USR Wednesdays: A Package Of Specialisms

It only takes moments to create a Domino Writing-style (or really any) USR character, but the one part of character development that does require a little bit of time is coming up with Specialisms. They’ve been discussed before; remember:

Specialisms are what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting.

This includes:

  • Skills (Climbing, Computers, etc.)
  • Natural abilities (Charming, Tough, etc.)
  • Supernatural abilities (Magic, Psionics, etc.)

But it also includes:

  • Races (Animal-Folk, Elf, etc.)
  • Traditional RPG classes (Gunslinger, Wizard, etc.)
  • Personality traits (Lone Wolf, More Interested In Machines Than People, etc.)
  • Setting-specific characteristics (Disgraced Member Of The Royal Family, Knight Of Eagle’s Watch, etc.)
  • Signature equipment (All-In-One Pocket Tool, Fast Car, etc.)
I'm a little of everything.
So many Specialism ideas…

The one thing a Specialism usually isn’t is a combat-specific ability: guns, swords, shields, and the rest is represented as weapons and armor and “purchased” with Combat Gear points. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a Specialism like Sharpshooter or A Dagger In Each Hand, to add to attacks, or other actions (a Sharpshooter is just as good at putting out a flickering candle from across a room as he is at taking out a bandit gang).

How can you get a character ready to play instantly? Try a Specialism package: One personality trait and two skills (or one skill and one class, if you’re playing in a setting with archetypes the players and game master all understand). That gives you some abilities to use in the adventure, and a little bit of background to make your character more than just a set of combat statistics.

Here’s a few more kinds of Specialisms that can be used to put that package together, borrowed from the great RPG Risus:

  • Adventuring necessities (Athletics, Persuasion, Observation, Driving, Technology, Medicine, Wilderness, Knowledge, Spying)
  • Degree of dedication (Master Of Martial Arts, Laser-Focused On Fire Magic, etc.)
  • Social and financial status (Billionaire, On The Streets, etc.)
  • Appearance (Dashingly Handsome, Scheming, etc.) — you can use celebrities or stock characters to help with Specialisms, too (Albert Einstein, Casanova, etc.)
  • Relationships (Father Figure, Falls In Love With All The Women, etc.)

USR Wednesdays: Robot Revolution

If the robots rise up against the humans, there will be war, at least with the survivors, the humans that aren’t wiped out by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or the humans that can’t make it without electronics. Thanks to the ingenuity of people, there are robots of every size and shape available in the robot army, and it’s easy enough for them to start producing still more robots, including kinds that don’t exist in the real world yet.

John Connor or Spike Witwicky? No contest.
It’s this plus humans.

So that’s where we start:

Monster Power Level and examples

I: Tiny, mostly harmless service robots like vacuum cleaners or checkout machines

II: Human-size robots that aren’t built for combat — a manufacturing arm or a translator

III: The classic security robot that moves and acts like an ordinary human with a gun

IV: An advanced security robot, bigger, tougher, and more maneuverable — maybe with wheels, treads or spider-type legs

V: A robot transport, which provides cover fire before it drops off a load of killer robots

VI: A self-driving vehicle — one bristling with weapons, like a tank or fighter jet

Characters in this setting are action-oriented; they have their highest stats in Action (if they’re the gun-toting soldier kind) or Wits (if they’re the genius programmer that turns the robots against themselves kind). Ego is less important in this genre, though a typical adventure probably has at least one opportunity for a hero to pretend he’s a robot to get through a dangerous situation, or to talk another group of survivors into joining forces.

Specialisms

Think of Specialisms that offer skills: Robot Programming, Discipline, Driving, Stealth. And make sure your character isn’t a generic hard-bitten warrior with personality traits like Practical Joker, Silent And Deadly, or Master Negotiator.

USR Wednesdays: Combat Variants

I’ve certainly looked at ways to mix up combat before. Let’s take a look today at a few more options to add something extra to your Domino Writing-style USR game.

Multiple Attacks

One of the biggest problems with classic role playing games is that boss monsters are just too easy to kill. Sure, the dragon has lots of hit points, and its breath weapon can knock everyone down by a third of their health if it hits, but the dragon only gets one attack. If the fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric work together, they can take out the beast in no time. The answer is often give the dragon some orcish minions to fight alongside it, or allow it to breathe fire and scratch with its claws at the same time. Either way, the dragon can make several attacks, evening the odds it faces in battle.

In USR, we can do the same thing, giving a monster multiple attacks, instead of the one it normally gets (remember, in Domino Writing-style USR, a combat turn includes one move and one other activity, usually an attack). The limit is determined by the monster’s [Monster] Power Level.

  • The number of extra attacks a monster can have, above and beyond its regular attack, is equal to its combat bonus (Power Level I means no extra attacks, Power Level VI can have up to 5 for a total of 6 attacks in a turn).
  • Each extra attack a monster has costs it 3 starting hit points (one extra attack means the monster starts with 3 fewer hit points; five extra attacks means -15 hit points before the battle begins).

Note this only applies to monsters (which can be, of course, wolves, ninja, soldiers, trolls, robots, guards, or anything else). Heroes can’t buy extra attacks this way.

I am not left handed.
Gaining the upper hand is easy for two swashbucklers.

The Upper Hand

This one is borrowed from the Fate RPG, and it’s great for those games where combat is the exception, not the rule. You may need a marker of some kind, like a spare die, to represent having the “upper hand,” having fortune smile on you. The character who wins initiative starts with the “upper hand.” It stays with him or her until an enemy tries to steal it. If your ally has the upper hand when it’s your turn in combat, you can’t make use of it. But if an enemy has it, you can try and grab it from them. Then you’ll have it on your turn.

To “seize the upper hand,” you first make a non-contested die roll against a target number set by the game master (usually a 4 or a 6 — this should be relatively easy to do so the upper hand moves around a lot). On a success, you have the upper hand. On a failure, the upper hand stays where it is.

Whether you succeeded or failed on the upper hand roll, you can still make an attack roll on this turn (yes, you make two die rolls in one turn). If you succeeded at the upper hand roll, or you already had the upper hand from earlier in the battle, add your level to the attack roll, and even if you miss, you still cause 1 point of damage. If you don’t have the upper hand, you just make an ordinary attack.

The “upper hand” roll can be against any stat you wish on your first try, but it has to be against a different stat each time you try to seize it. The entire point is to generate cool combat maneuvers that aren’t necessarily damage-causing themselves:

  • Grabbing a rope and swinging into the fray
  • Dropping the perfect one-liner before opening fire
  • Calculating the exact coordinates for your attack to cause maximum damage
  • Mystically stopping time — for just a moment — to get into position
  • Spreading your wings as wide as they can reach, to strike fear in the heart of your foe

Nemeses

A discussion on the USR Google+ group about playing Pokemon in USR led to this idea: When a battle begins, select an opponent, who becomes your nemesis. You gain +2 on die rolls against the nemesis, as long as the nemesis is in the combat. If it’s defeated or otherwise leaves combat, you can name a new nemesis on your next turn.

Both heroes and monsters can select a nemesis on their turn, but someone can only have one nemesis at a time. A character can’t name an opponent as a nemesis if another character has already done so. Nemeses don’t have to be against one another: If you’re a police sergeant whose nemesis is Mario the mafia thug, but Mario has named your buddy the psychic detective as his nemesis, you get a +2 against Mario, but he doesn’t get a +2 against you.

USR Wednesdays: Companions

I took a look back at the community on the USR Google+ page, before it disappears, though of course nothing ever really disappears from the web. A few years back, there was a discussion on playing puppets, creatures that work with a hero as a kind of support staff. Puppets and their controller — in other words, companions of a hero. In classic fantasy role playing games, this is the druid or ranger with their wolf, hawk, or other animal partner. Helper robots in a science fiction settings are a pretty popular concept too.

What’s a companion?

A companion, in the terms we’re using here, is more than a simple Specialism. A private eye who has a trusty bartender informant doesn’t have a companion; he has a Bartender Contact +2 Specialism. All the bartender does is pass along information (and pour drinks). He doesn’t join the detective in a fight, and really doesn’t even leave the bar, in the story.

On the other hand, a dark elf two-blade ranger’s magical black panther is a companion (probably a Magical Black Panther +2); it’s useful as a warrior, but also a scout, a guard, and likely some other stuff, I haven’t read all the books. He literally never leaves his hero.

I would choose any of these.
Animal companions, classic fantasy style.

So, if both the bartender and the panther are designated as Specialisms, what’s the difference in game terms between a companion and a non-companion? On the surface, not much. Both offer a +2 bonus… but the panther’s bonus applies a lot more often. It all depends on how the player and the game master have decided how the companion works. That’s part of what defining a Specialism in the first place is all about — what kind of die rolls it applies to.

Other companion-type Specialisms
The puppets we talked about on Google+ are another companion-type specialism. The example I used was this:

(A) puppet could be a manifestation of a Specialism (Flight +2 is on your character sheet, but you can’t literally fly. One of your puppets can, though, and whenever you need to fly you summon the puppet to carry you).

That’s just “flavor text,” as they say in CCGs. This character can fly, it’s just being described as something the puppet does for the hero. It does open the game to more role playing opportunities — what if the puppet is missing or stolen? Is the hero’s need to fly somehow powerful enough that the puppet comes racing across continents to do its job? Or is the character just a little less capable now that his puppet is out of action?

Then there’s the situation where the companion is more powerful than the hero. There are a few superheroes who have this trait — young Billy Batson becomes the mighty Captain Marvel (or Shazam now, I guess), and timid scientist Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk. Though in USR terms, Shazam and Hulk are the heroes, and Batson and Banner are the Specialisms (maybe Young Boy +1, capable of being ignored by most people, and Genius Scientist +2). But the example I was really thinking of is Aladdin, who has an extremely powerful wish-granting Genie, who is a companion, especially in the well-known Disney version of the fairy tale. The genie isn’t a character himself, because he can’t do anything until Aladdin makes a wish.

Companion ideas

Like all Specialisms, companions, in whatever form they take, follow our guideline for creating Specialisms: They explain what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting. A hero with a companion-type specialism might be able to:

  • Lift heavy things, thanks to a robot buddy
  • Fly with the help of a winged puppet
  • Coordinate attacks against orcs and dragons
  • Cross between the world of the living and the land of the dead
  • Scout out the enemy fortress, seeing it through a robotic bee’s eyes
  • and more…