Mining Tropes for RPG Nuggets: Gravity? Pfaa!

Advent ChildrenIt’s been quite some time I’ve posted an honest to goodness, fluff-rich Mining Tropes post. I’m also nearing the end of the tropes fueled by the Rule of Cool, so I combined two tropes that share a certain ‘airy’ theme as a tribute to a sub-series I really enjoyed writing!

Asian Wire-fu and Anime is rife with characters completely ignoring physics or, at the very least, stretching it so thin it could have a shot at winning a beauty pageant. The idea of standing jumping on high, ludicrously narrow surfaces is indeed immensely cool.

But, simulating these things in RPGs is a bit harder… because a lot of RPGs have far harsher requirements than mere physics…. those are called rules… (at least in the RPGs I get to play). But since it’s all about the Rule of Cool, the rule book can afford to take a vacation with the wife and kids and come back after the scene.

Let’s have a look at each tropes and discuss what can be done… after I’ll try to go for one of my signature ‘over the top’ ideas.

I have the High Ground :

Supernatural and magical beings in anime often stand on tall, thin objects, such as the tips of pine trees or lampposts. This is flying for people who cannot fly. Or even the ones who can. Less about true strategy and more about looking cool. Expect Dramatic Wind.

The D&D game has a skill called Balance that let’s a character negotiate narrow and/or cluttered surfaces. It goes in details about the effect of narrowness, slope, speed, etc… Other games have similar skills I’m sure. Thing is, all these crunchy bits are anathema to this trope.

This is one of the moments that you need to call fluff to the rescue and make a scene where the rules are just plain forgotten.

Picture a confrontation over a volcanic crevice (Star Wars III comes to mind, which, oddly enough, this trope is named after), a Space Station’s bottomless shaft* or a partly collapsed Ice Bridge. You set it up so that the players and opponents have numerous narrow pillars they can climb and stand on while trading blows, spells, blaster shots and/or carefully crafted insults.

Of course you want to make the threat of falling into (Insert what will surely kill a character) an immediate and constant danger…. but the scene will go completely to waste if you allow any significant character to fall because of something so mundane as a failed climb/balance skill check. You’d much rather have players trying to jump from pillar to ledge, and from ledge to natural stone bridges than slip and fall.

So what you need is a flavourful reason to allow you to ignore the rules, if only for that scene, to allow all characters (PCs and NPC alike) to move around as they please (well almost, see later) and concentrate on doing cool aerial acrobatics and beat the crap our of each other.

For example:

  • The true powers behind both sides of “The Struggle” intervene slightly to even out the battlefield, making everyone exceedingly agile and sure of foot. All unopposed skill rolls vs environment are successful (either out in the open or secretly rolled by the GM).
  • The environment’s gravity is completely skewed to the point that characters get helped by the masses they touch or jump toward, everyone gains massive bonuses to maneuvers.
  • The battle occurs at a nexus of Elemental Earth and Air energies where even untrained thoughts can shape air currents and surfaces to facilitate movement.

Of course, this is only done to nullify the chances of a stupid fall and encourage player to pull stunts that would otherwise never be done… it should in no way prevent characters trying to make others fall, or collapse part of the landscape or grab the big bad in a sacrificial embrace to certain doom (or at least a mysterious disappearance until a later session).

This video is, IMHO, one of the best representation of this trope.

Now that this scene has been established in your game, it’s time to bring it to the next level….

Stepping Stones in the Sky

A version of Colossus Climb controlled by the Rule Of Cool. A character somehow jumps and runs along a rain of falling debris or projectiles — none of which are actually attached to anything — not only to dodge but to gain altitude, sometimes to reach the area firing the things in the first place. A very good way to not only show off a character’s agility but also their speed.

If we already agreed to fluff-over the rules to allow people to jump onto impossibly narrow/high places with impunity, it should makes absolutely no difference if the actual pieces of scenery just happened to be anchored to, you know, nothing. Anyway, the characters are probably far too busy to notice the sheer illogicality of jumping from falling debris to plummeting piece of scenery.

Once again, we just ignore the dangers caused by the falling rocks in regards to character skill checks to maneuver through the shower of building sized debris. Using the falling debris to crash into other characters or bull rushing a Big Mook off a falling rock is completely fair game.

For example, picture a party fighting a red dragon on an icy ledge. Things get grim when a well-placed blast of Drakefire starts a chain-reaction that collapses the ledge, section by section, sending the party plummeting into the Chasm of Eternal Ice.

Imagine the Wyrm’s surprise when it sees the heroes fearlessly jumping from falling to collapsing sections to finally clear the ledge’s gaps and get ready for some Dragon à la Mode!

And why not combine both trope for some extra added super coolness (I love doing this!):

The party, strong in it’s knowledge that they are protected by the Elemental lords of Earth, are determined to break the unholy alliance of the Archlords of Fire and Air. Having climbed to the edge of the caldera of the Fire Caliph’s Volcano Palace, they are narrowly missed by the Gust Cannons batteries of the Imperial Command Airship of Queen Ariel.

With the walls of the volcano collapsing all around them, the characters start rock-surfing down the volcano’s interior toward the field of volcanic spires poking through the lava moat of the Caliph’s Palace. Said spires on which the Caliphate’s Elite Salamander guards stand, awaiting to engage the trespassers.

An insane fight ensues where players jump from pillar to hardened lava platforms, killing one Salamander after another, while dodging the blasts of the airship’s cannon and moving toward their objective: The Caliph’s Dread Weapon battery: The Hellfire Launchers, found at the base of the impregnable palace.

The Heroes finally reach one of the weapons and aim it at the Airship. A perfect hit to it’s navigational system makes it crash into the Palace… the ensuing rain of debris provide the character the perfect opportunity to climb up in style, and go pay their respect to the somewhat indisposed Queen.

Hot damn! Wouldn’t that be cool?

Have any of you pulled off something with these tropes? Do share!

*Why in hell aren’t there any guardrails in those Space stations?


  1. “A red dragon on an icy ledge”! Now that’s something I’d like to see!

    I use this trope for D&D monks. Their weightless freefall + jumping abilities morph into near-flying acrobatics. I always enjoy it.

  2. I’d make people make jump checks as normal. Failure would mean something like the character having to take standard action to attempt a balance check and be flatfooted (and at -4 on jumping) until that happens, in D&D’s case.

    If my character is great at jumping and balancing, I want to benefit from those skill point investments.

  3. What you could do is the following: Roll opposed Balance or Jump checks once per round. Whoever wins gets a plus 2 to hit this round because you managed to take advantage of the situation. If a party of four fights a single opponent, have everybody roll. Assume results of 12, 14, 16, 18, and 15 for the opponent. Then two players have plus 2 against the opponent and the opponent has plus 2 against the other two players.

    Or: Assign a DC, have everyone make a skill check and those who fail take a -2 to hit. (I think this seems less cool…)

    I usually like to make sequences of opposed skill checks for non-combat encounters like a chase over roof-tops. This rewards players for investing in skills that have no obvious combat application.

    (Weird, when I edit the comment and save, my plus characters get replaced by a space — looks like an encoding bug.)

  4. Graham: Well at least the point got across…

    Tommi and Alex:
    I too would want to make skilled character better than the others.

    In D&D I would probably just lower DCs to allow really awesome jumps and ludicrous balance checks… and I would ignore the ‘fail by 5’ rule. But those skills would also still shine in the actions against other characters.

    My point is (oddly enough for a crunch junky) just don’t let mechanics constrain the coolness of the scene.. but I think you both got that since no one suggested falling on a failed roll.

  5. I agree with the coolness goal. That’s why I prefer to use skill checks to gain an advantage (and I specially love opposed skill checks) instead of using skill checks to prevent failure (you’re just checking to avoid something uncool — how uncool is that?).

  6. Oh and is it just me or is the FFVII Advent Children’s Tunnel Chase scene the exact same one as I Robot and the Matrix’ Highway Scene?

  7. The Rule of Cool always gets a +20 bonus. In other words, if you describe it ass-kickingly well, I (as GM) will darn well make sure you succeed, unless the Rule of Plot trumps it. The Rule of Plot beats everything, of course. But the Rule of Cool comes mighty close.

    When it comes to gravity-defying monks, few things beat a monk/sorcerer with a stupidly high Jump skill + Feather Fall. While the D&D FAQ says it’s wrong, the Rule of Cool tosses that particular tome out the window.
    Said Monk could Jump 8 feet in the air(a move action, DC24), cast Feather Fall (free action) and become a whirling dervish of kicks, punches and knee jabs until they land gracefully. Just add Great Cleave for true Wuxia madness.

    OK, it’s not a strict reading of Feather Fall, but it’s DAMNED cool 🙂

    A 10th level Sorcerer could cast Feather Fall on 10 Monks hiding in tree tops with a single free action. As they drop, the Monks toss spears in the first round (whilie falling) then make a full attack on the next round before touching the ground.


  8. Damn, that’s a cool concept… don’t let Yan see it…

    Phil promptly deletes Greywulf’s post and replaces with a rant about Furries….


  9. I only had the time to read +20 on cool moves…

    Wow, well I already have this bonus… LOL!

    Historically I’m pretty bad with any dice roll unless it’s some crazy maverick manoeuvre at which point I have the devil’s luck… 😉