USR Wednesdays: Video Game Variety and Free-Form Specialisms

I don’t play many video games. My work time is spent in front of a screen, and I use a computer a lot at home, too (to write this blog, for example!). I’m more of a fan of traditional games — card games, board games, tabletop role playing games. I always raise an eyebrow when YouTube suggests “gamer” content to me, because nine times out of 10 it’s “Minecraft” or “Fortnite” or something. Those are games, but not my kind of games.

I think the problem I have with video games, besides screen time, is the options: there’s just too many things to keep track of at once. Take a classic video game, “Space Invaders.” There’s two options: move and shoot, and move is limited to left/right. Very simple. Move to the later generations of games, and we have two buttons on the NES controller, six (I think) on the Genesis, and after that I lose track (10 or so on a modern controller?). With a first person shooter-type game, you have weapons and abilities to scroll through, a heads-up display, maps, hit point tracks, and several other things on every screen.

I've played about half these systems.
Too many buttons? Maybe. (image: extremetech.com)

A game like that is still a lot of fun to play — but it’s a lot more fun if you can keep track of everything, to make use of it the way it’s meant to be used. I could learn that, if I put in the screen time, but I’d rather bring the concept to a game I already enjoy… Domino Writing-style USR.

The ancestor of a first person shooter with its dozens of things to track is of course our favorite tabletop role playing games, where you mark all the things you need to track on a sheet of paper instead of letting a computer do everything for you. But USR is on the other end of the spectrum, a simple system that gets players up and running in no time. Instead of a list of a dozen abilities, USR offers bonuses that can be used any way a player wants. I call them Free-Form Specialisms, though they’re not really Specialisms; they aren’t even recorded on a character sheet!

Free-Form Specialisms

A beginning character doesn’t select three Specialisms, each with a +2 bonus; instead, the character begins with 6 “+1s” to spend on any roll you wish. The bonuses can be added to any roll, before or after the die is rolled. Any number of bonuses can be added to the same roll. A character regains all his or her “+1s” at the beginning of every game session, but can never go above 6.

If a player decides on a Specialism for his or her character, the Specialism is written on the character sheet, with a +2 bonus (for a starting hero). In return for choosing a Specialism, the character immediately loses two “+1s.” So a character with a single Specialism would have a +2 in the Specialism and four “+1s” to spend during the adventure.

Free-Form Specialisms are a little like Narrative Points, but they’re more specific, and represent a character’s wide range of knowledge and expertise, rather than his or her capability to change the story. They’re mainly to get the game started even more quickly — all a player has to do now is decide which stat gets which die, and spend Combat Gear points — or to help players who want to see how their character develops over time.

Free-Form Specialisms are things your character can do well: things you don’t have to specifically keep track of, things that let you do whatever you need to do to have the most fun you can in the game. All without staring at a screen.

USR Wednesdays: Warhammer 40,000

I didn’t get to see the preview of “Wrath & Glory,” the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, at Free RPG Day a few weeks back, though it’s coming to PDF soon. The mechanic that I am aware of in the game, the one that caught my eye, is a balancing mechanism to make sure super-soldier Space Marines can be in the same party with low-level Imperial Guardsmen… it’s basically superhero tiers, like in Domino Writing-style USR. In that game’s case, the Guardsman has enhancements to reach the Marine’s level; in USR, of course, the lower-Tier hero has extra Narrative Points to accomplish the things other characters are expected to do normally.

But what if we added the 40K universe to the USR rules? There’s plenty of reference material — you know what an Adeptus Astartes is, even if you’ve never played any 40K game of any kind — and USR is a great way to tell the expansive variety of stories that can be told in that universe:

  • A down-and-dirty gang war (to show how tough and non-heroic ganger characters are, limit them to 2 Gear Points, take away all their Narrative Points, and roll dice to determine starting Hit Points, like in regular USR);
  • A battle against the ravening ork horde (take a cue from our exploration of tropes, and consider one ork blown away for each point of damage rolled by our heroes); or
  • A struggle between the mighty Space Marines and a daemon of Chaos (the main heroes and villains are at Tier 5 in a setting where the baseline character might be a Tier 2. Also, boost up their armor and weapons: Space Marine armor is probably worth more than a +3, maybe a +4, and Terminator armor is a +5 — higher than that and it will be tough for anyone to score a hit).
You're definitely stretching the rules with Space Marines.
Who doesn’t want to play these guys at least once? (image: Games Workshop)

If you’ve ever read any 40K fiction, or even watched 40K video game cut screens, you’ll know there’s not much to most characters’ personalities: with the exception of a few Imperial Guard characters, everyone in the 40K universe just wants to kill somebody else (usually a lot of somebodies). In a role playing game, characters need to be distinct somehow, to be a “role” you can play. If you don’t want to go too far off the traditional 41st Millennium character type, try Specialisms like “Lone Wolf,” “Carries Big Guns,” or “Quick To Anger” — they offer the right attitude without making the characters much more than traditional 40K killing machines.

Here’s some other Specialisms for 40K: Team Player, Aggressive (all orks), Good With Native Populations, Devoted To His/Her Commander, Natural Leader, Perfect Physical Specimen, Hates Psykers, Lockpicking Tools, Likes Big Explosions, Stealthy, Historian

Who will you be in USR 40K?

USR Wednesdays: Breaking The Fourth Wall

The tropes of role playing games can really help when you’re looking to make your game as unbelievably simple as it can be. We’ve already mentioned the archetypes of race and class, which after decades have become shorthand not only for what a character can do, but how he or she is expected to act (you know exactly what a dwarf paladin is as soon as you read the words. Same for half-orc ninja).
But there are other tropes that can shape your game, too, and, depending on the tone you’re going for, can be folded into every game session.

Montage

A movie cliche for years, this is the series of scenes showing the characters getting ready ― training for battle, building the ultimate vehicle, plotting the heist, even going on dates with not-quite-the-right-guy. If all the characters agree to be part of a montage, each one describes what they’re doing during the montage. After the montage, each player gains a +3 to any one die roll related to what was happening in the montage. This can happen only once per game; after all, a montage song is expensive, and the movie studio can’t afford to buy two of them.
The mysterious man in the corner of the tavern told the party about the dragon’s hoard in the nearby cavern. The heroes are gearing up for battle. During the montage, the warrior sharpens his sword and lifts weights, the wizard’s hands crackle with electricity as she practices spells, and the thief slides daggers into his boots. A synth-rock song plays in the background. When the dragon rears its head, the song’s chorus echoes in the cavern. The warrior gains a +3 to his first sword attack against the dragon.

Orc Vs Stormtrooper
Whomever wins, they’re both losers. (image: goodreads.com)

Mooks

Mooks are, of course, the faceless, nameless troops of the bad guy, all in the same outfit: COBRA, Imperial Stormtroopers, orcs, various aliens, etc. They’re meant as more of an obstacle than a threat, a way to introduce action without draining the heroes’ ammunition, powers, or health. The traditional way to represent heroes wiping out armies of mooks is to give them 1 hit point each. If you’re using miniatures rules, you might want to give them 5 hit points each, so they stick around long enough to get placed on the battle mat. For an extra-violent (or extra-silly) take on mooks, a hero’s die roll in combat isn’t compared to the opponent’s defense roll, like it normally is; instead, the attack automatically hits, and the total rolled is the number of mooks annihilated that turn.
The aliens come swarming over the hill as their queen scuttles behind them. The heroes grab their guns and open fire. An Action roll of 6 is enough to defeat the alien’s 4; it falls to the ground. One less beast to deal with.

Deathbed Vow

In a “serious” game, a hero’s death is very final. When the hit points are at zero, it’s time to create a new character. But other settings — superheroes, robots — are meant for heroes who don’t really die. In those kinds of settings, a hero at zero or fewer hit points just falls out of action (unconscious, or simply out of the line of fire, no longer a target for enemies). And a deathbed vow can revive them. Once per game, any hero can give a brief speech while next to or touching a character who’s at zero or fewer hit points. As long as the speech includes phrases like, “He was the best of all of us,” (even if he wasn’t) or, “Your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” the character will immediately regain half his or her total hit points. It’s a special kind of healing that can be done for the victim once per game session (hopefully a character won’t need it that often!).
“Commander! Say something!” called out Private Jackson, leaning over the officer’s bloody body. “You took that bullet for me, I can never repay you…” The commander opened his eyes and reached in his pocket. He pulled out a small Bible with a bullet through the middle. “Always count on the good book, son,” the commander said, and stood up.

Under-equipped or over-equipped

While writing stats for Star Wars and Superhero characters, I discovered something: the “spend 4 Gear Points” character creation rule doesn’t quite apply to movie and comic characters the way it does to RPG heroes. Most screen characters have a single favored weapon, and no armor, especially in modern-day or future settings. Unspent Gear Points are added to Narrative Points, which makes sense, given the amazing things most heroes do regularly. But a game master could also go back to the basic USR rules, and just give characters the equipment that seems appropriate for them. One hero might have a single sword, while his partner carries an entire arsenal of guns ― if the story they’re telling is still fun, there’s no need to “balance” heroes with Gear Points.

What’s your favorite movie montage?

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?