Stunting for Profit in D&D combat

A complaint I've something seen concerning combat in TSR-era D&D is that it is too simplistic. You roll to hit and see if you hit or miss, roll damage die and that is it. There is no room for the kind of creativity that players might want to realise from cool action scenes in movies.

By contrast, later editions allow cool moves to spice up combat. Feats in 3e allowed stuff like bull rushing, cleave, Disarm, Spring attack etc. In 4e, everyone gets a cool move they can execute. In 5e, feats returned and on top of that we get battlemaster maneuvers that let fighters pull off even more stunts like riposte, parry, feint, trip attack and similar (Rules Cyclopedia is guilty of the same with 9th lvl fighters getting access to special maneuvers).

The fatal flaw in this, the older schooler might remonstrate (and I would join that choir) is that the approach to stunts in later editions gates them behind feats and class features. It defines combat in a way that strongly implies that if it's not on your character sheet, you can't do it. 

What modern gamers miss in all this, the old schooler might argue, is that the basic chassis of TSR-era D&D leaves it open to the player to come up with their own stratagems and utilise their creativity.

But here I don't exactly agree. TSR-era D&D itself fails to provide even guidelines on how such creativity might be played out. Are you meant to just add descriptions to your basic attack roll ("I feint the orc with my shield and then slice at his calves" "ok, roll to to hit as we always do") or should the DM be ready for on-the-fly rulings to adjudicate whatever zany stunts the players might come up with? If the latter, there is a stark absence of guidelines to do so.

In Into the Unknown there is dedicated section for how to adjudicate stunts in a way that is freeform and encourages players to play the scene of combat rather just the rules, but also utilises the small selection of leavers that exist in 5e combat (bonus actions, reactions, move, advantage/disadvantage) to give a rules-based impact for such gameplay. But it is rather tied into 5e combat, s├íns feats and maneuvers that gate such stunts behind class advancement. So I figured - how would I do this in B/X or other TSR-era games?

I've seen people go with the approach that says that you can stunt (ie. achieve an effect different than damage) by simply forfeiting your damage roll if you hit. It's simple and nice, but I think doesn't really add to the game what stunting should - Something out of the box, raising the stakes to gain an advantage somehow, at added peril to yourself. So here is how I would do it:

Stunts: Gambles & Gambits in D&D combat

To begin with, let me state the fundamental premise that all stunts are adjudicated with:
  • A Stunt is always a gamble or a gambit.
That is to say: 
  • There is always either an added element of risk or a deliberate sacrifice in order to achieve a special gain.
In either case, the potential loss (when gambling) or assured loss (in a gambit) I call the Stake involved.  But there should always be a stake involved in a stunt, otherwise there is no point in making a regular attack roll.

Gambling on a stunt has the advantage that if successful, it is pulled off without a cost, whereas a gambit always has a cost. The downside on gambling is that the stakes tend to be higher for a gamble than a gambit to achieve a similar effect.

Here is a little optional rule I like to reflect combat expertise when stunting: All PCs will know the exact Stake of a gambit before saying "yes I am doing it." Only Fighters however, can know the exact stake of a gamble before attempting it. For all other classes, the DM will only provide a hint "that is a high stakes gamble or "that is a low stakes gamble".

There is no fixed rule for what kind of roll(s) should be applied to a stunt. A ruse might be an INT or CHA check, a beat might be a STR check, or a STR-based to hit check. A feint might be based on DEX or to-hit with DEX bonus.

Some Stunts may be taken instead of an attack to achieve a certain effect, such as disarming or tripping. Depending on the nature of the stunt, this may simply be a Gambit where the Stake is losing an attack roll. 
But this is not a given. It is also possible to stunt in order to amplify one's chances to hit, or for increased damage, or secondary effect alongside damage. The Stakes should of course reflects this.

Note that not all gambles and gambits are created equal and sometimes the payoff can be well worth it compared to the cost, and vice versa. A clever ruse from a high INT PC against low INT opponents that you may know a certain weakness about is very likely to succeed at little cost compared to one against a high INT experienced fighter you know little about. A shove made on a narrow bridge without siderails is likely to have a much better outcome than one on a flat plain. 
This is all well and good. Players should play to their strengths, to the weaknesses of their opponents and to the environment around them.

Note: It is possible for a stunt to contain both a gamble and a gambit. These are the kind of stunts that tend to be spectacular when pulled off and equally so when failing.

On a meta-gaming level, let the players know that the Rule of Cool applies to stunting. That is to say, if someting is really clever and well thought out and makes good use of the environment and the present circumstance, it probably becomes easier to achieve and might also have better effect.

The inverse Law of Diminishing Returns also applies - If a player starts spamming combat with standardised 'stunt' moves, they become less and less effective until you may as well just roll to hit for standard damage without the added stakes. How harshly the Law of Diminishing Returns should be enforced is an arbitrary DM call from table to table. Some gambles and gambits might be worthwhile to have as regular stock actions in combat (fx. in B/X a charge is basically a gamble, where the stakes are double damage against set spears). Others tired attempts to replicate something that was cool the first time, but quickly got old.

Your baseline for adjudicating stunts should be a moving target. Don't feel like your ruling for similar stunts must be the same every time,  If combat gets bogged down with everyone trying something fancy every round, then you've probably been too generous in your adjudications. Unless of course, everyone thinks it's cool and fun to have combat scenes like that. My own rule of thumb is to find a line where stunts are mostly used when desperate or when the circumstances invite for it. I find they should be worthwhile enough that players will look for them in a pinch, and punishing enough that they aren't used frivolously.

Gamble Examples:

"I brace my shield and slam my opponent with a full body charge to knock him down"
Roll two d20 to hit. If both succeed, your knock him over and do 1d4+STR shield damage. If one fails, you hit for 1d4+STR damage, but are thrown off balance as he rolls with the blow and all attacks this round have +2 to hit against you. If both fail, he evades you just as you thrust into him and you fall prone and all attacks.

"I run in under the belly of the giant spider to pierce its vulnerable spot."
If you hit, you do max damage and the spider will rush to move away. If you miss, the spider gets a free automatic hit against you, as it crushes you with its body and does 1d6+2 damage and knocks you prone. 

Gambit Examples:

"I hold off on my attack to study my opponent's moves, trying to spot an opening."
You sacrifice an attack. Make an INT or WIS roll. If successful, add the margin of success to your next attack roll.

"I drop my guard, charge my opponent and focus on simply making sure my next attack strikes true and deep."
Your opponent's attack will automatically succeed. You gain advantage on your roll to hit. Both of you also gain advantage on the damage roll of that hit.

The idea here then is to encourage a combat environment where it is not only possible do other things in combat than rolling to hit, but where players can take on risks or sacrifices in order to amplify their attacks in various ways in certain situations. If players are very clever about it, it will probably pay off more often than not, which is perfectly fine.

Should DMs also be stunting for NPCs? Not in the same manner as PCs. Adjudicating your own fancy moves on the fly can seem like an advanced level of fudging combat. It should be reserved for signature moves of certain NPCs planned ahead and such, with the following exception:

Turnabout is always fair play. Any stunt the PCs have used before, the DM should feel free to use against them to similar effect. This will also provide a very satisfying stimulus for DM cackling when PCs find themselves hoisted by their own petard. 

Comments

  1. This is probably the best example I've yet seen of an approach to stunts/gambits/maneuvers that embraces the "rulings" aspect while providing very clear guidelines for how to do so well. Most other approaches I've seen for maneuvers tend to try to come up with a single "core mechanic" for adjudicating maneuvers of all kinds, which is typically something that works well in some cases and terribly in others. This treatment has the advantage of preserving a bit of GM freedom, but without leaving people just kinda hanging in the wind with regards to *how* to do that. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. It appears to me, that you're framing combat as sport, not war, with your system. I'd just say that it feel a little incongruet with the style of play I'd personally associate with older SoP. Sometimes, there need not be a cost, to gain an advantage. Say a player might be able to both achive "full damage" and "disarm", with no drawbacks, limited by context and circumstance. I'm not sure your clarification of the tsr SoP is without a sort of anachronistic lense. Sorry if i come across contrarie, looks like you've made a fun system for your players :)

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    Replies
    1. I think D&D combat is more like skirmish than war, but sport? No, I wouldn't go that far. It's really more about enabling players to engage with fiction of the battle in broader ways than "roll 1d20".

      And yes, I suppose the cost is not sacrosanct, subject to circumstance (I hint at something similar wth "Note that not all gambles and gambits are created equal and sometimes the payoff can be well worth it compared to the cost"), but I still think it is a fine rule of thumb.

      I am curious about your observation on anachronism in TSR SoP though

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