USR Wednesdays: Dragons As Player Characters

I’ve been rewatching “Game Of Thrones” recently, in anticipation of the seventh season being released on disc (we’re buying each season as it’s released, and watching it then, so no spoilers). The CG for the dragons is impressive, for the most part, and every time I see them on screen I’m reminded of an old game, the AD&D 2nd Edition “Council Of Wyrms,” which boils down to “Dragons as PCs.” This is full-size dragons, not dragonborn; the character’s scale color stands in for race, and there are mages and priests and so on. I’ve never actually played in the setting, but “Dragons as PCs” is a great way to try the USR rules on an entirely different scale.

Dragons As PCs
You can make this very picture come to life in your USR game. (image:

Dragons are, of course, powerful enough to rule entire kingdoms (as they do in the later “Dragonlance” novels) or destroy armies (as they do in “Game Of Thrones”). How do you recreate that level of power in USR? You could start with the superhero rules, setting them at Tier 4, but the tiers only work with varying levels of power — a Thor vs a Punisher. If everyone’s a massive dragon, take a cue from Risus, and change the scale of target numbers for non-contested rolls, decreasing them all by two points. So it looks like this:

2 Medium
3 Making a Close Range shot
5 Hard
7 Making a Long Range shot
8 Very Hard
12 Nearly Impossible

The characters can still fail on a die roll, but it’s a lot harder to do so, since they’re physically and magically utterly powerful creatures. Monsters in this setting are scaled down, too. A single human or elf has stats of D4 and 1 hit point. A party of adventurers out to slay your hero is probably at Power Level I or maybe II. A giant, an actual threat to a dragon, might be a Power Level III or IV creature. The rules don’t change, just the numbers.

Then there’s the adventures themselves. A group of dragons likely won’t be crawling through dungeons, unlocking doors and fighting goblins. Instead, try adventures on a larger scale:

  • Seek a treasure — in the realm of the gods
  • Investigate the murder of an ancient dragon, dealing with armies of humans, elves and dwarves firing arrows at you as you search for clues
  • Negotiate with other societies (giants, demons) to make room for the ceremony that will bring an elder dragon to godhood

What will your party of dragons look like?

USR Wednesdays: Adventure Design

One thing I don’t see in rules-light RPGs (or most that aren’t professionally published, really) is much advice about adventure design — how to create balanced battles with monsters, how to construct a story, how to keep the action moving without it being all fights, etc. That’s probably because adventures are tougher to write than rules are, since rules are simply math, while adventure writing is less easy to put into a structure. It’s also because rules-light games are more about collective storytelling than traditional RPG adventures, where a game master can simply read off the description of a room and what’s inside.

Let’s take a cue from the five room dungeon and the three act delve. This is a way to get an entire adventure in one night’s session — when I play (not often enough), this is what works best. An ongoing campaign, with recurring villains that strike time and again, is fantastic, but it’s hard enough to get people together to play once. Let’s not start a story we can’t finish.

This rules-light adventure design has six parts, in a row, which is why I call it the Six-Step Adventure.

Six-Step Adventure
Everyone can use the Six-Step Adventure, even players of “Cubicles & Careers.” (image: FantasyCon)

1. Quest giver

The motivation to start the adventure. Traditionally, this is, “You meet at the tavern and a herald tells you about the captured princess” or “The king sends you to clear out the nearby dungeon.” But in a narrative game, reverse it. Pick a starting point and have these creative players, who have already invented their own Specialisms, describe what’s making them want to participate.

Yes, the beautiful elven princess has been kidnapped by the dragon. Why rescue her? Well, the dashing human rogue knows his answer, but what about the half-dragon berzerker? The real answer, of course, is that if he doesn’t help rescue her, there’s no game for the night. But in the world of the story, the player gets to stretch those creative muscles before he even picks up his dice.

2. Early encounter

A chance to try out the combat rules, or get a feel for the style of the adventure. This is the goblin skirmish outside the ruined temple, or the challenge of breaking into a locked building that is where the data files are stored.

3. Clue to final confrontation

This ties in to part 6, where the characters get an indication of they’re up against or how to defeat it. They find a gem that’s especially deadly against the final “boss monster” of the adventure, or rescue an insane man, babbling about the horrors he’s seen (and that the heroes will see in the not-too-distant future).

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

A more serious threat, like the boss monster’s number two guy or a massive dragon that’s the pet of the real villain. This doesn’t have to be a monster, either; the FBI can show up to take over the investigation just as the characters are making progress, or they have to figure out how to infiltrate the villain’s hideout — during a lavish party.

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

The reverse of the previous part. Not everything in any adventure should be about combat! Even in violence-focused games like Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, characters do things other than fight. The group could have to solve a riddle (what’s the Elvish word for “friend”?) or even face a moral quandary through role playing, without rolling the dice (should Chewie break free and rescue Han from the carbon-freezing chamber?).

6. Final boss

This is what everyone has been waiting for, the big finish. It’s usually a fight, since so many RPG characters (including USR ones) are build around combat skills. But it could just as easily be a challenge: planting a bomb and making a getaway before the timer runs out, or getting to the valuable civilian to the safety of a military escort before the enemy government’s goons recapture him.

This is a framework for adventures, one that can easily be expanded (the heroes need to collect several clues before they can move on) or shrunk (only one secondary encounter/challenge) to fit the time allowed for the game.

What does your Six-Step Adventure look like?

P.S. This is the first post at the new site. My games are here, too; let’s keep all the fun in one place.

USR Wednesdays: Monsters

A “monster,” in a role playing game, is any enemy, from the little goblins and huge dragons of classic fantasy, to security guards and ninja in modern games, to little robots and huge mutants in science fiction. They don’t have to be inhuman — even your evil twin is a monster, after all. Since our guiding principle in USR is to be simple and fast, let’s create an entire Monster Manual in one chart.

monster manuals 300x225 - USR Wednesdays: Monsters
Like these ones, but all in one blog post. (image:
This is inspired by the original monster chart, found in Scott Malthouse’s Halberd Fantasy Roleplaying, page 26. It assigns levels to monsters, to approximate their power and competence. We’ll streamline it here.

Power Level
Main Stat Die
Combat Bonus
Hit Points
Giant Rat, Goblin
Guard, Orc, Thug, Wolf
Ninja, Security Robot, Soldier
Bear, Gang Boss
Ogre, Super-Soldier
(or D12)
Dragon, Vampire Lord

Main Stat Die: The die used for most of the monster’s rolls. In most cases, this will be its Action stat, but a psychic warrior might have its Mind as the main stat, to better use its powers.

You can assign the other stats as needed, based on what’s appropriate for the monster (for example, the guard standing outside the emperor’s throne room has Action as his main stat, representing his fighting skills with that halberd he’s carrying. But if you’re trying to convince him to let you pass, you’ll have to decide what his Wits stat is — probably about the same as his action, a D6). In the same way, Specialisms aren’t listed for monsters, but they can be assigned as needed, probably offering a bonus of +1 or +2, like a starting hero. You might even assign a penalty to a monster’s roll, say -2 if a big, dumb ogre is trying to solve the riddle your hero has posed. And trying to play a riddle game with a normal wolf simply won’t work at all, no dice rolls, penalties or bonuses needed.

Combat Bonus: This is used for both the monster’s attacks and defenses, and represents weapons, armor, brute strength, magical ability, and whatever else is needed. It too can fluctuate depending on the specific attack the creature is making: that vampire lord uses a +5 to lure your hero close to him, but only a +2 to throw a punch.

Hit Points: The maximum hit points for the monster, putting Power Level II and III monsters on par with most Domino Writing-style USR heroes. You can take a cue from Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and decrease a monster’s HP to 1, if you want to have heroes wipe out a half-dozen monsters in just a few turns.

The math here is pretty easy to see, so you can create more mosters easily, though most things will fit somewhere on this scale.

Where do monsters in your game fit on the Power Level chart?