Last week, I introduced the concept of Free-Form Specialisms, where instead of pre-determined skills and abilities, a character can use his “+1s” to do anything he needs to do on an adventure. You lose two “+1s” if you settle on a Specialism. Let’s put this concept to work in a popular RPG setting: the world of secret agents, master thieves and assassins.
In fantasy and space opera-type science fiction, the character archetypes are instantly familiar (and have already been created for USR on this very blog): wizard, rogue, pilot, bounty hunter. Espionage games have their archetypes too — hacker, mastermind, femme fatale — but secret agent characters have more than one ability.
To represent this, give your hero a single Specialism as his archetype, and then also put for “+1s” on the character sheet. This is something like Pierce Brosnan-era Bond or the efficient, nick-of-time thieves of the “Ocean’s” movie series. If you’re playing a high-level espionage game, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond or Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. story, you might want to tack on another “+1” or two, and that’s not counting any bonuses awarded for super-spy gear. Characters in a more down-to-earth game (say, Jason Bourne, or even something like “Taken”) could have fewer “+1s.”
If a character is only in the story for a moment, they’re probably best represented as NPCs. Q, the gadget-maker for James Bond, shows up just long enough to deliver a few spy tools to 007, then disappears. If he traveled with Bond, creating weapons and devices while James was seducing women and negotiating with super-villains, then he’d be a player character.
What’s a good spy archetype? I mentioned a few before, but there are more:
Brawler — hand-to-hand fighting, martial arts
Detective — seeing clues others miss, following rumors and suspicions to the end of the line
Driver — every spy can drive (or fly) fast; only drivers can pull off stunts that strain vehicles to their maximum
Femme Fatale — seduction, keeping attention on herself (or himself) so others can do their jobs
Gadgeteer — inventing tools, detecting and defusing traps
Hacker — breaking into computer systems, writing viruses
Infiltrator — breaking into buildings, slipping through locks, defusing security systems
Mastermind — conceiving a plan, changing the plan on the spur of the moment when it goes wrong
Politician — con artist who’s good at making allies and using his words to cool everything down
Sniper — master of all firearms, expert at extremely long-distance shots
Soldier — punching, shooting, staying in the fight longer than anyone else
Animals, standing on two legs with human-like arms and speech, are a classic character type in many games — the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course, but also creatures like the minotaur and cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse.
Here’s a general list of animal types to choose from. Given USR’s very broad character types, one animal can cover a lot. An elephant can also be a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus, or even an Apatosaurus; a hawk can be everything from a condor to a sparrow. A wolf can be a large dog, or a werewolf, if the important thing in your game is the “wolfishness” of the character, not the horror element of changing from human to monster. The hawk and wolf will be in the next blog entries.
The primary stat for an animal can represent several different things.
Action: brute strength or lean, quick agility
Wits: raw cunning or near-human-level intelligence
Ego: an intimidating presence or “take me home with you” cuteness
There is a great anthropomorphic USR game already, which suggests Specialisms based on the character’s background. In this version, the stereotypes associated with each animal in popular culture and nature are the suggested Specialisms.
Ape Primary Stat: Wits Suggested Specialisms (3): Tool Use, Swing Through The Trees, Brute Strength
The tropes of role playing games can really help when you’re looking to make your game as unbelievably simple as it can be. We’ve already mentioned the archetypes of race and class, which after decades have become shorthand not only for what a character can do, but how he or she is expected to act (you know exactly what a dwarf paladin is as soon as you read the words. Same for half-orc ninja). But there are other tropes that can shape your game, too, and, depending on the tone you’re going for, can be folded into every game session.
A movie cliche for years, this is the series of scenes showing the characters getting ready ― training for battle, building the ultimate vehicle, plotting the heist, even going on dates with not-quite-the-right-guy. If all the characters agree to be part of a montage, each one describes what they’re doing during the montage. After the montage, each player gains a +3 to any one die roll related to what was happening in the montage. This can happen only once per game; after all, a montage song is expensive, and the movie studio can’t afford to buy two of them. The mysterious man in the corner of the tavern told the party about the dragon’s hoard in the nearby cavern. The heroes are gearing up for battle. During the montage, the warrior sharpens his sword and lifts weights, the wizard’s hands crackle with electricity as she practices spells, and the thief slides daggers into his boots. A synth-rock song plays in the background. When the dragon rears its head, the song’s chorus echoes in the cavern. The warrior gains a +3 to his first sword attack against the dragon.
Mooks are, of course, the faceless, nameless troops of the bad guy, all in the same outfit: COBRA, Imperial Stormtroopers, orcs, various aliens, etc. They’re meant as more of an obstacle than a threat, a way to introduce action without draining the heroes’ ammunition, powers, or health. The traditional way to represent heroes wiping out armies of mooks is to give them 1 hit point each. If you’re using miniatures rules, you might want to give them 5 hit points each, so they stick around long enough to get placed on the battle mat. For an extra-violent (or extra-silly) take on mooks, a hero’s die roll in combat isn’t compared to the opponent’s defense roll, like it normally is; instead, the attack automatically hits, and the total rolled is the number of mooks annihilated that turn. The aliens come swarming over the hill as their queen scuttles behind them. The heroes grab their guns and open fire. An Action roll of 6 is enough to defeat the alien’s 4; it falls to the ground. One less beast to deal with.
In a “serious” game, a hero’s death is very final. When the hit points are at zero, it’s time to create a new character. But other settings — superheroes, robots — are meant for heroes who don’t really die. In those kinds of settings, a hero at zero or fewer hit points just falls out of action (unconscious, or simply out of the line of fire, no longer a target for enemies). And a deathbed vow can revive them. Once per game, any hero can give a brief speech while next to or touching a character who’s at zero or fewer hit points. As long as the speech includes phrases like, “He was the best of all of us,” (even if he wasn’t) or, “Your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” the character will immediately regain half his or her total hit points. It’s a special kind of healing that can be done for the victim once per game session (hopefully a character won’t need it that often!). “Commander! Say something!” called out Private Jackson, leaning over the officer’s bloody body. “You took that bullet for me, I can never repay you…” The commander opened his eyes and reached in his pocket. He pulled out a small Bible with a bullet through the middle. “Always count on the good book, son,” the commander said, and stood up.
Under-equipped or over-equipped
While writing stats for Star Wars and Superhero characters, I discovered something: the “spend 4 Gear Points” character creation rule doesn’t quite apply to movie and comic characters the way it does to RPG heroes. Most screen characters have a single favored weapon, and no armor, especially in modern-day or future settings. Unspent Gear Points are added to Narrative Points, which makes sense, given the amazing things most heroes do regularly. But a game master could also go back to the basic USR rules, and just give characters the equipment that seems appropriate for them. One hero might have a single sword, while his partner carries an entire arsenal of guns ― if the story they’re telling is still fun, there’s no need to “balance” heroes with Gear Points.
Tai-Rikuji, or Sun Land, is the home of the People, the farmers, merchants, soldiers and nobles of an island nation that rules the world — or at least all of the world they can see. For thousands of years, the great kingdom of Tai-Rikuji covered the length and breadth of the land, from the ice-covered mountains in the north to the dense, sweaty jungle in the south. They used spirit magic to control nature and sometimes settle disputes among one another, but nothing serious: there was never a revolution, nor civil war in the land. The Tai-Rikujin, the People, were safe, happy, and productive, until some 100 years ago, when the first ships of the foreigners landed on the eastern shore.
At first they seemed like friends, willing to trade goods and bring new learning to Tai-Rikuji. But the dream of peaceful harmony ended quickly. The strangers brought new weapons, deadly guns and massive tanks, but they weren’t necessary. The strange men and women from over the Great Sea had their own horrifying secret: they were half human and half beast. They called themselves werewolves and wererats, wereboars and werejaguars, shapechangers of every kind. The People just called them Yonaka, the Night Creatures.
Some of the Yokana slaughtered the Tai-Rikuji, while others tricked them, stealing their land or claiming thrones for their own. The People learned to fight back with the Yonaka’s own weapons and their own magical powers… though some find becoming Night Creatures themselves is the best way to win the war.
The classic fantasy hero types all have a place in Tai-Rikuji, though there are no elves, dwarves, or any non-humans (except lycanthropes). The setting is a fantasy Japan, so the warriors are samurai and ninja, the sorcerers meditate to regain spells, and healers touch pressure points to cure wounds. Thematically, spells reflect the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac: a straightforward attack spell might be called “Tiger Claws,” while a spell that lets the caster see into the future could be named “Eyes Of The Rabbit.”
The Tai-Rikuji setting uses the Influence rule in two ways.
Honor is something all characters and NPCs have. It starts at +1 for the Tai-Rikuji, and -1 for most Yonaka. It raises when a character does something helpful and good, and drops when a character harms another without reason, or takes an action that ultimately damages his friends and family — physically, socially, or otherwise. Deciding on what is and isn’t an honorable action is a big part of any adventure in the setting. Influence maxes out at +3 or -3, and a character at either of those ratings gains a special ability. Here’s a few examples:
Blast: The character can fire a pulse of raw energy, swelling with good or evil light (depending on the character’s Honor), that does 1d6 damage in addition to the regular damage applied when making an attack.
Aura: The character sends out a wave of mystic power, making allies stronger (+1 to their next action) or making enemies cower and fail at a die roll.
Elemental Control: The character can ask the spirits of the land for aid (for Honorable characters) or bend them to his will (for Dishonorable characters). He can walk on water, pass through fire without even a cinder, or crush stone into dust.
Influence is also used as Faction Specialisms; in the Tai-Rikuji setting, factions are clans of Tai-Rikujin, torn apart and suspicious of one another thanks to the plotting of the Yonaka. Like spells, the clans use the 12 animals of the zodiac — the Rooster Clan is reliable and firm in its decisions, while the Monkey Clan is clever and sly, sneaking and scheming to rid themselves of the Yonaka, and the other troublesome clans. A character with a +1 or more with a clan can call on its members for support: supplies, troops, whatever the clan can offer.
What stories will you tell in the world of the Tai-Rikuji?
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?
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
It’s Halloween season, time for a look at this classic genre for role playing. There are many ways to mix horror and gaming — fantasy has plenty of horror-themed beasts, and no game is complete without a nod toward H.P. Lovecraft’s creations. But today we’re going back to the 80s and beyond.
Slasher films feature a supernatural creature attacking a bunch of nobodies. Think “Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Friday The 13th.” This is not about setting the mood for a look into the darkness of the human soul; this is about teenagers having sex and showers of blood!
Time to roll for initiative: good luck. (image: New Line)
It’s a perfect genre for a game like USR, because statistics are less important in a narrative game. No one in the setting can go toe-to-toe with Freddy or Jason; they’re much too powerful. Instead, the protagonists have to out-think or at least out-run their enemy. You could have a game where players are the monsters themselves, but that’s really just a superhero game (without the “hero”), and it’s not what we’re going for here. This idea was inspired by the Slasher Flick RPG.
In a slasher film game, each player creates three characters, using the standard Domino Writing-style USR rules (though without assigning equipment or spending Combat Gear points). Specialisms in this game should lean heavily toward stereotypes, like Cheerleader, Jock, Redneck, Naive, and Rebellious.
You can determine Narrative Points and Hit Points for the characters, but they probably won’t use them. And don’t forget to create a slasher — make sure it’s got a signature weapon (a clawed glove, a chainsaw) and a gimmick (attacks in dreams, possesses the body of a doll).
When the slasher is ready to start its rampage, roll a die to decide which of the characters is the first victim. If there’s three players, that’s nine characters; roll a d10 to decide which one is first. Other characters may be in the scene, but the current victim gets the spotlight.
Create a scenario for that victim: what they’re doing before the slasher shows up and what they do to escape or fight back. The scenario should have three die rolls built into it. Here’s a few examples.
Run away from the slasher (Action)
Build a trap from stuff around the campsite (Mind)
Try to explain the horror that’s just up ahead to the gullible county sheriff (Ego)
Grab a farm implement and start swinging it at the slasher (Action)
Summon magical powers you only have in your wildest fantasies to attack the slasher (Mind)
Talk the slasher out of fighting back (Ego)
Tell a story with those dice rolls mixed in. It’s a “best two out of three” situation: if the character succeeds at two or three of the rolls, he or she survives… for now. After each character has told his or her own little story, count up the number of survivors. If more than half are alive at the end, the players win, but that’s the end of that horror movie franchise — fans are there for the clever kills, after all. If half the survivors, or fewer, remain, the slasher joins the fraternity with Michael Myers and Ghostface.
Now that we’ve looked at a lot of the basics to help expand your USR games, from Specialisms to vehicles and monsters, let’s turn to settings. And if the sales charts from ICv2 are anything to consider, the most popular genre after medieval fantasy is “Star Wars.”
For Domino Writing-style USR, “Star Wars” consists of the classic trilogy (“A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return Of The Jedi”). The prequels and sequels have new ideas to offer the “Star Wars” universe but nothing as indelible as the original films. I won’t be writing much about them, though I’m looking forward to someone providing stats for Qui-Gon Jinn and Kylo Ren.
Everyone in this picture, too. In a few weeks there will be stats for one of them. (image: sonsofcorax.wordpress.com)
In most fantasy RPGs, a character has a race and a class. Despite appearances, that’s not the case for Star Wars, where a character’s species really isn’t that significant. A Wookiee might have Strong +2 as a Specialism, but a Rodian or Ithorian doesn’t have particularly strong “racial” characteristics. Droids, on the other hand, are nothing but special abilities. Consider Multi-lingual +2 or Computer hacking +2 (Specialisms droids from the films might have).
A character’s profession is best described using an archetype, like the ones we’ve seen for modern-day characters and in USR games like Somnium Void.
Note: “Rogue With A Heart Of Gold” isn’t really a good Specialism, since there probably aren’t many ways to apply the bonus this would provide if it was a Specialism. It’s a great description of the character’s personality, though.
Primary Stat: Mind
Suggested Specialisms: Dedication, Leadership, Inspiration, Athletics, The Force*
Suggested Equipment: Lightsaber
Primary Stat: Action
Suggested Specialisms: Endurance, Military Tactics, Terrain Knowledge
*A note on The Force: To simulate the Jedi or other Force-users at the most basic level, the player simply makes a Wits roll against a target number determined by the game master, depending on the complexity of the power. We’ll get into a more involved (but still Unbelievably Simple) version of The Force next time.