Today I got to play the first session in a campaign for The Expanse RPG, based on the AGE system. I think I’ll enjoy it because the other players and their characters are great, I dig the setting, and sooner or later, the rules will become familiar enough to us that turns will go more quickly. Today’s game was a bit rough for me at times, though, through no fault of the players or the GM. Rather, I think the game’s stunt subsystem—kind of a defining feature of the AGE rules—is so deeply flawed that it has helped me realize what I like better about pretty much every other stunt system I’ve ever played.
In AGE, to see whether you succeed at a task, you roll 3d6 (one die in a different color), add modifiers depending on how good you are at the action in question, and compare to a target number. That part’s pretty standard for traditional RPGs. Where it differs is when you roll doubles or triples on a successful roll. (Doubles or triples come up about 44% of the time on 3d6, but “on a successful roll” roughly halves that likelihood.) Then, you consult the differently colored die, and the number showing on it indicates how many points you get to spend on bonus effects, called stunts. That’s kind of neat, I think—like a “critical hit,” but a bit more common than the 5% chance on a d20, and with some more variety. I’m still with you, AGE.
The stunts themselves range in cost, and The Expanse RPG has 5 pages of them. That’s over 100 in total, from what I can tell, broken into categories for different contexts, types of combat, and so on. Any given situation could potentially touch upon multiple categories, like “General Combat,” “Melee Combat,” and maybe also “Social” if you considering trying to intimidate or impress using violence. Eventually, I could imagine the players of such a game internalizing most of the list, so they’d roll something and someone would just rattle off, “Oh yeah, this is a good time to use Good Cop Bad Cop, and I have the points for it. You game?” And everybody would nod and it would be cool.
I’m not sure how long it might take to get to that point with a group that sounds like it might only get to play once every 4-8 weeks, though. And in the meantime, you’re going to end up with some session’s like today’s: one or more players going an entire session never succeeding with doubles, and so only taking about 10 seconds per turn, while other players roll doubles frequently and spend a few minutes on their turn sifting through pages of stunt options, trying to wring the most value out of the points they have to spend.
You can probably guess which kind of session I had by the fact that I felt compelled to write a blog post about it the very same day.
By the same token, I couldn’t help but notice how much this reminded me of other stunt systems I’ve played and read, so it did feel like something of a learning experience. I’m sure I could think of other games that exemplify the approaches I’m about the describe, but I hope you’ll forgive me for using obscure, unfinished games (because they happen to be on my mind a lot lately already): Grave and Relic Walkers.
In both of these games, you have a pool of points you can spend to enhance your actions somehow. In Grave, a soulslike game I’m building on Knave, these enhancements are open-ended: The text offers some acceptable examples, like disarming or knocking down enemies on an attack, but for the most part, players are encouraged to come up with their own effects, and the referee can charge a point if need be. Meanwhile, in Chris McDowall’s Relic Walkers, a mech battling game built on the Into the Odd rules, each mech has a few systems with pre-defined special effects, like different forms of attacks and shields, so you know exactly what your options are each turn.
Now, what’s interesting to me is that I like both these systems, even though they’re divergent in approach—leave room for many possibilities vs. present a fixed set of options. Ultimately, though, I think they’re convergent in a shared goal: make turns varied and interesting, but always quick. That last part is crucial because it means that even if you have a crappy turn, it’s no big deal; you’ll get another chance to shine soon enough. AGE loses me because it tries to have it all, but at the cost of quick turns. I’m not even sure you can leave room for many possibilities and present a fixed set of options if you want play to feel quick and exciting for everybody at the table.
This was the first time playing an AGE game for most of us, so maybe it won’t be like this every time. I’m not holding my breath, though, given how infrequently we’ll get to play, how unlikely it is most of us will be able to study the rules between games, and how impractical it would be to set time limits for each player’s turn. So, for now, all I can do is lament that it’s kind of frustrating that the most stand-out feature of this system basically grinds action to a halt a substantial portion of the time, but not reliably enough that at least everybody gets to engage with it. I might feel differently if stunts there were anything players could do to make applying stunt points more likely, but as designed, it really just comes down to the roll of the dice every single time.
On the bright side, at least, it definitely makes me appreciate games with tightly designed stunt systems.