How To Improvise When Players Do Combat Stunts in OSR RPGs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1218

How To Improvise When Players Do Combat Stunts in OSR RPGs

Bonjour, Johnn!

Last session a player went way outside the rules. He wanted his character to leap through the air onto a giant bird’s leg, climb up the tarsus, then release a magical belt attached to the beast’s limb.

This happened just hours ago, so I remember clearly my initial reaction:

  • Oh crap! What do I do?
  • Damn, this seems complicated
  • Are there rules for this?
  • If I allow it, will I break the rules?
  • If I allow it, will it open the floodgates to abuse?

It was a cool player action. I want more of stuff like this. So I decided to calm down and figure out how to give the player a chance to roll for it. And here’s the thought process I performed to achieve that, also fresh in my memory:

1. Break the Stunt Into Parts

How do you eat a roc?

One bite at a time.

Here’s what the player asked:

I want to leap from the cart onto the roc’s leg and rip the belt off.

So I split that one big action into bite-sized actions that didn’t feel pixel bitchy:

  • Leap from cart
  • Grab leg
  • Climb up leg
  • Free the belt

I wasn’t worried about how the character would get down. Not my problem. 🙂

So that gave me four steps total.

2. Decide on Roll Count

An RPT GMing axiom says that the more rolls you ask for, the more you increase the chance of failure. And I didn’t want to nerf the action. So I decided I wanted only two rolls for a total success.

3. Apply a Timeline

I split the player’s stated action into four parts and two rolls. Now I put those parts along a continuum.

In Old School Essentials a round is 10 seconds long. So the easiest place to start a timeline is by asking, “Can the whole stunt can take place in a single round, or would it make more sense to make each part one round?”

I decided no to both, making a decision a bit harder. But at least now I’ve got boundaries to help: two to four rounds. Two rounds felt right. So I went with that.

4. Explain My Thinking

First, I figured out what the player wanted to do. Without that clarity, I’d have been making the wrong decisions. The cart jump and roc climbing was clear to me, else I’d have clarified with the player what outcome they were wanting to effect.

Then I split the stunt into parts.

Next, I decided how many rolls I wanted, which influences the probability of success up or down.

And then I decided how many character turns the stunt would consume by applying the rolls to a timeline.

Now I paused the game to explain my thinking to the group and asked for feedback. Being transparent lets players understand how you’re approaching action resolution to create a precedent for future stunt attempts. And feedback gives everyone a chance to improve the approach.

I did not communicate all of this in the moment. I was on my back foot most of that encounter getting the ol’noggin up to speed and figuring things out. But next time things will be more seamless.

So How’d It Go?

We had a short retrospective after the session. I used Jonathan Hardin’s Stars & Wishes method to hear what players liked and what they want more of.

The encounter was mentioned as a Star by all the players. So it seems like the stunt was successfully facilitated for Old School Essentials. And kudos to Jochen for performing it!

Picture a dwarf standing atop a bucking cart with horses rearing and thrashing about as a massive bird stretches out a claw bigger than a Buick to attack from the sky.

Bartram’s strong legs catapulted him into the air (automatic success) and colliding with the beast’s leg. The dwarf managed to keep his grip and climb up the dry, leathery claw skin (successful STR check). End of turn, and everyone was cheering.

Next round, Bartram climbed up to reach the feathered upper leg, but he could not hold on (failed roll) and he fell to the ground (5 damage, ouch). Jochen asked to make one last desperate grab for the belt. I requested a d100 “Hail Mary” check, but it failed.

The bird continued to wreak havoc and then made off with a pony in each claw. Everyone kept a careful eye on the sky after that. And Bartram has vowed to get that belt, which it turns out belonged to his great great grandfather, a famous general for The Empire. Overall, this approach worked great. And it feels great to get all this rust off and be GMing again!