A guide to cunning stunts
Since the second role-playing game burst onto the scene in 1975, players have been using its flexible Saving Roll mechanic to perform dramatic stunts confounding Game Masters and their evil monsters.
This article offers some advice to the Tunnels & Troll GM who would like to get a handle on adjudicating the delver’s tricks; whether they are tripping monsters, bamboozling them, disembowelling them or throwing sand in their eyes. This advice assumes a working knowledge of the Saving Roll system.
I will finish by outlining some of the many possible stunts that clever delvers can try; that may give them some ideas for frustration of their GMs fiendish plans.
The advice given should be treated as a launch point for your own ideas. As Captain Barbossa so wisely said in a slightly different context: ‘They are not so much rules, as guidelines’.
The Three Elements of Stunting
Very much like Caesars Gaul was divided into 3 parts; I see 3 separate elements to a stunt.
- How hard is it to perform?
- How magnificent will be success?
- How catastrophic will be failure?
Element #1: How hard is it?
When judging what level to set a Saving Roll at I use a rough rule of thumb to get me started. I set the Saving Roll at one level for every 40 MR that the monster has (or part thereof). The reasoning here is that Monster Rated foes have assumed attributes from their adds which increase by 5 every 40 MR (in the 7e rules). I then adjust it for the following factors
What kind of monster is it?
Is it speedy, sneaky, tough, slow, clumsy, stupid, clever, armoured? Does it have eyes that can be blinded? Will it fall over easily? If the delvers plan to attack its weak points then reduce the save level. If the delvers plan relies on fooling a Magus or bull-rushing a Living Statue, or some other (almost) impossible task then increase the save level.
Consider the stat the delver wants to base the Saving Roll on (usually their best one) and how well that fits the situation. Luck is usually a fair default – the plan could always just work! If it is a good fit, leave the save level as is (MR divided by 40). If not increase the save level or insist they use a more suitable attribute or talent.
How clever is the plan?
Players can be clever, really clever, and think up stratagems that leave you gasping at their audacity. In these cases reduce the save level. You want to encourage their imagination. It’s fun for everyone.
How risky is the plan?
This is treated in more detail in the following sections, but essentially if what the delvers are attempting will result in a dramatic reversal of the combat maybe up the difficulty level. An example might be sweet talking a monster in the middle of combat into turning on his comrades. This will result in a greater shift of the tide of battle than even killing a monster outright. I would be looking to increase the save in these circumstances.
Element #2: How magnificent the success?
Ken St Andre‘s excellent solo ‘Arena of Khazan’ has many examples of stunts in combat and their impact on battle.
That source and others have been royally plundered for the following list of ways that a successful stunt can impact on the outcome of a combat turn. As a general rule I would say that the greater the impact success would have, the harsher the penalty should be the failure. When stakes are high, they should be high for everyone! Remember spells and missile weapons work like stunts; don’t make stunts easier or more effective than them.
Bonus dice/bonus adds to Hit Point Total
A simple increase in the number of dice rolled, or a bonus to the combat total. This is a low stakes stunt; maybe one delver distracts a monster while another delver gets a positional advantage.
Damage ignores enemy offensive total
This is a high stakes stunt. The delver is trying to change the terms of the battle and inflict their damage while avoiding the monsters attack. Snarfi the Mad hamstringing the giant in the fifth edition rules would be an example of this. This should be more difficult against fast, agile and multiple enemies and easier against slow ones.
Damage ignores enemy armour
A low stakes stunt. The delver is working on chinks in the enemy armour and will ignore any armour points on a successful roll.
Damage targets one enemy
A low stakes stunt – a delver is trying to draw a monster from the pack to fight it one on one, or all the delvers are focusing their attack on one of the monsters. Success will mean that any damage inflicted all goes on that monster
Disabling effect – enemy combat total reduced
A low stakes stunt, the delver is attempting to inconvenience the monster, blinding them or grappling them or disarming them or tying their shoelaces together. If it succeeds the monster will take a penalty to its attack rolls until it has overcome the delver’s obstacle.
Disabling effect – armour reduced
A low stakes stunt, the delver is attempting to remove bits of the enemy’s armour, by working loose a dragon scale or cutting the bindings of a vambrace. Success will mean that the monsters armour points are reduced for the rest of the combat. This probably will not work on a living statue!
Disabling effect – enemy less able to manoeuvre
A low stakes stunt. Generally used when delvers want to escape or otherwise force the monster to chase them. Caltrops, tied shoelaces, trip ropes are all examples of this. Reduces the monsters speed.
Manoeuvre – enemy/enemies removed from combat
A high stakes stunt. This may be a charm offensive or it may be using environmental hazards – pushing them into a pit, dropping a chandelier round them, lassoing them, manoeuvring them into the way of a rolling boulder. One way or the other that monster will not be contributing to the combat.
Clever GMs and players can probably think of other ways that their cunning plans can impact on their hapless opponents, but these provide a starting point for handling the outcome of a successful stunt.
Element #3: How catastrophic the failure?
I think there is a fine line to walk here. Stunts are a fun part of T&T, and it’s good to encourage them, but at the same time, if there are no significant penalties for failure then delvers will become blasé about them, and not feel that they are in an exciting life or death struggle. Actions as they say have consequences!
When considering the penalty to apply for failure take into account how risky the stunt is and whether it is for high or low stakes. Failing at a high stakes stunt usually means that, at minimum, the delver did not generate a combat total, and maybe other nasty things happened as well.
These are some of the penalties that can apply.
No contribution to combat
Whatever daring manoeuvre was planned, it didn’t work. The delver does not contribute his dice or adds. They and their comrades must take the damage from the monsters that may happen as a result. In a solo, it may well mean the delver just died unless they have stacks of CON and armour. I suggest you use this only for high stakes failures as it is a serious penalty
Reduced combat total
The manoeuvre failed, time was wasted, positioning was lost, and weapons were not brought to bear. Deduct dice from the delvers total, or rule they all roll 1, or deduct adds for one or more attributes, or halve the total for that combat round. All appropriate for low stakes stunts where it is clear the delver is still battling while manoeuvring.
The stunt failed and the delver got hurt, pulled a muscle, fell, passed through flames, and banged their head. The delver took some damage – often 1 point for each point that the save was missed by, or a d6 for each level of the save, or such other amount as makes sense. This effect be used in combination with one of the other penalties if it seems appropriate, or as the only penalty for failing at something acrobatic.
The Big Fumble
Something went wrong, and the delver turned klutz. They dropped a weapon, worked loose some armour, bumped into a comrade, tripped over, or banged their helmet over their eyes.
Both Runequest and Rolemaster fumble tables can be a useful source for this kind of entertainment! Basically the delver has suffered an ongoing penalty until they can put things right. Again, this can be used in conjunction with another penalty if it makes sense.
Remember: the game’s the thing
A lot of the advice above considers how to apply and adjudicate things in game terms. At the end of the day Tunnels & Trolls is a games system; but do not lose sight of the fact that it is a story that you are creating with your players. The aim of this article is to help you consider quickly the game impact of their actions so that you can concentrate on the dramatic narrative of adventurers leaping and rolling and wrestling with their enemies. You still make the decisions, the advice I give is just that, a framework to use or discard as you see fit.
An example or two
Now that we have discussed the principles, lets
See how they might work in practice.
Jack the Tank is facing 3 orcs with his comrade
Hoggle the Leprechaun. Jack is a big ,strong (Str 19) human warrior and has a kite shield. He wants to pay attention to all of the orcs but use his shield to bash one of the orcs in the face, stunning it and reducing its combat capability, while Hoggle darts back and forth trying to cut them with his big two handed poniard.
The orcs are each MR 30. They are not significantly more massive than Jack, and the GM judges that they are averagely brawny for their MR. That would imply a Save level of 1 (using the 40 MR/level benchmark). He also accepts that strength is an appropriate attribute for the feat. However Jack wants to do the stunt while maintaining a full battle stance, and with 3 of them it will be more difficult to pick his moment, so the GM rules save level 2.
Jack rolls a 9, for a total of 28, and so succeeds. The GM rules that smashing the orc in the face with the boss of the shield will score an additional 3 damage (the amount the save was exceeded by) to that orc, and that the orcs combat total will be reduced in half this round and next to reflect the stun. Jack otherwise calculates his combat total normally.
Had Jack failed he would have failed at a low stakes stunt using his shield, the GM decides that he would have lost the armour benefit of his shield for the round and halved his combat total from his weapon dice but not his adds, as rebounding from the Orc would have caused him to miss other opportunities.
Later on, in a battle with a fierce ogre, Hoggle, who is a very acrobatic leprechaun (talent acrobatics, Dexterity, 23) decides to run up Jacks back , take a flying jump to a chandelier swinging above the battle , saw through it so it lands on the ogre and then land on the ogres back. The ogre is MR 90.
Now the base save would be level 3 (Mr 90/40 round up). The ogre is big , but not particularly fast. The stunt is daring and with potentially a big pay off but is clever and imaginative, so the GM decides to leave it as a level 3 stunt. Acrobatics is appropriate.
If the save succeeds the GM rules that the ogre will take 3d6 damage straight to his MR, have his combat total halved while he brushes off the chandelier and that Hoggle will be positioned to do damage ignoring the ogres combat total next round while he stands on its shoulder.
If Hoggle fails then he will contribute nothing to the combat total this round and take damage from hitting the chandelier , falling down and bouncing off the ogre equal to the amount he missed by.
Hoggle rolls 7 for a total of 30 and executes the daring stunt by the skin of his teeth. Jack applauds!
Stunts, stunts and more stunts
- Attacking their vital spots
- Chandelier swinging
- Cutting them so they bleed
- Deploying a shield wall
- Dropping things on other things
- Fast talking
- Grappling a monster
- Holding them at bay with polearms
- Jumping on big monsters and attacking them from behind
- Kicking sand in their face
- Pushing them into lava/down a well
- Riposte, use their strength against them
- Rolling underneath and disembowelling them
- Shield surfing down a stairway into the monster
- Shooting a rope holding a chandelier so it falls just so
- Spraying the monster with oil and igniting it
- Swarming a monster
- Tripping them into a pit
- Using a pick to make a hole in their armour
This far from exhaustive list owes its inspiration to many sources, but most relevantly to Ragnorakk, Toad-Killer-Dog, Porkbelly, Machfront, Profgremlin, Koraq, and Castiglione for their great ideas as expressed on the site at Vin’s Trollbridge.
This article was first published in TrollsZine! Issue 1.