USR Wednesdays: Using Narrative Points

One of the things I like best about USR is the balance between a quick, rules-light narrative role playing game system and the “crunchy” rules sets of bigger games. Though Specialisms are meant to be very flexible, the rules around them provide more structure than games like Risus or Apocalypse World. At the same time, USR doesn’t demand a page full of numbers, like Pathfinder or the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars systems.

With Narrative Points, USR joins the ranks of games like Fate (Fate Points), Savage Worlds (Bennies) and even Fifth Edition D&D (Inspiration) in providing an option for players to have a more direct impact on the story, either by affecting die rolls, or in some cases outright changing the game master’s description.

Delicious as a snack and useful in a game.
Don’t use these to track your Narrative Points, you could eat them before they’re spent. (image: candystore.com)

In Domino Writing-style USR, Narrative Points can do four things, as listed on the character sheet:

1. Add to or change a scene the game master has described.

This is very flexible, definitely on the rules-light side of things. There’s no hard and fast rule, but a good guideline is that it should encourage the story. This use of Narrative Points isn’t to affect die rolls, but to (usually) make the situation more advantageous to the heroes.

If a thug successfully shoots your hero, the game master shouldn’t allow you to use a Narrative Point to say he missed (the dice already show that he hit). Instead, the police could show up — or just be heard in the distance, depending on the story the game master wants to tell. You could even spend a Narrative Point to say after that shot, the thug’s gun jams. He doesn’t run out of bullets, in case the game master wants the thug to attack again, but the moment or two while the gun is jammed may be enough for the heroes to make another plan.

Or imagine the heroes are trying to escape out of a building while guard dogs (or security robots) chase after them. They’re deep in the building and need a place to hide. Spending a Narrative Point, one character “suddenly” discovers a storage room where the heroes can huddle in the dark until the threat passes. A Narrative Point probably wouldn’t be used to “suddenly” find a door out of the building, on the other hand, since that could bring an abrupt end to the game — what if the heroes were supposed to be caught, or what if escaping the building means the adventure is over, and game night still has two hours to go?

2. Automatically succeed at a non-combat die roll.

This option also needs to be examined carefully by the game master, because it too can end an adventure right away. It’s a good way to speed up to more exciting parts of the story.

A thief character wouldn’t spend a Narrative Point to automatically undo a lock — picking locks is part of what makes the character fun. But on the other hand, using a Narrative Point to automatically pick a lock guarantees it’s opened safely, without triggering a trap or signaling an alarm.

It can also be helpful to avoid danger, like automatically crossing a swinging rope bridge, or to speed up time, like finding an important clue in the university library before the campus cops show up, wondering why there’s a group of heavily armed men walking past the shelves.

3. Re-roll a die roll in combat.

No one wants to miss, of course, but because damage in USR is dependent on the attack and defense rolls, you don’t just want to roll good enough, you want to roll as high as possible. There’s no limit to the number of Narrative Points you can spend at one time; spend a bunch to keep “editing” the scene until that bullet hits the bad guy in just the right way.

4. Regain d6 lost Hit Points.

Though Domino Writing-style USR allows for more starting Hit Points than regular USR does, an action-adventure story will always come with the risk of injury and death. Remember to describe the way those Hit Points are being recovered. Is your hero stopping to catch his breath? Is he grabbing a nearby first aid kit? Is he taking a break for a refreshing afternoon snack? Mechanically, adding Hit Points is a simple procedure, but it too can be a fun part of the narrative of the game.

As always, game masters have the final say, and as always, it’s more fun if the game master and players come to an agreement that makes for a more enjoyable story.

Narrative Points start with three, and you and add more if you don’t spend all your Combat Gear points, and even more if you’re using superhero rules and are at a different Tier than the base level of the game.

You regain your starting amount at the beginning of each game session, but you can also get them back during the game. How? We’ll look at that next time.

How do you use Narrative Points in your game?

Microlite 20: Costumes Templates

To make character creation faster, I wrote six “templates” for the Microlite 20 Ultimate Costumes rules, from the low end (Pulp) to the middle (Typical) to the high end (Superior). I noticed the math was wrong on the templates, though — only after it was included in 2017 Microlite collection! Ah well, the rules are still the same. Here’s a revision of the templates, though I’ve included it in the latest revision of the Ultimate Costumes rules, along with a handful of cosmetic changes.

Each template leaves about a third of the Power Points available for players to spend on powers and ranks for those powers. I’m going to make that simpler too, by creating “Power Packages.” It’s a brief description of a set of powers as seen in comic book superheroes, with ranks where appropriate. Each adds up to 50 Power Points (i.e., the amount you have left to spend if you take the Typical template). You’ll have to add or subtract powers and/or ranks if your character isn’t level 10.

Some superhero abilities, like toughness or incredible reaction time, can be replicated in the game rules with more hit points, a higher Initiative bonus, or by increasing another characteristic, not necessarily by adding more powers.

The Power Points cost for Super-Agility, Super-Intelligence and Super-Strength is the difference between what the Power Package suggests as a score and the Power Points already spent in the Typical template (4 for a STR of 14, 7 for a DEX of 17 and 2 for a MIND of 12). For example, a Power Package listing a STR of 20, which costs 12 Power Points, will cost 8 Power Points in a Power Package (since the character has already spent 4 Power Points to get that STR of 14). Remember that changing stats affects other abilities, like attack bonuses, which you’ll have to calculate yourself.

Iron Man and Sub-Mariner
There are more images of these two together than I thought I’d find. Play them in your Microlite 20 Costumes games. (image: marvel.wikia.com)

Here’s a few Power Packages to start with, with plenty more to come. For most powers, first the base Power Point cost of the power is listed, then the number of ranks of the power, if ranks can be purchased. As noted in the Microlite 20 Ultimate Costumes rules, not every power needs ranks. Other powers, skill bonuses and abilities are also listed with the Power Points spent on them.

AQUATIC (Namor, Aquaman)
Breathe (base 10 — 7 ranks)
Electricity (base 15 — 0 ranks)
Swimming (base 10 — 8 ranks)

BATTLESUIT (Iron Man, Steel)
+1 to Knowledge (3 Power Points)
Body Armor (gadget, 5 DR, 11 Power Points)
Breathe (gadget, base 6 — 2 ranks)
Flight (gadget, base 6 — 7 ranks)
Super-Strength 19 (gadget, 2 Power Points)
Weapon: machine guns (gadget, base 6 — 7 ranks)

VIGILANTE DETECTIVE (Batman, The Question)
Intimidate (base 10 — 2 ranks)
Stealth (base 15 — 8 ranks)
Weapon: darts (base 10 — 5 ranks)

USR Wednesdays: Adventure Ideas

We’re putting the Six-Step Adventure design to work, with two different adventure ideas. They haven’t been playtested (yet), but they’re examples of how the adventure design can be used for brief, but still satisfying night of role playing.

Fantasy Adventure: This one takes place in a generic fantasy setting (for example, Halberd or Tequindra). It’s a pretty straightforward “dungeon crawl,” the kind seen in RPGs since the 1970s, and that makes it a good way to try out the format in a familiar context. Don’t forget to add some unique elements to the combat encounters — a battle in an empty room or forest clearing isn’t that exciting, but add obstacles, a time limit and different locations, like a high balcony to shoot down from, or the top of a moving train, and you’re adding to the action.

  1. Quest giver: The heroes are accompanying a merchant carrying a valuable treasure of some kind in a simple wooden box that’s magically locked. The merchant doesn’t know what the treasure is, only that he’s supposed to get it to the sorcerer who hired him.
  2. Early encounter: The merchant and his caravan are attacked by a group of bandits. There are more bandits than the heroes can handle, so that no matter how many they defeat, the merchant is killed and the treasure taken.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: The heroes interrogate a bandit, or (more likely) find a map to a wizard’s tower with the symbol of a rival wizard on it.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The map leads through obstacles, like a small battle with a bear, and a rickety bridge over a lake. These are meant to be brief encounters, a chance to experiment with unusual environments or unique ways to use their Specialisms.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): Once over the bridge, the heroes enter the wizard’s tower and confront the wizard’s monsters — for example, a dragon or a mechanical guard, or even more bandits.
  6. Final boss: The rival wizard himself, who uses the treasure, which has some kind of combat effect (for example, it fires a beam of energy, or creates a magical force field).

Defeating the wizard ends the adventure; the heroes can return the treasure to the sorcerer and earn gold and prestige.

Fantasy Adventure: Wizard's Tower
This wizard’s tower is almost exactly what I imagined for this adventure, except not necessarily in Minecraft. (image: Kokotoni)

Modern Adventure: Here’s a story in a more contemporary setting, with a little bit more social interaction. The heroes meet a rival team of explorers, giving them a chance to compete with or cooperate with that group. Killing off the rival team also demonstrates the danger of the adventure, without keeping the heroes from completing the story.

  1. Quest giver: A government agent hires the heroes as a salvage team to recover a lost treasure (gold from early explorers) on a shipwreck — it’s in pirate-infested waters, so he doesn’t want to risk veteran divers.
  2. Early encounter: The heroes are attacked by a pirate ship that wants to take them over; another salvage crew appears to help fight off the pirates. They are from a private salvage company.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: The other crew shares the location of the shipwreck from their research.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes are lowered into the ocean with other team of searchers to begin the search, but their shark cage has been tampered with, and sharks attack.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): The two teams race to recover the treasure.
  6. Final boss: No matter who recovers the treasure, the heroes and the private salvage crew return to their ships to find the government agent waiting there, with his own set of troops. The sailors on both ships are dead; the government agent wants the treasure for himself.

How do these Six-Step Adventures work in your gaming group?

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?