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.
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.
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.
Animals, standing on two legs with human-like arms and speech, are a classic character type in many games — the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course, but also creatures like the minotaur and cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse.
Here’s a general list of animal types to choose from. Given USR’s very broad character types, one animal can cover a lot. An elephant can also be a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus, or even an Apatosaurus; a hawk can be everything from a condor to a sparrow. A wolf can be a large dog, or a werewolf, if the important thing in your game is the “wolfishness” of the character, not the horror element of changing from human to monster. The hawk and wolf will be in the next blog entries.
The primary stat for an animal can represent several different things.
Action: brute strength or lean, quick agility
Wits: raw cunning or near-human-level intelligence
Ego: an intimidating presence or “take me home with you” cuteness
There is a great anthropomorphic USR game already, which suggests Specialisms based on the character’s background. In this version, the stereotypes associated with each animal in popular culture and nature are the suggested Specialisms.
Ape Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms (3): Tool Use, Swing Through The Trees, Brute Strength
Yes, it’s Wednesday, but I’m not changing my title now. It was a technical issue that kept me from publishing yesterday, anyway.
One of the first RPGs I really played was GURPS, Steve Jackson Games’ flagship game before Munchkin. I played a lot of modern-day adventures: spies and treasure hunters and so on. The sourcebooks are still great reads, with so much background on the topic at hand without even looking at any game stats.
GURPS itself is a little dense, especially compared to the rules-light approach of a lot of modern games (USR included). But one idea that can come from the old to the new is disadvantages.
As the name suggests, these are negative aspects of a character — physical ones like One Eye or Mute, mental ones like Bloodthirsty or Addicted, or background ones like Dependent or Enemy. A Disadvantage is like a negative Specialism, providing a penalty to relevant die rolls and an indication of how to roleplay the character. It offers a penalty of -1 to -5, though most are probably -1 or -2; more than that, and the character is probably severely hampered from doing anything exciting (i.e., what you’re playing a roleplaying game for).
Here’s a few examples of Disadvantages.
I mentioned the Struggling (-2) Financial Status last time. A character with few material goods or much wealth isn’t necessarily struggling, though. As the song goes, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Severe Body Odor -1: Game masters, remember the character is going to make social interaction a lot more difficult with this Disadvantage!
Bad Temper -2: In a stressful situation, make a Wits roll, applying this Disadvantage. On a failure, your character attacks or at least screams at any nearby target, including his or her allies.
Code of Honor -1: This is a set of rules the character has sworn (if only to himself) to live by — don’t kill, always obey superiors, give away extra money, and so on. The player should choose a few rules when selecting this Disadvantage. If the character fails to act according to his code, all following die rolls are affected by the penalty until the character redeems himself somehow. For example, a woodsman who vows to rob from the rich and give to the poor, but who hangs onto his ill-gotten gains instead of donating to the less fortunate, will suffer a -1 to all die rolls until he gives that money away.
Non-Stop Talking -1: This is just annoying and is more of a role playing guideline, instead of something that will be applied to many die rolls. That is, unless the character is trying to be silent (a ninja or spy character would probably have this Disadvantage at a -2).
Pyromaniac -2: Your character has to start fires, and when things need to be destroyed, she makes sure they’re destroyed in the most explosive way possible. Like Non-Stop Talking, this makes it difficult to be subtle — or to get into melee combat (a fist or knife doesn’t blow things up).
Dependent -2: The character’s girlfriend is always being kidnapped by villains, or his elderly aunt can’t be mixed up in his heroic world, or her life will be at risk. The player should select the Dependent when creating the character; it can’t be another player character. The Dependent probably won’t show up in every adventure, but the penalty can apply even when the person isn’t there; for example, a wizard may struggle to cast spells without his apprentice there to bring him spell components and tomes of lore.
A new character can start with, and gain, any amount of Disadvantages, though it’s uncommon to have more than one or two at most. In compensation for taking a Disadvantage at character creation, a character can either:
Add an equivalent bonus to an existing Specialism (a -2 Disadvantage gives a +2 to a Specialism or +1 to two Specialisms, meaning the character has Specialisms of +4/+2/+2 or +3/+3/+2).
Start with another Specialism with the equivalent bonus; for maximum role playing fun, try to tie the Disadvantage and the extra Specialism together (for example, a character with a Debt To A Crime Lord -2 is also One Step Ahead Of The Law +2).
Start with a number of extra Narrative Points equal to the bonus.
Disadvantages can be removed from a character if the story demands it: a Deaf -3 character who has surgery or cybernetic implants to allow for hearing no longer has the Disadvantage. He or she doesn’t lose the bonus Specialism or Narrative Points that were awarded at character creation.
Everybody needs it, and no one ever has enough… Even in a game with so much narrative abstraction like USR, money is something to consider. After all, it’s the most classic of roleplaying game goals (slay the dragon to collect its treasure). But in USR, heroes don’t start with money, and don’t have a “shopping list” of weapons or other equipment. Domino Writing-style USR does limit characters to 4 Combat Gear points of weapons and armor, though that’s pretty abstract too: it’s really about the bonus, not the actual item that the character is buying.
A simple way to represent money is as an Influence, a temporary Specialism with a bonus of +1 to +3. The bonus, in this case, is how much money the character has. The warrior and wizard splitting the dragon’s hoard get an influence of Treasure Hoard +2, at least until it’s spent on wine, women, and song (for the warrior), and valuable spell components (for the wizard). The thief who steals the rare diamond has an influence of Reputation +1 — he can’t sell the diamond, after all, but everyone in the black market community knows he pulled off the audacious caper. And the Billionaire +3 can do quite a bit with his money, though an enemy with the Corrupt Businessman +2 Specialism might try to instigate a hostile takeover, in the form of several Ego and Wits-based die rolls.
Now that you’ve represented the character’s wealth with a Specialism, what can you do with it? As mentioned, it can assist in Wits and Ego die rolls — for example, roll Ego to pay off the right people and smuggle goods over the border, or roll Wits to determine the value of a famous painting (it takes money to know money, you see).
It’s less common to use a money-related Specialism with an Action die roll, but you could transform a point of bonus into a Combat Gear point, if your game master allows. In that case, your character is buying a new weapon or item. Obviously, a Treasure Hoard +1 should purchase more than a single Sword +1, but it’s balanced by the guideline that the bonus granted by the treasure will gradually disappear, while the sword is more or less permanent. These extra Combat Gear points can even be translated into extra Narrative Points: when things look their most desparate, the hero pulls out his credit card and is back in action.
For a character whose net worth is a fundamental part of their background (i.e., an actual Specialism, not a temporary one), consider these.
Not Important: +5 This character is from a society that does not care about money, like an alien race, or has the ability to create money at any time.
Multimillionaire: +5 This character is head of a major multinational corporation or foundation, or is a member of a nation’s royal family, and has almost unlimited access to funds and technology. He or she has multiple residences and forms of transportation.
Wealthy: +3 This character is a self-made millionaire or celebrity. He or she has a large house and expensive transportation (like a carriage or luxury car).
Sponsored: +2 This character works for a government agency, army, or other organization that takes care of living expenses and gear.
Comfortable: +0 This character has a steady day job that brings in decent pay, or some other way of making ends meet without much worry. The character can occasionally afford a major expense. He or she has a house and access to typical transportation for the time period (horse, automobile, or starship).
Struggling: -2 The character has difficulty finding enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month, and has to skip some basic necessities from time to time. The character has very little money, few items and may be homeless or nomadic. The character depends on friends and family for support. He or she has a small residence (such as a wooden hut or apartment), and an inexpensive means of transportation (mule, bicycle, old car, etc.).
This (and Comfortable) isn’t really a Specialism, but helps give perspective on the other financial statuses, and could be an interesting roleplaying challenge… and it gives me an idea for next Wednesday’s post.
There are a handful of pro wrestling-themed RPGs, and even an official “Street Fighter” game. Yes, really, from the early ’90s, when I was playing tournament fighting games. And though a setting that’s 95 percent combat seems like it should require a complex combat system, tournament fighting and wrestling-themed games can work very well in USR. Here’s how.
An ordinary character can be created, though most characters will have Action as their highest stat. But a player who wants to try something different, like a wrestling manager or a Vince McMahon-style macho businessman, could take Wits or Ego as the highest stat.
Combat Gear points don’t really apply in the setting; wrestlers grab chairs but don’t have one as a primary weapon. A fighter like “Mortal Kombat’s” Scorpion does have his “Get over here!” spear, but that’s not a weapon, in USR tournament fighting. Instead, it’s a Combat Maneuver. Characters typically have one +1, one +2 and one +3 Combat Maneuver, and the another single Combat Maneuver of any bonus, selected when they’re created. A heavy hitter might have two +3s, while a fast character has two +1s, staying in the fight for a long time by moving around swiftly. In game terms, there’s no difference between one +1 attack and another; that’s where your creativity comes in… although the narration can affect your attacks — if a character’s hands are tied, he can’t throw a punch. Name your attacks something interesting and action-packed.
In addition, all characters start with these two Combat Maneuvers. Punch (could also be a kick or even head-butt) +0: in other words, a basic Action die roll. Block: if your character chooses a block, he doesn’t attack on his turn, but until it’s his turn in combat again, he can make his defense die roll twice and use the best result. This gives the character no Strain — but he doesn’t recover Strain either (see below for more on Strain).
Here’s a few examples of Combat Maneuvers:
Grab +1 Jab +1 Quick Kick +1 Taunt +1 (this uses the Ego instead of Action) Tough Skin +1 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks)
Body Slam +2 Force Field +2 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks) Spin Kick +2 Summon an ally (to make a sudden attack, then disappear) +2 (this uses Ego instead of Action) Throw +2 Uppercut +2
Weapon (sword, spear, pistol) +3 Hadoken Fireball +3 (being magic, this uses Wits instead of Action)
Fighting game finishing moves aren’t Combat Maneuvers; they’re just fun to describe.
An attack roll that gets the highest result on the die (for example, a 10 on a D10) starts a combo. The attacker can continue to make attacks, as long as they are on the same target as the first attack, and as long as each one hits. When an attack misses, the combo is over. In this setting, everyone has roughly 15 Hit Points, like a typical player character, to keep them in the game for a while, and to give heroes someone to try and score combos on.
Combat Maneuvers are, in a sense, weapons: they offer a bonus to (usually) Action rolls. But they also come with a cost. A character in this setting has a Strain total, which starts at zero. Each time a character attacks or defends using a Combat Maneuver — only one of each per turn — add the bonus the Combat Maneuver provides to the character’s Strain. If the Strain is less than or equal to the character’s current Hit Points, there’s no problem. If it goes above the Hit Points (or the Hit Points fall below Strain), the character can only make a basic attack, simply rolling a stat to attack without any Combat Maneuver bonus. A character’s Strain drops 5 points if he doesn’t use a Combat Maneuver at all on a turn, though it can never go below zero.
Sure, you can simply create a few tournament fighters or wrestlers, set them up in a playoff bracket-style showdown, and duel it out. But there’s more to the setting than fighting, believe it or not. Think of “Street Fighter’s” struggle against M. Bison, or the romantic storylines of WWE. While you’re thinking about what to call your character’s Combat Maneuvers, don’t forget they have Specialisms too. Even professional warriors have interests and skills — maybe your hero is a Spy, an Expert Pilot, or an Anthropologist who found another hero, a strange man-monster, deep in the Amazon jungle. Perhaps the hero is a former champion passing along his knowledge of Tournament History to the younger characters, or is Suave (or Wealthy) enough to impress non-player characters unimpressed with his talents in the ring.
Maybe it’s a feeling of nostalgia, maybe it’s wandering down the Transformers aisle in the supermarket toy section, maybe it’s the need to round out my science-fiction gaming genre collection: I realized there are no rules out there for giant mecha combat in USR. Here’s a few guidelines for your game. To start with, giant mecha (or mechs) in these rules refer mainly to the Transformers (G1 especially) and old-school, FASA Battletech. I don’t watch much anime, and I can’t say I was really impressed by “Pacific Rim” either, though I like the concept. It should’t be hard to take your USR mecha game in any direction you like, though.
The biggest change is probably not what you’re thinking: mecha, though more powerful than ordinary humans (say, Rick Hunter from “Robotech” or Sam Witwicky from “Transformers”), don’t use the superhero tiers rules. Humans can’t possibly compete with a mecha, with one exception — if you stretch the definition of mecha to include robot suits, like Iron Man or the Space Marines of Warhammer 40,000, which we’re not doing here. If you want a Transformers-style game, every character is created using the regular Domino Writing-style USR rules… they’re just giant robots. If you want a Battletech game, where the humans are the ones with stories and the mechs are just gigantic weapons platforms, you can do that too. It’s best in that case to make one human character, the pilot of a mech “character” you also create.
It’s the game master’s call on what each character can do; a mecha can’t pick a lock, while a human can’t change shape into a car. That’s why you need both characters to simulate a lot of mecha fiction. The main way they interact in the rules is in damage. Combat is calculated normally for mecha-to-mecha or human-to-human fighting. But when they mix and match:
Mecha attacks human: double the damage the human suffers. Human attacks mecha: if the human’s attack total minus the mecha’s defense total is 5 or less, it does 1 damage to the mecha. If it’s 6 or more, it does 2 damage.
Destroyicon narrowed his optic sensors at Jack. “Get out of my way, puny human,” he growled, his voice rumbling the rocks beneath Jack’s feet. “No way!” Jack shouted. “This is for the Herobots!” He squeezed the trigger on his laser pistol. An Action roll of 6 +2 for his pistol is an 8. Destroyicon’s defensive Action roll is a 4 +2 for his Villitron armor plating. Jack’s 8 minus Destroyicon’s 6 results in a 2, enough to hit for a single point of damage. A scorch mark seared the giant robot’s leg. He laughed coldly. “My turn, fleshling,” he said, and swung his energy sword. This time, Destroyicon rolls a total of 10, and Jack’s total is 6, for a hit and a difference of 4. Doubled, Jack takes 8 points of damage. Jack looked around frantically for the Herobots.
The Transformers change shape normally. That doesn’t call for a die roll, but you can represent their “alt mode” as a Specialism. Optimus Prime, for example, has a “Transforms Into Semi-Truck” Specialism, while each of Voltron’s pilots has “Voltron Form” as a Specialism. Keith, Pidge, and the rest are the heroes, and joining into Voltron is an action that doesn’t call for a roll. The weapons and special abilities of Voltron do require a roll, though, by whoever is taking their turn at “controlling” Voltron.
I didn’t get to see the preview of “Wrath & Glory,” the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, at Free RPG Day a few weeks back, though it’s coming to PDF soon. The mechanic that I am aware of in the game, the one that caught my eye, is a balancing mechanism to make sure super-soldier Space Marines can be in the same party with low-level Imperial Guardsmen… it’s basically superhero tiers, like in Domino Writing-style USR. In that game’s case, the Guardsman has enhancements to reach the Marine’s level; in USR, of course, the lower-Tier hero has extra Narrative Points to accomplish the things other characters are expected to do normally.
But what if we added the 40K universe to the USR rules? There’s plenty of reference material — you know what an Adeptus Astartes is, even if you’ve never played any 40K game of any kind — and USR is a great way to tell the expansive variety of stories that can be told in that universe:
A down-and-dirty gang war (to show how tough and non-heroic ganger characters are, limit them to 2 Gear Points, take away all their Narrative Points, and roll dice to determine starting Hit Points, like in regular USR);
A battle against the ravening ork horde (take a cue from our exploration of tropes, and consider one ork blown away for each point of damage rolled by our heroes); or
A struggle between the mighty Space Marines and a daemon of Chaos (the main heroes and villains are at Tier 5 in a setting where the baseline character might be a Tier 2. Also, boost up their armor and weapons: Space Marine armor is probably worth more than a +3, maybe a +4, and Terminator armor is a +5 — higher than that and it will be tough for anyone to score a hit).
If you’ve ever read any 40K fiction, or even watched 40K video game cut screens, you’ll know there’s not much to most characters’ personalities: with the exception of a few Imperial Guard characters, everyone in the 40K universe just wants to kill somebody else (usually a lot of somebodies). In a role playing game, characters need to be distinct somehow, to be a “role” you can play. If you don’t want to go too far off the traditional 41st Millennium character type, try Specialisms like “Lone Wolf,” “Carries Big Guns,” or “Quick To Anger” — they offer the right attitude without making the characters much more than traditional 40K killing machines.
Here’s some other Specialisms for 40K: Team Player, Aggressive (all orks), Good With Native Populations, Devoted To His/Her Commander, Natural Leader, Perfect Physical Specimen, Hates Psykers, Lockpicking Tools, Likes Big Explosions, Stealthy, Historian