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 dominowriting.com/games site. My games are here, too; let’s keep all the fun in one place.

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!
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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?

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part VII — Villains

Our villains are presented as of the beginning of “Return Of The Jedi” — so they’re all still alive… none of them actually survive the film!
Darth Vader, Level 4, Experience Points 15
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Pilot +2, The Force +4, Intimidate +3
Hit Points: 33
Equipment: Lightsaber +2, Body Armor with Breathing System +3
Narrative Points: 3
jedi 209x300 - USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part VII — Villains
Is this Polish “Return Of The Jedi” poster the best of all “Star Wars” movie posters? Yes, yes it is. (image: reddit.com)
Jabba The Hutt, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D6, Wits D8, Ego D10
Specialisms: Command +2, Great Wealth +3, Underworld Contacts +3
Hit Points: 24
Equipment: None
Narrative Points: 7
Boba Fett, Level 4, Experience Points 15
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Bounty Hunter +3, Pilot +3, Negotiation +3
Hit Points: 33
Equipment: Mandalorian Armor +2, Blaster Rifle +2, Grappling Line, Rocket Pack
Narrative Points: 3

The Emperor works in the background, even during the final showdown at the end of “Return Of The Jedi” (all he physically does is shoot Force Lightning — and fall down a ventilation shaft, of course). He’s better represented as a Power Level VI monster than as a character.

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part IV — Experience Levels

We’ll wrap up our series on the original “Star Wars” trilogy with statistics for the heroes and villains from the films. But first, a note on levels: unlike Dungeons & Dragons, the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs, and other professionally published games, USR doesn’t rely on characters adding a host of new abilities as they gain levels. Yes, they may add Specialisms and hit points, but we don’t have a list of special abilities added at each level for each class. We don’t even have classes for characters. So here’s the guideline I’m using for Domino Writing-style USR characters.
As seen in the USR rules, you gain 1 to 3 experience points per adventure, and go up a level every 5 XP. In other words, one level per two to three adventures, or roughly one level for every five or so game sessions (depending on how long your game sessions last). A character can gain unlimited levels, but by levels above 5, most monsters will no longer be a real threat. So let’s say a level 6 character has to “retire” from adventuring, or at least stop gaining XP.
Here’s “A New Hope,” complete with experience point awards.
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Read this text box to start the adventure. (image: LucasFilm)

First game session

Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi join Han Solo and Chewbacca (and the droids) in the Mos Eisley cantina, where they have to make a quick escape off the planet Tattooine. They escape to Alderaan, per the “quest giver” Princess Leia hologram. But Alderaan has been destroyed, and their ship is captured. 1 XP for everyone!
Everything before the cantina — the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, the escape of C3PO and R2-D2 with the Death Star plans — is backstory, helping develop the personalities of the characters. Obi-Wan and Han (and probably Chewie, too) should be level 2 or 3, really, but RPGs don’t often work with characters of different levels in the same party, so we’ll have to chalk it up to the difference between a movie and a tabletop RPG.

Second game session

In the Death Star, the party frees Princess Leia and Obi-Wan dies (soon to become a new Specialism for Luke). 2 XP for the dramatic conclusion to the game session.

Third game session

The Empire follows the Millennium Falcon to Yavin IV, triggering the dramatic space battle and destruction of the first Death Star. 2 more XP, and everyone goes up a level. The End.
You could define the events of the entire movie as one adventure (so they advance to level 2 at the end of “Return Of The Jedi”), but I want my heroes to gain XP a little more quickly. There are big challenges ahead; they need to be ready.
After “The Empire Strikes Back,” they go up another level. And since we’re only looking at the original films, that’s where we’ll stop. Despite what I said before, to “accurately” portray the characters, they’ll be at different levels. That’s what you’ll see next week, when we provide USR statistics for the heroes of Star Wars.

How many game sessions will it take to play the Harry Potter novels?