USR Friday: War and Military Campaigns

Due to life happening, this is a Friday entry; I’ll get back to normal Wednesdays next week.

War! What is it good for? Well, in game terms, it’s good for a lot of fun adventuring. War doesn’t necessarily translate into RPGs — the military is for big units of soldiers, a role playing game is for one person per player — but military-style action does make for good gaming. Here’s a few ideas for a team of adventurers in a military game setting:

  • Commando raids to defeat or capture an enemy leader
  • Silent scouting raids to infiltrate enemy lines
  • Demolitions teams that plant explosives in strategic spots
  • Recruit reinforcements to bring to the battle
  • Negotiating peace talks despite extreme tension between the warring sides

But of course a military action campaign does need some guidelines for simulating the military action. Dozens or even thousands of troops are charging at one another or opening fire while the heroes slip off to the side to get their mission done. The heroes could take a turn as temporary battlefield commanders (think of the big battles in “The Lord Of The Rings” or many “Captain America” comics). Or the story could lead to an extra level of challenge if the enemy forces win the day: if the Nazis cut off the Allied supply lines but the adventuring party is pushing toward Berlin, they’ll have to make do with the resources available to them.

War! Good God, y'all!
The only kind of war I like: historical re-enactments.

The conflicts between the forces the heroes support and the enemy army can be simulated with a die roll, called a Battle Roll. The simplest way to do this (the USR way) is to assign each force a bonus, depending on a few factors:

Size

The force with the bigger number of troops gets a +1. If they’re reasonably evenly matched, no bonus to either side.

Ability

A well-trained, disciplined force of elite troops (like Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines) gets a +1. A force of wild barbarians is strong and intimidating, worth at least a +1. A rag-tag group of insurgents or freedom fighters, or an unruly mob armed with pitchforks and torches, is probably a -1. Most troops, though, are the “average” soldier and offer no bonus (Star Wars stormtroopers, World War II grunts, and so on).

Equipment

Tanks and fighter jets, when the other side doesn’t have them, provides a +2 bonus. A samurai katana and a knight’s longsword are equal, but the force with assault rifles has a +1 against them.

Heroes

If the player characters take direct part in the battle, they provide a +2 bonus to the combat.

Add up the bonuses, and roll 1d6 + that total for each side. The higher result wins the round of fighting (representing a few moments to months of battle, depending on the story that you’re telling), and the losing force earns a -1 penalty to future Battle Rolls. If the rolls are a tie, there’s no penalty applied; the battle just slogs on. When one force’s roll is zero or less, the battle is over. There may be more battles to fight, or this may mean the end of the entire war, leading to time for peace talks or for a vanquishing army to add more territory to its holdings.

If the heroes’ side of the battle loses a round of fighting, one of the characters is personally affected (choose one randomly). It could simply be hit point damage, or it could affect the story: maybe a valuable item is lost, or a close friend is killed in the fighting.

Sir Lacren turned to face the men and women behind him. Last night, elven scouts had reported an army of trolls on the march. Lacren, the mage Ysellius, and the nature priest Berrak agreed: they would lead the army of South Watch against the trolls. The trolls were on foot; their slow movement gave Ysellius and Berrak time to create a few catapults and trebuchets to support the archers, mounted knights, and swordsmen and women South Watch could call to arms.

Adding up the bonuses, we have:

Trolls: Strong +1

Humans: Led by heroes (player characters) +2, War machines +1

The battle commences! After the players fight through one-on-one combats between their characters and specific trolls, a Battle Roll is made. The heroes roll a 5 and add 3 for a total of 8. The game master rolls for the trolls, and gets a total of 4. The trolls lose this round of the battle, and have a -1 to their Battle Rolls until the battle is over.

USR Wednesdays: Tournament Fighting and Wrestling

There are a handful of pro wrestling-themed RPGs, and even an official “Street Fighter” game. Yes, really, from the early ’90s, when I was playing tournament fighting games. And though a setting that’s 95 percent combat seems like it should require a complex combat system, tournament fighting and wrestling-themed games can work very well in USR. Here’s how.

An ordinary character can be created, though most characters will have Action as their highest stat. But a player who wants to try something different, like a wrestling manager or a Vince McMahon-style macho businessman, could take Wits or Ego as the highest stat.

Combat Maneuvers

Combat Gear points don’t really apply in the setting; wrestlers grab chairs but don’t have one as a primary weapon. A fighter like “Mortal Kombat’s” Scorpion does have his “Get over here!” spear, but that’s not a weapon, in USR tournament fighting. Instead, it’s a Combat Maneuver. Characters typically have one +1, one +2 and one +3 Combat Maneuver, and the another single Combat Maneuver of any bonus, selected when they’re created. A heavy hitter might have two +3s, while a fast character has two +1s, staying in the fight for a long time by moving around swiftly. In game terms, there’s no difference between one +1 attack and another; that’s where your creativity comes in… although the narration can affect your attacks — if a character’s hands are tied, he can’t throw a punch. Name your attacks something interesting and action-packed.

In addition, all characters start with these two Combat Maneuvers.
Punch (could also be a kick or even head-butt) +0: in other words, a basic Action die roll.
Block: if your character chooses a block, he doesn’t attack on his turn, but until it’s his turn in combat again, he can make his defense die roll twice and use the best result. This gives the character no Strain — but he doesn’t recover Strain either (see below for more on Strain).

Here’s a few examples of Combat Maneuvers:

Grab +1
Jab +1
Quick Kick +1
Taunt +1 (this uses the Ego instead of Action)
Tough Skin +1 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks)

Body Slam +2
Force Field +2 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks)
Spin Kick +2
Summon an ally (to make a sudden attack, then disappear) +2 (this uses Ego instead of Action)
Throw +2
Uppercut +2

Weapon (sword, spear, pistol) +3
Hadoken Fireball +3 (being magic, this uses Wits instead of Action)

Fighting game finishing moves aren’t Combat Maneuvers; they’re just fun to describe.

Hope you brought a roll of quarters.
I could go either way on this fight, really. (image: Capcom)

Combos

An attack roll that gets the highest result on the die (for example, a 10 on a D10) starts a combo. The attacker can continue to make attacks, as long as they are on the same target as the first attack, and as long as each one hits. When an attack misses, the combo is over. In this setting, everyone has roughly 15 Hit Points, like a typical player character, to keep them in the game for a while, and to give heroes someone to try and score combos on.

Strain

Combat Maneuvers are, in a sense, weapons: they offer a bonus to (usually) Action rolls. But they also come with a cost. A character in this setting has a Strain total, which starts at zero. Each time a character attacks or defends using a Combat Maneuver — only one of each per turn — add the bonus the Combat Maneuver provides to the character’s Strain. If the Strain is less than or equal to the character’s current Hit Points, there’s no problem. If it goes above the Hit Points (or the Hit Points fall below Strain), the character can only make a basic attack, simply rolling a stat to attack without any Combat Maneuver bonus. A character’s Strain drops 5 points if he doesn’t use a Combat Maneuver at all on a turn, though it can never go below zero.

Specialisms

Sure, you can simply create a few tournament fighters or wrestlers, set them up in a playoff bracket-style showdown, and duel it out. But there’s more to the setting than fighting, believe it or not. Think of “Street Fighter’s” struggle against M. Bison, or the romantic storylines of WWE. While you’re thinking about what to call your character’s Combat Maneuvers, don’t forget they have Specialisms too. Even professional warriors have interests and skills — maybe your hero is a Spy, an Expert Pilot, or an Anthropologist who found another hero, a strange man-monster, deep in the Amazon jungle. Perhaps the hero is a former champion passing along his knowledge of Tournament History to the younger characters, or is Suave (or Wealthy) enough to impress non-player characters unimpressed with his talents in the ring.

What does your Tournament Fighter look like?

USR Wednesdays: Mecha

Maybe it’s a feeling of nostalgia, maybe it’s wandering down the Transformers aisle in the supermarket toy section, maybe it’s the need to round out my science-fiction gaming genre collection: I realized there are no rules out there for giant mecha combat in USR. Here’s a few guidelines for your game. To start with, giant mecha (or mechs) in these rules refer mainly to the Transformers (G1 especially) and old-school, FASA Battletech. I don’t watch much anime, and I can’t say I was really impressed by “Pacific Rim” either, though I like the concept. It should’t be hard to take your USR mecha game in any direction you like, though.

How far transforming technology has come.
Call him Jetfire, call him Valkyrie, any name is fine. (image: tfw2005.com)

The biggest change is probably not what you’re thinking: mecha, though more powerful than ordinary humans (say, Rick Hunter from “Robotech” or Sam Witwicky from “Transformers”), don’t use the superhero tiers rules. Humans can’t possibly compete with a mecha, with one exception — if you stretch the definition of mecha to include robot suits, like Iron Man or the Space Marines of Warhammer 40,000, which we’re not doing here. If you want a Transformers-style game, every character is created using the regular Domino Writing-style USR rules… they’re just giant robots. If you want a Battletech game, where the humans are the ones with stories and the mechs are just gigantic weapons platforms, you can do that too. It’s best in that case to make one human character, the pilot of a mech “character” you also create.

It’s the game master’s call on what each character can do; a mecha can’t pick a lock, while a human can’t change shape into a car. That’s why you need both characters to simulate a lot of mecha fiction. The main way they interact in the rules is in damage. Combat is calculated normally for mecha-to-mecha or human-to-human fighting. But when they mix and match:

Mecha attacks human: double the damage the human suffers.
Human attacks mecha: if the human’s attack total minus the mecha’s defense total is 5 or less, it does 1 damage to the mecha. If it’s 6 or more, it does 2 damage.

Destroyicon narrowed his optic sensors at Jack. “Get out of my way, puny human,” he growled, his voice rumbling the rocks beneath Jack’s feet.
“No way!” Jack shouted. “This is for the Herobots!” He squeezed the trigger on his laser pistol.
An Action roll of 6 +2 for his pistol is an 8. Destroyicon’s defensive Action roll is a 4 +2 for his Villitron armor plating. Jack’s 8 minus Destroyicon’s 6 results in a 2, enough to hit for a single point of damage.
A scorch mark seared the giant robot’s leg. He laughed coldly. “My turn, fleshling,” he said, and swung his energy sword.
This time, Destroyicon rolls a total of 10, and Jack’s total is 6, for a hit and a difference of 4. Doubled, Jack takes 8 points of damage.
Jack looked around frantically for the Herobots.

The Transformers change shape normally. That doesn’t call for a die roll, but you can represent their “alt mode” as a Specialism. Optimus Prime, for example, has a “Transforms Into Semi-Truck” Specialism, while each of Voltron’s pilots has “Voltron Form” as a Specialism. Keith, Pidge, and the rest are the heroes, and joining into Voltron is an action that doesn’t call for a roll. The weapons and special abilities of Voltron do require a roll, though, by whoever is taking their turn at “controlling” Voltron.

What’s your favorite mecha fiction?

USR Wednesdays: Weapons Rack

Though weapons and armor can be worth any bonus — in Domino Writing-style USR, they’re +1 (Light) to +3 (Heavy) — some equipment is typically bigger and badder than others. Here’s a weapon catalog to get your hero armed and dangerous, of archaic weapons. Look for guns and armor soon. This list of weapons is taken from an old role playing game I wrote years and years ago, which had a few good ideas in it, I think!

No bonus: kicks, punches, headbutts
Martial arts training offers a bonus of +1 (ninja mook) to +3 (black belt)

Archery weapons
+1 (Light) weapons: Slingshot
+2 (Medium) weapons: Crossbow, longbow
+3 (Heavy) weapons: Composite bow

Blade weapons
+1 (Light) weapons: Dagger (knife), cavalry saber, fencing sword (rapier, epee)
+2 (Medium) weapons: Hatchet (pick, tomahawk), laser sword, longsword, polearm (scythe, halberd), scimitar, short sword (cutlass, machete), spear
+3 (Heavy) weapons: Battle axe, chainsaw, greatsword, pike (lance)

Sword Rack
Look at all these +2s! (image: kultofathena.com)

Blunt weapons
+1 (Light) weapons: Brawling weapons (brass knuckles, chain, large rock), club (baseball bat, cricket bat, baton), staff
+2 (Medium) weapons: Flail, mace, hammer
+3 (Heavy) weapons: Great hammer (maul)

Stun baton: This is a special weapon, which like other clubs has a +1 bonus to attack, but if it hits, the opponent loses d3 turns in combat.

Martial Arts weapons
+1 (Light) weapons: Caltrops, sai, throwing star (shuriken)
+2 (Medium) weapons: Katana, nunchaku

P.S.: since you’re looking for it to complete the set, the bo is a staff (blunt +1 weapon).

USR Wednesdays: Critical Hits

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).

Critical Points

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.

Die Type

Critical Points

D6

1

D8

2

D10

3

D12

4

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.
Barbarian vs Dragon
Bragan and Kyranathus, just before the critical is rolled. (image: lmddd.org)

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.

Special Effects

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.

What do your characters do when they crit?

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: 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: 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?