Category Archives: Cortex

A Magic Trick

I mentioned earlier in the supernatural/Leverage hack a couple types of dice that allow you to simulate more dangerous monsters in a fair fight, specifically kept dice (which are used in addition to the usual two) and hard dice (which always roll their max value). In comments, I also mentioned Hurt dice, which aren’t rolled, but are treated as part of the pool when you calculate damage. Between these dice and a little bit of manipulation of damage thresholds (that is, how quickly things get taken out), you have the basic tools for modeling most monsters and other nasty beasties, particularity because the bulk of them are purely physical threats.

The bulk, but not all. There are weird powers and other craziness to deal with, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I would just drag Smallville into the mix. Smallville has an incredibly robust system for modeling powers that works in terms of how they work in fiction (rather than in physics) and it would take very little reskinning to translate heat vision over into flaming breath.

For supernatural, the real trick is handling the _weaknesses_ of the various supernatural menaces. A lot of the things that show up are simply too dangerous to fight, even unfairly, unless you have some particular trick up your sleeve.

Now, I mentioned knowledge-based weaknesses before, but it bears repeating. When the weakness is to an action (like vampire’s vulnerability to decapitation or zombie’s to getting shot in the head) then so long as the characters know this, it is assumed that all their actions are in pursuit of this end. As such, there’s no real mechanical concern with making “called shots” – you just fight and do what you can.

Other weaknesses, such as to salt or iron, may benefit from a mechanical representation, but that is thankfully very easy.

A mild weakness pretty much guarantees that you will always have an unfair fight. Going after a werewolf might suck, but if you’re armed with silver, it levels the playing field. A mild weakness is generally something that the critter is vulnerable to (so it can’t heal or ignore) but which is not necessarily much more dangerous to it. If you need to kill something by stabbing it through the heart with a particular weapon, that’s a mild weakness, since you have the means to kill them, but you don’t make them any less dangerous.

A medium weakness is like a mild weakness, except the substance actively hurts the creature. Any damage you inflict is considered one die step higher.

A serious weakness will drop the creature with a hit of any quality. Don’t bother with damage – if you hit, it’s done. Now, “done” may have various meanings – it might mean incapacitating (like holy water to demons) or temporarily dispersed (like hitting a ghost with salt) but it usually means something short of destruction. Serious weaknesses are usually very important to keeping hunters alive, but are rarely a long-term solution to whatever problem is on hand. Serious weaknesses may include things like demon traps. One important note: many serious weaknesses are not also mild weaknesses. That is, they don’t necessarily make it an unfair fight.

An absolute weakness is like a serious weakness, but it’s final. This happens, and the fat lady has sung. Simple as that.

Now, here’s an important thing – serious and absolute weaknesses are very common on the show, but very uncommon in RPGs. The idea of being able to kill a big bad in one shot is at odds with our training that such an action needs to be accompanied by an extensive fight scene. Now, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a fight scene – landing that critical blow can be a big deal – but there’s not always going to be one. That might be anti-climactic, but consider the earlier post about structure: if the “hard part” of the adventure has been finding out what’s going on, or getting your hand on the weakness, it’s ok for the final fight to be short. But if you get right to the fight, making it a cakewalk is satisfying for nobody – the only time you’re going to want to do that is if the big bad was a fake-out, and you have something else up your sleeve to fill the time.

Anyway, between the simple dice tricks, Smallville powers, and a basic weakness model, you should be all set for ghouls, ghosts and every other bit of nastiness you wan to throw at your players.

Adding the Monster

One of my absolute favorite tricks in Leverage is that there is no obligation to stat the opposition from the getgo. Structurally, there are certain questions you need to answer about the mark and such, but the mark isn’t really the opposition. I’m thinking more about characters like Sterling, the ones who can really give the players a run for their money and who make for interesting challenges. While the GM _can_ write them up, the system doesn’t require it, and in fact offers a much more elegant solution.

The trick to this revolves around the primary use for complications (situations where a player rolls a 1). Complications give the GM currency which can be most easily thought of as narrator plot points. The GM can use them to introduce twists and complications in the form of slapping new descriptors down on the table. So, for example, let’s say the players are casing a joint and they produce some complications. The GM might use those to say “Ok, there’s an Insurance Investigator checking the place out too, that might be a problem”. And if that GM is me, then he picks up a sharpie and writes “Insurance Investigator d8”[1] on a post-it note and puts it down on the table. That’s now in play, and the GM will pick up that d8 any time the Insurance Investigator comes up to mess with the players (and a clever player who finds a way to leverage the investigator might be able to pick it up too).

That’s a good start, but where it gets fun is that the GM can add to it as he gets more complications. Let’s say that this investigator is in a really good scene, and based on how it went (and the complications I have to spend) I add “Sees more than he let’s on d10” to his post-it. Later on he ends up in a scrap on the player’s side and one of the _players_ spends some plot points to add “Old Army Buddy d8” to the note.[2]

The net result is that if an NPC is interesting enough, he will develop stats over time that emerge organically from play. This is pretty cool, and to come around to the point of this post, it can be turned around as a fantastic way to handle monsters in an investigative game.

See, the thing about Supernatural’s monsters is that a lot fo them are throwaways. There are certain recurring types (demons and vampires, for example) but a lot of them are just some familiar-sounding name out of the mythology of your choice. Now, it’s totally possible to build a monster in advance based on an idea, but that’s not the only way to do it. It’s entirely possible to build a monster from it’s _effects_.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine the monster’s stats as a blank sheet. As you start the adventure, you describe the gruesomely mangled bodies of the victims. With this point, you have revealed something about the monster – whatever it is, it’s capable of making injuries like this. So you note down “Monstrous Claws d8” or “Heavy Cleaver d10” or whatever caused the wounds. If you want to leave it uncertain, then “Monstrous Claws? d8”, with the question mark indicating that you might refine the descriptor later.

Later on as they talk to the Sheriff about what he saw, the Sheriff talks about unloading his revolver into the thing’s back and it not even flinching. Slap down “Bulletproof? d8” on the sheet, leaving your options open, Maybe it’s a ghost, maybe it’s heavily armored, maybe it just shrugs off gunfire. When you get a better idea, you can scratch out Bulletproof and write down something more precise.

Sometimes information might be wrong (bad witnesses or the like) so feel free to note that with extra question marks (“Can fly??? d8”) so that you know which information you can ditch if it ends up contradictory.

Continuing this over time you’ll find yourself creating a complete picture of the monster while your players are doing the same thing. In effect, their investigation is your monster creation process. At some point it will all fall into place (for you or them) and all you’ll need to do is slap on a name (and for that I really recommend having a list of monster names on hand in advance).

Not every game will suit this approach, and it definitely is a better tool for the GM who likes to discover things while describing them, but if you need to pull a session out of the air, this lets you do so with only the barest outline of a plan, and build it as you go.

[↩]1 – In my house rules, complications are a tad more potent than they are in base Leverage rules, starting at d8 rather than d6, on the reasoning that since d6 is the default die (that is, the die you roll when there’s no relevant descriptor) the GM has an infinite budget of those.

[↩]2 – Note that the player has just done two useful things there – created a connection to the character AND given him something useful in a fight that the player can add to his pool in the fight.

Setting Up The Menace

Like many modern shows, Supernatural episodes tend to fall into one of two categories: arc episodes and standalone episodes. Arc episode tie into the larger plot and may have an unsatisfying conclusion since their ultimate resolutions further down the line (they may also not make as much sense without seeing previous episodes). Standalone episodes are pretty self contained. Even if they make a nod to the the bigger plot, it will just be in passing. Rather, the episode will follow the general shape of, “Hear about threat, investigate threat, discover threat, threat escalates, resolve threat” where the threat is usually the monster of the week. There are exceptions to this model, often to fantastic results, but that’s the underlying shape of it.

With that in mind, when I talk about adventure structure, I’m talking with the standalone episodes in mind. This is not because they’re the better ones (in fact, they usually aren’t – Supernatural’s arcs are what make the show for me) but because they make a solid foundation to build on. Once you can do a solid monster-of-the-week game, you can build from there to other ends.

The thing to consider when talking about the structure of games is that, like Leverage, the most important element is information management, but unlike Leverage, Hunters start out much more in the dark about what’s going on. At the outset of the game, they discover something bad is happening somewhere and go to investigate.

1. News Report of Strange Event
2. Many news reports of seemingly unrelated events
3. Rumor among truckers and travelers
4. Mystically Portentious Sign
5. Contacted by friendly Hunter
6. Contacted by another Hunter
7. Contacted by former hunter
8. Stumble across it
9. Become Victims
10. Contacted by mysterious forces

1. Local disappearances
2. Traveller disappearances
3. Pattern of Deaths
4. Exotic Deaths
5. People seeing strange things
6. Odd Behavior
(This could probably get fleshed out to 10, but I’m not sure how many ways I can restate “Weird deaths or disappearances”)

Once they find the problem, there is usually a period of time spent looking at what has happened and trying to figure out what could have caused it. This period might be very short or very long, and it will shape the episode. Basically, the “hard” part of the episode is going to be one of the following:

  1. Finding out what the creature is (and by extension, its weakness)
  2. Get their hands on whatever they need to exploit the weakness (get the arcane widget, find the body, find the lair)
  3. Applying the fix (Actually shooting/burning/stabbing/whatevering the thing, performing the ritual or the like).

In RPGs, there’s often a temptation to make all three of these the hard part, and the result is adventures that turn into long slogs. By making only one of them the real problem, pacing stays pretty sharp, and the formula becomes MUCH more usable. If the problem was ALWAYS that the monster was unknown then every show/game would be about research, which would get dull fast. Ditto the other hard points. Shifting emphasis between these three consistent points (Research, Investigate, Apply) gives you the benefits of consistency while still providing versatility.

So that gives us a basic frame. Next thing we need to do is plug in some monsters.

Hunter Combat

It struck me last night that there should probably be one more Hunter Weapon, Cunning. this represents low animal cunning and trickery, and all the areas where books won’t save you. Mechanically, it’s the fallback weapon, when nothing else quite applies, which is important, because I as thought about it, charm was going to end up getting rolled a LOT if there wasn’t something to roll over to.

Also, since Superage and Levernatural are both terrible words, I’m just going to call this “Hunters” and leave it at that.

So with that said, let’s get on to kicking things in the head.

Since Combat is a bit more common in the context of Hunters than Leverage, we’ll uses a slightly more fiddly damage system revolving around “statuses”. Those statuses are Hurt, Tired, Confused and Scared. During a roll where there is a possibility for damage, the loser gains these statuses as die traits, at a level equal to the highest opposing die not used in the roll. If that value is lower than the character’s current status value, then just increase their status by one (if there’s no unused die, treat it as a d4).

Frex: Frank is started by a ghost who wins a roll and scares him. The ghost rolled 3d6, keeping a 4 and 5, not using the 2. Since the highest unused die is a d6. Frank is now Scared d6

If the exact same roll were to happen again, Frank’s Scared d6 would bump up to a scared d8.

Status Effects
When a character is carrying a status, it is initially just an inconvenience. So long as the status is less than the appropriate stat (Sharp for confused, Tough for Hurt or Tired and Stubborn for scared) then the character rolls an extra d4 along with rolls where the status might apply. So long as stress is at this level, it’s easy to get rid of – it just needs the character to spend a scene doing something dedicated to removing it, such as putting on bandages, taking a nap and so on.[1]

Once the status equals the stat in question, it’s become a serious matter. In addition to the d4, they now put their status die into play, allowing opposition to roll it against them. At this point, getting rid of the status will take some serious downtime, possibly in a sickbed.

When the status exceeds the stat, the character is taken out of play in a manner of the GM’s choosing (though this may be a great time to spend plot points to soften the blow). Alternately, the player can spend a plot point to stay on his feet for one scene. He can keep doing this, paying plot points every scene to stay on his feet, as long as he has the budget for it, but once he stops, he’s down.

Like most of the rest of the world, critters are defined more simply than players, as traits. Most critters have a core trait that reflects what they are like Vampire d6 or Wumpus d8. They might have more traits, but that core trait ends up being very important for much of what the critter does.

Killing Critters
When critter’s take a status (usually hurt), they also roll the d4. Unlike Hunters, critters usually go down as soon a status equal’s their core trait. A lot of critters can be killed in perfectly normal ways using this system. Some monster may be a little tougher or more fragile (being taken out as if their die level was higher or lower) but none of that’s very complicated. (and yes, when players take something out, they describe how it happened, that can matter a lot).

Where it gets problematic is when you start dealing with things that can’t be killed in a normal way. These tend to fall into one of three categories:

1. Dispersible – You can beat these things, possibly very easy, but that only gets rid of them for a scene. Ghosts are a great example of this (though they’re a bit more complicated).
2. Fast healers – These things shrug off damage done. They take statuses normally, but they only remain in effect for the next roll, then they’re gone. Vampires and Demons work this way.
3. Invulnerable – You just can’t hurt these guys. Think Angels.

In each of these cases, there is usually some way around this resistance, and it’s a function of knowing what that is and getting your hands on the right tool for the job. Finding out and acquiring the thing you need makes a good adventure seed for oddball monsters, but a lot of them are standard enough (silver, iron, salt, holy water) that hunters are usually equipped. In such a case, all that’s required is that the hunters have the tools and describe using them.

This applies equally well to knowledge of weaknesses. Decapitating a vampire is not a function of making an awesome roll, rather, it’s a function of taking one out and being able to describe it in a way that includes decapitation. Smart players will make sure the scene includes enough large blade to make sure that’s reasonable.

One interesting point about these weaknesses is that they’re often two-layererd. There’s a reasonably simple trick for fending the critter off (iron and salt for ghosts, holy water for daemons) but actually getting rid of it requires something more substantial (like salting and burning the bones, or an exorcism). This two-tiered structure tends to work itself well into plot design.

Nasty Critters
This merits more discussion later, but in short, a lot of monsters aren’t going to make it easy for you to kill them. Even if you have a gun full of silver bullets, a werewolf is strong and fast, enough so that you may never get a shot off.

There are a lot of different potential critter tricks, but here’s the key one. Depending on the scariness of the critter, their core die might be treated as a kept die, or a hard die (or in some cases, a hard kept die, which is nasty).

A kept die means that it’s always added to the total, effectively letting the critter keep three dice (one of which is always that core die).

A hard die is never rolled, it’s just set down as it’s maximum value.

A hard kept die means it is always added to the roll at it’s maximum value. This is, mechanically, pretty terrifying.

Fair and Unfair Fights
So, given that die advantage, what’s to keep a hunter from just getting torn apart? Something as fast and strong as a vampire should, by all rights, have no more trouble with a highly trained hunter than you might with an exceptionally fierce rabbit. Thankfully, hunters know this, and they cheat.

All of those rules about hard and kept dice apply in a fair fight. A fair fight is generally one where both sides know it’s coming (or at least the other side does) and has time to put their game face on. A good hunter knows to avoid any fight like that.

Unfair fights are ones that start with your opponent off balance, and keep up the pace so he stays that way. Most unfair fights begin after a successful skill roll of a non-combat kind. Maybe to sneak up on something, maybe to confuse it, maybe to just piss it off. If a hunter uses a success like that to launch an attack, then it’s an unfair fight, and there are not hard or kept dice.

However, if the hunter can’t win the fight quickly, and the critter has the opportunity to catch its breath and get its feet back under it, then it goes back to being a fair fight. And that’s just no good.

All right, enough for today, I think.

[↩]1 – This may seem like a kindness, but the reality is it’s an invitation to the GM for something bad to happen. If you think about any horror movie you can, the worst things happen when the characters stop to recover their wits, get some sleep, take a shower or the like. As such, don’t just hand wave these scenes – make sure the players describe exactly what they’re doing and how it lets their guard down. This is not to say that you ALWAYS attack them in these scenes, just often enough to maintain tension (and consider whether you want to attack on the same status they’re recovering from or not)

Superage (or maybe Levernatural)

So, I had reason to sit down and do character creation for Supernatural last week. Still a solid game, but character creation frustrates me, and underscored some of the decisions made for Leverage. So, naturally, I started doing the conversion in my head. So with that in mind, I present “Hunters”, a Leverage hack for dealing with supernatural threats.

I. Character Creation
Step 1: Attributes
I shortened up the attribute list on principle, though I recognize and such list is pretty arbitrary. It mostly let me err on the side of choosing stat names that people might actually use in conversation. They are:
Characters have 6 attributes
(Sharp is probably the only one that really requires explanation, and it covers awareness and perception. Stubborn is what more fancy-pants people call willpower.)

Take 1d10, 2 d8’s and 3d6’s and distribute it among those. At your option, you may drop one of the d6s to a d4, and either increase a d6 to a d8, or a d8 to a d10.

Step 2: Weapons
I went round and round on this for a while, trying to map roles to hunters, but I realized there’s an essential difference between hunter’s and the thieve’s of leverage. While the thieves may have a unified purpose, they do different things. Hunters all do the same thing (kill monsters), just in different ways. So rather than roles, hunters have WEAPONS. These are skills and abilities they apply to the hunt.

Every Hunter is armed with five weapons that help keep them alive in tough situations. These weapons are more important than any knife or shotgun, they’re the essential strengths of the hunter, and they break down as follows.
Fists – Whether it’s back street brawling or seven different black belts, this is the ability to throw a punch or kick.
Books – Research is not the most exciting part of a hunter’s life, but it can be the most important. weapon in their arsenal. When it come time to find the right arcane antique or incant the correct exorcism ritual, this is the weapon to bring to bear.
Guns – Shooting things. It’s kind of amazing how well this can work as a strategy.
Tools – The toolbox or lab may not be as dramatic as the arsenal, but there are times when bullets aren’t going to do the job. Building or repairing things may not seem too dramatic until you realize that things include bombs and cars. (Oh yeah – this covers driving.)
Charm – Sometimes you can talk your way out of things you can’t shoot your way out of.

Take 1d10, 1d8, 2 d6’s and 1d4 and distribute it among these weapons.

Step 3: Distinctions
Each player picks three distinctions. Distinctions are descriptors like “Army Brat” or “Friends in Low Places” and they work the same way they do in Leverage (that is, if it would help, add a d8 to the roll, if it would create a problem, add a d4 to the roll and gain a plot point). It’s worth noting that specific gear (like, say, a car) probably deserves to be a distinction.

Step 4: OPTIONAL Mark
The player may pick a fourth distinction which has some magical significance. It might be a curse or a bloodline or a destiny, or most anything else. The TV show provides no shortage of examples of this. Mechanically, this works just like any other distinction, but for the GM this is basically a big cosmic “kick me” sign. By marking your character, you’re guaranteeing that the mark will come up a lot over the course of play, specifically, bringing in supernatural interest.

Players may remove marks if they are resolved (assuming that’s possible) or may add a new mark during a season break. A character may only have one mark at a time.

Ok, so that’s the opener, tomorrow we’ll get into combat and monsters, and meanwhile I’m chewing on some scenario tables.

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.