USR Wednesdays: One Big Hero

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.

USR Wednesdays: One Big Hero
Many actors, one hero. (image: movieweb)

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.

What kind of “One Big Hero” story will you tell?

USR Wednesdays: Classic Magic

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.

Classic Magic
Raistlin & Caramon, the wizard and warrior team I always think of first. (image: Wizards Of The Coast)

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).

What spells will you bring to your USR games?

USR Wednesdays: Team Benefits

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)?

Team Benefits
Yes, this is a playable RPG party. (image: space.ca)

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.

What kind of Team Benefits will your heroes use?

USR Wednesdays: Marvel Superheroes

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).

Marvel Superheroes
Pictured: All of today’s heroes, and more. (image: Marvel)

Captain America, Level 3, 10 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: Leadership +3, Military Tactics +2, Shield Throwing +3, Art (drawing) +2
Hit Points: 30
Equipment: Chainmail Armor +1, Mighty Shield +3
Narrative Points: 3

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

Spider-Man, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D12, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Shoot Web +2, Chemistry +2, Photography +2
Hit Points: 22
Equipment: Webshooters
Narrative Points: 7

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

USR Wednesdays: Three Ideas For Descriptive Combat

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?

Now imagine this with people holding axes and crossbows.

    • 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.

What are your favorite ways of describing combat?

USR Wednesdays: Quick Draw

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!”

Quick draw: the master
This guy has a Specialism in Steely Eyed Glare. Probably at a +4. (image: United Artists)

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.

Where can you use quick draw rules in your games?

USR Wednesdays: Social Combat And Regular Combat

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
Social combat in action
In this scene from “A Few Good Men,” Col. Jessup loses a social combat encounter. (image: Castle Rock Ent.)

Social combat, on the other hand, is:

  • A confrontation in a courtroom (here’s a good example, and here’s another)
  • 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?

USR Wednesdays: More Archetypes

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.

The A-Team: A Perfect RPG Party
A warrior, a driver, a charismatic and a noble plus lots of guns and a cool van makes for a great adventuring party. (image: iofabric.com)

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

Charismatic (bard, con artist, rock star)
Primary Stat: Ego
Suggested Specialisms: Inspire, Perform (music, rousing speeches, etc.), Charm, Seduce
Suggested Equipment: Musical instrument

Detective (private eye, seer, psychic investigator)
Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Investigate, Interrogate, Sneak, Perception, Hard Drinking
Suggested Equipment: Trenchcoat, Revolver

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)

Outdoors (Ranger, Hunter, Scout)
Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Nature Knowledge, Perception, Survival
Suggested Equipment: Longbow (even for modern-day characters)

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

Which archetypes did I miss?

USR Wednesdays: The Last Jedi

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!

Rey, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: The Force +2, Mechanical Repair +2, Survival +2
Hit Points: 18
Equipment: Quarterstaff +1, Blaster Pistol +1, Repair Tools
Narrative Points: 5

Last Jedi stats for USR Star Wars
They’re both making Action rolls… Finn just barely met the target number. (image: thefandom.net)

Finn, Level 1, 0 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D6, Ego D8
Specialisms: Firearms +2, Gunnery +2, Leadership +2
Hit Points: 16
Equipment: Blaster Rifle +2
Narrative Points: 5

Poe Dameron, Level 3, 10 Experience Points
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Pilot +3, Navigate +2, Military Commander +2, Streetwise +1
Hit Points: 28
Equipment: X-Wing, Blaster Pistol +2
Narrative Points: 5

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”?

USR Wednesdays: Earning Narrative Points

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.

The Merc with a Mouth... and lots of bullets.
He’s trying to earn Narrative Points by being cartoony AND violent. (image: 20th Century Fox)

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?