USR Wednesdays: Vampires

Creatures of the night are, of course, one of the most popular character choices in role playing, thanks to a slew of White Wolf games created in the 1990s and beyond. It inspired dozens of similar games, like “Nightlife,” and is still pretty popular; a new edition was released only a few weeks ago.

White Wolf-style vampires are very distinct from traditional RPG characters, with an emphasis on mood and personality, versus an emphasis on killing monsters and taking their stuff. But that’s not the only way to play a vampire game — a vampire can just as easily be a superhero, a character with abilities far beyond those of an ordinary person. There’s Marvel’s Morbius and Blade (a half-vampire, technically). Angel from the old “Buffy” TV show has the advantages but not many of the drawbacks that bedevil Dracula. There’s a vampire protagonist in at least a few of the “Castlevania” video games.

Here’s a few vampire-related personality Specialisms that make for heroes, or at least antiheroes:

  • Hideous Fiend
  • Mysterious Noble
  • Refined Artiste
  • Savage Killer
  • Tortured Hunter Of His Own Kind
You can hear that accent now.
Classic Dracula is best Dracula. (image: Universal)

The word “vampire” usually conjures thoughts of a tuxedo and a cape (Bela Lugosi in the 1931 “Dracula”) or a leather jacket (Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” movies). The looks may change but the powers remain fairly stable. Being fictional, there’s no hard and fast rules about what vampires are capable of, but here’s a few traditional abilities that can make for good Specialisms:

  • Animal Control
  • Animal Summoning — specifically, bats, rats, or wolves
  • Flight
  • Rapid Healing
  • Shapeshifting — specifically into bats, rats, wolves, or mist
  • Super-Speed
  • Super-Strength
  • Walk On Walls

And, of course, the one thing that makes a vampire a vampire: the ability to stay in “un-life” by drinking the blood of the living. In some fiction, the reverse, where a living creature drinks the vampire’s blood, turns it into the vampire. In others, a single vampire bite will do the trick. Sometimes, especially in stories where vampires are essentially dark superheroes, using supernatural abilities “costs” blood. In game terms, it reduces the vampire’s Hit Points. In fiction, a vampire can only use powers a few times before it’s too weak to go on — it needs to drink or sleep to recover.

Bloodsucking is a melee/hand-to-hand attack, made without any bonuses from weapons. If the victim isn’t willing, the vampire must succeed at an Action roll to hold the victim in place long enough to drink blood (which takes a single action — unless you want it to take longer for dramatic effect). Each Hit Point that’s drained from a victim is restored to the vampire, like any other healing.

USR Wednesdays: Willpower

Psychic defenses are almost as commonplace in fantasy and science fiction as swords and fireballs. Heroes are always gritting their teeth and powering through blasts of supernatural force, struggling mightily to resist a villain’s mental domination (often with their friends urging them to, “Remember who you are!”), or gathering their thoughts after being confronted by a horror from beyond the stars.

In brightest day...
Some heroes are nothing but willpower. (image: DC Comics)

That’s willpower, the mental stamina to resist what can’t be blocked by shield or armor. There’s no formal rule to represent willpower in the USR rules, though of course Strong Willpower can be a Specialism. As I mentioned last week, the “horror save,” which is willpower used defensively, either uses a Wits die roll, for characters trying to use logic to explain the illogical, or an Ego die roll, for characters who have a forceful personality — in this situation, they’re “keeping their cool.”

Which stat should characters use in your game? It depends on the tone: the higher of the two works for most games, where heroes are supposed to be capable of things most people can’t do. But for a “grittier” game, use the lower of the two stats whenever a character needs to make a willpower roll/horror save. The target number of the danger is determined like any other die roll: 4 for a medium-grade threat, 7 for hard, 10 for very hard.

Sanity

And for a traditional “Call of Cthulhu” feel, where characters are eventually going to have their sanity shattered no matter what, there’s “Beyond Fear,” Scott Malthouse’s rules for USR Cthulhu. It offers the Madness Roll, a simple roll of the character’s Wits stat die, not against a target number. Instead, a result of 1 or 2 on the die means the character has lost his or her marbles and gets a token, or simply a mark on the character sheet. Three tokens means the character is irretrievably insane. I inadvertently borrowed the idea of the Madness Roll last week in the zombies post, where a die result of 1 means zombie infection.

Most often, willpower is used on the defensive, resisting attacks or scary things. But it can also be used as an attack, where your hero uses his “force of will” to make someone else do something. That’s similar to spellcasting — a Wits or Ego die roll instead of an Action die roll against the opponent’s Wits or Ego die roll.

USR Wednesdays: Zombies

What better way to mark Halloween than with the most popular horror creature of all (right now)? In a game where the heroes are survivors of a zombie apocalypse, there’s several ways to approach central threat:

  • The zombies are an endless horde that’s easy to kill; the trick is to get away before you’re overwhelmed.
  • The zombies are a scary surprise as you try to come to terms with the new rules of living day by day. They’re easy to avoid — if you see them coming.
  • The zombies are a part of the environment around you, like having to try and maneuver through a heavy snowstorm. These stories take place several months after the apocalypse, when everyone is used to dealing with zombies, and a new world order is sorting itself out. The real danger isn’t the living dead; it’s other humans who don’t like that you’re not under their control.

I’m sure you can think of movies and books with each of these kinds of zombie settings, and more. Any of them can be a great zombie RPG setting — an action-oriented one, if the players are in the mood to slay zombies; a suspenseful story where the existence of zombies might be a plot twist; or a tale heavy in negotiation and tough combat, fighting off both the undead and the very much alive.

They're coming to get you, PCs!
As I’ve said before, the classics never go out of style. (image: refinedguy.com)

Hordes

The ever-present threat of zombies can be represented in USR with a simple rule for hordes. When the story begins, as the first zombies appear (unless you’re starting in media res, with an enormous mob of zombies), there’s 2d6 somewhere nearby. As the plot advances, or whenever the heroes make too much noise, or whenever the gamemaster sees fit, add zombies equal to (1 + the number of players)d6.

Zombie stats are usually low — D6 or even D4 for every stat, with no Specialisms or equipment. Maybe even use the mook rule, where a zombie has only one Hit Point (an attack total of 7 against a zombie’s total of 3 doesn’t mean a single zombie lost 4 Hit Points; it means 4 different zombies were destroyed). Don’t forget that zombies move slowly, and are unable to move past obstacles or think their way out of simple traps.

Survivors

The two big rules for survivors in a zombie story are searching, where a successful Wits roll against a target number of 4 means the survivor found food, medical equipment, a working car, or a weapon. A failed roll means nothing turned up. And a die result of 1 means something was knocked over during the search, or a window shattered: the perfect time for more zombies to join the horde.

The second rule is for “horror saves,” or resisting the shock and fear of a close encounter with the dead. It can be a Wits die roll (for characters trying to rationalize their way out of the encounter) or an Ego die roll (for characters who can bluff and bluster their way through anything). Use the higher stat for a high action or comedy-type game, and use the lower stat for characters in a traditional horror story. Failing a horror save means the hero just wants to get away from the zombies, maybe at the cost of his or her allies. And rolling a 1 on a horror save or an Action roll when in battle with zombies means the worst: an infected bite that transforms the hero into a zombie, whenever it’s dramatically appropriate.

USR Wednesdays: Slasher Films

It’s Halloween season, time for a look at this classic genre for role playing. There are many ways to mix horror and gaming — fantasy has plenty of horror-themed beasts, and no game is complete without a nod toward H.P. Lovecraft’s creations. But today we’re going back to the 80s and beyond.
Slasher films feature a supernatural creature attacking a bunch of nobodies. Think “Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Friday The 13th.” This is not about setting the mood for a look into the darkness of the human soul; this is about teenagers having sex and showers of blood!
jasonvoorhees 300x246 - USR Wednesdays: Slasher Films
Time to roll for initiative: good luck. (image: New Line)
It’s a perfect genre for a game like USR, because statistics are less important in a narrative game. No one in the setting can go toe-to-toe with Freddy or Jason; they’re much too powerful. Instead, the protagonists have to out-think or at least out-run their enemy. You could have a game where players are the monsters themselves, but that’s really just a superhero game (without the “hero”), and it’s not what we’re going for here. This idea was inspired by the Slasher Flick RPG.
In a slasher film game, each player creates three characters, using the standard Domino Writing-style USR rules (though without assigning equipment or spending Combat Gear points). Specialisms in this game should lean heavily toward stereotypes, like Cheerleader, Jock, Redneck, Naive, and Rebellious.
You can determine Narrative Points and Hit Points for the characters, but they probably won’t use them. And don’t forget to create a slasher — make sure it’s got a signature weapon (a clawed glove, a chainsaw) and a gimmick (attacks in dreams, possesses the body of a doll).
When the slasher is ready to start its rampage, roll a die to decide which of the characters is the first victim. If there’s three players, that’s nine characters; roll a d10 to decide which one is first. Other characters may be in the scene, but the current victim gets the spotlight.
Create a scenario for that victim: what they’re doing before the slasher shows up and what they do to escape or fight back. The scenario should have three die rolls built into it. Here’s a few examples.
  • Run away from the slasher (Action)
  • Build a trap from stuff around the campsite (Mind)
  • Try to explain the horror that’s just up ahead to the gullible county sheriff (Ego)
  • Grab a farm implement and start swinging it at the slasher (Action)
  • Summon magical powers you only have in your wildest fantasies to attack the slasher (Mind)
  • Talk the slasher out of fighting back (Ego)

Tell a story with those dice rolls mixed in. It’s a “best two out of three” situation: if the character succeeds at two or three of the rolls, he or she survives… for now. After each character has told his or her own little story, count up the number of survivors. If more than half are alive at the end, the players win, but that’s the end of that horror movie franchise — fans are there for the clever kills, after all. If half the survivors, or fewer, remain, the slasher joins the fraternity with Michael Myers and Ghostface.

What does your slasher look like?