Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fantasy: Cutting Back on Stunts

So... Happy New Year, and all that. Here's to a productive 2009 with more frequent updates.

This isn't a very good follow-up to my last post in December on mass combat -- that one's coming -- but it's a little more relevant to my current situation. Right now, I'm planning characters for both of the SotC-derived I plan to run at OrcCon next month. More than once, I've seen (or heard) people complain about only one thing in SotC: the stunts. The sheer number of them is often cited as the only really slow part of character creation, and even those who don't have a problem with it (me included) seem to be more tolerant than overjoyed at the prospect of sorting through more than a hundred stunts, many of which basically have the same mechanical effect.

I've seen the stuntless rules, and I like 'em and all (I'm using a version of them for "Spirit of the Fist"), but I also consider stunts to be a pretty integral part of SotC. Skills are the base of the system, and aspects are the cool, sexy bit that everyone loves, but stunts play an important role as well. Stunts are usually the always-on facets of your character that truly make him different from your neighbor's. For an aspect to make a difference, a Fate Point needs to change hands, but with most stunts it's just an automatic, passive thing. When I make a character, I usually start with his stunts, or at least a few of them. And some of them, like Master of Disguise, just can't be replicated using the stuntless rules as written.

So right now I'm tending towards a middle ground in which stunts still exist, but there are only a half-dozen or so of them. Something like this:
  • +1 [skill] with ____ : Fill in the blank with a broad-category use of the skill (+1 Weapons with axes, +1 Art with music, +1 Athletics with acrobatics, etc.). No two stunts can modify the same skill (e.g., only one +1 Weapons with axes applies, no matter how many times you take it).
  • +2 [skill] when ____ : Fill in the blank with a specific-category use of the skill (+2 Weapons when disarming, +2 Art when singing, +2 Athletics when tumbling, etc.). Again, only one per skill applies.
  • Use [skill] instead of [skill] when ____ : Fill in the blank with a specific condition or circumstance (Use Weapons instead of Intimidation when fighting, Use Art instead of Rapport when dealing with other musicians, Use Athletics instead of Fists when catching an opponent by surprise, etc.).
  • Ignore penalty to [skill] when ____ : Fill in the blank with a specific, static penalty (Ignore penalty to Weapons when using improvised weapons, Ignore penalty to Art when audience is distracted, Ignore penalty to Athletics when climbing a slippery surface, etc.). The "penalty" may actually be removing an increased difficulty to a static task, but whatever. It's all the same.
  • Possession: The character has some sort of special possession, as per Weapon of Destiny, Personal Gadget, Prototype Car, etc. The possession grants a +1 bonus to the use of a particular skill (as above), along with two other improvements. If the player accepts a drawback of some kind (up to the GM and player), the item has an additional improvement. This one can be taken multiple times, either to have multiple possessions or to include more improvements in a single possession.
  • Fate Point: Spend a Fate Point to do something special not otherwise covered by the above three options (e.g., Enemies denied gang-up bonus when you're armed, Use Art in place of any social skill when dealing with other musicians, Ignore all penalties when climbing, etc.), as long as it's cool with the GM. This is the one that lets me include Master of Disguise. You could sift through all the stunts and pull out just those that require a Fate Point expenditure, and that'd be this category. I might do that, although I'm more likely to do so only as a means of generating examples.
  • Magic: These are basically the same as the existing Magic stunts, so it's more like a number of similar "gateway" stunts in one (Alchemy, Artifice, Summoning, etc.). All of the follow-up stunts are just basically some permutation of the first four stunts on this list.
Right now, I'm thinking of sticking with five stunts, although the "Spirit of the Fist" playtest the other day went so well that fewer stunts may do just as well (if you'll recall, "SotF" doesn't have any stunts, but it does have three stunt-like benefits attached to the character's Kung Fu aspect). Any thoughts on all this? Happy to hear 'em.

And next month, my group in San Diego will start the first real long-term playtest of "SotS" when I run a full-on campaign. I'm very excited about that. I look forward to what the players come up with on their own, instead of me forcing a bunch of pre-gens on them.


Matt Sheridan said...

There are a lot of "all stunts are basically one of these" lists out there, but this is probably the most functional I've seen. I usually lean towards going stuntless, but I think you're persuading me otherwise, with this.

Unknown said...

You said that, "The sheer number of them [stunts] is often cited as the only really slow part of character creation, and even those who don't have a problem with it (me included) seem to be more tolerant than overjoyed at the prospect of sorting through more than a hundred stunts..."

My thought: is it really the VOLUME of stunts that's the problem, or is it instead the LAYOUT of how the stunts are organized?

I ran up against the same problem in my initial review of the SotC book, but my feeling now isn't that less would be more, but rather they could have benefited from a different presentation.

Your point that just about all the stunts fall into 1 of those few categories was a pretty good piece of analysis and when you wrote about originally it cleared up some things about Stunts and how they fit into the FATE mechanic for me.

While I think the idea of keeping a SotC variant "lean and mean" for purposes of Con gaming is probably the right way to go, I would argue that leaving the Stunts in there and instead be categorized or laid out differently for a "full game release" would be a good way to demonstrate the various applications of Stunts without feeling as bogged down.

I think if all I saw was 5-6 Stunts in the original SotC, I wouldn't have fallen in love with them as much as I did, or understood how truly cool they are.

My own preference for SotG (D&D SotC) is that I'll probably offer a player two options at character creation with regards to Stunts and/or Skills:

1) Create your own character path (which is pretty much the normal modus operandi for SotC and FATE). For players that have a strong vision of what they want to play, I think they'll find this most gratifying.

2) Create a Skill / Stunt ladder based upon a character's chosen "class". For those who want a closer feel to the original material's (AD&D) mechanic.

So for those players that want more limited options, they wouldn't get lost in having "too many choices".

Mike Olson said...

Matt: If this can really persuade you to keep stunts, then I'll know there's something to it. I will say that when we playtested "Spirit of the Fist" the other night, we didn't miss stunts at all. I mean, the Kung Fu aspect's kind of a stunt, but other than that it's stunt-free.

Guy: I think those are both perfectly viable options. I like the idea of class-based stunt trees to give the flavor of a class-based game. Layout in the RAW is definitely an issue -- that's another big complaint I've heard. "The skills are described in one place, then their stunts are someplace else, then rules of adjudication of them are in yet a third place!" Certainly a problem.

Personally, like I said, I don't really have any problems with the stunts as written (apart from the layout issue, which I agree with).

I'm using Andy as a kind of stand-in for everyone I've ever heard complain about stunts' place in SotC. His thing isn't just that stunts feel like a tacked-on third wheel, but that he often has a hard time remembering just what his stunts can do, or to even bring them into play. Yes, even when my pre-gens have a sentence or two describing each stunt the character has, he has this same complaint.

My hope is that by having Andy decide for himself where that +1 or +2 is going to go, they'll always be in the forefront of his mind. I mean, they're his -- he made them up, so he'll be more likely to remember and make use of them.

The only real problem with this, IMO, is that you lose the flavor of the stunts' names, which I frequently enjoy. However, I believe I have a solution to that, too, gleaned from "Spirit of the Fist." I'll talk more about it in my next post.