USR Wednesdays: Video Game Variety and Free-Form Specialisms

I don’t play many video games. My work time is spent in front of a screen, and I use a computer a lot at home, too (to write this blog, for example!). I’m more of a fan of traditional games — card games, board games, tabletop role playing games. I always raise an eyebrow when YouTube suggests “gamer” content to me, because nine times out of 10 it’s “Minecraft” or “Fortnite” or something. Those are games, but not my kind of games.

I think the problem I have with video games, besides screen time, is the options: there’s just too many things to keep track of at once. Take a classic video game, “Space Invaders.” There’s two options: move and shoot, and move is limited to left/right. Very simple. Move to the later generations of games, and we have two buttons on the NES controller, six (I think) on the Genesis, and after that I lose track (10 or so on a modern controller?). With a first person shooter-type game, you have weapons and abilities to scroll through, a heads-up display, maps, hit point tracks, and several other things on every screen.

I've played about half these systems.
Too many buttons? Maybe. (image: extremetech.com)

A game like that is still a lot of fun to play — but it’s a lot more fun if you can keep track of everything, to make use of it the way it’s meant to be used. I could learn that, if I put in the screen time, but I’d rather bring the concept to a game I already enjoy… Domino Writing-style USR.

The ancestor of a first person shooter with its dozens of things to track is of course our favorite tabletop role playing games, where you mark all the things you need to track on a sheet of paper instead of letting a computer do everything for you. But USR is on the other end of the spectrum, a simple system that gets players up and running in no time. Instead of a list of a dozen abilities, USR offers bonuses that can be used any way a player wants. I call them Free-Form Specialisms, though they’re not really Specialisms; they aren’t even recorded on a character sheet!

Free-Form Specialisms

A beginning character doesn’t select three Specialisms, each with a +2 bonus; instead, the character begins with 6 “+1s” to spend on any roll you wish. The bonuses can be added to any roll, before or after the die is rolled. Any number of bonuses can be added to the same roll. A character regains all his or her “+1s” at the beginning of every game session, but can never go above 6.

If a player decides on a Specialism for his or her character, the Specialism is written on the character sheet, with a +2 bonus (for a starting hero). In return for choosing a Specialism, the character immediately loses two “+1s.” So a character with a single Specialism would have a +2 in the Specialism and four “+1s” to spend during the adventure.

Free-Form Specialisms are a little like Narrative Points, but they’re more specific, and represent a character’s wide range of knowledge and expertise, rather than his or her capability to change the story. They’re mainly to get the game started even more quickly — all a player has to do now is decide which stat gets which die, and spend Combat Gear points — or to help players who want to see how their character develops over time.

Free-Form Specialisms are things your character can do well: things you don’t have to specifically keep track of, things that let you do whatever you need to do to have the most fun you can in the game. All without staring at a screen.

USR Wednesdays: Wild West

Cowboys and gunslingers is one of those sub-genres that hasn’t had too much of a history in the RPG realm, aside from the Weird West of the “Deadlands” RPG. The original tabletop western RPG is “Boot Hill” from TSR, and most of the generic game systems have had their own western component, from Rolemaster’s “Outlaw” to GURPS “Old West.”

USR is no different; Western USR has been out for several years. Today’s post isn’t throwing anything that came before it away. Instead, it’s just blending the old with the new. Well, new in reference to things on this blog. There were Quick Draw rules and some rules for Guns.

Cowboys, baby.
Ropin’ a steer is an attack roll, too. (image: public domain)

As always, a weapon provides a bonus to attack rolls. Using the Quick Draw rules, it also has a penalty to a character’s Initiative. Here’s the list again, scaled down to classic western weapons.

+1 (Light) weapons: Derringer, Bowie knife, cavalry saber

+2 (Medium) weapons: Wild West “six-shooter,” carbine (Wild West “buffalo rifle”), pick, tomahawk

A gatling gun has a +2/+1 attack bonus, and dynamite follows the gun rules from earlier in this blog except it uses a D8 instead of the modern explosive’s D10.

A horse gives its rider a +1 to Action rolls when riding is involved — chases, stunts — or maybe a +2 for that perfect mount.

And that leaves us room for an adventure for our band of desperadoes or lawmen (or even magic-using card players or steampunk gadget-makers, if you like).

1. Quest giver

There’s gold in them thar hills! At least, there was, until the Black Jacks, a gang of ruffians led by Black Jack himself (his Ego is a D12, and would be higher if he could), stole a half-dozen wagonloads of bullion and took it somewhere. That’s all the old prospector can tell you, even after you buy him a drink.

2. Early encounter

The mayor and the banker don’t know where the Black Jacks are. Nobody really wants to talk about the gang in the town of Patience, even after you rescue the mayor’s daughter from a pack of ravenous coyotes (these could be actual canines, or demon animals, or even a rival gang of thugs).

3. Clue to final confrontation

At the hoedown the evening after the heroes rescue the mayor’s daughter, she says she knows something about where the Black Jacks are: she overheard some of the town’s elders talking about needing money to solidify a deal with Duke Abbey, an English nobleman who’s been to town a few times before.

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

Investigation of bank records and the mayor’s papers reveal a letter describing a meeting between the Duke and Black Jack in two days, at the old mine two days’ ride from town.

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

The journey to the mine is loaded with trouble, from a flash flood that turns to a mudslide to an angered grizzly bear wandering into camp.

6. Final boss

Arriving at the mine in time for the meeting, the heroes find Black Jack and his gang, the Duke (who has a few deadly gadgets in his sword-cane), and the mayor himself, who never told his daughter about the gambling debts he owes to Black Jack. Jack can have as many lieutenants as he needs to make sure every player character gets to have a quick draw showdown.

USR Wednesdays: Characters For Every Game

This week, I’ll look a back at some of my recent rules and settings and provide characters for them.

Tournament Fighting and Wrestling
Ryu, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Focused On Training +2, Barely-Contained Dark Side +2, Strong But Silent +2
Hit Points: 18
Equipment: none
Narrative Points: 7

Combat Maneuvers

+0 Punch
Block

+1 Side Kick
+2 Hurricane Kick
+3 Hadoken Fireball
+3 Dragon Punch

Hadouken!
Believe it or not, I couldn’t find a picture of all three characters together. Here’s Ryu. (image: capcom.com)

Animal-Folk
Donatello (Turtle-Folk), Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D8, Wits D10, Ego D6
Specialisms: Does Machines +2, Computer Nerd+2, Swimming And Breathing Underwater +2
Hit Points: 18
Equipment: Bo Staff +2, Shuriken +1, Shell +1
Narrative Points: 3

Hijinx
Elvis, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D6, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: The King, Baby +2, Ballad Singer +2, Party-Time Fun Singer +2
Hit Points: 14
Equipment: Microphone, Guitar, Sequin Jumpsuit
Narrative Points: 7

USR Wednesdays: Rock and Roleplay

Way back in the early days of D&D 3.0, the Open Gaming License allowed for many, many variants on the system — game creators could use the d20 rules set that was so familiar to so many and create their own classes, races, worlds, and more. And it was all legitimate; anyone could sell what they created (this was long before Drive Thru RPG, most everything was print books that filled shelves and shelves of hobby shops).

Paizo Publishing, which took over publication of Dragon and Dungeon magazines at the time, joined in too. For about 20 to 30 issues, Paizo resurrected an old magazine title, “Polyhedron,” and slapped it on the back of Dungeon. There, they promoted new gaming products, with even a few reviews. But mostly Polyhedron was part of the new d20 stuff movement, with mini-RPGs with settings like mecha, sword and planet, and to date the last version of “Spelljammer.” Later, the magazines disappeared, Fourth Edition appeared, and Pazio took D&D in a different direction with “Pathfinder.”

I collected most of those Polyhedron-era Dungeon magazine issues, mostly to get a lot of more-or-less official mini-games (in other words, with games that would probably be pretty playable — the OGL let anybody publish anything, even if it was likely to not be very good).

I told you all that to tell you this.

Polyhedron 158, June 2003(!), has a game called “Hijinx,” which despite its art style is designed specifically to recreate “Scooby-Doo,” “Jabberjaw,” “The Monkees,” and all those pop band/lightweight misadventure shows from the 60s and 70s. By the late 80s, popular music was worth far too much money to make a goofy show. Sure, there are still silly songs, but nothing to match “The Monkees,” or the originator of the genre, “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Hijinx tries its best to blend 2003 and 1966 — classes are musical instruments: vocalist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, DJ, and horn player. They send out “bad vibes” to bad guys and wear “cool threads” to add to their Defense… but it’s basically regular old D&D. And so it’s also easy to translate to USR. That’s next week.

USR Wednesdays: Hijinx

Picking up where we left off, we’re skipping classes because USR doesn’t have ‘em. It doesn’t have damage types, either, except as a story-telling element (being struck by lightning or frozen by ice is damage either way, but each looks and sounds different). But the D20 Hijinx game makes damage types into types of vibes, which is useful for our USR version. In our case, the damage types are Specialisms.

Rock and roll all nite!
The line between rock and fantasy adventuring has to include Gene Simmons somewhere. (image: kiss.com)
  • Rockin’: An intense song, either about having a party or about how the world is really unjust to wealthy rock and hip hop stars.
  • Ballad: Just the thing to calm everyone down and win over parents who worry that your music is corrupting their children.
  • Catchy: An earworm that makes everyone remember your band long after the show. Don’t roll too high on this kind of “attack,” or you may become a one-hit-wonder!
  • Comedy: Everyone likes a funny song, either a parody of someone else’s well-known song or a faithful cover of a song that was once popular and is now cheesy.
  • Dance: Get the crowd moving and they’ll be on your side forever.

And opposed to our music superstars? Critics and bad crowds of different types. They can be treated like any other monster (no higher than Power Level III — this is a game about playing music, not saving the world).

  • Angry: Any anti-music fan, from an over-zealous censor to an internet critic who loves to make fun of anything and everything.
  • Bored: Someone who doesn’t want to hear any music, like a parent who had to chaperone their child to the club’s bartender, who just wants to go home.
  • Distracted: Everyone under age 20 — they’re too busy looking at their phones! Also, that couple making out in the corner.
  • Jealous: Wannabes who couldn’t: rock critics, hip hop managers, and so on.
  • Snooty: People who overlook the band, like greedy record executives and hipsters who insist your group is too mainstream to be any good. “I only like bands you’ve never heard of.”

And we can’t have a game setting without a Six-Step Adventure. The band is the characters. They’ll have to decide what kind of music they play before the game starts, though if one person wants to rap while the others play pop, it looks like they’re adventuring with a guest star this time around.

1. Quest giver

The band’s manager, Marcus, says he’s booked the group at Rock Stock, where they’ll be among legendary rock groups on the first day (so the veterans can go home and recover) and indie artists on the last day (so the concert can claim to support new artists, though everyone will be gone by then). But there’s a problem — the band doesn’t have money to get to the show.

2. Early encounter

In order to raise the cash, the band members will have to find a solution. This can either be a wacky montage like “The Monkees” TV show, where everyone tries different silly jobs, or more serious, where the band is hired by Marcus’ uncle to investigate a robbery — a robbery at a music shop, of course.

3. Clue to final confrontation

After raising the cash, they head out to Rock Stock. There’s probably a few music critics and even a hostile concert organizer giving them a hard time trying to get in the door and to the dressing room. They don’t find a “clue” in the traditional sense; instead, they get a look at the acts on the stage and get a feel for how they’re performing against the crowd: what kind of music is winning them over?

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

The challenge: something goes wrong behind the scenes. Maybe the instruments disappear (darn that robber!) or an earthquake strikes. Can our heroes do something besides make music and help their reputation by being helpful in a natural disaster?

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

Finally, the big moment comes, and our band takes the stage. But there’s plenty of opposition, like music journalists hunting for their next target, or a crowd that just doesn’t care.

6. Final boss

And just when the concert is getting underway… the cops show up. For a hip hop or metal show, sure; the censors are always there. But what if the band’s music is G-rated, family friendly stuff? Well, blame the stage crew, with all their exposed wires and safety hazards. It’s one thing after another. Our heroes are constantly struggling to get a good reaction from the crowd and sell albums.