Friday, March 27, 2015

Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying - Interesting Simple System

This week I was introduced to the Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying (USR) system.  USR is Scott Malthouse's creation.  Scott writes the Trollish Delver blog.  USR's first positive quality: it's free.  But, beyond that (you get what you pay for, after all), I'm interested in this system and I'd like to try it out.

USR is contained in a 21-page PDF.  That's it.  There's a cover and a copyright page at the beginning.  At the end, there's an ad.  Take that out and there's 18 pages of content.  How does it shake out?


  • Page 1 - Intro
  • Page 2 - What's an RPG
  • Pages 3-6 Creating a character
  • Page 7 Example of a PC
  • Pages 8-11 Rules for playing the game
  • Pages 12-13 Example of play
  • Pages 14-16 Basic setting suggestions
  • Page 17-18 Optional rules
How simple are these mechanics?  Someone has made a cheat sheet that has all of the rules on a single page.  This is the second edition of the rules.

I'd like to print some excerpts from the rulebook, but the copyright page makes it clear that there's no showing anything from the (free) PDF without the express permission of the author.  Part of me thinks that this is part of the common misapprehension in the RPG industry that you can copyright a set of rules, which of course you can't.  That said, the expression of the ideas, the way the rules are presented, and the artwork are protected so I'll stay away from using any clips from the book.  

There is also an excellent page that explains what a roleplaying game is in a single page.  Even if not using USR, this page is incredible for introducing new players to the genre in general.  That was one of the goals of the new edition.  I did not peruse the previous edition, but I'm blown away.  This page also covers the most important rule in all of roleplaying games: no rule is more important than that people have fun.  There are other good tips in the book, such as the recommendation that you should build a party of characters with abilities that match each other.  The rulebook also suggests that players answer several questions about background pretty early in their character generation process.  I personally would bring these to the beginning of the process with a suggestion that players revisit their answers after assigning statistics to make sure the decisions still fit and have informed the character.

The book comes with three pre-designed settings: a spaghetti Western, a space opera, and an urban fantasy setting.  Malthouse says that he plans on releasing future settings for the USR system.  He's released a few of these on his blog: It Came from VHS, a 1980s pastiche of everything awesome in the vein of Spirit of 77 and Slackers, designed for roleplaying in the world created by Kevin Smith's movies.  Hopefully there will be more of these.  The fan community (we'll discuss this in some depth later) has also created some settings.  There's a traditional fantasy setting and a Cyberpunk setting.
The creator's website has mini-setting info that can be used for
making characters in a some rando-awesome settings!

What about the rules?  There are three ability scores: action, wits, and ego.  Action combines the functions of the strength, dexterity, and constitution scores from traditional d20 games.  Wits covers intelligence and wisdom.  Finally, ego encompasses charisma.  Rather than assigning a score to each of them, the player assigns a die to each of them: a d10, d8, and a d6.  Instead of a static score, players roll the die assigned to the score when they need to use it in play.  Hit points are just called Hits.  You roll your action and wits dice to determine your character's hits.  There's a suggestion that PCs could actually just take the average die rolls, similarly to the way they do in many other d20 games.

USR has a skills system similar to 13th Age.  Characters have three "specialisms."  A specialism is basically a skill.  The book suggests 42 possibilities from acrobatics to plant lore to leader.  When it applies, the character adds 2 to any die rolls made that relate to the specialism.  Each skill is tied to an ability score.  I'm 50/50 on this.  One of the best features I've found in the Archmage system used in 13th Age is that skills don't have to be tied to a particular ability score.  That seems like an easy house rule to make--which is one of the things that USR encourages GMs to do.  It would be even more interesting in the USR system--instead of changing a small bonus (usually between 0 and +4), you're changing what die is rolled and changing the probabilities.

There are also four combat specialties: hand-to-hand, light weapons, medium weapons, and heavy weapons.  These grant a +2 bonus to using them in combat.  They're individual specialisms, so taking heavy weapons doesn't necessarily give you skills in using medium or light weapons.  In a modern setting, that makes sense to me.  In a more classic sword and sorcery setting, it might make sense to give players skills with medium/heavy weapons, ranged weapons, and hand-to-hand weapons.

So how does anything happen in the game?  "Attribute tests" are rolled.  You decide which attribute applies to anything and roll the corresponding die.  Advantages or disadvantages can give a player a +1 or -1, but that's about it for modifying rolls.  Contested checks are just rolls against each other and the highest one wins.  Uncontested rolls have a difficulty table.  Combat functions as a contested action ability roll (with the type of weapon granting a bonus) and with bonuses if you have a specialism in the relevant skill for your weapon.  Defenders also make an action roll.  If defenders are higher, it's a miss.  If attackers roll higher, the difference between the two rolls is the damage.  Armor doesn't reduce the chance to hit.  Instead it just reduces the amount of damage dealt.  (Mechanically, this is the same thing, but it feels different, which is nice).

The book closes out with optional rules for narrative points (similar to hero points) and experience points for character advancement if you're planning on playing a full-on campaign with recurring sessions.  

Overall, I really like this system.  I have a few friends who have been asking about what Pathfinder is and saying they'd like to try it.  I think it's a little too complicated for newer players.  USR might be a much better system to try--I'd been leaning 13th Age up until now.  At the end of the day, the system is free and the entire rule book is only 21 pages long.  Definitely worth checking out.
USR has an active fan community.

One of the few things that the rulebook doesn't have are monsters or rules for creating them.  This wouldn't be too difficult for creating villains that are based around the character creation rules.  But, if you want to add monsters that don't follow the PC generation rules there's no guidance.  Fortunately, there's an active fan community on Google+.  One user there has uploaded a short bestiary for fantasy settings.  You could probably reskin the stats here pretty easily for cyberpunk--though you'd need to change out some of the special abilities.  Additionally, haven't found any published adventures--you'll just have to make some of this stuff up yourself!

EDIT: Did I say they were short on monsters?  Trollish Delver has a new update for "Halcyon Fantasy" that gives the basics for running a fantasy game.  4 "classes": warrior, mage, thief, and priest.  Also 4 races: human, elf, dwarf, and halfling.  Some basic abilities and a short bestiary.  You could easily plan a starting adventure out of this.  (3/31/15)