Look What I Can Do: Mortal Stunts in DFRPG

I’ve noticed, both in the playtest and in my Fearful Symmetries campaign, that players have a tendency to overlook the Mortal Stunts chapter of the rules when building their characters, unless they’re building a pure mortal character. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny Supernatural Powers and dump all your Refresh there, but overlooking Mortal Stunts may be a mistake.

Stunts are a great way to customize a character, and build on a theme, creating a unique set of abilities that are dependent on the character’s skills, rather than on any mystical powers. They can grant you wonderful little tricks that no one else can do, or turn a useful skill into a powerhouse for you. And they can augment pretty much anything else that your character does, whether mundane or supernatural.

But people still overlook them, or dismiss them.

There are two main reasons for this, I think. The first is that whole bit about getting distracted by the Supernatural Powers. It’s easy to spend your entire Refresh budget in that chapter, so why look anywhere else. The second reason is that the stunt chapter, while it has a few sample stunts*, the strong recommendation of the book is that you build your own, and that can be a little daunting.

So, let’s see what I can do to up the profile of Mortal Stunts.

Stunt Appeal

Why should my Wizard consider taking a stunt rather than a point of Refinement? Why spend a point of Refresh on a stunt when I can get a Cloak of Shadows for my mystic ninja? If I can have Wings, why should I instead buy a stunt?

This is all going to come down to character concept, of course. But the tension is less between cool and not-cool than it is between learned coolness and inherent coolness. Most of the Supernatural Powers are a product of what you are, while stunts are a product of what you made of yourself.* I like to look at my character creation phases and see what neat things my character may have learned to do in the mundane framework – somehow, it just makes the character more rounded and believable to me.

But aside from the character concept aesthetic, stunts can grant some fabulous synergies with Supernatural Powers. Examples? How about a stunt to give a spellcaster an extra minor Mental consequence? Or to give a werewolf a bonus to Athletics when in wolf form? Suddenly, you’ve increased the effectiveness of your Supernatural Powers by essentially saying that you’ve practiced with them.

And, of course, you can use them to round out the non-supernatural parts of your character. Harry’s got his Listening stunt which, though it’s not as useful to his magic, really shines when he’s acting the PI. Carlos has a stunt that helps him out as a Warden, but not so much as a Wizard. Susan has a stunt leftover from her time as a reporter that helps her track down information. And Ronald Reuel, the former Summer Knight, had an Art Historian stunt that represented his day job.

In general, Mortal Stunts give you that little extra – and reliable – oomph to put into your character. They’re worth a look.

Building Stunts

Building stunts is very much an art, rather than a science. There are some basic guidelines:

  • Stunts are all based around skills.
  • Stunts can either add a new trapping to a skill, or expand an existing trapping.
  • All stunts are circumstantial – i.e., they work in limited circumstances.
  • The basic power level of a stunt is the equivalent of a +2 shift.
  • Power level shifts down if the circumstances are very broad or are an attack.
  • Stacking stunts gives diminishing returns.

Now, those guidelines are pretty loose, and allow for a lot of creativity. That also means that you’re going to have to do some negotiation with the GM during the process, and there may be a little back-and-forth until the stunt is what you want it to be. When I build stunts, I go through a pretty simple process:

  1. Decide what effect I want in the stunt. Not mechanically, but flavour-wise. Do I want to be able to survive homeless on the streets? Or to be world’s leading expert on Anglo-Saxon riddles?
  2. Decide what skill it relates to. The first one is probably going to be Survival, and the second one is probably Scholarship, just for example.
  3. Figure out if it’s a new trapping or an expanded trapping. Living on the streets is going to be a new trapping for Survival, while Anglo-Saxon riddles is going to be an expanded trapping for Scholarship.
  4. Decide on the mechanics. New trappings are easy – you just use the skill for something other than what is already listed in the skill description – this pretty much defines the circumstances of use. Expanded trappings mean you have to determine the bonus and the circumstances. So, for the street survival, the mechanics are that it allows you to use Survival for scavenging in urban environment. The Anglo-Saxon riddle thing can be modeled very easily using the Occultist stunt under Lore – a +1 bonus to riddles, with an extra +1 if they’re of Anglo-Saxon origin.
  5. Pick a good name. You really need a good name for your stunt, something that is (as with Aspects) both descriptive and evocative. So, let’s go with Urban Ranger for the Survival stunt, and World Expert (Riddles – Anglo-Saxon) for the Scholarship one.
  6. Negotiate for GM approval. At this point, you should run it past the GM and get his or her okay. You may need to make some changes to the mechanics to get that approval.

Really, the best advice I can give about building stunts is to look over the sample stunts in the Mortal Stunts chapter of Your Story, and the Who’s Who section from Our World. See what ideas others have had, and use them to spark your own creativity, and as the foundation for building your own stunts.

What Makes a Good Stunt?

The true measure of a good stunt is the cool that it adds to your character. I’m not talking about the bonus it gives you, or the way it lets you sneak around the rules, but the way it makes others look at your character and go, “That’s pretty damn cool!” It’s a chance to snag the spotlight for a few minutes in the game so your character can strut his or her stuff, doing something that no one else can do.

Uniqueness is the base coolness of the stunt, after all. Harry’s met lots of other Wizards, but he’s the only one that can do the Listening thing. Karrin Murphy is surrounded by cops, but she can kick all their asses using her aikido stunts. Morty Lindquist is just a medium, but his extensive contacts on the other side are what make Harry go to him for help and advice.

What you want to do when coming up with the idea for a stunt is to think about the scenes in the story when it would come in handy, and what sort of image you get of your character using it. If it’s just your character doing normal stuff a little bit better, maybe that’s not the right idea for a stunt. You’re looking for an image, a scene, where your character is the go-to guy (or gal) for that particular thing, with everyone else standing around for a couple of minutes going, “Wow! That was awesome,” as you unveil your unique and stunning ability.

Of course, you may be worried about stealing the limelight too much – but that’s what the circumstantial limitations on stunts are there to prevent. Stunts tend to be applicable in a relatively narrow set of circumstances, so that you can’t trot them out every time you use the skill. That keeps stunts from being too good, and that’s a large part of what you’re going to be negotiating with your GM.

To sum up, a good stunt gives you the opportunity to show off your character’s mad skills every now and then, without overshadowing everyone else’s mad skills.

Sample Stunts

Just to illustrate some of my ideas, I’ve thrown together a few sample stunts below, with a little commentary on each.

Urban Ranger (Survival): You can scavenge using Survival in an urban environment, finding food, water, shelter, and miscellaneous useful bits with a successful roll.

This is just a straight-up new trapping for the Survival skill, giving a way for a possible homeless character to live on the streets.

Home Turf (Survival): Define an area – a forest, an area around a town, the land around a lake, a neighbourhood, or something of similar size. Within this area, you get a +1 shift to all Survival checks to hunt, scavenge, and track, thanks to your familiarity with the lay of the land.

This is an expanded trapping, inspired as I was thinking about the Urban Ranger stunt. The bonus to rolls is only +1 because of the broad applicability of the stunt.

World Expert (Specify) (Scholarship): You’re an expert in a particular subsection of academia. This must be limited, but can still cover a fair number of things, such as literature or history. Gain a +1 to Scholarship when researching things covered by this topic. You must also define a deeper specialty within that category, such as Shakespeare or the Thirty Years’ War, to gain an additional +1 (for a total of +2) whenever the research focuses on that narrower area.

This is pretty much a straight port of the Occultist stunt from Lore.

Spellcasting Dynamo (Conviction): You’ve inured yourself to the strain of casting spells. For purposes of spellcasting, you have one extra minor Mental consequence that you can use to offset stress incurred from channeling energy and backlash.

I’m not as sure about this one. It’s patterned after No Pain, No Gain stunt from Endurance, but I’m worried that allowing the extra consequence to be used to soak up backlash might be making it a bit too broad. I think it’s okay, but I’d have to see it in play for a few sessions to decide.

More Time on Four Legs Than on Two (Athletics): You’ve spent so much time in your wolf form that it seems more natural to you than your human one, and you have learned how to make the most of the wolf’s physical capabilities. When in wolf form, you get a +1 to Athletics when dodging, jumping, and sprinting.

Again, I’ve kept the bonus down to +1 because of the broad range of things it covers. I’m a little leery of including dodge in the list, but given that the stunt only kicks in when the character is in wolf form, I think it should be okay. Again, seeing it in play for a few sessions will tell the tale. If it’s too good, then we’ve got to renegotiate.

This Bike is a Part of Me (Driving): You are so familiar with a single motorcycle that it is almost an extension of your body. When driving this bike – and no other – you get a +2 to Drive.

This last one is a simple situational +2 expanded trapping, because I hadn’t done one of those yet.


And there you have it.


*Well, more than a few. 103. But the game is so ripe for new stunts, and there are only a handful listed for each skill, that it seems like a few. Back

*Sure, this is a simplification. Billy and the Alphas made themselves into werewolves, for example, but it’s still a valid point, I feel. Back

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4 Responses to Look What I Can Do: Mortal Stunts in DFRPG

  1. Joshua says:

    Actually, there’s a very brief indication in Summer Knight that the Gatekeeper knows how to Listen, too, and in fact can cast a spell that masks conversation from others who can’t – I don’t know the page, but it happens in the Council meeting at the beginning of the book. “I understand you know to Listen, too” or some such…

    But your point is still very valid, and I’m being a nitpicky Dresden nerd. Lord protect me from writing up the World Expert (Dresden Files) (Scholarship) stunt!

  2. Greg says:

    I’ve also noticed that the tendency of magic users in the game tends to be to place discipline and conviction very high, then lore, using up 12-14 points of only 35 (for submerged). Stunts are an excellent way, then, to get more “skill-point” mileage out of refresh…and to bring back up one other skill (like Harry’s listen) to a character-defining level. By just turning around and spending refresh on, well, more wizarding, you’re really pigeon-holing your character, and you can quickly run into the “anything is a nail to the guy with the hammer” syndrome. Granted, magic is more like an entire tool-box, but still. The character with -9 refresh dumped into magic use and almost half of his skill-points dedicated to it just ends up looking like… a wizard.

    It’s also worth pointing out that with a hard cap on skill level, a wizard almost needs a stunt to be exceptional in an area. A pure mortal is going to benefit from that high refresh rate, easily bumping a skill up with fate points. The wizard is better off taking that one less refresh per session and getting a continual bonus in something that will be rolled frequently. Even your werewolf with that stunt is going to fare better than the werewolf who holds onto that -1 refresh with plans to use the fate point to survive an encounter.

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