What is an Action Shtick?

Zodiac Ring includes Action Shticks in each scene. Much like the hero strapped beneath the death ray by his evil nemesis, you ask me: what the hell are Action Shticks, exactly, in detail? We're primarily talking about gaming in the superhero genre, but the concepts can be applied much more broadly. Without the death ray, of course.

Shticks are classic situations or routines. They are set pieces, not something unique. Hanging from a cliff by your fingertips while your nemesis stands above you and gloats is a classic shtick. Swooping down to catch the falling innocent moments before he hits the pavement, also classic.

A shtick can be used over and over again, in different games, different stories, etc. They are some of the building blocks of a genre. The genre also determines what shticks are appropriate. A stampede is an appropriate shtick for a Western, just as getting slipped a mickey is appropriate for a Detective Noir game, but the reverse is not true (no stampedes for Sam Spade, please).

Even though a shtick might be used over and over again it still has meaning because it is happening to a specific character in a specific place and time. Captain Danger is hanging from the building – she is the one about to fall to her death. Everyone dies (making it something of a shtick in life), but that doesn't make a particular death any less important to the parties involved.

Some shticks work anywhere. They're intrinsic to the genre, like the superhero having a hard time finding a place to change into his costume. Others require a certain situation, and because they are not applicable all the time it's easier to miss a chance to use them when you're running a game. These are the shticks we're examining, shticks dependent on certain situations, scenes or action.

Characters get in trouble in all sorts of locations: in parking lots, on rooftops, and deep beneath the surface of the ocean. If the environment doesn't change the way the characters behave, it's just a backdrop and a flat place to stand. It's a fight in front of a blue screen.

In a battle on a train, characters can fight on top of cars, leap from car to car, and of course fall to their death if they're not careful. These “things you can do on a train” are Action Shticks. They are challenges or dilemmas that maximize the use of the environment or situation. They make fighting on a train different than fighting in a parking lot. They highlight that this setting is different from other some other setting and different dramatic rules apply.

Action Shticks give characters challenges and opportunities, opportunities not just to gain a tactical advantage but to play out drama that brings the scene to life. It's exciting to be the guy clinging to the edge of the rooftop for dear life. It's a tactical challenge, but it's a dramatic opportunity.

Another way to look at Action Shticks is as wrinkles or sub-scenes. The scene is the train as a whole, and this sub-scene is the sequence where the villain releases the couplings on the rear cars, forcing the heroes to keep leaping to the next car just to stay on the train. It's a sequence, possibly a change in the action, not a whole scene by itself.

Why use Action Shticks? They're fun. They let the players participate in classic dramatic moments. Even without formally listing possible shticks, a good GM will be looking for opportunities like this on the fly. Figuring them out ahead of time adds some twists and wrinkles to a scene, letting the GM throw them in whenever they want.

Later: More about Action Shticks!

    Ben Robbins | December 17th, 2005 | game design | show comments