Saturday, July 27, 2013

On Improvisational Stunt Systems

I've been thinking a lot about improvisational actions in tabletop RPG combat lately.  I suppose it was initially triggered by arguments during the early D&D Next playtest process, specifically over the issue of simple vs complex mechanics.  Some favored a minimalist, "old school" rule set because you're forced to get narratively creative to do things in the game world since you can't fall back on "I use X skill," or "I use my ____ power."  Furthermore, complex and tactical rule sets can actively discourage this type of thinking because the existence of a feat/power/whatever that says you can do X means that characters without that thing CAN'T do the action.  In other words, it has "No" built into the system, which runs counter to the "Yes, and..." philosophy of many modern RPGs.  Kind of ironic, since old school D&D came out on the side of the modern "Yes, and...".

The thing is, though, that I like tactical games too.  I'm also not convinced that the two philosophies are mutually exclusive, and playing 13th Age has taught me that.  And so I will examine the influence that several game systems have had on my thoughts on the matter, and hopefully will arrive at some generic principles that can be applied to most any system to allow a more improvisational style of play.

Savage Worlds

I'll admit that I've never actually played the system, but I have the Deluxe Explorer's Edition and I've read enough forum threads to have a good idea for how the system plays.  Granted I don't like everything about the system, but I can't help but appreciate the elegance of the Combat Survival Guide.  There are just so many ways that so many different types of characters (including non-combat types) can contribute toward taking down a foe, and everything's on one very simple reference page.

It should be noted that the system is very streamlined, and small modifiers make a big difference because of how the core dice mechanic works.  Turns also go really fast, and there isn't any HP so stunting an enemy to make him easier to hit later will be much more effective than attacking for a non-so-solid hit.

Ultimately, the system works well because it's simple and generic.  "Agility Trick" covers everything from throwing sand in someone's face, to a wild flurry of sword strikes that tire the foe or leave him open without any intent of hitting him, to running toward a wall while being pursued and then jumping off of it, flipping over the foe's back at the last minute to leave him off balance and facing the wall.  The sky is the limit in terms of the narrative.

Pathfinder/D&D 3.x

Now, for a completely diametrically opposed rules set.  This is an important system to cover because of its sheer popularity, and the fact that many gamers cut their teeth on it (myself included).  Thanks to the SRD, it's extremely easy to get into it, and there are a lot of other games that use the basic d20 system (all the same arguments apply).

In Pathfinder/3.x, you have a HUGE list of feats (a prolific amount of splatbooks doesn't help here), and so there's effectively a HUGE list of "you can't do that unless you have this feat" restrictions.  It's also a very rules-heavy, fiddly system that strives toward simulationism (though it often falls short, especially compared with the "common sense" approach of a more narrative system).  There are very specific and complicated rules for grappling, tripping, sundering, etc.  In other words, the basis for stunts.  The problem is that the baseline options for these stunts are extremely poor choices.  You give up your attack to do them, the roll is heavily penalized, and there's often a risk of taking opportunity attacks on top of that.  The designers might as well have just saved the page space and just wrote "don't do any of this."

Except, of course, for the feats.  There are feat chains that modify these options, but with feats being such a limited resource (and a grab bag of EVERYTHING, from attack/damage bonuses to new options to knowing new languages) it's a pretty big deal to specialize in these "stunts."  A melee character can be a grappling master, or a tripping master, sure, but then it becomes a non-choice essentially.  Since he's spent so many character resources into that thing he'd damn well better press his "trip" or "grapple" button as much as possible, as opposed to thinking creatively in terms of what's going on in the game world.  If he does think creatively and tries something off-the-wall (that he hasn't invested feat support in) he's less likely to succeed.

That is a fundamental failure of any stunt system.  The whole point is to make meaningful decisions in the moment, based on the fiction.  For example: Oh, this guy's wearing really heavy armor with a big visor on his helm, so that means if I dart around, keep moving, and try to stay out of his field of vision I should gain some kind of advantage.  Maybe he'll tire himself trying to chase me, or simply be less able to hit me, or maybe I'll try to maneuver him into a position so that I can take advantage of the environment.  This kind of stuff would happen all the time in Savage Worlds, but it just never comes up in a PF/3.x game.  Rather, you're reduced to your "auto-choices" of flank to better hit him, and then use whatever toys you've specialized in to wear him down.  Creativity is actively discouraged by default, but that's not to say that it has to be that way.  The precedent set by other d20 games may provide insight into house rules that can be adapted to the system.

D&D 4E

In some ways the system fails just as much as PF/3.5 in terms of providing an improvisational stunt system.  While a unified power structure did wonders for ensuring that all classes were balanced and everyone had interested options, the game still usually devolved into "button mashing" in the same way that PF/3.5 did.  Fights mostly involved choosing whichever power would work best in any given round.  Now, the good news is that choosing powers wasn't a resource sink that could have been spent on something else; it was its own little resource pool, and everyone got a good number of interesting, tactically meaningful choices.

Furthermore, the flavor of a given power was often extremely mutable.  4E was written in a very clear "technical writing" style that defined the game mechanics that were being used.  Those mechanics were intentionally more streamlined than PF/3.x so that the focus would be on the narrative rather than the fiddly rules.  Instead of 5 flavors of "sickened," "dazed," or "afraid" 4E would me inclined to lump everything like that under "Dazed."  Seriously, whereas PF has 3 pages of extremely tiny (8 point font?) text in "wall" format of conditions, 4E has a single page of larger-font, stat-block-style conditions with bullet points.  Having very specific conditions is limiting, whereas having a broad mechanic that can be interpreted multiple ways opens the door for narrative "stunting."

Unfortunately, the devil's in the details.  You're still just picking from a list even if you're doing something different in the game world each time you use the power, but worse is the fact that the long combats, the large amount of powers available, and the tactical complexity means that there's often not time to think about combat in terms of the narrative.  Most of the time players just say "I use X power" and call it a day (and fights still take forever).  Granted there's also a table in the DMG (the infamous "Page 42") that provides a baseline for improvisational actions, but a) the effects are inferior to most powers (though not to the extent that the baseline PF/3.x maneuvers were), and b) at mid to high levels most players can get overwhelmed with the sheer number of options their character has, let alone trying to think "outside the box," as it were.

13th Age

Ah, 13th Age.  The beauty of this system (which is technically a d20 system but uses a lot of narrative indie-game mechanics) is that it's streamlined even further than 4E, and less tactically complex.  On top of that, it also has extremely transparent math, sidebars discussing the designer's intents and/or disagreements, and encourages improvisation and house-ruling.

But for all that there's no codified stunt system.

Individual classes do have options that grant them improvisational carte-blanche.  We'll examine the Rogue's, which is the Swashbuckle talent, because it hints at unwritten general stunt rules.  Swashbuckle basically boils down to "do a fun stunt, and you'll probably want to make an attack as part of it."  Like 4E (and unlike PF/3.x) you're not given up your attack, but rather adding a "rider" on top of it.  Unlike 4E the rider is whatever makes sense given your description.  Interestingly, the last paragraph reads "Of course, 13th Age is a game where everyone might attempt stunts like this at some point.  But you're the swashbuckler who is prone to automatically succeeding, often, instead of needing a difficult skill check to pull the stunt off."

Unfortunately, the core book has no guidelines on how to implement such a skill-based stunt system in combat.

I eventually settled on houseruling it like this:

  1. Make a skill check as a quick action.  DC could be for the environment, or the foe's PD/MD.
  2. If you succeed, you can tack on an improvisational effect on your next attack appropriate to the stunt's narrative description.
  3. If you fail, the opponent gets an opportunity attack.
  4. If you're feeling really cautious, you can roll the skill check as a standard action instead of a quick action, giving up your attack but avoiding the risk for an opportunity attack.
Then I stumbled on the Gamble! system on the Thought Crime blog.  It's similar to how I've been doing 13th Age stunts, but it's presented a little differently and I think the "Gamble!" title is really catchy.  It also hearkens back to the "Mephistophelean style of GMing" that designer Rob Heinsoo is noted for.  I'll probably end up tweaking the basics of Gamble!, keeping it generic but perhaps adding a few more Risks and merging it with my own stunt system that uses Quick actions to tack riders onto attacks (reserving standard actions for more powerful effects, like the Massive Attack and Increase Momentum).  Hopefully look for that in a future post!

Edge of the Empire

I'll end how I started, by discussing a non-d20 system to illustrate how different core mechanics can be more or less improvisational friendly out of the gate.

EotE is a huge divergence from your classic d20 experience because not only does it use a dice pool system, but it employs narrative dice.  The faces have no numbers, but rather different combinations of success and failure symbols (which cancel each other out), advantage and threat (which cancel each other out and add additional effects, positive or negative, independent of success), and Triumph and Despair (rare symbols that don't cancel, an indicate something REALLY good or REALLY bad).

Like Savage Worlds, combat rounds tend to move quickly so it's less of a big deal to give up your attack in order to do something else.  It's also really easy to represent different effects and circumstances by simply adding, upgrading, or removing dice from the dice pool.

Each roll results in improvisation and interpretation of the results because there are so many possible combinations and variations of outcomes (which can be generally grouped as success, failure, success with complications, success with additional benefits, failure with complications, and failure with benefits).  In some ways, an improvisational stunt system is inexorably entwined into the core mechanic.


Obviously something like Edge of the Empire's core mechanics are pretty impossible to introduce into other systems without a massive re-write of the rules.  But the effects on gameplay are certainly valuable to keep in mind, as they can probably be achieved in other ways.  I'll certainly be keeping this in mind as I play more EotE.

Savage Worlds is a good model to use in 13th Age, as both are narrative-centric (add whatever "trappings" onto the mechanics) games with intentionally streamlined systems designed for ease-of-use.  They're very different systems, of course, but they do have those common themes.  Even though I've never run or played Savage Worlds, its rules have certainly influenced by own stunt system, and I can see the influence in the Gamble! system as well.

By adopting some principles from Savage Worlds into 13th Age, 13th Age may serve as a "bridge" for incorporating some of these mechanics into a more traditional d20 game like D&D 4E or Pathfinder.  I'm going to be playing in a Pathfinder game soon, after having sworn off 3.x and its ilk in favor of less fiddly systems.  Mostly because the group still wants to play Pathfinder (I'll never DM it, though), and because the DM is looking to incorporate some 13th Age mechanics into the game (definitely One Unique Thing, and ED and Icons are likely as well).  It intrigues me, and I'm curious whether those additions will make Pathfinder more palatable to me.  Perhaps once I re-familiarize myself with its rules I can begin to adapt some form of improvised stunts rules to the system.

1 comment:

  1. Good write-up. I like your stunt system, and look forward to seeing how you make use of aspects of the Gamble! as well.