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: 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
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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 VI — More Heroes

Just like last time, this is as of the beginning of “Return Of The Jedi,” except for Obi-Wan).
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The new trailer for “The Last Jedi” has been released, but our blog post is a look at “Star Wars” history. (image: vanityfair.com)
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Level 4, Experience Points 15 (note: his statistics are as of the start of “A New Hope” — after that, he becomes a Specialism for Luke)
Action D8, Wits D10, Ego D6
Specialisms: The Force +4, Inspiring +3, Investigation +2
Hit Points: 33
Equipment: Lightsaber +2
Narrative Points: 5
C-3PO, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Etiquette & Protocol +3, Languages +3, Storytelling +2
Hit Points: 26
Equipment: none
Narrative Points: 7
R2-D2, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Computers +3, Repair +3, Deception +2
Hit Points: 26
Equipment: Electric Shock Probe +1 (note: R2-D2 doesn’t use his rocket jets in the original films, so they’re not included here, either)
Narrative Points: 6
Lando Calrissian, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D8, Wits D6, Ego D10
Specialisms: Bureacracy +3, Pilot +2, Gambler +3
Hit Points: 24
Equipment: Blaster +2, Expensive Clothes, Unlimited Line Of Credit (until it’s called in by the bank)
Narrative Points: 5
Yoda, Level 5, Experience Points 20
Action D8, Wits D10, Ego D6
Specialisms: The Force +5, Inspiring +2, History +3
Hit Points: 38
Equipment: none (note: again, as this doesn’t include the Prequel movies, Yoda is simply a wise mentor, not a super-acrobatic military leader)

Narrative Points: 7 

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part V — Heroes

We wrap up our series on the classic “Star Wars” films with the main characters, as of the beginning of “Return Of The Jedi.” Note that they have much less adventuring equipment than most RPG characters, since they don’t need to carry medical packs for healing, extra weapons, rope, 10-foot-poles, and so much more.
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Those robes don’t provide any combat bonus. (image: LucasFilm)

Luke Skywalker, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Jedi In Training (The Force) +2, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Force Spirit +1, Fighter Pilot +3, Impulsive +2
Hit Points: 28
Equipment: Lightsaber +2, Blaster +1
Narrative Points: 4
Han Solo, Level 4, Experience Points 15
Action D10, Wits D6, Ego D8
Specialisms: Millennium Falcon +2, Reckless +3, Quick Reflexes +2, Bargain +1, Loyal +1
Hit Points: 31
Equipment: Blaster Pistol +1
Narrative Points: 6
Leia Organa, Level 3, Experience Points 10
Action D6, Wits D10, Ego D8
Specialisms: Diplomat +3, Tough In A Fight +2, Galactic Etiquette And History +2, Observation +1
Hit Points: 26
Equipment: Blaster Pistol +1, Data Files
Narrative Points: 6
Chewbacca, Level 4, Experience Points 15
Action D10, Wits D8, Ego D6
Specialisms: Pilot +3, Repair +2, Intimidate +2, Perception +2
Hit Points: 33
Equipment: Wookee bowcaster +2, Tool kit

Narrative Points: 5

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?

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part III — Vehicles, Monsters and Equipment

This time we’ll use the Specialism rules for weapons, armor and vehicles.

Vehicles

You can use the “Vehicles as equipment” option, as listed below.
X-Wing +1, TIE Fighter +1, Millennium Falcon +2, Star Destroyer +4
Landspeeder + 1, Speeder Bike +1, AT-ST +2, AT-AT +3
Alternately, because space battles are so important to Star Wars, vehicles can get an entire set of stats, as found in Somnium Void. If you’re using this option, characters who often fly starships (like Han, Luke and Vader) should have a Specialism like Pilot +2.

Star Wars Sominum Void
X-Wing,
TIE Fighter
Attack Ship
Millennium Falcon Cruiser
Star Destroyer Battleship
Landspeeder Skimmer
Speeder Bike Zoom Bike
(add a blaster +1)
AT-ST Tank


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These require their own rules. (image: starwars.com)


AT-AT
Type: Heavy
Maneuver: 8
Hits: 60
Armour: 6
Weapons: Heavy linked blasters +6

Monsters

Power Level I: Mynock
Power Level II: Dianoga, Gamorrean Guard, Stormtrooper, Tauntaun
Power Level III: Wampa
Power Level V: Rancor

Equipment

Bacta tank (heals 5 hit points per hour)
Blaster (light +1 ranged weapon)
Blaster Rifle (medium +2 ranged weapon)
Comlink
E-Web Repeating Blaster (heavy +3 ranged weapon)
Flight suit (light +1 armor)
Lightsaber (medium +2 melee weapon — it can also cut through anything except another lightsaber)
Pike (medium +2 melee weapon)
Stormtrooper armor (medium +2 armor — this also can be used for Mandalorian warriors, like Boba Fett)

Thermal Detonator (heavy +3 ranged weapon)
What other gear and creatures should be available in USR Star Wars?

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part II — The Force

The Force is one of the things that makes “Star Wars”… well, Star Wars. It’s not quite magic or psionics as seen in other works of fiction, but it’s easy to understand, and so well-known it’s even referred to outside of fantasy and science fiction (I can’t count the number of times someone has said “Use the Force” or “Jedi mind trick” without talking about Star Wars).
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This is my new favorite meme. (image: youtube.com)

Powers

In the role playing games, novels and the video games they inspired, Jedi, Sith and other Force-users have access to dozens of powers. But since this series is only focused on the original trilogy of films, there’s only about a half-dozen abilities. Most of these names come from the d6 system Star Wars RPG, where they were created.
  • Battle Meditation, which Luke does while hiding from Vader in the Death Star throne room at the end of “Return Of The Jedi.” Qui-Gon Jinn does it better in “The Phantom Menace,” but remember, we’re only covering the original trilogy here.
  • Enhanced Reflexes, used when Luke leaps out of the freezing chamber on Bespin.
  • Force Choke, Darth Vader’s favorite gimmick.
  • Force Defense, which Vader used to block Han’s blaster, and Luke used to parry the speeder bike shots on Endor.
  • Force Lightning, the Emperor’s signature move.
  • Healing, which Obi-Wan does after Luke is attacked by the Tusken Raider.
  • Suggestion (the Jedi Mind Trick), Obi-Wan’s favorite for the weak-minded.
  • Telekinesis, or as “Weird Al” Yankovic put it, “I picked up a box, I lifted some rocks, while I stood on my head.”
  • Telepathy, Luke’s message to Leia shortly thereafter in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

That’s nine Force powers. You could make each one its own Specialism, but let’s take a cue from last week, where I described The Force (or Use The Force) as a Specialism itself. Each power, then, is just a way a character can use The Force. We don’t even need to detail “power levels” or anything like that; in most of the Star Wars RPGs, there are specific rules for how much damage Force Lightning causes, or how far a message sent with Telepathy will reach.
yoda 300x152 - USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part II — The Force
Yoda’s player is making a Wits + The Force roll right now. R2-D2’s player is eating some potato chips. (image: jediapprentice.tripod.com)
But this is USR, and specifics like that are not Unbelievably Simple. Narratively, it doesn’t matter. How high does Luke leap, on a successful Wits + The Force roll? As high as the game master decides works for the story. The target number is set based on the amount of stress the hero is under, the obstacles in the way of the leap and the need for the hero to succeed (in this case, our game master, George, set it at a 7).
Another example: the Emperor rolled well on his Wits + The Force roll when attacking Luke with Force Lightning, causing enough hit point damage to knock Luke to the ground and keep him sparkling with electricity. He doesn’t need a separate listing of damage caused by Force Lightning. It’s just an effect of this particular Wits + The Force die roll.

Training

Training to gain powers is an important part of The Force in Star Wars. Since there’s only nine powers to choose from, let’s say a hero with The Force as a Specialism starts with two, and gains another after each level. You can increase or decrease that rate, of course, especially if you add more Force powers.
And then there’s the Dark Side. In the other Star Wars RPGs, you collect a number of Dark Side points each time you use a Dark Side power (here it’s Force Choke and Force Lightning), or if you do something else evil. Too many, and you’ve fallen to the Dark Side and become an NPC. You can do the same in USR Star Wars (say, a number of points equal to your Ego die value — 6, 8 or 10), or simply make it part of the story, where a character turns to the Dark Side when it’s dramatically appropriate.

A Kind Of Magic

The rules for The Force can probably be used for any other kind of supernatural power, too; because of the way combat is handled in Domino Writing-style USR, a killer fireball or a summoned mass of strangling vines is just a way to describe a successful Wits + Magic Specialism roll. Or it could be an Ego + Magic roll, to represent those characters who derive their power from their force of will.

What Force powers did I miss from our Original Trilogy list?

USR Wednesdays: Star Wars Part I — Classes

Now that we’ve looked at a lot of the basics to help expand your USR games, from Specialisms to vehicles and monsters, let’s turn to settings. And if the sales charts from ICv2 are anything to consider, the most popular genre after medieval fantasy is “Star Wars.”
For Domino Writing-style USR, “Star Wars” consists of the classic trilogy (“A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return Of The Jedi”). The prequels and sequels have new ideas to offer the “Star Wars” universe but nothing as indelible as the original films. I won’t be writing much about them, though I’m looking forward to someone providing stats for Qui-Gon Jinn and Kylo Ren.

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Everyone in this picture, too. In a few weeks there will be stats for one of them. (image: sonsofcorax.wordpress.com)

In most fantasy RPGs, a character has a race and a class. Despite appearances, that’s not the case for Star Wars, where a character’s species really isn’t that significant. A Wookiee might have Strong +2 as a Specialism, but a Rodian or Ithorian doesn’t have particularly strong “racial” characteristics. Droids, on the other hand, are nothing but special abilities. Consider Multi-lingual +2 or Computer hacking +2 (Specialisms droids from the films might have).

A character’s profession is best described using an archetype, like the ones we’ve seen for modern-day characters and in USR games like Somnium Void.

Scoundrel
Primary Stat: Action
Suggested Specialisms: Pilot, Bargain, Hide, Charm
Suggested Equipment: Pistol, Huge debt
Note: “Rogue With A Heart Of Gold” isn’t really a good Specialism, since there probably aren’t many ways to apply the bonus this would provide if it was a Specialism. It’s a great description of the character’s personality, though.

Jedi
Primary Stat: Mind
Suggested Specialisms: Dedication, Leadership, Inspiration, Athletics, The Force*
Suggested Equipment: Lightsaber

Warrior
Primary Stat: Action
Suggested Specialisms: Endurance, Military Tactics, Terrain Knowledge
Suggested Equipment: Rifle

Outworlder
Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Invent, Survivalist, Riding, Bargain
Suggested Equipment: Droid parts, All-weather clothing

Sage
Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Knowledge, Reference Tools, Etiquette
Suggested Equipment: Computer

Diplomat
Primary Stat: Ego
Suggested Specialisms: Negotiate, Leadership, Languages
Suggested Equipment: none

Technician
Primary Stat: Wits
Suggested Specialisms: Hacking, Computers, Repair, Jury-Rig
Suggested Equipment: Repair tools

*A note on The Force: To simulate the Jedi or other Force-users at the most basic level, the player simply makes a Wits roll against a target number determined by the game master, depending on the complexity of the power. We’ll get into a more involved (but still Unbelievably Simple) version of The Force next time.

What classes need to be added to USR Star Wars?

USR Wednesdays: Vehicles

Cars, trucks, tanks, spaceships, pirate sloops… there are dozens of kinds of vehicles in adventure fiction, and given their size and their power, it may be a challenge to see where vehicles actually fit in a role playing game setting. Here are three ways of looking at vehicles in your Domino Writing-style USR game.

1. Vehicles as narration: In most settings, a vehicle is just a means to an end, a way to get from one place to another. In a modern-day action story, the characters drive fast cars or ride in helicopters, but only because it gets them across the city quickly, and to the next story point. There’s no game rules when using a vehicle as narration; you can just say, “The heroes hop in their cars and get to the police station,” or even “The heroes get on horseback and arrive at the entrance to the dungeon in about an hour.” It doesn’t matter how fast they’re traveling, or what happens on the trip, only that they are traveling.

2. Vehicles as equipment: The flexibility of Specialisms in USR means it’s easy to make a vehicle a piece of gear, just like a weapon or a special tool. Some characters who are closely linked to their vehicles might include the vehicle as one of their Specialisms (for example, Han Solo with his Millennium Falcon +2, or Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl +2). A game master could provide a vehicle as equipment if it’s going to be integral to the story, and more than just narration; for example, the Enterprise could be a +2 Specialism to everyone on the “Star Trek” crew. It wouldn’t be a Specialism just for Kirk or Picard, because all of the heroes in the adventure make use of the Enterprise — as a weapon, as a research station, as a place of healing, and so on. Of course, Han Solo and Jack Sparrow have plenty of adventures not on board their ships, but no one else in their stories is so connected to those ships as they are.

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There it is, the classic starship the “+2.” I mean Millennium Falcon. (image: wookiepedia.com)
Like weapons and armor, vehicles can be classified as “light” +1, “medium” +2 or “heavy” +3. A +1 vehicle could be a motorcycle or a horse, while a +2 would be a car or space fighter (an X-Wing or Viper), and a +3 vehicle could be something massive, like a semi-truck, a tank or the Enterprise itself.

Also like weapons or armor, you don’t need a separate Specialism for Pilot, Driver or Vehicle Gunner, unless that’s really a core element of a character. The vehicle Specialism includes its flying and shooting capabilities.

The Specialism would be used in any situation the vehicle could provide help — winning a race, carrying a heavy load, or firing its on-board weapons. If the vehicle is seriously damaged, it ceases to be a usable Specialism, until it’s repaired.

3. Vehicles as characters: Some settings are all about their vehicles: Mad Max, Mobile Suit Gundam, even Transformers. In those settings, the single bonus a Specialism provides doesn’t really offer enough to accurately represent the vehicle. So you can add more statistics to a vehicle, like top speed, armament, and maneuverability. Rules for that are in Somnium Void, starting on page 23.

We’re taking a week off from USR Wednesdays next week, but we’ll be back after that for a look at more genres.

How do you use vehicles in your game?

USR Wednesdays: Settings

By my count, USR has led to more than a dozen separate games, many found on RPGnow or on the creator’s own website. Here’s the list I have:
  • Anthropomorphic by Jay Murphy (animal people)
  • Beyond Fear by Scott Malthouse (cosmic horror/Cthulhu)
  • Blood And Silk by Shenron (samurai)
  • Ghostbusters by Shenron (um… Ghostbusters)
  • Go Wherever by Scott Malthouse (stonepunk among other ideas)
  • Halberd by Scott Malthouse (fantasy)
  • Halcyon Fantasy by Scott Malthouse (old school fantasy)
  • It Came From VHS! by Scott Malthouse (80s action)
  • Masquerade of the Sundered Sky by Scott Malthouse (gothic horror)
  • Sominum Void by Scott Malthouse (space opera)
  • Swarm Of Barbarians by Peter Segreti (Ancient Rome)
  • Tequendria by Scott Malthouse (Dunsany fantasy)
  • Fear & Loathing by Jay Murphy (gonzo adventure)
  • Sword & Sorcery by Jay Murphy (Conan-style fantasy)
  • Cyberpunk by Scott Malthouse (cyberpunk)
  • Moldvay Era by John Yorio (old school fantasy)

I also have a Western game that I don’t have an author credit for, and there’s a character sheet for USR Traveller farther down the USR Google+ page.
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Rabbit bodyguards, Drakkar cage fighters, drug-addled journalists… they’re all possible with USR.
It’s exciting thinking about all the opportunities for games that are in these rules sets — combining them, too, gives us Shadowrun (Cyberpunk plus Halberd) or Usagi Yojimbo (Blood and Silk plus Anthropomorphic). I wanted to create this list to have a running total of all the USR rules sets in one place, and to spark ideas for settings that are “missing.” I’ve touched on superheroes in my last few blog posts, but haven’t created a full setting. We have Ghostbusters, but what about Star Wars (including all the eras of the story)?
I hope this list is an inspiration to you to find these games, try them out, and offer your own contributions to a future edition of the list. I’ll be working on some settings, too…
What genre should be developed into a new setting next?
(image: usagiyojimbo.com)