USR Wednesdays: Classic Magic

There are some very good rules sets for magic abilities in the USR world, including ones modeled after the Dungeons & Dragons rules we’re all familiar with (that’s what we see in USR games like Sword & Sorcery, and Halberd), and the more “need to interpret” rules I put together for the Force in Star Wars.

Spells often need to be limited — otherwise, why bother picking up a sword if a fireball can do much more damage, and used just as often? In Halberd, the solution is for spells to cost Hit Points from the spellcaster, which makes sense in terms of the traditional fantasy genre: the wizard is always weaker than the warrior, because he’s sacrificing his health for magical ability.

Classic Magic
Raistlin & Caramon, the wizard and warrior team I always think of first. (image: Wizards Of The Coast)

And we can borrow from the mighty tomes of spells written for RPGs over the years, where characters can choose a handful of spells at each level, with a more powerful spell (a “higher level” spell) being just as easy to cast, but less likely to be cast since it costs so many hit points. To keep things Unbelieveably Simple, as we like to do, we’ll require spellcasters to select only two spells at level 1, and one at each additional level for a grand total of six, since characters in our USR games only go to level 5.

You can cast them as often as you like, but you have to spend the listed hit point(s) first. Casting a spell counts as your action for a turn, or is considered part of your attack action — for example, Magical Missile is an attack by itself, but casting Entangling Vines adds to an attack roll using the Wits stat. And of course, the exact details of the spell are up to the player and the game master to work out, provided it helps tell a better story.

Here’s a few simple spells to choose from; you can probably think of hundreds more using the same guidelines. A rough estimate is a cost of 3 hit points per single die of effect.

  • Cure Heavy Wounds: +2d6 hit points to yourself or another individual (6 hit point cost).
  • Cure Light Wounds: +1d6 hit points to yourself or another individual. (3 hit point cost — yes, you can suffer more damage than you recover if you use this spell on yourself!).
  • Detect Magic: All magicial objects and creatures in an area the size of an average room glow a faint light blue for the next few moments, long enough for you to discern where they are (1 hit point cost).
  • Entangling Vines: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +2 roll, opposed by the enemy’s Action roll; on a successful attack, that enemy cannot move for the rest of the combat encounter, unless it uses its entire movement and action on a turn to free itself (3 hit point cost).
  • Fireball: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +3 roll, opposed by an Action roll; on a successful attack, the enemy suffers 2d6 damage (6 hit point cost).
  • Light: The spellcaster touches an object and for the next hour, the object glows like a lantern. It can only be “turned off” by the spellcaster (1 hit point cost).
  • Magical Missile: 1 automatic damage to an enemy you can see (2 hit point cost).
  • Teleport: One creature or object is instantly moved from its current location to somewhere else within eyesight of the spellcaster (5 hit point cost).

What spells will you bring to your USR games?

USR Wednesdays: Team Benefits

The traditional RPG adventuring party is a group of strangers brought together to battle evil. We all know “You meet in a tavern,” or “The government recruits you as a hand-picked team to fight the villain.” But what about a team specifically put together before adventuring: a military unit (G.I. Joe), a school class (X-Men) or even a band (Josie and the Pussycats)?

Team Benefits
Yes, this is a playable RPG party. (image:

You can simply say that’s how the group came together; it provides a built-in quest giver (the General, the Professor, the Band Manager) and a reason to stick together for more than a single adventure. But it also provides an option for Team Benefits. Your adventuring party can select one of these when the characters are created, and can add more as they increase in levels (one suggestion is when all the characters reach level 2 or 3). They make characters slightly more powerful than ordinary Domino Writing-style USR characters, but only in certain situations. Like most rules options, it adds a little more “crunch,” but the goal, as always, is to keep it Unbelievably Simple.

Team Benefits can be used by everyone in the group. They require one action per character, and it doesn’t take effect until all the characters have “spent” their action on the Team Benefit. For example, the players may not want to all use their turn in the same round to use a Team Benefit during combat — if they did, the enemies would get a free attack (since no one would be attacking the enemies on that turn). A Team Benefit can only be used once per game session.

Here’s a few examples of Team Benefits, inspired by similar rules from the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Players Handbook II, and the Fantasy Flight Games Deathwatch RPG.

Amazing Performance
The heroes automatically succeed at one action roll for an action that the entire group is doing together (for example, searching for tracks or inspiring the common people to rise in rebellion, but not picking a lock or driving a car).

Battle Fury
+2 to all melee attacks by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.

Pack Tactics
One character (of the heroes’ choice) can take another turn immediately.

Rally Cry
One character (of the heroes’ choice) immediately regains all of his Hit Points or Narrative Points.

Stand Your Ground
+2 to all defensive rolls by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.

Withering Fire
+2 to all ranged attacks by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.

What kind of Team Benefits will your heroes use?

USR Wednesdays: Marvel Superheroes

We’ve met Thor and Loki before, but what about some of the other stars of the Marvel Universe? These versions are, like most traditional superheroes, at Tier 3, and blend the best of each version of the character (comics, movies, animation, and so on).

Marvel Superheroes
Pictured: All of today’s heroes, and more. (image: Marvel)

Captain America, Level 3, 10 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: Leadership +3, Military Tactics +2, Shield Throwing +3, Art (drawing) +2
Hit Points: 30
Equipment: Chainmail Armor +1, Mighty Shield +3
Narrative Points: 3

Iron Man, Level 2, 5 Experience Points
Action D8, Wits D12, Ego D10
Specialisms: Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist +2, One Man R&D Department +3, Multi-Talented Scientist +2
Hit Points: 25
Equipment: Multiple Iron Man armors +2 to offense and defense
Narrative Points: 3

Spider-Man, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Shoot Web +2, Chemistry +2, Photography +2
Hit Points: 22
Equipment: Webshooters
Narrative Points: 7

Wolverine, Level 3, 10 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: What He Does Isn’t Very Nice +3, Sense Danger +3, Lone Wolf Always Part Of Teams +2, Mutant Healing Power +2
Hit Points: 32
Equipment: Sharp Retractible Claws +2
Narrative Points: 4

USR Wednesdays: Three Ideas For Descriptive Combat

Even though Domino Writing-style USR characters have a good number of hit points and variety in their weapons and armor (even if it is only differentiated as Light, Medium and Heavy), combat in a rules light game system will be quicker than in a more “crunchy” game like most on the market. That’s one of the reasons people play rules light games, so they can tell a story, not play a wargame. Here’s a few ways to get the best of both worlds — a battle that lasts a while, but isn’t just:

“I swing my sword at the orc.” (roll to attack)

“Your swing misses.” (players fall asleep)

  • Terrain: a battle doesn’t have to take place in a room with no features. At the very least you can have obstacles like furniture, walls or plant life. But you can also literally change the scenery as the combat goes on. What if the floor is shaking because the building is falling apart, or an earthquake is rattling the ground? What if a nearby lantern catches the furniture on fire, a fire that spreads further each round? What if there’s several levels to the battle, where some of the enemies are high above, shooting down, while others are directly in front of the heroes?
  • Maneuvers: Disarming the enemy, throwing sand in his face — these are easy to forget while in the heat of combat, when it seems easiest just to keep cutting away at the foe’s hit points instead of trying different tricks. A game master can encourage the use of maneuvers by changing the setting a little bit. One way is by making the characters chase the enemy, so they have to drive or fly at the same time they’re opening fire. Another is to give the heroes, and villains, a chance to catch their breath. What if the laws of physics suddenly stop working, and everyone has an opportunity (say, one turn) to freely move around or come up with a quick plan before getting right back into the action?
  • Third-Party Problems: The heroes are on one side of the battle, the enemies on the other, and then a dragon comes bursting out of the ground? Or someone steps on a hidden trigger, and poisoned darts start flying across the entire room? Or the jewel that both the heroes and villains are competing to get is grabbed by someone else, and they start running of with it?

Now imagine this with people holding axes and crossbows.

    • The laws of physics being violated in combat in “Inception.” (

image: Legendary Pictures


All of these options can lengthen the time spent in combat, while making it much more memorable than just adding hit points to a monster so it stays in the fight longer.

What are your favorite ways of describing combat?

USR Wednesdays: Quick Draw

In most USR combat, speed is a secondary consideration, represented by an initiative roll (in Domino Writing-style USR, that’s Action + Wits) at the start of the battle, just to determine turn order. But in some kinds of combat, speed is much more significant: a Wild West showdown at high noon, or a situation where a bomb is triggered and starts counting down, and everyone (the good guys, at least) has to get out of the room before it explodes. So how can you simulate that while sticking with the Unbelievably Simple guidelines of USR?

Western USR, by an author whom I don’t know (update: Jay Murphy — thanks, Jay) has a great idea: while normal initiative is a representation of reflexes (Action) and tactics (Wits), combat that relies so heavily on who goes first should instead add Ego to the mix. It represents the steely eyed glare of the veteran sharpshooter intimidating the uncertain novice, or the cool head needed to switch instantly from “I’m carefully setting the wires on this explosive device” to “Get out! Go! Go! Go!”

Quick draw: the master
This guy has a Specialism in Steely Eyed Glare. Probably at a +4. (image: United Artists)

We can also take an idea from early versions of Dungeons and Dragons, weapon speed. The higher the speed rating, the slower the weapon was, and the longer it took for the attacker to get it ready to strike. The trade-off, of course, is that slower weapons are usually much more damaging. In USR, the bonus provided by a weapon or armor can also be used to adjust a character’s initiative roll — but in this case, since higher initiative goes earlier in the combat round, subtract the weapon or armor bonus from the initiative roll. A dagger (+1) is a lot easier to flick at a foe than loading, chambering and firing a shotgun (+3) is. A fist (no bonus) is even faster, but unless your character has a Specialism like Martial Artist, it won’t affect the outcome of combat much.

It makes combat encounters last a little longer, but roll initiative each round instead of just once at the start in a combat situation like the ones we’re describing here. It keeps players on their toes if they don’t know exactly where they’re taking action in any given moment, appropriate for a battle so reliant on quick action.

Finally, if you’re comfortable with a little more math in your USR game, start counting bullets. A Wild West showdown, in the movies, usually ends immediately: one guy is dead, or the other one is. But RPG combat lasts longer; both gunmen will probably fire a few times before it’s over. And if one runs out of bullets first, bad luck for him. You could also assign a penalty for injuries. The easiest option here is simply a -1 to dice rolls if the character is below half of his starting Hit Point total, but a good hit could also knock a weapon from someone’s hand, or strike a kneecap, forcing them to the dirt. It’s more bookkeeping, but can really help bring a tense confrontation to life.

Where can you use quick draw rules in your games?