This week, I’ll look a back at some of my recent rules and settings and provide characters for them.
Tournament Fighting and Wrestling Ryu, Level 1, 0 Experience Points Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6 Specialisms: Focused On Training +2, Barely-Contained Dark Side +2, Strong But Silent +2 Hit Points: 18 Equipment: none Narrative Points: 7
Most characters in adventure fiction (movies, novels, comics, games) are somewhere between age 20 and 40. Thanks to the popularity of young adult fiction ― the “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potters” of the world ― that age range is getting lower. Older characters are getting a little less attention, though for every wise “Obi-Wan“ mentor there’s a still-vibrant older protagonist: think of the “Taken” series, or “The Expendables.”
Older versions of Dungeons & Dragons have rules for younger or older characters, which basically boil down to: older characters have more mental ability but less physical ability, and vice versa. Very young children (under 10) are not playable because they can’t keep up with adult characters. But of course there’s plenty of child-focused action-adventure fiction: “PJ Masks” and “Stranger Things” on TV, Power Pack in the comics.
RPG rules adjusting character stats to account for age do seem to be a thing of the past. So instead let’s look at a few potential settings for young and old heroes.
Teen superheroes may be tortured with the angst of gaining unique, incredible powers while trying to fit in. But kids actually enjoy having powers: it’s not a burden, it’s a joy. Our kid supers are mutants, born with abilities and living with kind and loving families. No horrifying scientific experiments or orphaned children here; this setting isn’t about grim darkness. These heroes have fun being super, and stopping bank robbers. Our model here is Dash from “The Incredibles.”
Like animals, kids can see the supernatural when adults can’t. They can peer through the mystical illusion created by ghosts which makes them invisible, and the one cast by vampires which hides their undead nature. Kids know the truth; getting adults to believe them is difficult, so a lot of the time they have to stop the monsters on their own. A secondary trope of this genre is the power of belief; a child’s courage or fear is more “pure,” more powerful, than an adult’s, which is tempered by skepticism and being too busy to think about things like monsters. The 1987 movie “The Monster Squad” and Stephen King’s “It” are the models.
In both of these “Kid” settings, the children are as competent as adults, if not more. Giving them lower stats or fewer Specialisms would be a punishment, and not really represent the characters as seen in fiction. Instead, the players should be challenged not by game mechanics, but by societal rules that hamper what they can do. A young character can’t get anywhere he wants to go, unless he can ride his bike there, or get someone older to drive him. A young character isn’t old enough to have a credit card… but she has resources, if she’s good at using the internet (in a setting where it exists).
A bank robbery or a sting operation is fun to watch on screen ― as long as the team making it happen knows what they’re doing. The best way to guarantee the heist happens like clockwork is to bring in the long-experienced experts. Start characters at level 4 or 5, toward the top of the Domino Writing-style experience track. Pick skill Specialisms like Hacking, Lock Picking, and Getaway Car Driving. The heroes will be able to accomplish almost everything, but remember that the difference between the die roll result and the Target Number can tell the game master how well they accomplish a task: Say there’s a thief making an Action roll against a Target Number of 6, to sneak past the guards. On a result of 12, he gets past them easily. On a result of 7, he still gets past them, but not without making a little noise ― cut to a scene of the guard radioing to his partner that he’s going to investigate a sound (on a result of 4, the guard wouldn’t hesitate, he’d just sprint over to where the thief is).
There’s an old saying: Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill. Everyone in a royal court is scheming to increase their power and influence, but it’s the veterans in the palace who have the connections, the money, and the ruthlessness to succeed. A character in this setting should put the d10 in the Ego stat, then follow up with the d8 in Action (for former generals) or in Wits (for master courtiers). Heroes don’t fight the battles; they send poor saps out to do the fighting. A die roll in this setting isn’t about quietly, carefully assassinating a foe ― it’s about how convincing the character is in pretending to grieve the “mysterious death” of a rival the next morning.
A Specialism has been defined in this blog before: “Specialisms are what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting.” That includes skills like Computers, special abilities like Spellcasting, or traits like Charming. It can also include aspects that build the world the character lives in, like Captain Of The Starship Conquest (now the game world contains spaceships) or Former Member Of The Thieves Guild (now the game world contains enough thieves to form a guild). These kinds of Specialisms can lead to more things in the game — the Captain may own his own spaceship the heroes can use, if the game master allows; the Thieves Guild may be after the hero, a ready-made story hook for adventures.
But what if they’re not important enough aspects of a hero to be one of his or her three starting Specialisms, or won’t come into play in every single scenario? That’s when they become Influences.
Influences are “minor” Specialisms. While an ordinary Specialism starts at +2 and goes up to +5, at least in Domino Writing-style USR, an Influence starts at +1 and only can reach +3. It’s not meant to be an additional Specialism, just a bonus in certain situations that reflect the game world. The entire adventuring party could even have the same Influence.
Unlike a Specialism, which increases when the character reaches a new level, an Influence changes when the story calls for it. A hero who performs a great deed may earn a +1 to one of his Influences, while another character whose behavior indicates that she’s turning away from the source of the Influence could lose a bonus (possibly even going into the negatives — another difference from Specialisms).
What is an Influence? Its other name, Faction Specialism, is one idea: a political or other authority in the world which can lend money, equipment or other resources, like a royal house (the Starks or Lannisters from “A Song Of Ice And Fire”), a military force (G.I. Joe or SHIELD), or a private organization (a mafia syndicate). A character with a +1 in the Sunburst Clan could use his Influence to impress members of the clan, or intimidate its enemies. A character with a +3 in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force could use the bonus to try and requisition the best planes for himself and his men.
Another kind of Influence is a characteristic that powers a character, or a lot of characters in a certain kind of setting. This could be Honor or Sanity or even a pair of Influences — say, Light Side and Dark Side, where one increases when the other drops. Influence could also be more combat-related too, like the “power meter” a video game fighter needs to charge up to release his Ultimate Attack. Each time the hero performs a particularly cool move, his Power Influence goes up by one, making him more suave, tough and fast. When it’s time to blow away the bad guy, it’s all used in a single attack roll, and falls back to zero.
I finished that project I started back in the fall. The one thing that most superhero RPGs have that Microlite 20 Costumes didn’t is a list of power packages, or combinations of abilities and skills ready to plug in to an existing template. Microlite 20 Costumes features six templates, generic character types at different levels:
Pulp (level 4)
Street Level (level 6)
Sidekick (level 8)
Typical (level 10)
Advanced (level 12)
Superior (level 15)
Each leaves between 20 and 90 Power Points available to spend on powers and abilities. And with the new Power Packages collection, you can pick your favorite power set, adjust them for number of Power Points you have to spend, and go. No need for a lot of math to calculate your superhero. Here’s the Power Packages available:
That covers most of the superheroes found in the Big Two’s books, and makes getting started with Microlite 20 Costumes a lot quicker. The Power Packages are a separate document from the Costumes rules, though found in the same place here on the web site. Next up: a little road-testing of these rules, with an all-out superhero slugfest brought to life on the tabletop.
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).
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
I didn’t include stats for the new heroes of the “Star Wars” films in my series on the movies, but since opening weekend is this Friday, I have a perfect opportunity to do it now. This is as of the end of “The Force Awakens.” If you’re reading this a few years later, make updates based on what’s happened in the other movies!
Kylo Ren, Level 2, 5 Experience Points Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8 Specialisms: Quick Temper Leading To The Dark Side +2, The Force +3, Interrogation +2 Hit Points: 21 Equipment: Lightsaber +2, Armor +1 Narrative Points: 4
What are the stats for other characters in “The Force Awakens”?