Leveragin’ the Black – Stressin’ The Rules

One of the innovative ideas that the Smallville RPG brought to the table was to have five categories of Stress that characters could suffer from: Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Insecure, and Injured.  For Serenity Plus, each character also has five Stress tracks, but they differ in two significant details: first, each track “tops out” at a d10 (this allows for some characters to have Distinctions that enable them to take more of certain types of Stress); second, the tracks remain unnamed and uncategorised until a character actually takes Stress.

Stress Tracks

While the five Stress categories given in Smallville are fairly comprehensive in what they cover, there are a few occasions where something doesn’t quite fit: inebriation, poisoned, drugged—you can somewhat fit these into the above five categories if you have to, but by leaving them “untitled” until used, we keep a bit of versatility.  That being said, the five given do tend to cover the most circumstances, so you should generally use them as a baseline when deciding what to call Stress you  inflict on the opposition.

Because Serenity Plus has more loosely defined Stress than Smallville does, we should similarly define Distinctions that allow for a reduction or increase in Stress dealt or received.  To borrow an example from back in our post on modifying Smallville‘s Distinctions, we could easily change Agile‘s triggers to “Decrease your opponent’s Stress die in a situation where you can dodge or parry the blow.”  In cases where you chose the Raise trigger for a Distinction, any Stress of the variety described in the trigger can increase to a d12, instead of the standard limit of d10.

Inflicting Stress

When you succeed in a Contest, you get to inflict Stress on the losing party: the amount of Stress inflicted is based on the highest value die unused in your last roll.  If you have used all your pool’s dice to add to the total, or only 1s remain, then the default Stress die is d4.  As the winner of the contest, you decide the type of Stress you inflict, although it must logically follow from the events of the scene and the Contest so far; no talking someone into having a  broken leg!  All participants on the losing side then note the new Stress on their sheet(s).  If either side possesses a trigger that Increases or Decreases the Stress die, step the die up or down one size as appropriate, although it can never be decreased below a d4, nor above a d12 due to a Distinction.

In the case that the losing side already has Stress of that type, if the new Stress die is equal or lower than the existing Stress, it steps up one size.  If the new Stress die is larger, the new die replaces the previous value and may optionally be renamed to a more serious condition: You could change Bruised to Injured, for instance, or Worried to Afraid.  If all five Stress types are already filled and you wish to give a new type of Stress, you must change one of the existing Stresses.

Once someone goes beyond the limit of one of their Stress tracks (for most characters, that’s as soon as they reach a d12 since that exceeds d10), they become Stressed Out.  They can no longer participate in Tests or Contests for that scene unless someone attempts to Recover their Stress (see below).

What Does “Stressing Out” Mean?

Well, aside from not being able to roll any more dice for the scene, the narrative description of Stressed Out largely depends on the type of Stress that took out a character.  Mental types of Stress may mean that the character falls unconscious, becomes catatonic, or just flips out.  Physical Stress may also lead to unconsciousness or even death.

Generally, characters shouldn’t die unless the player in control decides to allow it.  That said, there are occasions when it really doesn’t make sense for a character to survive: when falling unconscious in a room full of Reavers with no help at hand, not only is death the most likely outcome, it’s also probably the most preferable!

In cases where death really does seem the only plausible result but the player decides that it is not yet that character’s time, they can spend all their current Plot Points and provide details of one of those spectacular twists of fortune that occasionally occur.  If the player has no Plot Points to spend, the fate of their character is sadly sealed…

Taking One For The Team

When teaming up, there’s the chance that everyone participating may wind up suffering Stress should they lose the Contest.  If this is the case, one member of the group may elect to Take The Hit for another participant: the character Taking The Hit steps up their own Stress by one step and the character being spared does not take any Stress from this round of the conflict.  You may Take The Hit for as many other members participating in the conflict as you want until your own increase reaches the point where it would cause you to Stress Out.  Only one participant can choose to Take The Hit in a particular round.

If the character being “spared” the Stress had their Stress stepped up as a result of an Extraordinary Success, the one Taking The Hit will need to step up their own Stress by two die sizes.

Recovering Stress

One character may attempt to relieve, reduce, or remove another character’s Stress provided they can perform an action appropriate to the Stress they are treating (so no impassioned speeches fixing broken bones any more than they can inflict them). Characters attempting a recovery will generally use dice from Fixin’, although they may use a different Stylin’ if an applicable Refinement is available.  For example, Mal could use his Finaglin’ and Leadership to try recovering another character’s Afraid or Insecure Stress.  Along with the Stylin’ die, you can include any applicable Values, Aspects, or Resources as usual.

The GM, in opposing recovery Tests, rolls two of the size of the targeted Stress, along with any applicable Complications in play.  In addition, the GM may include any additional Stress on either the treated or treating party that could complicate matters, in this situation without needing the GM to spend Plot Points to do so.  For example, if Simon were Drunk d6 and working to heal a gunshot wound on Kaylee, who was Injured d10 and Afraid d6, the opposition to Simon’s test would be at least 2d6+2d10.

If a player fails a recovery test, the GM can choose one of the following options:

  • Step up the targeted Stress on the treated party
  • Apply Stress to the party giving treatment: using the GM’s highest unused die
  • Create a new Complication equal to the size of the GM’s highest unused die

Physician, Heal Thyself

A character may attempt to recover their own Stress, but doing so is more difficult and carries more risk.  To begin with, any Stress applicable to the situation is doubled: that means four times the targeted Stress, plus two for any other Stress traits they may have that would influence the situation.  So, if Simon were Drunk d6 and operating on his own Injured d10, the Test would be against a minimum of 2d6+4d10.

The other disadvantage to attempting to recover your own Stress: if you fail, you automatically raise the targeted Stress to the point at which you are Stressed Out.

No Stress Relief Yet…

We’ll continue our look at Stress next time as we consider NPC Stress and some alternative, narrative uses of Stress in what will be our final post on the core mechanics of Serenity Plus.  See you then!

About craggle

Despite being born tone deaf in one ear, Craig has risen above his disadvantage to achieve the lofty position of spending most of his free time mucking around on the Internet, tinkering with RPG rules, and failing on at least seven occasions to finish writing a novel.
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