USR Wednesdays: Disease

I didn’t post last week because I was really sick, and I’m just now recovering, a week and a half later. Last Wednesday evening I watched the hours slip away, knowing I wouldn’t get in front of the computer that night. But it did inspire this week’s post.

Disease is something that’s not often used in role playing games; in traditional fantasy RPGs it’s no challenge at all, easily overcome with a spell. In contemporary or modern settings, technology like medicine or super-healing machines eliminates disease quickly (not quickly enough for me, unfortunately). No matter what the setting, having a character slowed to a crawl by an illness usually means you can’t tell a fun story… unless you describe it the right way.

Disease As A Weapon

The simplest way to represent disease is as a weapon — think of post-apocalyptic mutants carrying plagues, or evil druids spreading contagion. If an actual weapon, like a tainted sword or corrupt spell, is used to deliver the disease, the attack delivers its normal damage. If that attack is a hit, the effects of the disease also take place, usually a penalty of -1 or -2 to stat rolls: Action (physical illness), Wits (affected mental performance), or Ego (impaired social interaction). The penalty lasts as long as it makes sense in the story.

Bonuses to defend against disease.
The eternally cool and creepy plague doctor. (image: public domain)

Lingering Disease

To represent long-term disease, something that has an impact on a character without interfering with adventuring, try stepping down Hit Points. After the character first contracts the disease, make an Action roll against the Target Number of the disease (usually 7) to fight off its effects. A Specialism like “Very Healthy” or “Antibiotics” could help on the roll. On a failure, the character loses 5 total Hit Points and 5 current Hit Points. If the character’s total Hit Points fall to 0 (zero), he or she is dead. On a successful roll, the disease gets better, and the character regains 5 total Hit Points — but not current Hit Points; he or she still needs recovery time. When the character is back to his or her actual total Hit Points, the disease is completely cured, and no more rolls are needed.

Repeat this disease/healing check as often the game master decides is appropriate; once every two or three days of game time is realistic (that’s how often I felt incrementally better this past week). Extremely intense moments, like combat with “boss” monsters, may call for disease checks too, as the character suffers major strain.

Disease As Adventure

A disease can also be the trigger for the adventure: find the magical fountain of healing, or the special medicinal ingredient located deep in the wilderness. Alternately, the disease could be the villain, where the heroes have to retrieve a vial of lethal plague that was stolen from a medical research lab before it’s released in public, or unrest grows in a war-torn country as doctors struggle around-the-clock to come up with a cure for a deadly disease — can the heroes buy them enough time to do their work?

How will you use disease in your USR adventures?

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?