Way back in the early days of D&D 3.0, the Open Gaming License allowed for many, many variants on the system — game creators could use the d20 rules set that was so familiar to so many and create their own classes, races, worlds, and more. And it was all legitimate; anyone could sell what they created (this was long before Drive Thru RPG, most everything was print books that filled shelves and shelves of hobby shops).
Paizo Publishing, which took over publication of Dragon and Dungeon magazines at the time, joined in too. For about 20 to 30 issues, Paizo resurrected an old magazine title, “Polyhedron,” and slapped it on the back of Dungeon. There, they promoted new gaming products, with even a few reviews. But mostly Polyhedron was part of the new d20 stuff movement, with mini-RPGs with settings like mecha, sword and planet, and to date the last version of “Spelljammer.” Later, the magazines disappeared, Fourth Edition appeared, and Pazio took D&D in a different direction with “Pathfinder.”
I collected most of those Polyhedron-era Dungeon magazine issues, mostly to get a lot of more-or-less official mini-games (in other words, with games that would probably be pretty playable — the OGL let anybody publish anything, even if it was likely to not be very good).
I told you all that to tell you this.
Polyhedron 158, June 2003(!), has a game called “Hijinx,” which despite its art style is designed specifically to recreate “Scooby-Doo,” “Jabberjaw,” “The Monkees,” and all those pop band/lightweight misadventure shows from the 60s and 70s. By the late 80s, popular music was worth far too much money to make a goofy show. Sure, there are still silly songs, but nothing to match “The Monkees,” or the originator of the genre, “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Hijinx tries its best to blend 2003 and 1966 — classes are musical instruments: vocalist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, DJ, and horn player. They send out “bad vibes” to bad guys and wear “cool threads” to add to their Defense… but it’s basically regular old D&D. And so it’s also easy to translate to USR. That’s next week.
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.
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.
I didn’t get to see the preview of “Wrath & Glory,” the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, at Free RPG Day a few weeks back, though it’s coming to PDF soon. The mechanic that I am aware of in the game, the one that caught my eye, is a balancing mechanism to make sure super-soldier Space Marines can be in the same party with low-level Imperial Guardsmen… it’s basically superhero tiers, like in Domino Writing-style USR. In that game’s case, the Guardsman has enhancements to reach the Marine’s level; in USR, of course, the lower-Tier hero has extra Narrative Points to accomplish the things other characters are expected to do normally.
But what if we added the 40K universe to the USR rules? There’s plenty of reference material — you know what an Adeptus Astartes is, even if you’ve never played any 40K game of any kind — and USR is a great way to tell the expansive variety of stories that can be told in that universe:
A down-and-dirty gang war (to show how tough and non-heroic ganger characters are, limit them to 2 Gear Points, take away all their Narrative Points, and roll dice to determine starting Hit Points, like in regular USR);
A battle against the ravening ork horde (take a cue from our exploration of tropes, and consider one ork blown away for each point of damage rolled by our heroes); or
A struggle between the mighty Space Marines and a daemon of Chaos (the main heroes and villains are at Tier 5 in a setting where the baseline character might be a Tier 2. Also, boost up their armor and weapons: Space Marine armor is probably worth more than a +3, maybe a +4, and Terminator armor is a +5 — higher than that and it will be tough for anyone to score a hit).
If you’ve ever read any 40K fiction, or even watched 40K video game cut screens, you’ll know there’s not much to most characters’ personalities: with the exception of a few Imperial Guard characters, everyone in the 40K universe just wants to kill somebody else (usually a lot of somebodies). In a role playing game, characters need to be distinct somehow, to be a “role” you can play. If you don’t want to go too far off the traditional 41st Millennium character type, try Specialisms like “Lone Wolf,” “Carries Big Guns,” or “Quick To Anger” — they offer the right attitude without making the characters much more than traditional 40K killing machines.
Here’s some other Specialisms for 40K: Team Player, Aggressive (all orks), Good With Native Populations, Devoted To His/Her Commander, Natural Leader, Perfect Physical Specimen, Hates Psykers, Lockpicking Tools, Likes Big Explosions, Stealthy, Historian
The tropes of role playing games can really help when you’re looking to make your game as unbelievably simple as it can be. We’ve already mentioned the archetypes of race and class, which after decades have become shorthand not only for what a character can do, but how he or she is expected to act (you know exactly what a dwarf paladin is as soon as you read the words. Same for half-orc ninja). But there are other tropes that can shape your game, too, and, depending on the tone you’re going for, can be folded into every game session.
A movie cliche for years, this is the series of scenes showing the characters getting ready ― training for battle, building the ultimate vehicle, plotting the heist, even going on dates with not-quite-the-right-guy. If all the characters agree to be part of a montage, each one describes what they’re doing during the montage. After the montage, each player gains a +3 to any one die roll related to what was happening in the montage. This can happen only once per game; after all, a montage song is expensive, and the movie studio can’t afford to buy two of them. The mysterious man in the corner of the tavern told the party about the dragon’s hoard in the nearby cavern. The heroes are gearing up for battle. During the montage, the warrior sharpens his sword and lifts weights, the wizard’s hands crackle with electricity as she practices spells, and the thief slides daggers into his boots. A synth-rock song plays in the background. When the dragon rears its head, the song’s chorus echoes in the cavern. The warrior gains a +3 to his first sword attack against the dragon.
Mooks are, of course, the faceless, nameless troops of the bad guy, all in the same outfit: COBRA, Imperial Stormtroopers, orcs, various aliens, etc. They’re meant as more of an obstacle than a threat, a way to introduce action without draining the heroes’ ammunition, powers, or health. The traditional way to represent heroes wiping out armies of mooks is to give them 1 hit point each. If you’re using miniatures rules, you might want to give them 5 hit points each, so they stick around long enough to get placed on the battle mat. For an extra-violent (or extra-silly) take on mooks, a hero’s die roll in combat isn’t compared to the opponent’s defense roll, like it normally is; instead, the attack automatically hits, and the total rolled is the number of mooks annihilated that turn. The aliens come swarming over the hill as their queen scuttles behind them. The heroes grab their guns and open fire. An Action roll of 6 is enough to defeat the alien’s 4; it falls to the ground. One less beast to deal with.
In a “serious” game, a hero’s death is very final. When the hit points are at zero, it’s time to create a new character. But other settings — superheroes, robots — are meant for heroes who don’t really die. In those kinds of settings, a hero at zero or fewer hit points just falls out of action (unconscious, or simply out of the line of fire, no longer a target for enemies). And a deathbed vow can revive them. Once per game, any hero can give a brief speech while next to or touching a character who’s at zero or fewer hit points. As long as the speech includes phrases like, “He was the best of all of us,” (even if he wasn’t) or, “Your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” the character will immediately regain half his or her total hit points. It’s a special kind of healing that can be done for the victim once per game session (hopefully a character won’t need it that often!). “Commander! Say something!” called out Private Jackson, leaning over the officer’s bloody body. “You took that bullet for me, I can never repay you…” The commander opened his eyes and reached in his pocket. He pulled out a small Bible with a bullet through the middle. “Always count on the good book, son,” the commander said, and stood up.
Under-equipped or over-equipped
While writing stats for Star Wars and Superhero characters, I discovered something: the “spend 4 Gear Points” character creation rule doesn’t quite apply to movie and comic characters the way it does to RPG heroes. Most screen characters have a single favored weapon, and no armor, especially in modern-day or future settings. Unspent Gear Points are added to Narrative Points, which makes sense, given the amazing things most heroes do regularly. But a game master could also go back to the basic USR rules, and just give characters the equipment that seems appropriate for them. One hero might have a single sword, while his partner carries an entire arsenal of guns ― if the story they’re telling is still fun, there’s no need to “balance” heroes with Gear Points.