The dwarven warrior D'klar Ironforge stood on the Deep Roads bridge eying the darkspawn before him. Spittle from the creature's mongrel face glistened in the reflected light of the lava far below. Covering its black-furred hide were the crudely-arranged castoffs of dwarven chain and planted, while its obsidian-clawed hands held a short sword wet with the blood of Ironforge's kin.
With a guttural shout, he charged the creature, bringing his battle axe down in a killing arc that sliced through the cracks in darkspawn's armor, cleaving its spine and sending it crumbling to the stone. The dwarf hefted the axe from the corpse and looked up. The rest of the darkspawn horde stood at the other end of the bridge. He grinned. "Who's next?"
Scenes like this one are something we love to recreate in fantasy pen-and-paper role-playing games. How you do it depends: it could be an improved critical feat in Pathfinder or an armor-piercing daily power in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, or it could just be flavor text added afterwards. It works well enough, but the game mechanic geek in me finds the feat/power option too limiting. Sure, I want to bury my axe into the darkspawn scum … but when fighting a dragon, I just might rather hit and run instead of going toe-to-toe with the beast.
Enter Dragon Age, Set 1. The game's core mechanic involves rolling three six-sided dice, adding them together, then adding bonuses for attributes and skill foci. If the total beats a target number, the task succeeds. If doubles are rolled on the dice, then the task succeeds exceptionally well and the value of a third die – known as the Dragon Die – generates stunt points that can be spent on special actions.
In Set 1, there are two kinds of stunts you can perform: standard stunts, which are focused on melee and ranged combat, and spell stunts, which involve magic.
Standard stunts include (but aren't limited to) "Skirmish" which allows you to move yourself or an opponent 2 yards for each point you spend, "Knock Prone" (2 points), which sends your opponent crashing to the ground, "Pierce Armor" (2 points) which negates a portion of their defense, "Dual Strike" (3 points) which lets you affect two enemies with a single attack) and "Seize the Initiative" (4), which lets you move to the top of the initiative order.
Spell stunts are similar. "Skillful Casting" (2) reduces the mana cost of a spell, "Mana Shield" (2) grants you a bonus to defenses after casing a spell, and "Imposing Spell" (4) intimidates your allies and forces them to make Courage tests in order to attack you.
When reading through these stunts, I had two concerns: 1) they would slow down the game as players consulted the chart to figure out which stunt they wanted to use, and 2) the lack of variety (there 10 standard stunts and 6 spell stunts) would lead to ho-hum results as players got used to the outcomes.
Fortunately when I ran the game at MEPACon in 2011 that didn't happen. Speed wasn't an issue – even in a game filled with new players – because doubles didn't come up every turn. In fact, according to Dragon Age Set 2 co-designer Jeff Tidball in Kobold Quarterly #17, you can expect stunts to come into play about 1/3 of the time. That means that yes, occasionally things slow down as players figure out their stunts, but 2/3rds of the time combat happens normally.
Diversity of stunts wasn't an issue because players could combine them in creative ways. For example, my scenario called for the adventurers (led by a surface dwarf) to be confronted a group of dwarven youths belonging to the noble caste. Insults were exchanged, eventually leading to blows. On the very first round, the human fighter landed a blow against the leader of the dwarven nobles, scoring doubles and a six on the Dragon Die. He played it to the hilt, describing how his fist connected with the dwarf's chin, sending him flying backwards four yards (Skirmish, 2 points), causing him to land on his ass (Knock Prone, 2 points) and shattering his jaw (Mighty Blow, 2 points).
The players were hooked, and quickly took to using stunts in a variety of creative ways.
One of the perennial pieces of advice for D&D is to make things more cinematic by describing the effects of the damage dealt (or encouraging your players to do so). Everyone tries, but I've found most of the time we fall back on "I do 20 points of damage … is he dead yet?" With Dragon Age stunts, the combat narrative practically writes itself. Sure, you could fall back on a dry, mechanical explanation of what happened, but why do that when you could say that your killing blow to the darkspawn consisted of an axe to the chest (Mighty Blow, 2 points) combined with a push off the castle's ramparts (Skirmish, 2 points)?
Another advantage to stunts is that they encourage battlefield mobility thanks to "Skirmish" being such a cheap stunt. Even someone who only rolls a 1 on the Dragon Die can still use it to move an enemy closer or further away, or take advantage of the movement to run past their target after the attack. D&D 4th Edition tries to do this its various forced movement rules (slide, push, pull) but a major limiting factor there is that you can't push people off of cliffs. I'm sure this is for game balance issues, but it also means that you can't easily do things like kick an enemy off a balcony and have him go crashing onto the table below.
Plus, these stunts aren't restricted to a particular class. Anyone can use them, which means that every player has a chance to sprint around the battlefield or to send their enemies sprawling. Whether or not they choose to spend their stunt points that way is a role-playing as well as a tactical choice – are you the sort who stands his ground and slugs his way through a fight, or are you the kind who's constantly reaching for higher ground? – but it opens up possibilities for everyone.
I'm sure individual results will vary – my gaming group has been gravitating toward these kinds of mechanics for several years, and we're eager to use them when we find them – but we found that stunts made for a fluid, dynamic combat, the likes of which I haven't seen since the last time I played Spirit of the Century.
There's a final key component to stunts, and its one that keeps things interesting: situational stunts. The standard and spell stunts are only the beginning – its also easy to create per-monster or per-encounter stunts that players and their opponents can take advantage of.
For example, giant spiders have two unique stunts: "spin web" and "poison". Players don't have access to these stunts and in all likelihood they won't even know about them until they go off. That adds a sense of mystery and danger to an encounter, because you never know exactly what ability the monster will have. D&D 4th Edition does something similar with its monsters, and those creature-specific abilities were one of my favorite parts of the game.
You can also create situational stunts, which is something we see in "Amber Rage", one of the three modules bundled into Blood of Ferelden, Green Ronin's adventure book for Dragon Age. The setting is a fight in a swamp, where the heroes need to fight off a giant crab. The crab gets a set of environmental stuns, such as "Uneven Ground", which causes PCs to stumble, "Grasping Root", which knocks them prone and causes them to lose items, and "Stuck", in which the PCs become mired in the mud. The players get a swamp stunt of their own: "Sever Claw" – an expensive stunt at 4 points – lets them slice off one of the crab's claws.
There's even more potential with stunts. Dragon Age, Set 2 introduces role-playing and investigation stunts, which move the mechanic out of the combat realm. While some may balk at the idea of mechanics to augment role-playing based on previous experience with FATE and Cortex, I'm eager to see how RP stunts work out. I've found that such mechanics can enhance a game by giving players something to riff on. Rather than making the success check a simple pass/fail, a success could suddenly become far more exceptional. Kobold Quarterly #17 shows two more examples: Chase stunts, which can be used during chase scene to help simulate the sudden and unexpected events that always arise, and research stunts, which help make digging through the archives more than just another die roll.
It's a cool subsystem, and one that makes Dragon Age more than just another rules-lite game. Like exploding dice in Savage Worlds, it makes exceptional results possible – if not always probable – and that makes all the difference.