Stunts or Something Like Them

Whenever I explain Exalted to people, I generally get the biggest snags when I get to Stunts. The usual response is that it’s broken, that it’s too easy to abuse, that it gives an unfair advantage to the players. You’d think so. But pulling off high-action stunts can be a milestone accomplishment, after much prodding and encouragement. And I’m not talking about the people coming from a D&D background, where they look at everything and see the -2 modifiers, 5-foot steps, and Reflex checks floating around everything.

Let’s roll back a step. In case you don’t get out much, Exalted is an epic fantasy RPG by White Wolf, using a modified version of the Storyteller system used with Vampire, Mage, Werewolf, etc. This would be the standard d10 dice-pool system where you take your attribute and your skill and roll that many d10’s, 7-9 are a single success, with 0’s counting for two successes. Generally, you need two or three successes to do anything important. Exalted is a high-cinema game akin to an action movie or Japanese anime mixed with Greek myth with an Asian backdrop. Your characters are Exalts, having received a blessing from the gods, giving them powers far beyond mere mortals. Even the weakest Exalts can be as tricky as the Monkey-king or wrestle rivers like Achilles, while the most powerful shake the pillars of heaven and the foundations of the world. Even heroic mortals are still miles above being simple mooks, and can stand their own (briefly) against a single Exalt.

Part of the game’s system meant to promote epic action are Stunts—description of something vaguely within the realms of being physically possible, which gets you one to three bonus dice for attempting something badass. Examples range from running along walls, balancing on the blade of a sword, running up a cloud of dust, or attempting an attack more interesting than “I stab the guy with my sword.” I’ve seen all of those pulled off, by the way. If the stunt is successful, you’ll get rewarded by either regaining motes of essence (mana) or a point of willpower (needed to activate cool abilities, or spent as a single automatic success).

First off, players either need a lot of encouraging to stunt, or they need encouraging toning the amount of stunts down a little. Honestly, it can be feast or famine; most first-time players don’t stunt, and see it as something foreign and dangerous which they should shy away from. This isn’t so bad; all you need is some encouragement or an angle. Some things can be beneficial to stunting; certainly, the scenery can inspire things (“throw the guy into the burning pit of lava,” “kick out the support beam on the scaffolding to bring it crashing down on the mooks”), as can having artifact wings, a good Athletics skill, or a mobility weapon like a whip or rope.

The other half try to stunt everything, doing cartwheels down stairs and eating cereal by stabbing the bowl with a spoon while doing side-flips over the dining room table. Generally, this is more problematic, but once players realize they can still fail or botch while stunting they might be a little more lenient to face ridiculous penalties for doing random mundane tasks such as going downstairs or eating breakfast. You can’t stunt everything, but at the same time, you need to be on the lookout for ways to pull one off.

Even when prodding people to stunt, the results can be…well, objectively terrible. Example one. I missed this lovely dialogue but have had it repeated to me numerous times. The setting is a recently exalted Solar, a reincarnation of a fallen god-king of old, fighting off some enemy soldiers. As a Solar, the player is arguably the most powerful kind of exalt in the game. The soldiers are some well-disciplined and armed, but still blatantly “generic thug” mortals—these guys are extras, but good ones. Roll film as the Solar hero approaches them to do battle.

I stunt at them.

How are you stunting at them?

You know. Basically, I jump at them.

You jump at them.

Well, basically, I jump at them and attack.

There’s six of them. Which one are you attacking?

Basically, well, I’ll jump at them and attack all six of them.

You jump forward and stab each of them once?

Yes.

Ok, but you’ll have to take a pretty rough penalty for making all those attacks plus the jump.

Well, I jump at them, and basically attack them, you know. Like swing my sword and hit all six of them.

They’re not in a line They’re kind of spread out…  like a military unit would be.

Well, I’ll jump forward and hit as many of them as I can with one swing.

The problem here is trying to do too much at once, while under-describing the actual action. The point of stunting is doing something cool, either doing something just outside your abilities, or doing something within your capabilities well. Jumping at six people and swinging a sword is something you do normally. Granted, it is hard to stunt sword combat—it requires a tactical wire-fu mind—but this is a textbook example of bad Stunting.

Example two. Over-describing an otherwise mundane action as to gain as many possible negative modifiers as possible, hopefully also using impossible physics, ridiculous math, or something else which doesn’t just bend the laws of reality but breaks them over your knees. The below example was thought up after two or three actual instances. If you replace a few words with “my sword” and “demonic ice-lion,” you’ll probably have an accurate re-creation. Roll it!

Reaching forward towards the red terra-cotta bowl of two parts milk and three parts cornflakes, coming in at exactly three miles per hour at a forty-five-degree angle, I thrust my weathered steel spoon deeply into the viscous milk, quickly reversing my stroke as soon as the spoon hits to follow the angle of trajectory outward, a trail of milk droplets arcing into the air with a dramatic lens flare, making a little rainbow between them, then as I stretch my head backward in a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn, I spin my arm counter-clockwise around my head to deposit the cornflake-laden spoon in my mouth via a sideways thrust as I chomp down, my molars grinding the cornflakes into easily digestible particles as torrents of cream dribble down my chin and neatly cropped beard, while…

You get the picture. Imagine, if you would, not reading this description but hearing it told out, through a series of breaks and pauses, over a period of thirty minutes, with the player expecting you to hand them a juicy three-dice Stunt bonus upon completion. I don’t know about you, but just writing that was boring enough to put me to sleep. Stunts need to be energetic, high cinema, and action-heavy; I honestly consider this kind of over-description to be the anti-stunt, because instead of being fast-paced and epic, it’s just overcomplicated and muddled. Implausible physics are part of it—a lot of player abilities, and stunt examples, make it very easy to come up with a Prince of Persia knockoff as a starting character. But even Stunts can’t break the bounds of reality in that a sword can’t immediately reverse direction with the same amount of polarity as it had mere seconds before, nor can characters bend themselves like Plastic-man (not without the Double-Jointed merit, at least).

Now, examples of good, group-approved stunts. Good stunts are innovative, plausible, cool-sounding, and most importantly, are described enough to get a good idea of how it works without over-describing them into a corner. Balance is the key, as is making it sexy and making it interesting.

Example one. The Solar characters were being attacked by a T-Rex made of blood-ice attached to its skeleton, charging toward our characters as we battle saber-tooth lions also made of ice and snow. Matt’s character attempted to kill the Rex by flying into its mouth, in the process casting the spell Obsidian Butterflies, which would throw a ton of razor-sharp obsidian shards down through the back of its neck, then using the spell’s momentum to blast himself back out of its snapping jaws. It’s certainly cinematic enough, is death-defying, furthers the plot, and got a lot of positive surprise from the other players, making it rank at a solid three dice.

At an earlier point, these same characters were taking down a series of enemy mecha armed with energy weapons and oversized battering-ram clubs. To take them down, we had to stunt. A variety of techniques were used, but I was pretty tired and don’t remember most of them, except that Rich blasted through a hatch on one to wrest control away from its pilot. Mine was pretty simple; I’d jump toward one with my sword up, cutting the tendon-like cables in its arm joint, causing its energy weapon arm to fall limply to its side. The timing ended up being perfect; my two-die stunt caused its arm to fall downward right as its pilot fired the main gun, demolishing another mecha instead of blasting apart the mech Rich was claiming for himself.

Honestly, Stunt details are up to your play group and GM, but there are some general rules outlined in the book. Stunts shouldn’t be something to avoid or fear, nor should they be something droll and ordinary. It’s easy to fall into a rut of “I stab the guy with my sword,” but that’s not why we’re playing Exalted, now, is it? Being concise, cinematic, and innovative are three keys towards pulling off a good stunt.


3 thoughts on “Stunts or Something Like Them

  1. “I stunt at them.”

    Seriously? That’s comically bad.

    Even in D&D sessions I’d generally see players eager to take a turn at describing their own actions, both due to the desire to see their character’s actions just the way they envisioned them and the slight hope that the DM would let them get away with a little embellishment.

    Of course, 20 rounds into an epic fight they might well have run out of different ways to say “I kill this guy with my sword, too,” but at least splitting description duties between the DM and players kept things more lively. I don’t think I’ve ever played with a group that hasn’t done this to some extent, even in systems which offered no mechanical incentive to do so.

    “I stunt at them.”

    Indeed.

    1. From my experience, most players are pretty good about describing their actions, or trying to meet the GM in the middle between what they wanted to do and what their rolls allow them to. I’m more a fan of the cinematic style game anyway, as are about half my players (being the other experienced GMs), so description is something that’s heavily promoted and rewarded. But there’s always a player or two who gets burned out or something and generally expects either the GM to hold their hand through the process, or just give up entirely.

      “I stunt at them” for example. Despite having the most powerful character in the group, the player fell into his usual abject fatalism because of some bad rolls and not doing as much with his character as other players did with theirs. Calling his own character worthless and attempting to kill him off merely annoyed the GM, which led to the “I stunt at them” exchange out of sheer, unadulterated apathy. In another case, an otherwise brilliant roleplayer created a hot-shot police mecha pilot for a CthulhuTech game, and ended up spending several sessions drawing in his sketchbook because the game wasn’t what he thought it would be.

      For me, it’s a two-way street. After a player has created a character, there’s only so much a GM can do to keep them interested in it, especially if there’s nothing really wrong with the character crunch-wise. If the GM’s job is to keep the players invested in the game, it’s the player’s job to keep themselves invested in the character. The simple answer is don’t create characters you don’t like since you may have to play them for a while, but the real answer is a lot more complex than that.

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