In the Silver Age of Licensed Games…

Licensed RPGs have been around virtually since the beginning of the hobby. Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Marvel, Star Wars, and many more all got treatments during the 80s. Each had its fans, and many are still fondly remembered, but in an era both dominated by D&D and lacking an internet for communication about niche markets, these licensed games seem more popular after the fact than they were at the time. That is, people on RPG forums profess to being huge fans of these systems, but the actual utility of them, even amongst serious hobbyists at the time, seems like it might be somewhat less.

Today, the licensed game market seems primarily filled by Margaret Weis Productions, who have recently produced a whole slate of film-and-TV-inspired games: Serenity, BSG, Supernatural, Smallville, and Leverage. Several of these games have quickly become favorites not only with RPG-playing fans of the properties, but with systems aficionados interested in some of the tricks the games have used to better recreate the feel of a TV show or movie.

However, it’s probably very safe to say that MWP is walking a trail initially blazed by Eden Studios in the late 90s. As the licensed games of the 80s had been primarily small publisher affairs, production values often suffered in a climate where desktop publishing wasn’t cheap and easy and license fees ate up operating budget. Eden Studios, who had a few modest successes in making RPGs with their own IP (i.e., Witchcraft), decided to make high-production-quality licensed games, starting with the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer universe. Their books featured full color throughout, decorated with screencaptures and production photos from the show. It wasn’t just a book for RPG players, but something that actually might attract casual fans of the show.

While the cost of renewing the license (and probably higher production values than the sales could support) eventually caused Eden to stop pursuing the licensed game market, leaving it to MWP, it’s pretty safe to say that the Cinematic Unisystem’s games set the new standard for a licensed RPG product.

My experience with the system in actual play is far less than either of the previous system entries. I played for several sessions of a Buffy game, ran a couple of sessions of Angel, and considered starting several other games using the system. Unlike some of the latest stuff from MWP, the interesting thing about Cinematic Unisystem is that, at heart, it’s a simulationist, universal engine with some minor tweaks to fit the genre. You could run pretty much anything with it, provided you were willing to leave the genre simulation up to the actions of the players and GM and rely on the system to handle the physics of the world. It’s a toolkit system, and, thus, I’m inclined to be favorable.

Core Mechanics

Unisystem uses a basic Attribute + Skill mechanic. Unlike White Wolf, instead of rolling the total as dice, it’s added to the result of 1d10. So a character with a 2 attribute and a 3 skill rolls 1d10+5. This has two interesting variations:

  1. Stats are scaled 0-5 for mundane characters, such that a completely untrained and untalented character will roll 1d10+1 and a master will roll 1d10+10 (or slightly higher, as some very exceptional skills can go to 6). Functionally, with the d10 randomizer, this means that a terrible roll for an expert can be equaled by an amazing roll by a beginner. Meanwhile, supernatural characters can go up to 10 on individual stats. This serves to break play into tiers of competency: a lucky beginner may roll better than an unlucky expert, and a lucky expert may roll better than an unlucky supernatural master, but a beginner will always be completely trounced by the supernatural master.
  2. The game isn’t directly difficulty based. That is, the GM doesn’t say: “roll Attribute X + Ability Y vs. Difficulty Z.” Instead, the result is compared to a chart to gather success level. For example, if the result was 15, looking on the chart this is described as 4 – Very Good. If the GM had set the task as a Very Good difficulty, this would have succeeded (and would have been, de facto, DC 15, but hey). The interesting thing about the chart is how it scales. Up to 4 successes, another success level is a 2 point increase on the roll. Then 5 successes covers a 4 point spread of results. After 5, each result covers a 3 point spread. Essentially, all results on the normal human skill level (up to +10), fall into a 5-success range, and 5 successes is twice as likely as any other result under 5. Then supernatural skill level is actually somewhat compressed: having a 10 point advantage on someone is less significant between supernatural and mundane masters than it is between mundane experts and beginners.

However, despite these interesting conceits of the dice mechanic, it’s fairly similar to any other roll-over system. The interesting parts of the system come, as usual, from elements I’ll discuss in the next few weeks.

Part 2