Arianna, I don't understand stunts. How often should I give them out? How hard are they? What can they do? I'm confused!
Of course you're confused, Limitlessly Ignorant Leading Question Man, if you weren't confused all the time, I wouldn't have any leading questions to answer. Luckily for you, though, lots of people much more intelligent and real (like the nice forumites reading this) want to know about stunts so I'm going to answer all your imaginary questions! Yay!
What is a stunt?
Stunts are sunshine and happiness and chocolate. They are like being surrounded by exceptionally beautiful people of your preferred gender(s). They will make your game better, heal the sick, and make you cooler than Chow Yun Fat. Stunts are more endearing than Shaolin Soccer and with better kung fu than Kung Fu Hustle, twice a turn every turn. Tattoo "Stunts are great!" on the foreheads of your loved ones so that you never forget.
Do you understand? Yay!
Seriously, a stunt is describing a character's action in an interesting fashion. It could be ANY action, from throwing a piece of fruit in the air in order to cleave through it and an Immaculate in one perfect cut, to setting the battle-map in the command tent on fire in order to see the flame of war in the eyes of your commanders and thus create the perfect plan, to having the zombie corpses of the Guild merchant prince's wife and children serve him tea and fruit as you negotiate prices with him. Anything your character does, so long as you make an effort to make it cool and interesting, is a stunt.
The mechanics of stunts, which include dice bonuses, essence and willpower regain, insurance against character death, and the ability to do impossible feats, are all INCENTIVES - they're specifically designed to get people to stunt all the time. It's like a carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging players to be cinematic, only there's no stick and the carrot is more like being fed peeled grapes by pretty, pretty people.
Do you see what's happening here? Exalted bribes its players to be unrelentingly cool. This is at the very core of why you see so very much enthusiasm for this game - it is the game where you start by being cool, and never stop.
Stunts are easy
You may be intimidated by stunts, both as a player and as a GM. Certainly, it might seem tough to come up with cool things every turn, or to as GM judge your players' efforts constantly.
Don't worry about it. While it is actually quite tough to get a 3 dice stunt, 1 or 2 are EASY. Even Harmonious Jade can do them.
A one die stunt is where you describe your action in a more interesting fashion than "I hit him with my mace" or "I use Socialise to seduce her", and you aren't repeating an earlier description. It doesn't need to be long, it doesn't need to be worthy of the Illiad or Crouching Tiger, it just has to add some colour to the game, preferably by appeal to the senses.
Why yes, roleplaying out a conversation would almost always count a 1 stunt, so long as the conversation was actually doing something (ie it incorporated a dice action). I'm glad you noticed.
A two dice stunt is just like a 1 stunt, only it incorporates the scenery, environment, or ongoing drama of the scene. "My goremaul whistles in with such force that blocked or not, the stones under his feet shatter!" or "I quickly snatch a white rose from Mnemon's hair as she's busy sneering at Cainan, and present it with a wordless yet eloquent smile to V'Neef, letting my kimono fall open just enough to catch her eye" are both fine 2 stunts.
Easy, right? Don't worry too much about whether the stunt is super-cool, if it fits the criteria above it deserves the award. The important thing is that everyone tries to contribute to the imagery of the game and don't repeat themselves - the core of what the stunt system is trying to achieve.
This makes it pretty easy for the GM. Haven't heard that exact stunt before? 1. Did it involve the environment? 2. This allows you to easily assess most stunts objectively and super-fast.
3 stunts are really hard, but don't worry about that, either. They tend to be spontaneous, someone doing just the right thing at just the right time without really trying for it, but it fits so well and is so cool that everybody at the table knows it's a 3. As GM, you'll probably have no trouble picking out a 3, but if in doubt, remember the actual reward isn't that big a deal (it's only another mote or two and a die), so don't be afraid to give it out - just don't do it so often that it loses its special status.
Stunts give rewards
The first and most obvious reward is extra dice. This may in fact seem like the point of doing a stunt, but really, they're not very important. Dice are nice, but they're a transitory award, and obviously a stunt isn't anywhere near as rich a source of dice as Charms are - this is quite deliberate, since Charms are what separates the Exalted from heroic mortals.
Those dice ARE really helpful for compensating for multiple action penalties, however. Remember that all actions described by a stunt - even if it's a crazy ten-roll defend/counterattack pattern - get the dice bonus for the stunt.
The critical reward for stunts, however, is the mote and willpower regain - 1 mote per die, OR 1WP for a 2 or 3 stunt. This is important because while Charms are much more potent than stunts, stunts fuel charms.
This means that the more a player contributes to the imagery of the game, the more powerful their character is. In fact, the game assumes that it's possible to stay mote and willpower positive during a fight, and obviously stunting is VITAL if you want to use lots of social charms without dipping into Peripheral Essence and giving the game away!
I recommend capping the number of stunts that gain mote rewards per turn to two per player (this usually lets them stunt on their action, and again in reaction to other characters - attack and defence in combat, point and rebuttal in social). I've found otherwise Panther just won't shut up and give the other players a turn >_< However, I still let Panther stunt for dice or cool actions when I have multiple Deathknights beating on him in a turn, since otherwise he's just like "I parry" and it's no fun!
The rules are that only a "successful" stunt receives a mote reward. I personally don't like this rule, since for instance Dace is a great stunter in his gruff old man way, but the dice loathe him with a malice that would frighten Erembour. He's contributing just as well as anyone, so he should get the reward! Not to mention it's sometimes tough to decide whether a multiple action stunt was "successful" or not!
However, if you do use that rule, you should probably reward any stunt where the principal actions necessary for the imagery were successful, and you should count success as beating the difficulty of the roll. For instance, while technically an attack that has been parried or dodged has failed, defences succeed so much more often than attacks that you'll skew the rewards towards the already more powerful defensive characters.
Finally, Power Combat in the Player's Guide doubles mote rewards for stunts (to 2, 4 and 6 motes). While this is most important in the deadlier environs of Power Combat, I recommend this rule for everyone - it's what finally got Harmonious Jade to start stunting!
Stunts act as insurance
This rule is pretty simple: if you try something wild, crazy, and hopelessly dangerous - and describe it as a stunt - you won't lose your character instantly if you mess up. Usually you'll get a reflexive, full pool roll to avert disaster - Dex Athletics to grab the side of the cliff before you fall, or Wits Socialise to make your bungled seduction attempt on Mnemon look innocent.
The basic idea here is to promote cinematic behaviour by undercutting risk vs reward calculations on daring, proactive activities. There's the stunt reward, and then the immediate risk is removed. You can still get into a LOT of trouble, but you won't instantly die.
Obviously this doesn't apply to straight combat rolls like attack and parry - there's no particular need to provide incentive for these things, so if you fail your parry or dodge, you'd better hope you've got some soak!
Stunts let you do impossible things
To a certain extent the rules in Exalted can be bent. That extent is contained in the stunt system.
Once again, this is about contribution. If you contribute to the coolness of the game, you can bend the rules.
The easiest example of this is in the rules - normally you can't parry an armed attack with your bare hands (say if you'd taken the opportunity to punch some ancient Lunar hag in the snout and then she - unprovoked! - goes at you with moonsilver claws), but with a stunt it's no problem.
This is probably the toughest part of stunts for a GM to judge - the action might be a perfectly good stunt as far as the description goes, but do you want to let stunts accomplish the action in question? A good guideline is to figure out what you want Heroic Mortals to be able to do in their most tense, dramatic moments - if a Heroic Mortal could conceivably do it, then it can be done by stunting alone; otherwise, it's actually the sort of thing you need a charm for. If the player is trying to stunt the use of a Charm in order to use it a bit differently, think about the action in question - is it something that should need a charm of its own to be even possible, or would having its own Charm just make it easier and more reliable? If the latter, then allow it.
When running my games, I tend to be reasonably lenient with this, mostly because my players' stunts are persuasively cool, and thus whatever they're trying generally seems appropriate at the time (plus I'm outrageously biased towards Swan's stunts 'cos he's cute ^_^). However, I gave everyone an idea of what sort impossible things I'd let stunts do at the start of the game, and if I veto an action I let the player change their action, I don't make them automatically fail.
Stunting and NPCs
Major NPCs should be able to stunt just as much as PCs. This is less important in terms of dice rewards, so much as in being audacious and bending the rules. If you do it right, this should provoke the players into doing their best to outdo the NPC in coolness.
Use NPC stunting to up the ante, not to show off an NPC's superior ability, or make less eloquent players feel inadequate. In fact, it probably works best if the first time you have an NPC stunt, you make it an NPC that's important but obviously weaker than the PCs (like a Dragon Blood in a Solar game) - that should help get the message across that the PCs can do even *more* amazing things than this guy.
In terms of stunt rewards, just stick to the normal method - involve the scenery or drama, and you can pretty much just give the NPC 2 for everything. It's probably not necessary to keep precise track of mote and WP rewards, so long as you're not too generous to the NPC.
- Short is sweet. Getting 1 and 2 stunts is so easy that you can do it in a single sentence, and 3 stunts are rare and spontaneous, so longer descriptions don't actually make a bonus more likely. It's good to spend the majority of your gaming time describing cool actions, but it's best if everyone gets their turn to do so in rapid succession. Your GM should feel free to put a time limit on you.
- FOR THE UNCONQUERED SUN'S SAKE, think about your stunt during other players' turns, so you can just go as soon as it's your turn. Obviously that's harder to do for stunts you make in reaction to NPCs or other players, but try to be as ready as you can. While you're at it, figure out your dice pools before your turn, and then just add your stunt bonus on top, rather than doing the math while everyone waits for you (*shakes tiny chibi fist of rage at Panther*).
- If you need a prop or piece of scenery and it hasn't been described yet, feel free to just put it in there! As long as it's not massively inappropriate, it should be fine.
- Don't copy your favourite movie, book, comic or videogame for stunts DIRECTLY, but do not hesitate to use them mercilessly for inspiration. Characters in most kung-fu movies, for instance, would be Heroic Mortals - so if those characters can do something without a flashy burst of supernatural power, it's almost certainly a valid stunt. Likewise, anything that does use a flashy burst of supernatural power is probably fair game for a stunt using a roughly appropriate charm.
- GMs - Don't make stunts harder than they have to be. If a player describes multiple actions, but only one of them has any real mechanical effect, just treat it as a single action, and don't increase the difficulty. For instance, does stealing a rose from Mnemon's hair (normally a Dex Larcency action) have a real mechanical effect on seducing V'Neef (eg does its scent alchemically reduce V'Neef's Temperance?) or is it just cool? Does the triple-backflip the player is describing allow him to make a back attack against the enemy, or is it just more interesting than walking up to smack the foe?
In general, don't make a stunt any harder than achieving the exact same mechanical outcome with the most boring possible description.
- Players - help the GM out by, after your stunt, quickly describing what you actually want to achieve. For instance, if Dace said "I hurtle down the black stone walls like the Unconquered Sun's wrath, bleaching them white with the strength of my Anima, my boot crunching against the witch's soulsteel helm before my blade carves into her. The blood from her wounds bursts into golden fire, forming the sign of the Dawn around her. Two Melee attacks." then I know he just wants to make two Melee attacks against the Deathknight. Everything else, including the boot to the head, has no mechanical impact, and is there just to make the Melee attacks cool. I give him 2 and we're away!
- Still stuck for inspiration for what words to use in your stunts? Check out Mailanka's Stunt Cheat Sheet, hosted by that splendid thaumaturge Xarbala...I mean Alabrax: http://www.alabrax.com/exalted/fanworks/stuntcheat.htm
Changing the Stunt system
Finally, you may not want your game to be filled with high-flying wuxia acrobatics or astoundingly audacious social craziness. For instance, you might want a grittier game, or be using the Exalted rules to emulate a different genre, or even just emphasising some of Exalted's influences over the others.
A gritty game could probably do without stunt insurance, but other than that, think very seriously about keeping the stunt system as is - it's a superb incentive system, just change what you're giving the incentive for. Explain to the players what sort of character behaviour and game mood you're trying to encourage, and then reward actions described in that tone accordingly (for instance, narrating your PC valiantly struggling to his feet after the cruel blow, and getting by on sheer willpower, rather than narrating the attack harmlessly bouncing off the skin).
If you do want to mess with or de-emphasise the stunt system, particularly the mote rewards, beware the following consequences:
- "Impossible" tasks that are nonetheless expected to be quite frequent, like parrying weapons with your bare hands, become much less frequent, disadvantaging abilities like Brawl in favour of Melee.
- Charms and powers relying on committed essence become a much better deal. Combat becomes much more dangerous for those who can't rely on persistent defences.
- Social scenes become much tougher, since a character can use fewer charms without dipping into Peripheral Essence.
- Willpower becomes VERY scarce. This not only weakens many charms that rely upon it, and strengthens effects defended against by spending willpower, but makes Conviction much more important than the other virtues, since it's the virtue used to regain willpower.
Arianna, I'm concerned. I think my players are going to try to abuse the system by taking frivilous actions and stunting them to recharge their pools.
This could be a problem! You might want to consider the following:
Is what they're doing interesting? If they're still contributing to the game, give them the reward, even if their motives are less than pure. It's a BRIBE, after all. Having a fun game is the most important thing.
If what they're doing ISN'T interesting, then not only isn't it a valid stunt, it's probably not worth playing through in the first place. Feel free to ask the players in question whether the scene is going anywhere - if not, don't play it out.
You might also want to remove the temptation by allowing enough downtime between scenes for characters to regenerate their Essence. If you're not anal about essence regain, your players won't have any reason to be.
Phew! I love stunts so much I can't stop talking about them. I hope that wasn't too long for you, dear readers. Now, if you excuse me, I have to go chase Harmonious Jade out of my Demon Kennel...oh, too late, she's got the screaming fits again. Bye bye!
Original Author: Kasumi on RPG.net