Stress Tracks in Leverage

Note: This week, I’m going to really drill down into one topic – stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them – with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

Leverage uses a fairly quick, escalation driven conflict resolution system. It works and works pretty well, but I found myself looking at how Smallville does that same, and being impressed. While i might not want to go all the way as to duplicate Smallville’s model, I’m definitely happy to steal a few ideas from it. I did so for last weeks Leverage-Amber and it worked out well enough that I’ll definitely do it again, and I figured it merited a writeup.

The first idea (and the big lift from Smallville – and by extension Mouseguard and some other games) is that of stress tracks. Stress tracks represent a number of different conditions. The most obvious, and the first most people think of, is the HURT track, which is a gauge of how hurt the character is. There are other stress tracks, but we’ll worry about them later – for now we’ll use HURT to illustrate.

This idea is pretty intuitive to most people who’ve gamed: the more hurt you get, the higher the stress track goes. In this model, the HURT is represented by a die value (d4, d6 and so on). The size of the die represents the severity of the injury, with d4 representing barely a scratch and a d12 representing something that would drop a horse.

The value of your HURT track ends up working against you any time you take an action where being hurt would cause problems (which is to say, most physical actions). In this situations, the GM (or your opponent) picks up a die equal to your HURT value to add to the roll.[1] If the value of your HURT die is ever higher than your highest die, you get taken out (in a manner determined by your adversary).

Stress is inflicted as follows: Before a roll, the GM lets the player know that stress is a possible outcome – since we’re talking about HURT, we probably mean a fight or something else physically threatening (and, implicitly, the threat probably exists for the opponent as well, as appropriate). Both sides roll as normal, and once the roll is complete, the victor looks at his third highest die showing, choosing one in the case of a tie. The level of HURT inflicted is equal to the size of that die.

For example, if the winner of a roll has the dice come up 6(d8), 6(d6), 7(d10), 8(d8) and 4(d4), he’s rolled a 15 (7+8). The next highest roll is a 6, which showed up on two dice (a d6 and a d8) so the player gets to choose which to use, and will probably pick the d8. As a result, his opponent’s HURT stress track is now at d8.

If the target is already hurt, then there are two possibilities. First, if the new HURT value is higher than the old one, replace the current value with the new one. If the current value is equal to or higher than the new result, then increase it by one step. This last rule also governs what happens if there are no dice left in the pool – it’s effectively a zero sided die, which means it will just increase the current stress level by 1 step.

Continuing the previous example: If the target had already been HURT d4, then at the end of the roll the d8 would replace the d4, and the opponent would now be HURT d8.
If the target had already been HURT d8, then the tie means it gets bumped up a step, and ends at HURT d10.

If the target was already at HURT d12, then the lesser value means it bumps up a step, which probably means immediately going down.

Ok, so that’s the basic mechanic. Tomorrow we’ll see about fleshing it out in other ways.

1 – This does create a small “death spiral”, but it’s quite mild, especially since exchanges of rolls are not common.

9 thoughts on “Stress Tracks in Leverage

  1. Dave The Game

    Thanks for the write-up, it’s all clicked in now.

    You might be already planning on covering this later in the week, but it seems odd to me that since the hurt die is rolled with the GM’s dice, it actually has no chance of creating a complication for the player, and at the same time, has a chance of creating opportunities for the player. It certainly works with some extra narration, but I would think the opposite should be possible as well.

  2. atminn

    I like this track idea and look forward to your notes on implementation, since I already intend to work it into my Fantasy Leverage hack. It seems to allow your alternative to HP that you discussed a while ago Rob in regard to guns and lethality. ie When somebody’s rolling a lot of large dice (Big, brutal, armor-piercing gun d12), there’s a larger likelihood of inflicting a big hurt (d12) right away, which makes a lot of sense.

    I’ve had the same question as Dave about rolling 1s on the hurt dice. I can’t see an opponent ever wanting to roll a d4 Stress die because it won’t help much but will likely roll a 1. I see 2 options, one of which would be much more lethal: I wonder if HURT dice could be rolled as a different color so if a 1 comes up on HURT die, no matter who’s using it, it is either ignored, or it increases the HURT, (or adds some other kind of Stress)

  3. Rob Donoghue

    So, first off, the d4 level of stress is actually a hidden feature. The fact that minor stress might actually help you is, to my mind, a nice way to handle the idea of the rush of adrenaline. That said, the complications thing is an interesting point.

    There is a less fiddly option which would be to steal more directly from Mouseguard and make all stress types Binary. That is to say you’re either hurt or not, tired or not and so on. In this model, there’s no need to track “damage”, it’d simply be an outcome of the roll – loser is stressed. If you take the same kind of stress again, you’re taken out.

    Advantage of this model is that it would mean that all stress could be rolled by the player as d4’s, meaning they’re complication magnets. Drawback is that it’s a little less granular and it allows for fewer dice tricks.

    As I think about it, this simpler model would probably hold up better for straight Leverage. The more complicated stress tracks (and their associated mechanical hooks) works better for a game using powers or magic since you want a little more system to tie the powers to.

    That said, hmm. I wonder if it might be reasonable to let players take “injuries” to reduce stress. That is, you might be able to reduce your HURT track back to zero by adding “Sprained ankle d4” between scenes.

    I’ll have to think about this a bit. It may show up again later this week.

    -Rob D.

  4. Cam_Banks

    Sometime you and I should talk about the extensive discussion Josh and I had during Smallville development about how Stress would work. 🙂

    The one thing I will note is that there are occasions when you don’t roll three dice, especially in Leverage, which is why we went for the Stress pool idea. While this amounts to a reroll of dice, it also opens up specific Talents that modify that pool (viz. Smallville’s triggers of Increase and Decrease). We haven’t found the reroll to be a significant hindrance, but this is a subjective thing.

    We have had some people just want to move to a “stress track” a la FATE or WoD, where it’s a line of boxes you cross off. That was one thing I wanted to avoid in Cortex Plus, but it’s popular with many people. In the words of one playtester, “Where are the hit points in this game?”

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @cam Yeah, I don’t think the reroll would be overly onerous, but I just have an aesthetic fondness for being able to resolve it all in one roll.

    That said, The possibility of the track is queued up for later this week!

  6. Dave The Game

    I’m not surprised there’s a desire to move to a straight out “track on your sheet” method of doing stress/injuries/etc., though one of the reasons I found Leverage so appealing was how elegant it was to track everything via added cards. (It makes me want to break up the character sheet itself into cards.)

    That’s an advantage to Rob’s system here, it’s just another card that the Fixer can bring into play. I also like the idea that your own injuries can work in your favor, though it also just “feels” right to have them overcomplicate situations.

    Are there easy ways for the Fixer to add d4s to the player’s pool? That may just be the solution I’m looking for.

  7. Reverance Pavane

    This has gotten me pondering the possible use of a die cap to represent the effects of stress. That is, the maximum size die that can be rolled is based on the stress level. So a really seriously wounded character might be limited to a d4 in physical activities; not only would they generate the possibility of lots of complications if they tried to do much, but they wouldn’t be very effective at doing much.

  8. atminn

    I like Reverance Pavane’s idea, easily mixed with the idea of stress for each stat. Each stat decreases in effectiveness in appropriate cases and increases likelihood of side complications. I like that, and it allows juicy variety of types of Stress. Then would Taken Out happen when decreasing any stat from d4 to 0? That would mean characters are particularly susceptible to certain threats taking them out much more easily than others. Tough characters can take more injury, intelligent characters can muscle through befuddlement or deceit, and strong-willed characters can handle more social/charm pressure before caving. That’s very simple and elegant. Players could have a marker on their sheet indicating max and current die size and just slide the current one as stress changes waxes and wanes.

    The only thing is, does that make too much of the ‘death spiral’?

  9. Reverance Pavane

    @atminn: Actually I was thinking of having the stress cap start at d12 and reduce for each level of Stress, rather than being a simple reduction of characteristic. It would only reduce the characteristic when the cap goes below the level of the characteristic.

    For example having a stress cap of d6 due to physical injuries (fairly seriously hurt) would mean that you d8 in a physical task gets reduced to a d6. Whereas a fairly minor physical injury (“bruised and battered”) with a stress cap of d12 wouldn’t affect you at all.

    This means that minor stressors won’t generally affect characters all that much, except to make it easier to get to the point where they will begin to affect the character. This lessens the Death Spiral effects.


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