Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Mazarbul Gamble

I recently posted my views on improvisational stunt systems in TTRPGs.  In it, I described my own version of such a system that I'd "codified" in 13th Age, as well as a similar system from the Thought Crime blog called Gamble!  Ever the tinkerer, in this post I'll combine the two systems in my quest for a fun, simple, and intuitive houserule for the game.

Due to the very nature of the fact that these are "improvisational" stunts, this set of rules is really more of a guideline.  Sometimes players will come up with stuff that doesn't necessarily fit well into this framework, but hopefully it provides a solid enough framework for GMs to build off of and adjudicate fairly.


A Gamble is whatever the player would like to achieve.  The options below should cover a wide variety of possibilities, with the mechanics reflecting the intent of the action.  The intended effect can be described in whatever narrative way that the player sees fit.

Gambles are usually a quick action skill check, but some of the more impressive effects require a standard action.

Risks are consequences chosen by the GM.  If the skill check for the Gamble fails, then the Risk is triggered.

Any quick action Gamble can be used as a standard action to avoid a Risk.

The DC for skill checks will either be based on the standard difficulty for the environment, or if the action directly opposes an opponent then their PD or MD is used instead.  For simplicity, targeting PD or MD is equivalent to a Normal difficulty.  If the action would normally be a Hard difficulty, add 5 to PD/MD.


Combat Maneuver (quick action): Make a skill check (usually Str or Dex) against your opponents PD (usually).  Optional - stronger effects may additionally require you to hit with your next attack this turn, or may be triggered with a natural 16+ roll on the skill check.


Trip - The target is Stuck until they spend a move action to stand up.  Optional stronger effect - melee attacks get a +2 bonus to hit the target.

Bull Rush - The target is pushed back a few feet, popping them free of any engagements except the bull rusher (and potentially pushing them into new engagements)  Optional - if pushing the target into dangerous terrain (a fire, off of a cliff, etc.) you have two options.  You can use PD + 5 as the DC (or a Hard DC), or you can allow the target a Normal Save to negate the effect.  I prefer increasing the DC personally, because it minimizes die rolling and speeds things along.  If the target is Large or Huge, add an additional +5 to the DC (so it's Very Hard to push a larger creature into dangerous terrain).

Grapple - The target takes a -2 penalty to disengage checks (you must have at least one hand free).

Gain the Advantage (quick action):  Make a skill check against the target's MD or PD, or use the Normal DC for the environment.  Choose 1 of the following effects (or similar), which lasts until the end of your next turn:

  1. the target is Vulnerable
  2. you or 1 ally gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls against the target
  3. you or 1 ally gains a bonus to damage against the target equal to your level.  

Optional - double the bonus on a natural 16+.

Players that really like to gamble may want a stronger effect.  Feel free to give it to them, with a Hard DC (or adding +5 to PD/MD).  Instead, they may choose from these effects:

  1. the target is Dazed
  2. the target is Hampered
  3. choose one of the Normal DC effects, and make it Save Ends.

Examples:  Anything that falls into the umbrella of an Agility or Smarts trick in Savage Worlds probably works here.  Taunting the opponent, throwing sand in his eyes, feinting, using footwork to improve your relative positioning, etc.

Massive Attack (standard action):  First, make a skill check (Hard DC) with an ability appropriate to the action you're describing.  If successful, you can make a basic attack against 1d3 nearby enemies in a group (whether it's a melee or ranged attack depends on how you describe the action).

Examples: Sweep attack, cutting/shooting the rope of a chandelier, throwing a table, etc.

Increase Momentum (standard action): First, describe how you're increasing the momentum of the battle and then roll a skill check with an appropriate ability (Normal DC).  Immediately raise the escalation die by 1 on a success.  This should probably be limited to 1 attempt per battle, but if you're feeling generous you should at least require a different narrative description for additional attempts (in other words, momentum gained from the same description doesn't stack).


Reversal:  One enemy (usually the target, but a ranged leader or lurker works well too) makes an immediate basic attack against the character.  If it makes more sense that the action would endanger an ally, then an ally can suffer the reversal (this will usually only happen if the character that took the Gamble is in a fairly safe position).

Vulnerable:  Until the end of the battle, the character is Vulnerable (+2 crit range to all attacks targeting the character).

Lost Momentum:  Decrease the escalation die by 1.  This should usually be a pretty dramatic event, so you shouldn't overuse it (in other words, don't do it more than once per battle, but see Increase Momentum).

Backfired:  Something went wrong, and now the character is either Dazed or Stuck (save ends).


  1. Also note that in some cases the effects are similar to existing class options. For example, the Cleric's War/Leadership Domain increases the ED by 1. The Barbarian's Whirlwind Attack looks a lot like Massive Attack.

    In these cases, I made every attempt to not invalidate those options. Just like Swashbuckle states that Rogues are prone to succeeding at stuff like this without having to make a skill check, so too is that the primary balancing mechanism here. But on top of that, any improvised actions will come with Risks that no class option (even future ones) will have to worry about.

  2. I don't know about your group, but the DCs on these things seem very low for the effects that they generate. I think I'd start these at more like DC20.

    1. YMMV, but my group has been risk-averse enough not to spam these, as the Risks can be pretty substantial, especially against powerful foes. While I haven't collected any data on success rate (and even my anecdotal sample size is pretty small, as this system was only used for a few sessions before the campaign came to a close), the PCs definitely succeeded more often than not, but triggered Risks enough to make them pause. Granted they were also at level 4 when this was implemented, which is right at that Heroic/Champion threshold, when PCs tend to be successful more often (at least in Heroic tier environments).

      As this type of thing really helps to spice up combat with some injected narrative (especially for the simple classes), I'd like for the success rate to be higher than 50%. That said, I also wasn't shy about giving monsters circumstantial bonuses when PD/MD were targeted.

      Keep in mind that skill checks do NOT benefit from the Escalation Die, so accuracy with Gambles won't increase the way that attacks do. Along those same lines, the system makes the Skill Escalation feat actually relevant, as without a ready-source of combat skill checks the feat's just not worth taking.

    2. That said, I'd most certainly welcome feedback on the DCs if you try this out with your group!

      Another potentially confounding factor is that I tend to throw pretty difficult foes at my party, so against at-level, just above a "fair fight" opponents the DCs might indeed be too low.

  3. so I talked with a couple of my players about it. They actually felt the risks were too high for the rewards. Particularly single round advantages for whole fight disabilities seemed a little off for them.

    1. Haha, hopefully these sit at a good middle ground if some think they're too generous and others too punishing.

      Yeah, the Vulnerable option can get pretty nasty, especially if invoked early in the combat, but when you're talking about increasing crit range against a PC, one round is most certainly not enough. Giving the enemy an attack will always be stronger, from a metagame perspective. Having Vulnerable last the whole encounter simply hedges your bets that the effect will actually come into play.

      It's tough to be objective about something like that while playtesting, too. In a combat where it causes a PC to be crit twice the players might think it's the nastiest thing in the world, but more often it probably won't even generate a crit, and unfortunately having the Risk go unnoticed skews players' perception of its actual effectiveness.

      GMs might consider only invoking Vulnerable later in a combat, or in combats that won't last unusually long. Or, if players are really scared of the condition, you might reserve it for improvised stunts where messing up would likely cause more problems in the fiction (say, jumping out of a tree and doing a sword plant, where there would be a reasonable risk of injury even if you DIDN'T have the distraction of combat!).

    2. Regarding Lost Momentum, yeah that's basically an encounter-long debuff too but that's why I put in the disclaimer about not overusing it. But actually, some PCs might actually BENEFIT from decreasing the ED. Bumping it back to odd would give a Monk another Flurry, while bumping it back to even would give Wizards another go with a Cyclic spell, or Fighter's another shot at Counter Attack.

      It's a mixed bag with monsters, too, as some benefit from a higher ED value (and not just those with Escalator; Sahaguin come to mind), which is also obviously to the player's advantage.

      Ultimately, when I invoked a Risk it was almost always the old standby of Reversal (give the monster a free attack), but I'd recommend Backfired as a good default "second choice." Obviously you should be up front with your players about this, as it will affect how and when they attempt Gambles. If they know a riskier stunt will likely carry a heavier Risk then the mechanics are in line with the fiction, and they'll probably be more accepting of the nastier Risks.

    3. Great comments so far, they're giving me a lot to think about!

  4. I've taken your rules, modified them a bit to my own needs, and posted them at with credit to you at the bottom there.

    I am thinking about adding in some defensive stunts as well, and using the system as a counter for traps (quick action stunt to defeat the trap, risk is normally getting attacked by it)

    1. Nice additions.

      I'd be interested in seeing what you come up with for traps. In order for disarming a trap to require a Gamble, it would have to be pretty tough to avoid the trap in the first place. I have thought that the official 13A trap rules need a little more "oomph!" behind them.