Campaign of the Month: March 2014
Scenes and Actions
Throughout the game you’re going to describe your character doing all sorts of things. Most of the time you just say it and it happens: I go inside the bar, I push the big red button, I tell him that he’s being all silver-spoon stupid… you get the picture. Occasionally, though, you want to call attention to what you’re doing because it’s big and important and your character is really trying hard to make something happen. That’s when it’s time for dice. Think of the dice as your very own punctuation mark.
When you roll dice someone else needs to roll dice too. Sometimes, the GM will roll dice for the character he controls. Sometimes, another player will roll dice for the character that he’s playing. Sometimes, the GM will just roll the Trouble pool.
Who rolls when is pretty simple to figure out. If another character is trying to stop your character in the story, whoever controls that character rolls dice. So if a NPC is in your way, the GM will roll dice for that character. If another player gets all up in your grill, then he’s going to roll his dice. Either way, this is a Contest.
If there’s no other character involved at all, the GM rolls the Trouble pool.
A beat is basically the smallest dramatic unit of the story. If two characters exchange a password, that’s a beat. If a Character picks a lock, that’s a beat. If a Character hides behind a dumpster as thugs run past, that’s a beat. If a Character spends hours researching a problem, that’s a beat. The trick is that it doesn’t matter how long or short the activity is, but how simple it is.
Scenes are composed of several beats and represent a complete event, like a meeting or an attempt at breaking and entering. There’s no real way to say how many beats make up a scene since that can depend a lot on the dice, but it may be as few as one and as many as, well, a lot.
The important part is this: each beat corresponds with an opportunity to roll the dice, or take an Action. This gives you a gut sense of the scope of the outcome, and hopefully that comes across clearly in the breakdown. What types of Action you’re taking, however, can vary based on the nature of the beat and what the Character is trying to do.
One of the first things you need to get a handle on when playing is how to handle your character’s Traits (Values, Relationships, Distinctions, Abilities, and Resources). Since they’re the source of dice, and therefore the core of any action that takes place, it’s best to become familiar with them. When it comes time to roll the bones and see what happens you roll dice associated with the Traits on your Character Sheet and, sometimes, on some part of the scene (Aspects) or even another character (Complications and Trauma). That’s a lot of possible Traits, though, and you can’t roll them all… for free.
Choosing Character Traits
A character’s dice pool always consists of at least one die; your Value. You may not use the same Trait twice without spending a Plot Point. If you want to roll more dice, you’ll also have to spend Plot Points.
In many cases Value + Relationship + Distinction\Ability make it obvious what a character should be rolling. Using other Traits tend to be more based around the situation. There’s no one right answer but context offers some clues. If it’s a crapshoot, the GM has to make a judgment call, and this is one of those situations where speed trumps fidelity. Better to just come up with an answer on the spot, roll the dice, and settle on an outcome than it is to spend five minutes dickering over the right answer.
As mentioned above, you can add more dice to your pool by spending Plot Points. While there’s never any obligation to pick up extra dice, sometimes it’s worth the cost to get an extra die or two added into your roll. Plot Points must be spend and the pool must be completely built before the dice are rolled. To get a boost after a roll costs something much more expensive than a meager Plot Point…
Actions are resolved by rolling dice. Most of the time, these actions are Basic Actions rather than Contested Actions. A Basic Action is two rolls: the GM, to set the stakes, and the player, to try to beat it. A Contested Action is one where both sides keep rolling to raise the stakes until one side gives in or is taken down. There is also the the Timed Action, which is really multiple Basic Actions in a row against the clock.
When it comes to making Basic Actions, you describe what your Character is doing, suggest what Traits you roll, and the GM decides which dice he’s rolling in opposition. The GM rolls his dice to set the stakes. You make the decision to use any Distinctions\Abilities and roll the dice. If you win (getting greater than the stakes), things go as you might expect and you deal a Complication to the GM’s character or reduce the Trouble Pool; but if the GM wins (you roll less than or equal to the stakes), he describes how things go wrong, or not as you expected, and you may take the Complication. As ties go to the active party, Basic Actions like this require you to raise the stakes, not get a tie.
Anything you can imagine taking place in one beat with a specific end-goal counts as a Basic Action. Lifting a wallet, cracking a code, knocking a guard unconscious, or scaling a wall might all be suitable Basic Actions. Most of the time, the GM is the one who calls for these Actions, which is why he rolls his dice first to set the stakes.
Sometimes another character actively opposes what you’re trying to achieve, to the extent that the purpose of the Action is about seizing advantage or getting an edge over the opposition. Contested Actions go back and forth, each side trying to raise the stakes higher until only one side can come out on top.
A Contested Action takes place over a single beat, but it’s a struggle, not a single maneuver. You can string multiple Contested Actions together to represent multiple beats in a scene; each time one side might Give In, losing ground. Of course, as soon as one side is taken down, the scene is probably over—unless more opposition comes out of the woodwork.
Contested Actions use Dice Pools are described above. A Contested Action always starts with one side picking up dice because they think it’s time to throw down. If it’s unclear which side is initiating the Contested Action, or if more than two sides are involved, all sides roll their dice and the one that gets the highest result has set the stakes. The other sides can then choose to either Give In right away (“This ain’t the fight for me!”) or roll to raise the stakes.
As soon as you’ve raised the stakes high enough that your opponent isn’t able to beat it with his own result, you’ve come out on top. If you’re the one who lost, your Character’s at the mercy of the GM and the bad guys who won. Either way, someone is getting a Complication.
Contested Action Variations
Using the Contested Action rules above, you can also model various kinds of conflict. The only things you need to change are the Traits involved, and what the Complications are for giving in. Remember, each time you’re rolling those dice to raise the stakes you’re doing something to swing the contest in your favor. You can even switch out the Trait you’re using if you think the next move you make’s a different tack.
Examples of other Contested Actions include seizing control of a computer network from a rival hacker, outsmarting a rival’s tactics, successfully being the one to lift a wallet or security pass from a guy that another thief is trying to pickpocket, or even getting another grifter to slip up and out herself in front of a room full of cops.
When you do a Timed Action, the GM determines the opposition you’re facing and how much time you have. Timed Actions use a series of Basic Actions, either several of the same kind or a series of different Basic Actions based on attempting something that has different steps. The number of Basic Actions (the GM setting the stakes and you trying to roll higher) depends on the time limit the GM puts into place.
The time’s measured in beats—the more beats, the longer you have. Each time you roll the dice, you lose one beat. Use checkboxes or tokens to keep track of beats. It’s a countdown, because you’ve only got a finite amount of time; once that’s gone, you’re done. If you raise the stakes, that means it only costs you the time you spent. An Extraordinary Success means you found a shortcut and don’t lose any time at all. Don’t lose a beat for that roll.
If you fail to raise the stakes, that means that part of the action took too long, and an additional beat is lost. Move on to the next stage of the Timed Action.
Running Out Of Time: If you run out of beats—zero or less—you’re out of time, and probably caught in the act. You might have a chance to escape, depending on the situation, but you aren’t able to finish your objective. The GM should have something in mind for when this happens, but if he doesn’t, feel free to suggest something to the group and see what happens next. You also take a Complication from the GM.
Completing the Action: When the GM finishes with the obstacles planned for that Action and you succeed with time left, you’ve achieved your objectives (including a clean getaway, if that’s what you’re looking to do). If you succeed but have zero beats left, you have to choose between a clean getaway and achieving your objective.
Buying Time: If you’re running dangerously low on time, the rest of the group might be able to help you out. They can make a Basic Action of their own— causing a diversion, trying to delay with conversation, eliminating some security guards—and with a success, they give you back one of the beats you’ve lost. If they get an Extraordinary Success, it’s two beats. Failure means that Character can’t help any more for the rest of the Timed Action. No matter what, only one attempt at buying time can happen in between each step of the Timed Action.
Winning an Action
If you win any Action by less than five, Basic or Contested, you deal a Complication to your opponent. The rating of the Complication you inflict comes from the dice pool you rolled. You pick up your last dice pool and roll it again. This should be your winning pool without any 1s or other discarded dice. This is called the Complication Pool.
Some Distinctions allow you to fiddle with the dice pool by stepping up or stepping back dice, or even adding or removing dice, before you roll for the Complication rating. If you have Vicious, for instance, you can step up the lowest die in your Complication Pool.
Once the fiddling is over, roll the Complication Pool and find which one rolled highest. That die’s size becomes your opponent’s rating in the Complication you selected. If your opponent already has a higher rating for that Complication, it increases by one step. If the selected Complication is already at d12, your opponent is Knocked Out and gets Trauma.
However, if your opponent rolled poorly and didn’t make it within five of your final TN they are Knocked Out and you deal Trauma instead of a Complication. The rating for the Trauma is determined as explained for Complications above. Any Distinctions that allow you to manipulate the Complication Pool still apply, and remember if you are already at a d12 Trauma and you take more, you’re dead.
Either way, if your opponent doesn’t Give In they earn an Reflection Point. GM Charaters can either save these like Player Characters or turn them into a D6 for the Trouble Pool.
Want to avoid picking up a Complication, let alone the possibility of Knocked Out and taking Trauma? Well then, you’re in luck—all you have to do is Give In. When you Give In, you’re letting your opposition have her way. Your character either gives up or refuses to fight. This is the only way that a Contest can be stopped before it gets ugly; if nobody Gives In, somebody will get a Complication.
First, You can only Give In before you roll on your turn. As soon as you roll dice in response to your opponent you can’t Give In.
If you Give In without ever picking up dice, Giving In is free. Another character made a demand of you and you complied; what could be simpler? This means that giving in on any Basic Action is always free, you simply don’t succeed at your task.
However, if you rolled dice earlier then your character is committed to the fight. From then on, you must either take a D6 Complication or spend a Plot Point to Give In. Give the Plot Point to your opposition. You can give her a Plot Point from your pool of points, acknowledging that your character is abandoning his position.
When you Give In, you must comply with your opposition’s most recent telegraphed action. If she was demanding information, you must describe your character spilling the beans. If she was throwing a punch, you must describe your character taking that hit. If she was throwing your character off a cliff, then you must describe your character going head over heels into the wild blue yonder. Don’t soft-pedal this—when you Give In, it’s your job to sell the opposition’s victory. It costs you nothing to make her look awesome, and the more awesome at the table, the more fun everybody will have.
Finally, if you ever Give In you don’t earn an Reflection Point. You give up and learn nothing.
You picked up your dice and rolled them out… And you’ve come up short. Maybe you’re six points under or sixteen, either way you’re looking down the barrel of some nasty Trauma. There’s still hope, but it’s going to cost you. If you’re ever about to lose by more than five points, you can drop the Die Rating of any Trait you used by one and get a +5 bonus to your final total. You can do this as many times as you need to avoid taking that Trauma, lowering a Trait one step each time, but you can never win an Action this way. You can also never do this if you’re less than five under, this is only an option if you want to prevent yourself from taking Trauma directly.
The lowered Traits are permanently lost and must be re-bought with Reflection Points. This option is only intended to be used as a last resort.
Final Pushes represent giving up something personal in order to survive. Maybe you sacrifice a Relationship with someone, or give up on something you Value. The sacrifice could prevent you from doing something that was once Distinct to you or the loss of an Ability. Whatever it is, you sacrifice something close to you in order to survive. Play that up in the game.
Supporting Characters often gang up in the desperately misguided belief that more thugs are somehow more dangerous. You’d think they’d learn, but no amount of evidence seems to be able to persuade them. So, as long as they keep doing it, here’s how you handle it.
Each additional opponent adds a single die to the opposition’s dice pool equal to the highest Trait they could use in the fight. This doesn’t change the number of dice added together to set or raise the stakes (it’s still two), just the number of dice rolled. The most common example of this is a gang of six Thugs d6, which amounts to a roll of 6d6 (first thug is d6, each additional thug adds another d6, so it’s 6d6). A NPC can bring in a number of thugs as well to make life interesting, in which case it’s the NPC’s own dice plus those 6 extra dice. Good times.
Every time you raise the stakes against a side that’s got multiple assisting characters, you also knock one of their dice away and they don’t provide any more help. This represents whittling away the opposition, one ugly mook at a time. If you happen to raise the stakes by 5 or more with an Extraordinary Success, you take out two of the extra mooks instead of taking down the whole mob. Once you get down to a single opponent, though, no more dice get knocked off.
You can help someone else in a Contest. To aid another character, describe what you’re doing to help her, assemble a dice pool, and roll it. Take the die that rolls highest and give it to the person you’re Aiding. She can add that die to her total. Aiding can really turn the tables of a Contest and should be acknowledged as a very powerful player choice.
If the side you Aid loses, you also take a Complication.
Sometimes two characters are getting into it and your character is on the outside, wanting to break up the fight before someone gets hurt. You can Interfere with a Contest between two other characters, but it costs a Plot Point and comes with a bit of risk.
Hand your Plot Point to the GM after either side makes an escalating roll and declare that you are Interfering with the Contest. Describe what you’re doing and roll dice as normal.
If you don’t beat the action result, they just ignore you. But if your Interference result beats the action result, you step into the midst of things and stop the Contest in its tracks. Nobody Gives In and nobody takes Complications—yet.
However, if both sides are committed to continuing the fight, they may each give you a Plot Point to continue despite your Interference. Both sides must buy in, at which point all three of you make one roll each. The two combatants should describe what they’re doing to continue the fight before you describe your character getting in the way, or cowering, or what-have-you.
Compare the results of the two players in the Contest; whoever has the highest result inflicts Complications on the other side. Neither side gets an opportunity to Give In; your Interference has made the Contest about hurting the other side. Additionally, if either of their results is higher than your result, they inflict a Complication on you. This may mean you take a Complication from both sides!