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









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:

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: Divine Powers

In most fantasy games, there’s a pantheon of gods for cleric characters to choose from, that give them access to one or more domains, appropriate to the theme of the god (a god of fire gives access to the Fire and Light domains, for example). We took a look at Divine Domains last week; now let’s put them into practice and create divine powers, gods that offer different Divine Domains to heroes.

The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons gives you the Greek, Egyptian, Norse and Celtic gods, with domains that can easily be translated into USR Divine Domains. So let’s go a little farther out for our sample deities, the Etruscan gods, which were absorbed into the Roman pantheon (as were the Greek gods), and in my case which are listed here.

That is awesome!
There is an Etruscan giant called Orcus. His mouth is a gateway to the underworld. (image: espressocomsaudade)

Some of these gods don’t lend themselves to traditional role playing positions — a cleric of the god of war, sure, but a cleric of the goddess of childbirth? That’s where the flexibility and creativity of USR comes into play. Divine Domains aren’t just a list of attacks; they’re also a description of a character’s behavior and even appearance. Is a priest of Thalna a midwife or doula? Is he taking a broad view of the term “childbirth” and summoning creatures to do battle with monsters? Is she “birthing” the world anew after a fight by healing wounds and cleaning up broken and ruined things?

Alpan: goddess of sexual love (suggested Divine Domains: Love, Passion)

Ani: two-faced god of the passages (suggested Divine Domains: Movement, Good, Evil)

Aplu: god of light and weather (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Storms)

Cautha: god of the sun (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Fire, Good)

Laran: god of war (suggested Divine Domains: War, Destruction, Death)

Menrva: goddess of family and strength (suggested Divine Domains: Strength, Life, Family)

Nethuns: god of water (suggested Divine Domains: Water, Storms)

Nortia: goddess of fate (suggested Divine Domains: Luck, Knowledge, Good, Evil)

Summamus: god of storms (suggested Divine Domains: Storms, Air, Water)

Thalna: goddess of childbirth (suggested Divine Domains: Life, Light, Birth)

Thesan: goddess of dawn (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Hope, Healing)

Tin: god of the sky (suggested Divine Domains: Air, Movement, Good)

Turan: goddess of romantic love (suggested Divine Domains: Life, Love)

Turms: messenger of the gods (suggested Divine Domains: Movement, Knowledge)

Uni: god of marriage (suggested Divine Domains: Light, Hope, Justice)

Voltumna: god of vegetation (suggested Divine Domains: Nature, Air, Earth, Fire, Water)

Which Divine Domains will your character use?

USR Wednesdays: Divine Domains As Specialisms

One of the things I like best about Dungeons & Dragons is the distinction between arcane and divine magic. A wizard or sorcerer doesn’t choose spells the same way as a cleric or paladin. While wizards have had schools of spells almost since the beginning of fantasy gaming, the divine equivalent — domains — is a newer invention. It was spheres in second edition, then domains in third edition and beyond.

You’re probably familiar with domains: a small collection of spells and a few special abilities related to a theme, like “war,” “light,” or “death.” Many fantasy games, tabletop and otherwise, that feature clerics or priests have a similar setup, where characters of that type can focus on healing, boosting allies, or attacking foes.

From a characterization perspective, domains often suggest a personality for a character, even if it is a little cliché (a fire cleric is hot-tempered, a cleric of death is quiet and slow-moving). And that makes a domain, or what we can call a divine domain, a perfect option as a Specialism in Domino Writing-style USR.

Light Cleric
This guy is definitely using the Fire Divine Domain. (image:

As I said early on in this series, “Specialisms are what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting.” In this case, a divine domain is what a character can do — thematic attacks, changes in appearance, and so on. Let’s take a look at a few divine domain Specialisms. Because these are related to magical powers, we’ll say a character with a divine domain specialism can cast thematically appropriate spells. To keep things Unbelievably Simple, we’ll let the players and game master decide exactly what the spells are (though it would be easy enough to use the Classic Magic or The Force rules ideas I’ve described before).

Life Divine Domain: A character with this divine domain is a healer most of all, though some also dedicate themselves to destroying the undead. They dress in light-colored clothes and offer aid on the battlefield, sometimes curing injuries and helping the mortally wounded to their final rest, without making attacks themselves. They offer curative magic, like restoring hit points, removing disease, and providing life-giving energy (i.e., a bonus to a hero’s next attack).

War Divine Domain: This doesn’t just have to apply to a character’s ability to fight with hand-to-hand combat weapons, like it does in a traditional fantasy setting. War is also about strategy and tactics — a soldier with sword and a general with a map are both warriors, and a hero able to tap into the divine power of war is excellent at confrontation, with blades, guns and even their mind (isn’t survival on a wind-battered mountaintop a battle against nature?).

Death Divine Domain: Death can be a natural choice for an evil priest who desires to see all creatures wiped from the face of the planet, or risen again as soul-less creatures like vampires and zombies. It’s the opposite of the Life divine domain (and what kind of stories could be told with a hero who has both the life and death divine domains as Specialisms?). But it can also be used for good, for a hero who helps those in pain find a comfortable final rest, or for an undertaker who magically clears away scenes of horror and pain.

Fire Divine Domain: This divine domain immediately brings to mind priests dressed in red, hurling flames at their foes, and destroying buildings with a blazing hot touch. Like the Death divine domain, it can be used the opposite way, too, with a hero magically putting out fires and keeping evil priests with the Water divine domain in check. This divine domain makes it easy for players to describe their attacks (“I cause fire damage”) and offers plenty of ideas for personality traits too, aside from the cliché of “hot headed.” What about “simmering with rage” or “bright and energetic”?

What other divine domains can you create?

USR Wednesdays: The Eternal War

Let’s add a new setting to the USR catalog, a fantasy world that’s not quite traditional fantasy (like we see in Halberd and Swords and Sorcery), or the “light” fantasy of Tequendria: The Eternal War.

Thousands of years ago, the sages say, Miolte, the goddess of light, and Gurias, the master of darkness, made a wager, another confrontation in their endless battle. The goddess said a single powerful soldier was the best weapon. The master of darkess argued that a horde of troops could do more damage. So, in this battle of quality versus quantity, two forces were conceived: the Soldiers of Light and the Dark Army.

USR Wednesdays: The Eternal War
The Dark Army and Soldiers of Light in conflict. (image:, probably not originally)

Soldiers of Light are mighty warriors, crafty ninja and brilliant scholars. The Dark Army is made up of beasts, creatures spawned of hate and cruelty, that exist only to exterminate all life on the planet. Some are hideous fiends; others are beautiful and beguiling, seducing victims with their words. There are monsters like dragons and zombies in the world of The Eternal War, but only humans — no elves, dwarves, orcs or others of their kind, at least not that anyone has seen. There’s also no magic, no spell-casting except for the arcane gifts Miolte and Gurias bestowed on their warriors.

For every Soldier of Light, there’s 10, 50, maybe more of the Dark Army. But when a Solder of Light is killed, it is born again 24 hours later with the same strength and knowledge it had before death, with all the wounds it suffered healed fully. A Soldier of Light can never die (though clever members of the Dark Army trap Soldiers in boxes before killing them, or hang them from ropes: the Soldier is reborn in the same spot, trapped in an endless loop of death and rebirth).

A member of the Dark Army can be killed, torn apart with metal or wooden weapons like any creature. They aren’t born again after death; instead, leaders of the Dark Army can corrupt ordinary humans, turning them into servants of Gurias. In this way, by capturing innocents and giving hope to the hopeless, the Dark Army grows forever.


Primary Stat: Action
Suggested Specialisms: Strength, Weapon Forging, Battlefield Tactics
Suggested Equipment: Big Axe (+2), Heavy Plate Armor (+2)

Primary Stat: Action
Suggested Specialisms: Stealth, Sleight of Hand, Acrobatics
Suggested Equipment: Fencing Sword (+1), Throwing Dagger (+1), Smoke Bomb

Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Research, History, Herbalism
Suggested Equipment: Books of lore on monsters and the Dark Army, Herbs for healing

New Rules

This is a classic fantasy world — you’ll find swords, bows and chain mail here. There’s no magic, so no need for spells or magic items. And since heroes are Soldiers of Light, there’s also no need to create a new character if your old one is killed. Just move the story ahead 24 hours.

The setting is very action-oriented: note that both “warriors” and “ninja” have Action as their primary stat, and there’s no archetype for an Ego-based character. Soldiers of Light are focused on battling evil, not negotiating with it. There’s also little need for healers, since the Soldiers of Light are reborn, though it does take time for a Soldier to recover, and they can’t always wait around if the Dark Army is on the march.

The Dark Army is made up of monsters of all power levels. As in most games, the majority are level II or III, though leaders can be IV or V. Dragons, giants and similar creatures are at level VI, like in most fantasy settings (not every adventure has to be a battle against the Dark Army).


Here’s a first adventure in the world of The Eternal War, using the Six-Step Adventure design concept.

1. Quest giver: The heroes find themselves in the city of Rivermoor, where Tykan, head of the guards, instantly recognizes them as Soldiers of Light, and asks for their aid against a band of Dark Army bandits. They have been raiding merchant caravans coming into Rivermoor, destroying the goods meant for sale and kidnapping young people to transform into more of the Dark Army. Tykan mentions an old stone watchtower a few days’ ride out of Rivermoor that can be used as a base of operations.

2. Early encounter: Soon enough, a horde of Dark Army minions strike at a horse-drawn carriage coming toward Rivermoor. There is one minion per hero (or more if the encounter isn’t challenging enough).

3. Clue to final confrontation: Whether by questioning a captured foe or following their tracks, the heroes come across the site where the Dark Army is making their wretched sacrifices.

4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes arrive in time to break up a sacrifice, hopefully defeating the Dark Army cultists before the young man at the center of their circle is transformed into one of them.

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): No matter what happens, the man will be saved in time. But now he has to be escorted through the wilderness back to Rivermoor while wild animals and more Dark Army troops follow.

6. Final boss: Hearing that Soldiers of Light are in Rivermoor, Rolzier, a Dark Army general, is waiting with his best warriors for the heroes to return.

What stories will you tell in the world of The Eternal War?

USR Wednesdays: Adventure Ideas

We’re putting the Six-Step Adventure design to work, with two different adventure ideas. They haven’t been playtested (yet), but they’re examples of how the adventure design can be used for brief, but still satisfying night of role playing.

Fantasy Adventure: This one takes place in a generic fantasy setting (for example, Halberd or Tequindra). It’s a pretty straightforward “dungeon crawl,” the kind seen in RPGs since the 1970s, and that makes it a good way to try out the format in a familiar context. Don’t forget to add some unique elements to the combat encounters — a battle in an empty room or forest clearing isn’t that exciting, but add obstacles, a time limit and different locations, like a high balcony to shoot down from, or the top of a moving train, and you’re adding to the action.

  1. Quest giver: The heroes are accompanying a merchant carrying a valuable treasure of some kind in a simple wooden box that’s magically locked. The merchant doesn’t know what the treasure is, only that he’s supposed to get it to the sorcerer who hired him.
  2. Early encounter: The merchant and his caravan are attacked by a group of bandits. There are more bandits than the heroes can handle, so that no matter how many they defeat, the merchant is killed and the treasure taken.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: The heroes interrogate a bandit, or (more likely) find a map to a wizard’s tower with the symbol of a rival wizard on it.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The map leads through obstacles, like a small battle with a bear, and a rickety bridge over a lake. These are meant to be brief encounters, a chance to experiment with unusual environments or unique ways to use their Specialisms.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): Once over the bridge, the heroes enter the wizard’s tower and confront the wizard’s monsters — for example, a dragon or a mechanical guard, or even more bandits.
  6. Final boss: The rival wizard himself, who uses the treasure, which has some kind of combat effect (for example, it fires a beam of energy, or creates a magical force field).

Defeating the wizard ends the adventure; the heroes can return the treasure to the sorcerer and earn gold and prestige.

Fantasy Adventure: Wizard's Tower
This wizard’s tower is almost exactly what I imagined for this adventure, except not necessarily in Minecraft. (image: Kokotoni)

Modern Adventure: Here’s a story in a more contemporary setting, with a little bit more social interaction. The heroes meet a rival team of explorers, giving them a chance to compete with or cooperate with that group. Killing off the rival team also demonstrates the danger of the adventure, without keeping the heroes from completing the story.

  1. Quest giver: A government agent hires the heroes as a salvage team to recover a lost treasure (gold from early explorers) on a shipwreck — it’s in pirate-infested waters, so he doesn’t want to risk veteran divers.
  2. Early encounter: The heroes are attacked by a pirate ship that wants to take them over; another salvage crew appears to help fight off the pirates. They are from a private salvage company.
  3. Clue to final confrontation: The other crew shares the location of the shipwreck from their research.
  4. Secondary encounter or challenge: The heroes are lowered into the ocean with other team of searchers to begin the search, but their shark cage has been tampered with, and sharks attack.
  5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite): The two teams race to recover the treasure.
  6. Final boss: No matter who recovers the treasure, the heroes and the private salvage crew return to their ships to find the government agent waiting there, with his own set of troops. The sailors on both ships are dead; the government agent wants the treasure for himself.

How do these Six-Step Adventures work in your gaming group?

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?