Stunt dice: A tool for lightning combat and fiction-rich role-playing in D&D

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A few weeks ago, Red started what became a series of posts aimed at speeding up combat in D&D: “Speed I am Speed”, “8 Reasons to Never Surrender”, and “Extreme RPG Makeover” Parts 1, 2 & 3. In the comments, there was a stimulating conversation about dramatic pacing in story-oriented media and role-playing games, and I brought up some experiences with Tunnels & Trolls, Sorcerer, and Trollbabe, each of which offer cool and compelling aproaches to the topic. I’ve been meaning to expand my comments there into a series of blog posts, but I haven’t gotten around to it.

Earlier this week, Red posted another piece about how to reward good role-playing, and the Dungeon’s Master blog took up that subject recently too. Since one of my ideas about how to ratchet up the speed of combat hooks into richer role-playing, I thought it would be wise to get it down.

The idea is pretty simple, and it revolves around something I’m currently calling “stunt dice”. Here’s how it works:

Lightning combat

Every time you land a “hit” in combat, you earn one stunt die (1d6), which you can add to any subsequent damage roll or roll to hit for the rest of the encounter. When you get a stunt die, you can use it right away or bank it, but any stunt dice you get expire at the end of the current encounter.

You can spend one or more stunt dice on any roll: just throw them with the other relevant die or dice and include them in the total. Whenever you use stunt dice, it’s up to you to narrate something special or interesting about the action— picture the cool stuff you want your character to do, and describe it. Once you use stunt dice, they are gone.

How does this speed up combat? The stunt dice give a mechanical edge to getting the jump on your enemy, making the hits hit harder or dovetailing into better positioning for key moments of the player’s choice, which translates into better chances to land those attacks. If you’re routing your enemies, it’s no longer a game of slow attrition to batter down their last few hit points. After you reach the tipping point, and the enemies really are out of tricks, it shouldn’t be a long slog to cement a decisive victory.

Beware, adventurers! Your opponents will be hitting harder too. Did you think stunt dice were only for you?

Stunt dice in exploration and social conflicts

In my view “combat” and “role-playing” aren’t different activities in a role-playing game, but after playing D&D Encounters for a few months, I can see why people make the distinction. In contemporary D&D combat, people tend to treat their characters as pawns in a tactical challenge with little emphasis on their passions and personalities. Instead, it’s during exploration and social encounters that they develop their character’s persona.

So outside of combat, stunt dice are awarded for good role-playing. What I mean by “good role-playing” is any time someone announces an action that makes the situation more vivid or dramatic for the players at the table. It could be an appropriate quip, a cool description, or a dynamic bit of characterization. Just like in combat, you can use stunt dice right away for a relevant check or bank them until the end of the scene. Once the current scene or montage is over, any remaining stunt dice disappear.

You can use stunt dice for any ability or skill check that builds on the action that earned you stunt dice in that scene. When you use stunt dice in exploration and social conflicts, it’s your job to narrate the action with flair!

Recursion: Did you mean recursion?

The idea of stunt dice is an amalgamation of the currency mechanics of Sorcerer, the intense role-playing game by Ron Edwards, and the innovative stunt system of Green Ronin’s Dragon Age RPG. My goal for stunt dice is to give players a way to escalate the momentum when they want to, and to give the GM a non-punitive way to encourage fiction-rich role-playing. I plan to give it shot over the next few weeks and see how it works.

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  1. gaptooth

    As it happens, I play-tested this once with my wife and daughter and it worked pretty well. Next time I got together for my Wednesday-night game, things happened so fast that I forgot to mention it until the end of the session. When I brought up the idea, the players realized that their enemies would get stunt dice too, and they didn\'t seem too hot about it. I\'ll keep the idea in my toolbox for later… maybe I\'ll invoke it next time combat is bogging down the game, but I won\'t worry about it until then.
  2. Tourq

    I am totally down with adding stunt dice to the next game I run. It\'ll be awhile, since someone else is GMing, but I\'ll let you know how it goes when I do.
  3. Ed

    The DM wouldn\'t have to give the monsters/NPCs as many stunt dice as he gives the players. Just saying. It depends on the game and the players.

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