The Conundrum

It would be remiss for me to talk about Unisystem without mentioning the Current Level Conundrum. It’s one of the chief offenders for this problem. Specifically:

  • During character creation, skills and attributes cost 1 point of the appropriate type, qualities cost a fixed amount, and skills or qualities can be purchased with the same points from drawbacks.
  • During play, skills and attributes cost new level x2 exp and qualities cost the same fixed amount in exp.

For example, the Sorcery quality can be purchased multiple times, with each instance giving a bonus to magic rolls. Magic rolls are based on the Occult skill. During character creation, each +1 to magic rolls costs 1 point to raise the Occult skill or 5 points to raise the Sorcery quality. It’s a no brainer to max out Occult before buying Sorcery. During play, raising Occult higher than 2 will cost increasingly more than the cost of buying more Sorcery (6, 8, 10, or 12 exp vs. 5). A character that starts out intending to become good at magic can do it drastically more cheaply than someone who decides to do it in play (unless “becoming good at magic” means taking Sorcery at character creation, when it is more expensive).

It tends to lead to characters min-maxed all to hell at character creation, and I’m not a fan of it, but I’ve said more than enough on that front.

I’ve been damaged!

The hit point (or, “life point”) system for the game is somewhat unusual. A character’s total HP is equal to (Str + Con) x 4 + 10. Effectively, characters have a minimum of 10 HP, and each point of Str and Con increases this by 4. Character on a human scale will range from 18-58 HP (and can buy a few more via the Hard to Kill quality).

During the game, each attack does ([a calculated amount of base damage] + successes – armor) x multiplier. The calculation is generally some multiplier of the character’s Str: Kicking is (Str + 1) x 2, an Axe is Str x5, etc. The multiplier is mostly used to make blades and guns more dangerous than blunt trauma.

This has two major results:

  • It’s nearly impossible to figure out maneuvers on the fly. Players are encouraged to do the math on their sheets for any maneuvers they intend to use, and in-game modifications to Str score will require recalculating all of these. In general, success-based-damage will be dwarfed by base damage and a high roll mostly serves to make it more difficult to dodge the attack.
  • Combat maneuvers do have a more interesting spread than in a less granular system. In the next most similar system, White Wolf, it’s very hard to make more than a few tiers of damage: if a punch is Str + 0  and a Sword is Str + 3, there’s little wiggle room to differentiate things in between. Meanwhile, Unisystem can cleanly differentiate a punch from a kick from a jump kick without making any of them on par with various types of weapon.

Hit points work mostly like in D&D or the like: effectiveness isn’t impacted until they drop very low. Once a character gets below 10 HP, he or she gets penalties and eventually makes rolls to avoid death.

I’m not convinced that the added granularity makes the system better. It’s effectively fake granularity: small numbers are multiplied and modified various ways to create more variation, and the calculation time required is probably more complicated than the system otherwise supports. A character really has HP equal to Str + Con, with some math done on both ends to make it easier to reduce that by fractions. But in an otherwise rules-light, low-granularity game, that degree of math is somewhat glaring.

Ultimately, the combat system for Unisystem feels like the designers were not able to effectively model the variety of tactics used in Buffy and Angel on the default scale of the system, and resorted to some ungainly math to create the necessary granularity. They did succeed in creating a wide variety of attacks, but at the cost of inelegance and increased time at the table. I’m not sure it was the best way to go.

Also, dodging does absolutely nothing if you can’t beat the attacker’s roll. What’s up with that?

Part 3