Getting the Upper Hand

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week, and I thought it was great. But also, it made me think about what GotG would look like as an RPG, because that's how I consume all media now. 

Of course, it would be a superhero RPG, just as usable in, I dunno, Gotham City as it is in deep space. Much of the Guardians' universe is color thrown over standard superheroic tropes, but that's not a bad thing by any means... I like big bombastic superheroics. So I ended up brainstorming something that I'm going to call the Upper Hand Engine for the moment, based on the assumption that this is a setting in which it doesn't really make sense to track who throws every punch and how much health everyone has... that's slow and plodding and unnecessarily granular. Granularity is the enemy of spectacle, and Guardians of the Galaxy is a series about spectacle

Instead, what matters in an Upper Hand Engine conflict is, as the name might imply, who has the upper hand (and as such, who will win the clash). 

Rocket v. Yondu

Let's say that Yondu and Rocket are having a fight (and let me say that while this is obviously inspired by thoughts I had while watching Guardians of the Galaxy, this is a battle I'm making up, not a play-by-play of the film. No spoilers here). If you're not familiar with them, Rocket's an angry raccoon and Yondu is a blue mercenary and both of them are violent and there are ten thousand reasons they might be fighting. Also you should watch these movies, come on.

Rocket is a player character, and whatever other statistics and meters and points that might entail, it also means he has a list of attributes, and they are numbered. Let's say that there's four, and they're numbered 1-4 (just for the sake of having numbers). These are, essentially, Fate-style aspects in their construction... short descriptive and evocative phrases that define the character and should be at least a little double-edged in their construction. 

So, Rocket might have...

4: It's me and Groot against the universe.
3: Guns! Guns guns guns!
2: Yeah I can make just about anything outta just about anything. 
1: The result of a hideous experiment by immoral scientists or whatever.

That's his four. And each one is at a certain level, which dictates how powerful that particular aspect makes him. This is a diceless game, so that level is reasonably stable (barring alterations based on character advancement or temporary bonuses or other things I haven't really considered, of course). So, if Rocket is trading on his love of guns, he's operating at level 3. When he's making stuff out of stuff, he's operating at level 2. Et cetera.

Yondu is a supporting character, so he only has three aspects. 

3: Got me a brain-fin and psi-linked arrow. 
2: I lead this pack o' Ravagers.
1: Little soft spot in my heart for Peter Quill. 

Similar deal. At the head of his pack, he's level 2. If it's him and his arrow, he's level 3. Dealing with Star-Lord, he's just at level 1. 

Putting your worst foot forward:

Now, here's the rub: in a situation when a character is using two of his aspects at once, they use whatever the LOWER value is. 

If Yondu is rocking his arrow on his lonesome, he's level 3. If he's leading his pack, he may still be using his signature weapon, but he's effectively level 2, hampered by his entourage. Leading them in pursuit of Peter? A rather pathetic level 1.

Likewise, Rocket is level 4 when he's back-to-back with Groot against some opposition, but once he pulls out a firearm, he drops to 3. If he makes a weapon to use, then he's down to 2. 

That's why these attributes can also be weaknesses, since challenges and NPCs and whatnot are also going to get levels... Rocket excels at making things when the challenges are reasonably minor, but if the stuff he makes has to stand up to greater scrutiny, it's going to be found wanting. 

I suppose it could make sense to enforce a type of attribute at those given levels, where your 4 is "What do you fight for" and your 3 is "What do you fight with" and so on, but I think that might be a bit too prescriptive. I like that there's room for both people who are at there best when they let go of their skills and equipment and are purely working to help the person they love, AND for people who are at their best when they let go of all pretensions and let their super-powers do the talking. 

So how's this look in practice?

Our scene starts when Yondu ambushes Rocket with his arrow at the ready. Rocket pulls out his gun and fires wildly to defend himself. At present, both are operating at level 3, which means they are equally matched. As with Fate aspects, the question of "can you use this attribute" depends on the state of the narrative... for the sake of argument, we'll give Rocket the benefit of saying that he saw Yondu coming, giving him time to pull out his guns and defend himself.

Since they're both at 3, nobody has the upper hand. The fight scene can go on forever, and unless something changes, they would fight to a standstill, with Rocket shooting Yondu's arrow away whenever it gets too close but Rocket unable to focus on Yondu enough to shoot him. A conflict here isn't really set in time specifically... this clash can represent a minute or an hour or a week, depending on what makes sense and the players narrate. In this case, it's a few minutes of fruitless back-and-forth.

Since Yondu went on the attack, Rocket gets to act next. He needs to change something in order to resolve the situation, but what? He decides he's going to flee... in the direction of the rest of the Ravagers. Probably while saying  something like "Yondu's a real grade-A jackass, but even he's not going to fire an arrow into his own people."

There's nothing directly in his way, so this is a level-0 challenge, the baseline for "thing that you might fail at." There might well be environmental things like dense shrubbery or whatever that kick it up to level 1 or higher, or someone actively preventing Rocket from moving, but neither of these are the case right now.

He doesn't have an attribute that makes him specifically good at fleeing, but his player argues that being "the result of a hideous experiment or whatever" justifies some cybernetic-enhanced acrobatics. That puts him at level 1. He succeeds at the task and dives into the group of Ravagers. If he hadn't been able to argue his way up to level 1 then he probably would have had to spend some resources on that. 

The Ravagers themselves? They're just an obstacle, more so than a proper character. They only get one aspect to describe what they are, but since they've got a bit of borderline competence it's at level two. 

2: Violent gang of Ravagers

It's their turn, and they have nothing better to do than attack the raccoon. They dive at him and Rocket activates a homemade shield bubble he scrapped together, knocking them all back. That's an application of his level-2 "Make anything outta anything" attribute, so it's a push. This time, it's a clash that's over in a few seconds.

Now it's Yondu again, and he can try to take out Rocket, but, damn, he's trading on both his arrow AND his "leader of the Ravagers" aspects, so he's level 2. Rocket is shooting through his homemade shield, which means he's operating at level 2 as well. Another push, as he's taking out loads of nameless Ravagers and enjoying a maelstrom of destruction. On Rocket's turn, he declares that his shield runs out of juice and sputters out; this potentially leaves him without an obvious form of defense should the tables turn, but he's not worried right now, he just wanted to get back up to level 3 by relying on his guns alone. He shoots at Yondu, who can only muster a 2 because he's with the Ravagers; in narrative, this probably means that some of the Ravagers try to block the shot, but it's not enough. Since Rocket has the upper hand, he wins, and Yondu is taken out. 

Practically speaking this could mean "killed" but since we are largely operating on comic book superhero logic, it usually doesn't. I'm not sure entirely what it means, but it seems elegant to have "wounds" in the form of level-0 attributes. In this case, Rocket decides that Yondu isn't hurt so much as he looks bad. Now he's got a new attribute at level 0: Lost the Respect of my Crew. Wounds like that are bound to heal eventually. But until that happens, Rocket's gonna have an easier time getting the upper hand, even when he's not bringing guns to the table.

...or something like that.

Obviously there are huge swaths of this idea that are still pretty nebulous, but there's something about it that is appealing to me. It's fittingly bombastic, I think, that conflict is all about who has the upper hand at a given moment... it narratively accounts for those moments where a drawn-out battle suddenly flips on a dime because something has Changed. It probably needs something to ensure that PCs can survive at least a few blows from someone with the upper hand, but I don't think I want to have traditional health... I like the idea that wounds just take the form of lower-numbered attributes. 

Someone powerful villain can have, like, 5: Walking Murder Machine as their only attribute. The PCs will have to think up ways to tackle them that can't be covered by that attribute, and in so doing stack attributes that make them easier to deal with. Engage them in a battle of wits to give them 4: Annoyed at the PCs. Do some spying to discover their plot and give them 3: Plan for galactic domination. Narrowly foil that plan to give them 2: Now it's time for revenge! And at that point the PCs have become the bad guy's kryptonite... they're still a walking murder machine, but when they're facing off against the heroes they're almost doomed. And that makes sense to me.

At any rate, I'd be interested in seeing how it works in practice, outside of the theater of my brain.