03 April, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 10: Stunt Points

The other night I watched the Dragon Age episodes of Tabletop.

Part 1

Part 2

They were out a while ago, but I've only just managed to get around to watching them. It looks like pretty standard fare when it comes to a roleplaying game, but there was one innovation which looked pretty interesting to me. I will admit that I haven't read the Dragon Age books, I haven't played the games online, and my only exposure to the system comes from watching the videos...so my interpretation of this rule might be a bit skewed ("Tabletop" does manage to oversimplify a lot of the games that are depicted).

The mechanism in question is the stunt point system.

In the game, tasks are faced by rolling 3d6 versus a target number. This applies the concepts of bell curves to the roll (which I've discussed previously), but it also applies the concept of reading the dice in multiple ways beyond merely adding up the faces; this is something that you see in systems like the "One Roll Engine".

In Dragon Age, two of the dice are one colour and the third die is a separate colour. The third die is called the Dragon Die.

If the two matching dice roll doubles, the result on the Dragon Die determines a number of stunt points that may be applied to the action. Since there is a 1 in 6 chance that any pair of dice will roll doubles, then this works a bit like a critical hit (also discussed previously). Unlike a critical hit, the mechanism doesn't only activate at the best levels of action performance. You could roll a pair of 1s, unlikely to pass any action's target number, but still earn a couple of stunts that might flavour the action in some unexpected direction.

It seems that you can spend a single stunt point to gain a minor advantage in an action, or you can spend multiple stunt points to do something amazing. If you roll a high number of stunt points you can choose to spend them on one big effect, or split them over several smaller effects. The player gets to choose how their stunts manifest within the game.

The main thing I like about this system is that a bad die roll can still have unexpectedly good side effects. Double 1s or 2s, can produce a way for characters to sidestep the worst in a situation with the right choice of stunts. It makes the game more heroic and dramatic.

It is a step toward the whole "Yes, and..." or "No, but..." effects that story gamers seem to have loved over the past few years.

It also reminds me a bit of the dice mechanism used by Fantasy Flight in their Warhammer 3rd Edition and Star Wars lines. You get a core range of successes and failures, but on top of that you get advantages and disadvantages that flavour the general outcome of the result with side effects. The difference here is that everything is numeric so you can use regular dice.

The instant issue I have with the system is a niggling detail, I've mentioned it before. Things like this can slow the game down. As long as the slowing process produces some great effects, it's fine...but if it is slowing down for the sake of slowing down, then it just gets frustrating for the other players.

Similarly, I haven't seen that table of options that stunts provide, but the episode mentions things like doing extra damage. If the stunt options are purely "stunts" of a physical nature than that would be a major failing of something that has great potential, I'd like to hope that the range of stunts might include social options, gaining additional insight from knowledge skills, or other ways that a player can push the storyline in their character's favour.

Another factor that might be construed as a negative is the fact that low rolls might earn unexpected positive side effects, but if you roll high there isn't a counter-system in place that occasionally forces a sacrifice to be made. You can't roll double sixes then end up with a dragon die result that says, you'll get the huge benefits of an "Uber-success" if you are willing to sacrifice this piece of equipment or that ally. But the way I understand it, Dragon Age is a setting of heroic fantasy, where heroes struggle against the darkness with mystical powers on their side...so I guess that fits. (The Fantasy Flight system does incorporate the ability to get successful actions with negative side effects)

I like the direction and intention of this system, and it certainly seems to be a good step in the direction of narrative play for a more traditionally based player group. I really think it needs more investigation before I make any really strong calls about loving or hating it. It has intrigued me enough that I would like to find out more.

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