Part of what makes any game fun, RPGs included, is that element of risk. The outcome of these contests, from croquet to Candy Land, isn’t predetermined, so much of the thrill of playing comes from those moments where victory genuinely seems out of reach. However, in the end, no one wants to end up on the wrong side of the contest.
So there are ways to increase odds of victory in your favor: strict practice regiments, cutting edge equipment, recruiting talented teammates. Much of this advantage in a role-playing game comes from a deep knowledge of both the game’s system and the mechanical benefits of its rules. Since RPGs are also focused on producing an exciting narrative, this knowledge is also strengthened by creative thinking, clever plotting, and introducing dynamic ideas into the game through the conduit of the characters.
In our quest to remember the mathematical minutia of the rules, we as players sometimes forget that there are ways to gain an advantage, better one’s situation, or dull the consequences of failure that don’t rely on strict mechanics. Instead, there are times when success or failure can be decided by mutually agreed upon conditions that transcend numbers and probability. I’m going to call these non-mechanical methods of gaining an advantage “levers.”
THE LEVER: Wagers
What They Are: Both parties risk something of valuable as an ante or bet, and agree to let fate decide the winner.
How They Work: After staking their bets, the contestants roll a die, flip a coin, cut a deck of cards, or play Rock-Paper-Scissors to decide the winner. Whatever the method, it should offer both sides an equal chance of success.
Pros: Winners may get what they want for free, or with minimal effort; it also allows players to accomplish something that might otherwise be difficult based solely on their character’s stats.
Cons: Losers will be deprived of something without any compensation. If overused, wagers might also undermine the rules of the game you’re playing by robbing players of their mechanical advantages.
Example: To make it to the next town in time to deliver a vital message, Bron needs the fastest horse he can get. Unfortunately, he can only afford an older mount who seems content to munch his oats. He offers all the coin he has, but is refused. Now he could try to round up some more coin, or even attempt to haggle with the stable owner, but time is not on his side; additionally, Bron’s player knows that his Social skills are sorely lacking. So he decides to take a risk.
“I’ll tell you what,” Bron said, smiling all the while. “I will wager my entire purse and this finely wrought short sword at my side against your fastest steed; winner takes all!”
The stable owner (GM) decides that he is intrigued by the bet, and accepts. The GM determines that heads will be a win for the stable owner, while tails will favor Bron. The coin is flipped, the winner is decided, and Bron rides down the dusty road, praising the fates for his good fortune.
THE LEVER: Sacrifice
What They Are: The player agrees to sacrifice something of value he has to gain something he would otherwise be denied by the circumstances
How They Work: If a player fails at a certain task, skill check, risk, or other effort, he agrees to a negative consequence in order to turn failure into success.
Pros: The sacrifice might allow the player to come through at a key moment in the game, even if his dice have failed him; it also allows for some rich story-telling opportunities on both sides of the screen.
Cons: The price of the sacrifice may be higher than the player is willing to pay; it may also haunt him later if the success it secures proves fleeting or incomplete.
Example: Dave’s character and his party have sustained a considerable amount of damage in their battle with a crafty necromancer. While they’ve done some damage of their own, it’s clear that they need to escape this fight. As his character is leaving, he attempts to pick of the body of a fallen comrade, who has been taken out of the fight by the evil magics of their enemy.
The GM asks Dave to make the appropriate Strength/Might/Athletics/Physical Skill roll to determine if he can perform this arduous task in his wounded state. Sadly, Dave rolls low and his character fails.
“Can I say that a surge of adrenaline in the heat of battle has allowed me to succeed, but at the cost of extra damage/stress/wounds to myself because of the effort?” Dave asks his GM, hoping his narrative lends some credence to his proposition.
“That will work,” replies the GM, pondering the value of this new plot twist. “But I get to decide how much damage it really does.”
THE LEVER: Negotiation
What They Are: In order to secure an important event or outcome, the player agrees to undertake a series of challenges; however, the actions will typically fail if even one challenge is not met.
How They Work: The player suggests a series of actions or events they want to accomplish, and the GM agrees to allow them if certain conditions are met. These might include rolling over an unusually high target number, completing a sequence of successful rolls, or meeting temporary milestones in-game.
Pros: Negotiating the success of a needed event may move the party that much closer to their goal all at once; it also allows for some exciting in-game moments as the challenges are undertaken.
Cons: The player is typically asked to put all their eggs in one basket; if they fail to meet all the required challenges, any of their successes may be undone by the consequences (as decided by the GM).
Example: Jerusalem Jax and his crew stand on one side of a deep chasm in the heart of the disabled space station. The self-destruct alarm blares in their ears, the mechanical bridge’s controls have been smashed, and the distance to the other side- and the only working controls for the bridge- seems too far to clear in a single jump. As Jax calculates the distance to the bottom of the chasm in front of him, three heavily armed security drones emerge from a metal door below.
Jax’s player, Rick, has a pretty high initiative, so he’s going to act first this round. Typically, he would be allowed one or two specific actions by the rules. However, he’s recently been watching old seasons of “The A-Team” on DVD, and has quickly developed a plan to make the most of his turn.
“Here’s what I want to do,” he begins excitedly. “I’m going to jump off the platform, over the first security drone, land on top of the second drone, immediately vault over the third, land on the opposite platform and punch in the sequence that extends the bridge.”
Blinking in disbelief, the GM quickly smiles then makes some notes on an index card. “That’s a pretty ambitious plan, but I think there’s a chance you could pull it off,” the GM explains. “However, you’ll have to succeed at the five separate rolls I’ve listed here to end up safely on the platform with the bridge ready to cross.” Here, the GM’s smile took a mischievous turn. “If you fail at any one of them, I’ll take it from there. Are you ready to make your first roll?”
Amazingly, Rick gets four successes in a row, leaping over the first security drone, keeping his balance on the back of the second, making the acrobatic leap over the third, and landing on his feet on the opposite platform. When his last roll hits the table, however, he finds himself just short of the target number he had agreed to for keying in the right sequence to extend the bridge.
“Strangely, that sounded like the sequence to open the blast door next to you,” the GM intones. “As it rises, you see several more security drones making their way down the hall toward you.” The party groans, and Rick grins nervously. “Well, it would’ve been awesome if it had come together,” he says apologetically.
THE LEVER: Contracts
What They Are: Both parties offer something of value in order to secure a desired effect, event, or object from each other.
How They Work: The player(s) offer a service, alliance, item, or other consideration to another character, in order to automatically gain what they want, as opposed to risking the outcome in a mechanical determination. These might include completing a mission, trading a possession, avoiding a certain battle, carrying a message, defending a location, or finding something that is lost.
Pros: It’s likely that both sides will profit from an in-game contract; it also gives the players an opportunity to expand their characters’ resources and create new plot hooks.
Cons: There is always the possibility that one (or both) sides will renege if the contract proves difficult; likewise, they can be difficult for the players or GM to enforce during play.
Example: The Sultan’s delegation of agents stands ready, their weapons drawn and their purpose clear. Marku, the small, bronze man who has until now shown a restrained, civil manner, has instructed his guards to surround the visiting adventurers. The air is filled with heat, dust, and tension as both sides prepare for a battle here in the posh quarters of the local regent.
The GM instructs the players to roll initiative, reviewing his stat blocks for the foes they face, and drawing a map of the contested area. Battle seems imminent, and the players start talking strategy. Given the size of the regent’s humanoid guards, this fight may hurt a little.
All at once, the clear strong tones of Prince Akoset’s voice fill the chamber. “We both serve the same kingdom. What does it profit us to kill one another?”, he asks Marku. Akoset’s player, Justin, looks at the other players and says “Follow me here, guys.”
“You have been sent here to kill me,” Marku sneers in reply. The GM is watching the other players to see how they react to this exchange.
Now the exiled general, played by Charlie, speaks. “We were simply commanded to replace the current leader, and repay the tributes that are owed. However, that doesn’t mean anyone has to die.” Now the tension that started in the game is being felt by the players too, since at any moment the wrong words could bring the fight they’ve been gearing up for.
“If it’s not my life you want, then what could you possibly seek to do?”, questions Marku suspiciously.
Now the GM for this episode was yours truly, and much to my pleasant surprise, the six players at the table managed to come to a unanimous agreement that would benefit everyone in the room. Several of the PCs would contribute resources to fortify the region against the crime lord who was terrorizing it, and settle the matter of the missing tribute. In exchange, Marku would step down as leader of the town, and instead serve as advisor to a new regent appointed by the Sultan. However, he would still retain control of his lands, guards, and most of his original duties and authority.
Instead of a combat encounter, my players had just role-played a hostile takeover. No blood was shed, no laws of the land were broken, and amazingly enough, no dice were rolled.
Has your group achieved an advantage during a game by using one of these non-mechanical ‘levers’? Are you a Game Master who has had to put a stop to them because they started undermining the function of the rules? Are there other tactics that aren’t listed here that might fit the description of a ‘lever’? Help us gain an advantage by telling us in the comments!