Thoughts on Climactic Battles
This evening I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the final movie in the Harry Potter saga (and I have to say that I absolutely love how Chakeres Theatres has $4 tickets on Tuesdays!). I’ve been a fan of the series since my grandma bought me a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone back when I was in Fourth Grade. Although I think the movie could have been better and was a tad rushed, I was generally pleased with this conclusion to the series. And I’m glad that they were able to salvage the epilogue into something that didn’t look like fan fiction!
The thing that impressed me the most was the final climactic battle sequence. Lord Voldemort and his army (apparently numbering in the thousands) were preparing to storm Hogwarts. The teachers and students inside the school knew that they had no chance of victory, but they spent a great deal of time preparing defenses to hold off the attackers and buy Harry as much time as they possibly could. When the final battle unfolded, it was epic with many individuals mounting a defense, working for a common goal, and experiencing thrilling successes and bitter losses.
Why can’t more climactic battles in role-playing games be like that?
In my experience, the climactic battle in a campaign more often goes like this: After swathing through loads of enemies (usually in a dungeon of some sort), five or six characters arrive in a large room where the big bad evil guy is. They fight to the death against him and eventually slay him. And then his reign of terror has ended and the world is safe. Not quite as dramatic now is it?
Maybe there’s a few things we can learn from Harry Potter about how to create epic and climactic battles. Here’s a list of things I’ve thought about from the movie which I’d like to try and apply to my own games (spoilers ahead!):
- Instead of having the PCs attack the enemy on their turf, make the enemy the attack the PCs’ on their turf. There’s a bit more of a motivation to succeed when you’re defending your homeland or whatever place you hold dear. It’s going to have more of a dramatic effect, although that effect will be quite different depending on whether they win or lose.
- Don’t neglect the preparations for the battle. In Harry Potter, the individuals defending Hogwarts were summoning giant stone warriors, creating protection shields, fortifying defensible positions, and even planting explosives all in preparation for the battle. I think this helped build the tension and made the battle itself far more interesting.
- Don’t be confined to a single room. Harry’s battle with Voldemort took him all over Hogwarts and to the surrounding forest as well. Big battles need to take place in a big area. A single room, no matter how big it is, just isn’t big enough.
- It’s hard to feel like the fate of the world is at stake when you can’t see the world. Harry certainly felt the weight as he looked into the faces of the hundreds of students who were putting their lives on the line for him. And Voldemort said that if he tried to run, he would kill every man, woman, and child who tried to safeguard him. Adds a bit more of a dramatic punch when you realize that if you fail, all these people you have a connection with will die.
- Climactic battles are fought with armies of thousands, not squads of five. If the fate of the world really hangs in the balance more people on both sides should be willing to fight. Hundreds if not thousands should be there to battle it out for the things they each hold most dear.
- All that said, there’s nothing wrong with a keystone army. Having a few individuals who singlehandedly have the power to exploit the enemy’s weakness isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s structured right. In RPG terms, this could mean that armies are fighting in the background (and ideally the players should get a chance to play that part out), but a five or six person party is executing some key piece of the plan. The important thing is that they’re not fighting alone.
- Victory is a team effort. Harry destroyed Tom Riddle’s diary, Dumbledore destroyed the ring, Ron destroyed the locket, Hermione destroyed the Hufflepuff cup, Malfoy and his cronies inadvertently destroyed the Ravenclaw diadem, Voldemort unwittingly killed the part of his soul in Harry, and Neville killed Nagini the snake. It’s better when everyone is able to contribute to the victory.
- There is no victory without a price. In Harry’s case, some people very close to him died and there was nothing he could have done to save them. What losses will your heroes have to pay for their victory?
- Finally, don’t neglect the emotional moments during the battle. During a brief respite, Harry witnessed Snape die at the hands of Voldemort, found out about his mother’s past, learned about why he was “the boy who lived,” got encouragement from important people in his life who had passed on, and learned of the sacrifice he had to make in order to defeat Voldemort once and for all.
Depending on the genre and the situation, I’m not sure all of these elements would be appropriate. For instance, Star Wars frequently has the actions of a few changing the fate of the galaxy, so A New Hope didn’t need to have an army of thousands attacking the Death Star. Instead, they relied heavily on the keystone army exploiting its weakness. Couple this with the tension of having the Death Star about to destroy the entire planet where the Rebel base was and you’ve still got a climactic battle!
I challenge you all to think outside of the box and find inspiration from climactic battles in other sources like I have done. Ask yourself what makes it climactic and apply what you learn to your own games!