Last weekend, my brother and I played through a quick game of Dragon Age to try out the system for the first time. One of the more interesting mechanics in the game is its system for stunts. In Dragon Age, attack and skill rolls use 3d6 rather than the 1d20 used by D&D and one of the three dice is a different colored one known as the dragon die. If you roll doubles on an attack roll, then you get stunt points equal to the result of the dragon die to spend on special effects such as knocking the target prone or dealing extra damage. More powerful stunts, such as a second attack, cost more stunt points while weaker stunts like reloading a weapon as a free action, cost fewer points. With three dice, doubles are rolled about 44% of the time, so these stunts happen pretty frequently during a fight.
While playing Dragon Age, it struck me that the stunt mechanic is really an inversion of Dungeons & Dragons’s power mechanics. Both mechanics are a way to make weapon attacks more interesting, but they are quite different in implementation. In D&D 4E, you consider the tactical situation, decide on a power that you would like to use, then make your roll to see whether you are successful. In Dragon Age, you start with the roll and then if you roll doubles decide which of the available stunts you’re going to use. This moves the concept from “I intend to do a cool move” with a D&D power to “I was lucky and pulled off a cool move” with Dragon Age stunts.
In some ways, the D&D Essentials builds for fighter characters have shifted towards the same model that Dragon Age uses. For a slayer or knight, a player uses a basic attack first then after hitting can decide whether or not to use power strike to add more damage to the attack. Even with those builds though, the player only has the option of a single follow up power rather than a selection of effects like the stunt system allows. The Essentials builds also leave the decision of when to use power strike with the players rather than incorporating a random element that determines whether the extra effect is available.
Both D&D powers and Dragon Age stunts are good mechanics to add variety to combat, but I think I prefer the more random nature of the stunt system. The uncertainty of whether or not a character will be able to pull off a useful stunt is refreshing compared to the more tactical nature of planning which powers to use and when to use them in D&D. Of course, it might just be that fatigue from years playing primarily D&D 4E has me ready to try something new.