Jay Murphy, of Vanishing Tower Press, recently sent me a copy of his "USR Swords & Sorcery: Rules Lite Role Playing for Fantastic Pulp Fantasy Adventures." (USR:S&S for this review) This comes in a 19 page PDF with artwork, so it's a pretty easy read-through for those who like games that one can get up and running quickly. This was my first exposure to the USR mechanic, but it seemed relatively straightforward. He also sent my a copy of "Shrine of the Keepers"; a short S&S adventure written for the system. I will break this review into two parts: one for the rules and one for the module.
USR:S&S takes a fairly "bare bones" approach to the rules. Games that take this approach suffer the handicap of seeming thin on detail, but gain ground in efforts to "get out of the way" of role-play and story. Don't think this is a diceless "story engine" game. The sacred polyhedrals are very much present.
Abilities are distribute to four scores: Action, Ego, Wits, and Hits. Each player chooses a die type from a pool of three (d6, d8, d10) to represent each of the first three scores. Like other die type games (e.g. Savage Worlds), the higher the die type, the better the score. So a warrior would be more likely to have a high Action die, whereas a sorcerer might emphasize Wits. Hits are rolled using Action and Wits. They represent how much punishment one can take before death.
The scores are obviously broad, but that's where "Specialisms" come in. These serve sort of like skill focuses to boost rolls in specific areas. For instance, a character might have a d8 Wits with a specialism in Lore, granting a bonus to rolls on certain knowledge rolls. Task resolution is simply rolling the relevant ability die, adding any bonuses or modifiers, and trying to meet/beat a target difficulty number.
The character section includes a standard equipment list, priced to a silver based economy. Oddly, there is no mention of default starting wealth. One of several areas where I believe the intention was to leave things open-ended for personalization of campaigns.
There are also tables for rolling character backgrounds and details. These represent what the PC was before striking out as an adventurer. These are largely for flavor, and –for the most part– have no mechanical effect on the PCs. They do provide fodder for back stories and RP hooks, though (those are good things). I don't know that I would force a random roll on a player that already has a concept in mind, but if someone wasn't sure they might find inspiration there.
Combat is fairly simple. Each PC gets a combat action, a combat reaction, and movement action per round. Players can mix things up a bit by trading some action types under certain circumstances. An action is self-explanatory: An attack is the most straightforward example. Reactions are generally defensive: dodging or parrying, etc. Movement, again is self-explanatory.
Attacks are resolved via contested rolls. I found this section a little confusing as the language left it unclear whether the contested rolls occurred every time someone attacked, or only if the target had a reaction roll left that round.
Rules for other, more detailed combat are also included, including hit locations, criticals, and fumbles. I like that these are available but are separate enough that they could be left out if a GM preferred to not use them.
The magic section was quite brief, as the rules leave it up to the GM to determine what types of magic, and what spells (if any) exist in his world. The types of magic presented are quite evocative of a S&S feel, I felt this area could have done with a bit more guidance; perhaps a few sample spells or magical artifacts?
The last part of USR:S&S contains several handy tables for encounters, carousing, and other fun things that might happen to the PCs. While the encounters mention several creatures one might meet, there is no monsters section included. Again, like the spells, the system is light and flexible enough that it would not be difficult to come up with the necessary numbers for most creatures, still some examples would be useful.
Overall, I found USR:S&S an intriguing system and take on this genre of games, but in some ways it is more of a toolkit than a complete game.
Shrine of the Keepers:
This is a fairly straightforward city adventure with a "brave the evil temple" hook. While structurally the plot is not very unusual, where this short module shines for me is in its tone. Nearly every room or encounter fits the Swords & Sorcery genre adroitly. From the nature of the cult, to the attitude of the guards, and the horrors that the PCs may encounter; they all give of a vibe that would be at home in nearly any Leiber or Howard story. The main hook of the adventure fits the "personal" nature of the genre that we discussed before. This is not "save the cosmos." It's "give me what's mine!" Like the rules discussed above, there is a bit of work for the GM to do on his own to fill in some blanks, but it's minor enough it could almost by done on the fly.
Even if one didn't run "Shrine" as is, or with USR:S&S, I would recommend it as a good example of evoking the swords & sorcery pulp genre for an interesting twist on a night's carouse in the city.