One of the reasons I introduced Divine Domains to Domino Writing-style USR is to feature these, the “American Pantheon” of god-like entities that represent aspects of modern American culture. They’re meant to be tongue-in-cheek, obvious stereotypes, but still representative of the U.S. today. And in a modern urban fantasy game, they’re probably more useful for heroes than gods are.
Here’s the first few:
Uncle Sam (G.I. Joe, Great White Father, The Man) God of patriotism Suggested Divine Domains: Law, Protection, War Favored Weapon: Assault Rifle Colors: red, white, blue Symbol: bald eagle Uncle Sam, often seen as a tall, thin white man dressed a ragged suit and top hat, is often criticized for his militant behavior, but is usually appreciated when he lends a helping hand (though sometimes his help isn’t wanted). He can be strict, telling the more fun-loving deities of the pantheon how they should live their lives, and sometimes interferes with divine powers of other pantheons. He is served by a donkey named Democrat and an elephant named Republican. His priests are politicians and soldiers, leaders of men and great warriors — and con artists who make others think they’re leaders and warriors.
Blonde Bombshell Goddess of desire and tragedy Suggested Divine Domains: Love, Deceit, Luck Favored Weapon: Whip Colors: yellow, red, black Symbol: red light Blonde Bombshell often appears to mortals as a beautiful young woman, but she changes her hair color like she changes her mood (suddenly and often). She appears to have a perfect life on the surface, but the struggle to be what everyone wants her to be puts a strain on her and her priests. She likes looking good and doesn’t like thinking about anything serious. Her followers use their blessings to get their way, and they see nothing wrong with that; they feel good making themselves happy.
Comic Relief God of jokes and pranks Suggested Divine Domains: Deceit, Chaos, Good, Evil Favored Weapon: Club Colors: yellow, green, gray, red Symbol: smiley face The great comedian exists to make people forget their troubles. Usually he makes them laugh, but in recent years, he’s become darker and more cruel, making offensive jokes that hurt mortals. But to Comic Relief, any joke that someone laughs at is a good joke. His priests are comedians themselves, artists, musicians and writers.
One of the few things USR doesn’t do well, because of the way it uses dice, is represent critical hits. In the d20 system, for example, a roll of 20 is a critical hit, since all attacks and skill rolls use the same die. But in USR, a player could be rolling a d6, d8, d10 or d12, and using the “you score a critical on the max result of the die” idea doesn’t work, mathematically speaking (you have a 16.6 percent chance of rolling a 6 on a d6, a 12.5 percent chance of rolling an 8 on a d8, a 10 percent chance of a 10 on a d10, and and 8.3 percent chance of rolling a 12 on a d12).
But scoring a critical hit is a lot of fun, and it opens the game to lots of different story opportunities — a quick search online turns up pages and pages of critical hit charts with different effects. The Unbelievably Simple option for critical hits is to simply add damage to the attack (called Critical Points in the chart below), hit points that the opponent loses, even if the enemy has a high enough roll to cancel them out.
For example, Bragan the barbarian, with an Action stat of D10, rolls a 10 on the die, and adds his Greataxe +2 for a total of 12. Kyranathus the dragon, also with an Action stat of D10, rolls a 9 and adds +1 for his Scales, for total of 10.
Normally, that means Bragan did 2 damage (since the defensive result is subtracted from the attacking result, and the leftover is applied to hit points). But with the Critical Hit roll, he gets 3 Critical Points, and the dragon takes a total of 5 damage. Even if the dragon somehow had a defensive total of, say, 15 (more than Bragan’s attack total, which would ordinarily result in no damage at all), the Critical Points would still apply, and Kyranathus suffers 3 damage.
Another option is spending Critical Points instead, or in addition to applying damage. These can be spent on the following options (and, of course, feel free to create more options):
Mighty Blow: roll 1d6 for additional damage, which can be blocked like ordinary damage.
Quick Response: make another attack against the same enemy.
Special Maneuver: the enemy is tripped, drops his weapon, loses the bonus for his armor, or some similar effect (the attacker chooses at the time the critical is rolled).
Sudden Movement: your hero moves up to half his ordinary movement rate immediately after the attack.
Use The Charts
Finally, you can roll a number of times on any critical hit chart you want equal to the number of Critical Points you have, and pick the option you like best. This may call for some judgement on the part of the game master if the critical hit chart has game effects that aren’t used in USR, but the simplicity of the system means it shouldn’t be hard to figure out.
In most fantasy games, there’s a pantheon of gods for cleric characters to choose from, that give them access to one or more domains, appropriate to the theme of the god (a god of fire gives access to the Fire and Light domains, for example). We took a look at Divine Domains last week; now let’s put them into practice and create divine powers, gods that offer different Divine Domains to heroes.
The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons gives you the Greek, Egyptian, Norse and Celtic gods, with domains that can easily be translated into USR Divine Domains. So let’s go a little farther out for our sample deities, the Etruscan gods, which were absorbed into the Roman pantheon (as were the Greek gods), and in my case which are listed here.
Some of these gods don’t lend themselves to traditional role playing positions — a cleric of the god of war, sure, but a cleric of the goddess of childbirth? That’s where the flexibility and creativity of USR comes into play. Divine Domains aren’t just a list of attacks; they’re also a description of a character’s behavior and even appearance. Is a priest of Thalna a midwife or doula? Is he taking a broad view of the term “childbirth” and summoning creatures to do battle with monsters? Is she “birthing” the world anew after a fight by healing wounds and cleaning up broken and ruined things?
Alpan: goddess of sexual love (suggested Divine Domains: Love, Passion)Ani: two-faced god of the passages (suggested Divine Domains: Movement, Good, Evil)Aplu: god of light and weather (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Storms)Cautha: god of the sun (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Fire, Good)Laran: god of war (suggested Divine Domains: War, Destruction, Death)Menrva: goddess of family and strength (suggested Divine Domains: Strength, Life, Family)Nethuns: god of water (suggested Divine Domains: Water, Storms)Nortia: goddess of fate (suggested Divine Domains: Luck, Knowledge, Good, Evil)Summamus: god of storms (suggested Divine Domains: Storms, Air, Water)Thalna: goddess of childbirth (suggested Divine Domains: Life, Light, Birth)Thesan: goddess of dawn (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Hope, Healing)Tin: god of the sky (suggested Divine Domains: Air, Movement, Good)Turan: goddess of romantic love (suggested Divine Domains: Life, Love)Turms: messenger of the gods (suggested Divine Domains: Movement, Knowledge)Uni: god of marriage (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Hope, Justice)Voltumna: god of vegetation (suggested Divine Domains: Nature, Air, Earth, Fire, Water)
One of the things I like best about Dungeons & Dragons is the distinction between arcane and divine magic. A wizard or sorcerer doesn’t choose spells the same way as a cleric or paladin. While wizards have had schools of spells almost since the beginning of fantasy gaming, the divine equivalent — domains — is a newer invention. It was spheres in second edition, then domains in third edition and beyond.
You’re probably familiar with domains: a small collection of spells and a few special abilities related to a theme, like “war,” “light,” or “death.” Many fantasy games, tabletop and otherwise, that feature clerics or priests have a similar setup, where characters of that type can focus on healing, boosting allies, or attacking foes.
From a characterization perspective, domains often suggest a personality for a character, even if it is a little cliché (a fire cleric is hot-tempered, a cleric of death is quiet and slow-moving). And that makes a domain, or what we can call a divine domain, a perfect option as a Specialism in Domino Writing-style USR.
As I said early on in this series, “Specialisms are what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting.” In this case, a divine domain is what a character can do — thematic attacks, changes in appearance, and so on. Let’s take a look at a few divine domain Specialisms. Because these are related to magical powers, we’ll say a character with a divine domain specialism can cast thematically appropriate spells. To keep things Unbelievably Simple, we’ll let the players and game master decide exactly what the spells are (though it would be easy enough to use the Classic Magic or The Force rules ideas I’ve described before).
Life Divine Domain: A character with this divine domain is a healer most of all, though some also dedicate themselves to destroying the undead. They dress in light-colored clothes and offer aid on the battlefield, sometimes curing injuries and helping the mortally wounded to their final rest, without making attacks themselves. They offer curative magic, like restoring hit points, removing disease, and providing life-giving energy (i.e., a bonus to a hero’s next attack).
War Divine Domain: This doesn’t just have to apply to a character’s ability to fight with hand-to-hand combat weapons, like it does in a traditional fantasy setting. War is also about strategy and tactics — a soldier with sword and a general with a map are both warriors, and a hero able to tap into the divine power of war is excellent at confrontation, with blades, guns and even their mind (isn’t survival on a wind-battered mountaintop a battle against nature?).
Death Divine Domain: Death can be a natural choice for an evil priest who desires to see all creatures wiped from the face of the planet, or risen again as soul-less creatures like vampires and zombies. It’s the opposite of the Life divine domain (and what kind of stories could be told with a hero who has both the life and death divine domains as Specialisms?). But it can also be used for good, for a hero who helps those in pain find a comfortable final rest, or for an undertaker who magically clears away scenes of horror and pain.
Fire Divine Domain: This divine domain immediately brings to mind priests dressed in red, hurling flames at their foes, and destroying buildings with a blazing hot touch. Like the Death divine domain, it can be used the opposite way, too, with a hero magically putting out fires and keeping evil priests with the Water divine domain in check. This divine domain makes it easy for players to describe their attacks (“I cause fire damage”) and offers plenty of ideas for personality traits too, aside from the cliché of “hot headed.” What about “simmering with rage” or “bright and energetic”?
Let’s add a new setting to the USR catalog, a fantasy world that’s not quite traditional fantasy (like we see in Halberd and Swords and Sorcery), or the “light” fantasy of Tequendria: The Eternal War.
Thousands of years ago, the sages say, Miolte, the goddess of light, and Gurias, the master of darkness, made a wager, another confrontation in their endless battle. The goddess said a single powerful soldier was the best weapon. The master of darkess argued that a horde of troops could do more damage. So, in this battle of quality versus quantity, two forces were conceived: the Soldiers of Light and the Dark Army.
Soldiers of Light are mighty warriors, crafty ninja and brilliant scholars. The Dark Army is made up of beasts, creatures spawned of hate and cruelty, that exist only to exterminate all life on the planet. Some are hideous fiends; others are beautiful and beguiling, seducing victims with their words. There are monsters like dragons and zombies in the world of The Eternal War, but only humans — no elves, dwarves, orcs or others of their kind, at least not that anyone has seen. There’s also no magic, no spell-casting except for the arcane gifts Miolte and Gurias bestowed on their warriors.
For every Soldier of Light, there’s 10, 50, maybe more of the Dark Army. But when a Solder of Light is killed, it is born again 24 hours later with the same strength and knowledge it had before death, with all the wounds it suffered healed fully. A Soldier of Light can never die (though clever members of the Dark Army trap Soldiers in boxes before killing them, or hang them from ropes: the Soldier is reborn in the same spot, trapped in an endless loop of death and rebirth).
A member of the Dark Army can be killed, torn apart with metal or wooden weapons like any creature. They aren’t born again after death; instead, leaders of the Dark Army can corrupt ordinary humans, turning them into servants of Gurias. In this way, by capturing innocents and giving hope to the hopeless, the Dark Army grows forever.
Warrior Primary Stat: Action Suggested Specialisms: Strength, Weapon Forging, Battlefield Tactics Suggested Equipment: Big Axe (+2), Heavy Plate Armor (+2)
Scholar Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms: Research, History, Herbalism Suggested Equipment: Books of lore on monsters and the Dark Army, Herbs for healing
This is a classic fantasy world — you’ll find swords, bows and chain mail here. There’s no magic, so no need for spells or magic items. And since heroes are Soldiers of Light, there’s also no need to create a new character if your old one is killed. Just move the story ahead 24 hours.
The setting is very action-oriented: note that both “warriors” and “ninja” have Action as their primary stat, and there’s no archetype for an Ego-based character. Soldiers of Light are focused on battling evil, not negotiating with it. There’s also little need for healers, since the Soldiers of Light are reborn, though it does take time for a Soldier to recover, and they can’t always wait around if the Dark Army is on the march.
The Dark Army is made up of monsters of all power levels. As in most games, the majority are level II or III, though leaders can be IV or V. Dragons, giants and similar creatures are at level VI, like in most fantasy settings (not every adventure has to be a battle against the Dark Army).
1. Quest giver: The heroes find themselves in the city of Rivermoor, where Tykan, head of the guards, instantly recognizes them as Soldiers of Light, and asks for their aid against a band of Dark Army bandits. They have been raiding merchant caravans coming into Rivermoor, destroying the goods meant for sale and kidnapping young people to transform into more of the Dark Army. Tykan mentions an old stone watchtower a few days’ ride out of Rivermoor that can be used as a base of operations.
2. Early encounter: Soon enough, a horde of Dark Army minions strike at a horse-drawn carriage coming toward Rivermoor. There is one minion per hero (or more if the encounter isn’t challenging enough).
3. Clue to final confrontation: Whether by questioning a captured foe or following their tracks, the heroes come across the site where the Dark Army is making their wretched sacrifices.
4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes arrive in time to break up a sacrifice, hopefully defeating the Dark Army cultists before the young man at the center of their circle is transformed into one of them.
5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): No matter what happens, the man will be saved in time. But now he has to be escorted through the wilderness back to Rivermoor while wild animals and more Dark Army troops follow.
6. Final boss: Hearing that Soldiers of Light are in Rivermoor, Rolzier, a Dark Army general, is waiting with his best warriors for the heroes to return.
What stories will you tell in the world of The Eternal War?
One thing that makes RPGs pretty unique among ways of telling heroic stories is that they’re designed to present the stories of a team. Most of the time, a story — a movie, a comic, a novel — features one hero: James Bond. Conan. King Arthur.
Some heroes have allies, but they’re definitely secondary characters: Little John to Robin Hood, Bucky to Captain America. There are teams in superhero comics (Justice League, Avengers), and of course in fantasy novels (Fellowship of the Ring, Companions of the Lance), but they’re less common. So, how can you portray a story with one hero, when your RPG group is made up of several players?
One option is to use the tiers introduced for superhero characters, where one character is tier 4 or even 5, while the others are 1 or 2 (they’re the base tier of character). Another is the option that games like The Legacy Of Zorro or Dr. Who take, where the main character isn’t a player character option. They’re off on their own adventures while the heroes of the game are doing something else to advance the cause.
Here’s two examples of a “One Big Hero” setting for your adventuring party.
Night Time Guardians: Vengeance is a super-powered warrior, the only one in the City. Even with his amazing dark powers, he needs help to stop villains like the Klown, the Back-Breaker, and master thief the Cat Burglar. Vengeance is a tier 5 hero for one player, capable of saving the day and battling the villains by himself (thanks to his extra Narrative Points). But he needs drivers, hackers and young martial artists at tiers 1 and 2 to keep the Double-Man’s minions in check while Vengeance goes after the big target. Vengeance’s super powers alone won’t solve the Questioner’s puzzles, either; he’ll need other heroes for that.
Hunters Of The Forgotten: Dr. Harry Smith is an explorer, searching pre-World War II jungles and deserts for valuable treasures. But he’s busy battling other treasure hunters and power-mad army generals. So he’s recruited you and the other heroes to find the ancient statues and mystical jewels hidden in ancient ruins and remote caverns that he doesn’t have time to seek out. The heroes meet Dr. Smith at the beginning of each adventure. He points the way to get the action started — and drops in whenever the game master thinks the characters need a little extra help.
There are some very good rules sets for magic abilities in the USR world, including ones modeled after the Dungeons & Dragons rules we’re all familiar with (that’s what we see in USR games like Sword & Sorcery, and Halberd), and the more “need to interpret” rules I put together for the Force in Star Wars.
Spells often need to be limited — otherwise, why bother picking up a sword if a fireball can do much more damage, and used just as often? In Halberd, the solution is for spells to cost Hit Points from the spellcaster, which makes sense in terms of the traditional fantasy genre: the wizard is always weaker than the warrior, because he’s sacrificing his health for magical ability.
And we can borrow from the mighty tomes of spells written for RPGs over the years, where characters can choose a handful of spells at each level, with a more powerful spell (a “higher level” spell) being just as easy to cast, but less likely to be cast since it costs so many hit points. To keep things Unbelieveably Simple, as we like to do, we’ll require spellcasters to select only two spells at level 1, and one at each additional level for a grand total of six, since characters in our USR games only go to level 5.
You can cast them as often as you like, but you have to spend the listed hit point(s) first. Casting a spell counts as your action for a turn, or is considered part of your attack action — for example, Magical Missile is an attack by itself, but casting Entangling Vines adds to an attack roll using the Wits stat. And of course, the exact details of the spell are up to the player and the game master to work out, provided it helps tell a better story.
Here’s a few simple spells to choose from; you can probably think of hundreds more using the same guidelines. A rough estimate is a cost of 3 hit points per single die of effect.
Cure Heavy Wounds: +2d6 hit points to yourself or another individual (6 hit point cost).
Cure Light Wounds: +1d6 hit points to yourself or another individual. (3 hit point cost — yes, you can suffer more damage than you recover if you use this spell on yourself!).
Detect Magic: All magicial objects and creatures in an area the size of an average room glow a faint light blue for the next few moments, long enough for you to discern where they are (1 hit point cost).
Entangling Vines: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +2 roll, opposed by the enemy’s Action roll; on a successful attack, that enemy cannot move for the rest of the combat encounter, unless it uses its entire movement and action on a turn to free itself (3 hit point cost).
Fireball: Choose one enemy and make a Wits +3 roll, opposed by an Action roll; on a successful attack, the enemy suffers 2d6 damage (6 hit point cost).
Light: The spellcaster touches an object and for the next hour, the object glows like a lantern. It can only be “turned off” by the spellcaster (1 hit point cost).
Magical Missile: 1 automatic damage to an enemy you can see (2 hit point cost).
Teleport: One creature or object is instantly moved from its current location to somewhere else within eyesight of the spellcaster (5 hit point cost).
The traditional RPG adventuring party is a group of strangers brought together to battle evil. We all know “You meet in a tavern,” or “The government recruits you as a hand-picked team to fight the villain.” But what about a team specifically put together before adventuring: a military unit (G.I. Joe), a school class (X-Men) or even a band (Josie and the Pussycats)?
You can simply say that’s how the group came together; it provides a built-in quest giver (the General, the Professor, the Band Manager) and a reason to stick together for more than a single adventure. But it also provides an option for Team Benefits. Your adventuring party can select one of these when the characters are created, and can add more as they increase in levels (one suggestion is when all the characters reach level 2 or 3). They make characters slightly more powerful than ordinary Domino Writing-style USR characters, but only in certain situations. Like most rules options, it adds a little more “crunch,” but the goal, as always, is to keep it Unbelievably Simple.
Team Benefits can be used by everyone in the group. They require one action per character, and it doesn’t take effect until all the characters have “spent” their action on the Team Benefit. For example, the players may not want to all use their turn in the same round to use a Team Benefit during combat — if they did, the enemies would get a free attack (since no one would be attacking the enemies on that turn). A Team Benefit can only be used once per game session.
Here’s a few examples of Team Benefits, inspired by similar rules from the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Players Handbook II, and the Fantasy Flight Games Deathwatch RPG.
Amazing Performance The heroes automatically succeed at one action roll for an action that the entire group is doing together (for example, searching for tracks or inspiring the common people to rise in rebellion, but not picking a lock or driving a car).
Battle Fury +2 to all melee attacks by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.
Pack Tactics One character (of the heroes’ choice) can take another turn immediately.
Rally Cry One character (of the heroes’ choice) immediately regains all of his Hit Points or Narrative Points.
Stand Your Ground +2 to all defensive rolls by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.
Withering Fire +2 to all ranged attacks by heroes for the rest of the combat encounter.
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.