Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Question of Setting

I floated another question on twitter, since it tends to be an interesting sounding board for idea seeds, and this one’s sticking. That this is profoundly connected to my previous thinking on structure will either be incredibly clear or incredibly oblique – not sure which yet.

I asked whether any RPG settings had revealed all their secrets in the initial book, and then used supplements to respond to those secrets and reveals (rather than introduce new ones). This is not quite the same thing as asking which games have no metaplot – rather, it’s a structural question about how information is handled.

It is easy to find examples of RPGs that don’t do this. 7th Sea, for example, has placeholders for secrets in the core book (The White Plague or Die Kreuzritter for example) which are explained in later supplements. It also has non-flagged secrets scattered across its books.

While I’m not fond of this model, I acknowledge it’s practical advantages as a publisher. In short: it drives sales. People like being in the know, and this is a great way to tap that. But, thankfully, I see it a little bit less frequently these days. This is not to say we see no supplement cascades, but they’re often structured a bit differently. The new World of Darkness stuff, for example, is still supplementastic, but it’s more modular in its design. If you skip a book, you have a decent sense of what you’re skipping.

But the question of games that have turned the model of secrets on its ear, elicited some interesting responses, as well as some surprises, and I want to flag a few that came up.

Torg – This one got mentioned a lot, and I’m going to have to ask Fred how much was revealed in the boxed set because I have no idea. I have a great conceptual love of Torg, but it’s based entirely on people telling me about the game. I have never had a chance to play or read it.

Conspiracy X – Another one I haven’t read, so I have no idea. Any thoughts?

Feng Shui – This is probably the single best example of what I was thinking of. The supplements for the factions introduce ideas and plot hooks, but nothing that essentially changes things as presented in the core game.[1] Some of this was enabled by the fantastic flexibility of the setting and the general tone of the game, but there was also a decision to go in this directions which deserves credit.

Vampire: The Masquerade – My first response to this was surprise. Vampire is, after all, the poster child for the triumph of Metaplot. But thinking about it a bit, I realized that mostly came later. The core book is actually pretty open about things and there was no _necessity_ that things go in that direction. That they did was probably a good commercial decision, but it’s an interesting illustration of where these things happen. To see why consider…

Armageddon – This is pretty much a placeholder for most of the games out there which came in one book with no real expectation of supplements. The setting’s meaty enough that there COULD be supplements, but everything’s pretty much laid out on the table from square one.

Call of Cthulhu – This is an interesting one for reasons that are very relevant to the Dresden Files – how does external source material work into the equation? CoC could be said to be complete because all the material is out there[2], but that might also be viewed as a bit of a cheat.

In the end, there were more good answers than I anticipated, and I’m going to have to keep them in mind as I consider how one produces a setting today.

1 – At least until Friends of the Dragon (EDIT: Whups, meant Golden Comeback), where the need to introduce cooler-than-thou NPCs started messing with things. RPG writers – your NPCs will never be cool for the things they did to the setting. You take opportunities and focus away from the people who are actually playing your game.

2 – And I never noticed this until now, but the Cthulhu crowd does not seem to vigorously reimagine cosmology the way the Amber crowd does. Curious.

Of Questions and Cooks

There are a few questions which are so useful to running games that they often go without saying. The pair I view at the heart of this are “What do you want?” and “What are you going to do?”. These are questions too the player from the the GM, even if never explicitly asked, but they’re also a challenge to the GM in that she must know these questions will be asked and must be answered. What response that demands depends upon the GM and the game, and that difference can be quite telling.

“What do you want?” is an interesting question, in large part because it is directed at that player. This may seem straightforward, but it gets interestingly muddled when one starts taking into account the reality of the character being played. Many gamers would choose to focus on what the character wants as the important thing, and they would sometimes be right to do so, but probably not for the reasons they think. In those cases, the thing the character wants is what the player wants, so everything’s copacetic.

But it’s important that the focus of the question stay on the player because those two things can occasionally diverge. The most obvious example of this is when the player wants to see the character fail, but that can be a rough distinction to make to a player unfamiliar with the idea. To clarify, it can be helpful to look at the discrepancy between the motives of the player and character, even if their goals are identical. While Bob the Barbarian might want to kill the dark overlord to avenge his family, Bob’s player wants to do it because it will be an awesome fight (and there will also be fat loot and XP).

Of course, it’s easy to say that at a remove, but the reality is always more muddled. Sometimes the divide is small enough to be near nonexistent. Bob may hate the Dark Lord for the things he’s done, and Bob’s player may also hate the Dark Lord because the GM has made sure he’s hateable. The subtle distinction between these motives will get overwhelmed in the sheer enthusiasm to take the guy’s head off. And that’s a good thing.

From a player’s perspective, this distinction is almost trivially unimportant. The player wants what he wants, and will generally pursue it rather than describe it. This can cause some confusion for others or frustration for the player, but that’s a natural part of such things. And, barring a particular sort of approach, it’s the GM’s problem.[1]

For the GM, it’s a fascinating problem. Sometimes you have clear pointers to what the player wants, either through long familiarity, clear communication or a game that includes clear flags in the system. But more often than not, you’re left faking it as best you can, hunting for clues, reading responses, and going forward as best you can. And that’s fine – it’s what you signed up for. But there’s one last twist of human nature to deal with: We don’t always know what we want.

In many ways, the GM’s role ends up being like that of a chef (and for purposes of argument, we will assume you are all _excellent_ chefs). Diners may order meals with varying degrees of specificity, from precisely detailed to open ended trust of what the chef recommends. A chef loves it when the trust is high, and tries to reward that with an amazing, unexpected experience of things you would never have thought to order for yourself. There are risks – sometimes the sweetbreads just don’t work for you – but the rewards are equally fantastic. But sometimes you just want a burger. That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes a burger is what you want. Sometimes your tired and want comfort food.

But it’s possible you’re that guy who must have his order just a smidge over medium, with onion and two slices of tomato, mayo on the bun but mustard and ketchup on the side, no sesame seeds and can you substitute the fries with a side salad? With spinach or romaine, none of that iceberg crap. And of course, you’ll salt it before you taste it, and send it back to the kitchen at least twice.

If you’re that guy, it might be worth remembering that you can get away with that in a restaurant because you’re paying for the privilege. If you think you are entitled to the same in your gaming,then I might ask you to reconsider the possibility that even though you know you really like your burger in exactly that way, that it’s possible there are other good foods out in the world, waiting for you to try. Even if you don’t want to go too far outside your comfort zone, consider the possibility that the chef might change something because he thinks you’ll like the change, and he’s making that decision based on experience and knowledge. You don’t need to jump right to the sheep’s eyeballs, but maybe you could consider the lamb burger.

Just a thought.

1 – When players embrace the distinction between what they want and what their character wants, they change the game up. Like any change, this can be for good or ill, and like many changes, responses to it are likely to be entirely visceral. To one group, this may mean embracing a stronger narrative, but to another it might appear to be shameless metagaming.

Quest Heresy

The inclusion of quests in D&D 4e was considered by some to be a nod to MMO design (one of many) but the reality has been far different. Quests tend to exist to provide alternate or extra rewards, but I have never seen them used the way they are in MMOs. That is to say, in the average MMO, a player has many quests going at once, perhaps dozens at a time, and they approach them in the order they see fit.

Historically, I haven’t thought this to much of a bad thing because, frankly, most MMO quests were pretty lame. Pointless errands and requests to kill a dozen members of the monster species of the moment were the order of the day. But my thinking has been slowly changing, in large part as a result of how good a job Blizzard is doing with the role of quests in the recent Cataclysm expansion to World of Warcraft.

There is something really appealling to me in the bite-sized nature of MMO quests. Part of it is the player-directed element – you pursue the ones that interest you – but another part hinges on the size of it. You can knock out a bunch of these in a single “session”, a prospect that’s almost inconceivable in tabletop.

I end up wondering how much of that is habit and how much is necessity. Certain things make for concrete limits. Many MMO quests would fail to pass the smell test at the table. A “Kill 10” quest would be basically dull and stupid in that context. Similarly, RPG combats tend to be harder and more involved, so quests that depend on too many encounters are going to slog a bit.

I think back sometimes to the adventure board. Some folks may remember this as a staple of campaigns, where there was a board in town where the wanted posters went up. The idea was that there were several threads that the players might pursue if they were so inclined, but the assumption was that each such thread was a full bore adventure, not a side task. But why not?

As I think about it, I think the biggest barrier is the idea that small tasks and small rewards are less “heroic” than big payouts, but that doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Lots of studies out there illustrate that we respond really, really well to small, regular rewards that are directly related to our activity rather than deferred rewards (which become emotionally disconnected) even if the deferred rewards are larger. Lots of RPGs support this, this with more immediate payouts (in XP, action points, fate points or the like) so is it too much o a stretch ot have the setting support it as well?

Maybe. I’m still thinking. But that’s a big step up from “no chance in hell.”

Structure Does Matter

I often wrestle with a very simple problem when thinking about running a game, one I boil down to “Why not just use Risus?” For those unfamiliar, Risus is one of the simplest RPGs out there, with rules that easily fit on a page, but with enough potential and extrapolated depth that hundreds of pages have been written about it. It’s a good, solid little game, and if you want to go from zero to playing as fast as possible, it’s a great tool to include in your toolbox.

For me, it’s something I view as an 80% solution. For most games, Risus provides me rules enough to cover 80% of the situations that will come up in play, and the question is how important, interesting and fun the other 20% is. Surprisingly, that 20% is a big deal, since most of the differentiation between games can be found within it. It tends to cover things like magic and quirks of cosmology which are often the most noticeable differences, especially within a genre.

I often judge other RPGs by this yardstick, asking what they are offering me over just playing Risus and faking that last 20%, but that’s slightly unfair. Faking that last 205 is easy to say, but the ability to do so is a skill, one that is a function of a lot of time and practice. It would be easy for me to _say_ that it should be easy to fake it, but that would be a load of crap.

Still, over time I’ve come to realize that’s only part of the problem – risus is very easy to set up, so easy that it can sometimes be hard to play. That is, the structure of Risus mechanics don’t provide any direction of play (whereas, in contrast, D&D’s point towards a fight or pursuit of cool powers/loot) so they depend upon other structures. The problem is, however, that those other structures are often MORE work to build than the rules ones, which undercuts the whole idea of fast setup.

What do I mean by structure here? Some combination of system, situation and setting. Structure provides context, and context is a necessity for meaningful action. All of which is to say structure is a necessary part of a good RPG session, but it’s an open question WHERE that structure comes from. It’s rare (but possible) that it come from only one source, but even in a mix, one is usually more pronounced that the other.

And this, I think, is the heart of what I wrestle with when I think about the gap between games as written and games as played. All games need some sort of structure, but when it comes from different sources, it makes drastically different demands. Any two Burning Wheel games will have in common that they are Burning Wheel, but any two Amber games will have in common that they are Amber. Obvious when you say it, but the real truth is one revealed in play.

Consider the language people use to discuss games. When someone has a good Burning X game, I can tell because of how they talk about it, not by the setting elements they reference (which will probably be few and far between, outside those immediate to the characters). In contrast, two Amber games played with radically different systems will still be talked about similarly because the priority is the setting. When the streams cross it can be interesting, but that’s somewhat tangential to my concern.

So now I’m wondering, how do you talk about that? I know how to present system in such a way as to provide structure, but setting and situation? I know some tricks (families, faces and dungeons) but they’re crude stone tools compared to the shiny steel and silver of system design. But maybe I can use them to build some better ones.

Unscientific Sampling

Last week I asked a somewhat random question on Twitter, “GMs: If you strongly object to dice fudging, do you equally strongly support data transparency, such as visible enemy stats & Powers?” The answers I got were interesting and informative and have left me thinking.

So, to step back, the reason for my asking was this: I understand that dice fudging is a hot-button issue for many people, but one reason I don’t assign much weight to it[1] is that there are so many other ways for the GM to cheat, (many of them good, desirable techniques) that focusing on dice fudging to the exclusion of these other methods is counterproductive at best, and deceptive at worst.

Of course, I say deceptive like it’s a bad thing, but I don’t actually mean it as such. As the purpose of non-jerkish fudging is to improve the game, part of that is that it can’t be obvious and the GM can’t get caught. To that end, almost every GM should say they’re opposed to fudging, whether or not they really are, for the same reason magicians should espouse a belief in magic.

That’s neither hear nor there though. To come back to the question, I saw a few broad trends in the answers: First off, some GMs fudge, and are ok with it. No shock there. More curious was the split between the non-fudgers. Some support “radical” transparency (something I took, probably inaccurately, as a shorthand for no cheating within mechanics). All well and good, but the other group was the one that really got me thinking: almost every “no fudge/no transparency” answer had some manner of qualifier in it.

Saying it that way makes it sound somewhat more defensive than it was, many of the qualifiers were useful insights, but by and large, I got a sense that responders realized there was a discrepancy. This impression was exacerbated by the fact that this group was also most likely to couch the issue in emotional terms (honesty and cheating most notably).

Now, I don’t draw any conclusion about fudging itself from this. It’s going to be a contentious issue pretty much forever, and it’s a fool who thinks that making the argument for his position on it is going to sway people with its mighty logic. But it does leave me thinking about dice.

I don’t think anyone would argue that dice aren’t important to us, as a community. They’re a central part of our identity, possibly more central than any other single idea I can think of. Even rpgs without dice define themselves by their absence. And I think that in turn informs on why this is such a charged issue. Discussions of dice fudging are rarely discussions of techniques and achieving particular ends[2]. I think it’s hard to talk about fudging without talking about who we are.

1 – The other reason is that I spent many years playing dicelessly, mostly with the Amber Diceless RPG. That departure meant that when I returned to using dice, it was to serve specific needs, not because I needed them in general. That arc resulted in me viewing dice usage much like any other technique.

2 – Though one of the rare civil discussion sprung up at gameplaywright.

Stress Example

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.

I’ve been talking a lot about ways you can mechanically exploit an idea, in this case adding stress tracks to the Leverage system. Since I’ve been doing this all with an eye on the Leverage/Amber game I ran last week, that seems like the best thing to use to actually demonstrate how to apply some of these ideas.

I want to keep the core idea of a bloodline (heritage) and a gift (a power). The powers will dip a little too strongly into other mechanics, but I like the idea of tying the bloodlines into the stress tracks, so I’ll use one of them to showcase the thought process.

We’ll use House Karm as an example There’s no real source material to base it on: the name is a throwaway from the novels with hardly a sliver of background. The Road to Amber MUSH has a more fleshed out background for them which I know pretty well, and which I tapped a little bit for the idea, though I also tempered it with knowledge of how the characters on the game have been played. The net result is a house whose bloodline is tied to gate magic, who are a bit confrontational and proud, and who are (perhaps contradictorily) defenders by nature. So how to reflect that?

The basic model I’m going for is that the heritage offers three “tricks”. These can take a number of forms, and in this case at least one will probably reflect gate magic (and, like most such things, will probably cost a plot point). The confrontational, proud and defender element are more interesting. Given all this, I’m going to shoot for something like this:

  • None Shall Bar My Passage: Spend a plot point to forcefully open any door.
  • Aggravating: When you inflict UPSET stress, increase the stress die by one step.
  • Hold the Line: When fighting a defensive action, you can set aside a die from your pool rather than rolling it. If you lose, but the stress you take is equal to or less than the die you set aside, reduce the stress die by one step.

Breaking these down, None Shall Bar… is pretty straightforward – a plot point for a specific effect. The other two are much more clear as examples of ways to leverage stress tracks. Aggravating is a simple example of extra hurt, and a decent way to capture the ability to get under someone’s skin. I could potentially have represented that with an exploitation (treating UPSET dice as one step bigger), but I thought of doing it the other way first. That is, perhaps, not the most analytical of reasons, but you’d be amazed how often it ends up being the reason anyway.

Hold the Line is a little fiddly, but that was kind of the point. The ideal envisioned is the guy standing in the doorway, holding off the tide. I ran through some options, but most of them ended up fairly generic. To try to capture the specifics of this, I tried something more complicated. It’s a combination of the called shot idea with a limits sort of armor. It would be easy to design this one to be more potent (such as making the set-aside dice into resistance), but that would probably demand the expenditure of a plot point. That said, since conflicts only hurt the loser, there’s a bit of leeway in the creation of defensive powers, since they don’t allow turtling. That is, because the defensive power only kicks in on a loss anyway, there’s no way to hide behind a defense while whittling down an opponent. This is not an excuse to use them freely though: they tend to slow things down, which can be a pain.

So, there it is: The idea from end to end. It’s a bit more thought out and refined than the ad hoc version I pulled out at the table, but I hope it was informative.

As an aside, let me know how you liked this “deep dive” approach. If it’s something people dig, I may try it again in the future, but if it was just hopelessly self-indulgent, better to know it now.

Stress Gimmicks, Part 2

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.

Picking up from yesterday, here are some more mechanical gimmicks you can hook into using the stress tracks with the Leverage system.

EXPLOITATION: Rather than inflict more stress, it’s possible for a character to be better at taking advantage of the stress of others, which is to say that if they get to roll a stress die of a particular type against someone, they make it bigger. As such, if someone with a barbed tongue is talking and you’re already UPSET d6, they might get to roll a d8 rather than the usual d6.

RESILIENCE: The flip side of exploitation, some people can shoulder their burdens more effectively, and when one of their stress dice is use against them, it’s reduced by a step. So someone with a high pain threshold might get injured as easily as anyone else, but it slows him down less. If he’s HURT d6, the other guy only gets to roll a d4.

SACRIFICE: The ability to inflict stress on yourself for an effect is an incredibly rich opportunity. At its simplest, you might allow someone to “draw on their reserves” for an effect. The simplest example of this might be a character who can add a die to any given physical roll, but after the roll takes TIRED stress equal to the bonus die rolled. There are any number of combinations for this based on what effect is generated, what stress it “costs” and things like certainty. For example, if you want to make things a bit more of a gamble, use the “draw on reserves” ability, but have it inflict stress only if the player rolls a 1.

RECOVERY: Recovery from stress is a potentially fiddly area, especially because different kinds of stress recover in different ways. A good nights sleep might fix most stress, but high HURT stress might take longer. Now, one could easily get very detailed in this, and assign each level of stress a recovery time under optimal and non-optimal circumstances (So, for example, a D6 hurt takes two days to recover on its own, but only a few hours under medical care). There may be some desire to make such tables “realistic”, but the truth is that injury and recovery are a messy, imprecise business, so any set of numbers is probably as good as any other.

If, on the other hand, you want to just key it off scenes, you could have stress get reduced by “recovery scenes” by one step per scene. What constitutes a recovery scene may depend on the type and severity of the stress, and the scene need not be *only* about recovery. I mean, if the character is HURT d10 then, yes, the scene will probably be one in a hospital room (though, heck, it might be dramatically bandaging himself and stitching his own wound shut, in fine action-movie tradition), but if he’s merely UPSET d8, then going out drinking to relax (and also have conversations, mingle and so on) might be enough to drop it to a d6.

For more cinematic healing, you might allow players to turn stress into injuries, represented by d4s. Thus, If I end a scene HURT d8, the GM might say “OK, now that the adrenaline has worn off, what’s the lingering effect?” and I coudl decide I have a Sprained Ankle d4. This could be automatic, or it could be a roll (stress vs. appropriate stat) or stat based (Only becomes an injury if stress is greater than the appropriate stat) – there are lots of options, and the big question is what people getting hurt looks like in your game.

Whatever the default recovery model, it’s entirely possible that there might be alternatives. Magical healing is one possibility of course, but even personality traits might be appropriate to increase Stress recovery on some tracks. A character with a “Second Wind” ability might recover two steps of TIRED stress with each recovery scene (or time increment). Another one with some kind of Zen stuff might treat every scene as a recovery scene for UPSET (or he might recover twice as fast).

I haven’t hit on every possible permutation to put on these rules, but hopefully this spread is enough to make it clear that there’s a lot that can be done with this relatively simple mechanic.

Stress Gimmicks, Part 1

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.

While the multiple stress pools offer on axis to expand the system on, there are also fiddly bits which go in the other direction, offering specific mechanical hooks for generating certain effects. While these may not be explicit rules to this system, they’re ideas that mechanically dovetail with it, which is handy for house rules or custom talents.

CALLED SHOTS: Want to guarantee a certain level of damage? Easy – set aside one of your dice before the roll. If you win the roll, that’s the die that sets the inflicted stress, not the third highest as usual. Simple enough as is, but if you want to enhance those rules, you can add talents like, say, Sniper, which lets you increase the size of your called-shot die by one step so long as you’re taking a long shot with proper aim.

ARMOR: It’s pretty easy to handle armor under a system like this: reduce the size of any damage die by one step. Done. It mitigates things a little, but doesn’t really make for a true barrier. This can be a great thing for non-HURT stress tracks, as it’s a good way to express someone being unflappable or the like.

More powerful armor might reduce things more than one step, and I would generally rule that reduction past zero dice should negate the stress entirely. Be careful though, this is very potent, and if you opt for it, make sure to include some sort of mitigation.

RESISTANCE: For those situations where you really and truly want to stop stress, resistance provides a different approach: it has a die value (like anything else in Cortex) and any stress equal to or less than the die value is ignored. So even if you’re HURT d6, and you take a d8 hit, if you have resistance to harm at d8, you shrug it off. This is pretty potent, so it’s good to mix with some mitigating factors (like you lose a step of it every time its used). Practically, I would usually tie this to some other value, so that the Dragon d8 implicitly has resistance to fire at d8.

EXTRA HURT: The flipside of armor is the ability to increase the damage die by a step (or more, though again, that can be quite potent). This is a pretty simple thing to imagine for weapons, but it can be even better for other stress tracks. A particularly sharp tongue might make someone more UPSET, while a talent for sales goes a long way towards helping people be UNCERTAIN.

BROKEN AND BLOODY: As written, stress is a single progression, which is to say you’re only rolling the highest value. Bu tif you want a bit more of a brutal feel, you could treat each step as a box, checking them off as they get filled in, and using all dice. THat is to say, if I’m HURT d8, and I get HURT again for d6, rather than bumping up to HURT d10, I fill in my HURT d6 box, and I’m now HURT d6, d8. If I get hit for another d6, that will ‘roll up’ to the next available slot, and I’ll end up HURT d6, d8, d10. This approach makes the death spiral a bit more pronounced (since you can end up granting a fistful of extra dice) but it also opens the door to things like more ‘boxes’ at each level if you want a more varied wound track. Since it also makes each wound distinct, it can have an interesting impact on recovery (see below).

Not done yet. More gimmicks to come tomorrow.

Other Stress Tracks

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.

Once you have the basic idea of a stress track, there’s a lot of potential for interesting mechanics.

The first item of note is that there is room for other tracks beyond HURT. Exactly what they should be depends a lot on the tone and nature of the game. For example, a TIRED track might be a useful way to handle fatigue, while an UPSET track might be a useful way to handle social “damage”. For purposes of my Leverage-esque play, I use the following pools: HURT, TIRED, UPSET and UNCERTAIN[1].

HURT and TIRED are both, hopefully, fairly self explanatory. UPSET may take a little more explanation, but I think it’s pretty basic – at its heart, it’s the result of all the emotional things that muddy our judgement – anger, hurt, fear, embarrassment and so on. UNCERTAIN, in many games, would probably be folded into UPSET, but for Leverage play (or other intrigue based games) it’s a bit more important. It’s a result of everything that takes a person’s feet out form under them, from a clever deceit to a bit too much liquor.

Other games may use different stress tracks: Smallville, for example, AFRAID, ANGRY, EXHAUSTED, INSECURE and INJURED. Mouseguard’s conditions, which are similar, include HUNGRY/THIRSTY, ANGRY, TIRED, INJURED and SICK. Even knowing nothing else about those two games, the comparison of those lists can tell you worlds about the differences between them.

For many game, the simple addition of, effectively, social and mental (and other) “hit points” makes the solution to a great many issues apparent. By offering a path to an outcome (which is what any damage system really is) you are offering support of that particular path.

That said, one clever element of handling stress this way is that in building up from zero, the track doesn’t need to exist until you use it. Contrast this to, say, hit points: your hit point value is always on your sheet, a subtle signal that play is going down that particular path. Since stress tracks start from zero, they could just as easily not be on your sheet at all. That means that if you want to experiment with them, it’s easy to add or subtract them as needed. Perhaps you have a table that’s only comfortable with tracking injury – if you opt to experiment with adding fatigue, it’s a non-disruptive addition. Similarly, if you have something you want to track for a single adventure arc, you can add a temporary stress track, like “Enemy Alertness”[2] or “Insanity” to pick two strongly themed options.

Now, themes are all well and good, but the real question any system must face is how useful this mechanic is as a component for constructing rules, systems and other elements of play. Stress tracks are, I think, pretty robust, and we’ll delve into some of the things you can do tomorrow.

1 – I had previously called this CONFUSED, but UNCERTAIN seems to get the point across much more clearly.

2 – That would be a great one for the whole group to contribute to over the course of a very precise break in.

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.