What Shang-chi can teach GMs about running combat

Marvel’s Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just a terrifically fun martial arts movie—it’s also a master class for how to run fun combat scenes in RPGs.

Recent editions of D&D strive to make combat interesting through tactical decision-making and managing economies of actions, hit points, and spell slots, but the key lesson from Shang-chi works even with (or perhaps even better with) extremely rules-light games. And that lesson is this:

Combat is interesting when it has risks that may or may not come true, goals that may or may not be achieved, and opportunities for the characters to make choices that matter.

The story proceeds even if the risks come true, but since there’s more at stake than “do the good guys win,” these elements provide uncertainty and tension. John Rogers made this point excellently years ago on his screenwriting blog, using the The Matrix as an object lesson, and that lesson applies to RPGs as well as screenwriting. But in case it’s helpful to spell out some examples explicitly for GMing, consider how certain scenes in Shang-chi would make excellent combat scenes in RPGs.

⚠️ Spoilers for Shang-chi follow! ⚠️

The bus scene features a number of risks that might or might not come true, and goals that go beyond beating everybody up:

  • The bus might get damaged. (It does! The brake lines are cut!)
  • The driver might get injured. (He does! Katy needs to take the wheel!)
  • Other passengers might get hurt. (They don’t! Shang-chi ushers them to the front of the bus!)
  • The bus needs to be stopped somehow. (They do it! Katy uses other vehicles to slow them down!)
  • Shang-chi wants to keep his pendant. (He doesn’t! The bad guy gets away with it.)

This scene is also a really excellent example of using the environment creatively, which is a good thing to keep in mind for set-piece combat scenes in general.

The garage escape is a great example of how “defeat all the bad guys” isn’t even the goal sometimes. Other goals in this scene:

  • Protect the driver! (Katy never gets scratched!)
  • Get the exit open! (They knock out a guy to get his hand print!)
  • Close the exit behind you! (They get away clean!)

The final battle is basically a series of fight scenes, each with more at stake than “beat all the bad guys.” Risks and goals along the way include, but aren’t limited to:

  • There’s a risk of the gate being cracked open. (It does, and monsters leak out!)
  • There’s a goal of getting the enemies to join forces. (Seeing their buddy’s soul get eaten grants a bonus to the persuasion roll.)
  • There’s a risk of allies getting their souls eaten, strengthening the big boss. (Some do, but they manage to save their biggest ally, at least.)
  • There’s a goal of getting the rings away from Shang-chi’s father. (He does, and at the same time….)
  • There’s a goal of getting the father to see reason. (If this had been a game, what played out was the persuasion roll succeeding at a cost—he saves his son at the last moment, but still gets his soul eaten by the monster he unleashed.)

If you were running this as an RPG, the big question might not be whether you win or lose, but how many you can save along the way. But who knows—the Blades in the Dark setting began when a climactic battle like this one was lost at the end of a Dungeon World campaign.

Making this work in a rules-light game

You can absolutely inject extra goals and risks into D&D fight scenes to spice things up, but that game does at least have a built-in, implicit goal and structure for combat already. For games with rules that are less detailed and more open to interpretation, like Lasers & Feelings, Messerpsiel, or my own 24XX, you can’t lean on hit points as a pacing mechanism. I gave some examples in a post on combat in 24XX awhile back, but thought it might also be useful to consider how the examples from Shang-chi might be structured in an RPG. I envision this using the “montage” approach from Brad Murray’s Sand Dogs, which might be summarized as:

  1. The GM lays out risks and goals and asks the players: What do you do?
  2. The players each describe an action and roll (or whatever resolution calls for).
  3. The GM describes how the situation has changed based on goals being reached (or not) and risks being avoided (or not). Go back to step 1 if there are outstanding goals or risks.

So, just to take one example above: Some dude on a bus tells Shang-chi he wants his pendant, and things get rough.

  1. The GM advises Shang-chi (or rather, his player) that he’s outnumbered, taking out everybody in a single roll isn’t doable, and if they get into a fight, there’s a risk of the bus being damaged or people getting hurt.
  2. The player describes doing some moves to hold onto his pendant and try to take out whoever he can reasonably take out. The player rolls, and succeeds, but as the GM advised, that’s not enough to finish the fight.
  3. The GM describes how he knocks away bad guys and hangs onto his pendant, but oh jeez the head bad guy has a blade for a fist, what do you do? They return to step 1.
  4. In an upcoming rounds, there are some failures or “success at a cost” rolls that result in the brake lines getting cut, the driver getting knocked out, and an opportunity for Katy to shine. (Good thing she beefed up her Driving skill.) The final round is a success at a cost as well—they manage to split the bus in two with the lone bad guy left behind, but he managed to get his hand on that pendant.

To make this approach work, you may need to encourage players to think about combat unlike how they’d approach it in a video game or in vanilla D&D: It’s not about whittling away HP until everybody is defeated. Be explicit about goals, risks, and opportunities. Prompt them to deal with issues their characters would notice, but don’t push them to deal with things a specific way. Be open to following the story wherever the characters’ choices—and the whims of the dice—may lead you.

And enjoy Shang-chi. It’s a fun movie.

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