USR Wednesdays: Hijinx

Picking up where we left off, we’re skipping classes because USR doesn’t have ‘em. It doesn’t have damage types, either, except as a story-telling element (being struck by lightning or frozen by ice is damage either way, but each looks and sounds different). But the D20 Hijinx game makes damage types into types of vibes, which is useful for our USR version. In our case, the damage types are Specialisms.

Rock and roll all nite!
The line between rock and fantasy adventuring has to include Gene Simmons somewhere. (image: kiss.com)
  • Rockin’: An intense song, either about having a party or about how the world is really unjust to wealthy rock and hip hop stars.
  • Ballad: Just the thing to calm everyone down and win over parents who worry that your music is corrupting their children.
  • Catchy: An earworm that makes everyone remember your band long after the show. Don’t roll too high on this kind of “attack,” or you may become a one-hit-wonder!
  • Comedy: Everyone likes a funny song, either a parody of someone else’s well-known song or a faithful cover of a song that was once popular and is now cheesy.
  • Dance: Get the crowd moving and they’ll be on your side forever.

And opposed to our music superstars? Critics and bad crowds of different types. They can be treated like any other monster (no higher than Power Level III — this is a game about playing music, not saving the world).

  • Angry: Any anti-music fan, from an over-zealous censor to an internet critic who loves to make fun of anything and everything.
  • Bored: Someone who doesn’t want to hear any music, like a parent who had to chaperone their child to the club’s bartender, who just wants to go home.
  • Distracted: Everyone under age 20 — they’re too busy looking at their phones! Also, that couple making out in the corner.
  • Jealous: Wannabes who couldn’t: rock critics, hip hop managers, and so on.
  • Snooty: People who overlook the band, like greedy record executives and hipsters who insist your group is too mainstream to be any good. “I only like bands you’ve never heard of.”

And we can’t have a game setting without a Six-Step Adventure. The band is the characters. They’ll have to decide what kind of music they play before the game starts, though if one person wants to rap while the others play pop, it looks like they’re adventuring with a guest star this time around.

1. Quest giver

The band’s manager, Marcus, says he’s booked the group at Rock Stock, where they’ll be among legendary rock groups on the first day (so the veterans can go home and recover) and indie artists on the last day (so the concert can claim to support new artists, though everyone will be gone by then). But there’s a problem — the band doesn’t have money to get to the show.

2. Early encounter

In order to raise the cash, the band members will have to find a solution. This can either be a wacky montage like “The Monkees” TV show, where everyone tries different silly jobs, or more serious, where the band is hired by Marcus’ uncle to investigate a robbery — a robbery at a music shop, of course.

3. Clue to final confrontation

After raising the cash, they head out to Rock Stock. There’s probably a few music critics and even a hostile concert organizer giving them a hard time trying to get in the door and to the dressing room. They don’t find a “clue” in the traditional sense; instead, they get a look at the acts on the stage and get a feel for how they’re performing against the crowd: what kind of music is winning them over?

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

The challenge: something goes wrong behind the scenes. Maybe the instruments disappear (darn that robber!) or an earthquake strikes. Can our heroes do something besides make music and help their reputation by being helpful in a natural disaster?

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

Finally, the big moment comes, and our band takes the stage. But there’s plenty of opposition, like music journalists hunting for their next target, or a crowd that just doesn’t care.

6. Final boss

And just when the concert is getting underway… the cops show up. For a hip hop or metal show, sure; the censors are always there. But what if the band’s music is G-rated, family friendly stuff? Well, blame the stage crew, with all their exposed wires and safety hazards. It’s one thing after another. Our heroes are constantly struggling to get a good reaction from the crowd and sell albums.

USR Wednesdays: Disadvantages

Yes, it’s Wednesday, but I’m not changing my title now. It was a technical issue that kept me from publishing yesterday, anyway.

One of the first RPGs I really played was GURPS, Steve Jackson Games’ flagship game before Munchkin. I played a lot of modern-day adventures: spies and treasure hunters and so on. The sourcebooks are still great reads, with so much background on the topic at hand without even looking at any game stats.

Really dense, little art.
There it is, the overly deadly rifle. (image: sjgames.com)

GURPS itself is a little dense, especially compared to the rules-light approach of a lot of modern games (USR included). But one idea that can come from the old to the new is disadvantages.

As the name suggests, these are negative aspects of a character — physical ones like One Eye or Mute, mental ones like Bloodthirsty or Addicted, or background ones like Dependent or Enemy. A Disadvantage is like a negative Specialism, providing a penalty to relevant die rolls and an indication of how to roleplay the character. It offers a penalty of -1 to -5, though most are probably -1 or -2; more than that, and the character is probably severely hampered from doing anything exciting (i.e., what you’re playing a roleplaying game for).

Here’s a few examples of Disadvantages.

I mentioned the Struggling (-2) Financial Status last time. A character with few material goods or much wealth isn’t necessarily struggling, though. As the song goes, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Severe Body Odor -1: Game masters, remember the character is going to make social interaction a lot more difficult with this Disadvantage!

Bad Temper -2: In a stressful situation, make a Wits roll, applying this Disadvantage. On a failure, your character attacks or at least screams at any nearby target, including his or her allies.

Code of Honor -1: This is a set of rules the character has sworn (if only to himself) to live by — don’t kill, always obey superiors, give away extra money, and so on. The player should choose a few rules when selecting this Disadvantage. If the character fails to act according to his code, all following die rolls are affected by the penalty until the character redeems himself somehow. For example, a woodsman who vows to rob from the rich and give to the poor, but who hangs onto his ill-gotten gains instead of donating to the less fortunate, will suffer a -1 to all die rolls until he gives that money away.

Non-Stop Talking -1: This is just annoying and is more of a role playing guideline, instead of something that will be applied to many die rolls. That is, unless the character is trying to be silent (a ninja or spy character would probably have this Disadvantage at a -2).

Pyromaniac -2: Your character has to start fires, and when things need to be destroyed, she makes sure they’re destroyed in the most explosive way possible. Like Non-Stop Talking, this makes it difficult to be subtle — or to get into melee combat (a fist or knife doesn’t blow things up).

Dependent -2: The character’s girlfriend is always being kidnapped by villains, or his elderly aunt can’t be mixed up in his heroic world, or her life will be at risk. The player should select the Dependent when creating the character; it can’t be another player character. The Dependent probably won’t show up in every adventure, but the penalty can apply even when the person isn’t there; for example, a wizard may struggle to cast spells without his apprentice there to bring him spell components and tomes of lore.

A new character can start with, and gain, any amount of Disadvantages, though it’s uncommon to have more than one or two at most. In compensation for taking a Disadvantage at character creation, a character can either:

  • Add an equivalent bonus to an existing Specialism (a -2 Disadvantage gives a +2 to a Specialism or +1 to two Specialisms, meaning the character has Specialisms of +4/+2/+2 or +3/+3/+2).
  • Start with another Specialism with the equivalent bonus; for maximum role playing fun, try to tie the Disadvantage and the extra Specialism together (for example, a character with a Debt To A Crime Lord -2 is also One Step Ahead Of The Law +2).
  • Start with a number of extra Narrative Points equal to the bonus.

Disadvantages can be removed from a character if the story demands it: a Deaf -3 character who has surgery or cybernetic implants to allow for hearing no longer has the Disadvantage. He or she doesn’t lose the bonus Specialism or Narrative Points that were awarded at character creation.

What Disadvantage will your character have?

USR Wednesdays: Money

Everybody needs it, and no one ever has enough… Even in a game with so much narrative abstraction like USR, money is something to consider. After all, it’s the most classic of roleplaying game goals (slay the dragon to collect its treasure). But in USR, heroes don’t start with money, and don’t have a “shopping list” of weapons or other equipment. Domino Writing-style USR does limit characters to 4 Combat Gear points of weapons and armor, though that’s pretty abstract too: it’s really about the bonus, not the actual item that the character is buying.

A simple way to represent money is as an Influence, a temporary Specialism with a bonus of +1 to +3. The bonus, in this case, is how much money the character has. The warrior and wizard splitting the dragon’s hoard get an influence of Treasure Hoard +2, at least until it’s spent on wine, women, and song (for the warrior), and valuable spell components (for the wizard). The thief who steals the rare diamond has an influence of Reputation +1 — he can’t sell the diamond, after all, but everyone in the black market community knows he pulled off the audacious caper. And the Billionaire +3 can do quite a bit with his money, though an enemy with the Corrupt Businessman +2 Specialism might try to instigate a hostile takeover, in the form of several Ego and Wits-based die rolls.

All about the Benjamins...
This is probably worth a +2 at least. (image: mokra)

Going Shopping

Now that you’ve represented the character’s wealth with a Specialism, what can you do with it? As mentioned, it can assist in Wits and Ego die rolls — for example, roll Ego to pay off the right people and smuggle goods over the border, or roll Wits to determine the value of a famous painting (it takes money to know money, you see).

It’s less common to use a money-related Specialism with an Action die roll, but you could transform a point of bonus into a Combat Gear point, if your game master allows. In that case, your character is buying a new weapon or item. Obviously, a Treasure Hoard +1 should purchase more than a single Sword +1, but it’s balanced by the guideline that the bonus granted by the treasure will gradually disappear, while the sword is more or less permanent. These extra Combat Gear points can even be translated into extra Narrative Points: when things look their most desparate, the hero pulls out his credit card and is back in action.

Financial Status

For a character whose net worth is a fundamental part of their background (i.e., an actual Specialism, not a temporary one), consider these.

Not Important: +5
This character is from a society that does not care about money, like an alien race, or has the ability to create money at any time.

Multimillionaire: +5
This character is head of a major multinational corporation or foundation, or is a member of a nation’s royal family, and has almost unlimited access to funds and technology. He or she has multiple residences and forms of transportation.

Wealthy: +3
This character is a self-made millionaire or celebrity. He or she has a large house and expensive transportation (like a carriage or luxury car).

Sponsored: +2
This character works for a government agency, army, or other organization that takes care of living expenses and gear.

Comfortable: +0
This character has a steady day job that brings in decent pay, or some other way of making ends meet without much worry. The character can occasionally afford a major expense. He or she has a house and access to typical transportation for the time period (horse, automobile, or starship).

Struggling: -2
The character has difficulty finding enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month, and has to skip some basic necessities from time to time. The character has very little money, few items and may be homeless or nomadic. The character depends on friends and family for support. He or she has a small residence (such as a wooden hut or apartment), and an inexpensive means of transportation (mule, bicycle, old car, etc.).

This (and Comfortable) isn’t really a Specialism, but helps give perspective on the other financial statuses, and could be an interesting roleplaying challenge… and it gives me an idea for next Wednesday’s post.

How much money does your hero have?

USR Wednesdays: Tournament Fighting and Wrestling

There are a handful of pro wrestling-themed RPGs, and even an official “Street Fighter” game. Yes, really, from the early ’90s, when I was playing tournament fighting games. And though a setting that’s 95 percent combat seems like it should require a complex combat system, tournament fighting and wrestling-themed games can work very well in USR. Here’s how.

An ordinary character can be created, though most characters will have Action as their highest stat. But a player who wants to try something different, like a wrestling manager or a Vince McMahon-style macho businessman, could take Wits or Ego as the highest stat.

Combat Maneuvers

Combat Gear points don’t really apply in the setting; wrestlers grab chairs but don’t have one as a primary weapon. A fighter like “Mortal Kombat’s” Scorpion does have his “Get over here!” spear, but that’s not a weapon, in USR tournament fighting. Instead, it’s a Combat Maneuver. Characters typically have one +1, one +2 and one +3 Combat Maneuver, and the another single Combat Maneuver of any bonus, selected when they’re created. A heavy hitter might have two +3s, while a fast character has two +1s, staying in the fight for a long time by moving around swiftly. In game terms, there’s no difference between one +1 attack and another; that’s where your creativity comes in… although the narration can affect your attacks — if a character’s hands are tied, he can’t throw a punch. Name your attacks something interesting and action-packed.

In addition, all characters start with these two Combat Maneuvers.
Punch (could also be a kick or even head-butt) +0: in other words, a basic Action die roll.
Block: if your character chooses a block, he doesn’t attack on his turn, but until it’s his turn in combat again, he can make his defense die roll twice and use the best result. This gives the character no Strain — but he doesn’t recover Strain either (see below for more on Strain).

Here’s a few examples of Combat Maneuvers:

Grab +1
Jab +1
Quick Kick +1
Taunt +1 (this uses the Ego instead of Action)
Tough Skin +1 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks)

Body Slam +2
Force Field +2 (this is for defensive rolls, not attacks)
Spin Kick +2
Summon an ally (to make a sudden attack, then disappear) +2 (this uses Ego instead of Action)
Throw +2
Uppercut +2

Weapon (sword, spear, pistol) +3
Hadoken Fireball +3 (being magic, this uses Wits instead of Action)

Fighting game finishing moves aren’t Combat Maneuvers; they’re just fun to describe.

Hope you brought a roll of quarters.
I could go either way on this fight, really. (image: Capcom)

Combos

An attack roll that gets the highest result on the die (for example, a 10 on a D10) starts a combo. The attacker can continue to make attacks, as long as they are on the same target as the first attack, and as long as each one hits. When an attack misses, the combo is over. In this setting, everyone has roughly 15 Hit Points, like a typical player character, to keep them in the game for a while, and to give heroes someone to try and score combos on.

Strain

Combat Maneuvers are, in a sense, weapons: they offer a bonus to (usually) Action rolls. But they also come with a cost. A character in this setting has a Strain total, which starts at zero. Each time a character attacks or defends using a Combat Maneuver — only one of each per turn — add the bonus the Combat Maneuver provides to the character’s Strain. If the Strain is less than or equal to the character’s current Hit Points, there’s no problem. If it goes above the Hit Points (or the Hit Points fall below Strain), the character can only make a basic attack, simply rolling a stat to attack without any Combat Maneuver bonus. A character’s Strain drops 5 points if he doesn’t use a Combat Maneuver at all on a turn, though it can never go below zero.

Specialisms

Sure, you can simply create a few tournament fighters or wrestlers, set them up in a playoff bracket-style showdown, and duel it out. But there’s more to the setting than fighting, believe it or not. Think of “Street Fighter’s” struggle against M. Bison, or the romantic storylines of WWE. While you’re thinking about what to call your character’s Combat Maneuvers, don’t forget they have Specialisms too. Even professional warriors have interests and skills — maybe your hero is a Spy, an Expert Pilot, or an Anthropologist who found another hero, a strange man-monster, deep in the Amazon jungle. Perhaps the hero is a former champion passing along his knowledge of Tournament History to the younger characters, or is Suave (or Wealthy) enough to impress non-player characters unimpressed with his talents in the ring.

What does your Tournament Fighter look like?

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: Influences, or Faction Specialisms

A Specialism has been defined in this blog before: “Specialisms are what a character can do, or how he or she does it, in a way that’s appropriate to the setting.” That includes skills like Computers, special abilities like Spellcasting, or traits like Charming. It can also include aspects that build the world the character lives in, like Captain Of The Starship Conquest (now the game world contains spaceships) or Former Member Of The Thieves Guild (now the game world contains enough thieves to form a guild). These kinds of Specialisms can lead to more things in the game — the Captain may own his own spaceship the heroes can use, if the game master allows; the Thieves Guild may be after the hero, a ready-made story hook for adventures.

But what if they’re not important enough aspects of a hero to be one of his or her three starting Specialisms, or won’t come into play in every single scenario? That’s when they become Influences.

Influences

Influences are “minor” Specialisms. While an ordinary Specialism starts at +2 and goes up to +5, at least in Domino Writing-style USR, an Influence starts at +1 and only can reach +3. It’s not meant to be an additional Specialism, just a bonus in certain situations that reflect the game world. The entire adventuring party could even have the same Influence.

Unlike a Specialism, which increases when the character reaches a new level, an Influence changes when the story calls for it. A hero who performs a great deed may earn a +1 to one of his Influences, while another character whose behavior indicates that she’s turning away from the source of the Influence could lose a bonus (possibly even going into the negatives — another difference from Specialisms).

What is an Influence? Its other name, Faction Specialism, is one idea: a political or other authority in the world which can lend money, equipment or other resources, like a royal house (the Starks or Lannisters from “A Song Of Ice And Fire”), a military force (G.I. Joe or SHIELD), or a private organization (a mafia syndicate). A character with a +1 in the Sunburst Clan could use his Influence to impress members of the clan, or intimidate its enemies. A character with a +3 in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force could use the bonus to try and requisition the best planes for himself and his men.

A little too conspicuous.
The official costume of the Sunburst Clan ninja? Probably not. (image: brandsonsale.com)

Powers

Another kind of Influence is a characteristic that powers a character, or a lot of characters in a certain kind of setting. This could be Honor or Sanity or even a pair of Influences — say, Light Side and Dark Side, where one increases when the other drops. Influence could also be more combat-related too, like the “power meter” a video game fighter needs to charge up to release his Ultimate Attack. Each time the hero performs a particularly cool move, his Power Influence goes up by one, making him more suave, tough and fast. When it’s time to blow away the bad guy, it’s all used in a single attack roll, and falls back to zero.

What Influences will be in your game?

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: winghornpress.com).

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: Quick Draw

In most USR combat, speed is a secondary consideration, represented by an initiative roll (in Domino Writing-style USR, that’s Action + Wits) at the start of the battle, just to determine turn order. But in some kinds of combat, speed is much more significant: a Wild West showdown at high noon, or a situation where a bomb is triggered and starts counting down, and everyone (the good guys, at least) has to get out of the room before it explodes. So how can you simulate that while sticking with the Unbelievably Simple guidelines of USR?

Western USR, by an author whom I don’t know (update: Jay Murphy — thanks, Jay) has a great idea: while normal initiative is a representation of reflexes (Action) and tactics (Wits), combat that relies so heavily on who goes first should instead add Ego to the mix. It represents the steely eyed glare of the veteran sharpshooter intimidating the uncertain novice, or the cool head needed to switch instantly from “I’m carefully setting the wires on this explosive device” to “Get out! Go! Go! Go!”

Quick draw: the master
This guy has a Specialism in Steely Eyed Glare. Probably at a +4. (image: United Artists)

We can also take an idea from early versions of Dungeons and Dragons, weapon speed. The higher the speed rating, the slower the weapon was, and the longer it took for the attacker to get it ready to strike. The trade-off, of course, is that slower weapons are usually much more damaging. In USR, the bonus provided by a weapon or armor can also be used to adjust a character’s initiative roll — but in this case, since higher initiative goes earlier in the combat round, subtract the weapon or armor bonus from the initiative roll. A dagger (+1) is a lot easier to flick at a foe than loading, chambering and firing a shotgun (+3) is. A fist (no bonus) is even faster, but unless your character has a Specialism like Martial Artist, it won’t affect the outcome of combat much.

It makes combat encounters last a little longer, but roll initiative each round instead of just once at the start in a combat situation like the ones we’re describing here. It keeps players on their toes if they don’t know exactly where they’re taking action in any given moment, appropriate for a battle so reliant on quick action.

Finally, if you’re comfortable with a little more math in your USR game, start counting bullets. A Wild West showdown, in the movies, usually ends immediately: one guy is dead, or the other one is. But RPG combat lasts longer; both gunmen will probably fire a few times before it’s over. And if one runs out of bullets first, bad luck for him. You could also assign a penalty for injuries. The easiest option here is simply a -1 to dice rolls if the character is below half of his starting Hit Point total, but a good hit could also knock a weapon from someone’s hand, or strike a kneecap, forcing them to the dirt. It’s more bookkeeping, but can really help bring a tense confrontation to life.

Where can you use quick draw rules in your games?

USR Wednesdays: Social Combat And Regular Combat

In the original discussion on social combat, we made it a parallel to regular combat, except the main stat we’re using is Ego, not Action. The parallels can be the same for adventures, too, but they’re probably harder to recognize.

Regular combat could be:

  • a battle in a dungeon room with a handful of orcs
  • A showdown over a precarious bridge with a powerful evil wizard
  • A one-on-one fistfight with a giant robot
  • A suspenseful hunt through the building corridors, looking for a way out or the magic button that destroys the bad guy’s headquarters
Social combat in action
In this scene from “A Few Good Men,” Col. Jessup loses a social combat encounter. (image: Castle Rock Ent.)

Social combat, on the other hand, is:

  • A confrontation in a courtroom (here’s a good example, and here’s another)
  • Talking a guard into letting you pass without attracting attention
  • Getting an informant to give up the information he’s got that your heroes need
  • Rallying exhausted troops for one final assault on the enemy
  • Encouraging a crowd to join your side when all they want to do is run or turn against you

Social combat can use several Specialisms, like Intimidation, Seduction, Charm, Quick Wit, Etiquette, Detect Lies, Arrogant, and more. Each can be used just like a weapon attack, but is even more specific. A character with Plate Mail +2 can use it against any sword or axe — but a character with Detect Lies +2 isn’t going to get much use out of that Specialism when facing a character using the Specialism Intimidation.

Combat, whether it’s with Action or Ego (or Wits, in the case of supernatural powers), can be as detailed or as simple as the players want. One character’s Action + Sword might be one character’s action, after another character’s use of Ego + Fast-Talk fails to get the guard to move out of the way. Everyone has a chance to participate: the mighty barbarian, the wise sorcerer, and the quick-witted minstrel.

How will your heroes use their social combat Specialisms?

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.