Cinemechanix: The Power of Fu

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 24 May 2019 Written by Steve

A couple of weeks ago I talked about some of the problems I was running into while trying to make the combat system for Cinemechanix work. I already had some vague ideas about how to fix some of those problems when I wrote the post, but writing down the problems must have helped. Over the next week, I figured out how to tie a bunch of ideas together in a way that I think will work (I get to find out at DieCon in a couple weeks, so here’s hoping). 

One of the problems I couldn’t quite solve was coming up with a good way to end combat without a slog through the other side’s hit points (and without the PCs ending up half-dead at the point when most characters in fiction are still at more-or-less full strength) while still making sure combat had stakes. Initially I was treating the character’s Hit Points as kind of a hybrid between traditional HP and Wind or Stamina or whatever “exhaustion points” mechanic you prefer. As long as HP stayed positive, you weren’t hurt very bad and could recover points quickly. It was only in the negatives that you were really hurt. This worked up to a point, but since characters with positive HP could recover them quickly, there was no mechanical or fictional justification for not letting the players heal up all their HP at the end of combat. So no stakes. Also, it made a couple of hit points the difference between being perfectly ok and near death. I realized that keeping the quickly-recovered  “exhaustion” kind of HP would only work if I added another level of damage that stuck around, but having two damage tracks has always seemed like an unnecessary extra complication. In a lot of cases, it feels like it’s nothing but an extra layer of Plot Armor for the PCs.  So I wasn’t entirely happy with the idea even though it worked nicely with splitting the tens and ones digit into two separate mechanical things. 

The bigger problem was trying to find a way to encourage descriptive combat and make the character’s tactics mechanically mean something without having a bunch of rules fuckery for every kind of special attack or cool move a character could make. Splitting the roll into two numbers helped make the math easier on that, but I was still finding myself writing ultra-specific rules that I for one would never actually bother with during a game. In an earlier version of the draft, I’d tried to represent these abstractly by letting players spend some of their roll to get an advantage modifier (or disadvantage for the opponent), but that led to three problems: (1) It was another number to track during combat; (2) that modifier tended to be in relation to a specific other character, leading to the problem with multi-player Advantage Ball that I mentioned a few weeks ago; and (3) there really isn’t a lot of incentive to trade damage for a bonus (or penalty for the opponent) when you can just cause the damage and kill them faster. 

Finally I realized that the solution was to combine the two abstractions into a single number that represented both the exhaustion/minor sounds and the character’s current situation in the battle (which could include positioning, tactical advantages or disadvantages, distractions, etc.). Since none of the obvious words that might work for a number representing one or the other (stamina, advantage, etc) really made sense for the combined word, I went with the slightly meaningless yet seemingly fitting Fu. Your character’s Fu stat is equal to Hero Factor + Fighting + ½ Stunts + ½ Brains, so a HF 4 character who (using the Quick Start Rules) maxed out (2 points in Fighting, 1 in Stunts, 1 in Brains) would have a Fu of 7. 

At the beginning of a fight (or at least the first one), your Fu is sort of your battle-readiness: the character’s ability to instinctively be in the right place where the fight starts. As the battle goes on, Fu can increase or decrease, with negative Fu representing that you’re at a disadvantage and certain benchmarks (-10, -15, etc.) indicating specific disadvantages like being “On the Ropes” (unable to avoid melee engagement), knocked down or partially immobilized, and eventually knocked the fuck out. The fairly large first step between -1 and -10 can mean anything that’s less disadvantageous than the defined benchmarks (usually based on the attacker’s description or use of Raises), so a Fu of -5 could mean your opponent threw dust in your eyes and blinded you, knocked you off balance, aggravated an existing wound, or whatever. At the end of each round, everyone gets to roll Hero Die and add the total to Fu. At the end of a combat scene, Fu more or less resets (based on wound level). Even though Fu changes a lot more than Stamina did during combat, I’m not longer required to let players heal all the way up. When the battle conditions that caused Fu to increase or decrease go away (because there’s no more battle), you’re back to your baseline instincts, which are slightly degraded if you’re hurt. 

If your Fu is negative, you apply it as a roll penalty to all rolls (including your Fu recovery roll at the end of the round, so if Fu is less than negative HF, you can’t recover Fu). So if you’ve got -2 Fu, you subtract -2 from all of your rolls. In addition, you can spend Fu to improve rolls (it’s deducted after the roll; otherwise spending Fu would be a break-even proposition). You can do this weather Fu is positive or negative, and it basically represents taking a risk. If your Fu is 6 and you spend 8 points, you’re going to have a much better chance of hitting with the current roll, but it comes at a cost. The only caveat on spending Fu is that you can only spend Fu equal to your Advantage Die. 

An Advantage Die is an extra die that a player can get on any roll (not just combat) for doing cool stuff. It basically takes the place of situational modifiers. The Advantage Die starts at zero and goes up (to a max of d12) for meeting each of 6 conditions (they’re a mix of broad versions of traditional tactical modifiers along with bonuses for building on the existing story and general coolness). If you check off all 6 boxes, you also get a Wild Die. A couple of the conditions are built in a way that (hopefully) prevent the Talistlantia Swashbuckler/Changeling 1E Magic problem where the Cool Moves/Bunks don’t have to have anything to do with the current situation. I like using a die for a modifier because it prevents players from being guaranteed a huge advantage just for playing to the modifier table. It doesn’t really apply in this case since the modifiers are less specific, but I like the general principle. Tying the amount of Fu you can spend to the modifier die gives players a little more incentive to go into cool detail about what they’re trying to do. 

Obviously, Fu isn’t the only thing being tracked in battle. As I hinted out above, characters can also take wounds, which are actual injuries that stick around. Here’s the basic combat procedure:

  • Attacker describes what he’s trying to do.
  • GM sets Modifier Die. 
  • Attacker declares whether he wants to spend Fu. 
  • Repeat 1-3 for Defender
  • Roll the dice. 
  • Players who spent Fu deduct it. 
  • Check the Margin (winning roll - losing roll) to see if there are any consequences. If the attacker wins, consequences can include the defender suffering a Wound, getting knocked out, or (with a very high margin) instant death. 
  • The loser loses Fu equal to the Effect (1s digit) of the attack. 
  • Winner spends Raises (10s digit) on things like recovering Fu, causing the opponent to lose Fu, causing extra wounds, stealing the initiative (for the defender), etc. 

In addition to the Fu penalty (if Fu is negative), characters who have taken a certain number of Wounds suffer a die limit, which puts a cap on the size of die you can roll. So if you normally roll d12 (Free Die) + d10 (Ability Die) and the GM has given you a d8 Modifier Die, you’d normally roll d12+ d10 + d8. If you’ve got a die limit of d4, you roll 3d4. The hope here is that Fu will swing back and forth in an Advantage Ball-like manner at first, but once one combatant has a decent Fu advantage, the penalties will mean that a loser who keeps fighting will just dig himself deeper into a hole (especially if he’s taken a few wounds). That gives us that “end of the Civil War Airport fight” situation where everyone’s down but nobody’s dead, with the wound track (and possibility of Fu being lower after the battle than at the beginning) providing some lasting damage to give the players a reason to play it smarter after they’ve been in a few fights. 

I can also imagine using the basic Fu idea (with Fu based on different stats) outside of combat: Intrigue-Fu for a political game, Hack-Fu for a cyberpunk game, and of course Car-Fu for a Fast & Furious game. It’s just a matter of working out the long-term consequences of losing too much Fu in one “battle.” 

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Cinemechanix: The Power of Fu.
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