USR Wednesdays: Signature Actions

One of the great things about USR’s flexibility is how much you can say with a single Specialism: a classic fantasy Thief is assumed to be good at sneaking, picking locks, quickly assessing the value of an object, backstabbing enemies, and so on. Someone with an Assault Rifle weapon doesn’t just have a powerful gun; they also know how to use it, carry it, maintain it and so on.

But sometimes you have a signature action — a way you use the skill, tool, weapon, or other Specialism that no one else does the way you do, or no one else does at all. Think of the cowboy gunslinger who has an extra single-shot derringer secreted away in his boot when his trusty sixguns are out, or the druid who doesn’t just talk to animals — they come to him to pass along information, without even being asked.

A signature action is chosen at the same time you select a Specialism. Each Specialism can only have one signature action at a time, though you can switch to another one at any time, as long as the game master approves. It should make sense for the story, though; a captain who’s a master at keeping his ship steady through a storm won’t suddenly become an America’s Cup yacht race champ, even though both signature actions would apply to the Sailing Specialism, or something similar.

A signature action awards an additional +1 to any die roll where it applies, so it’s one better than the Specialism, no matter what bonus the Specialism provides.

Every other image was clip art or Daredevil's enemy.
Bullseye, every time, with the right signature action.

Here are a few ideas, with a suggested appropriate Specialism.

Called shot: You gain this bonus when using a Gun or Bow to fire at a specific target, like a shoulder, a kneecap, or the weapon in an opponent’s hand.

Death from above: You’re especially effective at sneak attacks when Jumping onto an enemy.

Evocation: If you are a Wizard or Spellcaster, you’re especially good at one particular type of magic. Work with your game master to determine just what kinds of spells qualify as your type of magic.

Inspiring speech: A Military General or Leader Of Men can always rouse the troops to battle or keep them on task even when they’re exhausted, but you’re one of the best at doing it. You don’t need to roll for this, but some of your sayings show up when people are looking for motivational quotes.

Like a native: If you have French (or Elvish, or a Specialism for any language and culture), you not only know the language and customs like someone who’s lived there all their life, you also know things that most natives don’t know, from obscure history facts to slang terms that young people have just started using.

USR Wednesdays: Cool Cars

It was so much fun bringing back spells last week that I’m going to pull another one out of the archives… vehicles. We visited the 4A setting not long ago, and that’s all about cool cars. Vehicles have hit points and an armor bonus (which is also the total bonus of weapons they can carry). It was suggested on the USR discussion group that vehicles also have a Handling rating, on top of the Target Numbers established for a maneuver. Makes sense as a Specialism:

  • Bikes: +2 Handling
  • Small Cars, Large Cars, Small Trucks: +0 Handling
  • Large Trucks: -2 Handling

A Civic (Small Car) and an Expedition (Small Truck) perform about the same at high speed while dodging bullets, at least in fiction. You might want to add a few categories here if you’re really getting detailed with your cars. A Mustang or Camaro probably has a +1 or +2 Handling, while a rickety old truck has at least a -2 Handling.

Most comic book ones are pretty good, too.
What I think of first when I think of the Batmobile.

Batmobile (Large Car)

+4 Armor, 20 Hit Points

+1 missiles, grappling hook, and I’m going to boost its armor rating above a standard Large Car because it’s often portrayed as super, super durable.

General Lee (Small Car)

+2 Armor, 15 Hit Points

Let’s give this one a +1 to Handling because of all its jumps and swerves. It’s pretty large to be considered a Small Car, but it’s known more for its ability to move than its ability to take a hit.

Pursuit Special (Large Car)

+3 Armor, 20 Hit Points

Mad Max’s car isn’t armed itself, but it carries a lot of riders who have weapons.

Aston Martin DB5 (Small Car)

+2 Armor, 15 Hit Points

James Bond’s signature ride has +1 machine guns and +1 tire slashers, plus an ejection seat and a few other gadgets that will come in handy just in time (part of Bond’s Super Spy Specialism?).

Hell Cycle (Bike)

+1 Armor, 10 Hit Points

The flaming tires are the most memorable part of Ghost Rider’s demonic vehicle (traditionally — more recent Ghost Riders drive cars) and they provide a +1 attack bonus.

USR Wednesdays: More Magic

We first looked at classic magic about a year ago: discrete spells with specific results, as opposed to the game master- and player-interpreted rules that most of USR uses. Fantasy gaming has been using huge spell lists for decades; there’s no reason to stop doing it now. I created just a handful of spells in that first post. This time around, we’ll make the list bigger. Our guidelines are simple:

  • Any spellcaster can use any spell — there’s no divine vs. arcane magic, for example.
  • There’s no “spell level,” so even an apprentice can summon a mighty elemental force… or at least he can try. A high Target Number is probably in order in that case. Also, spells are measured by the number of hit points they cost the spellcaster whenever the spell is cast. A wizard can have a few very powerful spells, but he won’t be able to cast them often!
  • You can cast spells 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. Don’t forget that Specialisms (like Wizard or Fire Magic) apply to these Wits and other stat rolls also, above and beyond what a spell offers.
  • A spellcaster at level 1 starts with two spells, and adds one more at each level. Domino Writing-style USR goes to level 5, so a fifth-level sorcerer can cast six spells — enough for variety, not enough to require you to spend a half-hour writing spell text on your character sheet.

To create a new spell, just decide on its hit point cost: a good measure is a cost of 3 hit points per die of effect. 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.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: the best Mickey cartoon?
Summoning isn’t always about combat.

As with all USR rules, it’s easy to add options to make the game the way you want it. Maybe each spellcaster has a signature spell that doesn’t cost as many hit points, spellcasters have a “mana pool” to cast spells from instead, or spells need to have subtle effects, and loud, flashy spells attract unwanted attention.

So, let’s mix all our spells together (the old and the new), grouped by Hit Point cost.

1 Hit Point cost

Detect Magic: All magical 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.

Enhance: This spell boosts other die rolls. It costs 1 hit point to cast. Each additional hit point spent on the spell provides +1 to any one die roll, for the spellcaster or anyone else he chooses.

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.

Magic Blast: Choose one enemy and make a Wits roll, opposed by an Action roll; on a successful attack, the enemy suffers 1d3 damage.

Prestidigitation: A small, harmless, obviously magical effect takes place, like flowers appearing from nowhere, or a room tidying itself up.

2 Hit Point cost

Charm: For the next hour, the spellcaster or one ally adds +1d6 to all Ego rolls when positively interacting with others (when trying to request help, or to calm them down, but not to intimidate or confuse them, for example).

Confusion: Make a Wits +2 roll, opposed by your target’s Wits roll; on a success, your target loses his or her next turn, trying to figure out what’s happening to him or her. He or she can still make rolls to defend against attacks, but can’t apply Specialisms (armor bonuses will still apply).

Magical Missile: 1 automatic damage to an enemy you can see. This damage cannot be avoided in any way, except by a more powerful magical defense.

3 Hit Point cost

Cure Light Wounds: +1d6 hit points to yourself or another individual.

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.

Shape Change: You magically shift your body, clothing, and possessions to appear like someone else of roughly the same shape and size. You add +3 to any Wits roll if you need to convince someone else you are who you are pretending to be. The basic spell lets a human change into an elf or halfling. For 4 hit points, you can look like a specific individual whose appearance you are familiar with, like a famous person. For 6 hit points, you can look like a creature of a different size or shape, from a mosquito to a dragon.

4 Hit Point cost

Lightning Bolt: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +1 roll, opposed by an Action roll; on a successful attack, the enemy suffers 1d6 damage.

Magical Sheld: For the remainder of the current combat encounter, add +1d6 to your defensive rolls (roll this die along with the stat die you roll to defend against the attack). On a die result of 6, the shield instantly fades and does not provide any more defensive bonus.

5 Hit Point cost

Summon Creature: Make a Wits roll, with a Target Number depending on the type of creature you want to summon (a wolf is 4, a barbarian warrior is 7, a demon is 14). It is called to you and will help you however it can for the next hour/combat encounter.

Teleport: One creature or object is instantly moved from its current location to somewhere else within eyesight of the spellcaster.

6 Hit Point cost

Cure Heavy Wounds: +2d6 hit points to yourself or another individual.

Fireball: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +3 roll, opposed by an Action roll; on a successful attack, the enemy suffers 2d6 damage.

USR Wednesdays: DC Superheroes

We’ve touched on Marvel’s heroes before, but what about DC’s? 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).

trinity - USR Wednesdays: DC Superheroes
Truly iconic.

Superman, Level 4, 15 Experience Points, Tier 4
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Super-Strength +4, Journalist +2, Role Model To All +3
Hit Points: 37
Equipment: Invulnerable +3 (not equipment, but used in combat)
Narrative Points: 6

Batman, Level 3, 10 Experience Points, Tier 3
Action D10, Wits D12, Ego D8
Specialisms: World’s Greatest Detective +2, Wealthy Sponsor Of Gotham City And Superheroes +2, Obsessive Hunter +2, Bat-Gadgets (Free-Form Specialism) +2
Hit Points: 32
Equipment: Martial Arts Expert +2, Batarangs +1, Grappling Hook
Narrative Points: 3

Robin, Level 1, 0 Experience Points, Tier 1
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Detective In Training +2, Friend To Other Superheroes +2, Teetering On The Dark Side +2
Hit Points: 22
Equipment: Martial Arts +2, Staff +1
Narrative Points: 8

Wonder Woman, Level 2, 5 Experience Points, Tier 3
Action D12, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: Princess Of Themyscira +2, Representing The Power Of Women +2, Always Does The Right Thing +3
Hit Points: 25
Equipment: Sword +2, Deflecting Bracelets +2
Narrative Points: 3

USR Wednesdays: Motivation

What drives your hero to do what he or she does? For many RPG characters, the answer is simple: to collect the treasure, to stop evil from destroying the world, or even because it’s just the right thing to do. Of course, the quest-giver in step 1 of the six-step adventure design can also provide motivation for a specific adventure.

But sometimes you need to give the heroes a “kick in the pants” to get started. Though you can do anything in a role playing game ― that’s probably the best part of playing them ― some guidelines need to be in place. A hero can’t be good at everything, which is why stats have different ratings, and Specialisms only apply in some cases.

A character needs to get along with the other characters in the party, too. A lone wolf is a cool concept, but it doesn’t work in a typical adventuring group, where everyone contributes something unique to every adventure. And in most games, the player characters need to be heroes, doing something that helps themselves and society as a whole. A thief may steal, but not from his buddies. Heroes carry swords and guns, and know how to use them, but the weapons are specifically meant for orcs, Nazis, and evil minions, not anyone and everyone.

If your players need a push in the right direction, supported by game mechanics, try giving them a motivation. This is their particular reason for doing “hero stuff.” It may relate to their Specialisms, but it doesn’t provide a bonus to die rolls itself. Instead, whenever a character does something that relates to his or her motivation, award the hero a Narrative Point (probably about once per game session). A motivation is a tool to get characters (and players) moving, and to help give characters more well-rounded personalities. You can even take a Narrative Point away if a player doesn’t play the character according to the motivation that’s been selected, though if you’re using motivation in your game, your players probably are embracing the characters they’ve created.

What are good character motivations? The model for this is the classic Ghostbusters RPG from West End Games, way back in 1986. It had five Goals for characters, which are just as relevant for modern-day heroes:

I don't have an actual Ghost Die, though.
Still fun after all these years.
  • Fame: You want to live forever, you want to learn how to fly. No, actually, a fame-seeker wants to be known by everyone. You achieve this motivation when you get outsized attention: you’re on TV, bards compose a song about you, or crime lords summon you by name, because they’ve heard of your badass reputation.
  • Money: Every RPG character has this as a motivation at some level. But you’re especially interested in wealth and the possessions it brings. The abstract nature of USR means you don’t need to keep track of cash (unless you want to). But you can also achieve this motivation by talking the hotel owner into paying the heroes double their normal rate to bust ghosts, or by acquiring a rival company, whether that’s by making a deal or threatening to take proof of the CEO’s dirty deal to the feds.
  • Serving Humanity: Humanity, or whatever species you are, benefits when you’re around. This is the motivation of the classic paladin or good cop, to protect the innocent and be a shining light of goodness in the world. But don’t forget that slaying demons and keeping eldritch horrors at bay is just as helpful to humanity.
  • Sex: This means what you think it means, if you want it to (think of the classic Dead Alewives skit: “If there’s any girls there, I want to do them!”). It can also mean charming people who don’t want to be charmed. It can have nothing to do with wanting to have an intimate relationship with another person ― this motivation can be achieved by convincing the king that you’re the right man for the job on your charm alone.
  • Soulless Science: The advancement of knowledge (even magical knowledge) is what matters. You don’t want people to suffer as a direct result of what you’re doing ― switching the brains of two living organisms without their permission is the work of evil ― but a house can move into another dimension while you study the effects of the transport, as long as it gets put back at the end of the day. You like taking things apart… putting them back together isn’t always as interesting.