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?

USR Wednesdays: Using Narrative Points

One of the things I like best about USR is the balance between a quick, rules-light narrative role playing game system and the “crunchy” rules sets of bigger games. Though Specialisms are meant to be very flexible, the rules around them provide more structure than games like Risus or Apocalypse World. At the same time, USR doesn’t demand a page full of numbers, like Pathfinder or the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars systems.

With Narrative Points, USR joins the ranks of games like Fate (Fate Points), Savage Worlds (Bennies) and even Fifth Edition D&D (Inspiration) in providing an option for players to have a more direct impact on the story, either by affecting die rolls, or in some cases outright changing the game master’s description.

Delicious as a snack and useful in a game.
Don’t use these to track your Narrative Points, you could eat them before they’re spent. (image: candystore.com)

In Domino Writing-style USR, Narrative Points can do four things, as listed on the character sheet:

1. Add to or change a scene the game master has described.

This is very flexible, definitely on the rules-light side of things. There’s no hard and fast rule, but a good guideline is that it should encourage the story. This use of Narrative Points isn’t to affect die rolls, but to (usually) make the situation more advantageous to the heroes.

If a thug successfully shoots your hero, the game master shouldn’t allow you to use a Narrative Point to say he missed (the dice already show that he hit). Instead, the police could show up — or just be heard in the distance, depending on the story the game master wants to tell. You could even spend a Narrative Point to say after that shot, the thug’s gun jams. He doesn’t run out of bullets, in case the game master wants the thug to attack again, but the moment or two while the gun is jammed may be enough for the heroes to make another plan.

Or imagine the heroes are trying to escape out of a building while guard dogs (or security robots) chase after them. They’re deep in the building and need a place to hide. Spending a Narrative Point, one character “suddenly” discovers a storage room where the heroes can huddle in the dark until the threat passes. A Narrative Point probably wouldn’t be used to “suddenly” find a door out of the building, on the other hand, since that could bring an abrupt end to the game — what if the heroes were supposed to be caught, or what if escaping the building means the adventure is over, and game night still has two hours to go?

2. Automatically succeed at a non-combat die roll.

This option also needs to be examined carefully by the game master, because it too can end an adventure right away. It’s a good way to speed up to more exciting parts of the story.

A thief character wouldn’t spend a Narrative Point to automatically undo a lock — picking locks is part of what makes the character fun. But on the other hand, using a Narrative Point to automatically pick a lock guarantees it’s opened safely, without triggering a trap or signaling an alarm.

It can also be helpful to avoid danger, like automatically crossing a swinging rope bridge, or to speed up time, like finding an important clue in the university library before the campus cops show up, wondering why there’s a group of heavily armed men walking past the shelves.

3. Re-roll a die roll in combat.

No one wants to miss, of course, but because damage in USR is dependent on the attack and defense rolls, you don’t just want to roll good enough, you want to roll as high as possible. There’s no limit to the number of Narrative Points you can spend at one time; spend a bunch to keep “editing” the scene until that bullet hits the bad guy in just the right way.

4. Regain d6 lost Hit Points.

Though Domino Writing-style USR allows for more starting Hit Points than regular USR does, an action-adventure story will always come with the risk of injury and death. Remember to describe the way those Hit Points are being recovered. Is your hero stopping to catch his breath? Is he grabbing a nearby first aid kit? Is he taking a break for a refreshing afternoon snack? Mechanically, adding Hit Points is a simple procedure, but it too can be a fun part of the narrative of the game.

As always, game masters have the final say, and as always, it’s more fun if the game master and players come to an agreement that makes for a more enjoyable story.

Narrative Points start with three, and you and add more if you don’t spend all your Combat Gear points, and even more if you’re using superhero rules and are at a different Tier than the base level of the game.

You regain your starting amount at the beginning of each game session, but you can also get them back during the game. How? We’ll look at that next time.

How do you use Narrative Points in your game?