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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Stunt Dice - A Core Mechanic for Encouraging Cinematic Stunts

by Dan Pond
Aug 15,2002


Stunt Dice - A Core Mechanic for Encouraging Cinematic Stunts

The Problem

Feng Shui is a role-playing game near and dear to my heart. It does a great job of codifying all the silly, egomaniacal bullshit that make action movies such fun to watch. That "over the top" flavor so permeates the game that, the first time I played it, the GM explained the rules by saying, "The better you describe your action, the cooler it is, the easier it'll be," or something to that effect.

The thing is, that's not entirely true. The trick that games like Feng Shui use to encourage action movie stunts is that they don't penalize players for creative or complex actions. It's a deceptively simple philosophy: If you want people to try insane stunts, don't slap them with penalties for their trouble. To be fair, Feng Shui is also chock full of special character abilities that mimic action movie tropes (i.e. Lightning Reload and the ever-popular Carnival of Carnage), but that's neither here nor there.

Not punishing players isn't the same as actively encouraging them. In fact, I don't know of a single role-playing game that provides a game mechanic for making entertaining, creative, and well-described actions more likely to succeed. Sure, there are a few that let GMs hand out points of one kind or another as rewards, but 1) you can't do that all the time and 2) those points aren't always usable to facilitate the action that earned them. What we need is a system that links success probability to colorful description.

Fortunately for us all, crazy uncle Dan's got something up his sleeve!

The Solution: Stunt Dice

Here's the deal: This is a dice pool mechanic that links character stats to target numbers and adds a die to your pool for each embellishment you invent when declaring your actions. (It's similar to a couple of games mentioned in the "Stunt Bonuses" thread from an earlier Bag O' Nifties article, see below.)

Characters should have Traits (skills, abilities, attributes, whatever) rated on a scale from 1-5: 1 is Poor, 2 is Average (Default), and 5 is Extraordinary. When they roll, any dice that exceed the rating of their relevant Trait are considered failures. All the other ones count as successes. (Note: You can certainly use other die types, but you'll either have to change your rating scale accordingly or accept the increased chance of failure. Your call.)

Each round, the players and GM take turns describing their actions. Everyone gets one die just for doing something, plus another die for each interesting embellishment they add, subject to GM approval. For example, someone who's shooting a pistol would get 1d6. Someone who's shooting a pistol (1) in each hand (1) and unloading the clips (1) while diving down a flight of stairs (1) and landing behind a laundry cart (1) would get 5d6. (You may want to set a max pool size around 6-8 dice.) Before rolling, they should divide their dice into an Attack Pool and a Defense Pool. Then they roll their dice and discard any that go over their Trait rating in "Shoot Shit Up," or "Bad Mutha," or whatever.

Each success in the Defense Pool negates one successful Attack die used against you. Unused Defense Dice just go away, but you get kudos for being extra squirrely. Every Attack die that gets through causes one point of damage, however you want to track that. (I like to use Karma points to soak damage, but a Hit Points or Wound system would work just fine. Season to taste.)

The same system works for magic, social interaction, hacking, or just about any other type of action. The only thing that varies are the kinds of descriptions used to gain those extra dice. For example, a magus trying to disable an enemy who's shooting at her might blind the gunman (1) by sticking pins into the eyes of a voodoo doll (1) and calling upon her spirit guide for aid (1) while running headlong down the hallway (1) for 4d6. Or a con artist could try to lure a mark into a dark alley (1) by pretending to be lost (1) and using his patented seductive wink (1) while watching the mark's facial expressions for signs of deception (1) for 4d6.

Situational modifiers are handled by increasing the number of successes required for a task, but should be used sparingly. If something's significantly harder than normal, ask for 2 successes; if it's extremely difficult, demand 3 successes. Beyond that, you should probably just call it a failure and skip the rolling. So, a martial artist trying to take out some thugs under cover of darkness would need 2 successes to cause a point of damage, as would the thugs. Of course, if any of them have night vision goggles, they'd get to add a die to their pool. Note that highly skilled characters will have less trouble overcoming these challenges than unskilled characters, which is as it should be.

When sending hoards of hapless, low-rated minor characters after their players, GMs should treat all these "mooks" as a single combatant, giving them one die per mook, plus one die for things like extra-deadly weapons or being infused with dark magic or what have you. Every successful hit from the players takes out one mook, and drops that mook's die from next round's Mook Pool. These guys don't usually defend themselves well, so GMs might just use all their dice for Attack, but don't discount the defensive value of things like cover fire, running around in random directions, and ducking behind other mooks for cover.

Not only does the Stunt Dice system directly encourage players to come up with creative, entertaining stunts and descriptions, it also gives them tactical options with in-game consequences. Say a particularly skilled martial artist (Kung Fu 5) is taking on a group of Misc. Mooks (Fight Feebly 3). Even if the mooks are getting six dice per round, our kung fu master can count on about 3 successes, and some of them might not even be Attack dice. So, he can either pull out all the stops and attack them all at once, hoping they don't hit back too hard (i.e. 5 Attack dice & 1 Defense die) OR he can play it safe, dodging and weaving around their attacks while taking them out one by one (i.e. 2 Attack dice and 4 Defense dice).

So, there's your system. Fast, simple, and dripping with savory, two-fisted flavor. Enjoy!

A Note on 1-5 Rating Spectra

Anyone who looks at my small library of role-playing systems may notice a particular fondness for rating character stats on a 1-5 scale. Believe it or not, I actually have some good reasons for this. First, the difference between each point on a scales starts to loose its meaning if there are more than 5-7 points. Second, it's just damn easy to use; there's not agonizing over one point differences and you can stat up characters on the fly. Finally, it should be easy for you readers to scale them to fit your own systems of choice. See, it's all about your needs, baby!

Next Time: An adversarial approach to running shapeshifters!

Bayn.org - Blur, Nameless, Erebus, and other weird-ass games & settings.

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond