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?

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?