feeling of showing someone who considers themselves invincible that they were wrong after all.
Another variant of this idea, perhaps easier on the players — but equally interesting — is pitching two Impassable warriors against each other (naturally, at least one of them is likely to be a player character). Both combatants realize that they are unable to hurt each other just like that, because, say, one of them is protected by a flawless armour, while the other has insane regeneration rate and also can absorb matter into their own body.
Winning will be a tough nut to crack for both of them; merely looking for an opening will probably take most of the duel, but with some decent narration, this struggle can make the player in question sweat a lot. If it’s the player character who has the armour and their enemy is the one regenerating, a good idea would be to start by separating the opponent from the ground to deny them access to regeneration material — but how to do this? Conversely, their opponent will look for a way to find a way to win that doesn’t involve piercing through the opponent’s armour — maybe they could be buried alive or electrocuted? Each combatant will therefore keep looking for a way to overcome the other’s absolute defence, while trying to predict how their own absolute defence might be rendered ineffective. The one to find and use the method first will be the winner.
Wrong place, wrong enemy
Let’s have a look at another common shōnen plot. Many players have a tendency of getting used to one particular fighting method that they use against absolutely everyone, because for some reason it simply is the most efficient. In its most primitive version it’s just the “I cut them with my sword, because I have it at +5”, but it may also refer to a particular spell, manoeuvre or special ability, depending on the setting and mechanics. Such a trademark move is nothing bad per se, it can even be quite helpful in establishing the character’s image (most protagonists featured in anime for teenagers also have one standard combat technique to use on most foes), but in the long run it may get a little boring. Especially if half of the PCs are using the exact same move. Let’s spice things up from time to time, shall we?
What do I have in mind? It’s simple: let’s put our hero in a situation where using his default power is impossible or inefficient. Do they rely upon their speed and agility in combat? Make them fight on slippery ground where sudden movement is out of the question (if we’re feeling extra mean, let’s give the enemy an ability or equipment to ignore such terrain hazards). Do they solve everything with a fireball? Make them fight underwater. Are they a powerful psionic, able to attack minds directly? Throw mindless robots at them. And so on, et cetera.
As you probably can see, such decisions’ only goal is to knock the player off their everyday routine: denied their trademark move, they will have to fall back to other abilities (perhaps considered of little use before), and most of all to think hard on what to do. But there is also another reason why such a plot idea can be beneficial: although abilities that are written on a character sheet and meticulously improved session to session are very fun (because it’s fulfilling and satisfying to use them), we only really get to know them when we learn of their limitations. A player who loves their fireball spell is unlikely to no longer like it if they can’t use it for once; but if carefully prodded, they may start to like it even more, because it becomes more substantial — a specialist’s trusted tool instead of a simple problem-solving button.
Nevertheless, this trick should be used sensibly — otherwise the player is likely to interpret it not as an interesting plot element, but rather as common pettiness on the game master’s side. It should also be used sparingly, because it’s supposed to be an exceptional situation after all, one removed from everyday experience. Still, watching a fire mage frantically searching through their pockets for that cheap water spell scroll they would never use normally is quality entertainment for the entire party (and certainly for the game master).
A motif with a person
When considering supervillains and many shōnen heroes, it is easy to identify some sort of a motif that is attached to nearly all of them and often determines their basic attributes — looks, equipment and special powers. These powers, or some central aspect of them, is what more often than not appears to be the character’s core: it seems to conceptually determine their other features. For example Kimimarō from Naruto is able to transform his own bones (which allows him to turn his bones into blades protruding from his skin), therefore his body is frail, his complexion pale, and his eyes dead. Similarly, Fairy Tail protagonist Natsu, being an apprentice of a dragon with fire- based powers, has flame-like hair, sharp teeth and explosive temper. Or compare Medusa from Soul Eater, known for her affinity for snakes, has yellow eyes with vertical slits and a very expressive tongue. While not every shōnen character has their motif, even not having one can also be significant in some way, as it may denote someone really special.
How exactly does it relate to role-playing? Such a motif is not very likely to be crucial to battle tactics or contents of a campaign, but certainly is a comfortable and easy method of creating non-player characters that players will remember. Such a move may also have beneficial effects on the conceptual coherence of an adventure, helping introduce some symbolics to it (more or less unsubtly). How directly we should use this idea depends of course on our party’s sophistication, who may or may not be impressed with such motif characters, so let’s not get carried away here. However, I guarantee that even if your players are deadly serious people, who consider something like a snake-man to be utterly pathetic, they are still bound to appreciate the fact that a mysterious knight that turned out to have a snake-like tongue had been seen much earlier with a shield depicting a snake, and not, say, a badger.
Speaking of the rather important issue of potential laughableness: why would anyone walk around in some bizarre outfit, and one related to their powers to boot? Well, such a hero (or villain) should be designed so that such clothes would be beneficial or necessary to their profile, or at least neutral. If for example our subject commands metal, it wouldn’t be weird for them to wear heavy armour all the time and be known to the world as the Iron Count (don’t forget to give them steel-coloured eyes). Similarly, it would be logical for an adept of martial arts taught by Secret Masters of the Sun who Reign the Light to wear a robe embroidered with sun symbols, showing their pride and reverence for this tradition, and perhaps to abuse figures of speech related to sun or daylight. Like I mentioned before, the level of subtlety should be chosen according to our players to avoid excessive campiness, but it’s almost always good to use such ideas for one simple reason: in shōnen series, only common thugs and other small fries wear civilian clothes, important characters hardly ever do.
Eventually, it should be said that motifs have a tendency to pass from a master to a pupil, from an ancestor to a descendant (particularly obvious in Naruto, but fairly prevalent across the genre). Style imitation is not only a matter of practicality (logically, a pupil will know the same techniques as their teacher), but it is also a sign of the pupil’s loyalty and pride. It is particularly important if the master was met with an untimely end, and their student takes upon themselves the responsibility for continuation of their master’s work.
This mechanism in itself can be exploited by game masters in several ways: for example let’s assume that the party needs to find a famous hero, who is known to wear long coat with a red rune of fire and an inquisitorial hat with a feather, which in the given setting is quite an exotic outfit. When they finally succeed in finding this person, it turns out that the guy is not only much younger than expected, but there are also additional issues (examples: the youngster can’t really do much; the youngster can do a lot, but mistakenly blames the party for killing their master; the youngster works for the opposite side of the conflict; etc.). Such plot hooks can easily result in scenes that are either comedic or dramatic, whatever suits you best.
And so we’ve reached the end of this little article. I have briefly described just three of the many dead horse shōnen tropes that with minimal effort can be translated to the language of role playing games and included in your bag of plot tricks. Naturally, this little list is quite far from completion, and many readers are bound to come up with more ideas. Why don’t you share them in the comment section below? Dattebayo!
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