USR Wednesdays: Dragons As Player Characters

I’ve been rewatching “Game Of Thrones” recently, in anticipation of the seventh season being released on disc (we’re buying each season as it’s released, and watching it then, so no spoilers). The CG for the dragons is impressive, for the most part, and every time I see them on screen I’m reminded of an old game, the AD&D 2nd Edition “Council Of Wyrms,” which boils down to “Dragons as PCs.” This is full-size dragons, not dragonborn; the character’s scale color stands in for race, and there are mages and priests and so on. I’ve never actually played in the setting, but “Dragons as PCs” is a great way to try the USR rules on an entirely different scale.

Dragons As PCs
You can make this very picture come to life in your USR game. (image: geek.com)

Dragons are, of course, powerful enough to rule entire kingdoms (as they do in the later “Dragonlance” novels) or destroy armies (as they do in “Game Of Thrones”). How do you recreate that level of power in USR? You could start with the superhero rules, setting them at Tier 4, but the tiers only work with varying levels of power — a Thor vs a Punisher. If everyone’s a massive dragon, take a cue from Risus, and change the scale of target numbers for non-contested rolls, decreasing them all by two points. So it looks like this:

2 Medium
3 Making a Close Range shot
5 Hard
7 Making a Long Range shot
8 Very Hard
12 Nearly Impossible

The characters can still fail on a die roll, but it’s a lot harder to do so, since they’re physically and magically utterly powerful creatures. Monsters in this setting are scaled down, too. A single human or elf has stats of D4 and 1 hit point. A party of adventurers out to slay your hero is probably at Power Level I or maybe II. A giant, an actual threat to a dragon, might be a Power Level III or IV creature. The rules don’t change, just the numbers.

Then there’s the adventures themselves. A group of dragons likely won’t be crawling through dungeons, unlocking doors and fighting goblins. Instead, try adventures on a larger scale:

  • Seek a treasure — in the realm of the gods
  • Investigate the murder of an ancient dragon, dealing with armies of humans, elves and dwarves firing arrows at you as you search for clues
  • Negotiate with other societies (giants, demons) to make room for the ceremony that will bring an elder dragon to godhood

What will your party of dragons look like?

Agents & Assassins

Things really do last forever on the internet. My original website from decade or more ago is long gone. I still have the content on that site (a few miscellaneous blog posts, old games), but no way to maintain the site. Despite it being lost in the wilderness of the internet, people have found those old games, some of which have made it to this site, updated and improved for gaming now. Others are so old-fashioned they’re not really worth a revisit.

Agents & Assassins was written for the 4C role playing game, a variant of the legendary Marvel Super Heroes RPG by TSR way back in the 1980s, known affectionately as the FASERIP system, after the attributes used by characters.

Time Trap Adventure FASERIP
This isn’t the original box cover, of course, but I have this adventure too. That’s the Avengers circa 1984.

I have the yellow basic set in a taped-up box, and the game is actually still alive online. Agents & Assassins goes a little lower-powered, for action heroes like Jack Bauer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (now you know exactly when I wrote it). There doesn’t seem to be an official TSR book for characters like that, though I’m sure Nick Fury and SHIELD received stats somewhere along the line, maybe in one of the annual handbooks or a Dragon magazine. Agents & Assassins was published by Seraphim Guard Games not too long after it was written, under the name Super Agents, with different art. I have the original here on my site, with some public domain photos as the “art.”

I rebalanced a few of the rules and limited the power list to fit the level of the game; you won’t need anything but Agents & Assassins and some version of the basic FASERIP rules. It even has a game setting, which I didn’t remember creating until I took a look back at the game. I think I’ll keep using the setting in other games of mine going forward. 

Nothing ever goes away online, after all.

USR Wednesdays: Adventure Design

One thing I don’t see in rules-light RPGs (or most that aren’t professionally published, really) is much advice about adventure design — how to create balanced battles with monsters, how to construct a story, how to keep the action moving without it being all fights, etc. That’s probably because adventures are tougher to write than rules are, since rules are simply math, while adventure writing is less easy to put into a structure. It’s also because rules-light games are more about collective storytelling than traditional RPG adventures, where a game master can simply read off the description of a room and what’s inside.

Let’s take a cue from the five room dungeon and the three act delve. This is a way to get an entire adventure in one night’s session — when I play (not often enough), this is what works best. An ongoing campaign, with recurring villains that strike time and again, is fantastic, but it’s hard enough to get people together to play once. Let’s not start a story we can’t finish.

This rules-light adventure design has six parts, in a row, which is why I call it the Six-Step Adventure.

Six-Step Adventure
Everyone can use the Six-Step Adventure, even players of “Cubicles & Careers.” (image: FantasyCon)

1. Quest giver

The motivation to start the adventure. Traditionally, this is, “You meet at the tavern and a herald tells you about the captured princess” or “The king sends you to clear out the nearby dungeon.” But in a narrative game, reverse it. Pick a starting point and have these creative players, who have already invented their own Specialisms, describe what’s making them want to participate.

Yes, the beautiful elven princess has been kidnapped by the dragon. Why rescue her? Well, the dashing human rogue knows his answer, but what about the half-dragon berzerker? The real answer, of course, is that if he doesn’t help rescue her, there’s no game for the night. But in the world of the story, the player gets to stretch those creative muscles before he even picks up his dice.

2. Early encounter

A chance to try out the combat rules, or get a feel for the style of the adventure. This is the goblin skirmish outside the ruined temple, or the challenge of breaking into a locked building that is where the data files are stored.

3. Clue to final confrontation

This ties in to part 6, where the characters get an indication of they’re up against or how to defeat it. They find a gem that’s especially deadly against the final “boss monster” of the adventure, or rescue an insane man, babbling about the horrors he’s seen (and that the heroes will see in the not-too-distant future).

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

A more serious threat, like the boss monster’s number two guy or a massive dragon that’s the pet of the real villain. This doesn’t have to be a monster, either; the FBI can show up to take over the investigation just as the characters are making progress, or they have to figure out how to infiltrate the villain’s hideout — during a lavish party.

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

The reverse of the previous part. Not everything in any adventure should be about combat! Even in violence-focused games like Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, characters do things other than fight. The group could have to solve a riddle (what’s the Elvish word for “friend”?) or even face a moral quandary through role playing, without rolling the dice (should Chewie break free and rescue Han from the carbon-freezing chamber?).

6. Final boss

This is what everyone has been waiting for, the big finish. It’s usually a fight, since so many RPG characters (including USR ones) are build around combat skills. But it could just as easily be a challenge: planting a bomb and making a getaway before the timer runs out, or getting to the valuable civilian to the safety of a military escort before the enemy government’s goons recapture him.

This is a framework for adventures, one that can easily be expanded (the heroes need to collect several clues before they can move on) or shrunk (only one secondary encounter/challenge) to fit the time allowed for the game.

What does your Six-Step Adventure look like?

P.S. This is the first post at the new dominowriting.com/games site. My games are here, too; let’s keep all the fun in one place.

USR Wednesdays: Thor

Now that “Thor: Ragnarok” is coming to theaters, it’s time to take a look at the USR superhero rules and visit Thor and his fellow Asgardians.
As noted in the superhero rules, the Asgardians are high-powered (Tier 4) characters in a universe with a basic Tier of 3. They get stats of d12, d10 and d8 and a bonus 2 Narrative Points, because they’re just that much more powerful. Note this is Marvel Thor, the noble, sometimes goofy blonde hero, not the quick-to-anger redhead of Norse mythology.

USR Superheroes Thor: Ragnarok
This guy and some of his friends.

 Thor, God Of Thunder (or as some Marvel media calls him, “Prince Of Thunder” to avoid any religious controversy… didn’t roleplaying leave that behind in the 1980s?)

Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D12, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: Strength +3, Lunkheaded Charm +2, Nobility +3
Hit Points: 30
Equipment: Armor +2, Mjolnir (hammer) +2
Narrative Points: 5

Loki the Trickster, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D8, Wits D10, Ego D12
Specialisms: Asgardian Magic +2, Deception +4, Loyalty To Asgard When He Has To Be Loyal +2
Hit Points: 28
Equipment: Armor +1, Magic Staff +2
Narrative Points: 6

Odin the All-Father, Level 5, Experience Points 20
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Leadership +3, Creation +3, Bravery +2, Battlefield Tactics +2
Hit Points: 42
Equipment: Armor +2, Spear +2
Narrative Points: 6

And now, just to change things up…

Jane Foster, Level 1, Experience Points 0 (Tier 1)
Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Astrophysics +2, Medicine +2, Stamina +2
Hit Points: 16
Equipment: none
Narrative Points: 11

All four of these characters have a lot of Narrative Points, beyond the 3 a normal starting USR character has. As noted in the superhero rules, that’s to represent their incredible raw power (for the Asgardians) or their ability to survive and contribute in a world that’s much bigger than them (for an “ordinary” like Jane).

Which other superheroes need the USR treatment?