Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Other Stress Tracks

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

Once you have the basic idea of a stress track, there's a lot of potential for interesting mechanics.

The first item of note is that there is room for other tracks beyond HURT. Exactly what they should be depends a lot on the tone and nature of the game. For example, a TIRED track might be a useful way to handle fatigue, while an UPSET track might be a useful way to handle social "damage". For purposes of my Leverage-esque play, I use the following pools: HURT, TIRED, UPSET and UNCERTAIN[1].

HURT and TIRED are both, hopefully, fairly self explanatory. UPSET may take a little more explanation, but I think it's pretty basic - at its heart, it's the result of all the emotional things that muddy our judgement - anger, hurt, fear, embarrassment and so on. UNCERTAIN, in many games, would probably be folded into UPSET, but for Leverage play (or other intrigue based games) it's a bit more important. It's a result of everything that takes a person's feet out form under them, from a clever deceit to a bit too much liquor.

Other games may use different stress tracks: Smallville, for example, AFRAID, ANGRY, EXHAUSTED, INSECURE and INJURED. Mouseguard's conditions, which are similar, include HUNGRY/THIRSTY, ANGRY, TIRED, INJURED and SICK. Even knowing nothing else about those two games, the comparison of those lists can tell you worlds about the differences between them.

For many game, the simple addition of, effectively, social and mental (and other) "hit points" makes the solution to a great many issues apparent. By offering a path to an outcome (which is what any damage system really is) you are offering support of that particular path.

That said, one clever element of handling stress this way is that in building up from zero, the track doesn't need to exist until you use it. Contrast this to, say, hit points: your hit point value is always on your sheet, a subtle signal that play is going down that particular path. Since stress tracks start from zero, they could just as easily not be on your sheet at all. That means that if you want to experiment with them, it's easy to add or subtract them as needed. Perhaps you have a table that's only comfortable with tracking injury - if you opt to experiment with adding fatigue, it's a non-disruptive addition. Similarly, if you have something you want to track for a single adventure arc, you can add a temporary stress track, like "Enemy Alertness"[2] or "Insanity" to pick two strongly themed options.

Now, themes are all well and good, but the real question any system must face is how useful this mechanic is as a component for constructing rules, systems and other elements of play. Stress tracks are, I think, pretty robust, and we'll delve into some of the things you can do tomorrow.

1 - I had previously called this CONFUSED, but UNCERTAIN seems to get the point across much more clearly.

2 - That would be a great one for the whole group to contribute to over the course of a very precise break in.


  1. So, an addition; One idea that is getting thrown around some is that of tying stress tracks to stats. It's got some nice mechanical weight because it automatically indicates when you invoke a particular kind of stress. That is, if the stress is on your strength, it kicks in any time you would roll strength.

    It's not a bad model, but it requires really rethinking the stats. A default spread introduces problems with physical stats having a lot of overlap. Having different stress for strength and agility can be very unintuitive, especially if you need to flesh out the details.

    There are two possible fixes: the first is to retune the stats so there's no such overlap. This works better with conceptual stats (like the Wits, grace, Force and Resolve from Amber, which could map to Confused, Upset, Hurt and Tired) than with literal ones.

    Second, you could group stats together to align them with stress types. That is to say, stress does not need to be a 1:1 match with the stats. HURT might be tied to both strength and agility (while Tired is tied purely to endurance). It's not quite as elegant, but it is probably the easiest way to reverse-engineer the idea onto an existing stat list.

    -Rob D.

  2. I was running into the same thing yesterday when looking at the Leverage stats- though I'm not sure I'd bother with stress in pure Leverage. It would depend on the type of game I'm running (like if I wanted to run a version of it that more heavily involved gunplay)

    However, this all slides together quick nicely for D&D style: the 6 stats, 4 roles, and on top of that, a list of conditions with combat game effects that could tie nicely.

  3. I can't see a way to use the 4 D&D roles very well, since they're not really clear to me when to use them.

    I do like the Wits/Grace/Force/Resolve, 7th Sea had something like that list as well. I commented on yesterday's post expanding on Reverence Pavane's idea of stress decreasing stat die size, increasing likelihood of compliations.

  4. @Atminn The idea of reducing the stats is mechanically totally doable, but it's something I would avoid for cinematic reasons: I don't want to make characters less likely to succeed, because then they're less likely to act, which leads to boredom.

    For a more realistic or gritty game, I'd probably consider it, but for cinematic play, it's easier to add a d4 (maybe several) to reflect injuries or other problems. Increases the odds of a a complication, but characters can still be active.

  5. Pure Leverage was designed to emulate the show, which is why it doesn't have specific set tracks; very rarely on the show are people killed or horribly maimed, and when people are injured it's a temporary plot device (aka Complication).

    Smallville on the other hand features consistent evidence of people harming others in various ways, emotionally as well as physically, but then again it all goes away fairly rapidly. Spend time in a hospital bed and then you're fine. A pat on the back and a heart-to-heart and you feel better.

    The first question, then, is when you're hacking a game like Leverage or Smallville is whether you want to build these into the play experience or not, and if so, how it effects the dynamic.

  6. "...you can add a temporary stress track, like 'Enemy Alertness'...."

    Which of course loops back to core Leverage, which uses Complications to accomplish the same thing. I seem to recall the main book, or perhaps the Quickstart Job using "Alert Guards" or something similar was an example of a growing Complication.

    I'm enjoying your posts on the Stress Tracks and the Leverage RPG in general. Leverage is my current RPG crush. Your posts remind me that I have the Smallville PDF and really should get around to reading it, since I keep hearing so much good about it!

  7. @alen Precisely. This speaks to the same thing that Dave talks about - the real virtue of stress is that it's really just a particular flavor of assets/complications/etc.

  8. I started reading this post and thought "Unknown Armies Madness meters". Must continue to read to determine if the tech is here.

  9. @Seth You could totally tweak this model to do madness and hardening, no problem.

  10. @Seth as an example, let's use the rule of "if you're carrying stress, you add a d4 to you rolls" then modify it so that if your current level of stress is below your hardened level for that stress, you don't pick up the D4.

    To see if you harden, when you recover from stress, roll a die equal to the highest level of stress you took, as well as one die of each smaller size. If the biggest die rolls highest, increase your hard for that stress by one step.

    Hardening can ALSO get rolled against you (like stress can) but in very different situations.

    Removing hardening takes therapy. Lots of Therapy. :)

  11. I think one Stress track that would be good for games fairly close to Leverage would be "Overconfidence": it's a pretty common point of the show to build up the villain's belief in them having the upperhand, then use that cockiness against them as you pull the rug out from under their feet with a couple of big Flashback reveals...

  12. @Rob I would like to clarify the concept of multiple d4s as Stress: if I inflict stress on your character's Strength he now hs his die +1d4 and I can continue to inflict Stress the d4 pool continues to grow in number. Such that after three inflicted Stress I could be rolling 1d10+3D4.

    In this model, how would one be stressed out? Would it happen once you had enought d4s to cover the Attribute's die type steps? (so 4 in the case of a d10) or just once you hit a set number or if the total on d4s is higher than the Attribute (thus giving them the chance to produce 1s and if rolled too high take you out)

  13. @Dave Ok, so the simplest mole is this: If you are carrying any stress (whether d4, d10 or anything else) and you do something that stress would effect, then two things happen:

    1) Your opponent (probably the GM) adds your stress die to his pool.

    2) You add a d4 to your pool.

    Now, that's pretty simple, but an inverted method would be to simply add a d4 to your pool for every step of stress (1 at d4, 2 at d6, 3 at d8 and so on). In this case, "taken out" still occours when the amount of stress you take (measured as steps) exceeds your highest die (or, if you're being more fiddly, the appropriate stat die).

    Make sense?

  14. I am really digging that idea. I plan on running ShadowLeverage after the holiday and I will be using that as the way to handle stress (I will just hand out colored tokens to players so they know how many d4s they will need roll additional for different types of actions).


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