Leveragin’ the Black – Stressin’ the Story

Rob Donoghue introduced an idea on his blog using Stress tracks for tracking ideas other than “wounds,” such as Insanity for a game of eldritch horrors, or an Enemy Alertness track shared by the players for stealth situations.  I’ve really taken to this idea for use in Serenity Plus, and as well as applying Stress to NPCs, I use a similar mechanic for “Plot Stress,” Complex Actions, and resolving Complications…

NPSeein’ Stars

First, a quick word on using Stress for NPCs, particularly the mobs and hordes of single die minions.  Should NPCs get a full set of five Stress tracks each?  Well, just like when you decide on the level of detail to give an NPC, a character’s level of stress detail largely depends on what purpose we want to achieve with our scenes and confrontations.  Jubal Early, for example, likely has a full set of Stress tracks to allow for the crew to face him on multiple fronts throughout the course of Objects in Space, but in this case, he provides the central (and pretty much only) opposition for the entire episode.  Generally speaking though, the more detailed the level at which we’ve assigned statistics to the character, the more likely the situation calls for a full range of Stress.

What about for our mobs, crowds, and gangs?  Leverage has a very nice rule for dealing with the other side ganging up (page 73) where a minion is taken out each time the stakes are raised in the contest, reducing the opposing dice pool each time.  It’s a good rule to model the scenes with a bunch of goons whose only real purpose is to get dropped by a bullet from our Crew.  Alternatively, for situations like a bar fight where (at least cinematically) everyone tends to remain on their feet and keep coming at the protagonists until the conclusion of the brawl, maintaining a constant die pool for the rowdy bar flies and using a single, combined Stress track is likely to better achieve the flow of the scene we are aiming for.  In cases like this latter option, we’re edging toward Plot Stress and Complex Actions.

Puttin’ Stress on the Plot and Gettin’ Complex

A lot of RPGs have the concept of Complex Actions: situations that are big enough that they don’t realistically seem to be adequately covered by a single roll of the dice since they are more intricate or time consuming.  Examples given in the Serenity Role-Playing Game (page 143) include “open-heart surgery, major engine overhaul, [or] hacking into an Alliance security system.”

When choosing the dice to roll in opposition to a Complex action, assign stats as you would for an NPC: you might rate fairly simple engine fixes with a single d10, while hacking into Alliance security system might have Firewalls d10, Revolving passwords d8, and be monitored by Technicians 2d8.  Complications are good sources of dice to add to pools opposing a Complex Action.

Sometimes we’ll want to model a more abstract concept, such as Rob’s example of Enemy Alertness, or the Morale of the posse attacking the Heart of Gold brothel.  These situations are another good time to use a unique Stress track, either to keep a handle on when the Crew succeeds at its task, or for when things are really going to turn to gos se for the players.

Cappin’ Things Off

As with the players, the default maximum for a Complex Stress track is d10.  Why d10 and not d12?  Well d12’s aren’t going to be all that common in the game in general, at least not without saving up a lot of Achievements or making yourself very vulnerable if someone Appeals to your high rated Value.  Consequently, having a d12 in your pool gets to feel a little bit more special since it carries the possibility of chewing through the opposition’s entire Stress track in one swoop.

In addition, capping Stress limits at d10 gives the tough, the resolute, and the determined the opportunity to show their mettle by enduring greater amounts of certain forms of Stress with use of an appropriate Distinction‘s Triggers.  Other situations may call for shorter Stress tracks: the cowardly mob of d6-rated rabble should be easier to beat or run off than usual, and so may have a Stress track with a d6 cap, thus overcome on a d8 or higher.  A good rule of thumb for determining Stress caps will be either to use the highest die available to the NPC, or the rating of their “defining attribute”: the one that gets to the core of who they are.

Complex Actions on the other hand, can and often should have Stress tracks that go beyond a d12, requiring players to spend a number of rounds building up to a success by increasing the Stress by a step for each achievement (or possibly two with an Extraordinary Success).  For the sake of consistency, it is probably best to continue using “non-existent” even-sided dice for each step after d12 (d12 to d14, to d16, etc.), although if rolling the Stress as part of your pool just treat it as a d12.

Remember not to set these Stress tracks too high (unless it happens to be a particularly long-term Complex Action that will have the occasional roll throughout the whole session or campaign) because beyond the d12, players will, at most, move two steps up the track, but more commonly, just one for each success they roll.  While rolling dice is fun, repeatedly doing so over and over for the same task, or worse, watching another player do so, can get dull very quickly.  Don’t call for rolls to fix the engines when you’re settled on a peaceful planet with all the time in the world; just assume that the Crew can manage such things.  Calling for a Complex Action repair of the engines while Reavers bear down on you and your mechanic is suffering from a gaping bullet wound: that’s when things get “fun”!

Makin’ Things Run Smoothly

Sometimes there will be a Complication put into play that really needs to be dealt with promptly, such as whatever technobabble happens to befall the compression coil in the engines.  Similar to the way you can attempt to recover Stress, the Crew can attempt to resolve or remove a Complication from play when they have the opportunity and means to do something about it (again, no talking the engine into feeling better, although giving it a swift kick to get it running is fine).

When making a Test against a Complication, the dice the GM rolls should be twice the rating of the specific Complication being targeted, plus any other applicable dice such as other Complications or a die of Stress from the character(s) attempting to resolve the situation. The GM may use Plot Points to include additional Stress dice that the characters may have as per the standard rules.

“Attacking” Complications in this manner also uses a Plot Stress track equal to the Complication’s die size with which you may then monitor the crew’s progress toward removing the Complication from play: once the Complication is “Stressed Out”, it is eliminated and no longer poses a problem, at least in any immediate sense (a hastily patched ship may need more comprehensive repairs or parts further down the line, but at least for the time being, it’ll keep flyin’).

When targeting a Complication in this manner, you can’t use Extraordinary Successes to lower the die value of the Complication being tackled, although you may certainly use any 1s the GM rolls to decrease the Complication.  The Complication also only rolls double its die rating to oppose attempts to remove it; if the Complication applies to another conflict, however, it returns to a single die for that situation.  Furthermore, if someone in that other conflict happens to roll an Extraordinary Success, they can either increase the Plot Stress on the Complication or reduce its die rating as usual. If you choose the latter and reduce a Complication’s die rating, remove any Plot Stress it currently has, meaning attempts to tackle the Complication will have to start anew, but now at a lower opposition and Stress track.

If the GM steps up the Complication at any point, any attached Stress must also step up an equal number of steps, so a d8 Complication with d6 Plot Stress that becomes a d12 Complication now has d10 Plot Stress.

Flyin’ Off Into the Sunset

And that about wraps up this series.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, and I would very much love to hear any play reports of the rules or how you tweaked and adapted them in your own games.  I may revisit the series if there are any particular omissions or additions that come to light through questions and comments, and I do plan to recreate the Leverage Situation Generator (page 138) with Serenity/Firefly appropriate changes.  Meanwhile though, I need to start brainstorming for my Harry Potter and Battlestar Galactica hacks, probably not together…


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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