As I gear up to run another game for my friends, I’ve been fiddling with my own system. I’m trying to mesh together multiple things that I love—characters with cool abilities, an easy resolution system, procedural play, and a science-fantasy mileau.
As such, I’ve been thinking about how best to employ the hazard die and turn-based structure to the game. Ava has mentioned before that she believes the Event Die in Errant is the engine that drives the game, and I wholeheartedly agree. As such, I’ve been thinking about how to leverage the Event Die in a structure that will be less about crawling through dungeons, and more about adventure, exploration, and character-based scenes.
So far, I’ve listed out all the types of turns I want to employ during the game. Most of them are standard, especially to anyone familiar with the OSR: Downtime Turns, Exploration Turns, Social Turns, Stealth Turns, Travel Turns, and Action Sequences.
Today, I’m going to pull one of those out and try and work through what I want from it.
Stealth Turns and Proceduralizing Sneaking
Stealth is always been a thorny problem in RPGs. In some games, like 5e, you can build towards an incredibly stealthy character… and be the only one sneaking around, since you don’t want to risk getting caught by bringing along the paladin with the plate mail. In other games, like Blades in the Dark, it’s assumed that everyone is stealthy, and sneaking is the status quo.
More often than not, in most games, it comes down to some form of the GM saying “Alright, roll Stealth.”
My stealth turn doesn’t seek to solve or even change that: one of the skills a player can have is Sneak, and it works exactly how you’re thinking. What it does do is try to add procedure to sneaking in a way that makes it feel more like a Thief or Splinter Cell game than a roll you make to turn invisible. Let’s see how I work to try and achieve that:
Never Roll to Activate “Stealth Mode”
First of all, something I consider a golden rule, not just in sneaking, but in all adjudication that happens in a game: Just-In-Time rolling. Arnold K goes into detail, but the jist of it is: never roll when the action happens, roll when the consequences of the action matters.
So, if a character wants to sneak into someone’s room, don’t call for a stealth roll if the room is empty. Call for the roll when housekeeping comes to make the bed.
The whole stealth turn hinges on this advice.
The Stealth Event Die
A character or group sneaking around can do one major action per turn, and then the event die gets rolled. The event die is a d6 with the following entries:
This might look familiar. I’m not reinventing the wheel with this table.
Immediate Encounter: Someone or something enters the area without warning. Characters must immediately make a check to flee, hide, or otherwise avoid detection.
Approaching Encounter: There are signs that someone or something is approaching. The encounter will arrive next turn.
Stress: Each character that is sneaking takes 1 damage.
Local effect: Something in the environment changes, such as the way back becoming blocked, a shift change amongst the guard, or the arrival of a lieutenant in the area. Tension clocks can also be advanced.
Discovery: The sneaking characters find something that could be of use to them. It may be related to their mission, though it doesn’t have to be.
Free: Nothing happens.
Let’s look into a few of these in more detail:
These are essentially surprises. Characters have a few moments to hide before the encounter hits the location. A few important notes:
- Understand what the encounter needs to do in the location, to determine what happens if the characters remain hidden.
- Ask the players where their characters will hide, or run, or whatever.
- Call for a roll.
This is the roll that cannot be avoided. It’s very reactive, almost like a saving throw instead of a skill check. In John B’s post about Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance he gives some advice that players should roll in order of most likely to succeed to most likely to fail as a good way to build suspense.
On the immediate encounter result, I would ask the players what they do without deliberation, in order of least-stealthy to most-stealthy. After everyone decides, make the rolls.
These are telegraphed encounters. The characters know something is coming, and get to make preparations. The important bits here:
- Again, know what the encounter is going to do in the location. Characters that successfully hide might choose to watch the character in the location, gaining clues or information.
- Ask the players what their characters will do about the approaching encounter.
- If the characters would be conceivably hidden, or move to a different location, no roll is required.
That last point is the important one, but also emphasizes why the first one is crucial. If the party is searching through a professor’s office for research papers, and they hear someone’s heels clicking on the tile outside, they might hide under the desk, behind the couch, or jump back out the window. If the professor comes in and immediately goes to her desk because she was coming to work on something, the person under it is probably in trouble. They might be immediately spotted, or they alone might need to make a roll to remain hidden. If she’s coming in just to grab a book from her shelf, everyone’s probably fine, and she’ll leave the office again and the group can continue their subterfuge.
Approaching encounters are much more along the lines of what you see in stealth-based video games, where when you enter a location a scripted chain of events begins, and you need to navigate it. Scripted events are generally discouraged in RPGs, but a location shouldn’t just be a static, never changing area for the PCs to sneak through. Things happens.
These sorts of encounters mean that there’s a bit more skill involved—players can essentially “out think” an encounter if they hide well enough. I wouldn’t resolve this in the same manner as an immediate encounter: just ask the players what their characters are doing and let conversation flow normally.
Some form of stress or resource loss is always good.
This is the fun stuff: guards (or whatever functions as “guards”) suddenly shift about, the way out becomes blocked, an important NPC arrives in the area, or the power goes out. Stuff like that.
This is just a free clue, essentially.
This one acts as a pressure relief valve for the players, letting them get through a turn without dealing with something.
Stealth Turn Sparks
These are random tables to help spur creativity when dealing with a stealth turn. They’re not really true “spark tables” but I feel like the concept fits.
The generic results below are a feature, not a bug. As part of prep, these tables should be replaced with personalized ones for the locale, but they’re good to inspire what to put on those custom tables, or useable when the players go off in an unprepped direction and decide to do a little B&E.
For these tables to work (and the stealth turn in general) we need two variables:
Location is the immediate place that the sneaking characters are in.
Area describes the wider, surrounding locale.
The sizes of these can shift greatly. If the area is a house a location might be a single room. If the area is a city block a location might be an abandoned warehouse.
|1||The inhabitant who owns the location|
|2||Someone looking for the owner of the location|
|3||A servant who works in the area|
|4||A sidekick or ally of the location’s owner|
|5||Someone who likes to wander the area|
|6||A pair of people who need to use the location|
|7||A rival of the location’s owner|
|8||A courier, emissary, or runner dropping something off|
|9||A guard making their rounds of the area|
|10||Someone using the location to hide themselves or something important|
|11||A group passing through or alongside the location|
|12||An interloper who shouldn’t be in the location|
|1||The way back becomes blocked|
|2||The way forward opens up|
|3||A side passage becomes traversable|
|4||An important figure arrives or prepares to leave the area|
|5||The capability of the area’s guards decreases|
|6||The capability of the area’s guards increases|
|7||Someone discovers evidence of interlopers in the area|
|8||A distraction created by someone or something unfolds|
|9||A meeting of people from two different locations or areas begins|
|10||A project in the area is completed|
|11||A project in the area is failed or aborted|
|12||Something or someone well suited to discovering interlopers enters the area|
|1||Something related to what the characters are here for|
|2||A hint of where to find what the characters are here for|
|3||Information related to this location or area|
|4||Information related to a different, nearby area|
|5||A reveal of someone’s dark secret|
|6||A reveal of a connection between inhabitants of the location or area|
|7||Something that will make travel in the location and/or area easier|
|8||The weakness of a threat or a way to bypass it|
|9||A shortcut, path, or easier way between two locations|
|10||A hidden exit from the location or area|
|11||Information on the leader or most powerful figure in the area|
|12||Evidence of other interlopers, either from the past or here now|
Some of these might be strange depending on the scale of location/area, which is why a specific table always beats a generic table like these. But I can take these tables, duplicate them, and use the entries as inspiration to flesh out and add flavor to a specific place in the world.
Nothing inherently groundbreaking or revolutionary here, but that’s the system I’m using for sneaking in my upcoming game. One thing that might not be immediately obvious is that everyone can sneak around, at least for a little bit, until their luck runs out. I think this is much more satisfying approach than always relying on a single character or two to engage in the “stealth missions” you typically see in RPGs. Thinking about a place as location and area (and then telling the players how all these mechanics work!) also helps the world feel more solid and easy to visualize and navigate.
A last note: while this technically could replace most prep, that’s not the intention. Prepping locations and inhabitants is still a large part of the work here, and just because a 1 on the Event Die is the only result that explicitly causes a roll doesn’t mean that PCs won’t have to roll stealth checks of some kind because of their actions.
What do you think? Let me know with a comment!
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