Like most people, I'm utterly entranced by the fencing scene between Westley and Inigo in The Princess Bride, but trying to replicate their style in a tabletop RPG has never really worked out.

I've digested many combat / martial arts / fighting style guides for nWoD (and cWoD), but most are focused on maneuvers rather than fighting style. It's a subtle distinction, sure, but I'd like to find/make something closer to the latter.

How can I house rule this kind of cinematic fencing into the game? Is there a RAW answer I have missed? Or at least an answer that is easy to understand and implement?


6 Answers 6


The Tools are There

The Princess Bride scene is so good because it includes good banter, stylish moves, and good storytelling. You can capture those with the RAW system.

The attack/defense rolls in WoD, especially nWoD, are very abstract. A basic attack with Weaponry could involve any number of weapons, wielded with a wide range of styles and flourish. A defense roll might represent parrying, dodging, blocking, or something more exotic.

To run a scene like that in WoD, you will need to narrate character actions in a compelling way, and leave room for in-character banter.

Example, using a single PC dueling an NPC (excuse the hammy dialog, short notice):

GM: Erica leaps down from the balcony, slashing at you with rapier. "Now, we shall finally have our dance!"

GM rolls Erica's attack while Player rolls defense for his character, Étienne. Player is successful, which tells him how he can react in-narrative.

Player: I step quickly to the right, moving out of her way. I flick my head to the side avoiding the tip of her blade, though it looks at first like she scored a touch. I turn back toward her, smiling, "You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?"

Helping Your Players

To make it really play well, get your players in on the action. Encourage then to ham up to the style.

If one falters or is shy getting started, you can help them out by elaborating on their character's actions (without changing them). I've found doing this keeps players, especially the less-talkative ones, more engaged in combat scenes.

Example, from an actual Vampire game I GM'd (more gruesome style than above, same idea)

Player: I attack the Sheriff with my Claws.

Rolls are made, player is successful in dealing damage.

GM: Excellent! He holds up his sword in an attempt to block you, but you avoid the sharp edge entirely as you rake your claws down his arm, cleaving flesh from bone and slicing through his silver watch. He seems almost more upset by the watch you have destroyed than by his injuries. Its broken pieces clatter to the ground.

This rewards the player for their successful blow, and provides an example of the kind of descriptions they can add to combat actions. A simple "I attack" has become a mini-story.

Social Dimensions

Because banter, bluffs and faints are important to this style ("I'm not really left-handed!"), you can incorporate WoD's social challenges into a combat.

For example, you can allow a character to add some kind of mind game to their normal action for the round. They attack with Manipulation, opposed with Composure. If successful, apply a penalty to the defender's next combat defense, or the attacker's next attack (whichever is narratively appropriate).

This is partly a house rule, but works largely within the framework and spirit of RAW.

I've found that adding in rolls like this doesn't prolong or unbalance combat. It just shifts part of the scene from Physical to Social contests.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm a big fan of your Social Dimensions section. It's simple, more or less RAW, and encourages good role playing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gavin42
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have had good results in other systems with calling "oddball" stat/skill combinations. When players describe something they want to do, and you ask for oddball things like Charisma+Melee or Dexterity+Persuasion, you get odd looks, but it does work out. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:45

How about them Stunts ?

My first idea when I read your question was to suggest Feng Shui. Feng Shui rewards creativity in descriptions of actions by giving bonuses. But then I remembered : Exalted has that too ! They're Stunts !

Basically, Stunts reward creative description of actions by giving 1-3 bonus dice to your check for that action. 3 dice stunts also allow the character to recover a Willpower point.

Now, that may be a little overpowered for a baseline WoD game, so you might want to tweak those bonuses if you find them too large for your needs, but I think the system could work with minimal retooling.

  • \$\begingroup\$ For a standard nWoD game it's a bit over-the-top, but used in conjunction with the rules below that could add a dramatic flair that RAW is missing in combat. I might even increase the bonus dice range from 1-3 up to 1-5. Adding Stunts without any rules alterations however, would likely add more problems than they would fix. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gavin42
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nigralbus, have you tested this suggestion in nWoD, and did it successfully achieve the objective in the question? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I haven't. I rarely ever get to play nWoD these days, let alone GM or houserule it, unfortunately. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 7:28

Below are a pair of the rules that I have run in the past (cWoD) which worked fairly well. They are fairly simple and robust. Player enthusiasm was high when using them, and because the main action roll takes so many attributes, skills, and modifiers into account my players felt they were quite fair.

Replicating the off-hand / main-hand issue is simple in nWoD, drop a couple dice from your action pool for your off-hand unless you are Ambidextrous. Very nice, the one thing I feel the the Rules as Written (RAW) handle well.

Instead of relying on hundreds of special maneuvers and special rules for using them, I devised rules for offensive and defensive stances. These rules would only supplant standard combat when both players are behaving in a sportsmanlike way and using similar weapons.

Involved combatants would silently declare at what point they were willing to forgo defense and make a vital strike. This would take the form of a Threshold. A highly defensive stance would be a Threshold of 6 to 8 or more, while a combatant with a very aggressive stance would want to lash out to whittle down their enemy even when their Threshold was very low, 0 to 2. Their starting stance would need to be in the range of 0 to their Weapon Skill rating, and can be modified at the beginning of any round by as many points as their Weapon Skill to an absolute maximum of 2 x Weapon Skill.

Rather than initiative; each round both combatants would choose a Threshold or Stance silently and roll Wits + Dexterity + Weapon Skill (modified by any situational or maneuver bonuses [including Initiative, Accuracy, etc...], a bonus for the character with greater weapon reach, and any other rules that are already in place).

Compare successes and check the winner's net successes against the Threshold they chose at the beginning of the round. If the winner's Threshold was not met or they both had the same number of successes they both acted defensively for the turn looking for the other to display a weakness, but none was found.

If they both declared a Threshold of 0 and tied successes they both lowered their defenses to strike one another, therefore they both may roll damage and soak (if applicable).

If a combatant equaled or exceeded their Threshold they found an opening and have made a successful strike at it. That combatant alone may roll damage, and their opponent soak. A combatant who declared a more defensive stance would receive a bonus to their soak roll by the net difference between their Threshold and the opponent's success.

This gives highly skilled characters a chance to parlay during a fight and explains why the fighters spend so much time pressing steel to steel rather than lashing out with an attack.

In the end there is a bit of a fudge factor over RAW. Having +4 Initiative on a maneuver (which becomes a +4 modifier to the main roll) might be argued to not be worth the 4 dice bonus. Considering how many dice a decent combatant is going to roll and the fact that it's one-on-one means that little things sometimes play a larger part. And there is always luck (e.g. "You slip on a rock as you back away defensively" could equate to a massive opening for your opponent to seize).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks so much for taking time to critique my q&a, SevenSidedDie and doppelgreener. Getting the etiquette here fully digested is taking me some time, but with your continued help I'll hopefully get there soon. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gavin42
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 16:11

It's such a great scene, and i guess there's two different aspects you might want to emulate:

1. Witty exchanges

The Dying Earth Revivification Folio might be useful since it has a mechanism that encourages players to turn into banter-machines.

Below I copied a short description from a review of the game

"One of the best adjustments involves the infamous taglines. One of the great pleasures of reading Jack Vance is his wonderful use of language. If the characters are not sesquipedalian (a user of big, fancy words), it’s not the Dying Earth. Players are issued three taglines, short phrases in the Vancian style, and they are expected to have their characters use them at optimal moments. In the original DERPG, successful use of a tagline meant experience points to boost your character. In DERF, use of a tagline buys you one or more Refresh tokens, which may be spent to replenish one of your pools. Since you’re forced to spend those pools, this new refresh mechanic should make players more eager to use their taglines, rather than seeing them as a behavior imposed on the players by the designer."

2. A technical vocabulary for fencing

Although it's not an RPG, I think it's worth checking out the card game Audatia. I haven't bought it yet, but I plan to, as it will give me the level of detail that I couldn't find in The Flower of Battle (a sourcebook for The Riddle of Steel). At the very least you can incorporate the cards in your descriptions. In the section below I propose how we could combine it with rpg mechanics.

House rule

I haven't tested this yet, (because I needed something like Audatia, and I only recently found out about it) but an idea I have been toying with is to combine the description element (whether it's verbal along the lines of what Jessa, Gavin42 and Aramis suggested. Or visual, like an Audatia card) with a bluffing game. The one I had in mind is called Bluff/Cheat/I doubt it. Unfortunately you'll have to google it because rpg.se won't allow me to post a 3rd link due to low reputation (at which point i must reveal I am not left-handed). But yeah, on top of the rules of that game you would add one extra rule: Every time someone discards cards, they also describe an offensive maneuver (the description is just the fluff). That's sufficient for a diceless game: effectively you're getting two players to describe a fencing contest using their bluffing ability as currency. Alternatively, you can also add dice throwing to support class based systems, where one fencer is 10th level for example and the other one is 7th. Should work equally well with skill based systems too.

This last example (although it's not tested) hopefully illustrates how you can combine the fiction of the fencing contest (the descriptions) with the game aspect of it. Hope you've found it useful.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you plan to use Audatia, why not refer to the historical manuscripts themselves at Wiktenauer wiktenauer.com ? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tommi
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ That looks like a brilliant resource. Thanks for mentioning it! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 21:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've now added the link to the rules of Bluff, in case anyone wants to give it a stab \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hot from the press: A princess bride rpg has been announced, which may in the future offer a good solution to this problem. You can find out more info about it here: rpggeek.com/thread/1711744/princess-bride-roleplaying-game \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 12:51

Rules As Written

The rules as written are abstract enough to simply reskin and (everybody join in) Describe, Describe, Describe!!!

The obligatory "you can do it RAW" comment out of the way, on to...

Mechanically Encouraging Description and Banter

I'm going to pull a nasty trick out of the earliest versions in print...

Tweak the target number!

If all they do is pick a move, leave the target number for success at 8+. "I attack" is TN 8.

If they make a half hearted description, such as "I use saviolo's parry", that's worth 7+.

"I sweep aside his blade and say, «De Grassi? You know better!»" gets a 6+. (Several Storyteller System games used 6+, and others 7+)

You can, of course, shift the whole thing up or down a point, too.

Grant Rerolls for Banter

If the players engage in desired banter, hand them a poker chip or gaming bead. When they roll, one or more beads can be turned in to reroll non-successful dice.

Restore Willpower for Banter

Character-appropriate banter already should be worth consideration for recovery of willpower, depending upon nature and demeanor. If you generalize it, such that everyone can restore willpower with suitable banter, you give another reason to fight, and also to banter.

Bonuses on defenses

If you really want to mechanize the back and forth, constantly parrying nature, consider making the modifications above only on defense rolls. And remember - if you do it to the players, you need to do it yourself.

The effects of above

If you consistently have only the villains use descriptives, and only give bonuses to NPC's when you do so, you get the easily parried mooks who do basic attacks, and the Villains, who get descriptive text and actually rival the PC's, but in no case is the PC actually safe from even the mooks.

The use of token rewards is also good

Giving Banter Teeth of Its Own

If the banter is good, it may be worth granting a bonus action to make a suitable manipulation-based roll to exploit the ego.

If it's good, don't even count it as multiple actions - just give it as a freebie.


A potential pitfall

There needs to be a book keeping and crunchy description. If you take a given description: "I daringly slice towards his midsection", it can be attributed in two ways, either a "normal" attack, or a called-shot to his midsection.

A surprisingly simple resolution to the pitfall

Run each combat round twice. First is completely mechanical and crunch. "Normal attack to Goon 2" It should be more boring than watching paint dry. I would recommend writing down any pertinent details on a white board for this part.

After you know all the actions for the round, then take a minute and have each character narrate their actions. Maybe Player1's attack on the goon missed but Player2 really got the goon good. Did Player1 really miss that attack, or did he take up enough of the goon's attention and worry that he did not see player2 until too late? As long as the crunch does not change (player 1's hit missed, player 2 hits hard), feel free to let players collaborate their narration to make it more fun.

The downside you probably yelled at your computer by now

Unfortunately it also does slow down combat because rather than doing the round once, you now have to run each round twice with a minute or two to think between the crunch and fluff part. My group enjoys it occasionally (for boss battles, not for mook/grinding combats).


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