We’ve met Thor and Loki before, but what about some of the other stars of the Marvel Universe? 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).
Iron Man, Level 2, 5 Experience Points
Action D8, Wits D12, Ego D10
Specialisms: Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist +2, One Man R&D Department +3, Multi-Talented Scientist +2
Hit Points: 25
Equipment: Multiple Iron Man armors +2 to offense and defense
Narrative Points: 3
Wolverine, Level 3, 10 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: What He Does Isn’t Very Nice +3, Sense Danger +3, Lone Wolf Always Part Of Teams +2, Mutant Healing Power +2
Hit Points: 32
Equipment: Sharp Retractible Claws +2
Narrative Points: 4
Even though Domino Writing-style USR characters have a good number of hit points and variety in their weapons and armor (even if it is only differentiated as Light, Medium and Heavy), combat in a rules light game system will be quicker than in a more “crunchy” game like most on the market. That’s one of the reasons people play rules light games, so they can tell a story, not play a wargame. Here’s a few ways to get the best of both worlds — a battle that lasts a while, but isn’t just:
“I swing my sword at the orc.” (roll to attack)
“Your swing misses.” (players fall asleep)
Terrain: a battle doesn’t have to take place in a room with no features. At the very least you can have obstacles like furniture, walls or plant life. But you can also literally change the scenery as the combat goes on. What if the floor is shaking because the building is falling apart, or an earthquake is rattling the ground? What if a nearby lantern catches the furniture on fire, a fire that spreads further each round? What if there’s several levels to the battle, where some of the enemies are high above, shooting down, while others are directly in front of the heroes?
Maneuvers: Disarming the enemy, throwing sand in his face — these are easy to forget while in the heat of combat, when it seems easiest just to keep cutting away at the foe’s hit points instead of trying different tricks. A game master can encourage the use of maneuvers by changing the setting a little bit. One way is by making the characters chase the enemy, so they have to drive or fly at the same time they’re opening fire. Another is to give the heroes, and villains, a chance to catch their breath. What if the laws of physics suddenly stop working, and everyone has an opportunity (say, one turn) to freely move around or come up with a quick plan before getting right back into the action?
Third-Party Problems: The heroes are on one side of the battle, the enemies on the other, and then a dragon comes bursting out of the ground? Or someone steps on a hidden trigger, and poisoned darts start flying across the entire room? Or the jewel that both the heroes and villains are competing to get is grabbed by someone else, and they start running of with it?
The laws of physics being violated in combat in “Inception.” (
image: Legendary Pictures
All of these options can lengthen the time spent in combat, while making it much more memorable than just adding hit points to a monster so it stays in the fight longer.
In most USR combat, speed is a secondary consideration, represented by an initiative roll (in Domino Writing-style USR, that’s Action + Wits) at the start of the battle, just to determine turn order. But in some kinds of combat, speed is much more significant: a Wild West showdown at high noon, or a situation where a bomb is triggered and starts counting down, and everyone (the good guys, at least) has to get out of the room before it explodes. So how can you simulate that while sticking with the Unbelievably Simple guidelines of USR?
Western USR, by an author whom I don’t know (update: Jay Murphy — thanks, Jay) has a great idea: while normal initiative is a representation of reflexes (Action) and tactics (Wits), combat that relies so heavily on who goes first should instead add Ego to the mix. It represents the steely eyed glare of the veteran sharpshooter intimidating the uncertain novice, or the cool head needed to switch instantly from “I’m carefully setting the wires on this explosive device” to “Get out! Go! Go! Go!”
We can also take an idea from early versions of Dungeons and Dragons, weapon speed. The higher the speed rating, the slower the weapon was, and the longer it took for the attacker to get it ready to strike. The trade-off, of course, is that slower weapons are usually much more damaging. In USR, the bonus provided by a weapon or armor can also be used to adjust a character’s initiative roll — but in this case, since higher initiative goes earlier in the combat round, subtract the weapon or armor bonus from the initiative roll. A dagger (+1) is a lot easier to flick at a foe than loading, chambering and firing a shotgun (+3) is. A fist (no bonus) is even faster, but unless your character has a Specialism like Martial Artist, it won’t affect the outcome of combat much.
It makes combat encounters last a little longer, but roll initiative each round instead of just once at the start in a combat situation like the ones we’re describing here. It keeps players on their toes if they don’t know exactly where they’re taking action in any given moment, appropriate for a battle so reliant on quick action.
Finally, if you’re comfortable with a little more math in your USR game, start counting bullets. A Wild West showdown, in the movies, usually ends immediately: one guy is dead, or the other one is. But RPG combat lasts longer; both gunmen will probably fire a few times before it’s over. And if one runs out of bullets first, bad luck for him. You could also assign a penalty for injuries. The easiest option here is simply a -1 to dice rolls if the character is below half of his starting Hit Point total, but a good hit could also knock a weapon from someone’s hand, or strike a kneecap, forcing them to the dirt. It’s more bookkeeping, but can really help bring a tense confrontation to life.
In the original discussion on social combat, we made it a parallel to regular combat, except the main stat we’re using is Ego, not Action. The parallels can be the same for adventures, too, but they’re probably harder to recognize.
Regular combat could be:
a battle in a dungeon room with a handful of orcs
A showdown over a precarious bridge with a powerful evil wizard
A one-on-one fistfight with a giant robot
A suspenseful hunt through the building corridors, looking for a way out or the magic button that destroys the bad guy’s headquarters
Talking a guard into letting you pass without attracting attention
Getting an informant to give up the information he’s got that your heroes need
Rallying exhausted troops for one final assault on the enemy
Encouraging a crowd to join your side when all they want to do is run or turn against you
Social combat can use several Specialisms, like Intimidation, Seduction, Charm, Quick Wit, Etiquette, Detect Lies, Arrogant, and more. Each can be used just like a weapon attack, but is even more specific. A character with Plate Mail +2 can use it against any sword or axe — but a character with Detect Lies +2 isn’t going to get much use out of that Specialism when facing a character using the Specialism Intimidation.
Combat, whether it’s with Action or Ego (or Wits, in the case of supernatural powers), can be as detailed or as simple as the players want. One character’s Action + Sword might be one character’s action, after another character’s use of Ego + Fast-Talk fails to get the guard to move out of the way. Everyone has a chance to participate: the mighty barbarian, the wise sorcerer, and the quick-witted minstrel.
How will your heroes use their social combat Specialisms?
These are some of the most, well, archetypal kinds of characters found in role playing games, assembled in the Risus Companion and revisited here for USR characters in almost any setting; earlier I created archetypes specifically for modern-day adventurers.
Some of these archetypes overlap in their suggested Specialisms or in their role in an adventuring party. That’s fine; most characters have more than one dimension to their personality, and few adventuring parties have room for a dozen heroes.
Athlete (soldier, martial artist, jock) Primary Stat: Action Suggested Specialisms: Endurance, Honest And Reliable (And A Little Dim-Witted), Strong, Fast Suggested Equipment: none
Driver (pilot, knight on horseback) Primary Stat: Action Suggested Specialisms: Driving/Piloting (multiple vehicles), Gunnery, Repair, Riding Suggested Equipment: Vehicle — but only a basic model, one he can update and improve constantly
Mechanic Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms: Inventing, Repair, Research Suggested Equipment: Tool kit, Several strange gadgets that nobody should touch unless they want to put a smoking crater in the wall
Medic (Doctor, Cleric, Therapist) Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms: Medicine, Psychology, Chemistry (or Alchemy) Suggested Equipment: Medicine bag
Noble (CEO, King, General) Primary Stat: Ego Suggested Specialisms: Leadership, Resources, Inspiration Suggested Equipment: An unlimited amount of money (temporarily)
Scholar (Sage, Scientist, Professor) Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms: Research, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, Ancient History Suggested Equipment: Library (of books or material on an electronic device), A weapon that he’s mastered after reading about its use in a long-extinct culture
Sneak (Thief, Spy, Assassin) Primary Stat: Action Suggested Specialisms: Move Silently, Observation, Remain Motionless, Lockpicking, Hacking, Agile Enough To Avoid Tripwires And Sensors Suggested Equipment: Lockpicks, Black clothing
Warrior (Soldier, Fighter, Knight, Mystic Warrior) Primary Stat: Action Suggested Specialisms: Weapon Mastery, Endurance, Spiritual Control, Athletics, Unshakable Faith Suggested Equipment: A big gun or sword, Armor
Wizard (Sorcerer, Gadgeteer) Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms: Inventing, Spellcasting, Knowledge Of Other Worlds Suggested Equipment: Spellbook, Devices that violate the laws of physics
I didn’t include stats for the new heroes of the “Star Wars” films in my series on the movies, but since opening weekend is this Friday, I have a perfect opportunity to do it now. This is as of the end of “The Force Awakens.” If you’re reading this a few years later, make updates based on what’s happened in the other movies!
Kylo Ren, Level 2, 5 Experience Points Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8 Specialisms: Quick Temper Leading To The Dark Side +2, The Force +3, Interrogation +2 Hit Points: 21 Equipment: Lightsaber +2, Armor +1 Narrative Points: 4
What are the stats for other characters in “The Force Awakens”?
The way to earn Narrative Points in a USR game is simple: have fun with the game while you’re playing it. Years ago, I ran a game of Toon, where I awarded a Plot Point (that game’s equivalent of Narrative Points) to one of my players for something I found funny. Toon, as the name suggests, is all about being cartoony, but my players took it the wrong way, deciding that the way to “win” was to get me to laugh so they could collect Plot Points, instead of telling an entertaining tale. The moral of that story is to hand out Narrative Points often, so players see that they’re available for just about any reason, and earning them is fun in itself.
You start with three Narrative Points, and may have a few more if you don’t spend all your Combat Gear points when creating a character, or when you’re using superhero rules. So you’ll probably earn 2, 3 or maybe 4 back during a typical game session — enough to keep using them all through the game.
Then again, if the players and game master agree, Narrative Points can be handed out constantly. This creates a game where players are revising the story as they go, as in a fourth-wall-breaking cartoon (Daffy Duck or Deadpool), or boosting every attack and damage roll until heroes are blowing away legions of even very tough bad guys without a sweat (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone). It’s all up to the kind of game everyone wants to play.
Here’s a few ways to earn Narrative Points in your USR game.
Good roleplaying: Help tell the story in a way that makes it more fun for everyone, and in a way that makes sense. This can be suggesting an idea that improves a scene and that doesn’t make your situation better (doing that would call for spending a Narrative Point). Suggest a better way for a monster to attack the heroes using its surroundings, or make your best effort at using the exact dialogue your character would use when talking to the king.
Be true to your character’s behavior: When you created a character, you came up with a general idea of how he or she would behave. In other words, this is how you would actually role play your character (that’s right, a video game RPG is not an RPG, it’s a method of collecting virtual prizes). This could be sticking to an RPG cliché (following the law of the land, even if it would be easier to cheat) or taking a cue from a character from another work of fiction (talking at a rapid-fire pace, never stopping to take a breath).
Doing what makes sense for your character, especially when it makes the situation more challenging for the heroes, can be worth a Narrative Point. It should usually just happen once per game session — a character doesn’t need to constantly be rewarded for literally being themselves. Also keep in mind that role playing games are social games about heroes; there’s always someone who wants to be the lone wolf, going off on his own adventure, or who wants to murder everyone in town. In a typical game, that may be true to the character’s personality, but it’s not much fun, and shouldn’t be encouraged by awarding Narrative Points. It probably shouldn’t even be allowed for a character, unless you’re trying to role play “Grand Theft Auto” or something.
Doing “cool stuff”: This covers everything else, from making everyone at the table laugh at something related to the game, to rolling really well and describing how awesome your character’s performance was for that action, to another RPG cliché, bringing pizza for the group to enjoy.
Surprisingly, most professionally published role playing games have little to say on their equivalent of Narrative Points. Savage Worlds suggests you earn Bennies for good play. Fate gives specific requirements on how to regain a Fate Point, with its jargon of “compel,” “concede,” and “invoke.” Of the games I own, Toon actually offers the most help (interesting that it’s much older than the other games, dating to 1984). Its ideas are similar to the ones I’ve listed here.
What “cool stuff” would earn a Narrative Point in your game?
One of the things I like best about USR is the balance between a quick, rules-light narrative role playing game system and the “crunchy” rules sets of bigger games. Though Specialisms are meant to be very flexible, the rules around them provide more structure than games like Risus or Apocalypse World. At the same time, USR doesn’t demand a page full of numbers, like Pathfinder or the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars systems.
With Narrative Points, USR joins the ranks of games like Fate (Fate Points), Savage Worlds (Bennies) and even Fifth Edition D&D (Inspiration) in providing an option for players to have a more direct impact on the story, either by affecting die rolls, or in some cases outright changing the game master’s description.
In Domino Writing-style USR, Narrative Points can do four things, as listed on the character sheet:
1. Add to or change a scene the game master has described.
This is very flexible, definitely on the rules-light side of things. There’s no hard and fast rule, but a good guideline is that it should encourage the story. This use of Narrative Points isn’t to affect die rolls, but to (usually) make the situation more advantageous to the heroes.
If a thug successfully shoots your hero, the game master shouldn’t allow you to use a Narrative Point to say he missed (the dice already show that he hit). Instead, the police could show up — or just be heard in the distance, depending on the story the game master wants to tell. You could even spend a Narrative Point to say after that shot, the thug’s gun jams. He doesn’t run out of bullets, in case the game master wants the thug to attack again, but the moment or two while the gun is jammed may be enough for the heroes to make another plan.
Or imagine the heroes are trying to escape out of a building while guard dogs (or security robots) chase after them. They’re deep in the building and need a place to hide. Spending a Narrative Point, one character “suddenly” discovers a storage room where the heroes can huddle in the dark until the threat passes. A Narrative Point probably wouldn’t be used to “suddenly” find a door out of the building, on the other hand, since that could bring an abrupt end to the game — what if the heroes were supposed to be caught, or what if escaping the building means the adventure is over, and game night still has two hours to go?
2. Automatically succeed at a non-combat die roll.
This option also needs to be examined carefully by the game master, because it too can end an adventure right away. It’s a good way to speed up to more exciting parts of the story.
A thief character wouldn’t spend a Narrative Point to automatically undo a lock — picking locks is part of what makes the character fun. But on the other hand, using a Narrative Point to automatically pick a lock guarantees it’s opened safely, without triggering a trap or signaling an alarm.
It can also be helpful to avoid danger, like automatically crossing a swinging rope bridge, or to speed up time, like finding an important clue in the university library before the campus cops show up, wondering why there’s a group of heavily armed men walking past the shelves.
3. Re-roll a die roll in combat.
No one wants to miss, of course, but because damage in USR is dependent on the attack and defense rolls, you don’t just want to roll good enough, you want to roll as high as possible. There’s no limit to the number of Narrative Points you can spend at one time; spend a bunch to keep “editing” the scene until that bullet hits the bad guy in just the right way.
4. Regain d6 lost Hit Points.
Though Domino Writing-style USR allows for more starting Hit Points than regular USR does, an action-adventure story will always come with the risk of injury and death. Remember to describe the way those Hit Points are being recovered. Is your hero stopping to catch his breath? Is he grabbing a nearby first aid kit? Is he taking a break for a refreshing afternoon snack? Mechanically, adding Hit Points is a simple procedure, but it too can be a fun part of the narrative of the game.
As always, game masters have the final say, and as always, it’s more fun if the game master and players come to an agreement that makes for a more enjoyable story.
Narrative Points start with three, and you and add more if you don’t spend all your Combat Gear points, and even more if you’re using superhero rules and are at a different Tier than the base level of the game.
You regain your starting amount at the beginning of each game session, but you can also get them back during the game. How? We’ll look at that next time.
We’re putting the Six-Step Adventure design to work, with two different adventure ideas. They haven’t been playtested (yet), but they’re examples of how the adventure design can be used for brief, but still satisfying night of role playing.
Fantasy Adventure: This one takes place in a generic fantasy setting (for example, Halberd or Tequindra). It’s a pretty straightforward “dungeon crawl,” the kind seen in RPGs since the 1970s, and that makes it a good way to try out the format in a familiar context. Don’t forget to add some unique elements to the combat encounters — a battle in an empty room or forest clearing isn’t that exciting, but add obstacles, a time limit and different locations, like a high balcony to shoot down from, or the top of a moving train, and you’re adding to the action.
Quest giver: The heroes are accompanying a merchant carrying a valuable treasure of some kind in a simple wooden box that’s magically locked. The merchant doesn’t know what the treasure is, only that he’s supposed to get it to the sorcerer who hired him.
Early encounter: The merchant and his caravan are attacked by a group of bandits. There are more bandits than the heroes can handle, so that no matter how many they defeat, the merchant is killed and the treasure taken.
Clue to final confrontation: The heroes interrogate a bandit, or (more likely) find a map to a wizard’s tower with the symbol of a rival wizard on it.
Secondary encounter or challenge: The map leads through obstacles, like a small battle with a bear, and a rickety bridge over a lake. These are meant to be brief encounters, a chance to experiment with unusual environments or unique ways to use their Specialisms.
Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): Once over the bridge, the heroes enter the wizard’s tower and confront the wizard’s monsters — for example, a dragon or a mechanical guard, or even more bandits.
Final boss: The rival wizard himself, who uses the treasure, which has some kind of combat effect (for example, it fires a beam of energy, or creates a magical force field).
Defeating the wizard ends the adventure; the heroes can return the treasure to the sorcerer and earn gold and prestige.
Modern Adventure: Here’s a story in a more contemporary setting, with a little bit more social interaction. The heroes meet a rival team of explorers, giving them a chance to compete with or cooperate with that group. Killing off the rival team also demonstrates the danger of the adventure, without keeping the heroes from completing the story.
Quest giver: A government agent hires the heroes as a salvage team to recover a lost treasure (gold from early explorers) on a shipwreck — it’s in pirate-infested waters, so he doesn’t want to risk veteran divers.
Early encounter: The heroes are attacked by a pirate ship that wants to take them over; another salvage crew appears to help fight off the pirates. They are from a private salvage company.
Clue to final confrontation: The other crew shares the location of the shipwreck from their research.
Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes are lowered into the ocean with other team of searchers to begin the search, but their shark cage has been tampered with, and sharks attack.
Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): The two teams race to recover the treasure.
Final boss: No matter who recovers the treasure, the heroes and the private salvage crew return to their ships to find the government agent waiting there, with his own set of troops. The sailors on both ships are dead; the government agent wants the treasure for himself.
How do these Six-Step Adventures work in your gaming group?
I’ve been rewatching “Game Of Thrones” recently, in anticipation of the seventh season being released on disc (we’re buying each season as it’s released, and watching it then, so no spoilers). The CG for the dragons is impressive, for the most part, and every time I see them on screen I’m reminded of an old game, the AD&D 2nd Edition “Council Of Wyrms,” which boils down to “Dragons as PCs.” This is full-size dragons, not dragonborn; the character’s scale color stands in for race, and there are mages and priests and so on. I’ve never actually played in the setting, but “Dragons as PCs” is a great way to try the USR rules on an entirely different scale.
Dragons are, of course, powerful enough to rule entire kingdoms (as they do in the later “Dragonlance” novels) or destroy armies (as they do in “Game Of Thrones”). How do you recreate that level of power in USR? You could start with the superhero rules, setting them at Tier 4, but the tiers only work with varying levels of power — a Thor vs a Punisher. If everyone’s a massive dragon, take a cue from Risus, and change the scale of target numbers for non-contested rolls, decreasing them all by two points. So it looks like this:
2 Medium 3 Making a Close Range shot 5 Hard 7 Making a Long Range shot 8 Very Hard 12 Nearly Impossible
The characters can still fail on a die roll, but it’s a lot harder to do so, since they’re physically and magically utterly powerful creatures. Monsters in this setting are scaled down, too. A single human or elf has stats of D4 and 1 hit point. A party of adventurers out to slay your hero is probably at Power Level I or maybe II. A giant, an actual threat to a dragon, might be a Power Level III or IV creature. The rules don’t change, just the numbers.
Then there’s the adventures themselves. A group of dragons likely won’t be crawling through dungeons, unlocking doors and fighting goblins. Instead, try adventures on a larger scale:
Seek a treasure — in the realm of the gods
Investigate the murder of an ancient dragon, dealing with armies of humans, elves and dwarves firing arrows at you as you search for clues
Negotiate with other societies (giants, demons) to make room for the ceremony that will bring an elder dragon to godhood