Leverage is for Elves Too (Part 2)

In my first post on using Leverage RPG to tell heroic epic fantasy stories, I identified some areas of the ruleset designed for the caper genre that would need to be tweaked to successful embody the genre of fantasy.

These things are certainly not insurmountable.  Far from it.  In fact, I’m very excited by how they are turning out.

  • Genre and Flavor:
    • Role name changesBard, Mage, Warrior, Leader, Thief (in place of Grifter/Hacker/Hitter/Mastermind/Thief)
      • Role changes – Leader: Leader becomes less about planning a job and more about managing the party and keeping everyone on track. This puts alleviating Stress squarely in the Leader’s domain (See Bolstering Actions below). Research, cultural awareness, connections, and finding patronage or managing favors or fame could also fall to the Leader role.  In comparison, Bard maintains all aspects of intentional deception and performance (and related knowledge)
      • Mage: Mage encompasses all magical or pseudo-magical intentional effects or identification or fiddling therewith. In our game, Mage will be the high stat for our eladrin druid (sun elf magic, and talking with animals/shapeshifting), somewhat high for our extremely primal earth warden (growing plants and such), and tertiary for our devout dwarf paladin/healer.
        • As you can see, Mage can be used for unusual effects of arcane, primal, divine, or other origins, so long as you have an understanding at your table.
    • Talents: It doesn’t seem too hard to modify or create new Talents to match the genre (specifically the parts my players want). I hope to make a list of more genre-specific examples. (also see Advancement below)
      • Recovery: With the inclusion of Stress Traits, I would add some Talents that pertain to downgrading Stress of certain types. Smallville has a variety of good examples for emulation.
      • Example Talent: Wildshape – “Spend a plot point to transform yourself into an animal shape until you choose to dismiss the effect. When you take an animal shape, decrease your Mage role by 2 sizes and increase either your Warrior or your Thief role by 2 steps until you dismiss the effect.
    • Races: Fantasy races can be easily accounted for as a single Distinction.  I would give each PC a free Distinction for race: ie Dwarf, Elf, or Half-orc. Then, race could factor in whenever, and to whatever extent a player decides it does. Usually, when race helps in a situation, add a d8 to the roll, when it would be troublesome, add a d4. This way, some players could really play to their race, while others could mostly ignore it. (Player and GM would have to discuss ahead of time what the race generally means to the player.)
    • Size: Another fantasy staple is massive creatures as a natural part of the world. A giant being Huge (in 4e DnD terms) makes for some mechanical changes that Leverage doesn’t account for.  I would add unusual Sizes as Distinctions, as well, which could either facilitate or hinder various activities (ie adds a d8 to Strength rolls and adds a d4 to Agility rolls) Greater levels of size difference could grant more dice (ie 2d8 or 2d4).
  • Feeling and Tone:
    • Flashbacks: Removing Flashbacks will go a long way toward the grittier, heroic danger of fantasy. Flashbacks are Leverage’s primary mechanic for enforcing the feeling of We’re Rock and Always Succeed Eventually. Epic Fantasy calls for a different tone.
    • Stress: As outlined below, Stress mechanics in place of Leverage’s All-or-Nothing fight resolution makes combat more dramatic/tactical (giving players significant decision points within a fight), less swingy or luck-based, possibly more threatening, and encourages more interaction and teamwork within the party.
  • Combat: Smallville RPG has a number of very attractive mechanics that I would port back into a Cortex Plus Fantasy game:
    • Stress (from Smallville): When someone loses an opposed roll, the Victor chooses a Stress type to impose and rerolls the dice she used in the roll. The die with the highest result becomes the die size of the Stress imposed on the loser (ie reroll and d8 is highest result so now the loser takes the Trait Injured d8).  If the loser already has that type of stress trait of equal or greater size than the trait imposed, the die is instead increased one step (ie d8 turns to a d10). If a character has to increase a d12, the loser is instead Taken Down/Stressed Out and their fate is decided by the Victor, up to or including death if appropriate, (and if no allies can intervene or help out in the meantime).
      • Stress Types: Injured, Exhausted, Angry, Afraid, Insecure (from Smallville)
      • Giving In: If a character Gives In, they take Stress from the Victor (a new d6 Trait or upgrade existing Stress Trait) but the Loser chooses which Stress Type it is.
      • Extraordinary Success: When losing a roll by 5 or more, the Loser can neither raise the stakes, nor Give In. The Victor automatically imposes stress.
    • Teamwork in Combat: I’m toying with parsing out who’s engaged with whom in a combat, but that’s for later.
      • Teaming up: I will use the Smallville version of teaming up over the Leverage one:
        • Smallville Team fighting: Assisting fighter rolls dice as normal and gives the highest result (number not die) to the primary fighter to add to the roll total.
      • Ranged attacks: Work like basic actions: Target rolls to set the stakes and attacker rolls to beat that number. Attack either hits or misses, and the target cannot raise the stakes like in melee combat. If hit, the target takes appropriate Stress. (If a target also has ranged capabilities and is unengaged, then it becomes a regular contested fight just like a melee fight but with a wider scale and repurcussions.)
    • Bolstering Actions (Healing): Using the Leader role (representing mastery of healing lore or medical knowledge/experience, rallying fear/exhaustion, getting ally’s anger under control, or inspiring bravery/self-confidence), characters can bolster one another to stand under Stress. Bolster actions can be taken in the middle of scenes, but not in the middle of other actions. Bolstering each other is the only way to reduce Stress, aside from Talents and time. This could make for fun/complicated drama moments when PCs not as good in the Leader role try helping each other; complications arising here could reflect complications or developments arising between the PCs. (“Pull yourself together mate, flipping a lid won’t help anything”, roll 1, “You get out of my face or so help me…”)
      • Taking a Bolster action: Roll your Leader die plus an appropriate Ability (usually Willpower, Vitality, or Intelligence) against a single specific Stress Trait within effective range (2dX where X is the die size of the target Stress):
        • Success: Decrease the targeted Stress Trait by 2 die sizes
        • The Doc is In: A character may spend any number of PP to roll vs additional Stress Traits with a single action (1PP=1 extra Trait). These Traits may be on different characters (ie overcome the Fear affecting everyone who’s near me)
  • Advancement: Story Chapters instead of Jobs? I would like to see a system where you get better at those things you do most, but as yet I’m not sure what could look like within the framework of Leverage. Additional TalentsSpecialties, and Distinctions seem the most fun, or before long everyone will have d12 Abilities and Roles. Increasing die size of Assets or Specialties is an alternate option Leverage does not mention.
    • For those wanting more complicated advancement, I’m very interested in the possibilities of using Smallville’s system of Abilities with limits and die sizes. I’d rather not lose the beautiful simplicity of Leverage though, so if anything I will likely draw inspiration for Talents from the Special Effects and Plot Point earning and usage that Smallville’s Abilities and Distinctions allow. I especially like the three tiers of triggered effects available when a distinction reaches d4/d8/d12 respectively.

I owe most of the credit for these thoughts to conversations with some of these games’ designers: Cam Banks and Rob Donoghue (who is currently writing a number of fascinating and helpful blogs about hacking Leverage), as well as collaboration with Dave Bozarth who is currently working on a Leverage+Shadowrun hack.

Please help me hone these thoughts!  I definitely believe Cortex Plus (a fine mingling of Leverage and Smallville) can tell epic fantasy stories, as well or better than 4e Dnd, depending on what a group is looking for. Nevertheless, it still needs more attention (Gear, Advancement, Combat).

I’d like to build some classic fantasy characters, character concepts, or monsters in the Leverage system as examples.  Who would you like to see? What are some peculiar concepts that don’t fit well in DnD or other sysems? Leverage’s Trait-based system can handle a lot, put it to the test.

What haven’t I considered, or where am I missing something? Please share your comments, questions, concerns, and critiques! You can also discuss this idea with me on Twitter: @atminn or in a forum format: CortexSystemRPG.org

About Adam

I'm a husband, father, explorer of the inexhaustible, and synergy cultivator. Starting with D&D, my explorations into role-playing and game design have brought me to savor mining diverse systems, initially Cortex Plus, then PbtA, ORE, Forged in the Dark, and now anything I can get my hands on.