Tactical RPGs and Stunt Systems

July 1, 2014

Had a pretty great conversation with Quinn Murphy about tactical rpgs yesterday and I figured I wanted to put my thoughts about stunt systems down to share.

Key Ideas

First, it’s important to note a couple of key things that shape how you do stuff in tabletop rpgs.

Tactical RPG Pitfalls

There’s basically two major pitfalls for a lot of rpgs that want to do tactical play.   One sits on the player’s side, the other on the GM’s side.

“All the fun choices happened before we started playing…”

What many games do, is front load all the interesting tactical choices into character generation.  You pick a “build” and you do the same thing,  over and over, maybe with only 1-2 really viable options, and everything else just being a bad idea to do outside of very specific circumstances.  Much like tic-tac-toe, this isn’t that interesting to play at all.  What you want is tactical choices to be made during play, not before it.

“It’s so hard to come up with interesting outcomes… I have to prep so much every week.”

The other issue is that a lot of games make improvisation rather difficult, requiring the GM to prep a lot ahead of time.  If there’s not a lot of tactical choices to make during play, it’s basically the players’ front loaded choices vs. the GM’s frontloaded encounter choices, requiring a lot of fiddling and guesswork to how it’s going to turn out.

Of course, this is why fudging becomes a common technique for dealing with this.  You either become a game design master for balancing things OR you just lie to make up the difference because you couldn’t pick out the obscure math relationships at play…

A good stunt system, properly applied, handles both of those problems easily.

Stunt Systems

Let’s be very clear that when I’m talking about stunt systems, I’m talking about mechanics that help you take unexpected actions and translate them into mechanics that will engage a tactical rules set.   There’s plenty of games that don’t have any real tactical heft, and the players can describe their actions in whatever way without it making any real mechanical difference (Primetime Adventures, Wushu, HeroQuest, FATE, etc.).

When you have a good stunt system, players can improvise actions in play that help as well or better than any choices they’ve made during character generation.  Being able to improvise means the GM can run with a lot less statistics needing to be prepped – it becomes easy to set up environmental hazards, have monsters do specialized attacks without statting up everything, etc.

Good stunt systems have to be flexible, easy to improvise without too much work.  Here’s some examples worth considering:

Tunnels & Trolls “Saving Throws”

Tunnels & Trolls Saving Throws is one of the oldest and easiest to understand.  You say what you want your character to do – the GM assigns a “Saving Throw Level” based on how tough it sounds, and which stat uses it.  You roll and succeed or fail.  If the GM wants to have a monster improvise something, or have an environmental hazard?  She simply assigns a Saving Throw Level and stat as usual.  What T&T did well was explicitly laying out this logic in the book, and not leaving it as something to be orally passed down, as a lot of D&D’s “Rulings Not Rules” kind of play did.

D&D 4E’s Page 42

When 4E was first in development and folks were just getting bits and rumors, the design tidbit that eventually became pg. 42 had me quite excited.  I remember it was someone detailing how if you wanted to stunt by kicking a table out from under a monster standing on it, you’d roll a Strength attack vs. a Reflex Defense, and how basically every stunt could be built out of Attribute vs. Defense depending on what made sense.

Now, if you put folks in a stunt-rich environment, a whole lot of options open up from this.  It also provides other viable options than your usual 4E power set.  A lot of 4E play suffered from dragged out fights because usually the 2nd half of any given encounter the players had played out their interesting options, and then it was just a lot of back and forth with basic attacks, over and over.  Aside form reducing enemy HP, the other half is giving players plenty of stuntable environments to work in.

Riddle of Steel’s Terrain Rolls

Riddle of Steel’s main tactical element is managing your Combat Pool – you spend dice out of it, and the focus of play was making sure to spend enough to succeed and/or not get hammered, but at the same time, you didn’t want to spend out too much and leave yourself open for a counter attack.  The Terrain rolls simply required players to choose how many dice they would gamble on the side in order to do useful things like: maneuver around multiple opponents so you don’t get rushed, avoid falling prone on rough ground or up/down stairs, etc.

Pretty much anything you wanted to do during combat, could be given as a Terrain roll in addition to your normal skills.

Rulings Not Rules

Things like the Primer for Old School Gaming shoves all the responsibility into the GM’s hands: make it up.  The advantage here is that it’s mechanically simple (GM fiat), but it also means the GM has to think about things and consider what is fair given the system pretty often.  Despite being mechanically easy, this is not actually necessarily newbie-friendly – it actually depends on the GM’s system mastery of everything else in the game, and their ability to communicate well with the group.

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