Just so we're clear, I'm a guy who likes movies. I'm a guy who likes movies for guys who like movies. Comedy. Drama. Suspense. Horror. Good stories with good cinematography. And action. I was born in the 80's, which was the age of the cheesy action flick. Everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Stalone to Norris to Van Damme. The Expendables and it's sequel were a real treat for me. I've watched action scenes in cinema evolve over time and I have a certain appreciation for their art.
Now that I'm involved in tabletop gaming and RPGs, I love having the means of choreographing combat rounds into each other. One of the most important aspects of this, and one that is occasionally overlooked, is the environment in which a fight scene takes place. Sure, sometimes you might want an open fight in a large open arena, but that does limit things from a tactical and cinematic standpoint. What I present to you, dear reader, is a list of ten places for a fight scene! In no particular order, I might add. Just the first ten to come to mind.
1) Parking garage - Anybody who remembers the opening fight from Highlander would know this is an excellent location for a fight scene. Plenty of open space, while still providing plenty of cover. Between cars and pillars, there's a lot of room for tactical maneuvering and stealth, and trash cans can double as improvised cover/weapons. Light sourcing ranges from relatively bright to completely dark, and lights can be shot out very easily. There are also numerous sprinkler pipes and wiring that can double as environmental hazards. Multiple stories mean defenestration is always an option, and fights can travel to nearby rooftops of smaller buildings. Cars can also be used offensively, whether driven or thrown into the opposition. And if all else fails, it's an easy start for a car chase.
2) Church/Cathedral - Churches are a frequent staple of John Woo films. The symbology makes for a nice thematic element, and altars are covered in objects. There's nothing quite like ramming someone's holy symbol down their throat, shoving a burning candle in their eye, and then body slamming them onto the altar. In a church, cover can be provided by pews. In cathedrals, you have a few more options. More space, and cover providing pillars. Upper floors may lead to a rooftop battle surrounded by gargoyles or a fight in the bell-tower. That's where it gets even more interesting, with combatants balancing precariously in the rafters over a several hundred foot drop. Plenty of rope to hang yourself with and who wouldn't want to ring someone's proverbial bell with a literal bell.
3) Bar - The quintessential fight location. Every good adventure starts in a tavern anyways. barrooms are smoky, dark and full of stuff. I cannot understate the importance of having stuff in a fight. Flip over tables. Slam heads into the bar. Break bottles over the heads of halflings. Hit people with chairs. The room is your weapon! Go wild! And then get drunk again afterwards!
4) Train/Ship/Moving Vehicle - Any large moving object can be a great dramatic locale. I personally like trains for set-pieces. They're confined, they move, and plenty of pulp action scenes happen on them. You can have a fight run through the train, car-by-car, dealing with the tight corridors and all of the stuff in your way. Or you can do battle on the top, dodging mail poles and ducking under tunnels. The truly brave may seek passage on the sides, clinging for dear life while trading blows with people through the windows. Let's not forget what happens when the bridge is out up ahead, putting your plans on the clock. Or maybe someone may get the bright idea of un-coupling the cars instead.
Maybe the ocean is more your taste? How about some tall-ships? Climb the rigging and have a sword fight on the yardarm. Rope, belaying pins, barrels, and obstacles everywhere! Multiple decks to travel around on and plenty of room to swing like a pirate! For more modern gaming, a cruise ship is just a hotel on the ocean. Except that it'll roll with the waves, causing the whole fight slide around.
Caravans make for a nice middle ground between train and car chase. If you've ever played Uncharted or seen any Indiana Jones movies you know what I'm talking about.
5) Crumbling Ruins - Much like the floor-plan of any average building, but with fewer intervening walls. Stealth is still possible with crumbling walls providing cover. Dilapidated stairs and former upper floors provide high ground for all your jumping-onto-unsuspecting-mook needs. And if all else fails and you still end up with a conga-line-of-death, just drop the floor out from under them. It was gonna fall over eventually, right? Maybe even create some makeshift bridges out of falling columns or statuary. Need a weapon? plenty of rocks. I actually dropped a burning building on a combat once to get the characters to move around, and even had the floor disappear from a boss fight. Keep 'em on their toes!
6) Burning Building - Just like the crumbling ruins, only with fire! Smoke may limit visibility better than low light ever could. Your escape could be blocked off by falling timbers at any moment. Fight for your life, or fight for a way out.
7) Scrapyard - Much like the bar, improvised weapons are everywhere. Difficult terrain is a common feature. Piles of scrap or stacks of junk cars can turn this thing into a makeshift labyrinth. trash compactors with conveyor belts can also spice up a fight scene. Just look at The Brave Little Toaster to see how much suspense you can get from one of those things. Wanna stealth? Hide in the occasional car trunk, or fridge. Endless possibilities!
8) Rooftops - Another of my personal favorites. Slanted roofs with loose tiles make for unstable footing. Chimneys and skylights are great places to stuff a body. Running and jumping from one roof to the next can spice up your typical foot chase. A great example is in the remake of Total Recall, with Colin Ferrell. Uneven rooves, variable gaps, and loose cables or clothes lines can all change the game for a chase.
9) Warehouse - Tight corridors, blind corners, and stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. High shelves provide high ground. Dark corners and dim lighting help with your stealth ops. In modern settings, you can even try to kill someone with a forklift! Cranes, or pulleys provide means of swinging like a swashbuckler, or dropping stuff on the heads of random goons. Another example, there was an awesome ladder fight in 2001's The Musketeer with Tim freakin' Roth! Warehouses are awesome!
10) Outer Wall - Whether on scaffolding or on a tight ledge, or whatever, fighting on the outside wall of something makes for a great set piece. Chucking someone of the edge is a lot of fun, or merely cutting the rope they're hanging from. Pulling from The Musketeer one more time, watch the fight on the tower wall with guys sword fighting while perpendicular to the ground, hanging by rope.
Just to put all of this together, if you want some cool stuff to come out of combats, sometimes you have to prime the engine, so to speak. If you start with the environment, clever players can do wonders. Cover, high ground, and improvised weaponry are all staples of cinematic fights. Anything that gets the battle lines to move around also make the combat more interesting. Also, don't be afraid if someone asks if something is there and you didn't already put it there. Chances are, they're already going to try something clever, and it's no big deal to say 'yes'. Spice up the scene, and spice up the game.
What about you all out there? What kinds of locales do you use? What ways have you used your surroundings to your advantage? What was the weirdest thing you used as an improvised weapon?
Until Round 2, Stay Classy!