To encourage thematic stunts and special maneuvers in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (ala the [in]famous Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 42), use the following steps to create 1-3 pre-built Combat Stunts for each important encounter (i.e. all encounters in D&D 4th Edition).
This method should create new and exciting maneuvers that the Players (and monsters!) may utilize that are specific to the environs and circumstances of each battle, adds a Race- or Class-specific element that encourages in-combat roleplaying, and allows for different characters to gain the spotlight based on the circumstances of the fight.
- Develop the Stunt. After developing the encounter (battle map, terrain, monsters and traps), consider 1-3 thematic stunts that utilize the terrain and other components either to the players’ advantage or usable by any character/monster in the fight.
- The Stunt 3×5. Write each stunt on its own index card (3×5 works great, forcing you to keep it succinct).
- Stunt Powers. Using the rules for improvised attacks and stunts (DMG1 p. 42, later revised in Rules Compendium to new difficulty and damage values by level), develop the stunt’s particular DCs, damage, and conditions.
- Notice DC. Once a stunt is fully developed, consider what types of characters would most likely be able to notice and/or make use of them, and apply a DC to do so. The default is an easy or moderate difficulty Perception check DC to notice the features that make up the stunt. At the start of the encounter, a character who passes this check is handed the stunt card.
- The Roleplaying Angle. When a stunt is handed to a character that has noticed it, they may inform any other characters about it, but must do so in-character during the encounter.
Developing Stunts and Powers
Using the rules originally presented on page 42 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can develop stunt maneuvers that are specific to the terrain and features of the combat environment, and that scale such that they are equivalent to Encounter or Daily Powers of the PCs’ level.
Consider what the maneuver does, and whether or not to add any conditions to targets, like being knocked prone, pushed, restrained, and so on. Stunts should be limited use, but do not have to exactly conform to Encounter or Daily uses.
Because they are circumstantial, may not be noticed, and may be available to both sides of a conflict, they often should have multiple uses, but not so many that they take the place of Daily abilities.
A few guidelines are:
- Encounter Power-equivalent stunts should be multiple use, possibly requiring a Skill check to employ, but are at least as good as a typical Encounter Power in terms of damage expressions and conditions. Being able to make use of them 3-5 or even more times in the encounter, by different characters, is best, especially if they only affect a single target each time.
- Daily Power-equivalent stunts should be more limited use, often requiring a Skill check or even a successful attack against a terrain feature to employ. They may be used only once, or up to 3 or 4 times during the encounter, depending on how powerful they are and how many characters or squares they affect. These stunts should affect multiple targets, a wide area, or fundamentally change some feature of the battlefield (like a terrain type).
Noticing Stunts and Features
Stunts are written on index cards in order to be handed out, facilitating the ability to quickly convey the rules of the stunt and also encouraging the roleplaying aspect of a character having to explain the features of the stunt in-character during the encounter.
Determining how stunts are noticed and handed out should be a simple matter of setting a DC appropriate to a skill that would help in noticing it, which defaults to Perception. If the feature is obvious, consider making it low enough so that you only have to check against Passive Perception, but otherwise, have the Players roll at the beginning of the encounter, before Initiative is rolled, so that you can quickly hand out the information (or not, depending on the roll!) and not have to worry about it again during the encounter.
If a character fails to notice it, they can use the standard rules for making a Perception check during an encounter to try again.
Consider using different skills to shine the spotlight on other characters, based on the circumstances and features that apply to the stunt. In a woodland glade filled with vines, hidden pit traps, and low-hanging branches, you could require a Nature check, or simply rule that Rangers, Druids, and Elves are the only characters who can make the check (or both). Similarly, in an urban encounter, the Rogue might shine, or anyone trained with the Streetwise skill.
Set the DC according to the circumstances, with consideration for how powerful the stunt is and how often it can be used. Generally, you should err towards Easy to Moderate difficulty, but hidden features could bump this up to Moderate or even Hard DCs. Erring on the low end, however, ensures that the time and energy put into creating the stunt isn’t wasted because no one ever notices it.
Making the maneuver “automatically discovered” — no roll required — is perfectly fine, and encouraged for obvious terrain features that can prove dangerous to anyone near them, such as dangling stalactites and the like.
Once a character has the 3×5 index card of the stunt, they can make use of it any time, assuming they have the right skills, positioning, or whatever the circumstances call for in order to employ the stunt.
They may also alert the other characters in the party of the stunt, but must do so through in-character dialogue, which creates roleplaying opportunity during the encounter. While this is perhaps somewhat arbitrary or artificial, as the player can then simply hand over the index card, it helps shine the spotlight on the character that noticed it first, and thus why the features of the stunt might have only been noticeable to that character. It gives Leaders a chance to shout orders or develop tactics, or other characters an instance to show off their unique Skill training or class features that allowed them to notice the stunt in the first place.
Employing the stunt is as simple as following the normal action rules. If the stunt requires a Skill check or an attack of some kind to initiate, that’s the action that’s used, and the stunt follows based on its prescribed rules.
Who Are Stunts Best For?
For gamers that feel Daily Powers seem too limited based on rest periods and the like, stunts allow characters to save up their Daily Powers, or a shot at employing a heavily damaging effect even after they’ve expended all of their Daily Powers.
For Dungeon Masters that feel extra Encounter or Daily Power-equivalent damage/effects might be too powerful, consider that monsters often have the ability to use these stunts as well. Very few situations should be so heavily weighted in the Player Characters’ favor that the monsters won’t be able to use them, and consideration should also be given to the fact that most monsters who fight on their home turf will be able to use such stunts to even more deadly effect by virtue of knowing their lair best.
If you’ve employed these rules — or ones like them — let us know how it went!
If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.