USR Wednesdays: The End

Well, this is it… Google+ goes away in a week, before the next entry in this series would appear there. Of course, we’re on MeWe now, so it’s a moot point, but it does give me an excuse to write about this topic: Bringing an end to your game.

If your roleplaying game experiences are anything like mine, your games nearly always end because players stop showing up, and it’s impossible to schedule a game session. So usually you have stories that end somewhere in the middle. But in this case, we’re talking about a satisfying ending, something dramatic and exciting that leaves your fictional world different (better?) than before.

A tropic storm, or Cthulhu?
Your new game setting.

Really The End

The first thing that comes to mind is a literal end, like a 4A or Robot Revolution story, where the world faces an apocalypse and is never the same. The player characters are the heroes of your story; why not make them the people who literally change the world forever? They may defeat the villain, but at a dramatic cost to the land around them. Or maybe the world has always been decayed from a great, fanciful Golden Age, and the heroes have made it a little less difficult, at least for the people they have to live with every day.

Level Up

Another option is for the characters to drastically improve. Of course the end of an adventure is a great time to level up — but let’s take this post-apocalypse concept a little farther, and show how, in the words of Lucy from “The Lego Movie 2”:

“This new life has toughened and hardened us all.”

Give the heroes a bonus +1 or +2 to spend on their existing Specialisms or to create a new one. It represents them developing their skills and honing their survival instincts in the time between the old world and the new, post-apocalyptic one. It may be just days since the nuclear bombs fell, months after the zombies rose, or even two years after the melted ice caps raised the water level 20 feet and drowned millions before the heroes start adventuring again. No matter what happened, the heroes have had a chance to improve in the chaos following the apocalypse.

A Whole New World

Or maybe it’s time to recreate characters entirely — they keep their personalities and inherent qualities (stats), but their abilities (Specialisms) and equipment (Combat Gear) changes. What if the fantasy heroes fall through a magical portal into the modern world? And a high-tech cyberpunk’s talents with a computer won’t help if he’s dragged into the poverty-stricken underworld of the megaopolis. Their first adventure in their new setting will be a struggle, as they’re literally not “built” for the experience. But after each successful adventure, give the heroes a chance to swap a no-longer-useful Specialism for one they’ve had a chance to learn, and trade out their equipment for something more useful.

P.S. I’m using the opportunity of “The End” to take a little break, too. USR Wednesdays will be on hiatus for a few weeks. I plan to come back to it with more setting ideas, adventures, and characters. In the meantime, I want to work on the website where you’re reading this, and also turn these blog posts into a book — a “Pathfinder” to USR 3.0’s “Third Edition,” if you will. I will come back here and update. I appreciate the readership, and I will keep checking in for other great USR ideas.

USR Wednesdays: Other Horror Monsters

You’ve read my take on zombies and vampires already, but what about the remaining classic creatures of the night, or at least a few of them?

Golems

Frankenstein’s monster, the original clay golem of Jewish folklore, living statues, and other creatures made of organic material are all types of golem. They’re usually supernaturally strong and tough, and almost always under the control of their creator. In USR terms if created as a character, they probably have a +2 or +3 toughness bonus as a regular Specialism (above and beyond any armor bonus they’re assigned by spending Combat Gear points). But their Ego stat is usually low, and they’re easily ordered around by more forceful personalities.

I didn't get to the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Phantom of the Opera. Maybe next time.
Is this your character?

Werewolves

  • A hero that can shapeshift into an animal (and possibly also into an in-between, hybrid wolf-man state) is really created as several characters:
  • The standard human, created like any other Domino Writing-style character
  • The in-between creature, which starts like the human character — but a player can adjust its bonuses from Specialisms to better reflect the character’s hybrid form. In other words, a human hero with a Computers +2 Specialism would lose that Specialism when shifted into the hybrid form, but it would gain a Bite +1 attack, and a Scent +1 Specialism as well. The character’s Action, Wits, and Ego stats stay the same. Create one set of Specialisms for each form.
  • The animal form, which is a type of monster, usually Power Level II or II (but maybe as low as I or as high as IV).

Ghosts

Call them phantoms, apparitions, spirits… they all have the ability to appear and disappear at will, and phase through solid matter. A ghost character gains the ability to interact with the living at will. As in most ghost lore, a ghost that accomplishes a particular goal it was trying to achieve in life will move on. But if it’s slain by some other means, it dissolves into nothingness, or is sucked into a horrifying dimension where it has no identity of its own, and is just fuel for the mad whim of a greater terror.

USR Wednesdays: Two Adventures

Fantasy Intrigue

With inspiration from RPG writer Ryan Macklin. Ask of each character:

  • What does he or she want? (That could be to change something or to maintain the status quo. Don’t fight for change 100% of the time).
  • Why can they not just have that? (That could be adversity, incomplete needs, a bit of both).
  • Point to another character when answering these questions (either or both of them).
  1. Quest giver: The heroes are a team of bodyguards hired by the local lord to protect his cousin and superior, the duke. The duke came to your city with his own set of guards — you are backup. The duke is kind but cheap, and his guards aren’t very loyal. You are paid well by the lord.
  2. Early encounter: While out hunting, the duke wanders off and is attacked by a monster. His guards flee or are killed in the battle.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: Searching the bodies of the monsters, you find the mark of a wizard from your city. If the bodies aren’t searched, indications of a spy watching the battle are noticed by one of the heroes or an ally.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: With the threat to his life, the duke is confined to the castle until the lord conducts an investigation. The heroes are assigned to the investigation and head to the wizard’s tower. An illusion of him appears to speak with the characters, and when they ask him about the monsters, he disappears and sends them into a portal to battle a monster.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): Escaping the battle, the characters rush back to warn their lord and the duke of the treasonous wizard. But the wizard emerges from the shadows to the surprise of the heroes and the duke. The lord and wizard have conspired together to overthrow the duke, and the heroes weren’t supposed to get this far.
  6. Final boss: The wizard fires spells at the heroes. For an extra challenge, the lord can be a skilled warrior or even a shapechanged monster like a doppleganger or a lycanthrope. If the heroes win the battle, the duke rewards them by inviting them to his court… and a smaller than expected reward.
A land cleared of vegetation. And for what?
Blight on her way to the scene of the crime.

Superhero

This is a classic “team of heroes vs. a villain”-type story.

  1. Quest giver: Each hero is in their secret (or public) identity when they see a news report or get an alert that the First National Bank has been robbed in broad daylight, and millions in bills and paper securities has been taken.
  2. Early encounter: A trail of destruction leads the heroes to an abandoned steel-mining factory on the east side of the city. Inside is Catastrophe, the Mountain of Muscle, and/or Commander Pulsar, who fires beams of solid light. They’re ready for a fight.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: Only some of the stolen cash can be found in the factory, in a pile that Catastrophe and Commander Pulsar were building. The rest is being carried away on long, withered vines — the sign of Blight, the Queen of Pollution.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes know McArthur Park is where Blight usually makes her hideout. Getting to her is difficult, with dozens of traps and plant-based minions in the way.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): Blight is in the park, as expected, but she’s not hoarding the money. Instead, she’s transformed the paper fibers in the cash and securities into a giant plant creature that joins her in the battle.
  6. Final boss: Blight and her monster have to be defeated together before she can, of course, be sent to jail.

USR Wednesdays: Health Variants

Hit points may be the most significant “mechanic” that roleplaying games introduced to the world of games. Before Dungeons & Dragons, game characters were either “up” or “down” (think of Pac-Man’s lives or even the one-hit armies of chess). And while there’s no exact agreement on precisely what hit points represent — Physical health? Willingness to keep fighting? Raw toughness? — there’s many ways to represent them.

Domino Writing-style USR calls for a lot of hit points: your character’s maximum Action stat plus maximum Wits stat (both physical and mental fortitude). Standard USR replaces maximums with a die roll from both stats, but the idea is the same. Here’s a few ideas to change the way health is used in your game. Note that most of these variants are best in a game with lots of combat, where the health amount will change repeatedly.

The original medusa.
The stunned condition at work.

Conditions


This comes directly from the most recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons: other effects besides straight hit point loss; things like being stunned, poisoned, or even charmed. They lend themselves very well to simple effects in combat, or occasionally negative Specialisms. Here’s some of the most common:

Confused: Before the character starts his or her turn, roll a d6:

1-2 — the character can act normally

3-4 — the character loses his or her turn, babbling incoherently

5-6 — the character causes 1d6 damage to him or herself from shock, accidentally bumping into something, or for some other reason

Fascinated: The character stays in place, and takes no actions this turn. Any obvious threats to the character immediately end the fascination. This includes a magical charm like hypnosis or even seduction.

Frightened: More severe than shaken, the character suffers a -2 penalty on all appropriate die rolls until he or she gets away from what was frightening.

Poisoned: The character suffers a -1 penalty to all appropriate rolls until the poison is eliminated (by waiting it out or by taking an antidote). This can also represent disease.

Shaken: Less severe than frightened, the character suffers a -1 penalty on his or her next appropriate die roll.

Stunned: The character skips his or her next turn in combat. This can be extended to more than one turn to represent things like being tangled in vines or even frozen in ice.

Decreasing Dice

One of the “unrealistic” things about hit points, especially in older games, is how they don’t have an effect until the end. A hero with 50 hit points can fight just as well as one with 3 hit points — but they both keel over at 0 HP. A simple way to debilitate characters (and monsters) a little bit is by decreasing dice: Each time a character loses 10 hit points from the character’s maximum, they also decrease stat dice by one rank, from D12 to D10 to D8 to D6 to D4. This decrease goes away by one rank as the character heals.

For example, a hero with 22 hit points and an Action stat of D10 who falls to 12 hit points now has an Action stat of D8. At 2 hit points, his Action stat is D6. If he goes back to 3 hit points, it returns to a D8, and at 13 or more hit points, he’s back to his original D10 Action stat.

Usually this effect only applies to a single stat (say, Action if the character is attacked by a life-draining ghoul, or Ego if a character’s honor and status in society is completely obliterated).

This variant can also be used to represent serious injury. The D20 versions of the Star Wars Roleplaying game and the Palladium system games like “Rifts” use something like this, where serious damage has long-lasting effects. Hit points can be healed fully (or at least up to half the character’s original hit points) after every combat encounter, but serious wounds — as judged by the game master — result in a lower die for a stat, and stick around until an appropriate time in the story.

Flashback

This comes from the Savage Worlds RPG: A character can heal back to full health at any time — as long as they narrate their recovery. It can be a scene where the character is sitting and talking about his or her past, and how it led to today. It can fill in the gaps in the narrative, explaining how something happened that the players haven’t yet heard about (think of a heist movie, where you get filled in on how part of the caper was pulled off after the action is over). The goal is to add more to the story and the world of the characters. The reward for the player is to heal back to full hit points.

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: After-Apocalypse Auto Action

That alliterative name is probably all you need to picture this otherwise unexplored Domino Writing-style USR setting. Thank “California Love,” “Car Wars,” the opening of the trailer for “The Lego Movie 2”… oh, and the Mad Max films. So there’s one thing this setting can’t go without: vehicles.

Scott Malthouse’s “Somnium Void” rules are great for the more complex vehicles rules we want in a 4A setting (I just came up with that name!). But we’ll tweak them a bit to bring them in line with the rest of the Domino Writing-style rules. Here are their stats.

Maneuver: The target number needed to successfully perform a stunt that’s above and beyond the regular driving or flying needed to get from place to place. In a 4A setting, water is very rare; there probably aren’t any boats to pilot, and getting into space… forget it. Specialisms like Driver and Cool Under Fire are helpful here, along with the Action die.

2   Easy (dodging debris on a smooth road)
4   Medium (changing direction on a rough road)
7   Hard (pushing your car past its speed maximum without losing control)
10  Very Hard (driving smoothly through a crowded city street)
14  Nearly Impossible (jumping over a canyon)

In combat, vehicles are monsters ― literally. We’ll use the same guidelines we used for monsters to generate generic cars, trucks, and bikes.

Type Armor Hit Points Examples
Bike +1 10 Motorcycle, Urban Mini Car
Small Car +2 15 Commuter Car
Large Car +3 20 Luxury Car, Pickup Truck
Small Truck +4 25 Sport Utility Vehicle
Large Truck +5 30 Semi-truck, RV

Armor: This is the vehicle’s own armor combat bonus, added to the hero’s Action die roll if they’re hiding behind the vehicle, or driving it as they’re being shot at.

Hit Points: When a vehicle loses all its Hit Points, it’s no longer drivable. A vehicle can regain Hit Points with a successful Wits roll and time ― usually 1d6 per hour in the auto repair shop; 1 point per successful Wits roll when in the middle of a battle. Vehicles can have extra armor bolted on, but something with too many Hit Points takes a frustratingly long time to defeat: no fun in the world of the story, or in the real world.

We don't need another hero...
In the heat of the action. (image: informationweek.com)

Chases were described in an earlier post, and they’re a key part of the 4A genre. Essential, even. Grab some toy cars and stick spikes and guns and mohawks all over ’em. The chase rules are written for two “markers” to represent a Pursuer and a Target, but for this setting, don’t just use the simple straight line to show the chase. Add broken-down vehicles as obstacles, and the harsh desert sands. Let the vehicles swerve and skid, barreling toward one another on a last-chance power drive. That’s what the 4A setting is all about!

Last but not least, the best part of all, weapons. A vehicle can carry weapons with bonuses equal to the vehicle’s Armor bonus before it’s too heavy and unwieldy to move. A Small Car (+3 Armor) can have:
A roof-mounted machine gun in a turret +2 and a crossbow +1
A flamethrower +3
A spiked front bumper +1, a shotgun on the door frame +1, and a net that can deploy from the rear bumper +1
Don’t forget about gimmicky weapons like tire-puncturing blades, oil slicks, and the roof-mounted heavy metal guitar player on a bungee cord (not a weapon himself, but definitely a Specialism used in combat!)

USR Wednesdays: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Leonardo (Turtle-Folk), Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Turtle Leader +2, Spirit Of The Samurai +2, Swimming And Breathing Underwater +2
Hit Points: 18
Equipment: Pair of Katana +2, Shuriken +1, Shell +1
Narrative Points: 3

Donatello (Turtle-Folk), Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D8, Wits D10, Ego D6
Specialisms: Does Machines +2, Computer Nerd +2, Swimming And Breathing  Underwater +2
Hit Points: 18
Equipment: Bo Staff +2, Shuriken +1, Shell +1
Narrative Points: 3

Raphael (Turtle-Folk), Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D8, Wits D6, Ego D10
Specialisms: “Cool But Crude” Moody Loner +2, Aggressive +2, Swimming And Breathing Underwater +2
Hit Points: 14
Equipment: Pair of Sai +2, Shuriken +1, Shell +1
Narrative Points: 3

Michaelangelo (Turtle-Folk), Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D6, Ego D8
Specialisms: Party Dude +2, Friend To Everyone +2, Swimming And Breathing Underwater +2
Hit Points: 16
Equipment: Pair of Nunchaku +2, Shuriken +1, Shell +1
Narrative Points: 3

They're never out of style.
The classic team ready for action. (image: StalePretzels on DeviantArt)

As brothers, the Turtles are excellent at working as a team. They can select team benefits, including the following that are more closely linked to how they operate in the comics and on screen.

Turtle Power: +1 to melee attacks and +1 to defense rolls for the rest of the combat encounter.

Silent Strike: +3 to initiative rolls for one encounter, as long as each turtle is able to approach the enemy without being seen or heard

I Love Being A Turtle: +3 to any die roll to befriend, intimidate, or research, usable on one die roll.

USR Wednesdays: Vampires

Creatures of the night are, of course, one of the most popular character choices in role playing, thanks to a slew of White Wolf games created in the 1990s and beyond. It inspired dozens of similar games, like “Nightlife,” and is still pretty popular; a new edition was released only a few weeks ago.

White Wolf-style vampires are very distinct from traditional RPG characters, with an emphasis on mood and personality, versus an emphasis on killing monsters and taking their stuff. But that’s not the only way to play a vampire game — a vampire can just as easily be a superhero, a character with abilities far beyond those of an ordinary person. There’s Marvel’s Morbius and Blade (a half-vampire, technically). Angel from the old “Buffy” TV show has the advantages but not many of the drawbacks that bedevil Dracula. There’s a vampire protagonist in at least a few of the “Castlevania” video games.

Here’s a few vampire-related personality Specialisms that make for heroes, or at least antiheroes:

  • Hideous Fiend
  • Mysterious Noble
  • Refined Artiste
  • Savage Killer
  • Tortured Hunter Of His Own Kind

You can hear that accent now.
Classic Dracula is best Dracula. (image: Universal)

The word “vampire” usually conjures thoughts of a tuxedo and a cape (Bela Lugosi in the 1931 “Dracula”) or a leather jacket (Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” movies). The looks may change but the powers remain fairly stable. Being fictional, there’s no hard and fast rules about what vampires are capable of, but here’s a few traditional abilities that can make for good Specialisms:

  • Animal Control
  • Animal Summoning — specifically, bats, rats, or wolves
  • Flight
  • Rapid Healing
  • Shapeshifting — specifically into bats, rats, wolves, or mist
  • Super-Speed
  • Super-Strength
  • Walk On Walls

And, of course, the one thing that makes a vampire a vampire: the ability to stay in “un-life” by drinking the blood of the living. In some fiction, the reverse, where a living creature drinks the vampire’s blood, turns it into the vampire. In others, a single vampire bite will do the trick. Sometimes, especially in stories where vampires are essentially dark superheroes, using supernatural abilities “costs” blood. In game terms, it reduces the vampire’s Hit Points. In fiction, a vampire can only use powers a few times before it’s too weak to go on — it needs to drink or sleep to recover.

Bloodsucking is a melee/hand-to-hand attack, made without any bonuses from weapons. If the victim isn’t willing, the vampire must succeed at an Action roll to hold the victim in place long enough to drink blood (which takes a single action — unless you want it to take longer for dramatic effect). Each Hit Point that’s drained from a victim is restored to the vampire, like any other healing.

USR Wednesdays: Simple Dice

If you’re like me, you have a pile of miniature figures and battle maps that don’t get nearly the amount of time on the tabletop as you’d like. And you have dice… so many dice, of different shapes and colors. Some unique dice with unusual faces — but most of them are the types seen in so many role playing games: d4 through d20. In USR, only the d6, d8, and d10 are used (also the d12 in a Domino Writing-style superhero game). But what if you don’t have those dice at hand?

Unlikely, since if you’re reading this you undoubtedly have gaming dice, or at least access to a free die-rolling app. But I’ve roleplayed on a backpacking trip, and when on a trip away from home in the pre-cell phone days, when the only gaming material on hand was a deck of playing cards and a partial Monopoly game. Monopoly has tokens you can use as miniatures, and more importantly for our purposes it has two six-sided dice, or 2d6.

Steal 'em from Monopoly, of course.
These dice, specifically.

You can use 2d6 to simulate the die results for the typical USR game:

 

Die Size

D6s to roll

Range of Results

d6

1d6

1 to 6

d8

1d6+2

3 to 8

d10

2d6

2 to 12

d12

2d6+2

4 to 14

As you can see, you’re more likely to see higher results than with ordinary USR dice, especially after adding in Specialisms, weapons and armor. It also doesn’t work if you need to roll a critical success (highest result on the die) or critical failure (lowest result on the die), as the odds of rolling each are very skewed. This option isn’t really meant to replace the standard rules, but instead fill in when needed.