New players of fantasy roleplaying games rarely have a sense of scope about what their characters can do. How many times have you heard, “I stab him in the eye” or “I want to kick the wolfman in the nards?” No matter how robust the set of rules, such enthusiasm places the GM in a tough spot. Permit the action and cross your fingers in the hope that the enthusiasm doesn’t escalate or deny the action and create a “feel-bad” moment for the player in the name of making sure you’re playing the game properly. Granted, once players learn how to play, they also learn the parameters in which they can act. They engage the game in the manner the designer(s) hope, by using the rules as written.
I kind of hate that.
I feel the rules should facilitate play, should spark creativity and encourage players to look for solutions outside the character sheet. In the past, I have been a victim of the need to “play the game the right way,” and rarely does this create a memorable play experience. I suspect my inclinations to play by the book stem from tendency for RPGs to define every possible activity one might think to do. While my background in design lends itself to these sorts of games, I wanted Shadow of the Demon Lord to be as permissive as possible.
Rather than hard code various tasks into the game’s rules or create lists of mechanical widgets you must have to do a particular thing, the game leans on assets and complications to deliver the kinds of cool maneuvers that many players crave. Allow me to unpack this a bit.
Three Kinds of d20 Rolls
To resolve any task and the task’s outcome is not certain—you don’t have a lot of time, you’re under pressure, you are impaired, poisoned, fatigued, or something else—you roll a d20.
An active task that does not involve harming or forcing another to do something calls for an action roll. The target number for an action roll is always 10. You make action rolls when you would pick a lock on a door, climb up a wall with plenty of handholds, inch across a narrow surface, dredging your brain for a useful piece of information, and so on.
When you would react to something that would harm you, you make a reaction roll. Again, the target number is always 10. You might make a reaction roll to avoid falling into a pit, to resist a snake’s venom, to keep your wits when you would beguiled by faerie lights, or to stave off gaining insanity from seeing something unspeakable.
Finally, when you would harm a creature or object with a weapon—a sword, your fist, a bullet fired from a pistol—or a spell that specifically targets a creature or object, you make an attack roll. The target number is either the attribute score you are attacking or the target’s Armor Rating, when you attack with a weapon.
The game includes many examples of when to and when not to roll. Generally, the game wants success to happen and happen often, and so GMs are encouraged to just let things happen in the game. Johnny wants to climb the wall and he has plenty of time? OK. Sue wants to kick down the door and she’s plenty strong? The door falls inward. It’s only when the circumstances are tough that a roll is necessary.
Players can choose to make circumstances tougher by trying to perfect exceptional activities or stunts. Swinging from chandeliers, sliding down banisters, diving through windows without getting cut up by the glass, and other cases might demand rolls since they are often things not everyone can do. Rather than change the target number, the GM can just call for a roll with one or more complications. The harder the activity, the more complications added to the roll. Similarly, the easier the activity, the more assets are added to the roll. Adding one complication means the task is challenging, two hard, and three very hard. Adding one asset means the task is easy, two very easy, and three so damned easy you probably shouldn’t have called for the roll in the first place. You don’t have to sweat about how many complications or assets. You just use what feels right.
The benefit of this system is that characters can generate assets on their own from their talents. Rogues, for example, have an asset for one action roll, attack roll, or reaction roll each round. This means that the rogue, assuming he knows how to pick locks, is probably going to pick that lock thanks to the asset. The rogue is also the one most likely to succeed at “crazy” stunts and maneuvers in the game too. And this makes sense, right? We want the rogue to be able to balance on a tightrope, to scamper up a wall, to swing from chandeliers.
Just as you use assets and complications for asset rolls, you should also use them with attack rolls. Whenever a player would make an attack roll and wants to do something more than just deal damage on a success, you can make the activity possible by adding a complication on the roll. The rules chapter offers a selection of options for melee attacks, but you can easily adapt these options for other kinds of attacks at your discretion.
Here are some examples. In each case, the character attempting the “maneuver” has one complication for the roll. You can’t do them all at once; just one per attack you make.
Charge: Choose a creature or object that is more than 2 yards from you but within a number of yards equal to your Speed. Move up to your Speed toward the target and then make the attack against your target.
Guard: Make the attack roll. On a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, the next creature to attack you before the end of the round has a complication for its roll.
Lunge: You increase your reach for your attack by 1 yard.
Pin: Make the attack roll. On a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, the target’s Speed becomes 0 until the end of the round.
Smite: Make the attack roll. On a success, the target takes 1d6 extra damage.
Unbalance: Make the attack roll, on a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, you force the target to make an Agility reaction roll provided the target is your Size or smaller. On a failure, the target is knocked prone.
Remember how I said characters generate assets on their own? Warriors, starting at level 1, have an asset for all attack rolls using weapons. This means that warriors can use combat maneuvers better than anyone else. A magician that tries to “smite” with a staff attack is going to have a complication for the roll and will likely get a failure as a result. A warrior, on the other, that tries to “smite” with a warhammer loses the asset but also doesn’t have the complication either. Warriors are, simply, the best at using combat maneuvers and they should be!
Furthermore, as warriors gain levels, they can make attacks using simple actions rather than complex actions. This lets warriors do two maneuvers during a slow turn. A warrior, taking a slow turn, might use a simple action to charge with a melee attack and then guard with her next melee attack. Or, she might charge and then charge again. Or she might charge and then smite the bad guy. Any combination works. And it’s fun.
While the above list is small, it really is just a starting point and the options serve as examples for the kinds of things a player might pair with an attack roll. Using the list, the GM can gauge what’s possible and what’s not, and leave it to the player’s imagination to describe how the maneuvers might work, all without having to reference or choose widgets to permit the desired outcome.
All this said, it’s important to remember that these options are not things a player has to remember or even engage. Players who don’t want the complexity don’t have to use these maneuvers at all and aren’t punished for not using them since having an asset for an attack roll is always a good thing. But, as the player’s familiarity with the game grows, she may find herself using these options more and more often and sometimes to great effect.