USR Wednesdays: Zombies

What better way to mark Halloween than with the most popular horror creature of all (right now)? In a game where the heroes are survivors of a zombie apocalypse, there’s several ways to approach central threat:

  • The zombies are an endless horde that’s easy to kill; the trick is to get away before you’re overwhelmed.
  • The zombies are a scary surprise as you try to come to terms with the new rules of living day by day. They’re easy to avoid — if you see them coming.
  • The zombies are a part of the environment around you, like having to try and maneuver through a heavy snowstorm. These stories take place several months after the apocalypse, when everyone is used to dealing with zombies, and a new world order is sorting itself out. The real danger isn’t the living dead; it’s other humans who don’t like that you’re not under their control.

I’m sure you can think of movies and books with each of these kinds of zombie settings, and more. Any of them can be a great zombie RPG setting — an action-oriented one, if the players are in the mood to slay zombies; a suspenseful story where the existence of zombies might be a plot twist; or a tale heavy in negotiation and tough combat, fighting off both the undead and the very much alive.

They're coming to get you, PCs!
As I’ve said before, the classics never go out of style. (image: refinedguy.com)

Hordes

The ever-present threat of zombies can be represented in USR with a simple rule for hordes. When the story begins, as the first zombies appear (unless you’re starting in media res, with an enormous mob of zombies), there’s 2d6 somewhere nearby. As the plot advances, or whenever the heroes make too much noise, or whenever the gamemaster sees fit, add zombies equal to (1 + the number of players)d6.

Zombie stats are usually low — D6 or even D4 for every stat, with no Specialisms or equipment. Maybe even use the mook rule, where a zombie has only one Hit Point (an attack total of 7 against a zombie’s total of 3 doesn’t mean a single zombie lost 4 Hit Points; it means 4 different zombies were destroyed). Don’t forget that zombies move slowly, and are unable to move past obstacles or think their way out of simple traps.

Survivors

The two big rules for survivors in a zombie story are searching, where a successful Wits roll against a target number of 4 means the survivor found food, medical equipment, a working car, or a weapon. A failed roll means nothing turned up. And a die result of 1 means something was knocked over during the search, or a window shattered: the perfect time for more zombies to join the horde.

The second rule is for “horror saves,” or resisting the shock and fear of a close encounter with the dead. It can be a Wits die roll (for characters trying to rationalize their way out of the encounter) or an Ego die roll (for characters who can bluff and bluster their way through anything). Use the higher stat for a high action or comedy-type game, and use the lower stat for characters in a traditional horror story. Failing a horror save means the hero just wants to get away from the zombies, maybe at the cost of his or her allies. And rolling a 1 on a horror save or an Action roll when in battle with zombies means the worst: an infected bite that transforms the hero into a zombie, whenever it’s dramatically appropriate.

USR Wednesdays: Kaiju

Giant monsters are, literally, off the scale for most USR games. They’re bigger than a Power Level VI Monster or a Tier 5 superhero. They’re not really appropriately represented using our simple mecha rules, either, because a kaiju game isn’t about humans vs. monsters (not really: the tanks and jets are a nuisance, not a threat). It’s about monsters in battle with one another, with lots of property damage in the meantime.

Yes, you can role play a kaiju, though of course combat is what really matters. Instead of using the Action stat to get into physical combat, a kaiju character instead gains a new stat, Fight, and everyone has it at a D12 (or D10 if you’re keeping with the traditional USR dice). Then determine the other stats normally:

Action is for non-combat physical tasks, like flying or jumping.
Wits is for using supernatural powers, like atomic breath or sonic booms (along with a Specialism describing that power).
Ego is to demonstrate that you’re a friend of the humans, so they’ll let you do what you need to do to destroy all monsters. It’s also for negotiating a team-up with another heroic kaiju.

Go, go, Godzilla!
You can’t beat the original and best. (source: IMDB.com)

Specialisms and Combat

Natural weapons like spikes are counted as Combat Gear, but supernatural attacks — Flame Breath, Poison Gas — are Specialisms. Physical talents are Specialisms too: Climbing, Running, Web-shooting. It’s unlikely a kaiju will have much need for skills like Research or Negotiation, but a monster could reasonably have a good Sense Of Smell or Echolocation.

A kaiju character will probably use all 4 of its Combat Gear points on claws, teeth, tails, tough, rubbery skin, and other natural weapons and armor.

Even if you want to make your game more than just a big fight scene, double each character’s starting Hit Points. When it comes time for the big brawl with the bad beasts, a kaiju needs to stick around for a few turns.

Adventure Ideas

  • A signal generated by a mad scientist’s machine is making your team of kaiju crazy; get to the source of the signal and turn it off by any means necessary. This is the plot of the film “Rampage.”
  • Your home under the sea or on a distant island of monsters has been disturbed. There are alien kaiju invading. You can see the alien mothership high above you — but how do you get up there? Perhaps one of the alien kaiju will go back the way it came, and you can tag along…
  • You’re used to stomping through city streets and crushing skyscrapers. So what was that magical portal that sent you to a fantasy world all about? A knight on horseback is no more of a threat than a tank was. A fire-breathing dragon, on the other hand, is both a challenge and a valuable source of treasure for your new human/elf/dwarf allies.

USR Wednesdays: Animal Heroes

Not long ago, I released a series of archetypes for animal-folk, from apes to wolves. I called them animal-folk because I was thinking of bipedal creatures, basically humans in animal costumes, with maybe one or two of the real animal’s natural abilities.

But there’s another way to role play animal heroes: as actual animals who can talk. They don’t interact with humans (except maybe that one special human) but they can talk with one another. Animated movies like “Ratatoullie” and “The Secret Lives Of Pets” or novels like “Watership Down” or “Animal Farm” fit the bill. And even Aslan, the lion of “The Chronicles Of Narnia” books, is this type of character, though he’s more of a special fantasy race than part of a talking animal setting.

Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
A classic VHS and perfect for this type of setting. (image: Disney.com)

The animal-folk archetypes work just as well for animal hero games: strong, tough, or sneaky animals should have Action as their stat with a D10, while clever, scheming characters can make their best stat Wits or Ego. The major changes are in combat.

An animal hero only uses the highest value of its Action stat to determine its starting Hit Points (so it would be 10, 8, or 6).

Also, animals don’t normally carry equipment — yes, a knight’s warhorse wore armor and had a lance mounted on it, but it was to help the knight accomplish his goals, not for the horse to fight on its own. So animal heroes don’t get Combat Gear Points, nor the bonus Narrative Points regular heroes earn for not spending all 4 Combat Gear Points.

This means animal heroes are weaker than human adventurers, which makes sense for the genre (humans rarely enter the story, and if they do, they’re as an all-powerful master or threat). The exception to this is super-pets, like Superman’s dog Krypto or He-Man’s Battle Cat. They’re somewhere between ordinary animal heroes and normal heroes. Krypto, being a Kryptonian dog, should have a d12 Action, and the Flight Specialism. Battle Cat has +2 Magic Armor and +1 Claws.

Since the characters are weaker, the game master needs to tone down the level of challenge in the adventure, too. Crossing a rushing river might take an Action roll to leap over it, or a Wits roll to build a makeshift bridge in an ordinary game. In an animal hero game, though, lashing together a few branches is impossible! The players will have to come up with something different. And a confrontation with a wild raccoon, not even a combat encounter in an ordinary adventure game, could be a major fight sequence with animal heroes.

USR Friday: War and Military Campaigns

Due to life happening, this is a Friday entry; I’ll get back to normal Wednesdays next week.

War! What is it good for? Well, in game terms, it’s good for a lot of fun adventuring. War doesn’t necessarily translate into RPGs — the military is for big units of soldiers, a role playing game is for one person per player — but military-style action does make for good gaming. Here’s a few ideas for a team of adventurers in a military game setting:

  • Commando raids to defeat or capture an enemy leader
  • Silent scouting raids to infiltrate enemy lines
  • Demolitions teams that plant explosives in strategic spots
  • Recruit reinforcements to bring to the battle
  • Negotiating peace talks despite extreme tension between the warring sides

But of course a military action campaign does need some guidelines for simulating the military action. Dozens or even thousands of troops are charging at one another or opening fire while the heroes slip off to the side to get their mission done. The heroes could take a turn as temporary battlefield commanders (think of the big battles in “The Lord Of The Rings” or many “Captain America” comics). Or the story could lead to an extra level of challenge if the enemy forces win the day: if the Nazis cut off the Allied supply lines but the adventuring party is pushing toward Berlin, they’ll have to make do with the resources available to them.

War! Good God, y'all!
The only kind of war I like: historical re-enactments.

The conflicts between the forces the heroes support and the enemy army can be simulated with a die roll, called a Battle Roll. The simplest way to do this (the USR way) is to assign each force a bonus, depending on a few factors:

Size

The force with the bigger number of troops gets a +1. If they’re reasonably evenly matched, no bonus to either side.

Ability

A well-trained, disciplined force of elite troops (like Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines) gets a +1. A force of wild barbarians is strong and intimidating, worth at least a +1. A rag-tag group of insurgents or freedom fighters, or an unruly mob armed with pitchforks and torches, is probably a -1. Most troops, though, are the “average” soldier and offer no bonus (Star Wars stormtroopers, World War II grunts, and so on).

Equipment

Tanks and fighter jets, when the other side doesn’t have them, provides a +2 bonus. A samurai katana and a knight’s longsword are equal, but the force with assault rifles has a +1 against them.

Heroes

If the player characters take direct part in the battle, they provide a +2 bonus to the combat.

Add up the bonuses, and roll 1d6 + that total for each side. The higher result wins the round of fighting (representing a few moments to months of battle, depending on the story that you’re telling), and the losing force earns a -1 penalty to future Battle Rolls. If the rolls are a tie, there’s no penalty applied; the battle just slogs on. When one force’s roll is zero or less, the battle is over. There may be more battles to fight, or this may mean the end of the entire war, leading to time for peace talks or for a vanquishing army to add more territory to its holdings.

If the heroes’ side of the battle loses a round of fighting, one of the characters is personally affected (choose one randomly). It could simply be hit point damage, or it could affect the story: maybe a valuable item is lost, or a close friend is killed in the fighting.

Sir Lacren turned to face the men and women behind him. Last night, elven scouts had reported an army of trolls on the march. Lacren, the mage Ysellius, and the nature priest Berrak agreed: they would lead the army of South Watch against the trolls. The trolls were on foot; their slow movement gave Ysellius and Berrak time to create a few catapults and trebuchets to support the archers, mounted knights, and swordsmen and women South Watch could call to arms.

Adding up the bonuses, we have:

Trolls: Strong +1

Humans: Led by heroes (player characters) +2, War machines +1

The battle commences! After the players fight through one-on-one combats between their characters and specific trolls, a Battle Roll is made. The heroes roll a 5 and add 3 for a total of 8. The game master rolls for the trolls, and gets a total of 4. The trolls lose this round of the battle, and have a -1 to their Battle Rolls until the battle is over.

USR Wednesdays: Espionage

Last week, I introduced the concept of Free-Form Specialisms, where instead of pre-determined skills and abilities, a character can use his “+1s” to do anything he needs to do on an adventure. You lose two “+1s” if you settle on a Specialism. Let’s put this concept to work in a popular RPG setting: the world of secret agents, master thieves and assassins.

In fantasy and space opera-type science fiction, the character archetypes are instantly familiar (and have already been created for USR on this very blog): wizard, rogue, pilot, bounty hunter. Espionage games have their archetypes too — hacker, mastermind, femme fatale — but secret agent characters have more than one ability.

Pick your suave super spy.
Bond. James Bond(s). (image: eurochannel.com)

To represent this, give your hero a single Specialism as his archetype, and then also put for “+1s” on the character sheet. This is something like Pierce Brosnan-era Bond or the efficient, nick-of-time thieves of the “Ocean’s” movie series. If you’re playing a high-level espionage game, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond or Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. story, you might want to tack on another “+1” or two, and that’s not counting any bonuses awarded for super-spy gear. Characters in a more down-to-earth game (say, Jason Bourne, or even something like “Taken”) could have fewer “+1s.”

If a character is only in the story for a moment, they’re probably best represented as NPCs. Q, the gadget-maker for James Bond, shows up just long enough to deliver a few spy tools to 007, then disappears. If he traveled with Bond, creating weapons and devices while James was seducing women and negotiating with super-villains, then he’d be a player character.

What’s a good spy archetype? I mentioned a few before, but there are more:

  • Brawler — hand-to-hand fighting, martial arts
  • Detective — seeing clues others miss, following rumors and suspicions to the end of the line
  • Driver — every spy can drive (or fly) fast; only drivers can pull off stunts that strain vehicles to their maximum
  • Femme Fatale — seduction, keeping attention on herself (or himself) so others can do their jobs
  • Gadgeteer — inventing tools, detecting and defusing traps
  • Hacker — breaking into computer systems, writing viruses
  • Infiltrator — breaking into buildings, slipping through locks, defusing security systems
  • Mastermind — conceiving a plan, changing the plan on the spur of the moment when it goes wrong
  • Politician — con artist who’s good at making allies and using his words to cool everything down
  • Sniper — master of all firearms, expert at extremely long-distance shots
  • Soldier — punching, shooting, staying in the fight longer than anyone else