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: Espionage

Last week, I introduced the concept of Free-Form Specialisms, where instead of pre-determined skills and abilities, a character can use his “+1s” to do anything he needs to do on an adventure. You lose two “+1s” if you settle on a Specialism. Let’s put this concept to work in a popular RPG setting: the world of secret agents, master thieves and assassins.

In fantasy and space opera-type science fiction, the character archetypes are instantly familiar (and have already been created for USR on this very blog): wizard, rogue, pilot, bounty hunter. Espionage games have their archetypes too — hacker, mastermind, femme fatale — but secret agent characters have more than one ability.

Pick your suave super spy.
Bond. James Bond(s). (image: eurochannel.com)

To represent this, give your hero a single Specialism as his archetype, and then also put for “+1s” on the character sheet. This is something like Pierce Brosnan-era Bond or the efficient, nick-of-time thieves of the “Ocean’s” movie series. If you’re playing a high-level espionage game, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond or Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. story, you might want to tack on another “+1” or two, and that’s not counting any bonuses awarded for super-spy gear. Characters in a more down-to-earth game (say, Jason Bourne, or even something like “Taken”) could have fewer “+1s.”

If a character is only in the story for a moment, they’re probably best represented as NPCs. Q, the gadget-maker for James Bond, shows up just long enough to deliver a few spy tools to 007, then disappears. If he traveled with Bond, creating weapons and devices while James was seducing women and negotiating with super-villains, then he’d be a player character.

What’s a good spy archetype? I mentioned a few before, but there are more:

  • Brawler — hand-to-hand fighting, martial arts
  • Detective — seeing clues others miss, following rumors and suspicions to the end of the line
  • Driver — every spy can drive (or fly) fast; only drivers can pull off stunts that strain vehicles to their maximum
  • Femme Fatale — seduction, keeping attention on herself (or himself) so others can do their jobs
  • Gadgeteer — inventing tools, detecting and defusing traps
  • Hacker — breaking into computer systems, writing viruses
  • Infiltrator — breaking into buildings, slipping through locks, defusing security systems
  • Mastermind — conceiving a plan, changing the plan on the spur of the moment when it goes wrong
  • Politician — con artist who’s good at making allies and using his words to cool everything down
  • Sniper — master of all firearms, expert at extremely long-distance shots
  • Soldier — punching, shooting, staying in the fight longer than anyone else

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: 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?